Online Reviews and Endorsements – What do YOU think?

I was invited in to speak to the guys at The Competition and Markets Authority last week.   The topic was online reviews and endorsements in the UK – including endorsements made by bloggers –  I was asked what I felt was right/wrong and what should be done to change things.

It’s a subject that is very important to me and our business.

I have long called for reviews to carry some form of guarantee attached to them which proves they are real.

When we link companies and bloggers we insist that the blogger has an actual product to review.  I feel that any review written on the web should be written based on actual experience.   We’ve worked with over 250 companies and have a database of 1.5m bloggers, we have never deviated from this policy on any campaign.  We have been asked many times (often by large agencies working for corporates) if we can get bloggers to simply ‘put up a few words’ and not label their post as ‘sponsored’ – we have turned away some very lucrative offers as we simply do not agree.

Talking about blog disclosure, the whole labelling of blog posts as sponsored is quite murky, we always tell bloggers to label the post as sponsored as they are receiving goods from our clients (no payment just product).  We thought this was the rule.  We have just found out the actual rule is (Q&A with the Committee of Advertising Practice :-

Q: You state in your guidelines that “It’s perfectly legitimate for a blogger to accept payment in return for promoting something in their blog. Moreover, the rules don’t prohibit PR companies sending free gifts or samples to bloggers in the hope of receiving a positive review.” Do both these situations require disclosure?

A: The first would require disclosure if, as implied in the question, the content of the blog is effectively controlled by the advertiser.  The second does not require disclosure because this kind of activity is not covered by the Code.

So, if we don’t pay the blogger, and they simply get a product to review, they do not need to disclose.  And the reason, because it is pretty obvious the review will be based on actual usage.  This is not good enough I my mind.  I think there needs to be a guarantee.

So let’s go back to the guarantee.  My very early thoughts on this (and they are very early thoughts) are that a company facilitating reviews should be part of a wider governing body.  Perhaps a paid for entity or a government agency, something of authority.  Companies that facilitate reviews, like Fuelmywebsite or PR Agencies, could be awarded a digital badge once a certain amount of due diligence has taken place and membership has been paid for.  This digital badge would be linked to a website with a registration number and details of the company displaying it.  Bloggers or reviewers working with these companies would get a unique digital badge to attach to the review.  The digital badge would display a serial number which if clicked and checked would show who should be writing the review and about what product.  If the two do not match up, the consumer would be able to spot a faker.  This would also mean every single review without a badge would be taken at face value and not guaranteed as real.  Forcing, perhaps, a world of real reviews – on blogs/magazines/newspapers/tv etc.

The CMA would like to know your thoughts, if you are a blogger in the UK, please take 10 mins and fill out this form.

I’d like to open up the conversation on here.  What do YOU think about online reviews?  I’m thinking not just about blog reviews etc, but Trip Advisor, Amazon and all those websites with obviously fake reviews..what can be done to stop companies faking reviews to make themselves or their products look better than they actually are?

Why SME’s Should Harness The Blogosphere For Marketing

This post was originally featured on Fresh Business Thinking.

We’ve all read the articles about how you can use your own blog to market your business, but how about using other peoples’ blogs to market it too?

SMEs have a growing challenge to embrace social media, get heard above the noise and be transparent with any communication with consumers.  Most of us will have understood the need to claim our voices on twitter and facebook. This is all good and grand but it sits in a very closed environment.

Consumers are increasingly checking google in order to get extra background on businesses before making a buying decision, this is especially true for newly launched e-commerce websites and lesser known brands, they want the reassurance that the site is trustworthy, that other customers have bought from it and that most importantly there is help in need of assistance.

Embrace the bloggers

There are millions of people blogging daily or weekly about all manor of issues.  They blog about their favourite technology, cars, food and some even blog about what they wear every day.  These bloggers have an online voice, in an open environment, their findings can influence the buying decisions of their readers and the rich content of their blogs is like honey to a bear for Google and Bing.  Search engines value blog content highly and the long term benefits are SEO related needless to say that  you should start embracing the bloggers with your brand.

