ToolGuyd has been around for 13 years now, and I have racked up a lot of interesting experiences in this time.
10 years ago, most PR and marketing professionals were still more accustomed to working with professional media outlets. Everything was a little more formal than it is today, and I learned a lot from working with the best in the business, as well as from my share of mistakes.
Because of this, I have now-old-fashioned views on tool review and media industry decorum.
As I am sure you are aware, social media and influencer marketing have completely changed nearly every industry. Most PR and marketing professionals, within tool brands, retailers, and external agencies, have evolved with the times – then and now – without sacrificing their ideals, ethics, or professionalism.
Unfortunately, this has not been universally true.
I like to think I can recognize “right” from “wrong” when it comes to tool reviews and marketing practices. There is a relative “right and wrong for ToolGuyd,” where some practices align with my goals and ideals but others do not, and a more absolute sense of “right” and “wrong.”
For instance, earlier this year I wrote about the company that asked me to help them manipulate their way into Home Depot stores. That was an absolute wrong.
I recently received an email from a marketing agency, and the situation is so egregious that, unless my morality dial is broken, this incident needs to be shared with readers, tool brands, and retailers alike, as it hurts everyone’s interests.
The First Email Request
Subject: [Brand] Review Needed
My name is [redacted], and I am an account manager at [agency].
We are trying to boost a “[product].” We are asking people if they would be willing to leave a 5-star review on [HOME CENTER’s] website (Here) and post the [product] as a story on IG. We will send you the [product]. Is this something you would be interested in helping [agency] with?
Sure, a brand or marketer can want 5-star reviews on retailers’ websites or influencers’ social media channels, but wanting and asking for something like this are completely different.
This email was sent to me in late November, and the product in question was a holiday gift center-type of item.
Was the marketing agency tasked with making the product seem popular in order to drive Black Friday and holiday sales?
Might the tool brand point to the number of 5-star reviews the next time they talk business with the retailer? Might the number of 5-star reviews help the brand in their relationships with other companies and retailers?
Will the marketing agency point to the boosted reviews when trying to win over other brands as new clients?
There could be big money riding on this 5-star review request.
I can tell you that this email referenced Home Depot or Lowe’s, but I won’t disclose which one. The marketing agency works with brands sold at both retailers, and so there’s no way to tell if this is an isolated incident or common practice for them. There are plenty of news stories about fake reviews at Amazon, but this was the first real indication of foul practices at Home Depot or Lowe’s that we’ve encountered.
You might be asking why would any influencer do this? Well, the product in question is not a high-priced item – this time. But what other product samples or review opportunities might this lead to?
What would you do for a free table saw? Cordless power tool combo kit? A fancy new grill? Snow blower?
Making things worse, this particular agency is known to hold a lot of money to spend on tool brands’ advertising and influencer marketing. There have been rumors of undisclosed paid partnerships, but this happens a lot (both rumors and the lack of proper disclosure), and so far nothing has been substantiated.
What would you do if a deep-pocketed marketing company asks you to “help them out” with something? Who wouldn’t want to be in their good graces?
Maybe some of the “boosting reviews” would be honest, but how many would be done to gain favor? This creates an inherent conflict of interest, and it’s completely unacceptable to bring this to a third party platform such as retailers’ customer reviews.
It is inappropriate for marketers to ask influencers for 5-star reviews, and utterly wrong to ask for incentivized reviews on a platform intended for customer feedback.
I have seen a lot of unethical behavior from bloggers, YouTubers, and social media influencers over the years – things like undisclosed payments and secret paid partnerships, and situations where reviewers’ private opinions and recommendations completely contradict their public ones.
Luckily, many if not most content creators strive to be honest and ethical, or at least I like to think so.
Still, this email encourages bad behavior. What it’s asking is wrong, and there will be pressure for some influencers to do it anyway.
The Second Email
A second email came in the following day, from someone else as the same marketing company:
Subject: [Brand] Follow Up
My name is [redacted] from [same agency]. You recently received an email from a team member that appeared to ask for a review in exchange for a product. I want to clarify what we were requesting and assure you that we would never ask you to compromise your reputation in the industry by giving a review that might not be honest.
We are working with a client to increase the number of reviews for one of their products on [HOME CENTER website]. We would love to send you the product in hopes that you would leave a review. While, of course, we love 5-star reviews, we want you to be honest with your feedback, whatever it may be.
Please let me know if you are still interested and I will follow up with more information.
We are so appreciative of your partnership with [agency] and look forward to hearing from you soon.
I should note that we do NOT have any “partnership” with this agency.
