With the recent announcement that Amazon is banning incentivized reviews, many people are wondering about the single alternative Amazon has left open: Amazon Vine.
Amazon Vine has been around for a while, but has always remained somewhat out-of-reach for everyday third-party sellers. Now, however, it’s come into the spotlight as the only remaining way to obtain the once-ubiquitous incentivized reviews that so many Amazon sellers held close to their hearts.
With Vine being the only (legitimate) way to generate incentivized reviews these days, many sellers are ready to fight tooth and nail to gain admission to the program. We’re here to caution against that — Vine is only available to a particular group of Amazon sellers, and gaining eligibility comes at a huge cost.
We’re also going to take a look at the bigger picture: what Amazon’s policy change means for the marketplace moving forward, and why we think that opening up Amazon Vine to all sellers might be a good move for Amazon. We think that their ban might actually cause reviews to be more chaotic and dishonest, creating more distrust as a result.
What is Vine?
Amazon Vine was launched in 2007, and it’s basically Amazon’s internal source for generating incentivized reviews. It’s similar to the “review clubs” many sellers were familiar with before the ban, with a few key differences that we’ll go into later.
Basically, Amazon directly invites reviewers who have a high percentage of ‘Helpful’ votes to become ‘Vine Voices.’ It’s important to note that this direct invite is the only way to join Vine as a reviewer.
Vine Voices, once they’re admitted, can select free or discounted products from a list provided by Amazon. In return, they must post a review, either positive or negative, within 30 days of receiving the product. Those reviews, once posted, have a ‘Vine Voice’ badge visible to anyone.
To gain access to these Vine reviews, Vendors pay a fee ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 per ASIN. Once that fee is paid, they can offer up to 15–100 items for promotion, depending on the category. While it’s a steep up-front price, Vendors almost always feel it’s worth it in the long run — it’s a one-time investment that will pay out manyfold over time.
Amazon Vine, as you might expect, isn’t just any run-of-the-mill review club. First of all, the Vendors have no control over which Vine Voices claim their offers and review their products. Plus, Amazon curates the Vine community based on their own metrics, paying no attention to ratios of positive to negative reviews — unlike some review clubs, who would ban reviewers for leaving too many negative reviews.
How Do I Join Vine?
Here’s the rub: you must be a Vendor to take advantage of Amazon Vine.
Regular third-party sellers, even those who use FBA, cannot receive Vine reviews unless they also join the Vendor program.
There are two ways to become a Vendor:
- Accept an Amazon invitation to become a Vendor.
- Sign up for the Vendor Express program.
However, before you start furiously typing up your application, ask yourself if you really want to become a Vendor. Here’s what it entails — and just so you know, we don’t recommend it.
What It Means to Be a Vendor
Basically, you hand all the controls over to Amazon.
That might sound a bit dramatic, but that’s more or less what it means to be a Vendor. You are no longer the final seller of your goods on Amazon — instead, you become a sort of supplier. As a Vendor, you sell your product to Amazon, and they take over everything else. Pricing, marketing, listing content, keyword optimization — everything.
Vendor Express is basically only a good idea if you’re a relatively new seller with a promising product line, but not much experience selling on the Amazon marketplace. For most other third-party sellers, relinquishing that much control is a very steep price to pay — too steep, in our opinion.
However, every business is different, and you might decide that Vendor Express is the right choice for you. At the very least, you should think long and hard about how much you value control over your business, and whether becoming a Vendor is worth it in the long run.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
So, you can probably see the problem.
On the one hand, you could remain a third-party seller, losing access to incentivized reviews, but maintaining control over every other aspect of your business. On the other hand, you could become a Vendor, gaining access to the Vine program, but handing the keys to Amazon and losing most control over your business’s future as a result.
It looks like, for the time being, most sellers will choose the first option. We'll just have to take the hit — incentivized reviews aren’t worth losing all authority over your business.
Is that conclusion really satisfying, though? We don’t think so.
Incentivized reviews were a very important part of many Amazon businesses. They were a vital solution to the “cold-start problem,” and were one of the only tools available private-label sellers for successfully launching new products.
It’s already clear that a huge number of sellers are extremely displeased with these changes. If Amazon doesn’t do a good enough job policing this new state of affairs, the marketplace could tumble into an even more chaotic state — unless they offer a new solution, in the form of Amazon Vine.
Sellers are angry. We knew they would be from the moment the announcement was released, and evidence is already popping up everywhere.
For example, this petition to reinstate incentivized reviews and third-party review clubs has close to 3,500 signatures (at time of writing), and many similar petitions have shown up all over the place.
However, we at Efficient Era think that this is the wrong way of looking at the problem. Instead, we believe that Amazon should make Vine accessible to third-party sellers.
First of all, reinstating review clubs wouldn’t address the problem of bias — in fact, it would worsen it to pre-ban levels. Many third-party review clubs were notorious for generating incentivized reviews with a positive bias, even though they weren’t technically violating Amazon policy. Here are some examples:
- They would let sellers pick their reviewers, meaning reviewers had an incentive to leave more positive reviews in order to get selected more often.
- The wording of their instructions often encouraged leaving positive reviews, even if they never explicitly told reviewers to do so.
- Some clubs would ban reviewers if they left too many negative reviews.
Now, not all incentivized reviews came from these dubious review clubs. Some sellers sent out free or discounted products on their own terms, and never tried to push a positive bias towards the reviews. However, we can’t go as far as to say that these incentivized reviews are totally bias-free — the data doesn’t lie.
The data in question was collected and analyzed in this study by ReviewMeta. They found that, on average, incentivized reviews were 0.4 stars higher than non-incentivized reviews — a difference which could push a product from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile of average star rating.
All of these facts suggest that incentivized reviews were unhealthy for the Amazon marketplace. However, the straw that broke Amazon’s back was simple — customer dissatisfaction. The truth behind incentivized reviews began to rear its ugly head, and the public was noticing. Amazon values their customers over all else, so once incentivized reviews entered into the public eye, they had no choice but to ban them.
Here’s the thing, though: banning incentivized reviews has left a huge vacuum for third-party sellers. This might prove even more dangerous than review clubs ever did.
The Incentivized Review Vacuum
Banning incentivized reviews might be better for marketplace health, but it removes the only solution that third-party sellers had to the cold-start problem.
You’ve almost definitely faced the cold-start problem if you’re a private label seller. Products with no reviews don’t sell, and products that don’t sell get no reviews. It’s as simple as that. Incentivized reviews, when used prudently, were a way to get a new product over that initial gap to start selling and generating organic reviews. Now, they’re gone.
Sellers will be looking for new solutions to the cold-start problem. Some, as mentioned before, are petitioning Amazon, but we don’t expect that to be very successful. Others, however, are starting new review clubs; this time, they’re even more manipulative than ever.
As an example, one review club is trying to circumvent Amazon’s discount-review detection by telling sellers to lower their sale price to coupon-code levels for 1 hour, letting the reviewer buy the item at a massively lowered “full price," which would quickly return to normal. Then, they could (theoretically) write a 'Verified Purchase' review, with no one being the wiser of its incentivized nature.
As you can see, Amazon has their work cut out for them if they want to purge incentivized reviews completely. They will have to perform rigorous and strict policing on every loophole imaginable, shutting down one rule-breaker while two more pop back up in his place. It could turn into the world’s biggest game of Whack-A-Mole, with chaotic results.
This policing could easily go wrong. You could imagine Amazon trying to shut down the sale-price-lowering review club by banning “excessive” changes to listing price. As a result, however, they might break totally legitimate tools like Splitly, who rely on price changing for their A/B testing software. It could turn into a dangerous downward spiral.
The Solution? Third-Party Vine Access
With the vacuum they’ve created, Amazon is inviting malicious actors — review clubs and sellers alike — to fill the void with underhanded techniques and exploitative tools. Instead of trying to constantly kick everyone out, Amazon simply needs to be the one to fill the void.
The way to do that? Offer Vine access to third-party sellers.
Now, third-party Vine would not be a perfect solution in the eyes of many sellers. It’s expensive, and there are many limits on the types and number of reviews sellers can get. However, it would be a legitimate avenue — one that, hopefully, enough sellers would use to dissuade illegitimate review clubs from polluting the marketplace.
Many sellers are desperate for the benefits that incentivized reviews used to provide. If there truly are no legitimate options available to them, they might resort to under-the-table methods — creating more even chaos and customer mistrust on the marketplace.
However, we believe that there are a lot of sellers out there who want to stay in Amazon’s good graces, but also value the utility of incentivized reviews. As a result, third-party Vine access would be a good middle ground. Hopefully, it would also stem the tide of illegitimate reviews and the chaos that would come with it.
Sellers shouldn’t petition for the reinstitution of incentivized reviews. Instead, they should petition for Amazon to open the Vine program to third-party sellers. We believe this action would reduce the potential for chaos in the Amazon marketplace, while also satisfying honest third-party sellers who want a solution to the cold-start problem.
It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would set Amazon up to be a much healthier marketplace than the one it’s currently projected to be.
What do you think? Would allowing third-party access to Vine be an adequate solution to the review problem? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.