Back in Business: Amazon Sellers Can Ship Nonessential Products Into FBA

If you’re an Amazon seller with nonessential products ready to ship into FBA, we’ve got some good news for you. This week, Amazon will start accepting shipments of nonessential items into their warehouses once again

In fact, some sellers reported that they have been able to create new shipping orders as early as last week (the freeze started on March 17 and was supposed to end on April 5). Like most changes, Amazon seems to be gradually rolling out this ability. 

Here’s what a company spokeswoman shared, “Later this week, we will allow more products into our fulfillment centers. Products will be limited by quantity to enable us to continue prioritizing products and protecting employees, while also ensuring most selling partners can ship goods into our facilities.”

Amazon is taking these steps so that we can move forward with our businesses, even amidst the uncertainty and frustration. It’s time to buckle down, take action, and ensure your business endures (and hopefully even gets stronger) during this season. Luckily, there are some small steps you can take to set your business up for success now and in the future. Let’s get into exactly what you can do.  

How to Check if Your Products are Eligible

You’ll first want to see if your products can be shipped into Amazon. To do this, you will create a standard FBA Inbound Shipment in Seller Central. As you’re selecting your Shipping Plan options, you may see the following message: 

The alert reads: We are temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock, and deliver these products to customers. For products other than these, we have temporarily disabled shipment creation. We are taking a similar approach with retail vendors.

Through our testing, we were still able to create an inbound shipment even while this message was present. If you can complete each of the steps below without getting an error message, your product is once again eligible for inbound shipments to FBA.

7 Steps to Creating an Inbound FBA Shipment

  1. Go to the Manage Inventory Tab
  2. Select Send/Replenish Inventory for the chosen product
  3. Create a new shipping plan
  4. Set the quantity of units
  5. Select who will prep the goods: you or Amazon
  6. Print labels, if needed
  7. Review the assigned Amazon warehouse

If you do get an error message, try lowering the number of inbound units. Due to the increased demand from Stay-and-Home orders during COVID-19, Amazon is placing limits on how much inventory can be shipped in. 

We recommend testing this every day until you’re able to successfully create a shipment, especially if you have inventory waiting to be sent into FBA. You never know when the company will flip the switch for your specific products, though you should have the ability within the coming days (if you don’t already).

Other Notable COVID-19 Updates for Amazon Sellers

COVID-19 has rapidly changed the way we live and operate as a country… and as a world. Sometimes it feels hard to keep up with the news, the changes, and the best practices moving forward. 

Here at Viral Launch, we’re dedicated to helping third-party sellers navigate the Amazon seller journey, no matter how messy it may get. Here is a condensed list of the most important Amazon updates you should be aware of. 

  • Keeping Up with Demand: You may have noticed that Prime delivery dates have been pushed back by up to one month. Amazon is slowly gaining control and reinstating 2-day delivery as they’ve filled 100,000 new jobs since March are adding 75,000 more to keep up with demand.
  • Waived Fees: In March, Amazon announced they would waive the April 15 long-term storage fees plus two weeks of inventory fees for products stored in the U.S. and Europe. In addition, Amazon Lending direct loan repayments are on pause until at least April 30.
  • Account Suspension Pause: Earlier this month, Amazon temporarily paused suspensions related to supply chain and fulfillment issues. This is in effect until at least May 15. 
  • Delayed Prime Day: Amazon normally hosts its annual sales extravaganza in mid-July, but this year Prime Day will be delayed (likely until August 2020 at the earliest). 

Major updates are typically added to the “COVID-19 Related Announcements” News thread in Seller Central, and we will be sure to update the community frequently with pressing information.

How to Move Forward

If you’re a little bit uneasy about the state of the market right now, don’t worry. You’re not alone. COVID-19 has put all of us in uncharted territory, and so moving forward, all you can do is your best. As always, the team here at Viral Launch is here for you with the latest news and advice on which steps you should take to ultimately see success. In the wake of this pandemic, here are three ways you can make the best use of your time: 

1. Study the process. 

While some things have changed, the principles of success have remained. Think about it… there are more people than ever shopping online right now. And Amazon is doing everything it can to support the infrastructure that allows you to meet that demand. As an Amazon seller, you should familiarize yourself with the strategy behind a successful Amazon operation. This may look like brushing up on your skills with a free A-to-Z Amazon Course, or it may look like networking with like-minded people in an Amazon seller Facebook group. There is always something to learn, and like Oprah says… when you know better, you do better. 

2. Research the impacts. 

Essential items are obviously seeing a dramatic increase in sales. But there are other products that are seeing positive movement, too. This includes home workout equipment, homeschooling activities, gardening products, and more. Now is the time to analyze which markets are being positively affected and which are hurting. A research tool like Market Intelligence shows you graphs of sales movement for individual products and across entire markets, so that you can make predictions about the future to determine which markets you may want to enter and which markets you want to steer clear of moving forward. Start your free trial to begin researching. 

3. Add to your product line.

Lots of countries are completely shut down, but many Chinese manufacturers are back up-and-running. And as Amazon gets a better grip on the magnitude of orders coming through, now actually isn’t a bad time to add to your storefront. It’s also more important than ever that you understand exactly what to expect in a market, so you’re not selling out in the first week or left with hundreds of products left sitting in a warehouse. With a reliable product finder and a robust market research tool, you can pinpoint markets that are ripe with opportunity now and make the most out of an otherwise crummy situation. Start researching for free now. 

How has COVID-19 affected your business? And what are your plans moving forward? We’d love to hear from you in the comments. Remember… we’re all in this together.


Amazon Sellers: What To Do About Coronavirus

Being an Amazon seller has always come with its hurdles, but as the world grapples with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, sellers face a new kind of challenge. This guide will walk through what changes have arisen, how all of this affects you as a seller, and what you can do about it. 

Jump to our recommendations.

The Coronavirus has caused lawmakers at state and local levels to encourage and enforce that citizens stay inside their homes for anything other than essential activities. As the world works from home out of necessity, the eRetailer is the go-to source for delivered goods (the eCommerce giant already owned 52% of all online sales in 2019). Household staples and medical supplies are running low, and Amazon is racing to keep their digital shelves stocked to meet surging demand. “Getting a priority item to your doorstep is vital as communities practice social-distancing, particularly for the elderly and others with underlying health issues,” said an Amazon representative in an Operations blog post.

Amazon has recently made a few drastic changes that impact millions of third-party private label brands. While it’s something to definitely understand, don’t lose hope. There are still options, and you can get through this. You are an entrepreneur, after all. And we are relentless. 

Changes that Amazon has made amid COVID-19

With its origins in China, Coronavirus has been on Amazon’s radar since mid-January 2020. The company announced changes to its fulfillment network and workforce in mid-March to address growing concern and meet surging demand.

1. Sellers cannot initiate a new FBA shipment for non-essential products

Amazon sent the following notification to all active sellers: 

Temporarily prioritizing products coming into our fulfillment centers
We are closely monitoring the developments of COVID-19 and its impact on our customers, selling partners, and employees.
We are seeing increased online shopping, and as a result some products such as household staples and medical supplies are out of stock. With this in mind, we are temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock, and deliver these products to customers.
For products other than these, we have temporarily disabled shipment creation. We are taking a similar approach with retail vendors.
This will be in effect today through April 5, 2020, and we will let you know once we resume regular operations. Shipments created before today will be received at fulfillment centers.
You can learn more about this on this Help page. Please note that Selling Partner Support does not have further guidance.
We understand this is a change to your business, and we did not take this decision lightly. We are working around the clock to increase capacity and yesterday announced that we are opening 100,000 new full- and part-time positions in our fulfillment centers across the US.
We appreciate your understanding as we prioritize the above products for our customers.
Thank you for your patience, and for participating in FBA.

For third party sellers, this means that you cannot create shipments to be received at an Amazon fulfillment center in Seller Central until at least April 6th. Only essential items will be accepted as inbound shipments. Essential items are listed within the following categories (but not all items are considered essential):

  • Baby
  • Beauty & Personal Care
  • Grocery
  • Health & Household
  • Industrial & Scientific
  • Pet Supplies

If your inbound shipment was created before March 17, Amazon will check it in. For existing non-essential inventory in Amazon’s warehouses, you can still expect Amazon to pick, pack, and ship your products, but the process will likely be delayed as essential items are prioritized and shipping carriers race to keep up with increased demand.

