Think you're an Internet hotshot? Flash a ReviewerCard to try and prove it.

Offensive tweets, fake reviews, and snarling e-mails have landed many businesses in hot water on social media sites, but it turns out some customers behave just as badly.

ReviewerCard this month debuted in January as a members-only club for people who shell out $100 and can prove they are elite online reviewers. The card has no real value, but tells business owners that the cardholder is planning to write a review (subtext: watch out).

Businesses can expect to pay for the privilege of a five-star review from a ReviewerCard member by offering better-than-normal service, discounts, or swag.

The power of the pen–or keyboard

But ReviewerCard, according to founder Brad Newman, is intended to give reviewers the perks they feel they so justly deserve. Online reviews can have huge effects on a business’s bottom line, a 2011 Harvard Business School study found. A one-star increase on Yelp leads to a 5-percent to 9-percent revenue jump. Naturally, business owners are eager to rack up positive reviews.

Newman decided to leverage the power online reviewers hold. On the ReviewerCard site he details a poor customer-service experience he endured while dining in France. Only at the end of his visit, when he told management he planned to write a review of the restaurant, was he treated well–the restaurant comped his meal.
How the ReviewerCard works

The ReviewerCard site explains eligibility this way: "Membership is reserved exclusively for highly active review site users who must submit their personal links for screening. If you are a casual reviewer and only post once in a while, this card is not appropriate for you."

Bad behavior

Yelp tries to curb bad behavior from both businesses and users. Businesses caught paying for positive reviews last year started seeing red alerts placed on their pages, showing users evidence of foul play. Users, too, should be punished if they transgress. But it turns out that writing a review in exchange for special treatment isn’t just a moral grey area.

“Asking businesses for special treatment or free services in exchange for a review of the experience violates our Terms of Service and can violate Federal Trade Commission guidelines,” a Yelp spokesperson said.

Federal rules for reviewers

The FTC extended its truth-in-advertising guidelines in 2010 to cover reviews on blogs or social media sites. The government advises online reviewers to disclose any relationship between the business selling the product and the reviewer.

It’s unlikely the government will hunt down reviewers who don’t mention their comped meals, but the FTC advises disclosure.

The FTC guidelines state that “if you get free meals, it’s best to let your readers know so they can factor that in when they read your reviews. Some readers might conclude that if a restaurant gave you a free meal because it knew you were going to write a review, you might have gotten special food or service.”

That’s kind of the point of the ReviewerCard. According to the Los Angeles Times, about 100 people have earned membership in the program so far.

But consumers are losing faith in social media sites to give honest opinions, a September Gartner report indicated. The technology research company expects by 2014 that 10 percent to15 percent of online reviews will be faked or paid for by companies. Businesse that engage in pay-to-play behavior might hurt their brands in the long run.

This story, "Think you're an Internet hotshot? Flash a ReviewerCard to try and prove it." was originally published by TechHive.

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