I really like your reviews! Do you have any tips for me??
I put that quote there so as to avoid tooting my own horn, but oh well: I apparently write great product reviews, so much so that I’m frequently asked for tips. Tips which, despite how it may look, I don’t have. I don’t have tips, because I’m a winger. I wing my reviews, and they just…work.
So I’m going to try something different. I’m going to just wing this post, at the same time giving it my all, so that perhaps I can explain my review process to you. Also, I just finished watching the winter premiere of Legacies and can’t be bothered to fold my laundry or start a new load of it, so here’s to procrastinating.
This post is for any product review, including books and software.
Table of contents
- Reviews kill many birds with one stone
- Regardless of whether you received monetary compensation, you may be subjected to income tax on those items.
- Writing reviews is like telling a story—your story with the product.
- Why did you try this product?
- What was your first impression?
- What problem does it solve?
- Pros & cons, likes & dislikes
- Who would best benefit from this product?
- Include pictures of the product in your everyday life
- How does this product compare to others on the market?
- Give the product deets and specs.
- Summarize your review in a few sentences.
- KICK it: The review prompts are not black-and-white.
Reviews kill many birds with one stone
Sometimes, people ask me for tips on writing review blog posts because they want to get into the fun of it. There are even plugins that help retain the fun of it, depending on what you’re reviewing and whether you review enough of it for a plugin. However, reviewing things isn’t always fun. Regardless of plugins or templates, several parts of it will remain as work and lose its excitement after a bit.
This isn’t to say those people shouldn’t do reviews; it just means that there is a lot of responsibility that comes with them, and it should be taken seriously.
Reviews = testimonials
Reviews are used for advertising products. Even if your blog is about love and rainbows and unicorns and ponies and fun times, your reviews are still a professional front. You become a marketer for that product, whether your review is positive or negative. Your words might even be used to advertise that product, depending on the review arrangement (akin to a contract, and emails count). Your review makes or breaks a product.
They’re not unlike what you may write about a person you’ve worked with, or a recommendation for a position. It’s all the same thing.
Reviews are a form of networking
Ewww, I said the N-word. But I’ve been doing a bit of networking, and it turns out it’s not that bad. If you’re introverted and/or just not into peopling, there is what I call “alternative networking”, or indirect networking: networking without the formal hassles. See, Charlise hates to people, so I went on a hunt to determine how a blogger like her could do well blogging regardless of her network. I’m not saying not to have a network—just that meeting other bloggers/reaching out to other companies can be daunting, or just flat-out stressful, and potentially more trouble than it’s actually worth.
Enter alternative networking: give shout-out on social media here, tag in an Instagram photo there, talk about your favorite brands, etc. It’s easy, in this regard, to post reviews as a way of networking.
Reviews allow you to recommend products and talk about them.
I mean, obviously, right? But here’s the thing: People know you, because you hopefully post at least 80 percent of non-sponsored stuff (excludes free stuff in exchange for reviews; see below), the socially-acceptable ratio (80% YOU, 20% promotion) when it comes to blogging and sponsored posts—and a common requirement when it comes to working with brands, because anything above 20% in terms of what you’re advertising, and you’ve got junk.
Your readers develop trust for you because you’re sharing your recommendations with them after getting personal. Reviews, as with all sponsored content, should not read any differently from your non-sponsored content; it should garner the same engagement (or more) than your typical content. If (or when) it doesn’t, there’s a problem.
When I first started posting book reviews on my blog, they didn’t receive the same reactions as my other posts—but this wasn’t a huge issue for me because
- I seldom comment on book reviews, too, despite reading them; I don’t usually share them, either.
- Not many book bloggers read my blog; it’s not my intended/primary readership (at least it wasn’t).
Sometimes, the problems with sponsored content require taking a step back and adjusting our expectations; other times, the problems with sponsored content lie in the execution—whether that’s the audience you’ve cultivated, how you created the sponsored content, you didn’t take it seriously (like a business exchange, as that’s precisely what it is), or a combination of the previous.
Reviews allow you to assert your expertise, but also your personality.
