Amazons Black Market of Review Strategies

How Large Amazon Sellers Growth Hack Their Sales

On October 3rd, 2016, Amazon cleared the table for all players.

❌ – No incentivized reviews

No more asking for reviews in exchange for something.

Hundreds of thousands of incentivized reviews were deleted overnight.

For better or worse, the playing field was finally level again. In the long run, whoever has the competitive advantage will win. We had to figure out a way to get the upper hand without breaking the rules.

This is the story of a $10+ million Amazon growth strategy.

If you want to play in the big leagues, you have to use this strategy. In the most competitive categories, all the top sellers are already doing this in some shape or form. You might even have to bend some rules, but the truth is, if you aren’t doing it– your competition will.


Most Amazon customers don’t know it, but there’s an underground world of review trading going on. And it makes total sense.

If you invest money and get reviews out of it, then your reviews make more money. So you reinvest it.

Reviews is a billion dollar problem. I mean, if you think about it, the core of Amazon’s business is based on reviews. So it’s more like a trillion dollar problem.

Companies like AMZ Review Trader would give sellers a marketplace to exchange free products for reviews. The companies with the most capital could just exchange inventory for reviews.

Then on October 3rd, 2016– these companies lost it all.

Within the next month I started working with one of these companies who had lost the majority of their reviews. We were able to experiment with dozens of products across multiple brands.

You can usually find these two Natrogix products in the top 5-10 results for “essential oils”.

I’m going to tell you our methods for collecting over 12k reviews without breaking Amazon’s TOS.

ValueLink Corp

ValueLink Corp. is what I would call an Amazon factory. Located on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China. 

Shenzhen is where 90% of the world’s electronics are manufactured. In in 1980s, Shenzhen was a small fishing town with a population of around 30,000. In 2020, it’s past 12 million. If you combined all of the surrounding cities such as Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou, it’s estimated up to 100 million people.

Longgang District is where most of the manufacturing goes down. Huawei is in Longgang, so is Foxcon where iPhones are made. These factories offer shared dorms where most employees live. Some of them string suicide nets around the buildings. 

Con Air, the blow dryer company, is located right across the street from Valuelink.

Or as we liked to call it, Big Blue.

I would have probably never worked here if I had to come straight from the US. But they got the foreigners a nice office in a tech park closer to downtown. We even got to live in a community called SoFunLand.

About five months later they let go most of the foreigners in the software division, and closed the nice office. They wanted our small team to come out to the Longgang office every day.

That was a 45 minute commute for about a month until they got us a nice apartment close by the factory.

On the outside, Valuelink resembles all the other factories. On the inside, they took out all the conveyer belts and replaced them with computers.

Though they sell hundreds of products, none of them are made here.

Aside from the software division, this factory is mostly Amazon sales and marketing.


Apple Quality

For some reason, going to China and selling sex toys sounded like the right thing to do.

The team that invited me was currently rebranding a failed adult toy brand. 

We made things classier. Starting with renaming it Lyps. Then we improved the whole experience. It used to just come in clear shrink wrap. We put it in a well crafted box, supported by black velvet. Along with a black velvet carrying case. Also, an educational booklet.

This was not a very Chinese way of doing things. The Chinese are generally looking to go as cheap on materials as possible. Especially the packaging. I guess you could say that’s true with most companies. But that’s what sets high quality companies apart.

This was one thing our team understood well– the secret is to go as high-quality on the experience as possible. Getting Apple quality packaging in China isn’t going to ruin your profit margins. What it will do is help you get 5-star reviews.

Your packaging will likely be the first interaction a customer has with your brand. It needs to set the tone, and be consistent with the quality of your product.

Same goes for your website. That’s why load speed is so important. If your website is slow, ugly, or buggy– in the back of their minds, people are going to perceive your entire brand that way.

Same goes for every touch point. The experience needs to be better than your competitors.


Lyps was seeing so much success that they asked me to take on more brands. 

My primary job was to find a way to increase Amazon sales through our websites.

At the time, we were experimenting with collecting emails through free e-books, blog posts, and advertisements.

I didn’t want to put too much on my plate. So for the time being, I agreed to take on just one more brand– Natrogix. Their supplement products lost thousands of reviews that fateful day.

Natrogix Before the Re-Brand

October 3rd leveled the playing field. Everybody was left scratching their heads wondering how they were going to get reviews now. When the stakes are that high, surely you can’t just depend on luck? A competitive advantage is the only strategy you can depend on.

