A few years ago I started to get requests when checking out of hotels to review the properties online, sometimes specifically on TripAdvisor.
The request might be printed on the receipt, or mentioned by the desk clerk, particularly if I offered praise for the hotel as I checked out. (I’m big on positive reinforcement.) These requests still trouble me a little, but not nearly as much as what some companies are doing to influence and reward people who review travel services positively.
The Consumerist blog recently pointed out a blog entry that included a case study of how Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines managed to “influence brand advocates.” With the help of consultants, Royal Caribbean identified people who were posting positive comments about the company on Cruise Critic and other sites.
Royal Caribbean identified 50 such “champions,” and invited them to “pre-inaugural” sailings of Liberty of the Seas, with tours, cocktail parties and meetings with executives. Presumably, these people were encouraged to continue praising Royal Caribbean online.
I think it’s probably naive to expect that Royal Caribbean is the only company trying this technique.
Now you could argue that mainstream journalists are invited on these junkets all the time, and they are. But the ethical ones don’t accept freebies from the companies they write about, and the somewhat less ethical ones at least disclose it when they do. (I believe that ethical bloggers, if they purport to be unbiased or to be writing on behalf of the consumer, should do the same.)
So what happens if online commenters, presumed by the rest of us to be honestly expressing their opinions without fear or favor, are actually being rewarded for expressing only positive opinions? Will they end up competing to be recognized as “champions” so they’ll get free trips or drinks or whatever? I think they will.
And when that happens, we have commercial contamination of what are supposed to be unbiased online review sites. These sites must already contend with fraudulent reviews posted by or solicited by owners and managers, but I consider this an even greater threat because it’s a truly organized attempt to present marketing as unbiased opinion.
Review sites based on multiple independent online reviews can absorb and average out some fraud and bias. If 600 people review a hotel and 475 say it was dirty, chances are virtually nil that this is untrue. But if the hotel chain makes it known that people who post glowing reviews of the hotel can have a free trip, drinks etc., then that balance can be thrown off radically.
That balance in what is called the “wisdom of crowds” or “crowd sourcing” is critical to sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic, where commenters are supposed to act as advocates for each other rather than for any commercial interest. These sites depend utterly on their credibility. If we don’t trust them, they’re useless.
[Added 3/16/09: Cruise expert Anita Dunham-Potter, who has been all over this story, follows up on MSNBC.com.]