Allow me to introduce you to my favorite YouTube vlogger (and the only one I follow): grav3yardgirl. She’s got this series entitled “Does This Thing Really Work?”. She gets the products from fans, companies, Target’s “As Seen on TV” section, or stores as per fan recommendations. The first video I ever watched of the series was for SodaStream, and it was enough to hook me for life.
Admittedly, the bulk of this grav3yardgirl addiction is because she’s totally my woman crush everyday. But aside from my lesbianism, this was my first impression of Bunny. I learned about her personality from one video. I felt like I was seeing myself in this one video. I’m totally her!
And that’s why people read blogs/watch vlogs. That’s why the personal blog/vlog will never die.
Reading blogs allows us to live vicariously through a surrogate (the respective bloggers).
Those ‘loggers are selling a lifestyle, even if they just use affiliate links. That’s the big “secret”. Their lives sound so much more amazing than our own, because that is the lifestyle they’re selling—and that’s the lifestyle we want.
(Of course, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, because this is SO not a black-and-white thing, but because I don’t want to go off on a tangent, it will probably be taken as such. The point is relatability. You sell a particular lifestyle—yours—and, depending on how glamorous it is, your audience will live vicariously through you. They go where you go. They experience what you experience. That’s how you make a successful blog. Anyways.)
So you’ve got this product, and this assertion is a double-edged sword:
- It’s your responsibility to educate the brand/company in a concise, professional way so they understand the importance of reviews and that all-positive reviews are pointless.
- You get to show your audience you know what you’re talking about—or, if you don’t, why the product works for you despite knowing so little about it. e.g. my Ipsy reviews despite me knowing next to zilch about makeup.
Regardless of whether you received monetary compensation, you may be subjected to income tax on those items.
It depends on where you live, but for the US, even products you receive for free—regardless of what you use them for—are taxable income.
This means that, despite companies sending you “free” product “in exchange for a review”, you are essentially accepting products as payment, which you then have to calculate in your income taxes. You’re liable for the taxes, not the companies.
I’m not saying this to deter you—to make you turn away from reviews altogether. I’m telling you because it’s the least romantic, least popular thing ever to include in posts about writing reviews, but is important to include regardless. I haven’t seen this piece of wisdom in many other posts—and definitely in no book review how-to posts.
This is why bloggers typically take one of some other routes with reviews:
- Forgo reviews altogether, only doing sponsored posts/campaigns
- Determine whether the product is worth it for the relationship with the company; initial product is on you, but future products will be sponsored monetarily for the service
- Paid for review + given free product
- Determined to make up for cost of product via affiliate income
- Helping a friend/relative
Paying for product reviews (#3) is controversial, but it does not necessarily hinder the review; it’s about integrity and remaining genuine, and if you go this route, make sure you create an agreement that includes what to do if your review drops below three stars or something. That said, it’s your job as the influencer to explain why negative reviews ≠ bad reviews, but I’ll get to this last.
My process works regardless of how you received the product, but it’s definitely something you should keep in mind.
Writing reviews is like telling a story—your story with the product.
When I considered starting a handmade business, the lesson that stuck with me is that the customer experience = your brand story. Every step of the way, they should be experiencing the story you want your brand to tell.
It’s simple to say, “Oh, I liked this,” or, “This wasn’t for me.” Anyone can do that. It’s harder to go into detail—why did you like it, what’d you like about it, why wasn’t it for you? Depending on the product, these questions might feel tedious—but they’re important, because they’re the same questions people use to determine whether to buy something (or even just if they want it). Your readers need to be given the chance to determine whether that product is for them; they need you to provide ample information so they can paint a picture of what their lives will be like with this product.
Wow, Jane—so helpful! But how do I even do this?!
1. Why did you try this product?
Pretty basic, right? Your first thought could be that you saw it in the store, but you didn’t want to risk buying a whole package and losing cash, so you emailed the brand for a sample (I did this for Smarty Pants). Or maybe it’s, “Well, the company offered it to me for free, so…”
Whatever your answer, you need to go deeper. I recently claimed a copy of a nonfiction Christian book from NetGalley because, despite the book being in the “Read Now” section and me not having to pay for it, I felt the book was something I needed to read. I decided to give it a whirl not because it was “free”, but because I felt like the book was calling me. The synopsis made me feel like there was finally another person in the world who views nature as something akin to church, with all its beautiful everything all about.
