One of Amazon's Best Marketing Tool Revealed: the Vine Program

Amazon-New-Detail-Page (Photo credit: kokogiak)
Der Loyalitätskreislauf (Marketing, E-Marketing)
Der Loyalitätskreislauf (Marketing, E-Marketing) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Amazon's Vine Program is a truly amazing marketing tool and perhaps it works so well because it is (relatively) discreet. It's simply brilliant: it takes advantage of our human compulsion to compete - we all love to come out first! - and of our distrust of traditional paid advertising. It harnesses the power of independent customer reviews and unashamedly turns it to its own advantage - but then, why shouldn't it? Amazon has thought it out and fine-tuned it, so why not reap the benefits? I can't think of any other online vendor who has constructed such a sophisticated marketing tool.

So what's it about? Amazon's own presentation of the Vine Program is not easy to find in the site and it turns up in relation to reviews made by people who participate in the program. Under their name when they review a product - and it can be anything from an electronic gadget to a book - appears in blue letters a little sign which reads "Vine™ Voice" plus sometimes an explanation which says Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program. That's where you get a chance to click on a "what's this" box that will take you to a full explanation. Here's the link:

Take a look and then come back, I'm waiting for you, I've got more on this. You'll learn that this is a program you can't join unless you've first earned a high ranking as a reviewer - yes, this is where the competition comes in! To review for Amazon is fun (and a competitive activity!) and they actually encourage you to review the products you've bought. Also the Vine Program is by invitation only - meaning Amazon invites you on the basis of your ranking which is determined by what other people think of your reviews. Have you noticed that little sentence above reviews which says "x number of y people have found the following review helpful"? Indeed, you're encouraged to click to indicate whether you agree with the review. Just take a look, you'll see a lot of people do that sort of clicking. 

Of course, Amazon is not naive and is well aware that some people may game the system and get their friends to click approval of their reviews. So they take that into account through some sort of algorithm that levels the playing field. How that's done I don't know, they won't say but I'm quite sure it works - also to improve your ranking, you'd have to obtain "votes of approval" for your reviews from thousands of "friends", something that's obviously impossible. I believe it is fair to say that the Vine Program has only "trusted" reviewers - which is of course the Amazon goal for the program.

A Vine Program reviewer doesn't make money being a reviewer, he simply earns "badges". There are all sorts of badges: for belonging to the top 1000 reviewers, top 500, top 100, top 50, top 10, for being the first. Yes, it's highly competitive! And you can even earn a badge which reads "real name" and is put under your reviewer's name (I'm not quite sure why but it does sound positive). So what Amazon does with all these badges is - yes, you guessed it - encourage competition. Keep it up, you guys!

But there is a small material advantage in belonging to the Vine Program: they get for free the products they review and for books that means ARCs (Advanced Review Copies). So they're not like the rest of us who whenever we review a product we buy it first and then earn a "Amazon Verified Purchase" button next to our review. They don't because Amazon sends them the products obtained from the publishers, labels, studios, manufacturers or any vendor participating in the program. But they're not obliged to publish positive reviews, they can write whatever they want. This is something that Amazon insists on, they are left entirely free to evaluate the products as they wish. I checked a few out and yes, I can vouch that they actually do. A Vine Program reviewer is just as likely as anyone else to produce a negative review, but since they've earned so much trust from other customers, it is obvious that their reviews carry more weight.

What is perhaps a little strange is that the reviews from Vine Program members aren't necessarily longer or more in-depth than the average. Indeed, they can be as short as a couple of sentences that "skim the surface" of the product - that is especially true for books. I noticed some really shallow 5 star reviews for books that deserved better coverage (I won't name names, but I assure you they exist). But then, I noticed these particular Vine™ Voices weren't specialized in reviewing books. Looking at their profile, I found they reviewed all sorts of other things from electronic gadgets to pick up bags for dog poop. Presumably they weren't avid book readers, but overall, they had gained enough support from fellow customers to join the ranks of the Vine Program. 

Indeed, Amazon tries to enroll in the program reviewers that are popular - and of course, over time, reviewers tend to achieve a status of "near-specialist" because of their knowledge and continued interest in certain types of products. On a side note: reviewers that achieve high rankings are not necessarily book reviewers, on the contrary. For example, the last time I looked, among the top ten program reviewers only one was specialized in reviewing books!

However that's not what makes it such a marvelous marketing tool. The real beauty is that Amazon can schedule the customer reviews: some reviews come out in the pre-launching period of a product and for books in particular, this is very important. For example, Paul Auster is coming out on 21 August with a new book published by Henry Holt and Company, Winter Journal.  At the time of writing (15 August), it has already obtained 17 reviews, all of them Vine™ Voices.
English: Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book...
Paul Auster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, of course Paul Auster is the kind of author who automatically gets good editorial reviews from the likes of Booklist, Publishers'Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal. So what is the effect of Vine reviews compared to the industry standards? Hard to say, but some of those Vine™ Voices have a large following. They are people who have done upwards of two to three thousand reviews. Three were classified in the "top 500 reviewers" and one in the top one thousand. What does it mean? Well, take one reviewer who's ranked 121 - he has garnered 6159 "helpful votes". His reviews have been read by many more people of course, but that number was sufficiently impressed to click the helpful vote button. Not bad...Multiply that by 16, and you get a nice core of some 100,000 people who have manifested interest, and all of that even before the book comes out! Consider also that the reviews were nicely varied, from 5 to 2 stars. Yes, even one 2 star review and pretty damning too, saying "Sorry, this just didn't work for me. It was boring and embarrassing to read". But there was no one star review. This leaves the overall average at a good, rounded 4 star level - which adds to the feeling of trust. This looks (and I'm quite sure it is) very genuine, free of any undue pressure.

Also, in the fragile, initial period, sales of a product can be sustained with a trickle of reviews from the Vine Program or if sales flag, they can be boosted. It is interesting to see how the reviews from Vine™ Voices  pop up at fairly regular intervals to sustain the book sales of Amazon imprints, ensuring that they don't gather dust on their digital shelves.

Yes, if you're published by an Amazon imprint, whether Thomas Mercer (mysteries), AmazonEncore (out of print and self-published), AmazonCrossing (translated books),Montlake Romance or 47 North (sci-fi, fantasy, horror), you are supported by the impressive Amazon online marketing toolkit, including the little known but incredibly effective Vine Program. 

This is a book promotion tool traditional publishers are  probably drooling over...But they can use Amazon's marketing toolkit to their advantage too, right? That's certain what Henry Holt has done!

What's in it for self-published authors, you may well ask. For the moment, not much. You can try to contact a Vine reviewer, but you're not likely to get far - if any of you has managed it, please let us know how you did it!

I do believe however that Amazon could do something with the Vine Program in the area of self-published books. It could be systematically used to try and identify the "better" books. I know Amazon is already trying to do that through a competition run from its Create Space platform, to identify the "breakthrough" novel. That's a good idea, but surely more could be done, in particular through expanding and strengthening the Vine Program...Your opinion?