If you do sell essential items, beware that Amazon has a zero tolerance policy for price gouging. The marketplace has removed thousands of listings and even threatened legal action against sellers seeking to profit from a global pandemic. 

2. Amazon is strengthening its workforce to meet demand

With the surge in online shopping, Amazon is experiencing unprecedented labor needs. Because of this, the company is opening 100,000 new full-time and part-time positions in their fulfillment centers and delivery network across the U.S. Amazon extended an employment invitation to those who have been economically impacted in industries like hospitality, restaurants, and travel. 

Amazon will also pay their employees an additional $2 per hour worked from their current rate of $15/hour or more, depending on the region, at least through the end of April. The company seeks to keep health and safety a top priority. “We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy. We’ve taken measures to promote social distancing in the workplace and taken on enhanced and frequent cleaning, to name just a few,” said an Amazon representative.

How Coronavirus is Affecting Amazon Sellers

Amazon sellers have mixed feelings about the recent changes. Some are angry with the eCommerce giant, convinced that the moves will put them out of business. Others respect the decision and see all of this as an opportunity to pivot and grow. And most are somewhere in between, hoping for the best and making operational changes with each announcement.

Here are a few of the varied Amazon seller comments posted in response to Amazon’s inbound shipment freeze:

  • Amazon just put tons of businesses out of business. Destroyed thousands of jobs amidst a crisis. Horrible joke. Absolute joke. No warning. Expect major lawsuits coming from sellers who now will go bankrupt.
  • This virus is not a joke, and I am sure Amazon didn’t take the decision to suspend FBA shipments, just because they felt like it. Have you considered the fact that the Amazon employees are affected also? Some of them might even be sick, quarantined, have kids at home because of closed schools? It is not about you, it is not time to be selfish. This is a matter of life and death for many people around the globe.
  • It is not doable. Most of us do not have the infrastructure in place. We do not have the boxes or packing material to do this. Amazon should have had the basic integrity to give us a few days notice so that items that were low or out of stock could be sent.

Overall, it seems that Amazon sellers are unsure of how the future will play out. With online sales rising but no opportunity for non-essential products to reach their normal fulfillment avenues, there will definitely need to be pivots made in the short-term for sales to continue. 

Many sellers are calling on Amazon to pause inventory loan payments and selling plan fees for those who are ineligible to fulfill through FBA. But because Amazon’s focus is always on the customer, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that this will be prioritized. 

What Amazon Sellers Can Do Now

Because there seems to be new developments every few days, it’s important that Amazon sellers keep an eye on the news and Amazon announcements in the coming weeks. Just as we are all making decisions based on the information we have, Amazon’s executive team is pivoting as needed. 

For now, here are a few action steps you can take to sustain your business and prepare for the future. 

1. See if your products are still eligible for FBA shipments

Many products in the following categories are still eligible to be sent into Amazon’s fulfillment centers: Baby, Beauty & Personal Care, Grocery, Health & Household, Industrial & Scientific, Pet Supplies. If you sell within these categories, head to your Shipping Queue within Seller Central and attempt to create an inbound shipment. This way you’ll know what products you need to enact (or create) a Plan B for. Please note that many sellers are experiencing hang times when creating shipping plans because of the increased number of people trying to do this in a short period of time. 

2. Outline your path(s) forward

Whether it’s pivoting your sales strategy for your existing business, planning for your future product, or even exploring options like dropshipping, you need to understand your options so that you can make an informed decision on how to move forward. It’s okay to wait and see how things unfold in the next week or so, but outline your possible paths forward so that when it comes time to make a decision, you’re ready to act. Big changes like this affect everybody, and someone is going to come out on top. But it’s going to take a dedication to the process and pushing through obstacles for you to be that one. 

3. Pivot your fulfillment method

For those of you with non-essential FBA products, you’ve got three options when it comes to fulfillment: find a Prime-eligible third-party fulfillment partner, switch to Fulfilled by Merchant, or pause operations until Amazon opens their fulfillment centers to your products. Again, do your research now so that you can make the best decision for your business. You may find that a third party fulfillment partner is just as cost effective as FBA was, or you may discover that it’s best for you and your family to wait out the storm. 

4. Prepare your next product

Although Amazon is only allowing certain products right now and there have been disruptions in the supply chain, this won’t last forever. Now, especially if you have some extra time on your hands, is the perfect time to use historical data to research which product you might bring to market. If you’re an existing seller, keep an eye on how your competition is handling the situation using Competitor Intelligence. And if you’re a new seller, begin the process of sourcing your very first product. The first step of the Amazon seller journey is finding a product that sets you up for success. Product Discovery makes that process incredibly easy, and it can be completed during this time. That way, your product is ready to stock when the shelves are ready. 

We’re in This One Together

The fact that this blog post exists means you are not in this alone. There are a lot of uncertainties right now, but there are also new opportunities to take advantage of. Maybe the excuse used to be, “I don’t have time to work on my business.” Many of us now have time, but the circumstances have shifted. If there were ever a time to buckle down and figure it out, it’s right now. 

Find out how your products have been affected. See how sales are trending in your market. Map out your options. Dig in and figure it out because that spirit is exactly what got you into this business in the first place. We’ll be here for you along the way updating you of the news. If you want to see how other Amazon sellers are handling the situation, get advice, and stay up to date on the most recent changes, join our community on Facebook: Amazon FBA Data Hunters. We’ll see you in there. 

How Viral Launch can help

4 Notable Amazon Updates & What They Mean for Sellers

Jeff Bezos is obsessed with providing the best customer experience possible. In fact, he was recently quoted saying, “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.” 

As a shopper on Amazon, this means an overall better experience. We can all appreciate a seamless shopping experience and super-speedy shipping. But as an Amazon seller, every update to the algorithm, every policy change, and every feature roll-out can directly impact your bottom line. In order to adapt, maintain sales, and grow your business, you should always understand how recent changes are affecting you.

Here at Viral Launch, we live and breathe Amazon. And right when they make a change, we set out to help you understand what it means for you. In today’s news roundup, we’ll go through 4 updates you should know about. And if you want to keep an even closer eye on changes, follow along on social media where we share the latest news and success tactics in real-time.

1. Product Inserts Policy Mixup

The news: Many sellers were shocked and frustrated after receiving an email on 10/31 reminding sellers that product inserts may not ask for a review of any kind. This email contradicted the official policy on their site that only prohibits product inserts that ask for a positive review. Amazon quickly corrected the error with a follow-up message reading: We want to remind you that Amazon policies prohibit box inserts and product packaging that direct consumers to write a positive review, even if no incentive is offered for a review. 

The email that caused confusion, neglecting to clarify that you cannot ask for positive reviews.

What it means for you: Because Amazon corrected the error, there is no change in policy here. However, it’s a good opportunity to ensure you’re in line with Amazon’s terms when it comes to product inserts and reviews. Your product inserts cannot ask customers to take an action based on a positive or negative experience, which means you can’t ask them to contact you instead of leaving a negative review. And remember, you cannot review your own product, incentivize reviews in any way, or use third party services that offer free or discounted products tied to a review. If you have any products already in fulfillment centers and are in violation of the policies, you’ll want to create a removal order to proactively remove your inventory and avoid any trouble.

2. Communication Guidelines Simplified

The news: Effective on December 3rd, Amazon has updated its Customer Communication Guidelines. The company says they’re not changing the policies but are refreshing the language to make it clearer after hearing complaints from many sellers. In summary, the guidelines state that you may contact a buyer who has purchased from you on Amazon only to complete an order or to respond to a customer service inquiry. You may not contact buyers in any way for marketing or promotional purposes, including via email, physical mail, telephone, or otherwise. Read the full policy.

What this means for you: This is another scenario where Amazon is making it crystal clear that it is not allowed to contact buyers for anything other than support. While no drastic action is needed, you’ll want to review the policy to make sure you’re not in violation. Historically, Amazon has made small changes that lead to suspension sweeps, so if you’re currently promoting your brand to past Amazon customers, take this as an opportunity to make changes that align with TOS.

3. Request a Review Button

The news: In Seller Central, you may have noticed a new button on the “Order Details” page labeled “Request a Review.” When you click it, you’ll see the following message: 

And after clicking Yes, you’ll see a popup that says, “A review will be requested for this order. (Note: We will suppress this request if a review has already been requested for this order).” For now, it seems Amazon is testing this button on the Amazon US marketplace, and it’s only available once per sale.

