Honesty: A Guiding Principle for Writing Blog Reviews


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.




About Peter Larson

The Blogologist is authored by Peter Larson. I'm a former biology professor and pretty much an all-around geek who turned a blogging hobby (at Runblogger.com) into a full-time job. I tend to obsess about things that I'm interested in, and right now blogging, social media, science, and running are my passions. In my non-blogging life I work a few days a week at a sports injury clinic and chase around my three active little kids. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+.

Comments

  1. Great post and I totally agree. My own blog has grown considerably in the swedish running blog community and as a result the number of inquiries for reviewing stuff has increased considerably. I am amazed how many items I am asked to write about, many that have nothing to do with my running.

    I have received sample shoes from Inov8, New Balance, Garmin and Swedish sports clothing manufacturer Craft and I always make that clear when writing about it. I am also always objective in my review but with professional brands, with loads of experience with developing shoes etc it is sometimes hard to come up with anything to critize but again, if that’s the case, that is what I’ll write.

    • Even with established brands there are some bad products. I think half of the New Balance shoes I have tried recently have had construction/durability issues. Merrell pulled the original Mix Master off the market due to durability concerns with the upper, that’s why the MM2 came out so soon after the original. Bloggers can be very helpful in identifying issues like this.

  2. Hi Pete-

    Longtime reader of runblogger, first-time commenter! I transitioned from the Nike Pegasus shoe into the Kinvara a few years ago after reading your reviews on the shoe (and so has my husband) and we haven’t looked back! Trying to stretch my 3s as long as possible until the 5s come out!

    I’m excited to read your new blogogist blog. It’s quite timely for me in slowly starting up my own and looking to other successful blogs for inspiration and guidance. Appreciate your willingness to share what you’ve learned with the rest of us.

  3. Pete,
    Great content on a sticky subject. I love writing reviews and have come across a stinker or two and I have to honest. Faking it makes tougher to write.

    I appreciate the case studies too.

    Chris

  4. Your reviews have influenced my shoe selection – I would never have dreamed of wearing a Sketchers shoe (after their Shape-Up debacle) but your reviews and ongoing discussions with them changed my mind (so when I found a pair on a discount rack, I bought them and haven’t looked back).

    I appreciate the honest reviews. Including the “it looks and seems like a good shoe, but it just doesn’t work for me.”

  5. Always loved your reviews and honesty. Nice review philosophy! Thanks

Trackbacks

  1. […] What I love about the 1400v2 is that it has a soft heel and a firm forefoot, it’s lightweight, and the fit is just right for a performance shoe. The 9mm drop didn’t bother me much at all. Given this experience, I was intrigued by the adidas Adios Boost, which has a 10mm drop and looked similar in its construction (the fact that it was the shoe on Geoffrey Mutai’s feet when he won the NYC Marathon didn’t hurt…). I reviewed the adidas Adios 2 last year and was surprised by how much I liked it, though the fit was tight up front and the heel was a bit firm. I contacted adidas to see if I could get ahold of a review sample of the Adios Boost, and they agreed to send a pair out (Disclosure: these were media samples provided free of charge by adidas. Read more about my approach to writing honest reviews here.). […]

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