Like Bunny (grav3yardgirl), it’s not uncommon for bloggers to try things suggested by their audience. It’s worth mentioning, at least casually, because it lets your people know you care, e.g. “Christine recommended I try SunButter, so here goes!”
In conversations with family and/or friends, talking about various products in our lives usually stirs up an introductory—that is, how this product came to be in your life.
- I bought Udderly Smooth hand cream for myself several months after I included it in a mason jar “Mommy Survival Kit” baby shower gift to a cousin, because I kept thinking about the name of it and was low-key worried I’d given her lotion for her boobs despite it very clearly saying “hand cream” on the container (and we’re not close like that). I also noticed it lacked ingredients I’m allergic to. I’ve been using it ever since!
- Ricola is the only medicinal lozenge brand I trust, because every other brand has soy [lecithin]. I’d always loved Ricola, but it wasn’t until after I was diagnosed with a soy allergy that I stopped to look at the cough drops packaging (generic brand, Halls, Luden’s) to see what was making my using them so futile. I’d try a non-Ricola brand, and I’d just get sicker.
- OfBlue is my web host because I needed affordable, trustworthy website hosting in a pinch. I’ve known Isi and Nancy, the ladies behind it, for years.
Your answer doesn’t have to be long, it just needs to be viable. Explain how it happened into your life like you’re telling a friend about it.
2. What was your first impression?
This starts with the package. If it’s an online product, or online-based business or online communication is your primary connection to the company directly, then it begins with the initial interaction.
This might be where your peeves kick in. Personally, I prefer when people don’t hound me for reviews they’re not even paying me for. I find it disrespectful, regardless of launch/release times and their own deadlines. I don’t owe them anything. I retain my autonomy and the ability to decide how I spend my time—even if that means their product is the least of my worries. I have a life. It doesn’t revolve around doing sponsored campaign work for free. So…this is where my peeve kicks in.
Courtesy of influencers, brands/companies cannot skate by without ever getting to know their customers. Millennials changed the marketing world by adding influencers to it. Millennials want real people and less celebrities.
I used to say it didn’t matter, but after attending so many food shows, it does: How the brands/companies/representatives treat you, potential client or not, is as important as the product. It’s part of their brand story, your experience.
And their story is everything. So what do you think upon first opening that email? Do they address you by name? Or that package—is it scented, does it have something extra? Is it wrapped because it’s the end of the year or near your birthday, and they wanted to do something a lil’ special? Do the colors/fonts coordinate with their branding?
How does all this make you feel?
Side note: For this question, it highly depends on whether you received a package designated for bloggers/influencers/press OR whether you received a package the same as any other customer would. There is a difference, in that the special publicity packages do not always resemble the actual customer experience. Also: YES, you can ASK for the same kind of package a customer would receive, if you prefer.
3. What problem does it solve?
Why did you subscribe to Netflix? What’s so great about Amazon Prime in your life? Why did you download that new game? How is joining X community about Y beneficial to you?
This question is often asked in regard to people selling the product, but it’s important to include in reviews, too. Sometimes, it doesn’t solve the intended problem. I received wet toilet paper akin to baby wipes to review, but wound up using them on my face and found that they made all my acne disappear. I included this in my review to the company, saying I’d only tried it on my face because the face is a sensitive place; it was a test to determine whether it’s soft/safe enough for the face. The wipes have since changed, and I stopped using it since discovering Simple Skincare’s wipes (although I now follow a skincare routine excluding Simple Skincare).
It’s important to include this kind of information. I’m positive I reviewed it on my blog, but can’t find the post—so please don’t misunderstand my lack of linking it to be that you shouldn’t publicly announce things like this. Every consideration (or answered question) before this one—it’s all important for your review. Your review = your story with the product. Your story can unlock someone else’s prison.
