Maintaining the validity of user-generated content was in the news last week as UK authorities threaten to clamp down on fraudulent reviews. But could digital marketers be missing a potential competitive advantage by not taking things into their own hands?

A few years ago, a witty internet shopper went on Amazon and bought a rubber horse head mask. This is the review he left:

“It is day 87 and the horses have accepted me as one of their own. I have grown to understand and respect their gentle ways. Now I question everything I thought I once knew and fear I am no longer capable of following through with my primary objective. I know that those who sent me will not relent. They will send others in my place… But we will be ready.”

That’s an Amazon Verified Purchase, by the way. He definitely actually bought a rubber horse head, albeit he probably didn’t use it to infiltrate any equestrian communities suspected to have megalomaniacal tendencies. Or maybe he did; I can’t be sure how technologically advanced horses are these days. In any case, ostensibly it’s not a fake review.

Banning fake reviews

Last week, the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that they were looking into banning fake reviews online. It’s interesting because that effectively means that the government is assuming some of the role of a search engine, weeding out the chaff and promoting only quality, genuine, high-value content. Whether or not that sets a rather strange precedent remains to be seen, but on the surface it seems a sensible reflection of what the public demands.

I’ve written a lot lately about the power of user-generated content and especially user-generated video; this feels like a next chapter. Consumer need online for honesty and transparency is of paramount importance for brand growth, especially ecommerce brands where over six out of ten purchase decisions are made on the back of a good review.

The public are fed up of feeling like they’re being duped, businesses don’t want to erode their reputation, and it seems to have got to the point of wanting some proper legislation. Trust, as we’ve always said, is a digital business’s most valuable commodity.

There have been signs of things heading this way for a couple of years now. It began to culminate late last year, as the #NoReceiptNoReview campaign saw increasingly frustrated users of TripAdvisor urge the website to only publish reviews of restaurants from people with a scanned, genuine receipt. TripAdvisor rejected the idea, saying the platform operated on the basis of everyone’s experience, rather than just the bill payer’s; nevertheless, consumer demand for more transparency is there.

At around the same time, you may also recall that Amazon filed lawsuits against a number of individuals and companies who were suspected of being paid to post false positive reviews about a company and its products, or false negative reviews about competitors.

Interestingly, in the case of TripAdvisor especially, more and more we’re seeing a backlash from proprietors against inaccurate reviews of their restaurants. They’re fed up with being held to ransom by the veiled threat of a bad review by customers that are clearly just out to cause trouble or get a freebie. A slightly overdone steak is retrospectively met with a 1,000-word tirade, for example, when a quiet word with the waiter would have sufficed (and got you another steak). The result in a lot of cases – often where the owner has calmly sought to shine a sober light on a scenario of bad service that was concocted in the mind of a drunk and riotous customer – is an honest counter argument that actually benefits the establishment’s reputation. It’ll probably make the national news too, like this pub back in January, which took issue with a particular wedding party’s perspective on its evening. Even just a quick glance at the comment section says that honesty is always the most appreciated policy.

The point is, user-generated reviews are extremely valuable – for the people power of the consumer and for the marketing power of the proprietor – and an attack on their integrity stifles the growth and the integrity of our digital economy.

It’s thought that a quarter of online reviews are fake. They’re not just bad in terms of eroding consumer trust in online content, they can be a death knell if about employment or company culture. Imagine a fake review about your employees’ internal environment that stops a potential stellar recruit from applying for a job. Talk about a competitive disadvantage.

And therein lies the rub. Like many things in this ever-evolving digital beast you can either see problems, or you can see opportunities.

A unique selling point

The content marketing industry should do its bit – it’s incumbent on us to preserve the trust we earn online and to protect the authenticity of what we put out – but crucially in doing so, the savvy marketer also gleans a competitive advantage. It’s not hard to see that, in amongst the deluge of chaff, a guarantee of trustworthiness is something of a value proposition.

In the case of the Amazon horse head, it’s a verified purchase. It’s fairly obvious to anyone with a half a brain that the review is meant in jest, yet despite its facetious nature we know two things: that the guy actually bought the thing and was inspired enough by it to write something funny about it; and that someone in the Amazon digital marketing team has a sense of humour. In reputational terms, these are both good things.

What’s important is to show that the content is genuine, and we do need to do some self-policing here. Reevoo estimates that customer reviews produce an average 18% uplift in sales, so if you’re a brand that can show it’s made efforts to preserve their integrity, you will be rewarded.

The bottom line is online consumers must be able to trust the content they read or it simply becomes obsolete. But those that can show themselves to be trustworthy will reign supreme. So make a point to your audience that you’re taking steps to protect the integrity of your user-generated content. Have – and indeed promote – systems in place that verify purchases; incorporate detailed policy plans on your website that instil trust in you; employ skilled community managers to moderate reviews on a human level, i.e. the people that can spot those subtle nuances in the tone of written content that might indicate something is not authentic.

As I mentioned, authenticity and trust are of paramount importance to both the seller and the buyer online. Why wouldn’t you turn that to your advantage? After all, we all want to get rid of the neigh-sayers.