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Small Business Tips & Tricks: Astroturfing Reviews, Persuading Customers

Why fake reviews are a bad idea, and how to persuade customers to take action

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Last week I covered the best ways to respond to customer reviews. This week I want to touch on reviews again to discuss astroturfing. Astroturfing occurs when a business owner and/or their family or staff write fake positive reviews for the business. While this may appear to be a quick way to create a great reputation out of thin air, I’m going to explain why it’s a bad idea.

Nobody Has a Perfect Record
It is virtually impossible for any business to please all of its customers 100% of the time. There will always be instances where you made a mistake, or the customer simply had a bad day and takes it out on your review. This happens, it is OK, and it can work to your benefit. First off, a business with 50 five-star reviews and nothing else looks incredibly suspicious. Your potential customers are not stupid and recognize this. It is common knowledge that businesses can “purchase” fake reviews and nothing screams “fake” louder than a perfect score with a large number of reviews.

Negative Reviews Are an Opportunity
As I touched on last week, negative reviews are actually an opportunity to show off how great your service really can be. By demonstrating how you respond to a bad customer experience, you help to remove the perceived risk a customer associates with any new business they encounter. If a business has no negative reviews at all, it is impossible to know what might happen if something goes wrong. For this reason, provided you are responding properly, it is not a bad thing to have a couple of not-so-perfect reviews in your business profile.

Most Businesses Don’t Know How to Astroturf
The worst form of astroturfing is when it is blatantly obvious to the viewer that it is taking place. Has your business been open for a year but 90% of its positive reviews occurred in a one-week time-frame? That screams astroturfing. Did you and/or family members post a review of your business using their real name? Expect this to backfire tremendously when customers figure out that your GM was the one posting all of those glowing reviews. Do the reviews read like a press release? Again, very obvious to the casual reader. Most reviews from real customers will contain a fair critique of both the good and the not-so-good. While it’s certainly possible to have entirely glowing reviews – if they all read that way, people will be onto you.

So how do you astroturf properly? You don’t. It is never worth the risk. Especially when some review sites like Yelp monitor IP addresses and use patterns to determine if business owners are astroturfing. Companies can be suspended from Yelp or worse, have a scarlet-letter message included on their profile that they astroturfed in the past.


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How Do I Get Reviews the Right Way?
There are several recommended methods to piling up good reviews. The first and most obvious is to blow away your customers. Do what I call “Expectation +1”. This means doing everything you said you would do, plus something extra they did not expect. At a restaurant this could be a complimentary shot of Limoncello at the end of your meal as old local favorite Mediterraneo did, or perhaps a nice cold spoon of sorbet in between courses as many eateries in New York City offer. Customers who experience above-and-beyond service love to talk about it, and engaging in Expectation +1 will no-doubt lead to good things for your business.

The next best way to get good reviews is…..ask. If your business deals in person, place a sign at the point of sale, include a message on your receipt, and/or simply ask the customer to leave a review if they enjoyed the service they received. If your business is online and you have a good process in place, create an automated message that asks every customer to leave a review. For many of my web clients, we created a mechanism that asks every customer how everything went after service was provided or a product has been received. If the experience is calculated as positive, it asks them to leave a review at [applicable sites(s)]. If the reviews seems negative, it asks for their contact info so a manager can reach out to discuss. This has been remarkably effective at both increasing the volume of positive reviews and helping to fix service issues when they occur.

Quick Tip of the Week

We all know that the bandwagon effect is real. People tend to go along with what people like them have done or are doing. “People like them” can mean anything from people who live in the same city to people who stayed in the same hotel room. While we assume this to be true, a scientific study backs it up: A hotel chain wanted to save on laundry costs and help the environment, so a study was conducted to measure guest compliance in reusing towels. When the hotel left a note in each room indicating that the majority of guests who stayed in that room reused their towels, reuse of towels increased by 33% overnight. You can use this to great effect to persuade customers (and employees) to take action. Here are some quick examples:

Let’s say you sell appointment scheduling software. You walk into Jane Doe’s Hair Salon trying to sell this software to them. One version of your pitch explains the benefits of the service and ends with a slide of several big well-known companies that use it. The argument being “Hey, [corporation] uses our software. If they use it, and they are a huge company, it must be good.” The other pitch explains the benefits and ends with a slide of several local salons that use the software. Which is more persuasive? Wouldn’t you rather use something that other businesses just like yours use? If they are all using it, and they are in the same business as you, it must be pretty good, right? Popular restaurant software POSiTouch, created right here in Rhode Island, is an excellent example of using local social proof to sell a product this way. What started as point of sale software that grew organically via social proof here in Rhode Island has turned into a massive organization with 50,000 locations onboard.

Here’s one more. Does your business sell a popular product with an optional accessory that isn’t required but would make their experience much better? Include a note or post a sign that reads “90% of customers who purchased the [product] also purchase [accessory].” Amazon and many other retailers use this exact method to great effect.

Greg is the owner and lead designer of Company 50, a RI website design and digital marketing firm, and co-owner of RI Rank and Uprise RI.

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