That means we need a dependable way to get reviews.

Competitive Advantage

The formula is simple.

  1. Collect the buyer’s email
  2. Collect reviews
  3. Increase Lifetime Customer Value (LTV)

Create the kind of experiences that makes someone loyal to your brand. Instead of incentivizing them to leave a review, incentivize them to trade their email address. Then we can start a relationship.

This gives you the ability to ask for a review any time, and it also gives you the ability to make them a 2nd time buyer. Or perhaps a lifetime customer.

Amazon is a black box, so any way we can make direct contact with the customer is a huge win.

How to Get an Amazon Customer’s Contact Info

Insert Cards

The secret is to include an insert card with the product. The problem is that the lines are a bit grey with this strategy.

The higher the risk, the higher the reward. But the risk is getting suspended or banned by Amazon. So we have to tread very carefully.

When the customer gets the product in the mail, they open it up, and this card has some sort of call to action.

The more vague the CTA, the safer you are from a ban.

Maybe say: Go to our website to claim a free gift.

Probably don’t say: Go to ourwebsite.com/amazon-reviews to get a free product X.

The more flexible your CTA, the easier it is to change if you run into issues.

Technically, you’re not supposed to have a CTA at all. No advertisements, marketing messages, special offers, call to actions, hyperlinks, URLs, or web addresses.

Amazon’s Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions:

“Attempts to divert transactions or buyers: Any attempt to circumvent the established Amazon sales process or to divert Amazon users to another website or sales process is prohibited. Specifically, any advertisements, marketing messages (special offers) or “calls to action” that lead, prompt, or encourage Amazon users to leave the Amazon website are prohibited. This may include the use of email or the inclusion of hyperlinks, URLs, or web addresses within any seller-generated confirmation email messages or any product/listing description fields.”

Technically, if Amazon wanted to, they could ban you for any of this.

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risk:

  1. The secret is to never require a review. Give a gift freely without conditions.
  2. Never try to take the customer away from Amazon. Keep your Amazon customers purchasing your product on Amazon, and there shouldn’t be a problem.
  3. Try not to piss anyone off. If Amazon thinks you’re stealing customers from the platform, they could ban you. If your competitors are out for bad blood, they might report you.
  4. Try to use this only on products that need the boost. Once your product starts doing well, the chances of a competitor reporting you skyrockets.
  5. Lastly, if you really want to make sure: You can report competitors anonymously who are using similar tactics and wait and see if Amazon does anything about it.

But even if you follow these rules, this is up to Amazon’s discretion.

It seems like they don’t actively search for companies breaking these rules, but if you piss them off, they don’t even need to explain why they ban you.

Why risk it?

Because if you really want Amazon to become a large sales channel, it will require thousands of reviews.


Our Free Gift Strategy

We had found some success collecting emails with insert cards offering free ebooks. But things really started getting crazy when we started giving away free products.

Not just free stickers or swag, but a real products for free, shipping included.

The idea is to blow the customer’s mind as much as possible.

Say you bought a box of essential oils–

  • It comes in the mail. It says claim a free gift at natrogix.com/free.
  • You go to the URL and it asks you for your Amazon email address.
  • You put it in, it confirms you purchased our product, then it takes you to an optional review form before claiming your free gift.
  • It stores the review on our database, then gives them an option of copy and pasting to Amazon in 2 clicks.

We never require them to do anything other than confirm their info. We just make it really easy for them to leave a review. 

We found that our generosity inspired them to paste their review to amazon 75% of the time.


Amazon’s API

Amazon’s API was the key to automating the system.

Using the API, we could confirm the customer’s email address. Amazon wouldn’t tell us the buyer’s email, but if we guessed it right, the API would confirm it.

This allowed us to automate the system, process bulk orders, and protect us from fraud.

The issue is– Amazon doesn’t allow you to do this anymore. Since the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, Amazon has been cutting down on what kind of data third party developers can access.

Amazon only opens these endpoints to select companies for special reasons. So it’s not impossible to do, but I think there are better alternatives.


Workarounds

The main reason we had to build a system to confirm they’d actually purchased the product was because sending somebody a free product is costly. We needed to make sure nobody was gaming the system.

The obvious solution seems to be giving away digital products that don’t cost us anything other than production.

Best Platforms:

  • Instagram
  • Youtube
  • iTunes & Spotify
  • Blog
  • Web Apps
  • Mobile Apps

The issue with giving away digital products, is that most people expect these things to be free. So unless it’s really good, it won’t as impressive as something physical.

