Back in my advertising agency days I always had one constant frustration. Every day I saw talented agency & client teams working hard to deliver 'on-brief' marketing plans but ultimately have zero control over whether the company actually backed it up via good Customer Experience (CX).
Unfortunately, the ‘gap’ that exists between Advertising (what a company says it will do) and CX (what a company actually does) has been one of the most harmful things to the advertising industry. Whether companies have knowingly deceived customers (yes, hard to believe it is still going on in today’s environment!) or whether the decision has been made to invest more in marketing instead of improving CX, this ‘gap’ has a LOT to answer for!
The CX gap is the reason for such high levels of consumer distrust in advertising and it has ultimately led to the corroding effectiveness of the very channels we rely on to communicate with our target markets. Think this sounds a tad dramatic? Well, just ask Google what people think of our industry and see what comes up as the first results...
So, if the-all-knowing-Google says it, does it make it true...is all marketing bullsh*t? Of course not! For the most part, marketing is incredibly powerful and can often be the sole difference between the success or failure of a business. But, marketing also has many objectives - from awareness to sales and everything in between. And when it comes to the objective of converting sales (and isn’t that why we’re all in this game?) there is a significant difference in each.
The research tells us that the more trust a customer has in the channel, the more powerful it becomes at converting a sale. It’s the reason why the modern marketer places such heavy importance on gaining Social Proof through building social followings, putting customer testimonials in our ads, recruiting influencers to advocate our brands and driving positive word of mouth. Or, for a more relateable measure - it’s the reason why ads on Facebook featuring your friends get better click through than those that don’t.
When it comes to sales conversion we know that our customers’ actions and opinions hold far more weight than that of our own. Or to steal someone else’s words...
How the Social Proof game is changing...
But, before you start thinking that you can solve all your customers’ deep-seeded trust issues by driving social followings, public reviews or influencer posts - think again! Unfortunately, those trust issues are going to get a LOT worse.
The problem is, just like any other marketing channel, Social Proof only works when it belongs to the customer and operates for the customer. Its effectiveness on converting sales, much like all other channels, is inherently linked to how much people feel it represents the objective truth.
Or in other words, as soon as businesses start sneaking into the ‘Social Proof Party’ to push their own agendas it’s no longer a party that anyone wants to attend.
At Recomazing we play right in the Social Proof space with a focus on community member recommendations and have been pretty appalled at the volume of articles regarding businesses buying reviews. As inquisitive marketers we wanted to see for ourselves just how widespread the problem has become, so we set up a fake business to see how easy it was to buy our own way into the Social Proof party. The results were quite shocking...and not in a click-bait 'what Kim K said to Kanye will shock you to your core' kind of way...this was genuinely shocking.
With a time limit of 4 hours and a grand total of $154 our fake business built a substantial social following, amassed a raft of 5-star reviews, had 'influencers' posting out photos of our doctored content, became the highest unpaid listing on some of Australia's most popular review sites and our fake business even won a Customer Service award! Yes, you read that right, a customer service award without having a single customer (something the staff here are very proud of!).
Here’s how it all went down (WARNING: Please do not try this at home - this is merely a social experiment to understand how evolved the black market has become to buy social proof for a fake business. If you own/manage a business undertaking this activity will ultimately have a negative impact).
Our Social Experiment...a step by step play!
1. First, we set up a fake business by designing a logo and creating a company blog. This cost us nothing and 30 minutes of our time using Canva.
Company blog: A quick setup on Word Press.
- We then went searching for ways to pay for a social following. With over 37 million results, there were a few options to choose from.
3. So we bought a 24,000 strong Twitter following. This took us 30 minutes and cost $30 (But big deal right, everyone knows people have been stupidly buying social followings for years...yeah, fair enough...let's dig a little deeper then).
4. We then paid “influencers” with a hefty Twitter (15K+) following to promote our business. They were even happy to Tweet using images with our logo Photoshopped on it!
Total cost was $25 and three hours time.
(67 Retweets, yay! Our vanity metrics are through the roof!)
(Could it be that these 'influencers' are most likely people who have just bought their own followers to trick businesses into paying them?!
Most definitely...so let's go a little deeper down the rabbit hole)
5. Ok, so then we registered our business on two leading Australian review sites and went searching for people to write fake reviews for our non-existent business. We were hopeful that this would be a little more difficult, but it wasn't.
We found thousands of profiles offering to write false 5-star reviews for any type of review site. We could sleep easy knowing we were going to receive great service from these people because it just so happened that all of them had received their own high review scores (how wonderfully reassuring!)
It wasn't long before our fake business was ranked as the number one unpaid listing in its category. In total, this cost us $99 and two hours of our time.
To be fair, review sites are trying to combat this issue based on automated algorithms profiling the user. Trip Advisor, as an example, have teams of people dedicated to trying to minimise this issue. However, when a court case for over AU$700,000 was recently filed against them for not doing enough to stop false reviews, the global giant successfully defended the case by essentially saying false reviews were a phenomenon that even they couldn't stop.
"TripAdvisor never asserted that all the opinions were real, even mentioning that verification was impossible..." said the administrative court ruling.
6. Lastly, the icing on the non-existent cake was when our fake business won a 'Customer Service Award' from one of the review sites (well-done team, those late nights paid off!). The awards are determined by an algorithm which is suppose to identify fraudulent reviews.
So what does this mean for marketers?
If you are reading this then you’re most likely smart enough to know that buying Social Proof or basing your influencer strategy solely on reach instead of an authentic relationship is a horribly stupid idea - but it obviously hasn’t stopped people doing it. The point of this experiment is that this deceptive conduct is not only being done, it is being done at such a mass level that it’s creating its own little economy. This all ladders back up to generating further consumer trust issues in these Social Proof channels that we rely on.
To put the impact in perspective, after wrapping up his investigation into false reviews and bringing charges against participating companies, the New York Attorney General, stated: “What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising. When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”
As is so often the case, the bad decisions by a few are ruining it for the rest of us as our target audiences become increasingly aware that businesses are out there buying likes, reviews, fans, comments and that their beloved Instagram heroes are transforming into skin covered billboards.
It's a deceptive undertaking that is happening on a daily basis at scale so don’t expect Google to change its opinion of the Marketing and Advertising industry anytime soon :(
So, does this mean you shouldn’t be aiming to create Social Proof in your own marketing? Not really, the research shows us that it’s still far more effective than traditional advertising when it comes to converting a sale.
But does it mean you should be more considerate of how you roll out your Social Proof or Advocacy strategy...absolutely! It's why global leaders compliment their existing Social Proof strategy by tapping into the only marketing channel that comes with its own inbuilt trusted relationship that can't be bought - recommendations between trusted networks.
In fact, it’s the reason why the majority of Recomazing Employees, Board of Directors and Investment team are actually current or ex-advertising execs who wanted to create a platform that heroes the providers out there actually creating great service, rather than those with the most advertising budget. I'm proud to say our community has contributed to Australia's largest database of genuine recommendations for the best tools and services to grow your business and we look forward to helping as many entreprenuers as possible on our own entrepreneurial journey.
Keep up the hustle!