I know it’s a lot of pressure to put on a thing, but it loosens up over time. You become aware of these questions, and especially this one—they all become second nature, as if you’ve been doing this all your life.
If you struggle to answer this Q regardless, here are two alternatives: Does this product solve the problem you expected it to? Did it fulfill its purpose in your life, for however long it needed to? Go back to your why.
4. Pros & cons, likes & dislikes
Quite rarely is it that people have no issues with something they’re reviewing. A lot of people feel as though the platitude “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all” should apply to reviews—that is, you should not review something if you have anything bad to say about it.
There are a few problems with this mindset:
- all-positive reviews come off as fake
- too many reviewers create 100% positive reviews in hopes of receiving more products to review/continue relationships with that company
- lack of objectivity creates false hope for potential customers
- you’re not being genuine with your audience
- focus is on pleasing the company/brand—not on integrity with your audience
In the book blogging community is a common statement:
Book reviews are for readers, not authors.
This is true with non-book products as well.
Reviews are for customers—not companies.
At least, primarily. Companies may send products before they’re released, in hopes of receiving constructive feedback before it launches. I kind of did this with the Lily Cup Compact. This is different, because during this time, reviews are more for the company than potential customers to gauge whether the product is ready for release (see #3’s wet toilet paper example).
Companies come second
Your readers/audience comes first. If you’re convinced otherwise—or focused elsewhere—then you should not be doing reviews.
Constructive product reviews are not about whether they’re going to hurt the companies’ feelings. Constructive reviews are important, because they
- help the customer make an informed purchase decision, and
- help the company determine
- customer demographics (or profiles) and
- what needs improvement/where improvement is needed.
Reviews should not exist to please the companies, because companies are not their own customers.
It’s your responsibility to explain why negative reviews ≠ bad reviews/bad publicity
Your responsibility, as an influencer partaking in this venture, is to educate the companies so they can learn how to do their jobs better. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of not liking it.
I think the reason my reviews work really well is because, according to feedback from other people, I don’t bash the product just because it wasn’t for me. I try to offer solutions as to whom it might work best for. I explain why it’s not for me, but I continue on with it despite my bias.
In one instance, I received a product to review for a chance at receiving compensated leads to people receiving this product for free (just paying the $4 for shipping and handling). I watched the short film, and it didn’t sit right with me because it felt as though autistic people were being made fun of. I didn’t review it. I explained to the company why I couldn’t, and they understood. I didn’t review it on my blog, but I still approached the company despite my anxiety and told them I would if they wanted me to regardless; I gave them the option. This is a rare occurrence for me; I’ve only done it twice.
Sometimes negative reviews are necessary, but depending on your morals they mayn’t be applicable for public consumption.
Most times, negative reviews carry potential to increase a company’s authenticity and/or product sales. A couple times, I’ve bought/started using products that didn’t work out for other people, because their reviews provided ample information for me to make an educated decision. Instead of plainly disliking it and trashing it, the reviewers were details about why it didn’t work. A few times, I’ve received comments or emails from people saying that my review interested them despite it not being happy-go-lucky. If you’re familiar with Adam Sandler’s works, it’s quite a Happy Gilmore situation for the thing you’re reviewing.
5. Who would best benefit from this product?
You may’ve already gathered that you’re not the ideal customer, thanks to the other questions—this is great!
It’s good to consider for yourself who would benefit from that book or movie or blender or stationary you’re reviewing, whether that’s people like you or people with totally different lives. This is where you build a little more trust with your audience, because you’ve got to be frank with them: this is the part where you tell them who you’d recommend it to.
“For everyone” is inadequate.
It’s demeaning to see a product recommendation by anyone tell me everyone needs it. I see this attitude everywhere—Grammarly, Genesis, Gutenberg, non-CC webinars, pressure to create video recipes (despite being hard of hearing). I’m going to stick to Grammarly for this example.
