NEW YORK The most influential consumers—those who are likely to recommend products to friends and family—are growing skeptical of the opinions they find on product review sites and community forums, according to a new study.
WPP Group PR shop Burson-Marsteller in August surveyed 1,000 influential consumers' trust of online reviews. The study found that, compared to a similar poll conducted five years ago, an increasing number of consumers believed that fake reviews or positive comments left by corporations are a problem. About 30 percent said this is a big problem, compared with 20 percent in 2001.
Fifty-seven percent said they would be less likely to buy a product if they suspected the company paid someone to write a positive review on an opinion site, according to the survey.
"There's now a skepticism of what is happening online and an expectation [that] if you're in a community site and a commercial entity [is] being discussed, there's someone paid to be weighing in," said Ame Wadler, chief strategic officer at Burson.
Over the past year, several corporations have made missteps in trying to generate word-of-mouth buzz online. Wal-Mart last year was heavily criticized for creating a fake blog. Microsoft also caught heat for sending bloggers free laptops to test Microsoft software.
Burson identified 15 percent of its sample as "e-fluentials": consumers who influence their social networks' habits and purchase decisions.
It found several distinct traits that mark consumers as e-fluentials: they speak to 50 percent more people per day and are more likely to share opinions and experiences with others.
While marketers are eager to connect with these consumers in hopes of igniting buzz, influential consumers are not interested in getting paid and are wary of those that are compensated for recommendations.
Instead, they are more likely to be motivated by high-minded goals like wanting to bring about change (52 percent vs. 34 percent for non-influentials) and feeling good about giving others information (50 percent vs. 30 percent).
The key for brands, according to Wadler, is being upfront when participating in conversations about products.
"There's no rocket science here: transparency matters," she said. "Those entities that are the most transparent and say, 'It's us and we're proud of what we're saying,' do far better than those organizations that don't reveal themselves."