Fake reviews: how SMEs can fight back

Shahid Nizami, Managing Director, Asia-Pacific, HubSpot

Stay-home measures implemented across the ASEAN region didn’t stop users from shopping. Some estimates noted that e-commerce takings in Southeast Asia soared 96 percent compared with the same period last year, for the week that ended on May 11. From online marketplaces to livestream sales, retailers have gotten creative to reach customers, starting trends that experts say are set to last well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now – especially as measures are progressively lifted across the region – it’s up to retailers to keep the momentum from the customers they’ve acquired going. This is especially important in markets such as Singapore, where word-of-mouth reviews are a key consideration to building trust in the buyer journey. A recent survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of HubSpot found that reviews are the most trusted form of promotional content among Singaporean consumers, with 92 percent expressing trust in the medium. This puts reviews ahead of other channels such as TV (91%), text messages (61%) and phone calls (51%) in terms of trust.

Fake reviews: Where do they come from?

Just like fake handbags or shoes, fake reviews can simply be bought off the internet. Companies may purchase good reviews for themselves to bolster their presence on social media or game search rankings, or even launch a deluge of bad reviews at competitor businesses. Much of this isn’t strictly legal, and industry bodies such as the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission have released guidelines around managing online reviews. However, with reviews continuing to form an important part of a business’ reputation, it’s important for companies to be proactive in managing their reputation online.

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Big impacts to small businesses

Fake reviews can impact profitability

With fake reviews plaguing the ecosystem, customers will have to spend more time trawling through reviews to gauge and decipher for themselves which are genuine, and which are not. This increased effort on the customer’s part often means more time taken to convert, and an increased likelihood that they may switch to competitor products during the process. This may also mean increased costs incurred in trying to keep them within your flywheel.

At the same time, fake reviews can also impact your search traffic. Search engines have become increasingly proficient at tracking and predicting trends – and businesses can be penalised for unnatural-looking reviews. The drop it causes to website traffic may be particularly painful for small businesses, which often lack the resources to outsource specialised help to work on services such as search engine optimisation.

As a result, SMEs may experience significant increases to customer acquisition costs (CAC). In the long term, this causes their CAC:LTV (lifetime value) to increase, which impacts profitability overall.

Decreased trust among consumers

Fake reviews can have a negative impact on consumer trust in the long term. It’s a problem that affects the whole business ecosystem, and not just any one targeted company.

The growing distrust affects buying behaviour in the region. A study by Microsoft and IDC Asia-Pacific found that 36 percent of consumers would reduce their use of digital services if trust was negatively impacted, while a further 34 percent would stop using such services completely. On the other hand, 61 percent would recommend more costly digital service options if they found it trustworthy.

How to defend/fight back against fake reviews

Build a community of advocates

When businesses think of customers as users to push down a funnel, they miss out on arguably the most important opportunity for growth. Customers shouldn’t be outcomes, they should be viewed as a driving force. When you consider your business as a flywheel, you use the momentum of your happy customers to drive referrals and repeat sales. Basically, your business keeps spinning.

Creating evangelists out of your satisfied users creates an ecosystem of trust around your brand – they may jump to your defence and point out dodgy reviews even faster than you can. For small businesses with limited resources, customers can become a force multiplier that should not go ignored

Learn to listen with empathy

With customer reviews making up an increasingly important part of a company’s brand presence, it’s understandable that some employees may instinctively flinch in the face of disparaging reviews – fake or not. Before jumping to arms against any review, assess and evaluate the feedback internally first. Over time, as companies interact with more reviews, it becomes easier to separate fact from fiction.

Report fake reviews quickly (even if they are favourable), and make sure to respond to genuine reviews. Whether it’s a sincere word of thanks or a quick follow up with a complaint, your response will also help customers differentiate genuine reviews from fake ones.

Get the whole team involved with reviews

While not every employee within a company is customer-facing, each impacts the customer journey in their own way. Getting different team members involved in responding to reviews can make it easier to identify and report fake reviews.

For example, if you receive a review citing issues with the checkout experience, you may wish to get further insights from the web development team, who’ll be able to let you know if the feedback is valid much quicker. Report fake reviews promptly, and ensure that genuine complaints are addressed.

A good review is not just praise from a happy customer – it’s a vote of confidence from a user who trusts that you will continue to provide satisfactory services to them and others again in future. Trust is invaluable currency, and takes a long time to build. It can also be demolished quickly by fake reviews. Businesses who want to thrive in a digitally dominated world need to take steps to guard against, and diminish the threat of fake reviews to their long-term success. A good review is not just praise from a happy customer – it’s a vote of confidence from a user who trusts that you will continue to provide satisfactory services to them and others again in future. Trust is invaluable currency, and takes a long time to build. It can also be demolished quickly by fake reviews. Businesses who want to thrive in a digitally dominated world need to take steps to guard against, and diminish the threat of fake reviews to their long-term success.