One of the things that shocked me about becoming a blogger is that when your site gains a bit of a following, brands start to seek you out. You get marked as an “influencer” in marketing-speak, which basically means that you are someone whose opinions drive decision-making when it comes to product purchases. In other words, your content, whether you intended it to or not, helps brands sell stuff.
I started writing reviews on Runblogger of shoes that I bought myself (and I still to this day buy many of the shoes I review), and the reviews became popular. People started using them to assist in their decision making process when it was time to buy a new pair. As a result, I became an influencer in the running world. It’s not a title I sought out or cultivated, it just kind of happened as a result of the work I was doing.
The cool thing about being considered an influencer is that brands start wanting to send you stuff to try and hopefully review. I’ll never forgot the first time I was contacted by a PR agency asking me if I’d be interested in reviewing some shoes. Free shoes??? Of course I was! It was just before Christmas 2009 and I received a big box with a few pairs of shoes and some clothing in it. I had no idea this kind of thing happened, it was all new to me. Why would a brand want to send me free stuff???
The answer is that it’s cheap advertising for them. For the (presumably manufacturing) cost of a pair of shoes they get a blog review that might show up at the top of a Google search result for that particular model name. It’s much cheaper than paying for a month of banner ad space, and if it’s a positive review it’s probably much more effective at driving sales.
Now, four years after I received that first box of media sample shoes, Runblogger has grown considerably and I get solicitations for product reviews almost every day from marketers and brand PR representatives. Most of the offers are at least tangentially related to what I write about (running, outdoor sports), and those are appreciated since they help me do what I do. However, there are also some that have absolutely zero relevance to my site (I could probably start a new site dedicated to fashion eyeglasses!). I also get a ton of requests to post press releases, try out apps, publicize events, support Kickstarter projects, etc. Unfortunately there’s just not enough time in the day to try out or write about all of this stuff. It’s awesome that people are interested in my opinions, but maintaining a focus is key to maintaining my sanity (and managing my inbox!).
Now, to get to the real point of this post. A few months ago I set up a Facebook group for Running Writers. It’s not a particularly active group right now, but one of the questions that came up was what to do when you don’t like a product. This gets to the most critical piece of advice I can give anyone who starts a blog with the hope of becoming an influencer: be honest!
First, if you receive a product for free (a media sample), always disclose that openly. I usually disclose in one of the opening paragraphs. I also will typically say if it was a personal purchase. In the US disclosure is actually required by the FTC, and it’s just a good habit to let your readers know where the stuff you review is coming from.
Second, if you don’t like something, say so. And be explicit about it. Using shoes as an example since it’s my area of expertise, sometimes a shoe is lousy because it is poorly made and as a result lacks durability. If this is the case, I view it as my duty to let readers know so I can save them from buying a shoe that’s going to fall apart (examples of such reviews here and here). Sometimes I try a shoe and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it just doesn’t work well for me. If that’s the case, I write the review and explain my own feelings, but also point out who the shoe might work for. I actually did this for one of the shoes in that very first box I received in 2009, so this approach is one I have practiced from the start. There are also some shoes that I receive that never even make it onto my feet, and in that case I might just opt to not write anything at all since they aren’t a good fit for me and what little I could say would be uninformative since I didn’t use them.
You might fear that trashing a product in a review will damage your relationship with a brand. My response would be that if a brand cuts off a relationship with you because you wrote a bad review of their product, they’re not a brand you want to be working with anyway. In my experience, good brands appreciate negative reviews because they help them improve their product. In that sense they are taking a gamble when they send you something. One of the great things about the blogosphere is that when you have a pool of honest bloggers, bad products (and good products) get identified quickly and word spreads. It puts pressure on brands to make better stuff since a crappy product will get called out. Everyone wins when honesty guides what we do.
I’m going to give you two case studies stemming from my own experience.
First, several years ago I was contacted by someone from a PR firm that represented Skechers with a request to review a pair of shoes. Shoes are my thing, but it was stipulated that the review had to be neutral or positive for them to be willing to send a sample. This was an immediate no-go for me. Dictating what kind of review a blogger can write is unethical. Absolutely unethical. At some point down the road I was contacted again by Skechers (directly by a product team at the brand this time), and I told them about my initial experience with the PR firm and that I was hesitant to work with them as a result. I was assured that honesty was what they wanted, so I agreed to try out a pair of shoes. I gave my honest feedback, and have since come to know the product team for Skechers Performance quite well. I’m in touch with them on a regular basis, and the feedback I provide, both good and bad, actually gets incorporated into new product design. It’s a case where mutual honesty has led to a very positive working relationship, and it’s been a lot of fun getting involved in the product development process.
My second example is Saucony. Those who read Runblogger are well aware that I have an affinity for Saucony shoes. I’ve run my last three marathons and my most recent half-marathon in their footwear, and generally have had nothing but positive experiences. I’ve been to Saucony headquarters a few times, I know some members of their team personally, and they send me media samples frequently. Despite all of this, the most recent iteration of one of my favorite shoes was a bust. I wrote an honest post detailing what I didn’t like about the shoe, and had many readers tell me that they agreed (and others who did not). I’ll admit that it can be difficult to write a negative review of a product when you have a connection to the brand, but it has to be done if you want to maintain your blogging integrity. Has Sacuony cut off contact with me as a result? No. In fact, I asked them on Twitter if they were fixing some of the issues I and others had noted about the shoe in question and they assured that they had. They even wrote a blog post in which they led with the following:
“At Saucony, we run… and when we develop products, we listen to other runners, too. For a variety of reasons, it’s never been easier to gather constructive feedback from our audience, so we relied heavily on these types of insights while brainstorming the updates to the Kinvara 5.”
Some brands do take note of what we bloggers and their customers say, and if you aren’t honest about what you do and do not like it makes it harder for them to improve their products.
I’ll finish with a quote from my buddy Nate. He and I think very similarly on this topic, and that’s partly why we get along so well. He uses honesty as a guiding principal in his motorcycle business:
“The essence of my Primary Aim is….” I wrote, “To always have the courage to tell the truth”. I knew it was right from the moment I wrote it down. Here was something that I could apply to everything in my life. To the business, to the relationships around me, to everything current and in the future. It became my guiding principle. And it transformed the way I approached the business.
Be honest, it’s the only way to go.