Online endorsements: are you being honest?
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Online endorsements: are you being honest?

“I can honestly say this is the best post I've ever read (and I've read loads!). From one consumer to another, I would strongly recommend that you read it too.”

…Or is it?

Would it make a difference if you knew I’d written this review myself? Or that I’d paid someone else to write it?

How many times have you used online reviews or blogs to help you choose where to stay on holiday, or who to use to carry out some home improvement work for you? Research suggests that four in five UK consumers read customer reviews and ratings, and almost half read blogs.

Clearly, people find them very useful in making informed choices on what to buy. They trust them and you can’t put a price on trust, or can you?

Businesses and marketing agencies naturally recognise the value that an authentic customer endorsement brings to a brand, particularly if it comes from an influential blogger or vlogger with a big following. Many businesses now work closely with bloggers, entering into commercial relationships where a blogger becomes a ‘brand ambassador’ in exchange for free products or cash – which is fine as long as this is made clear to consumers. Alarm bells ring for us when such arrangements aren’t made clear.

Why are unlabelled endorsements bad?

Disguising paid-for endorsements is deceptive; it distorts people’s natural buying decisions and businesses reap commercial rewards for the wrong reasons. Businesses achieve sales not because a product or service is innovative or genuinely good – but because they’ve mislead customers with a misleading advert. Honest firms who play by the rules lose out. The real sting in the tail is that when trust is betrayed everyone is a loser, customers’ faith in online endorsements is threatened and all reviews are regarded with suspicion. We don’t want this to happen. We want businesses to be rewarded for the right reasons, we want customers to know what the best products and deals are, and crucially we want to preserve consumer trust in digital content.

This is why at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) we’ve taken action to help ensure people can continue to trust online customer endorsements.

We have:

  • made a short-term loan provider and two marketing companies ensure online advertising is clearly labelled;
  • stopped a marketing firm from writing fake reviews, and got them to agree to remove those already posted;
  • worked with five review sites to improve their practices and give people a more complete picture when making buying decision; and
  • produced advice for businesses on how to comply with consumer protection law around online reviews and endorsements.
What do marketing professionals need to do?
  • Read our open letter with advice for marketing agencies
  • Advise colleagues and clients that it is against the law to write fake reviews, and that it is against the law to disguise advertising as a journalist’s or blogger’s opinion
  • Always make sure that paid-for content is clearly identifiable. Provide clear instructions to the person publishing the content, and anyone else involved, on how paid-for content should be labelled
  • Ensure your staff training materials, internal policies, corporate brochures, contracts and related material accurately reflect the requirements of the law
  • The UK Advertising Codes contain similar industry rules on making sure that marketing communications are easily identifiable. You can get fast, confidential advice on complying with the Codes from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP)
And what should you do as a consumer?

Make the most of online reviews by properly researching what is being said about a product or service, and look at reviews from more than one source. Keep your eyes open, and if you suspect a review isn’t genuine report it to the site hosting it.

For more information on the CMA’s work around online reviews and endorsements, go to: http://bit.ly/CmaOnlineReviews.

Jon Riley Competition and Markets Authority Director, Consumer
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