What this means for you: Amazon has also recently removed sections of a customer’s contact information, such as last name and shipping address. The “Request a Review” button falls in this same effort to keep buyer-seller messaging in-house. It’s definitely worth requesting reviews from your buyers to see if you’re able to generate reviews quickly. With the ask coming from Amazon, customers may be more inclined to act. However, as more and more sellers become aware and abuse this button, it could mean that Amazon pivots again or simply that the button will lose effectiveness. Either way, we’ll keep a close eye on how the market is responding and will update via our social media channels. 

4. “Posts” in Beta

The news: Under the Amazon Advertising umbrella, Posts let Amazon sellers use curated photos to inspire shoppers to engage with their brands and products on Amazon. Focused on a brand-shopping experience, Posts help shoppers discover new products and see what’s new from brands by browsing feeds of brand-curated content. They’re currently US only, free to participate in, and include engagement metrics, including views, clicks, and clickthrough rates. Learn more.

What this means for you: Amazon understands the power of social selling and branding. They’re putting resources behind it, so as a seller on their platform you should too. You’re probably no stranger to the value of growing a following early on a social media platform. Of course, Posts may not explode the way Instagram did or TikTok is (in fact, they just shut down Spark, a discovery shopping feature launched in 2017). But, if you’re running social media for your brand anyways, it may be worth testing whether or not Posts will pay off for your brand. They show up on your own detail pages, detail pages for related brands, feeds for related posts, and category-based feeds… all of which are prime real estate. 

Make Small Changes for Big Results

By being the first to know about Amazon updates, you can stay ahead of other Amazon sellers and ensure your products are positioned for success. But you’ll also want to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered when it comes to the basics. For example, are your Amazon advertising campaigns adding to your bottom line, or are you confused about how to make them work? We understand how important it is to get the basics right, so we recently launched two free Amazon courses. Yep, they’re free! 

From Employee to Entrepreneur: How to Sell on Amazon: Follow this step-by-step process to learn the basics of Amazon, confidently build an online business, and unlock your full potential as an entrepreneur. Enroll for free! 

Amazon PPC Playbook: Follow this step-by-step process to make sponsored ads work for you, receive bigger payouts, and get one step closer to freedom. Enroll for free!

Stay in-the-Know

As Amazon continues to make changes, the Viral Launch team will be the first to make sure you’re aware. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for immediate updates.

Follow us on Twitter for real-time Amazon updates!

And if you have any comments or questions about the most recent updates, let us know in the comments below!

Amazon Customer Demographics & More in New Amazon Brand Analytics Features

Amazon’s Brand Analytics Now Offers a Power Trio

It’s only been a couple of months, but Amazon’s Brand Analytics is already being expanded to include two new features.

For those enrolled in the Brand Registry program, you’ll likely already be familiar with Brand Analytics. It’s a free analytics reports located within Seller Central and has been set up to provide brand owners with helpful data they can use to be more competitive. It provides a feature, Amazon Search Tools, which gives sellers a list of the top one million searched keywords across Amazon as a whole. The list also provides the top three clicked ASINs for each of those keywords.

That feature is now being joined by two brand-new ones, Item Comparison and Demographics, each of which give sellers some wildly insightful data on the market and potential customers that we wouldn’t have expected Amazon to share. All of this can serve as a foundation for boosting sales and rank, and potentially help you grow your audience outside of Amazon as well. Let’s examine how you can take advantage of what each new feature has to offer.

Note: If you’re part of Brand Registry but don’t have a Brand Analytics account, you can create a ticket with Seller Support requesting access. Anecdotally, this has worked for a few sellers but may not work for all.

Item Comparison: Get to Know Your Top Five Competitors

Success doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Knowing how well your products are performing hinges on understanding the market you’re competing in.

What Item Comparison Provides

The Item Comparison feature shows your product along with the top five products that consumers also viewed during the same session. The feature also provides, as Amazon describes, the “percentage of times this product was viewed by the customers who viewed your product within the same day.” If it’s 50%, that means half of the time throughout the day, consumers checked out both your product and a competitor’s.

By scrolling horizontally through the list, you can see which ASINs are getting the most attention and even compare title keywords.

How to Benefit from Item Comparison

The feature provides sellers a helpful advantage for product-targeting ad campaigns. It offers exact data on which products consumers are considering for purchase in your market, so you’ll know where your sponsored ads should appear. Placing sponsored ads on those product pages should increase your visibility, and if you have a better offer, you have a great pathway toward boosting sales.

Note: For more information on how important product-targeting campaigns are and how to start one, check out our in-depth Amazon Product Targeting guide. To learn why product targeting is the most efficient traffic source, watch this video hosted by Viral Launch CEO Casey Gauss and R&D specialist Andrew Field.

The list of top five ASINs may include products that might not be obvious competitors, allowing you to expand the scope of products to target. With a greater number of products to consider targeting, you have a greater chance to get your ads in front of more consumers, increasing your chances at driving conversions.

By comparing your product with others, you can also get an indication of your overall performance. If it’s clear that you’ve been left in the dust by competitors, you can revisit your price, product photos, or descriptions.

Keep in mind that if your product has variations, such as items in different colors or sizes, you’ll likely see these variations appear as compared products in the Item Comparison list. This will allow you to see your most popular products and how they’re faring against the competition.

Demographics: Get to Know Your Consumers

Knowing your audience is a crucial task for any business, and it’s a never-ending process. Amazon is known for not providing audience data to its sellers, forcing brands to use tactics outside of Amazon to gather information on their customers. That’s changing now with this unprecedented Demographics tool within Brand Analytics.

What Demographics Provides

The Demographics feature provides the following data on your customers:

  • Sales per age group: You have a breakdown of six different age groups (shown below), ranging from 18-24 up to 65+, along with their sales totals.
  • Sales per household income: The stats here start with <$50,000 and end with those who make over $250,000.
  • Education: The categories here cover people at all stages of education, from “Less than High School” to those with Master’s degrees.
  • Gender: Do men and women equally buy your products or does one gender dominate? The graphs and table will give you an answer.
  • Marital status: The age, income, and education data will hint at your consumers’ marital status, but this section provides percentages of how many of your customers are married or single.

How to Benefit from Demographics

With the above characteristics, you can assemble a portrait of who your customers are and understand what stage of life they’re in.

Although the demographics data may not be directly actionable, there are two useful applications. The first falls to new product development. When building out additional products for your brand, you now have a much better idea of who is purchasing current products and, likely, who will be purchasing future products.

The second application is advertising outside of Amazon. Running Facebook ads based on better insights into your target demographic can help you run more efficient and effective campaigns with a more targeted audience. YouTube and Instagram also provide advertising options to consider, or you could go the search-engine-based route, such as using Google AdWords. By combining this feature’s data with a creative approach, you have the opportunity to increase your product’s visibility.

Note: The Demographics feature isn’t an exact science. It includes an Information Not Included category, for any instances in which it can’t provide a complete range of data. As an example, it might convey that 33% of your customers are married, 15% are single, and then the other 52% will fall into that Information Not Included category.

Brand Analytics: Building Your Data Foundation

For third-party sellers who are a part of the Brand Registry program, Brand Analytics can be a valuable data resource. In conjunction with Amazon Search Terms, Item Comparison and Demographics give businesses a massive foundation that they can then build on.

With this power trio of features available, one can’t help but ask, how do I make all this useful? Navigating the Amazon marketplace is a challenge and in the months to come Amazon may be rolling out even more Brand Analytics features aimed at giving brands the opportunities to gather more data.

The challenge is being able to extract insights from this data and craft an actionable plan. The team at Viral Launch specializes in creating effective data-driven strategies and delivering results that increase ranking and conversions. Our suite of software tools can help you determine the markets where you can compete and earn long-term profits, not short-term gains. Whether it’s PPC management, listing optimization, or keyword-focused product launches, our team will partner with you to achieve (and possibly exceed) your business goals.

To learn how we can help you gain insights from this Brand Analytics data and drive your brand’s success, contact us at Solutions@Viral-Launch.com

Amazon Search Volume & Relevance Change: The Future Of Search Volume

If you’ve been in the Amazon seller space for any longer than a month or two, you should be no stranger to change. This past weekend was a reminder of how frequent and inescapable this change can be.

What change did Amazon make?

