Testimonial Sluts and the Erosion of Trust

By November 30, 2011Events, Marketing

By Dr. Liz Alexander

What do you make of this?

A LinkedIn group member recently posted a comment saying that she’d been severely reprimanded by a friend for writing a three-star Amazon book review. This friend wasn’t the author but an “internet marketer” who felt it was unwise to award this book anything less than five stars. Her rationale being that since the reviewer was soon to publish a book in the same genre she might tick off potential marketing allies.

My heart sank. What are we coming to when marketing trumps honest critique? But that’s exactly what appears to be happening in my industry: book publishing. It’s all too common these days, especially among first-time authors whose platforms consist of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and perhaps an extensive email list, to spam everyone with requests for glowing reviews. Regardless of whether their work deserves the accolade or not.

This isn’t just happening online. I recently received a self-published book whose first six pages were crammed full of testimonials – almost 30 of them. Sadly, it wasn’t a page-turner, unlike Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which manages with just eight inside examples of praise, or the award-winning Blue Ocean Strategy, which has 11 internationally diverse review excerpts on its back cover.

A quick look at the spread of customer ratings for many books bought online through Amazon and the like should give the statistically literate pause for thought. With an unbiased sample you would expect a normal distribution – a few one stars, slightly more five stars if the book is particularly good, but in the main the bulk of reviews should fall within the three to four star range. How are we to identify truly exceptional books when so many mediocre ones boast 100% five-star reviews?

And what are we to think of the “Amazon exclusive” (and glowing) review of Seth Godin’s Linchpin by cult cartoonist Hugh MacLeod? As one reader/reviewer points out, MacLeod’s perspective can hardly be considered objective since he’s the book’s illustrator. A fact that MacLeod, Godin, and Amazon did not see fit to make known.

When I first started writing books 25 years ago, testimonials were pretty much only written by professional reviewers. Those featured in prestigious newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Fast Company, and Business Week, usually ended up excerpted on the back covers.

Even then, however, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” behavior was common, with the same author names (Brian Tracy; Mark Victor Hansen; etc.) appearing again and again on back covers. Did these busy, famous people really read that many books?

Maybe – maybe not.

Some authors, according to one industry insider, consider writing back-cover testimonials to be free advertising – a way to keep their names (and books, which are invariably mentioned too) in the public eye.

Many will agree because their publisher’s PR not only asked them to, they also offered to write the blurb. Rather like a former boss or client agreeing to write a testimonial as long as they don’t have to go to the trouble of actually doing anything.

Mostly, the thinking goes, if you want someone to be kind about your book it helps to say something nice about theirs. Because testimonials help sell books, especially if readers see the names of people they know and like – and trust.

And therein lies the issue. As Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer surveys show, trust in our institutions – media, government, business — has been going down the toilet for some time now. In 2005 Edelman reported that trust had shifted from authorities to peers.  A year later a more credible spokesperson was “someone just like me.”

In Groundswell, (praised by 11 “real readers”), authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff report the top three “trust sources of information about products or services” are 1) Recommendations from family and friends; 2) Emails from people you know; and 3) Ratings or reviews by consumers.

If we’re giving five stars to a product or service simply because a good friend asks us to, how long before we can no longer trust today’s consumer reviews?

And, yes, I’ve succumbed to such behavior and written five-star reviews of books (well, two in total) that I thought average at best because the authors requested them. I’ve just gone into Amazon and deleted them; would you be willing to do the same?

Interestingly enough, Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer reports that “people like us” have less credibility now than was the case a couple of years ago. Seems we’re beginning to put greater faith in experts again, maybe because at least we can largely trust their objectivity.

Wielding the power to share our views with the world should come bundled with a certain amount of responsibility. Fearing to publish an authentic critique because it might affect your own, future book promotion is, as I told the lady on LinkedIn, a particularly cynical way of doing marketing. Which doesn’t help any of us in the long run.

When every book on Amazon boasts five stars and every self-published work contains multiple pages of praise from friends of the author, I guess we’re back to trusting people who have no vested interest in the outcome. Or our own judgment. Which, come to think of it, beats the duplicity of testimonial sluts hands down.

About the author

Dr. Liz Alexander is the author of 12 nonfiction books, 9 published by big names like Random House, HarperCollins, and Hodder & Slaughton. Her books have sold almost 500,000 copies globally, and some still earn her royalties 10 years after initial publication. Dr. Liz establishes executives and others as thought leaders in their industry. Her secret weapon? Empowering them to write books that showcase their intellectual capital. Discover more at: http://drlizalexander.com/

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Matt says:

    You highlight a very big problem. But, it’s not just the people selling the product, it’s also the consumers as well.

    The conversion rate of people who purchase a produce and offer reviews is obscenely low. In fact, forget the normal distribution, the sales numbers of almost all products would exclude the number of reviews certain listings hold when considering a normal conversion rate for reviewing a product.

    The bigger problem is user psychology. A bad review really will kill a product, even if it’s a great product. Five star reviews still sell. Where ever consumers are placing their trust is where the highest level of exploitation and deception will occur.

    And, it’s hard to conclude that professional reviewers were always fair to the little guys and not systematically biased to the big publishers. The current system makes the playing field much more fair. Even if there is a bit more deception, at least the rules are the same for every one.

  • I appreciate you taking the time comment, Matt – thanks 🙂

    Don’t you think we’re all a little paranoid about the effect of a bad product review, though? After all, you can’t please all of the people all of the time and what about the opportunities to delight someone who started out disgruntled? Didn’t we learn that, treated in the right way, an unhappy customer can turn out to be your biggest fan and tell more people about you/your product than someone who liked you in the first place?

    Here’s a funny story about the time I received my first-ever single one-star book review, which I responded to civilly and even used the experience to write a blog post! People started writing to me saying “where’s the one star review you blogged about?” as that unhappy customer deleted her post shortly after.

    And, with respect to the bias by professional reviewers towards commercially published books – it’s still not a level playing field. You’re lucky to find any newspaper or magazine that will review a self-published book because of the general low standard of quality both in writing and production values. Specialists Kirkus Reviews, for example, now accept Indie books — but those authors have to pay, while books submitted by commercial publishers don’t: http://www.kirkusreviews.com/indie/about/.

  • Stefani says:

    Agreed. Bad reviews make us strive to be better. Dishonest reviews keep us happily mediocre. If you have the courage to post things on the Internet, you should also have the courage to be honest.

  • You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours systematized: http://favo.rs/

  • Danny Smith says:

    Great article and thank you for posting. It really is hard to believe all he “back-scratching” that goes on and the blatant openness of it.

    A bestselling author I’ll refrain from mentioning recently had a webinar. I was in attendance to hear him and promote how to get LinkedIn recommendations from people that haven’t used your product or service.

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