I tried Grammarly—and I really wanted to love it. I did the free trial of their premium packages. The only suggestions I received were tips on how to dumb down my writing, because I use big words and even the not-so-big ones (e.g. “surmise”). I spell well, save for the times when I’ve been thinking too long, and my diction is perfect until my language impediments (malapropisms and spoonerisms) kick in because I’ve been going too long. But I don’t need a mediocre tool that forces me to compromise myself in order to please it. What’s more, after the free trial ran out, it became another freemium service I’m so over: It highlighted parts of my writing with notes that I need to upgrade for it to tell me about the issues it has with it.
“For everyone” is potentially ableist.
Gutenberg, anyone? It was released into WordPress Core despite pushback and sans full accessibility.
Developers in support of the new editor said, “Gutenberg is for EVERYONE!” and “EVERYONE needs Gutenberg!”
The general consensus among the supporters was that if you have issues with Gutenberg, it’s because you loathe change—it couldn’t possibly be because you need something as accessible as the classic editor.
I wouldn’t tell someone everyone needs to try out a product unless it was one of those things that are comparable to classic literature. You only get a few “EVERYONE NEEDS THIS THING!” passes, and if you put it into every review, you’ll come off as insincere.
You need to be really specific about who you think the product is for.
Because your opinion matters. This is the part that makes or breaks your review, because it’s the part wherein people will know who you’re putting first—readers or the company.
You also need not to degrade people the product isn’t for.
Taylor Swift isn’t for everyone, but it’d be ill-mannered of me to stan her by saying, “Taylor Swift isn’t for you because you can’t handle her awesomeness.”
It’s never okay to insult people just because what you’re selling (because review = what you’re selling, basically) is not a good fit for them.
I’m not sure whether it was a tweet, Facebook status, or blog post, but I once read
I understand the statement they were going for, but that is so ignorant of the diverse population that is humanity, never mind people who are allergic to it and/or haven’t the privilege to eat peanut butter where they come from!
Someone not reading your favorite book doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
Someone not interested in blenders doesn’t mean they don’t care about their health.
Someone who reads your blog, but is not the perfect fit for what you’re reviewing, is not a problem to be solved—passive-aggressively or directly.
So leave out the whole “this product isn’t for you if you don’t care about X”, because passive-aggressive reverse psychology is grotesque.
I still included that “anyone/everyone”, but my details single people out more specifically—in a good way—because I have carpal tunnel syndrome and want to maintain good oral hygiene without my hands cramping up.
I go further by explaining why I use them despite them not being an eco-friendly product and how I dispose of them, in the event someone else bears that same hesitance.
6. Include pictures of the product in your everyday life
This is where it gets tricky, but with Paperless Post, I learned even digital products are applicable to this step! Books, though, might be slightly harder to combine personal pictures and their reviews. It’s not completely impossible, but it’s one of those things that don’t necessarily require more than the image of the book cover itself to be included—you can get away with more in regard to book reviews.
7. How does this product compare to others on the market?
I’m referring to the pricing, quality, and everything else relevant to this question that I can’t think up at the moment.
In Monthly Movies, an old blog column, I’d share movies similar to the ones I’d watch that month. More people than I expected loved the column because I shared similar movies. Or sometimes I’d say what the movie reminded me of or share lesser known facts.
The first time I did this was when I reviewed my first menstrual cup, by comparing/contrasting it against a leading reusable menstrual disc (Instead Softcup; now Softdisc). The company wound up being able to use it as a real-life answer to a frequently asked question, so it revved up a lot of traffic in the long run despite it being a review.
In my January 2019 Ipsy review, I compared the quality and price of an eye brush to those I might find at the dollar store, because it is what I use when I consider purchasing something.
For this one, just consider what you would want to know if YOU were the reader and this was someone else’s review.
8. Give the product deets and specs.
You might have already mentioned where you bought or received it, as well as a few things about it. But isn’t it nice to see information about a book or computer in a tidy list? To have a list of where you can buy the item being reviewed, or a link to a locator map?
Make it easy for the people reading your review to buy it, if they want to. No one wants to jump through hoops to buy something.
9. Summarize your review in a few sentences.
This is where you wrap your review up in a pretty bow. It’s your “overall”, your “conclusion”.