Mid-day on Thursday Dec. 13th, Amazon pushed a code change upgrading the technology behind some of their internal APIs. One of the APIs that was recently updated had been feeding a few software providers (including Viral Launch) with exact and broad match search volume, as well as product relevancy data. This change removed these metrics (search volume and relevance) from the API, leaving software providers without the ability to grab fresh search volume data directly from Amazon.  

Did Amazon remove these metrics in spite of software providers? While there is no way of knowing for sure, my assumption is that through the process of upgrading this API, Amazon found no need to continue sending these specific metrics, as they were not being shown in any of Amazon’s user interfaces. It seems unlikely Amazon would change the technology behind their APIs simply to remove the data. My guess is that they decided to stop showing any “unnecessary” information through the upgrade process.

What Does This Mean For You, as an Amazon Seller?

While it’s no question that the lack of access to updated search volume is disappointing, the playing field has been leveled as your competitors have also lost access to fresh search volume.

The opportunity now exists to find the new advantage and best solution to identifying and prioritizing your keywords. With change comes opportunity.

The best solution to identifying and prioritizing keywords comes in two forms:

  1. Using software capable of leveraging historical data and sophisticated means of forecasting and estimating
  2. Using PPC and organic performance data to understand how buyers respond to your product.

I think it’s important to note that we will never try to downplay the importance of search volume on our listing optimization, PPC, and SEO/ranking strategies. With that said, search volume alone has never been the complete answer.

Understanding metrics per keyword – like PPC conversion rate, average selling price and review quantities for top ranking products, etc. – have all played a significant part in our keyword strategies in the past and will continue to in the future. Being able to understand and interpret this data actually becomes that much more important.

How This Impacts Our Tools & How We Can Help You Gain an Advantage

The Viral Launch data science and engineering teams have been working incredibly hard to bring a sophisticated, data-driven solution that is capable of accurate forecasts and providing the transparency you need to logically get behind our new models.

A major focus of this new solution is transparency.  In order for you to trust our new estimates and feel comfortable making informed business decisions, we want to help you understand how we are arriving at our numbers. And it’s this level of transparency that we are integrating into our new solution.

With sales estimates, sellers can validate or invalidate the accuracy of the data by comparing the estimates to their own product’s real sales. But with search volume, there is no absolute way to validate or invalidate the data. When a tool provides a search volume estimate, it is more or less saying, “Hey, trust us… this is good!” I want to shift that ask of trust to, “Hey, here is the process we’re using, and this is why we believe this is the right number.” In essence, don’t trust what we are telling you, trust what we are showing you. Allow us to walk you through it.

The Future of Search Volume Estimates

We are beyond excited to share that our current models are forecasting at 75-85% accuracy depending on the keyword. (I’ll talk through our validation strategy here)

At the conclusion of this blog we added a Deep Dive section where we go into the specifics of our new search estimation process. We want to help you understand what we’re doing at a high level to be able to achieve such great results.

One of the major saving graces here is that we have a full year of historical search volume data for many keywords! (We started tracking volume on Dec. 12th 2017 and things closed down on Dec. 13th 2018).

This historical search volume is incredibly important for a couple of reasons:

  1. We will consistently show sellers the historical search volume trend so you can see what the exact volume was at the same time last year. This way you will always be able to use “exact” numbers in your decisions versus our in-house estimates.
  2. It will be the baseline for our search volume estimates moving forward, as typically the best indicator of what will happen in the future is what has happened in the past.

While historical volume is a good indicator of the past, it would be foolish to think that search volume is going to remain the same in 2019. For this reason, we will use other data sources to help us estimate the amount of change in consumer shopping behavior.

One data source that improves our forecasting models is change in estimated sales volume for a keyword’s top ranking products. We are not looking at the number of estimated sales. We are looking at the trend in estimated sales month to month.

For some keywords, Amazon search volume and sales volume are highly correlated, making changes in sales a great indicator of changes in search volume. Here is a simple illustration (not the actual model):

We’ve overlayed the graphs of Amazon search volume for “sprinkler” and estimated sales volume for the same keyword. They trend very similarly throughout the year for the same keyword. In this case, it means we would use Amazon sales behavior as a means of forecasting, while also using our historical data for this keyword.

In other instances,  the trends of Amazon search volume and sales for the top ranking products are not statistically correlated. (basic example, not a statistical model):

We take this same approach for other data sources such as Google search volume trends, etc. Using our massive swath of historical and real-time data, our data science team is capable of using machine learning to programmatically discern which data sources are good and which are bad for each keyword at scale.

The beauty of this approach is it allows us to figure out which data sources are reliable predictors on a per-keyword level, so we never use a data source that would be misleading.

Here is what the new user interface looks like:

As you can see in the image above, transparency is the focus. We show the changes in external factors so you can begin to understand how we arrived at our new estimates. You are also capable of comparing our new estimate with the historical exact volume.

Versus keeping our new search volume algorithm secret, our hope is that this allows you to make the most informed decisions possible by seeing historical data along with how we’ve arrived at our new estimates!

As we continue to identify additional data sources, new statistical/forecasting models, or come up with new and clever ideas, we will continue to improve our search volume estimates with full transparency.

This is a large scale engineering and data science effort, so you will see this change rolling out in our Keyword Manager and Keyword Research tools beginning at the end of next week and propagating over the next few weeks to all words within our database.

The Future of Relevancy Score

We are extremely sad to see this metric go as it had wide-sweeping implications for some of our tools and our ability to help boost sales for our customers. Our short-term plan of action is to show historical relevance score for products we’ve already analyzed, while removing it for those we have not.

While we are sorry we will no longer be able to show you this metric for now, relevancy score is a just a proxy for an even more important metric you will see soon in another tool we have in the works.

Looking Forward

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” – Benjamin Franklin

The longer you have been in the Amazon seller space, the more change you have experienced. When building a business on top of another platform, one of the keys to success is adaptability. The sellers that focus on the opportunity that comes from change, versus those that lament over what was, will have the most success now and in the future. Sadly, I know massive sellers that were devastated by Amazon’s TOS update around reviews in Oct. 2016, where they went from making millions on Amazon to almost nothing within a year because they were unable to adapt. Conversely, I know plenty of sellers that took advantage of the newly evened playing field and have built massive 7-8 figure Amazon businesses since that same review update.

There will be plenty more changes in the future. Your success will be dependent on how well you’re able to leverage your network, team, and resources to turn the new dynamics into a competitive advantage! And we hope we get to help you do that!

Validation Strategy

When building any type of model, whether it’s sales estimates, inventory forecasting, or search volume estimates, you should use 70-80% of the data to train the model. This is what the machine learning model uses to “learn” and then test the new model against the reserved 20-30% data set. This ensures that you are overfitting to data your model has already seen.

In our search volume validation testing, we took a subset of a keyword’s historical data (example: take 9 out of our 12 months of data), used that to train the model and understand correlations in our external factors, and then predicted out the next three months. In those predictions on the next three months, we were ranging between 75-85% accurate!

Here are a couple of forecasts where our model only knew the first month’s search volume and, as you can see, the estimated volume (blue line) is never more than +/- 10,000 searches per month off from the actual (orange line) search volume.

We’ve been incredibly impressed with the results, and we are confident these new estimates will be critical to your competitive advantage in selling on Amazon in 2019.

WE LOVE FEEDBACK!

We took a bit of risk by being the first to offer a solution; a solution focused on transparency. We’d love to know what you think! Our goal is to help you make the best data-driven decisions possible to have success in your Amazon business. Did we succeed here? Please let us know what you think in the comments!

You will be able to see our new search volume estimates starting next week for increasingly more keywords in our Keyword Research tool and powerful Keyword Manager/Tracker!

—– Deeper Dive ———

Why Not Use PPC Data, Auto-Complete, or Bing Data?

As we brainstormed potential data points that could or would lead to superior estimates moving forward, we considered a significant variety of metrics. We wanted to help you, the seller, understand why we did not use some potentially “obvious” metrics, and why we DID use others.

Why Not Use Amazon PPC Data

Amazon PPC data was one of our first candidates for data points to use in building out our new search volume estimation model. In talking with our R&D team, we realized how these metrics could be quickly misleading.

PPC Impression Data

The idea is simple. If a product’s ad is being shown at the time of search, then it should show (receive an impression) approximately the same number of times as it was searched right? So search volume and ad impressions should be pretty similar right? Hardly.

