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Dark versus light. Good versus evil. Positive versus negative. The battle between opposing forces has most recently been highlighted by the latest Star Wars movie release, but applying polarized judgments to real life is hard.

Things are rarely as clear-cut as good fighting against evil.

Moreover, there's often value in understanding the differences between dark and light, and the nuances behind a positive or negative opinion. And that's why preserving the right to voice such judgments is important.

The provisions of the proposed Consumer Review Freedom Act for online reviews are a step in the right direction.

Passed by the Senate on Dec. 14, 2015 and pending approval by Congress, the current bill includes...

  • A nationwide ban on the use of "anti-review," "gag," or "non-disparagement" clauses
  • Empowerment of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and states to take action against businesses that attempt to keep consumers from posting negative reviews

So, what does all this mean for businesses?

1. Freedom of speech in online reviews

The new legislation will preserve consumers' freedom to post their honest opinions online, whether those opinions are negative, positive, or a mix of both.

Everyone has the freedom to say what he or she chooses offline, and the same liberties should be allowed online.

2. Access to honest information from customers

If Congress passes the bill, it will be unlawful for companies to contractually prevent their customers from reviewing them online.

"Anti-review clauses," as such restrictions are often known, run contrary to the idea of transparency. They also encourage companies to shy away from a crucial part of doing business online—being open to all customer feedback, whether positive, negative, or neutral.

As the trend for transparency in commerce continues to gain momentum, laws that protect dialog also help preserve openness and accountability. Consumers love to do their own research and feel that they have a right to see exactly what's being said about a particular company. And they want to know whether a company can be trusted.

Contracts prohibiting customer reviews undermine the ability of companies to establish that trust through transparency across the board.

3. The chance to learn from constructive criticism

The bill sends a strong message to companies that they need to accept all online reviews rather than attempt to avoid negative ones.

Studies suggest that 92% of consumers trust online reviews, and some 85% of consumers read 7-10 reviews before they make a purchase. And 70% of consumers consider themselves extremely or very discerning in deciding whether to trust a specific online review. Some 94% say they can spot a trustworthy reviewer.

The odds are in a company's favor if it can put the resources into providing outstanding customer service and genuine effort into addressing customer feedback rather than going to great lengths to avoid negative comments.

If the new bill is passed, consumers will be able to confidently voice their honest views, without fear of legal action simply because those views might be less than flattering. And businesses will gain from this new piece of legislation as well.

Companies that want to provide excellent goods or services with sterling customer service can inspire great reviews and gain valuable information. They can use that information to improve or future-proof their businesses by seeing where consumer trends are heading.

4. The chance to turn negative reviews into positive experiences

There will always be reviews that express customer dissatisfaction. Opinions are subjective, and misunderstandings happen. However, companies can turn these instances into opportunities by taking the chance to listen to and learn from negative comments, and show that they're working to fix what went wrong.

Responding to reviews is part of this process.

Companies that respond to reviews help consumers (who took the time to voice their praise or concerns) feel like their words matter.

Responding also creates buy-in from consumers who feel they've played a role in improving a company's services. Creating a two-way dialog allows a company to showcase its strength in meeting criticism head-on and proactively work to address the problem.

Customers appreciate being acknowledged by a real human and the company's efforts to preserve him or her as a customer. Public reconciliation spreads positive feelings and can also encourage repeat business opportunities.

5. An opportunity to work together against fabricated reviews

You may be wondering, "But what about fake reviews? What if consumers are passing judgment based on made-up opinions?"

Anti-review clauses don't appear to be particularly effective at combating fake reviews, so the proposed legislation doesn't take any existing rights away from companies.

Fake reviews are a genuine concern for online businesses, but reputable online review platforms employ an increasing number of sophisticated mechanisms to combat them.

For example, Trustpilot has a 35-person Compliance Team backed up by software that runs 24/7 to detect suspicious reviews, using designated processes to verify businesses and consumers. Also, several online review platforms, including Yelp, specifically warn consumers when the companies have found evidence of fake reviews for certain companies or domains.

* * *

The true value of consumer reviews lies in seeing both the positive and the negative opinions. It comes with listening to, engaging with, and learning from customers.

At the heart of the dark versus light dichotomy is the acknowledgement that one can't exist without the other. But that doesn't mean businesses can't work to earn more of one than the other or turn dark into light through proper engagement.

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Why Marketers Should Support Legislation on Customer Reviews

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image of Jonathan Hinz

Jonathan Hinz is director of product marketing at NewsCred, a provider of content marketing software.

LinkedIn: Jonathan Hinz

Twitter: @jonathanhinz