Since this part requires more YOU than anything I could explain, I’m marking it as self-explanatory.
If I’m reviewing something with a graded rating (e.g. stars), I reference why I didn’t give it those stars instead of just naming the positive parts.
KICK it: The review prompts are not black-and-white.
Some things mayn’t be needed, depending on what it is. You don’t have to preface it by saying, “I bought this because…”, “My first impression is…” and “The problem it solves is…”
KICK it: Keep it casual, ‘K?
Overall anatomy of a great review
Everyone’s review process varies, but the gist of what companies seem to want is:
- first reaction/thoughts regarding package/opening the product
- the problem you expected the product to solve
- photos in action (of you using the product)
- what you liked/disliked about the product
- who you think the product would work best for
- creative input (e.g. unique ways you used it, such as using wet toilet wipes on your face and it clearing your acne instead of the conventional use)
Gathered from feedback on my blog, Char’s blog, and others’ review posts, this is what readers want in a review:
- why you decided to try the product (regardless of whether you paid for it)
- how it ties into your blog values/needs/life
- photos in action + a bit about how it works/its purpose
- pros and cons
- whether the product would suit THEM (basically “who you think the product would work best for”)
- quirks (e.g. thoughtful packaging, other uses, creative ideas—like whether it’d make a good stocking stuffer, etc.)
So, really, the goal for me is to try to tie all of these things in together.
I definitely want to stress that you should try to include the good and the bad about products, because reviews that are 100 percent positive scream, “I’M JUST SAYING THIS BECAUSE I GOT IT FREE/WAS PAID/ETC.” Sometimes it’s hard to find fault with a product, but if it really comes down to that, consider asking a friend or stepping away and returning to it.
People don’t want to read sales pitches—they want you. Blog readers read your blog, which is essentially you.
On the other hand, companies have a tendency to get defensive and upset. They want to control the image of their product—its reputation—even though it’s in customer’s hands. The first hundred times this happens is nerve-wracking, but I’ve learned that this is where it is my job to explain my expertise. While trying to be empathetic, I reply with something like this:
I understand reading a review from a brand perspective feels a bit daunting. In my experience, writing positive-only reviews brings back more negative backlash from my readers, because they assume I’m only saying positive things because I was influenced by the sponsorship. When that happens, it’s not good for either of us.
One of the reasons consumers flock to blog reviews these days is because of balanced reviews.
Next month, I will send you a copy of the feedback I receive from the review so you have something more to track and can compare it against my review.
Here’s why this works:
- I validated Megan’s concerns. Companies want to know pros and cons, but they have a hard time when the cons are public. In order to stress why my review didn’t exclude the cons, I had to explain how futile it would have been had it been solely positive.
- I emphasized my expertise. If you create and post product reviews, you are expected to conduct yourself professionally. It may be fun, but at the end of the day? This is a business exchange. This company rep you’re emailing could be working for another company down the line. Once you accept any product to review on an influential channel, child’s play is over.
- I offered evidence. My “evidence” is campaign reports. I don’t do this for companies unless in the case of paid sponsorships and companies I really want to build an ongoing relationship with. Providing “evidence” gives this person something more tangible than a blog post to take to THEIR BOSS and thus impress.
Don’t be scared of companies! Conduct yourself professionally. Hold your own court by researching statistics regarding relationships between bloggers/influencers and consumers, because this is what sells you. If you react childishly or bend to their will out of weakness, they don’t respect you—they just see you as someone they can walk all over…and that helps none of us.
Working with companies…I’d say you need to find some common ground, because your first priority should be your readers—and you need to defend their preferences and you (you, because your readers read YOU).
It’s much better to explain things with professionalism than to play the role of an angry consumer and threaten to report them to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
Writing genuine reviews takes practice, but it’s not impossible. These tips apply to even online shops where you might leave a review. The length is a factor to consider. I doubt I’ll ever write a review as long as this post, but length is conditional when I write my reviews. What it is and what I’ve to say about it determines my review’s word count.
What do you like about writing reviews? What do you despise?
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