As soon as Bell Canada launched a new version of a phone app last week, the response online was electric; it quickly garnered glowing, five-star reviews on Apple's iTunes App Store.
CBC News has learned that some of those rave reviews were planted. Possibly half a dozen or more were written by Bell Canada employees – many in senior positions – none of whom disclosed their affiliation with the company.
The employee reviews were first uncovered by Scott Stratten, president of UnMarketing, a company that writes about unethical marketing tactics. Stratten is also a long-time Bell phone customer.
He said he first noticed something was amiss when the latest version of the MyBell Mobile app was flooded with amazing reviews shortly after it was launched last week.
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“All were overwhelmingly excited about this app that allowed you to pay your bill, check your usage, not something I thought would excite people at all,” Stratten said.
He also thought some of words used were suspicious. For example, S Saade wrote: "Excellent new app. Looking forward to updates with residential services."
"Just words that you do not say in real life," Stratten said.
'It just erodes some brand trust' - UnMarketing president Scott Stratten
He began cross-checking reviewers’ user names with LinkedIn profiles where people list their work status. What he discovered intrigued him.
For example, on Nov. 17, reviewer Tori Brown wrote: “Awesome app! Love it!”
Stratten found a Tori Brown on LinkedIn who says she’s a senior project manager at Bell.
The same day, someone named Mike McEnery, also added his ecstatic review about the Bell app: "Works great … makes it so easy now to check my profile and pay my bill … Nice clean design and very user friendly!"
Turns out there’s a Michael McEnery on LinkedIn who works as an associate director at Bell.
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Shel Ender wrote about the app: "Nice upgrade, easy to use. Was able to manage my bills with no problems."
Another reviewer, with the user name, Shelender68, posted: "All round great app! Very fast and responsive."
CBC News also discovered that Shelender68 wrote the exact same review on the very same day for a new Virgin Mobile app. Virgin is a division of Bell Mobility.
Stratten found a Shelender Awasthi on LinkedIn. His profile states he’s an operational effectiveness manager with Bell.
And that S Saade who wrote about residential services? On LinkedIn, Saad Saade says he’s vice-president of IT Bell Mobility.
"It's just a bunch of malarkey. It would be like me going on Amazon and reviewing [my] new book,” Stratten said.
'It's just a bunch of malarkey.' - Scott Stratten, UnMarketing
He adds that the online peer-reviewed concept is based on trust. "You've got to trust the reviews that they're impartial, that they're from other users and that they're true. And that's exactly why something like this shouldn't happen."
Bell fesses up
Bell Canada agrees it shouldn’t happen. In an email to CBC, Paolo Pasquini, Bell's director of communications wrote: "The postings were the result of an overzealous effort on the part of our service team to highlight the app. It’s certainly not Bell’s practice to encourage employees to rate our products, and we’re sending a clear message out to the team to that effect."
Even after admitting wrongdoing, the reviews that Stratten called into question were still prominently featured on the iTunes site, available for any unsuspecting consumer to read.
Bell would not directly confirm if all the people Stratten linked to Bell are indeed the employees who posted positive reviews, but its comments to CBC imply as much. CBC News also reached out to the employees on LinkedIn but, at the time of publication, had not received any responses.
CBC News asked Bell if any staff members had ever before written positive reviews about a company product online without disclosing their affiliation. The company did not respond.
"It really speaks, I think, to Bell's lack of respect for their own customers that they would do something like this," said David Christopher, who is with the internet watchdog group OpenMedia.
Christopher said the company needs to make amends for staff planting reviews and trying to boost the status of a Bell product in the app store.
"It's independent app developers who put a lot time and effort into their work who are losing out as a result. So they owe an apology to those app developers and they owe an apology to their own customers," Christopher said.
Stratten said Bell employees didn’t need to stack the site with enthusiastic reviews because the app is a good product: "I actually like it," he admits, adding that he finds it useful. But, he says, that doesn’t absolve the fact that staff duped customers: "It just erodes some brand trust."