Posted by: Michelle Mitton | November 17, 2008

Readers’ Panel: How Do You Do Product Reviews?

Dear Michelle,

You do all sorts of neat contests and giveaways so I’m considering you an expert. I want to do a week long birthday bash with a prize for each day. I realize this could get costly. How do you come up with the prizes you offer? Do you ask people to donate or are they offered to you? I would appreciate any advice you have on this topic.

Thanks so much,
Melissa

A Familiar Path

Though I’m crediting Melissa with this question I’ve had it from so many that I had a hard remembering who it was who asked first or asked last–please forgive me if I forgot to mention you and feel free to remind me in the comments.

But at any rate this is a fun question to answer because we all love having someone send us something for free and then ask our opinion on the matter. Nice work if you can get it, right?

For a year and a half now I’ve been doing regular product reviews–or rather I’ve hosted my regular Saturday giveaways where companies send me items for review and I give a sample away to a random reader. I occasionally reviewed products previous to this but it took me a while to get the swing of things and today I’ll share a summary of what I’ve learned about the product review business.

How do you provide prizes on your blog?
There are several different prizes that I offer at Scribbit. I offer monthly prizes for my Write-Away Contests, I offer weekly prizes as part of my Saturday Giveaways and then sometimes I’ll offer random prizes out of nowhere (though not very often).

When I first started the Write-Away Contest in January 2007 I bought the prizes myself which I chose for their Alaskan flair. Alaskan chocolates, ulu knives, pooping moose candy dispensers, you name it if it looked Alaskan I offered it as a prize. This wasn’t hugely expensive, I kind of looked at blogging as a hobby at that point and figured that buying a small $20-25 prize each month was cheaper than, say, going bowling every weekend or buying Pokemon cards (you know that’s a weakness of mine) or something. Blogging was just my hobby and if I spent a little bit of money on it each month with the Write-Away Contest prize it was no big deal.

Then this year I switched over to having the contest sponsored by companies such as Payless Shoes, Suave, The Company Store, plus several independent and smaller stores, instead of going for the Alaskan angle. I was happy to give the opportunity for visibility and sponsorship over to someone else and it’s been like that ever since.

So the thing to be learned from this is that sometimes bloggers provide their own prizes, sometimes they’re given prizes or products from an outside source, you never know though I think the important part is letting your readers know when you receive something for free and when you’re providing it yourself. In my Saturday giveaways I tend to say something like “Courtesy of . . . ” or “Thanks to the generosity of . . . ” just to let people know that the sponsor has provided the prize. Seems best in the interest of full disclosure.

How do you get hooked up with companies to do product reviews?
In some ways this is complicated and in other ways it’s not. The easy answer is that the products find you and they find you when you’re visible in the community through a strong online presence and through a strong readership. Not always, but usually.

The more complicated answer is that major companies such as Suave, Philips, Best Buy, Starbucks, Proctor & Gamble, Avon, Bath & Body Works, etc. hire firms to manage their marketing and advertising. They don’t worry about that kind of thing themselves they pay someone else to do it for them. They hire companies such as Edelman, MS&L, Trachtenberg or Weber-Shandwick and then these firms work with the companies to decide how their products will be publicized.

Eventually the campaigns get assigned to various people who then look for bloggers who demonstrate three things: that they can do product reviews, that they have a target audience for the product in their blogging niche and that they have enough of a readership to be a cost-effective means of publicity.

Smaller companies don’t have the means to hire big firms to do their marketing so they’ll usually do the leg work themselves, sending out emails and looking for bloggers to promote their products. Sometimes these are great products that are just waiting to be discovered and sometimes there’s a reason no one’s talking about them but even though these companies are doing the work themselves they too are looking for blogs with those same three criteria.

How all these people find the blogs they’re looking for is a little less clear in my mind–I should probably start asking how people find me as it could prove enlightening–but I suspect it’s a combination of bloggers commenting at certain sites, their links and visibility, their social media exposure and their presence in offline media. For example, my very first product review came after I commented on a blog where there was a post about Cascade’s new dishwashing detergent. Someone saw my comment and emailed me to ask if I’d like to try the product too. The next day Fedex showed up on my doorstep with a shiny package of Cascade. It was eupohria I tell you.

I started doing regular product reviews and things built and built until two years later after a piece came out in the Wall Street Journal about mombloggers where I was mentioned I had a flood of firms emailing me and asking me if I’d care to try their products. One thing leads to another and once you begin working with one product the process feeds on itself and very soon you’re involved with another and then another until you’re on the call list at a number of places and you’re getting emails from all over.

Sometimes I’ve had other bloggers refer companies to me and then too I met people at BlogHer 2008 such as an ad agency rep for Starbucks who offered me gifts cards to try their newest drinks once I got back from the conference. You can make these connections in all sorts of ways, you’ll find your way along all different routes but once you start those professional relationships you’re faced with basically the same issues.

How do I handle product reviews? Are there rules about how I should do them?
I wouldn’t exactly say there are rules about product reviews but once you start getting contacted by agencies there are a few things to keep in mind as you’re making your way into the world of advertising.

1. Decide what you will charge. Some bloggers charge companies to write product reviews, it’s becoming more and more common in fact. If this is what you want to do give it a try and see how it works, you never know–though remember that larger companies have more resources to pay for reviews while smaller companies are working on more limited budgets.