On mobile devices, a sponsored ad only receives an impression when the ad is loaded. On mobile, generally there is only one ad at the top of the search. After the first sponsored ad, ads are dynamically loaded once the shopper scrolls deep enough into the search results. Meaning, if we don’t have PPC access to the first ranking product for every keyword, then we will miss a significant percentage of impression volume.

On desktop, a sponsored ad receives an impression each time the ad’s page is loaded; however, consistency is the key. In order to get an accurate feel of impressions, we would need to have PPC access for a product running sponsored ads on the first page of each keyword, all day (doesn’t run out of budget), every single day (whole month). One search can also be counted as multiple impressions as users click in and out of listings, sponsored products shown as suggested in detail pages, and add to cart pages, etc.

Having the necessary access to data is a significant challenge. We believe we have the world’s largest set of data next to Amazon, but even we don’t have the necessary data to use search impressions at scale as an accurate indicator of search volume.

PPC Bid Data As An Indication of Volume

We originally tossed around the idea of using suggested PPC bid cost as a proxy for search volume (the more searches, the more people bidding, the more expensive it is). One of the major hurdles here is that suggested CPC can range quite a bit depending on how relevant Amazon deems your product for the keyword. Meaning that Product A with a high relevance may have a suggested bid cost of $.50 per click, while the less relevant Product B may have a suggested CPC of $1.25.

Why Not Use Amazon Auto-Complete

Amazon autocomplete is an ancient technique of using the Amazon search bar suggestions as an indicator of popularity.

The previous thought has always been that the suggested words populate in order of search volume. This would mean that suggested keyword #1 has higher search volume than suggested keyword #2, which has higher volume than suggested keyword #3, and so forth.

As we dove into the suggestions and worked to validate that Amazon was in-fact giving us suggestions in the order of highest searched keywords, we found that was not the case. In the example above, Amazon’s third suggestion is “fish oil for kids”, which has somewhere around 3,000 searches per month.

While Amazon’s fourth suggestion, which is “fish oil for dogs”, has a search volume of around 9,500 searches per month.

We found countless other examples where Amazon was not suggesting keywords in the exact order.

Disappointing.

Deep Dive Summary

All in all, I hope this helps you understand some of the logic behind why we did not go with some of the seemingly most “obvious” metrics for our search volume estimation model. Again, transparency is crucial for us during this process!

We have undoubtedly been able to prove that our model is effective and accurate at predicting/forecasting/estimating search volume, leveraging our vast amounts of historical data.

If there is anything that you think we did not consider, or something we may have overlooked, we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas! Again, our focus is on providing you the best data possible to make smart business decisions.

Now that we have a solution, let’s not focus on what has been, and let’s focus on the incredible opportunities that await us in 2019!

Excited to help you kill it this coming year. 🙂

Let us know what you think in the comments  below and feel free to share this post with any of the larger Amazon community!

Latest Amazon Updates: The Week in Review – October 22-29

The month of October has been quite the whirlwind for Amazon and its sellers. October 3rd, Amazon released a ToS update that banned incentivized reviews, kickstarting a season full of updates and policy changes.

To recap the latest Amazon updates:

  • August 28: Amazon enacts massive restrictions on certain brands, preventing 3rd party sellers from selling without approval.
  • September 1: Amazon announces in an email to sellers that, effective November 1st, US Seller fulfilled returns will be automatically authorized, and Amazon will provide prepaid return label on the seller’s behalf. Read more here.
  • October 3: The new Terms of Service prohibits providing a free or discounted product in exchange for a review unless it’s through the Vine program. Read more here.
  • October 10: Amazon closes the door to Fulfillment by Amazon for new sellers during the Q4, 2016 period. See here under the orange button at the bottom of the page.
  • October 21: Amazon clarifies Promotional Content in Customer Reviews and Questions and Answers in wake of the new review policy. Read more here.

This past week continued this month’s trend with Amazon’s mass seller email regarding reviews and the introduction to Amazon’s Early Reviewer Program..

 

Amazon’s Incentivized Review Mass Email

Many sellers reported receiving an email on October 24th from Amazon with a strict warning about moving forward with incentivized reviews:

“We recently updated our policies to prohibit incentivize reviews, including those posted in exchange for a free or discounted copy of the product. You are receiving this email because products you sell have received incentivize reviews in the past. If you attempt to acquire incentivize reviews going forward, your Amazon privileges will be suspended or terminated.

We consider a review to be incentivized if you have influenced or can influence the review directly or indirectly, including by monitoring whether a review is written and providing or withholding any benefit based on whether a review is written or the content of the review. Below are a few examples where a review is considered incentivize and is not permitted:

  • You provide a free or discounted product, gift card, rebate, cash payment, or other compensation in exchange for the review.
  • You provide or withhold free or discounted products or other benefits in the future based on whether the customer writes a review.
  • You use a review service where reviewers’ continued membership depends on writing reviews.
  • You use a review service where you can rate customers based on their reviews.
  • You use a review service where customers register their Amazon public profile so that you can monitor their reviews of your products.

Incentivizing customer reviews violates our policies and may violate the Federal Trade Commission Act.

The following actions are generally allowed, provided you comply with the above restrictions:

  • You might offer discounts that are generally available to all Amazon customers, such as Lightning Deals.
  • You may give out free products at tradeshows, conventions, or other similar venues where you are unable to monitor whether the recipients write a review or provide or withhold any benefits based on whether a review is written or the content of the review.

The above changes apply only to product categories other than books. We continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advanced review copies of books.”

The initial seller response was shock and a bit of fear. After all, getting called out by the Giant itself is a bit intimidating. However, through this email, Amazon is really just confirming what our CEO, Casey Gauss, mentioned in our initial blog post about the ToS change and our follow up blog post clarifying the policy. Casey posed two large takeaways on October 14th:

  1. “It is okay for 3rd party websites to distribute discounted claim codes on behalf of Amazon merchants.”
  2. “It is okay for merchants to follow-up with the discounted buyers asking for a review, so long as they abide by all other review policies and stipulations (ex. Don’t ask for only a positive review, do not force the customer to leave a review, do not monitor whether or not they were able to leave a review, etc.)”

These statements still hold true, even through this email. Yes, in the past you may have used a review service to receive a review in exchange for a discounted product. But, you weren’t in the wrong. In fact, you were in line with Amazon’s policy at the time. The policy isn’t retroactive, meaning your Amazon privileges should not be suspended or revoked because of those past reviews. *However, we have witnessed that Amazon is retroactively removing thousands of reviews left with a disclaimer.*

This mass email was sent to many sellers who have run promotions in the past, and it serves as a method to make sure that all sellers are well-informed on the new policy. The carefully-worded email instructs sellers on the new do’s and dont’s of offering discounts and receiving reviews, which actually gives some insightful clarification to the update.

So sellers, don’t interpret the email as, “I’m getting kicked off of Amazon, and I’ll never ever be able to sell anything again.” Read it as, “Amazon has notified me that past actions are now against policy. I now have to abide by the new policy, which they’ve just informed me of.” Moving forward, it’s important to abide by these policies. And yes, product promotions are still compliant with these policies. As we mentioned in a blog addressing the review disclaimer a couple of weeks back, “Viral Launch is not giving products in exchange for a review. We are not providing compensation to buyers to leave reviews, nor do our buyers have connections with you as a seller/marketer.” Product giveaways through Viral Launch are still permissible, as we are not providing a product or any compensation for a review, we are not providing products in the future based on whether or not a customer leaves a review, we are not using reviews as a membership requirement on our buyer site, we are not allowing you to rate customers on our buyer site, and we are not registering our buyers’ Amazon public profiles in order to monitor reviews.

All that to say, rest easy, friend. We’ve worked tirelessly to ensure that we are in line with the new policy change. This email may have appeared to be intimidating at first, but as long as you continue to move forward within the Terms of Service, you will be in good shape.

 

Amazon’s Early Reviewer Program

Yesterday, on October 27th, Amazon announced the introduction of its new Early Reviewer Program. After banning sellers from incentivizing reviews, Amazon itself will start rewarding and incentivizing reviews. It is believed that the program is currently in beta testing and will likely be enacted at the start of November. Amazon describes the program on its Site Features:

The Early Reviewer Program encourages customers who have already purchased a product to share their authentic experience about that product, regardless of whether it is a 1-star or 5-star review. Amazon shoppers depend on reviews to learn more about products, and this program helps to acquire early reviews on products that have few or no reviews, helping shoppers make smarter buying decisions. Customers who have purchased a product participating in the Early Reviewer Program may be asked to write a review and those customers who submit a review within the offer period will receive a small reward (e.g. a $1-$3 Amazon.com Gift Card) for helping future shoppers.

