When confronted with hundreds of search results for “cheap mattresses”, you’re unlikely to opt for one described as “lumpy”, “uncomfortable” or “has a chemical smell”.
The throwaway phrases one finds in online reviews have become hugely influential as the tendency to buy online grows. The due diligence once done in a shop can now be outsourced to other customers: in 2015 the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority estimated that about £23bn a year of consumer spending was potentially influenced by reviews.
One type of company that has cottoned on to the power of recommendations is the seller of the mattress-in-a-box. These online-only start-ups have proliferated since the first, Casper, launched in the US in 2014, and there are now at least six brands competing in the UK.
In a connected world, businesses that vie for customers’ attention need to build a reputation — ideally a good one, or one just good enough given the price. But social media has upturned traditional marketing, allowing subtler forms of advertising, including paid-for reviews, to muddy the water between consumer favourites and paid-for praise. Shoppers beware: what at first appears impartial might not be.
Mattress start-ups offer very similar things: a narrow range of mattresses priced at around £500, delivered to your door with a 100-night free trial. But the UK market is limited.
As a result, marketing costs are escalating in a “race for revenue”, says Joseph Barron, an analyst at Berenberg, as these companies strive to generate brand awareness and repeat customers (how often do you buy a mattress?).
For some, including Simba and Eve, escalating advertising costs have accompanied substantial losses. Amid “challenging” trading conditions, the two lossmaking companies recently called off a proposed merger.
One unexpected result of this marketing offensive has been the emergence of a cottage industry of mattress review websites.
These sites — which can appear high up in Google search results — bill themselves as useful tools for discerning consumers. But what is often less clear is that many are paid to drive sales. They are affiliate partners with mattress brands; they run promotions and take a cut of each sale made when a customer reads a review and clicks through to buy the product.
While money-off coupons are easy to spot, shoppers have to work harder to find the disclaimer pages that outline how affiliate relationships work.
A “Wild West” of mattress review sites has made it “difficult for customers to get an objective view,” says Benjamin Quiroga-Rivera, co-founder of mattress start-up Emma. (Emma has paid and unpaid affiliate partners, though Mr Quiroga-Rivera says newspaper reviews and Google Ads are more significant for driving sales.)
If a reviewer has been sent a product for free and is incentivised to help sell it, says Michal Szlas, chief executive of mattress start-up Otty, “what is the likelihood they will say it’s terrible?”
Affiliate sites often have “best for” rankings (light sleepers; durability; sex), but resoundingly negative comments, or ratings below “fair” or 3 stars, are hard to find. The lowest score on review site MattressNerd appears to be 4.4 out of 5. MattressNerd did not respond to a request for comment.
According to US-based review site Tuck Sleep, which has more than doubled its writing staff this year to around 25 and is still hiring, demand for reviews is growing. The commission Tuck earns per sale varies by mattress brand, but co-founder Bill Fish says this does not impact how the site ranks products. Unlike many sites, Tuck reviews include “cons”, such as “issues with customer service”.
More controversially, in 2017 Casper helped finance the takeover of review websites Sleepopolis, Slumbersage and MattressClarity. Casper declined to comment on this “live piece of business”, but Sleepopolis content director Logan Block says Casper has no editorial input.
Having affiliate relationships with “nearly every company whose products are reviewed on Sleepopolis” helps the site “maintain our own personal integrity and reduce financial bias,” reads the site’s small print. An identically worded disclaimer (bar the company name) can be found on other review sites, including ones promoting podcasts, hemp oil and CBD.
This caveat, however, does little to address concerns that reviewers have few incentives to write unfavourable comments, pulling their punches when faced with a poor product. Asked for an example of a “bad” review, Mr Block says he might, say, advise that a certain mattress may be too firm for light sleepers.
Power of influencers
Mattress start-ups have also embraced the world of so-called online “influencers” to generate clicks — individuals with online followings who advertise products on social media, often for a fee.
An influencer is “someone you wouldn’t know unless you follow them,” whose posts appear “as authentic as possible”, says 24-year-old Harry Hugo, founder of influencer agency Goat.
Search Twitter for mattress brands and you’ll find a huge number of gushing tweets about restful nights and cured back pain by nondescript accounts — accompanied by links to where potential customers can part with their money, and (sometimes) disclaimer hashtags such as #ad or #afflink.
According to bed-in-a-box brand Leesa, less well known individuals, or “micro-influencers”, are the most valuable, and earn commission of around 10-12 per cent. The extent to which reviewers and influencers are candid in their assessments is “up to them”, as long as they disclose the paid relationship.
The money involved is substantial: Goat campaigns start at £40,000, with influencers paid up to tens of thousands of pounds per post. (Simba is a past client.) Otty’s Mr Szlas says the company was approached by an Instagram influencer offering mattress reviews for £20,000, but declined.
How likely is it that someone represented by an agency — which promotes its influencers based on their success in driving a company’s sales — will write something negative, or even neutral? Who is officially represented is not always clear: Goat’s talent are not required to disclose their relationships with the company, only include #ad in posts.
Reviews versus ads
Bed-in-a-box start-ups say influencers and affiliate relationships are less significant for driving sales than Facebook and Google ads. Leesa says affiliate partners account for between 15-20 per cent of UK sales, but Nectar says its “strong affiliate networks” — not all of which generate commission — have been “instrumental” in growth.
Casper says its affiliate programmes are “a key part” of its strategy, but it has “limited” influencer marketing; Otty’s Mr Szlas says paid reviewers are part of a “fake world” — but worries that if he does not embrace them the company will “get left behind”. The company has “ramped up” affiliate marketing this year.
Once you know what to look for, affiliate marketing and influencers are relatively easy to spot. Shoppers should take comfort that independent, impartial reviewers still exist. Grumpy customers still want to post scathing comments when they think they’ve been ripped off. But affiliate marketing is a business like any other — and sites that have made a business from reviewing products should be taken with a pinch of salt.