As for me I don’t charge for reviews mostly because I don’t want to have the constraint of being in the pay of someone who produces a product I may not like. If I don’t like it and they’ve paid me do I still write a review? I couldn’t write one that praises a product I don’t like so would I have to write a bad review just to earn my pay? I haven’t wanted to go there though plenty of bloggers do it and do it well without tarnishing their reputation for honesty so it can be done.

Instead I request a second item to give away. Why? Because the giveaways are popular, because I love giving stuff out to people and by getting the product and using it as a giveaway item I’m in essence reinvesting it in my blog and building readership. Just a win-win situation for everyone.

2. Decide if you require a first hand knowledge of a product. Do you have to see it and try it out to write a review? If so, you’re going to insist on receiving a sample of the product for yourself.

I don’t feel it necessary to have a first-hand knowledge of the product in order to write a good review though if I can use something myself it always makes my writing better and I usually explain this to the firms I work with. I prefer to be able to give readers a first hand knowledge but I don’t think it’s imperative–for me. However, I do think it’s important to let my readers know when I have tried something out for myself and when I haven’t. Once again, there are plenty of bloggers who disagree with me here too and that’s fine, it’s just a preference for me and it’s worked well so far.

3. Decide how you will handle products you don’t like. What will you do if you get something that turns out to be a dud? Is it your duty to warn your readers? Is it unfair to hit a company with a nasty review?

Going once again from my own experience I only accept products that I think I have a good chance of liking (or that I think my readers would like) and it saves me all sorts of heartache that way (though I have to say if you ever do write a scathing review it’s so fun it just writes itself). Only once or twice have I received a product I thought I would like only to discover that it was a dud and it caused a bit of panic. It wasn’t something so well known that the public should be warned, it was just an obscure product that wasn’t worth the money and didn’t do what it said it would do. I ended up sitting on the whole thing until I got an email from the company asking my opinion whereupon I listed my issues with their product.

They thanked me for my feedback and I never heard from Porsche again.

Kidding! Boy I WISH it were Porsche. How can I get hooked up with that company? I think it’s time they introduced a new minivan line . . .

Are there any tips you can give me to get me started?
Well if you’ve decided that you’d like to do product reviews there are a few things you can do. First, keep concentrating on building your readership by commenting, writing good content and being part of the wonderful momblogging community–comment particularly on posts that review products.

Second, try writing some reviews of products you already know and love. Let your readers know what’s worked for you and always keep them in mind when you’re thinking about promoting things. Put the product names in your titles, tag them with the product name in Technorati, do everything you can to put the product out there and get noticed by the search engines and ad agencies.

Third, don’t be afraid to ask for a product to review. If you get a press release advertising a new product ask for a sample to review. If you have a relevant post coming up and know of goods or services that would relate to it then email the companies and ask if they’d like to participate in a giveaway. While those calls aren’t always effective (they’re better with a smaller company that handles it’s own marketing) they can’t hurt. Often the companies want to know more about your blog and blog statistics (i.e. your traffic) so be prepared to pitch yourself when the time comes. I have a press page that I will often direct advertisers to whether they’ve contacted me or I’ve contacted them and it gives some of my bigger awards and offline history so they’ll know that not only am I a professional but I’ve got some clout (maybe?)

Fourth, be conscious of cultivating good relationships with the agencies who contact you. If you get a press release even if they’re not asking you to promote a product you can always respond politely with a “Thank you for the information” or “Do you participate in product reviews?” This lets them know that you’re someone who checks their emails (a big thing), that you’re interested in opening a possible dialog and that you’re courteous to work with.

Finally, be aware that the product review game is supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s a pet peeve of mine that some agencies email me, asking me to promote their products but refuse to offer me or my readers anything in return. They don’t want to pay me to write a review, they don’t want to send me a sample, they won’t give me an item for a giveaway, they just want me to sell their products for them for free. It’s a little insulting–I work to maintain a professional demeanor with both ad agencies and small shops so to treat me as if I’m just there for their advertising pleasure and not as a legitimate publication irks me. Give me something that helps me and my readers.

But turn the situation around and remember that once you enter into product reviews you’re working to promote someone’s product and help them grow their business just as they’re helping you to grow yours. Be responsive to emails, be polite, be customer-service oriented and be honest. Let them know what kind of a response you got from a review, look for ways to make your reviews better and more effective, ask them about upcoming events they might have that you could mention in your reviews, don’t bury the reviews under other events so that readers miss them.

When you’re doing product reviews right then the other company’s business grows, your readership grows and your readers learn about things that might make their life more enjoyable–a three-way win. You can’t put a price on that kind of relationship.

***

For some other posts on doing product reviews I’d recommend How Do I Become a Product Review Blogger? from Momadvice.com. I specifically left out a few items here in my post because she covers them there–such as how to organize and manage the actual product reviews you may receive.

Also, listen to the podcast at Behind the Blog talk radio’s interview with Stephanie Precourt from Adventures in Babywearing who gives some good advice about working with sponsors and cultivating good relationships with companies.

Sponsored by Dimples and Dandelions–for the Serena and Lily Bedding Collection for Children.

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