This new program should (hopefully) help sellers who are bringing a brand new product to market. Doing so over the past month has been a bit like the chicken and the egg scenario; you need reviews to get sales and you need sales to get reviews. Where the heck do you start? One of our main recommendations has been implementing a stellar email follow-up sequence to capitalize on all sales, trying to get as many of those oh-so-important initial reviews from the get-go. But with this move, Amazon may be trying to smother follow-up review sequences. Think about it from a consumer standpoint…if you are bombarded with emails every time you make a purchase on Amazon, you might end up with a bad taste in your mouth about Amazon as a whole. It may seem like a bunch of review hungry sellers who only want you for your review. But, if Amazon can be in control of who reviews, and if they can make email follow-up sequences seem pointless when they’re bringing in higher review rates, Amazon wins and the customer wins. And for Amazon, that’s a win-win.

As we get more information on the Early Reviewer Program, we’ll be sure to share it. For now, we’ll say that it should hopefully be good news for sellers looking for initial reviews on new products. It does seem a little ironic though, doesn’t it? Amazon bans incentivized reviews and then incentivizes reviews…Well, when you live in Amazon’s world, you’ve got to live by Amazon’s rules.

More information from Amazon concerning the Early Reviewer Program can be found here.

 

Conclusion

The latest Amazon updates have caused quite the buzz within the Amazon seller community. While it may seem hard to keep up, we’re here to comb through the changes and guide you through the wonderful, hard, rewarding, and sometimes stressful process of selling on Amazon. We’ve been busier than ever this month, and I’m sure you have been too. But isn’t that part of the fun?

Continue to stay informed and make decisions that are in line with Amazon’s (ever-changing) policies, and you’ll be okay. While selling on Amazon may be confusing and messy at times, it can surely be rewarding. Although it may be a bit tougher to bring a product to market, it definitely isn’t impossible. In fact, we believe that with the right strategy, you can definitely still be incredibly successful as a private-label seller. Amazon makes the rules, and everyone has to live by them. If you can figure out how to do it best, you’ll be in great shape. And as always, Viral Launch will be here to help inform and clarify along the way.

We would love to hear your thoughts and questions on the latest Amazon updates. Feel free to post in the comments below!

An Update on the Update – Clarification on the Amazon TOS Update 2016

In my original post, I posed a lot of questions around how exactly Amazon would interpret and enforce their latest TOS update moving forward. As is too common in this space, we’ve heard an insane amount of rumors. Be careful what you believe and guard who you trust. Thanks to a friend of mine with direct contact to Amazon’s legal department, we have some much appreciated clarification. I’ll update this post in the next couple of days with a link to a post by this friend where he will give exacts from the conversations he has had directly with Amazon’s legal department.

To many, the clarification mentioned below was already common assumption. Personally, I prefer to speak on the facts and make decisions based on data, which we simply did not have just 24 hours after the TOS change was posted.

So what is the clarification? What is the information directly from Amazon’s legal department? 

 

The two largest takeaways are:

 

  1. It is okay for 3rd party websites to distribute discounted claim codes on behalf of Amazon merchants.
  2. It is okay for merchants to follow-up with the discounted buyers asking for a review, so long as they abide by all other review policies and stipulations (ex. Don’t ask for only a positive review, do not force the customer to leave a review, do not monitor whether or not they were able to leave a review, etc.)

 

What does this mean? Well, for Viral Launch specifically, we will continue to operate as we have for the last year or so. Fortunately, we had the foresight to position ourselves away from the review group model, which has had incredible benefits for our customers. Largely the only change we had to make post TOS Update is the removal of all language from the site around “reviews”.

What does this mean for you as a seller? Hopefully this helps to ease concerns and increase confidence in the fact that Amazon allows you to run promotions and to ask customers for reviews after purchasing your products at a discount. Hopefully this helps to convince you that the private label world is not dead. That there is still plenty of hope in a bright future moving forward!

As history has shown and as time progressed, we have come to find out that another TOS update did not have such severe an impact as we initially expected. With that said, the landscape has definitely changed, and depending on your previous launch strategy, launching a product has become quite a bit more difficult. As we’ve always preached, you need to do all things GREAT in order to outsell your competition (and sometimes even survive), now more than ever! If you find yourself having a difficult time getting ahead of the competition, launching a product, or even maintaining sales, look around to see just how well you are executing every aspect of your private label business.

So all in all, the dust seems to have settled for the most part and we are all free to go on our merry way, building scaleable private label businesses on the world’s largest commerce platform! Sounds like a great time to be an entrepreneur to me! 🙂

Side Note: With all of this, I feel like this news has definitely confirmed the suspicions I posed in our initial blog post regarding what net affect this would actually have on the market and what Amazon’s true intentions are (you can read them in here).
As always, we will keep you updated as new word comes out and we wish you and your business the best!!

Ultimate Amazon Private Label Guide to Success – Post Amazon TOS Update 2016

The Amazon space has changed and while we are still waiting for the dust to settle, there are some basic truths we do know like the fact that we CANNOT give products away at a discount. No more 80%+ review rates from discounted product sales. It’s going to change the fundamentals of how sellers can quickly get products up and selling. So the Viral Launch team is putting together a comprehensive Amazon private label guide to successfully launching products on Amazon with the new rules brought about by Amazon’s latest Terms of Service update. It’s epic and incredibly beneficial to all levels of experience on Amazon.

Spoiler Alert! Selling on Amazon Is NOT Over! It’s Not “Too Hard” Now. If That’s Your Mindset, Change It! Life As An Entrepreneur Has Its Challenges. It’s The Strong That Survive, And Together, We’ll Help You Thrive!

Each day we will feature a new step in the process of selling private label products on Amazon with specifics on how each step has been affected by the TOS change. We are super excited to help you navigate the process based on our extensive knowledge and experience in the space of running over 11,000 product launches and working with high level sellers selling between $50-$100 million per year on Amazon.

You can find our Ultimate Amazon Private Label Guide to Success landing page here. Each day we will add a new section and topic! Our first day we discuss product sourcing and how to make intelligent decisions when souring especially with the new market conditions following the TOS update. The page can be found here!

Are you excited about our guide? What topics would you like us to cover?

Always Moving Forward – Amazon TOS Change 2016

We all saw the writing on the wall didn’t we? Today marks yet another Amazon TOS change that set the private label world on fire and sent everyone into chaos. 24 hours later and it looks like things have largely subsided. While many of the industry’s leading review services have posted their interpretation of the rules and how they wish to proceed, I am still not completely convinced of their conclusion and I’ll explain it all.

So what does it mean for you as a seller? What does it mean for Viral Launch and its platform? What does it mean for the Amazon market in general? 

In this post we’ll cover the facts we know around the Terms of Service change, what this policy update means for you as a seller, what it means for the Viral Launch community, and what it means for the private label world as a whole. 

While we are not 100% sure, nor do I think we will ever be (Amazon can be pretty ambiguous with their terminology and can lack uniformity in how they enforce and interpret their rules), I do think we have a pretty good grasp on the impact this TOS change will have moving forward. We will continue to update this blog post with new information and case studies as they come up, but at the very least I wanted to comfort some nerves and hopefully add some peace to the frenzy that has ensued. 

Facts Around the TOS Change

So let’s begin with the actual content posted on Amazon. Firstly, the post that has caused the chaos. Thanks to our friend Chee Chew, VP of Customer Experience at Amazon, we have this “blog post”/“featured post” from mid-day EDT on Oct. 3rd: 

Customer reviews are one of the most valuable tools we offer customers for making informed purchase decisions, and we work hard to make sure they are doing their job. In just the past year, we’ve improved review ratings by introducing a machine learned algorithm that gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews; applying stricter criteria to qualify for the Amazon verified purchase badge; and suspending, banning or suing thousands of individuals for attempting to manipulate reviews.

Our community guidelines have always prohibited compensation for reviews, with an exception – reviewers could post a review in exchange for a free or discounted product as long as they disclosed that fact. These so-called ‘incentivized reviews’ make up only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of reviews on Amazon, and when done carefully, they can be helpful to customers by providing a foundation of reviews for new or less well-known products.

