By Kat Matfield
New regulations come into force today that bring online marketing messages under the Advertising Standards Agency’s remit. We’ve known about this for a while, but last week it was revealed that the ASA now considers user generated content on social networks and on brands’ websites to be within the scope of the updated code.
There are already some excellent analysis of what this means for traditional marketing practices (we link to the cream of the crop later in this post), but we haven’t yet seen anyone specifically addressing the impact on one of the most popular and highest-returning forms of UGC, customer reviews.
How does this affect customer reviews?
The rules around user generated content specify that the new regulations only apply if content is used for marketing purposes. It’s still not clear how the ASA will assess this, but protecting yourself just in case is not complicated and is, in all honesty, best practice that you should already be following for reviews.
From now on, brands using reviews on their websites will have to ensure they are all “legal, decent, honest and true” – and they’ll have to be able to prove this on demand. This could spell trouble for companies using customer reviews in a number of ways:
Censoring negative reviews
Moderating out negative comments and only showing positive ones was one of the specific examples given by the ASA of situations in which the code applies. Leaving aside all the usual reasons why this is a damaging practice, doing so now guarantees that your review system will be eligible for scrutiny from the ASA. You’d better be certain that none of the positive reviews that you display exceed the bounds of truth, even just due to innocent reviewer enthusiasm. Otherwise you'll be contravening the requirements that all UGC is "honest and true".
Unverified review systems
If you can’t prove that your reviews come from real customers, you’re likely to find yourself in trouble. Having a system where you let anyone leave a review, without checking whether they’re a customer, and then publish those reviews guarantees you will lack the necessary documentary evidence to back up your claims. (And yes, if they’re on your website, they count as your claims.)
Fake reviews have been illegal since the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations came into force in 2008. This strengthening of the ASA code only means that fake reviews will get you in two kinds of trouble, as they contravene the requirement that content be “honest and true”. And that’s leaving aside the inevitable exposure of your dishonest practices and the ensuing damage to your brand. So if you're "topping up" low numbers of reviews with staff-written content, or paying for positive feedback, watch out.
If you send out samples to customers in return for a review, or rely on the promise of rewards to generate your reviews, the rules for endorsement may apply to your reviews. Endorsements are required to include a disclaimer; it’s easy to see how readers would trust a review less if they can see the reviewer has benefited from it. Once lost, trust will be very hard to regain.
If you’re tempted to generate reviews by this method, stop and consider if it’s really necessary. After all, we’ve generated 1.3 million reviews for our clients just by asking nicely.
Find out more about the new ASA code
The best place to start is the ASA's own guide to the new regulations: ASA advice on the digital remit
You can read the legislation banning fake reviews at the government's own site: Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations