The Problem with Rewards in Return for Testimonials

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I love Smartwool. I’m actually wearing a Smartwool shirt and Smartwool socks right now. If Smartwool wanted me to write a testimonial, all they would have to do is ask, to say “Hey, we want some killer testimonials for our website, will you help us out?” That’s not what they did.

Instead, what they did is they wrote to people who are on their “pro deal” list. I don’t get pro deals from Smartwool, but for reasons not worth explaining, I got their email, which opened with this appeal:

You’ve been receiving killer deals on great SmartWool gear. Now it’s time to return the favor. We need you, our pros, to share the wool with the world. The submitters of the TEN BEST Testimonials (with photos) will each win a pair of Spring Gloves!

I recently wrote about how Dan Ariely says that you must not mix social norms and market norms. Within social norms, reciprocation is important, but you have to be careful not to turn it into a transaction. Once you’ve said “If you do this for me, I’ll do this for you,” you’ve essentially entered into a market exchange. Now that you’ve entered into an exchange, the question you naturally ask, is “Is this a good deal for me?” My first reaction to this come-on was “No.”

Why? The Smartwool appeal starts out by explicitly trying not just to obligate me, but by literally saying: “We did this for you, and now you have to do do this for us and this is how much we’ll pay you.” So they set it up as an exchange. But that’s a deal made after the fact — the original deal was they give pros great deals and pros who love the stuff naturally tell their clients that they are the most comfortable articles of outdoor clothing they’ve every worn (which they are). Then they get to my “pay” and when I saw the offer from Smartwool, my first thought was “All I get for giving one of the ten best Testimonials (with photos!) is a pair of wool gloves?” I mean, the best writing skills out of thousands of people is worth a $30 pair of gloves?

Turns out the gloves sell for $70, but it was too late by the time I read that. For not much more money, they could have offered any one product except the Banff jacket and their worst case payout would have been a $130 product. I personally would have taken a $70 or $90 shirt. More importantly, though, it was just wrong-headed to approach it this way.

What should they have done? I would propose something like this:

Do you love Smartwool products? We need our Smartwool pros to go to our website and leave testimonials and tell the world how great Smartwool products are. Please take a minute and go to our website and leave a testimonial.

Does that work better? It could be hipper or funnier, but I think this is an improvement because if I break it down, here’s how I read it:

  • love Smartwool” — you don’t want anyone else leaving testimonials anyway, right?
  • “We need our Smartwool pros” — i.e. we have a relationship, we’ve done something for you; invoke the reciprocity principle, but without turning it into a commercial exchange.
  • “Please” — remember, this is a social norm, not a market norm, so we ask for a favor, we don’t offer a bribe.
  • “take a minute” — this will be easy. We’re not asking for much considering that your one of our pros.
  • “go to our website and leave a testimonial” — tell people what you want them to do. It’s the best way to get them to do it!

Maybe I flatter myself to think I can do better. They have, after all, gotten a lot of testimonials, but they didn’t get mine. Assuming I’m right, it saddens me to see an amazing company like Smartwool shoot themselves in the foot like that. I give testimonials all the time to Amazon Marketplace sellers simply for the asking, and I don’t love those products. I love Smartwool products and would happily give them a testimonial, but I couldn’t help but think “Is that all they’re offering?”

And by the way, go buy some Smartwool stuff. If you do outdoor sports, I’m confident it will be your favorite shirt, socks or whatever. It really is that good and I’m happy to say so here without any reward whatsoever.

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