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Facebook/Michael E Mobile Sound

Why is this Amazon customer/reviewer so powerful?

Michael Erb approaches reviews like a job – now companies send him products for free in the hope that he’ll notice them.

AMAZON’S CUSTOMER REVIEWS can make or break products. And Michael Erb is the most influential critic of them all.

NPR’s Planet Money took a look at Amazon’s No.1 reviewer, username “M. Erb,” and found that he approaches his reviews like a job. He’s spent years cranking out two or three reviews every day, and writes about practically anything, from speakers to telescopes to exfoliating facial wipes.

That Erb – from Syracuse, New York – is the “number one reviewer” does not mean that he has written the most testimonials. It’s not even based solely on the percentage of helpful reviews or the number of “fans” who regularly upvote his critiques. Amazon has instead developed an algorithm (that no reviewer really understands) that is based on consistency, helpfulness, and quality.

Erb’s writing is clearly not professional, but it goes into intricate detail for even the most mundane products. He often provides video demonstrations of products in his reviews, as well.

Here’s an excerpt from his review of a cardboard box:

It works and I particularly like that the top flaps stay open while you pack the box because there are very small cardboard connections between the flaps that hold them open until you’re ready to close it up at which time you simply and easily tear the strip to allow you to close the flaps.

The money that Erb earns as a web developer and wedding DJ can’t pay for this constant stream of products, which are often more exciting and expensive than an empty box. Not only do manufacturers send him their latest products in hopes of getting exposure, but Amazon has developed a complex incentive system that turns ordinary people into extraordinary marketing machines.

Amazon has an invitation-only “Vine” club for a small percentage of elite reviewers. On the third Thursday of every month, Amazon sends their “Vine voices” a list of products from which they can select two products to review. The next week, they can select another two from the leftover items.

Amazon retains the right to the products, but reviewers can keep them as long as they provide a review for them within 30 days. Erb has never had to send anything back, by the way.

To find out more about the intensely competitive network of reviewers who serve as Amazon’s unpaid advertising force, and how they influence purchasing decisions around the world, check out Planet Money’s podcast here.

- Richard Feloni

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