Before buying even a pair of headphones, 31-year-old Chetan Sapra, like most others, does his due diligence by sifting through reviews on online forums. Choosing one after shortlisting products that have garnered 'honest' positive comments assures him of having made an informed choice. But that hardly is the case.
As the practice of checking reviews before hitting the 'Buy Now' button has become the norm, businesses have sprung into action to influence customers' buying behaviour. Users satisfied with a product seldom go on online forums to sing praises about it; the dissatisfied lot, however, often takes to the web to rant about their unpleasant experiences, much to the chagrin of companies, says Sreedhar Prasad, Partner, E-commerce and Start-up, KPMG India.
In order to balance out the reviews, companies have started incentivising users to write positive reviews by offering discounts, freebies, and also money. This has given rise to an industry of influencers and online reputation management companies whose job is to ensure that the content created online around a particular company portrays a positive imagery.
"This creates a huge scope for content to managed," says Rubeena Singh, CEO, iProspect India, Dentsu Aegis Network's digital agency. Brands run social media contests encouraging users - potential consumers - to write a review and win a holiday or an expensive gift. Sometimes, a celebrity is paid to tweet about a product.
Does neutrality really exist then? Digital media experts don't think so. Almost everything on social media is agenda-driven, according to Siddharth Deshmukh, Associate Dean, Area Leader - Digital Platform & Strategies, MICA. "When everyone is a journalist, there is no integrity of content left," he states, adding that the degree of neutrality varies across platforms. For instance, community-driven platforms such as Quora and MouthShut see more policing than Facebook and Twitter. The reason, he explains, is that social media platforms work on algorithms to present content that resonates with the world view and furthers their own agenda, no matter if it is fake.
To curb this practice, Amazon has banned incentivised reviews from its site. Its 'Verified Purchase' feature ensures that customers make a purchase (and pay for it), before posting a review or before their vote is considered publicly. Amazon also has detection and enforcement mechanisms to identify sock puppet accounts even though it allows customers to use a public pen name when writing reviews or discussion posts. As per reports, the e-commerce portal sued three of its sellers last year, as 50 per cent of the product reviews on their merchant stores were fake.
While some brands choose authenticity over deception, ultimately it is the customer who must exercise caution, but seemingly don't. "The bigger problem is that consumers love to get fooled. They are happy to read posts that fit in with their biases," Deshmukh says. To desist falling into the fake reviews trap, he proposes looking for contrarian points of view while making a buying decision. "Ask yourself where the aspirations are coming from - is it connected to me, my world and my family, or is it coming from my peers or social media posts," he suggests.
Perhaps, it's time we reviewed our shopping habits.
Ni Hao, Gates
The world's richest man and Co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, has opened an account on China's most popular messaging app WeChat. Though this is not his fi rst account on a Chinese social media channel - he already has a Weibo account - he received a hearty welcome from the users of the network. He was viewed more than 100,000 times and received over 10,000 likes. In a 30-second debut video, Gates said that on his account @gatesnotes he will share about the people he meets, the books he is reading, and what he is learning. He also invited users to join the conversation in Mandarin. WeChat is a messaging app similar to WhatsApp. However, it also has a timeline feature, similar to Facebook.
A recent study by Wales Institute for Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods in the UK, has revealed that one in every fi ve young people wake up at night to check social media. The research, which studied 900 school students between the ages of 12 and 15, also said that the students who woke up nearly every night to use social media were around three times more likely to be constantly tired at school, as compared to those who never do. Published in the Journal of Youth Studies, the research asked the surveyed students to complete a questionnaire on their sleep and bed-time habits, and found out how often they wake up at night to log in to their social media accounts. It also revealed that girls are more likely to use social media at night as compared to boys.