Friday, January 27, 2012

How Much Does a 5-Star Review Cost? Not Much.

Word-of-mouth is about the best advertising there is -- I trust geeky friends of mine to give me advice on new toys to purchase (or not), and they trust me with car-guy questions. But just how far beyond your real circle of friends can you trust "word-of-mouth" reviews?

I've spent many years in marketing research, and the most important thing I learned, and for you to remember, is: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics". I used to tell clients -- who would inevitably try to shape the research for their own benefit -- that they should just tell me what results they wanted, and I'd get them.

"Oh, no," they'd protest, "We want to know what our customers really think."

Really? I didn't think so then, and I don't think so now. They generally want to know what will make them look good.

When I pick up my car after a regular oil-change, the service adviser reminds me that I'll be getting an online questionnaire in the next day or two, and that "We strive for 100% outstanding, so I hope that's what you'll be able to give us."

Hint. Hint.

(In fact, I never complete those questionnaires. Because of all my years in research, I know too much about how they're constructed, and how easy it is to game the system. A properly-constructed questionnaire should ask you, right up front, if you're in the marketing, sales, or research of that particular product or service, and if you say, Yes, should disqualify you. If they don't ask those questions, it's not well-designed research. Just saying....)

Now my service adviser has never offered me cash for a positive review, or a free car wash, or anything of the sort, thankfully.

But there are apparently plenty of folks out there buying positive reviews. I've written before about Amazon's army of reviewers, and the gifts some have received for those glowing reviews.

Today's New York Times has an article by David Streitfeld on the problem of buying five-star reviews.

According to the article, some customers who purchased Kindle Fire covers from VIP Deals (for less than $10, plus shipping; "regular price", $59.99) were refunded their purchase price for a five-star review.
While the letter [from VIP Deals making the refund offer] did not specifically demand a five-star review, it broadly hinted. "We strive to earn 100 percent perfect ‘FIVE-STAR’ scores from you!" it said.
As Streitfeld drily writes, at least one customer who was offered the deal had her doubts:
"I was like, 'Is this for real?'" she said. "But they credited my account. You think it’s unethical?"
Um, that would be Yes.

Connections between the person who makes a product or offers a service and the person who promotes that product or service must (by law, not just ethics) be disclosed. Streitfeld writes that the Federal Trade Commission has starting cracking down on some of the most egregious examples, and fears that the examples it found are "far from isolated instances."

A technological solution may be on the way: academic researchers are now "trying to devise mathematical models to systematically unmask the bogus endorsements."

I like the idea, although I'm just cynical enough to suspect that the moment such an algorithm is devised, someone else will have designed an algorithm to get around it.

Maybe we should rethink hive-mind reviews altogether. I have more confidence in the Times' restaurant reviews than in Yelp, and more confidence in what Consumer Reports says than in glowing reports on Amazon. Because even if I don't know those reviewers personally, I know what they stand for.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Here's Hoping that Reporting a Practice Will Lead to its Demise

Recently, as a result of news accounts of expensive business trips underwritten by a corporation's not-for-profit foundation, I wrote suggesting that "gimmes" were a bad idea in whatever industry you mention. We all like to think that we're not influenced by "trinkets" ... and the research suggests that we're all wrong.

In today's New York Times, reporter Robert Pear writes that
To head off medical conflicts of interest, the Obama administration is poised to require drug companies to disclose the payments they make to doctors for research, consulting, speaking, travel and entertainment.
What you're hearing now is the sound of me, applauding.

Apparently, if a company has even one product that is covered by Medicare or Medicaid, it would have to disclose all payments made to doctors who are not its own employees. However, it's not clear to me how "payments" is defined.

After all, Pear reports that approximately one in four doctors receive cash gifts from device or drug makers, and that those payments can add up to the hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

Moreover, an estimated two-thirds of doctors accept gifts of food, ranging from a bagel-and-schmear breakfast for the staff, at which at pharmaceutical representative makes a presentation, to an elegant dinner for the doctor. And what about all the pens and clipboards and notepads that we see when we go to the doctor's office, nearly always emblazoned with the logo of some unpronounceable drug?