Bloggers should been seen as potential customers, they should be treated like a member of the press.  They are probably more influential than many of the press.  Fuelmywebsite was recently featured online in The Sun and The Guardian – collectively we received 150 visitors, from traditional mainstream press.. A quality blog review can deliver more visits but importantly, there are many quality blog reviewers to approach, many many more than mainstream press.

So how does it look for a new customer?  In this digital age, people will always firstly buy from recommendations from friends or family, failing that they look to google and will search for a brand.  If your business has no-one talking about, how will the new customer be able to determine that you are what you say you are.  In their eyes, you could be anyone.  Having bloggers talk about you not only enables initial coverage to their readers, it also helps Google position the reviews alongside your website, new customers can even leave a comment on the blog review and actually ask for that recommendation, why, how or what.  This also helps remove off some spurious comments that may have been written by your competitors..

Fuelmywebsite.com helps small businesses connect with bloggers through their blogger community of over 40,000 bloggers, Fuelmyblog. Businesses decide on a product they are willing to put in the hands of bloggers in return for a full review. This not only highlights SMEs products and services but it also generates fresh content from a customer perspective.

Bloggers only apply to campaigns if they are interested in the service or product in the first place and if it is relevant to their lifestyle. They receive no money and will blog in their own words their experience with the merchant and the quality of the service they receive.

Many SMEs are using our service to incorporate the reviews in their testimonial pages, they use this opportunity to engage with the blogger on twitter and use the link of the review on their facebook page. The service is both a powerful validation and SEO tool. While it may not generate a huge surge of traffic or instant sales a campaign is a fast track ticket to the blogosphere and online branding communication.

And that is why the UK Government are going to be using Fuelmywebsite to help UK companies export out of the UK and reach farther afield.

Kevin Dixie is Managing Director of Fuelmywebsite and can be contacted by email kevin {@} fuelmyblog.com (remove the {}’s) and found on Twitter @kevindixie

An Inspiration To All Entrepreneurs – Morten Lund

I tend to distance myself from conferences and networking with people that claim to be experts at this that and the other.  If you have never created anything, you can not judge a start-up or an idea.  A start-up is just that, the probability is that it will change totally, yet week in, week out, we see panels of people all working for SME’s or corporates, having never taken a risk before, telling what it takes for your business to be a success.

What does work, is hard work.  A lot of it.  And the ability to think, react and keep changing direction.

To be a success while starting up, you have to work so hard you cannot catch your breath, you have to stop watching TV all night, you have to forget long lunches and going down the pub, you have to work like a freak.  But be careful,  it is addictive.

I was told this week that our business that guarantees SME’s online conversations is right place right time and very lucky.  Bullshit, that luck is four years of ball busting and hard work.  Walking away from a six figure salary and solid career after my 30th birthday, with a comfortable family, lovely house, sports car and stability was my first step towards becoming something I could finally be proud of.

To create a business that never existed before and then make money from it is the most satisfying feeling I have ever had.  It has not been easy and I imagine most people would have given up during some of the dark times we have been through.  But my biggest problem,  I have never ever walked away from anything I have started.

Hardly anyone knows what the business is doing or where it is going.  I like that.  The people that pay to use our service love it and keep coming back month after month.  My target is to pick up 5,000 brand new paying customers this year in our first year of aggressive customer acquisition.  That represents a huge amount of money, but more so, it represents a whole shift in the way SME’s do marketing.

I signed a few Joint Ventures in the past few weeks in the UK and we will be the first platform doing what we do covering the entire Middle East with a team secured out there within three months (and have commitment from a Government in the UAE).  I have also pitched my vision at cabinet level with the UK Government, which is being discussed and am told there will be some kind of progression.

Why I am saying all this.  Because to get here has been very very hard work, with loads more highs and lows to come.  And everytime I feel alone, I watch the following video.  Morten Lund had everything and lost it, the speech he gave just after this happened at Le Web ’08 remains the most inspirational ten mins of my life.  Watch it, be patient during the clumsy start, and let me know how this made you feel.