If we’re going to give away physical products, we can take two routes:

  1. Make the cost so low that we don’t have to worry about people gaming the system
  2. Verify their purchase with some type of unique code, most likely a coupon code or Order ID. This is a bit more expensive to implement, but makes it easiest to track ROI.

If we go cheap:

  • Booklets
  • Stickers
  • Extended Warranties

If we go expensive:

  • Free products (likely under $10)
  • Free t-shirts

When you gift them free products, you get what you pay for.

Give them a lame keychain, and they’ll give you a 4 star review.

Give them a high quality t-shirt or product, and they’ll be a fan for life.

Coupon and Redemption Codes

The main problem with inserting a unique code into each box is that it’s calling a lot of attention. And if it gets you reported, there’s not much you can do to change the call to action.

The more layers of separation you put between asking for reviews and bribing the customer, the better. The review is the ultimate goal, but it’s more of a dance.

You can walk right up to the girl/guy and try to kiss them.

Or you can ask them to dance, and go for the kiss later.

The direct approach might get you more kisses upfront, but the latter will be more sustainable in the long run.


Educating the Customer

One thing Amazon shouldn’t have an issue with is if you insert educational material in the box, as long as it’s related to the product.

Think outside the box. Beyond just instruction manuals.

What is something this customer is probably interested in learning?

What kind of memorable experience could we provide through visual, written, audio, or video form?

Booklets, guides, and infographics are useful printouts.

Blogs and ebooks are good for written form.

Podcasts are good for audio.

Instagram and Youtube are good for video.

The nice thing about a blog is that it’s on your own platform.

The problem with a blog is that it’s on your own platform, and Amazon might not like that.

Third party platforms are probably the safer route, but are harder to track, and will probably generate less ROI.

Having a unique, easy to spell, and memorable handle will help you convert customers without needing to print URLs.

Collecting Emails

Instagram followers are great. But you know what’s better? Emails.

Eventually we want to seal the deal with the customer, and convert them to the family. This requires an email.

If you go the short route and take them straight to your website. This can be risky, but should generate the most ROI.

If you want to go the less direct route, we can convert customers to Instagram, Youtube, etc first. Then convert them to the website through these platforms.

Possible configurations:

[Amazon > Podcast > Website > Review]

[Amazon > Instagram > Website > Review]

[Amazon > Youtube > Podcast > Website > Review]

Once again, the path of least resistance is the most risky, but it will generate the most ROI.

[Amazon > Website > Review]

Manipulating Reviews

In this review collection process, you ask the customer to share their experience. It stores their review on your database. Then you ask them to share it on Amazon.

If the review is negative, it seems like the clever thing to do would to simply not ask them to share it to Amazon. This is a common tactic in reputation management.

But I wouldn’t recommend going down this route. If a competitor ends up reporting you, we don’t want to give Amazon a reason to think we’re manipulating the review score in any way.

“any attempt to manipulate reviews, including by directly or indirectly contributing false, misleading or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited.”

Amazon’s Terms of Service

Reverse Engineering the Competition

Turning someone into a lifetime customer isn’t a simple formula of giving them free things. You have to delight them in a way that your competitors don’t. You can’t just give them a free piece of junk.

If there was a magic formula, I’d say you simply have to give them more value than the competition.

The only way you can really figure that out is by getting your hands on your competitor’s products. Order them on Amazon. Then open them up and look for Call to Actions. Is there an insert card inside the box? Is there a sticker on the lid? Keep on eye on what they are doing.

Can I afford to compete?

One thing I learned while in China is that some companies will invest millions of dollars hoping that the product will pay off in Q4. That could mean giving away millions of dollars of free product to acquire thousands of reviews.

The investment works, so I can’t really see somebody with no capital being able to compete in major categories and keywords.

The good news is that I’ve only seen these tactics used in the most competitive categories– supplements, essential oils, sex toys, electronic accessories, etc.

I feel like there will always be smaller categories where nobody is doing this.

Conclusion

Amazon isn’t going anywhere, especially with Coronavirus breaking out in early 2020. People are going to continue to order more online and less in stores.

If you want to take advantage of Amazon as a growing market, you’re going to need a competitive advantage.

Review strategies may blur a gray line in Amazon’s TOS, but it’s more common than ever among top sellers. If you aren’t doing it, how are you going to compete?

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