Guitar Center Paying For Comments: Shrewd or Lewd?

It's no mystery that one of the key elements to connecting with an E-Commerce audience is through customer comments. There are consumers who actually go to Amazon to read customer comments about a product being considered. They see Amazon primarily as a source of credible information and secondly as a retailer. With that in mind, GuitarCenter.com has come up with an interesting way to bribe customers into submitting comments.

The Guitar Center offer is to give any poster a $10 gift credit for submitting a review that other site visitors vote as a top review. The site makes comment posters jump through quite a few hoops to get those $10 gift credits, and it has a ceiling of $50 in credits for any one person. Whether that lengthy list of hoops undermines the value of the program is a very fair question (and we'll address it in a moment), but the more immediate concern is whether these $10 incentives will work at all.

Customer comments work only if they are seen as highly credible. When customers are posting comments to win the credit and not because they have strong feelings about the product, their comments might start to lose that credible sound. If that happens, no benefit will likely be achieved.

Also, the program reminds customers vying for the credit that all "reviews will be evaluated by a Guitar Center executive with knowledge and experience concerning the products sold on www.guitarcenter.com and consumer reviews, and the capability to evaluate Reviews and select the best Review." Some might think—perhaps not unreasonably—that a favorable review is less likely to alienate the evaluator. Again, if they write a favorable review but don't truly feel that thrilled with the product, it's likely to come across in the review.

In short, is offering $10 for user comments really going to attract the kind of comments you really want to attract?

Now about those hoops. Guitar Center's efforts remind me a little of some of the airline frequent traveler programs. The airlines make it so unattractive and restrictive to actually cash in rewards, that it's a wonder they offer much inducement at all. I've looked at the lengthy limitations and thought, "This is how you're treating your best customers?" At the end of one of those free trips, a customer is supposed to think, "Wow, that was great! I can't wait to accumulate more miles to do it again" rather than "What a hassle! I'm glad I've used up those miles so I don't feel obligated to use these people any more."

Guitar Center is trying to encourage people to submit more comments, right? To get this $10 credit (remember that it's indeed only a credit. This isn't even cash), customers must wait six weeks or so for the audience to choose the best reviews. They are then sent an E-mail and if no one responds within 10 days, the credit is lost. That response must include a snailmail address.

Commenters must then fill out and sign an Affidavit of Eligibility and a Liability/Publicity Release. After those documents are received, they must sign and mail "a set of Promotion Documents." If that package isn't received within 10 days, "he/she will forfeit the prize." If everyone who submits comments got $1 for certain, that would likely be more persuasive than this cumbersome process.

A writer colleague of mine—Alfred Poor, the author of HDTV Almanac--took the time to crunch the particulars to see what Guitar Center is actually paying for this writing service: "Maybe the average review will be 500 words. Maybe 20 people submit a review for a given product. Guitar Center gets 10,000 words of relevant copy to post on its Web site (with all the attendant SEO benefits) at a cost of $0.001 per word and paid with a store credit at that, so it's not even cash. Brilliant!"

To be cynical, for posters who don't choose to read the fine print, they may think that everyone who writes a legitimate review will get $10. If that belief is widespread, it could prove to be a substantial boon to Guitar Center, just as Poor suggested. But if they read the fine print—and what self-respecting product reviewer wouldn't?—this is one guitar effort that may come across sounding a little flat.

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