Online reviews: know the rules

Is your practice considering offering incentives for online reviews? If so, you’ll want to pay special attention to this article. Even giving a patient a simple Starbucks card in exchange for a review on Yelp can get your practice listed as a suspicious business and elicit the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). To make matters worse, imagine your practice ending up on a television news program with commentary about your inappropriate motives.

TechnologyThis is the predicament an urgent care center faced recently. A patient shared that he was approached by the care center and asked for a positive review in exchange for a Starbucks gift card. The patient reported that he was in the urgent care center after a stressful accident and was very disturbed that the center asked him for a review rather than a follow-up on his condition.

Yelp’s policies state that once it receives word about this type of activity, it may list your business as suspicious and will take measures to protect people from attempts to mislead them. Not only did the urgent care center get Yelp’s attention, the FTC also launched an investigation for possible violation of federal truth-in-advertising standards.

Many practices are unaware of the policies and terms of review sites. Now is a great time to familiarize yourself with the “dos and don’ts” when it comes to inviting online reviews. In September of 2015, Vince Sollitto, senior vice president of Yelp Corporate Communications and Public Affairs said, “Yelp is just as committed to protecting the integrity of our content and we are constantly learning and improving our mechanisms to detect suspicious behavior. Today we are protecting consumers (and businesses who play by the rules) by taking additional measures to shut down attempts at review manipulation.” Take time to read the terms of service for review sites like Yelp or Google. You’ll see they have stringent policies on soliciting reviews, and none endorse incentives for reviews.

The FTC has guides with regard to incentives for reviews and testimonials. For example, you may have noticed that television infomercials state, “The program you are about to view contains paid endorsements.” Disclaimers such as this one are also required for incentives for online reviews. However, it’s not feasible to easily and clearly show there was inducement offered in exchange for online reviews. And again, this is also in violation of most sites’ terms of service, so therein lies the predicament.

What if you are not offering a gift card, but instead you are offering $50 off a patient’s next visit? Or how about offering to enter patients into a drawing for a prize after leaving a review for your practice? These, too, are considered violations. No matter the incentive type, whether it is a contest prize or credit toward treatment, all are inappropriate and violations of most review sites’ terms of service and FTC guides.

So what is permitted, not to mention ethical and tasteful, when it comes to inviting reviews? There are several options. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Option 1: Have conversations with your patients. Ask them, “How did we do today?” at the end of every appointment. Give your patients an opportunity to share a compliment with you. Always acknowledge the compliment first. For example, you could politely say, “Thank you. That is what we love to hear! And I know it would make Dr. Smith’s day if you’d be willing to share your thoughts on your favorite social media site.”
  • Option 2: Leverage patient engagement systems. Patient engagement systems typically offer a variety of features and — most importantly — automated surveys for patients after appointments. Survey results and reviews collected from these systems are available for other patients to view on practice websites and microsites (secondary websites created by the patient engagement system provider) and can often be connected to share on social media platforms as well. Caution — remember to do a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act security risk analysis around any electronic technology that may involve patient information, even demographic information (such as names and phone numbers).
  • Option 3: Let technology work for you. Additional tools include options to text your patients for reviews while they are in your practice. Such services are used in conjunction with patient engagement systems to offer another level of options for patients. Caution — remember to do a HIPAA security risk analysis around any electronic technology that may involve patient information, even demographic information (such as names and phone numbers). Also make certain that your texting service complies with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Of course, there are many other options as well — too many to list here — so stay tuned for additional tips and updates in the future. In the meantime, you may also consider the old-fashioned method used to motivate positive word of mouth that does not require technology of any kind, which is to simply delight your patients.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Dental Practice Success. It was written by Rita Zamora. Ms. Zamora and her team provide highly customized social media marketing services for general dentists and specialists. Since 2008, they’ve worked with hundreds of dental professionals all over the world to train them in authentic and valuable online interactions. Learn more at RitaZamora.com.

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