If you think I'm concerned about something so small as a gimme pen, you're right. Pear writes,
The Times has found that doctors who take money from drug makers often practice medicine differently from those who do not and that they are more willing to prescribe drugs in risky and unapproved ways, such as prescribing powerful antipsychotic medicines for children.
Pear quotes a pharmacist and consumer advocate at the Pew Charitable Trusts:
Patients want to know they are getting treatment based on medical evidence, not a lunch or a financial relationship. They want to know if their doctor has a financial relationship with a pharmaceutical company, but they are often uncomfortable asking the doctor directly.
Speaking as a patient, "Yes we do (want to know) and Yes we are (uncomfortable asking)."

My hope is that the payment-disclosure requirement will lead to the complete demise of the gimmes practice. If it happened tomorrow, it wouldn't be too soon.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

There's Good News and Bad News, and Bad News and Good News

First, the bad news: According to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, nearly half of American business employees observed either ethical or legal violations at their workplace. Actually, that's good news: it's about the lowest level reported.

The really good news is that about two-thirds of those who witnessed violations reported them. But then there's more bad news: about one in five of those who reported violations experienced some form of retaliation, up sharply from previous years. In addition, pressure on employees to cut corners and compromise ethical standards is at an all-time high.

The Ethics Resource Center conducts the Business Ethics Survey every two years. The press release is available here, and the full downloadable report is available here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Get Rid of the Gimmes, Whether Small, Medium, Large, or EXTRA Large

As far back as 2009, I wrote about "gimme pens" and the like, and how easily we can be influenced by even the cheesiest tchotchkes. A study conducted with third- and fourth-year medical students indicated that even small gifts -- clipboards and notebooks -- had a measurable impact on how the students viewed competing drugs.

Thanks to humans' astonishing capacity for self-delusion, most of us are sure that we wouldn't be influenced by such gifts, even though they might be. The solution, I said then (and still think now), is to get rid of them all.

Now if a $0.50 pen or a $2.00 clipboard can have an effect on your attitudes and behavior, what do you think a $60,000 visit to Australia might do?

Yeah, that's what I'm thinking.

For a couple of months now, I've been following a story on inquiries into trips offered by the "Pearson Foundation", the not-for-profit arm of Pearson Education, the big publisher. In October, the New York Times' Michael Winerip wrote about trips that state education commissioners have taken to various countries to "get ideas for improving American public schools" ... and to meet with senior Pearson officials. In late December, the Times' Winnie Hu reported that New York's attorney general Eric Schneiderman is investigating whether the Pearson Foundation "acted improperly to influence state education officials by paying for overseas trips and other perks." And yesterday, Winerip showed that it's not just the state commissioners who have benefited from the Pearson Foundation's interest, but even some local school superintendents, too.

According to Winerip's account, six months after a Kentucky school superintendent took a Pearson trip to Australia "to exchange ideas on creating schools for the 21st century" (and to admire the kangaroos in Canberra!), she was voting on which of three companies should win the bidding to run the Kentucky state testing program. Even though CTB/McGraw-Hill submitted the lowest bid (and not by a few dollars either, but by $2.5 million), the committee recommended .... Pearson!

Are you surprised? Me, neither.

According to Mark Nieker, president of the Pearson Foundation, "It just is not true that the Foundation’s support of conferences attended by education officials has the purpose of helping Pearson corporate to win contracts."

Instead, he insists, the purpose of the Pearson Foundation-sponsored trips (oops, I almost said "junkets"!), is part of the foundation's "long-term commitment to foster a productive dialogue between education leaders from the United States and some of the world’s best-performing and most improving school systems."

And you know what? I bet he believes that.

Just as I'll bet that the Kentucky school superintendent honestly believes that her trip to Australia didn't influence her decision on the school-testing bid.

But -- given that nasty little self-delusion thing -- that doesn't mean that what they believe is true.

In previous lives, I've worked on both sides of the aisle. As a car-company employee, I would receive "Christmas baskets" and the like from suppliers. Did it make me feel friendlier towards them? At the time, I'm sure I would have said, "Of course not," in an affronted tone. But in retrospect... I'm not so sure.

On the other side of the aisle, working for advertising agencies and research suppliers and consulting firms, I'd make those little gifts. I enjoyed taking a client out to lunch, and making it clear that we appreciated their business. But would I have done it if I thought it wouldn't help us get more business from that client in the future? Again, at the time, I'd have been insulted by the question. In retrospect....

Winerip quotes the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators -- through whom the Australia trip was organized -- as saying that the group would no longer go on Pearson trips: "Given the climate in public education today, we won’t go on trips."

I don't think it's the "climate" that should make him re-think the trips policy. I think it's the ethics.