I’ve recently published a couple of posts (here and here) about products sent to me by companies to test and give my thoughts on, so this seems like a good time to address my take on the (controversial?) topic of writing reviews of things that weren’t paid for by me or from my personal collection. The topic has been discussed in some excellent blog posts lately, and if you’re interested in a little “behind the scenes” of the stationery blogging world, I recommend reading them:
- “Clarity and Ethics” – Pens! Paper! Pencils!
- “Please Review Bad Pens” – Fountain Pen Economics
- “A reviewer – or not?” – Pete Denison
- “The Myth of the Unbiased Review” – The Pen Habit
On the other hand, I completely understand if you’d rather skip this post. I’ll get back to regularly scheduled programming soon.
Before starting Write Analog, I was exclusively a reader of reviews. As a reader, the whole “sponsored post” thing didn’t bother me, and I never questioned the veracity of the writers’ reviews. However, I understand how some readers may question the practice, and it’s a topic worth talking about.
I’m all for full transparency, and I think openness can only benefit the stationery blogging community. I’m not sure if I can add much to the discussion, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts anyway.
I’m No Expert
Any review I do is just a mash up of the subjective and objective— my views and facts about a product. I’m by no means an expert on anything I review on this site. I’m probably much like the majority of my readers (yes, you). I just write about my experiences with products, plain and simple. . . and hopefully take a few decent photographs.
I think reviews provide a service to readers. I love reading reviews. If I’m interested in purchasing something, one of the first things I do is seek out reviews. One of my primary goals with my blog is to give back to a community that has given me so much, and I hope to do that in part with my reviews. But I’m not a professional reviewer by a mile. I still like to think I can give my opinions on a fountain pen, despite still being a relative novice. I’m a huge movie fan, and I like reading amateur reviews as much as professional ones. Same goes for books.
I don’t take it lightly that my review of something might make you pull out your wallet and spend some money, or go in the other direction and avoid it altogether. Neither one of those options is ever the ultimate goal, but as a reader of many reviews, I know firsthand the effect a review can have.
Why So Positive?
Hopefully I’m not ruining my future reviews, but the fact is that the vast majority of my reviews here will be positive, whether partially or in their entirety. There’s quite a few reasons for this, and I’ll do my best to explain.
I will never solicit a product to review. That’s a promise. If I’m contacted by a company to test and review a product, whether it’s something they sell or manufacture, I will accept or reject the request based on my schedule and the product itself. If I’m fairly sure I’m not going to like a product, I will choose not to review it. I don’t enjoy or look forward to being negative.
I know I sound like my five-year-old son who won’t try some food he’s never even tasted, but I can’t get motivated at all to do the work involved for a quality blog post of something I can’t even get a little excited about. It then becomes a homework assignment. I left those behind years ago, and I don’t miss them. Maybe I shouldn’t have a “screening” process, but my time is way too limited to spend on something I won’t enjoy, and the thought of photographing and writing a bunch of words about it makes me kind of want to puke.
Another reason my reviews will skew positive is that retailers and companies are going to have their own screening process. They’re not going to send crap. They’re spending money for a product and shipping that could otherwise be used on another form of marketing, so they’re going to be smart and send something that will most likely be nice and represent them well. That’s just good business.
Dealing With Negativity
I can’t imagine a product I would totally hate. Everything has something positive about it, even if it’s just a minor detail. I would have to go out of my way to write a wholly negative review. I would have to seek out something and try harder than I’d like to find a product like that. . . and that would be being kind of a jerk, and that’s just not me.
However, the full honesty required of a reviewer is going to result in some negative feelings about products or certain aspects of products. Will my negative views ever be expressed at the levels of my praise? Probably not. It’s just not how I’m wired. If I really like something, it’s easy to pour super-high praise on it. It will probably come across as me trying to sell it to you. Maybe subconsciously I am, because I sincerely want you to experience how awesome it is too.
If I don’t care for something, I’m not the kind of reviewer that’s going to pull out all the stops and eviscerate it. I hope I’m never put in the position to have to write about something I truly can’t stand. I know if I ever do, I will handle it in a way that is honest but not hurtful. I’m not going to lose sleep over a pen, pencil, or other product review.
Interestingly, negative views of things can be the very reasons some readers may want to buy or look into a product. In my review of the Platinum Balance, the medium nib it came with wasn’t my preference. It was broader than I like, and didn’t particularly suit my writing style. It was a fantastic writer, but its output wasn’t what I look for in a fountain pen. Though for some of my readers, I may have been describing the exact type of nib they prefer.
To Keep Or Not To Keep?
I can only speak for myself, but having an even somewhat active blog is very time consuming. Yes, I choose to do this, but the reality is that many of us have meager audiences and do it as a labor of love for the community and products we get all geeky about. To get a product for free is exciting and the most many of us would ever get for our efforts. If a retailer or company reads my blog and reaches out to me to test and review a product, that’s a great honor— It’s not an expectation.
I don’t think bloggers who choose to accept products to review have to follow any code or set of rules— except their own conscience. If I choose to keep a product sent to me because I really really like it, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not a payment or bribe for a positive review. Whether I keep a product or not isn’t going to change the post I publish.
Sending products to bloggers is one form of marketing for companies, and they’ve determined it’s an effective way for them to reach their target audience. Sure, it’s mutually beneficial, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as the relationship is transparent.
However, if I get sent a product that isn’t really my cup of tea or I won’t make regular use of, I will most likely give it away. Doing a “giveaway” of the product is a bonus for the company. They’ll get even more promotion above and beyond the review. Obviously, giveaways are beneficial to bloggers too— they drive traffic to our sites and add subscribers to our email lists. I don’t imagine a retailer would want a used product returned— for them it’s just part of the cost of doing (effective) business.
While I don’t think there needs to be an explicit “code of conduct” or “set of rules” for bloggers writing reviews of products provided to them at no cost, I do feel there are some basic obligations on both sides.
My Obligations To Companies, Readers, & Myself
- Be completely honest and fully transparent.
- Write a post that is a nice blend of objectivity and subjectivity (with a touch of humor).
- Take photos that represent all aspects of the product well.
- Actually do a review if I say I will.
- Publish a review in a reasonably timely manner.
- Link to the product at the company’s site.
- Actively use the product for at least a couple of weeks prior to posting a review.
Company Obligations To Reviewers
- No interference after initial contact and agreement.
- No requests/directions other than which specific link to use for the product in the review.
For the record, I’ve had three companies contact me to test products (two published, and one coming soon!). All three have handled themselves with the utmost professionalism. So far, my experience as a “reviewer” has been exceptional.
While product reviews won’t be the only type of posts I do here at Write Analog, they will be a big part of the site. My hope and goal is for my reviews to be informative and entertaining. I will also strive to include the best product pictures I can at my current photography skill level.
I understand how some readers may feel my reviews, as well as others, are biased or overly positive. Having written a few, I have a whole new appreciation of the process. I can only speak directly for myself, but I’m pretty sure that other bloggers feel the same way— we are giving our honest opinions and experiences about the products we review. I get though how a reader could be suspicious of bias from a reviewer of a free product, but if there is any, I certainly don’t think it’s intentional.
At the end of the day, any blog is about a relationship between the writer (or writers) and its readers. I know how important that relationship is to me, and I would never want to damage that. I’m pretty sure most bloggers (especially in this niche) feel the same way.
After reading lots and lots of reviews, it’s rewarding to be on the other side of the fence. I get to contribute to the community I love and use some amazing products.