Opinions are like certain body parts: everybody has one. What’s changed is that the option to express those opinions in a manner that makes them widely available is now a routine part of business. I was reminded of this the other day as I read a piece on the comment manipulation going on over the recent Michael Jackson biography. It triggered a few thoughts about how those opinions can help or harm your business (pretty obvious, I know) but about the potential for something disturbing that seems to be happening more often.
The book was not flattering to Mr. Jackson. His fan base took umbrage and organized to destroy the book’s reputation on Amazon by leaving a lot of one-star reviews. This, in turn, caused outrage among people who believe that the reviews ought to serve as honest unbiased guides for prospective buyers and not as forums for propaganda, either positive or negative. They left a lot of five-star reviews to counterbalance the negative posts. It’s fairly certain that most of the “reviewers” neither bought nor read the book. One can suppose that in Amazon’s case they could do something to fix this by requiring anyone who leaves a review to have bought the book through Amazon. They do, in fact, show “verified” purchasers within the review but you can’t screen them on that basis. In any event, this raises a larger issue.
What is to prevent an organized gang from holding your brand hostage? I can easily see a local business-owner getting a ransom note of sorts – pay us or we’ll destroy your reputation on Yelp and elsewhere. I’m well aware that the reverse is also true – there are “reputation management” companies that will go online and post lots of nice things under fake names for a fee. Maybe you’re not familiar with the term “astroturfing” but it’s the common practice in the political world of posting comments that are designed to hide the sponsor and appear as if they’re from a “civilian.” Pretty deplorable but a fact of life at this point.
I don’t really have an answer here. Comments on the screed are moderated so I can weed out the dozens of spam posts I get every week but that’s hard for big sites to do. Forced identity verification can be circumvented as the aforementioned examples show. If you’re using comments or reviews as a guide in your personal life you have to do the best you can to sniff out an agenda I guess. As a business or brand I don’t know how you counteract an organized effort against you other than to be transparent when these things happen and to hope your voice can be heard. Finally, if you’re a site that hosts this stuff, there is a certain amount of responsiblity on your shoulders to prevent the kind of organized activity we see in the Jackson case. I’m a big believer in the first amendment and everyone’s right to voice an honest opinon. However, what do we do when they’re neither honest nor an opinion but a scripted talking point advanced for money?
Thoughts? Solutions? Leave a comment (gulp).