Today, we updated the community guidelines to prohibit incentivized reviews unless they are facilitated through the Amazon Vine program. We launched Vine several years ago to carefully facilitate these kinds of reviews and have been happy with feedback from customers and vendors. Here’s how Vine works: Amazon – not the vendor or seller – identifies and invites trusted and helpful reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release products; we do not incentivize positive star ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews, or even require a review to be written; and we limit the total number of Vine reviews that we display for each product. Vine has important controls in place and has proven to be especially valuable for getting early reviews on new products that have not yet been able to generate enough sales to have significant numbers of organic reviews. We also have ideas for how to continue to make Vine an even more useful program going forward. Details on that as we have them.

The above changes will apply to product categories other than books. We will continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies of books.

Thank you.

– Chee Chew, VP, Customer Experience

The post can be found here

If you follow the link to the Community Guidelines as referred to by Mr. Chew, you’ll see some updated language. Previously, Amazon had very specific language regarding giving discounted or free products in exchange for a review and the stipulations around it such as making sure the product was offered before the review was left, etc. 

If you read the customer guidelines for yourself, you will now see the updated language which attempts to dispel any kind of hope that products can still be given away at a discount in exchange for a review with language such as: 

Promotions and Commercial Solicitations

In order to preserve the integrity of Community content, content and activities consisting of advertising, promotion, or solicitation (whether direct or indirect) is not allowed, including:

  • Creating, modifying, or posting content regarding your (or your relative’s, close friend’s, business associate’s, or employer’s) products or services.
  • Creating, modifying, or posting content regarding your competitors’ products or services.
  • Creating, modifying, or posting content in exchange for compensation of any kind (including free or discounted products) or on behalf of anyone else.
  • Offering compensation or requesting compensation (including free or discounted products) in exchange for creating, modifying, or posting content.

To answer all questions more definitively (well for the most part), we also have in the FAQ section of Seller Central these relevant FAQ’s. 

FAQ

Why are we making this change?

Please see our recent announcement.

Can I use third-party services to provide free or discounted products to reviewers? 

No. The policy applies regardless of whether you provide compensation to reviewers directly or through a third party.

When and how will this policy be enforced? 

The policy is effective immediately. If you continue to offer free or discounted products in exchange for a review, your Amazon privileges may be suspended or revoked.  

Can I continue to offer discounts and promotions to customers? 

Yes. You may continue to offer discounts and promotions as long as they are not offered in exchange for reviews. 

What constitutes a review “in exchange” for a free or discounted product?

We do not allow any benefit to be offered, requested, or provided in exchange for a review.

 

Looks pretty black and white, right? 

So according to this: As sellers you CANNOT give free or discounted products away to reviewers in exchange for compensation, BUT you CAN offer discounts and promotions to customers as long as they are, again, not offered in exchange for reviews.

The only way to know exactly how Amazon will choose to enforce these rules is time. Time enough to understand just how they distinguish promotional giveaways from a product awareness standpoint versus giveaways in exchange for reviews.

Mr. Chew mentions that all ‘incentivized’ reviews are prohibited unless they are run through their Amazon Vine Program. The Vine program is expensive, open only to Vendors, limits the number of products a brand can enter, and has a ceiling of around 100 units to give for a review depending on your product’s category. This is obviously a significant difference from what some sellers are used to, especially in competitive markets.  

He also mentions that there will be updates to the Vine program coming soon, but is not very specific as to what it will entail. Will they remove the Vendor requirement to join the program? 

TechCrunch also published an article giving a statement from an Amazon Spokesperson saying, “reviews that were received prior to the policy change are only being retroactively removed if they are excessive, and don’t comply with prior policy.” As well as, “if it [Amazon] finds anyone is attempting to manipulate reviews by tying reviews to discounted products, it will take action against them, starting today.”

What does “tying reviews to discounted products” mean exactly? To me it sounds like you better make sure that customers receiving a discount do not leave a review. Again what does “excessive” mean? 100? 1000? A function of the percentage of monthly organic sales? We’re left to chance to find out only once the line has been crossed.

Why I Have A Hard Time Trusting The Current Industry’s Interpretation of the Amazon Policy Update

My biggest apprehensions are two-fold: 

  1. How does Amazon know the intent of the seller handing out coupons? 
  2. And, just because now reviews won’t have the disclosure “I purchased at a discount in exchange…” in them, doesn’t mean that the reviews are now legitimately unbiased. If you pay $1 for something, you are going to be inevitably biased in how you review the product. So that would mean Amazon’s new TOS update served no purpose but to remove the disclosure from reviews essentially. Seems sneaky by Amazon to hide the fact from their buyers.

I am in no way advocating the behavior mentioned in this paragraph, but for example’s sake let’s say I run a promotion giving discounted products to customers without asking for reviews and 30% of them choose to leave a review of their own choice. That seems completely legitimate according to both Amazon’s terms and how review services are interpreting Amazon’s policy change. But, how does Amazon know whether or not you told the customer they were receiving the product in exchange for a review? If that is the case, then theoretically, a seller could still give thousands of products away at a discount in exchange for a review without getting in trouble just so long as the reviewers do not state in the review that they received the product at a discount in exchange for a review. 

Amazon cannot be in on every conversation on the internet to know whether a product was given in exchange for a review or not. To Amazon, a review left on a discounted product looks the same whether it was offered in exchange for a review or not (so long as the customer does not state the fact of course). So how are they able to enforce this rule if a seller coaches their own VIP list not to leave the disclosure in the review? They can’t!

This leaves two possibilities. 

  1. Amazon released this statement as a show of good faith to their large consumer audience. The holidays are coming up, so it is an important time for them to reassure buyers that reviews are still priority when making informed purchasing decisions. However, as I mentioned before, reviews from discounted purchases are likely still biased even under the new regulations. Although they may not be able to enforce it to the standards they speak of, they still want to publicly display their position.
  2. Amazon is not interpreting the terms the same as our industry leaders (and Viral Launch) and may start to enforce these new updates in ways that are likely unfavorable (suspensions, etc.). 

Why Amazon Will Not Suspend You For Getting Reviews From Promotional Sales

Again, this is all my interpretation and logical thought process on the information I’ve received. We are currently running 200+ launches a day and will have enough data to talk in definitives here soon.  

I have a hard time seeing Amazon punishing sellers who are running promotions that just so happen to also generate reviews. If that were the case, the door would be flung wide-open for competitors to use  “ghost-accounts” (accounts that have been well seasoned by sellers to appear legitimate to outside eyes) to post reviews to their competitor’s listings after purchasing. This would be hard to detect whether it was a legitimate customer or not and could be devastating. 

Another example: let’s say you run a 30% off holiday discount and a percentage of those buyers leave a review because they love your product. Is Amazon going to punish you? Seems unlikely.

What History Tells US About Amazon TOS Changes

For those who don’t recall Amazon’s, “the sky is falling announcement” back in August of 2015 we recap it here. There was just about as much chaos and concern caused by their latest TOS announcement, but how did affect us? What devastating impact did it have on us and our clients? LITERALLY NONE!! Sure it had an impact in terms of fear, etc. But it did not actually affect any of us. We saw not one complaint to our clients running white-hat honest businesses. 

So for better or worse, it eases my concerns as to the impact this change will have. From what we’ve covered already, I don’t see this as having too much of a real impact on the Viral Launch platform and our clients directly, but we’ll get into that more further along in this blog.

How This Affects You As A Seller

Are Review Services Dead?

So does this mean that review services with 80%+ review rates that were requiring their user bases to leave a review in order to get access to more products are dead? Yes. After reading Amazon’s TOS, I’m not sure how you can interpret it any differently. A few times they mention ‘incentivized reviews’ as being prohibited while explaining that ‘incentivized reviews’ are reviews posted in exchange for a free or discounted product. In Amazon’s FAQs (listed above), they very explicitly state that you cannot give products away at a discount in exchange for reviews.

The majority of review groups that have announced their interpretation of the policy change and how they will proceed will continue running promotions but are removing the requirement to leave a review post purchase. They will no longer hand out coupons with the agreement that the product is being given in exchange for a review. The services are now focusing on leveraging promotional sales to focus on “sales velocity”. 

If you sell in markets where a competitive number of reviews on page one is around 100 reviews, or even under 500 reviews, then this update doesn’t seem like it will have much of an impact on you. Sure it may slightly decrease the speed at which you can get a product up and selling at a high level organically, but with a little extra time, strategy, and work, you’ll get there just the same. 

