Want free things from Amazon? You'll have to be invited to the Amazon Vine program, a program Amazon has started that offers products to users of Amazon's service that have had a history of providing helpful reviews. Though Amazon is using this program to stimulate higher-quality online reviews on its site, industry professionals are weary of the method by which they are "soliciting" reviews. It calls back to the incident a few weeks ago where New York State hammered down on businesses that were buying fake reviews. Though it's a different circumstance, we're here to break it down for you and tell you what it's all about. Watch today's Daily Brown Bag to learn about Amazon's Vine program, how it may impact their online reviews, and how it relates to the general marketing landscape.


Hello, and welcome to the Daily Brown Bag. Today we’re going to be talking about Amazon Vine and expert online reviews. I’m Chad Hill, and I’m joined by Adam Stetzer.

Yeah, good morning, Chad. So, we’re diving into this topic of online reviews and really understanding where they come from. Are people getting incentives to write them? Particularly, we’re looking at Amazon's Vine program. We talked before about the crackdown we saw a few months ago when the New York Attorney General’s Office was going after fake online reviews, and we’ve also seen people on the internet getting goods in exchange for positive reviews. This news story was on NPR’s Planet Money, and they were talking about the Amazon program for their top reviewers. They call it their Amazon Vine program, and these people do write a lot of reviews. It made us want to cover this again today, because reviews are pretty important. I mean, 83% of consumers say they use an online review to help them in a purchasing decision which is a pretty high number. Sixty-three percent of consumers say they’re more likely to purchase from a site that provides ratings and reviews. Zen Desk did a study recently that said 90% of all purchases were influenced by a positive review, and 86% were influenced by a negative review.

So this issue of trust on the internet, of whether you should trust reviews and what other people are saying, is front and center here when you start to see programs like Amazon Vine and the recent discussion about what’s happening on Yelp with people getting incentives. Really I think the issue Chad is what people on the internet are supposed to think about this and whether they trust some of the things that they’re seeing in such a new medium. You have to remember, the internet is brand new, so I guess there’s a bit of controversy here.

Yeah, there is. I think one of Amazon’s hallmarks is really bringing in this great set of reviews. I’ve used Amazon reviews just to review a product and then bought it somewhere else, because they do have a fairly comprehensive set of viewpoints. But, let’s talk about what this Vine program is all about. It’s the cream of the crop, it’s their best reviewers who are invited to be a part of this Vine program. Really, the idea here is that they’re looking not for the reviewers who are most prolific, but the people who have consistently had their reviews voted as being very useful. For Amazon users, and most of us probably are, you know that there’s a way to say a review is helpful, whether it was a good online review or a bad online review. So, that’s what the Vine program is all about. Now, there are some perks to this.

Basically, Amazon is allowing Vine participants to pick a couple products every month, not necessarily for free. Based on what we read, you get a product to use and Amazon doesn’t typically ask for it back. The idea is that you’re asking for a product you want to review, you get it, you can write a great review, and Amazon isn’t really a stickler for asking for that product back. So, where this lies on the spectrum is that it’s definitely not paying for fake information, and you don’t have to write good reviews. They’re looking for objective, well-written reviews, so I think really, Adam, it’s kind of where the internet is in general. You’re never really sure what someone’s angle is. This doesn’t feel that bad, but they’re definitely getting compensated, and in some ways getting products to review in return for writing reviews. What biases does that create? I don’t know.

Yeah, so you’re right. Let’s make an important distinction, here. We were talking about astroturfing a couple months ago with the New York Attorney General’s investigation into some SEO firms, and they actually got fined. That’s a very different issue. Those were flat-out fake. So, I do think you’re right Chad. This is in sort of a different bucket which is one where there is some incentive to participate, but then there’s freedom to have full editorial control. So, you know, you can argue that it creates an incentive and a bias and that’s bad, but on the flip side you can argue that if you’re going to put in that much time, we also have laws about being paid for your work and it seems like they need to.

So, I do feel like this one is sort of in the grey. I do understand the concern. There are some estimates of fraudulent reviews that have been reported as high as 30% on some sites, and Gardner has a study out that estimates that by 2014, one in 10 social media reviews will be fake, so that’s 10%. But, as you point out, that’s only 10%, so maybe we do need to recognize that this is where the internet is. Astroturfing is absolutely wrong and bad because it’s fake, it’s erroneous, it’s made up, but if you really need to incent people to participate, and then you give them full control and freedom to say whatever they’re going to say, good or bad, that one strikes me as probably where it should be, because people need to be compensated. I think this is a tough issue, and I think ethics in advertising has been debated for 50+ years. With the massive shift that we’ve seen in the last 10 years, migrating to the internet and abandoning some very traditional media outlets, I think the debate’s just heating up, because people just don’t understand how it works on the internet and it’s still relatively new.

We’d be interested in your thoughts. Have you read a review and thought, “Wow, there’s no way that’s real!” but it influenced your purchasing decision? Have you found creative ways to get reviews for your small business website that you feel are completely ethical, but also help your marketing? Share those stories with us. We’d like to talk about them and help sort this issue out. As always, we’re here every day with the Brown Bag. If you enjoyed this, we’d love for you to subscribe to our YouTube channel.