In ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ Arthur Weasley offers the advice to Ginny “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain”. He’s particularly concerned with people or objects which have been ‘bewitched’. Transparency is, after all, a virtue we increasingly recognise in business too.
The marketing equivalent might read roughly “Don’t trust any brand if you can’t see its business model”. My first exposure to this came in the 1980s and 90s, when advertising agencies were engaged in cut-throat competition. They would charge clients a knock-down fee but then claw it back through opaque charges in production and elsewhere. The same is allegedly occurring today in the world of digital media, where charges are based on meaningless currency and black box solutions.
It is also, arguably, the whole basis of the Internet. Users of search engines and online providers get their service for free, often blissfully unaware that their characteristics and behavioural data are being traded as a commodity. I see today (New Year 2020) that there’s another imagined scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica who have been pilloried for doing exactly what most online businesses have always done, only better. Namely scraping user data for segmentation and targeting purposes. As the saying goes ‘if you can’t see what the product is, then you are the product’.
This is all pretty obvious. Nothing to see here, citizens. But I recently discovered a new area of opacity, which is uniquely neat, disingenuous and frankly plain crooked. It’s the world of online reviews.
I had posted reviews of services before. We all have. It’s very simple. Amazon encourages it to the point of pestering. Feefo and Trust Pilot have built significant businesses on it. But have you tried posting a really negative review? Especially if it concerns a rather aggressively marketed brand? Not so simple after all, as I discovered recently.
I had an overwhelmingly negative experience buying a house through the cut-price estate agency, Purple Bricks. When I posted a negative review, they immediately contacted me (so Trust Pilot is obviously not a confidential system) to demand I provide supporting proof. After my experiences, I certainly don’t want to deal with them again, so I declined. Trust Pilot promptly removed my review, because they implied I had made it up.
What a brilliant business model. Make it really easy to post praise and discourage people from posting negative experiences. Only good experiences get reported. That will bring brands flocking to the service. Genius. Purple Bricks currently enjoys a 4.7/5 rating on Trust Pilot. Of course it does.
The irony of course lies in the fact that Trust Pilot and its like are presented as the consumer champion, when, in truth they are the opposite.
I read a post on an online community, the other day, from the owner of a rented-out holiday home. Her place had been pretty much trashed by clients, but she had learned from experience that posting a negative feedback, or withholding their deposit would only lead to an escalation of accusation and counter accusation. Her business would lose out. So even in markets (this was an Airbnb-type business arrangement) which are theoretically actively policed by the feedback system, it’s in effect, simply a racket.
I appreciate that the more worldly of you will be sniggering at my naivety. Sorry. Indeed, I have just discovered that proper journalists have noticed the Purple Bricks phenomenon too. Here.
Any feedback to this post should be addressed to me personally, here (positive) or to the email address firstname.lastname@example.org (negative).