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Amazon policy change leaves LI firm scrambling for reviews

When the online shopping giant eliminated ‘incentivized’ appraisals, Kantian Skincare of Huntington lost about half of its online write-ups.

Kantian Skincare co-founder Richard Klein, left, and president

Kantian Skincare co-founder Richard Klein, left, and president Jon Klein on Oct. 27, 2017 Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Consumers depend on product reviews to make their purchasing decisions.

Jon and Richard Klein of Huntington-based Kantian Skincare understand this all too well, so they were devastated when Kantian’s flagship anti-acne product line, Neutralyze, lost 650 reviews on Amazon over a few weeks, representing about half of its total reviews.

It happened in October 2016, when Amazon updated its community guidelines to prohibit incentivized reviews — reviews by users who had received the product for free or at a discount. Now, incentivized reviews can only appear on the site through the Amazon Vine program, which vets the reviewers and charges sellers a fee.

“It was a big ‘sky is falling’ moment for the industry as a whole,” said Kantian president Jon Klein, 33.

Since the company began selling on Amazon in 2015, it had used various third party online review sites that promote products to deal-driven buyers by offering up to an 85 percent discount in exchange for leaving an “honest and unbiased” review, he says.

Amazon required reviewers to disclose in their reviews that they had received the product free or at a discount, says Jon Klein.

But that all changed when Amazon changed its guidelines and Kantian lost any reviews that carried that disclaimer, he says.

“It slowed us down pretty significantly,” says Jon Klein, who has since managed to replace over 70 percent of those lost reviews by working on generating them organically. “Losing reviews really diminishes a lot of your social proof,” or credibility with shoppers.

But Amazon’s move wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Amazon, like Google and Yelp, want the reviews of businesses and products to be unbiased,” says Kevin Lee, executive chairman of Mineola-based Didit, a digital marketing firm. “The consensus is that discounts and other incentives to leave reviews are in fact biasing the reviewer towards giving a positive review.”

In a blog post last year announcing the policy change, Amazon explained its Vine program this way: “Amazon — not the vendor or seller — identifies and invites trusted and helpful reviewers . . . 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.”

Amazon’s move has forced companies in general to re-evaluate both their product and service level, says Lee, noting the best reviews happen as the result of “an awesome product and accompanying service.”

It’s the back-end service, follow-up and proactive outreach, he says.

“You have to delight the people and establish a direct communication conduit to them,” says Lee.

Kantian has worked hard to do that and was able to change its strategy of generating reviews.

In particular, the firm has found success using Feedback Genius, an email automation platform for Amazon sellers, which allows Kantian to send emails directly to customers through Amazon’s messaging system. They simply send an automated email asking customers to please take a moment to leave a review, noting that they’re a small, family-owned business.

They’ve also added a new insert in their product packaging asking customers to share their experience with others on Amazon.com.

“Our product reviews are now more genuine and higher quality as a result of the changes that were made,” says Richard Klein, 62, Kantian’s co-founder and chief financial officer, who teamed up with his son, Jon, in 2012 with the idea of developing an oral care product with similar antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory ingredients used in their anti-acne product. Richard Klein also owns a Smithtown dental practice.

The Kleins found more opportunity and less regulatory restrictions in the acne market, which hit home for Jon, who suffered from acne as a teen.

With the help of an independent chemical consultant and a contract manufacturing lab, they developed and launched their flagship product in 2015. Since then, they say, they’ve improved the product.

While the Amazon change caused a temporary slowdown, taking an organic approach is “resulting in more reviews every day,” says Jon Klein.

Priscilla Soto, 39, of Charlotte, North Carolina, says she didn’t need a discount/incentive to leave a review, noting product satisfaction prompted her to do so.

“I’ve had amazing results,” says Soto, who’s had acne since she was a teenager.

But with 90 percent of their sales currently through Amazon, the Kleins recognize their business is vulnerable to any changes Amazon makes, so they’ve been working to drive traffic to Kantian’s own website on Shopify.

They’ve increased traffic to that site by utilizing Google AdWords with keywords targeting their key niche — the moderate-to-severe acne market. They’ve also used Facebook ads.

It’s wise for sellers to avoid being too reliant on any one selling channel, says Barbara Boschen, co-founder of Warren, New Jersey-based CoMerchant.com, which assists online sellers in listing their products in multiple online marketplaces such as Walmart.com and Jet.com.

Having their own website and driving traffic there is a good move, but “it can be very costly getting customers to your own site,” Boschen says. She suggests they consider selling on other established sites such as Walmart.com.

To drive traffic to their own site, they should put helpful content on social media including their Facebook page and website, says Boschen.

Facebook ads have been a particular driver of website traffic, says Jon Klein, noting they’ve grown their own website sales from 5 percent to 10 percent of total sales over the past nine months and in July surpassed $1 million in sales. The Neutralyze treatment kit sells for $39.95 on Amazon.

Going forward, the Kleins hope to expand their team and product line and will seek capital to do so.

“We’re experiencing a very rapid growth curve,” says Richard. “We need to look at equity or debt financing or a combination thereof” to continue that.

Kantian’s vision is to incorporate its skin care technology into additional product lines, and it’s investigating a range of applications from cosmetic to over-the-counter to pharmaceutical, he says.

“Our vision is to be a $10-million brand in the next five years,” says Jon.

AT A GLANCE

Company: Kantian Skincare LLC, based at LaunchPad in Huntington

Co-Founders: Jon and Richard Klein

Product: Neutralyze Anti-Acne Solution

Total revenues: $1.2 million-plus

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