Would You Buy From a Brand That Plants Fake Reviews Online?

Sometimes reviews expressed within online communities are coming not from legitimate, sharing consumers, but from hired posters. One might conclude that the practice, called "astroturfing," could be the death of a brand caught in the act. Results of a recent survey by R2i, however, indicates a rather high level of tolerance among marketers.

Sometimes reviews expressed within online communities are coming not from legitimate, sharing consumers, but from hired posters. One might conclude that the practice, called “astroturfing,” could be the death of a brand caught in the act. Results of a recent survey by R2i, however, indicates a rather high level of tolerance among marketers, a population that probably should be the least accepting.

The study [PDF] asked 284 marketing professionals from several leading industries about their attitudes toward astroturfing. It found about 35% thought it “highly unethical,” and about 43% thought it “unprofessional.” 85% of respondents agree that the proliferation of social media has increased the practice of astroturfing, and more than 87% of respondents believe that companies plant reviews. This is in line with overall consumer skepticism of advertisers on social media platforms.

However, when asked if they would stop buying from a brand if they found that the brand had planted reviews, only 8% checked “yes,” while 64% indicated “maybe, it depends” and 28% checked “not if I liked their products.”

In terms of buying behavior, 49% of respondents indicated that online reviews influenced their purchasing decisions “most or all the time.” Nearly the same percentage indicated “sometimes.” According to R2i data, the least trusted reviews are those posted on a brand’s site. Reviews from a friend or from a traditional publisher such as Consumer Reports are trusted the most.

When asked if they believe companies plant reviews, either good or bad, 23% of respondents said “yes, all of the time” and an additional 64% said “yes, some of the time.”

It seems clear that online peer-to-peer recommendations play an important role in the buying decisions of marketers as consumers, and that they are sensitive about the authenticity of reviews. However, marketers, who should be among the savviest of shoppers, appear unlikely to respond punitively to astroturfing. Could they be just shrugging off the practice of disguising planned campaigns as spontaneous grassroots behavior?

Are we moving from supporting brands we trust most to accepting those we distrust least?