Customer reviews and ratings are powerful, low-cost marketing tools. Technology now allows marketers to harness this power on a scale that was unimaginable even five years ago. The ability to solicit, capture, and post reviews and ratings is virtually seamless. But it is just as easy to seek shortcuts or abuse the system. In response, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has devoted resources to addressing consumer review fraud, including through public education. Early in the year, it issued nonbinding guidance for both marketers and online review platforms, warning against potentially deceptive acts, such as faking, manipulating, or suppressing online reviews, as well as paying for higher rankings from purportedly “independent” consumer ranking websites. Online reviews should reflect customers’ honest opinions. So how does the FTC suggest you get there?

Marketers: Marketers should perform their due diligence and know whether even with disclosures certain reviews (incentivized or one with a material connection (personal or financial) between the seller and reviewer) are prohibited on a platform or website. When soliciting reviews, you should (1) ask those who have experienced or used the product or service; (2) not ask only customers likely to write positive reviews; (3) instruct employees to disclose that you asked them and that they are employed by you; (4) make sure that family or friends disclose their personal connection to you; and (5) not explicitly or implicitly condition a review to be positive to receive the incentive, and the reviewer should disclose that incentive. Avoid working with comparison websites that tell customers that “unbiased, expert reviews” are used but receive payment from companies for better placement, ratings, or reviews. Review platforms that offer to improve your company’s visibility and collect reviews should clearly disclose that they are working with you; these platforms should not misuse their reporting mechanisms to get rid of honest, negative reviews. You should not work with reputation management companies that write fake reviews (e.g., positive ones for your company and negative ones for the competition).

Platforms: When collecting, moderating, and publishing online reviews, you should avoid potentially deceptive conduct. For collection, you should seek positive and negative reviews alike, and, if offering an incentive, you should not explicitly or implicitly condition the consumer to give a positive review. When moderating, you should scrutinize positive and negative reviews in the same way, not edit reviews to change their meaning, and have “reasonable processes” to check for fake, deceptive, or manipulated reviews. For publication, you should show all “genuine” reviews (positive and negative) equally, have the reviewers clearly and conspicuously disclose any material connections, provide a clear and conspicuous disclosure on how overall ratings are determined and how reviews are collected, processed, and displayed, and keep reasonable procedures for flagging fake or suspicious reviews once they are published.

In May 2022, the FTC released its Proposed Changes to the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (“Endorsement Guides”), which are still only proposals but are informative. For example, the Endorsement Guides note that you must disclose material connections with your endorsers. Notably, the new Section 255.2(d) states: “In procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, or editing consumer reviews of their products, advertisers should not take actions that have the effect of distorting or otherwise misrepresenting what consumers think of their products, regardless of whether the reviews are considered endorsements under the Guides.” Also, a seller could uniformly apply criteria to withhold “unlawful, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, or sexually explicit content,” or certain “inappropriate” content, as well as reviews reasonably suspected to be “fake.” The FTC also provides examples of how review gating, paying for fake reviews, and suppressing or removing negative reviews may constitute misleading or unfair practices.

Following the FTC’s guidance may assist your marketing team’s endeavors to use honest online reviews while navigating their use without potentially committing a deceptive act.

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This article originally appeared online in the September 2022 edition of Results Magazine published by the Performance-Driven Marketing Institute.