In my opinion, this isn’t much better! While I didn’t read the first email as offering a product in exchange for a review, and I’m happy they aren’t explicitly asking for 5-star reviews anymore, they’re still asking influencers to leave customer reviews on a retailer’s website. That’s still a shady request.
Home Depot and Lowe’s both apply special badges to reviews where a customer received a free product, promotional consideration, or other incentives.
It does NOT look like the marketing agency is cooperating with retailers. Unless the retailer in question is on board and applies appropriate labeling that indicates a reviewer received a free product, customers will get the wrong impression.
After looking at the reviews for the product being “boosted,” it seems the marketing agency successfully convinced some influencers to leave reviews for them, and those reviews lack any “free product” or “incentivized review” badges.
Many influencers don’t mention product origins or monetary exchanges in their social media content, and although there’s greater awareness about this today, nobody expects this to happen in Home Depot or Lowe’s customer review sections.
Asking influencers to “boost” reviews on retailers’ websites seems wrong to me.
I would hope that all tool reviewers and influencers would recognize the ridiculousness of what they’re being asked to do here, but some might not and others might be incentivized to be in the marketing company’s good graces. The marketing team should not put influencers in this position.
What Happened Next
Let’s look at some data.
Just after the email came in, there was a surge of (16) 5-star reviews the very next business day, along with a single 1-star review, and (1) more 5-star review the following day.
There were just 6 reviews over the 3 weeks before the email came in, and aside from the surge of reviews right after the email, there was only 1 more review over the next 3 weeks. There are a number of seemingly genuine 1-star reviews.
After the more than 3 week gap, there were just 2 other user reviews, and 2 reviews (one 4-star, one 5-star) that were left by recognizable influencers. After that, there were a couple of reviews from customers that acknowledged receiving free products.
From the charts, it certainly looks like the marketing agency succeeded in “boosting” the number of reviews at this retailer. The first email arrived Friday afternoon, and (16) 5-star reviews appeared that next Monday.
Here’s a good question – were those rapid-succession 5-star reviews left by the marketing company’s influencers, or did the marketing agency boost the review count itself? How many other brands or products is this agency doing the same for? Are other marketing agencies doing this too?
If the reviews were left by influencers, how could they have requested, received, and tested the product between Friday afternoon and Monday?
For the tool brands that hired this marketing agency to handle their advertising and influencer campaign budgets, is this the type of exposure you’re paying for?
Here’s a look at only the 5-star “customer” reviews for the product. I believe in coincidences, but does this look real to you?
Many of the reviews are vague and shallow, similar to “great buy, nice to have, would definitely recommend.” However, because these reviews are bookended by both seemingly real and officially-labeled incentivized reviews, they still give the impression of 5-star popularity, and that will sell more tools.
If these reviews are as bogus as they seem, I must ask – how widespread is this practice at Home Depot and Lowe’s?
A marketing company asked influencers to leave 5-star reviews for a particular product on a retailer’s website, and then backtracked slightly so as to not explicitly ask for 5-star ratings.
(16) 5-star reviews appeared the next business day. Outside of those reviews, there were only (4) other 5-star reviews in more than 50 days, excluding later reviews where the customer or recognized influencer received a free product.
If you look at just the first 6 weeks after the first review appeared, there were only (2) other 5-star reviews outside the (16) left on one day.
It is extremely unlikely that the surge in 5-star reviews were from bona fide customers.
Who is responsible for that surge in 5-star reviews? Influencers? The marketing agency? The brand that hired them?
Why Not Share Full Details?
Frankly, full details would likely lead to an “oops, our bad, it’ll never happen again” response, while fewer details might increase the chances of broad internal conversations and investigations.
Why Post About it at All?
I hope I’m not the only one who thinks this, but I feel it’s highly inappropriate for advertising and marketing agencies to leverage an army of influencer partners for the purpose of planting 5-star reviews on a retailer’s website.
If we don’t talk about how and why this is wrong, it might only get worse.
Is this how any tool brand intends for their products to be “boosted?” I would not have expected this from the tool brand in question, but maybe they aren’t aware of what’s going on.
Maybe everyone will shrug this off. But personally, I am deeply disappointed. Fake reviews are known to happen at Amazon, and I’d rather not see it become rampant at Home Depot or Lowe’s.
There are reasons why you cannot always take online user reviews at face value, but I really don’t want marketer-prompted reviews by incentivized influencers to be another reason on top of that.
We don’t know what happened between the request for 5-star reviews and the all but statistically impossible count and timing of 5-star reviews that followed, and so there’s the remote possibility that there’s no correlation.
However, it really seems to me that this paid marketing company is manipulating home improvement retailers’ “customer reviews”, directly or by using influencers, to mislead shoppers. That’s not an acceptable practice in my book, and it’s something everyone needs to be aware of.