How Small Firms Can Court Online Reviewers

WALL STREET JOURNAL – Looking for a low-cost way to market your products? Find an influencer.

These high-profile reviewers can have thousands—or tens of thousands—of followers and fans on YouTube, Facebook and other social networks. Sending them products to review can be an effective way for a small firm with limited means to reach a vast new audience.

But managing the relationship takes a lot of care. The main issue is disclosure: Influencers need to make it very clear how they got the products and what their relationship with the company is. Any lack of transparency can raise tax issues, get influencers and the company in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission and anger viewers. Companies may be face a very vocal online protest or even a boycott.

Here are some things to keep in mind when working with a popular Internet reviewer.

PICK CAREFULLY: Companies will get the most out of working with reputable bloggers who already maintain full transparency. It also helps to do research to find suitable bloggers who are a good fit with a company’s product and services and to approach them with a personalized message that recognizes their work.

WATCH CLOSELY: Don’t assume that bloggers will act on their own to let readers know where they got a service, product or some kind of payment from a company, says Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC in Washington, D.C. It should be part of the company’s social-media policy to ensure compliance. Companies should also monitor bloggers to make sure they follow through.

The disclosure can be as simple as “company X gave me this product to review,” says Carleen Pruess, an attorney from Chicago who also blogs about fashion.

The message needs to be clear, conspicuous and in the beginning of a blog post. It also has to be more than a general disclosure that applies to the entire website or a link at the end of the page. For video reviews, the disclosure should show up in the clip, not the description, since videos are often embedded into other websites without the description.

RESPECT THEIR OPINION: Companies shouldn’t try to strong-arm bloggers into making changes to a review unless there’s a valid reason, such as an incorrect fact. Besides getting on the blogger’s bad side, attaching conditions to a product or service can be legally construed as a contract with an exchange of service as opposed to a gift, says Stephen Slater, managing director at the New York City office of UHY Advisors Inc., an accounting firm. “The IRS may come back and ask you what this relationship is and why you’re giving this item to this person. Giving free samples may not work out that way. It’s really a barter transaction.”

Many companies like B&H Photo Video in New York avoid tax and compensation issues by lending items like consumer electronics instead of giving samples away. They won’t send the item until a loan agreement is signed, and the package will include postage-paid mailing labels to make it as easy as possible to return the item.

“It has been very good business for us,” says Henry Posner, online reputation manager at B&H. “We work with a lot of influential bloggers. We don’t pressure them to give a good review because we understand that their audience is looking for honest opinions. We will make some attempt to resolve any problems to see if it’s a mistake or manufacturer problem.”

Illustration by SHAW NIELSEN. You can read the full story here: