Can brands incentivize word-of-mouth without undermining it?

Money can’t buy love. Even worse, it can’t buy word-of-mouth. Paying for social proof undermines its authenticity.

But if businesses could burn money on the altar of the ecommerce gods to receive quality customer reviews on every new product launch, the bonfire would be visible from space.

But there are workarounds:

These workarounds tip-toe around the “cash for social proof” issue. Influencers feel more trustworthy than individuals because they have  professional reputations at stake.

Shein is the future

Shein, China’s $30B fast-fashion Amazon, flies closer to the cash-for-reviews sun. Shein uniquely rewards customers based on their review’s performance (as measured by other customers clicking the “Helpful” button.)

There are downsides. Points grubbing is ubiquitous. Reviewers spam emojis to reach the minimum character count. Content quality is mixed, but content quantity is massive.

Begging for points is annoying, but the product photos are useful. Ironically, the trashiness of the review is evidence of its authenticity.

Every product has tons of reviews, usually with photos. If Shein determines a review is especially helpful, the reviewer is showered with 50 points ($0.50 USD). Most reviewers try to post informative, helpful reviews since they know their rewards will be commensurate with their usefulness.

Shein’s done something noteworthy: they’ve aligned consumer incentives with brand incentives. Rewarding customers for quality content isn’t mercenary; it’s fair.

Loyalty is a two-way street

“Loyalty” in ecommerce generally means “repeat business”. Few brands achieve the word’s full meaning: emotional buy-in to a brand’s success.

Loyalty to a brand is great, but extraordinary brands’ customers have loyalty to each other. Look at REI’s gearheads or Reddit’s r/skincareaddiction, and you see communities of consumers leaping to recommend products to each other just for the dopamine hit of getting respect for their expertise. These are the people who make communities like Quora and StackOverflow possible.

My Reddit post about hiking pants spurred 72 comments endorsing different brands. The brands had no idea; the reviewers earned nothing. The thread with their recommendations is almost impossible to search for now.

A top Shein review costs a brand ~$1.00 in loyalty points, but the validation and satisfaction of other customers’ approval is priceless. Points earned are far sweeter than points given.

Chinese ecommerce culture and Shein’s young demographic are more comfortable with this more transactional system, but American brands should pay attention.

Combining incentives with trust

Influencers are proof that incentivizing social proof works when reviewers have a reputation we can check and future credibility at stake. The challenge is scaling that to work for ordinary consumers.

Shein comes the closest to a “social reviews, version 0.1”. Here’s how we make them less trashy:

- Award points algorithmically based on review performance so genuinely useful reviews rise to the surface and people don't beg the algorithm for points.

- Reviewer reputation. Every reviewer gets a profile with their review history (Google Maps does this). Encourage reviewers to become curators (Etsy does this with public “favorites” lists.)

- Rich feedback on reviews. Steam lets gamers award each others’ reviews with badges for “funny”, “helpful”, etc. It’s time for the “Helpful” button to join the 2020s.

Steam gives customers rewards and badges to award to other reviewers.

- Social reviews. Turn a customer’s reviews into a Venmo-style news feed. See what your friends are buying; search a brand to see if your friends have reviewed it. Reviewers will be more honest if their friends are relying on their recommendations.

StackOverflow user profile. We need a StackOverflow for ecommerce.

These features exist...

Reviewing reviews: Steam, Reddit

Reputation: StackOverflow

Consumers as curators: Etsy

Performance-based loyalty: Shein

Algorithmic performance measurement: Birb

…but haven’t yet been productized as off-the-shelf SaaS accessible to ecommerce brands.

Birb's betting that impartial, algorithmic performance metrics for review content are the missing piece to tie them all together.

Birb is experimenting to find the magic formula that combines automation, reputation, and incentives.