Trump University was happy to promise a wealth-yielding education to would-be students.
It was happy to charge tuition and fees on par with the best colleges and universities out there.
But true to the modus operandi of its namesake, Trump University was not about receive negative consumer reviews from its former students without launching a full-on bullying campaign.
One of the real estate mogul/reality show star/presidential candidate's many failed ventures, Trump University quickly came under fire from disgruntled former students. They filed countless complaints on the Better Business Bureau website and negative reviews on other consumer review sites to spread awareness about the school's allegedly fraudulent practices. Rather than respond to the complaints and attempt to fix any mistakes, Trump University turned a blind eye.
Former student Tara Marakieff sent messages to the FTC, BBB, Bureau of Consumer Protection, and the FDIC to the effect of:
"I am contacting the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Bureau of Consumer Protection and the FDIC as well as posting the facts of my highly negative experience on a wide variety of Internet sites to ensure that this organization at some point is stopped from defrauding others with its predatory behavior. I am also contacting the media to give them a statement of facts so that they can expose this scam and am willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to obtain my money back including taking legal action at the state and federal levels for this crime that has been committed to [sic] thousands of students nationwide who have been preyed on and victimized as I know I am one of many."
Rather than exercise good customer service, Team Trump was quick to cry defamation and launched a lawsuit to bully Marakieff into stopping her reviews and complaints. Fortunately, four years later, Marakieff prevailed and her extensive legal fees were paid for by Team Trump.
This ugly incident has recently resurfaced and been referred to multiple times in debates by his opponents, making it yet another black mark against Donald Trump's (dubious?) credibility in his bid for the White House.
Aside from its connection to the current election cycle, however, this story also illustrates a couple of trends afoot in the world of higher education:
Here are four good reasons universities and colleges need to come to grips with reviews, like them or not, and even consider how reviews could make them more competitive:
Just a few years ago, the fight between consumer reviews and the organizations being reviewed was looking like a draw. If anything, it was looking like reviews might end up on the losing side. As mentioned in my recent post, "2016 Consumer Reviews: 5 Reasons Yours Will Matter More This Year Than Ever Before," however, events of the last year have tipped the scales in favor of consumers and consumer reviews.
For instance, in 2015, the State of California signed into law a bill banning businesses from forcing their customers into contracts that would penalize them for leaving negative reviews about their products or services.
Also last year, a number of lawsuits by vacation rental owners against guests who had left negative reviews about their properties went down in flames, with judges ruling in favor of the right of these guests to voice their opinions about the services they received.
And then in late December, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the Consumer Review Freedom Act, which set out to specifically protect consumer reviews online from retribution by vindictive companies.
In short, things are definitely swinging in favor of consumer reviews and shutting the door on organizations trying to shut down negative reviews. Colleges and universities looking to put the kibosh on negative reviews will be fighting an increasingly uphill battle.
More and more, consumers don't trust companies and the advertising they put out. In fact, a 2013 study by Latitude Research and About.com found that 84% of consumers won't even interact with a brand or content source unless they trust it. This trend encompasses schools, as well.
So who do they trust to help them choose which products and services to purchase-or in the case of colleges, which schools to apply to?
The preferred source of truth for consumers-including prospective college students-has turned to family, friends, and reviewers. A recent survey discovered that 70% of consumers worldwide trust online consumer reviews. That makes reviews the second most trusted source of information, after family and friends only.
Confirming just how important consumer reviews have become to consumers, another study found that more than 8 in 10 people's purchases and brand choices are influenced by user-generated content from people they don't know. And 51% say it's actually more important than the opinions of their friends and family.
So sorry, universities and colleges: people don't trust your brochures, your site, or even those annual rankings from Forbes or The Princeton Review. They trust what people say about you online.
Smart colleges and universities will take a cue from this: if people are taking a long, hard look at reviews about your school, you're probably better off working to make reviewers happy, rather than bullying them. Because reviewers aren't going to be scared away; they're only going to write another review, this one chronicling how your school tried to threaten and intimidate them.
Yes, colleges and universities can take the knee-jerk approach of firing off a cease-and-desist letter or a takedown request every time they encounter a student review they don't like. But students are less likely than ever to roll over. Instead, they're more likely to snap a pic of your cease-and-desist letter and post it on Instagram.
Who comes out looking like the bad guy? Colleges and universities.
We've already seen this trend play out in other industries. In the services industry, a carpet cleaning business tried to sue a Yelp user who left a negative review about them. In the process, they tried to get the Virginia State Supreme Court to force Yelp to give them the reviewer's identity. Yelp refused, the case was thrown out, and Hadeed Carpet Cleaning came out looking like an enemy of the Constitution and freedom itself.
Last year, after guests at a wedding reception held at a Manhattan hotel complained online about the drinks, food, and facilities, the hotel manager fined the bride and groom hundreds of dollars. Word got out and was soon in the newspapers and on the nightly news. Social media exploded with threats to boycott the hotel and drive it out of business.
On these types of bullying tactics, Brian Sparker, head of content marketing at ReviewTrackers, a reputation-management company, says flat-out:
"Any business that wants to create an environment conducive to growth and brand development should steer away from engaging in this type of behavior."
Josh King, general counsel at online legal-service marketplace Avvo, agrees:
"In most cases where such anti-free-speech agreements have come to light, the businesses involved have been met with public criticism and a quick backhand from the courts."
Certainly this is true of colleges and universities. They can't expect to get mixed up in stamping out negative reviews without soiling their reputations.
As with businesses, so it is with schools (although we don't typically think of colleges and universities in this same way). Colleges and universities go to great lengths-constantly updating their facilities, recruiting superstar faculty, offering scholarships, courting college rankings publications-to attract the best students to their halls.
So it only makes sense that colleges and universities would take advantage of any feedback they received to give them the upper hand on their competition.
We're already seeing this with forward-thinking companies who see consumer reviews for what they are: a real-time stream of customer feedback and a way to spot opportunities for improvement before they become costly.
"With real customer feedback," says Sparker, "businesses can track issues the customer may be having."
If colleges and universities can learn to view negative reviews this way, not only will they avoid alienating their customers, but they will also gain intelligence that will spark improvements and make them more competitive in the long run.
Of course, not all reviews are helpful, trustworthy, or worth notice? Take sites like RateMyProfessor, for example. While shreds of data about a professor's performance might be helpful-like the quality of their teaching materials or their overall organizational abilities-most of it is either too prone to subjective judgments by students, who can be petty and immature, or completely irrelevant (see the site's infamous "Hot Score"). With this site and others like it in mind, schools might be asking: Should reviews always be taken seriously? How can universities tell which reviews are worthy of their attention, which ones should be ignored, and which ones should be squashed?
The answers to these questions will be fleshed out as colleges and universities venture out into this new territory. For sure, however, colleges and universities need to carefully consider the power of consumer reviews before they attempt to discount or get rid of them.
To see what real students have to say about the top online colleges and universities, visit our Online Colleges Reviews page today!