If you sell in markets where a competitive number of reviews is in the thousands…it looks like you have your work cut out for you. Impossible? Not at all. More expensive and time consuming? I am afraid so. Making intelligent decisions on which products to source is now more crucial than ever! We have a new tool dropping by the end of the month to help you do just that! (Don’t worry we’re not trying to replace any current tool you’re using like Jungle Scout!)

The days of giving away thousands of products through review groups (Viral Launch is not a review service) to compete with page one sellers in a matter of a month or two are likely over. 

Adjustments To Make..

  • Make sure you do not have any “drip” campaigns running on review services (not Viral Launch) still giving products away in exchange for a review which you are currently subscribed to and cancel any campaigns that are supposed to kick off soon. 
  • Keep your eyes out for new information! Facebook groups are incredible news aggregators for Amazon news. I will also be updating this post with new information and case studies as they become available.
  • Be weary of rumors!! Oh goodness how rumors spread in this space. We actually have a whole blog series planned on busting common myths in this space so watch for those! But check your facts and even feel free to check with our free-of-cost Account Executives if you have a question regarding a rumor. Unfortunately we see a lot of sellers misled by “authorities” in the space that are sometimes misinformed themselves.
  • OPTIMIZE YOUR FEEDBACK SERVICE’S EMAIL FOLLOW-UP SEQUENCES!!! – I cannot stress enough how important having a highly optimized feedback service is! If the only way to generate reviews now is through organic sales, you better put everything you have into converting those organic sales into customer reviews!

Is The Gold Rush Of Amazon Private Label Over?

So overall what does this mean? Are we/sellers going to pack our bags and go home? Is the Amazon gold rush over? Are your chances of a self-sustaining Amazon lifestyle business over?

NOT AT ALL! And I really hope I don’t hear that from any of you. As entrepreneurs it’s our nature to overcome the obstacles we find before us! We can’t give up because the rules of the game we’re playing change. If that’s your mentality in life, you’ll never survive. You’ll never achieve your dreams of running a successful business no matter if you’re selling on Amazon or working in another industry. We have to fight for our success!

When changes arise in the market, we have to look at it as opportunity. Yeah, things are shaken up and may seem to be more difficult for you, but they are shaken up for everyone and just as difficult for your competitors as well. That means you have to figure out the new rules of the game, adjust with tact and move forward full steam ahead. If you hang on to the past, you’ll be left behind. 

I’m extremely confident that we’ll be able to successfully navigate the market after Amazon’s new policy update to launch products to success! We always will! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mindset of true entrepreneurs. I hope that you’ll ascribe to that way of thinking with me!

How This Affects the Viral Launch Platform

Short Answer: This has a very minimal affect on us and the effectiveness of our platform. For starters, we are so much more than a promotional giveaway platform now. We have also never been a review service. We have never required our users to leave reviews. Our focus in promotional giveaways has always been on providing a platform for sellers to help drive promotional sales targeted at improving keyword ranking, and we will continue to operate almost exactly the same! (Read below to see what change will be made)

Looking at Amazon’s FAQ…

Can I continue to offer discounts and promotions to customers? 

Yes. You may continue to offer discounts and promotions as long as they are not offered in exchange for reviews. 

It looks like everything is good to go for promotions to drive traffic and promotional sales which we all know help improve a product’s keyword ranking in search results.

We have completely removed all language around reviews on the Viral Launch buyer’s side. We never required or incentivized reviews as many of the review services did. We did however offer a kind reminder for coupon grabbers to leave a review on the products they purchased, but that has now been removed. Therefore, based on Amazon’s direct language, the Viral Launch platform should be compliant with Amazon’s new TOS update.

I have to say “should be”, because with any rule made by Amazon, they are ambiguous, or at the least, leave unanswered questions. 

Two of those unanswered questions: 

  1. By “…promotions to customers” are they referring to a specific set of people? 
    1. By “customers” are they referring to your past customers? 
    2. Amazon “customers” only? Meaning lightning deals, etc. 

I think I may be thinking too hard about it, but at the same time with how vague Amazon can be, I’d rather be safe than sorry. 

  1. How will Amazon determine whether or not the discount was offered in exchange for reviews? How do they know the intent of the coupon distributor?

My honest inclination is that they do not care so long as the reviewer is not posting in the review that they got the product at a discount in exchange for a review AND so long as you are not actually offering products in exchange for a review.

Questions I continue to ask:

  1. Are they looking at the buyer account of product’s purchased at a discount? Meaning if it is a buyer that frequently leaves a review on a discounted product, Amazon assumes it was given at a discount in exchange for a review? Seems grossly inaccurate and unlikely. 
  2. Are they looking at products that have reviews posted saying, “…purchased this product at a discount in exchange for my unbiased review”? Again seems grossly inaccurate, but more likely. If this is the case it’s likely just one method of identification. The largest issue here is if sellers coached reviewers not to leave the disclaimer, they could potentially rack up thousands of reviews very quickly still.
  3. Are they monitoring referrer traffic? Meaning, “did this purchase just come from reviewsite.com? Okay it must have been in exchange for a review.” This would be the worst case of the above mentioned because it would be incredibly inaccurate and would be devastating for a lot of sellers and service providers.

 

What If You Lower The Price Of A Product For A Couple Hours Then Run Traffic To The Product So Reviewers Can Buy For Low And Still Leave A Review?

We will absolutely not being doing this! This seems like review manipulation and we are not that type of company. This is the type of activity that seems to have a high probability of you ending up being sued, suspended, or banned from Amazon. Viral Launch will stay far away from this. 

Moving Forward

If all of the hype is exactly as it seems to be (no reviews left in exchange for a discount), we are going to be coaching our clients on a completely new launch strategy designed to help you succeed with a new set of parameters. For seasoned sellers with a solid review foundation, the launch strategy is unlikely to change. For sellers just bringing a product to market, depending on what that market looks like, we will put together an updated launch strategy which we will be covering later this week. Getting off the ground successfully without the ability to gain traction with initial reviews is going to change the name of the game, but it will be your ability to adapt that will help you beat out competitors trying to do the same thing. 

This is an opportunity for those of you who are focused on building a well rounded business to overcome those sellers who were spending money to take the shortcut. The Viral Launch arsenal is now more valuable than ever, allowing you to build an incredible private label business from the ground up. If you were looking to take shortcuts, you were already in trouble. Its time to double down and get ahead by doing everything better than your competitors.

We are working harder than ever to help optimize email follow-up campaigns to help increase the review rate driven by feedback services. We’ll keep you updated as we see advances. In the meantime, we highly suggest finding a feedback service that works well for you and optimizing it to drive as many reviews as possible from organic sales. 

To Summarize

I know this was about 10X longer than most posts, but I’m more of a skeptic and with the limited amount of data we’ve been able to gather over the last 24 hours, I want to make sure we do not mislead anyone. I also think it’s important to question and discuss the market we all work and thrive in to constantly increase our perspectives of it. It is only going to help to make you a better seller and entrepreneur in the space.

  • Viral Launch will continue to give coupons without incentivizing reviews as before, but will be coaching reviewers on Amazon’s new review policy guidelines.
  • We will continue to monitor the space to help enhance our perspective and hopefully reinforce our confidence in our interpretation by providing definitive data or cases. 
  • Optimize your feedback sequence! We’ve always pushed email follow-up sequences, but now is the time to leverage a feedback service with a killer email sequence to maximize the number of organic reviews you are able to drive.
  • Should go without saying, but don’t give products away for free or at a discount in exchange for a review.
  • Now more than ever, the key to success on Amazon is not a silver bullet. You need an arsenal to effectively attack every aspect of private label selling on Amazon. You need to focus on each element of your business to outsell your competitors.

At the end of the day, it’s our mission to help our clients achieve success. You can guarantee we will be vigilant in staying on top of this situation, but if history repeats itself (which it often does), then we are all pretty safe and know exactly what is going to happen moving forward. 

Our focus at Viral Launch is to be your launchpad to success, whether that entails promotional giveaways or simply coaching. We’re are an incredibly dynamic team of 15 with a large breadth of skills, experience, and knowledge in the Amazon space. This is our focus and we are here to help in anyway possible.

We would love to hear your thoughts, your perspective, and your interpretation of the update and our position on it in the comments! I’ll be open to talk as always!