Does this look familiar?
Dear Blogger, I recently developed an XYZ app to help bloggers with X. I believe this app would be of interest to your readers. Would you please feature it in a review on your blog?
Okay. That’s a stripped-down version of a typical request for a product review. If you’re a freelance writer and you write for a blog, you’ve probably received a product review request like the one above.
How you handle these requests can make a difference in your freelance writing career. Some writers have even made writing reviews one of their specialties.
In this post, I explore what freelance writers need to know about writing product reviews. I’ll discuss the dilemma that writing a product review can sometimes cause. I’ll touch upon the FTC rules for endorsement. Also, I’ve interviewed two successful long-time writing professionals with differing viewpoints about product reviews. Finally, I’ll list a few pointers for brands that want to approach writers.
While this post specifically deals with product reviews, most of the points also apply to book reviews.
The Review Dilemma
Marketing professionals may not realize it, but writing product reviews can be a problem for the professional freelance writer. Here are some of the dilemmas writers face when they write a product review:
- Reputation. Even if the writer was not paid to write the review, readers often assume that they were paid and are biased. Also, if a writer writes a positive review for a product that later declines in quality, readers may blame the writer. If the writer writes a negative review, they may face the wrath of the product owner.
- Time. It takes a lot of time to write a thorough product review. The time spent on a product review can eat into a writer’s income. And no, a trial version of whatever it is you are reviewing doesn’t count as payment. You can’t buy groceries with the free app you received for review purposes.
- Mentions. Some promoters get sneaky and ask you to insert a mention of their product into articles you write for your clients. Either they are unaware that many editors consider this to be unethical, or they just don’t care. Personally, I always refuse these offers.
- Disclosure. If you receive money or a product in exchange for a review, that fact should be disclosed. Not only is disclosure the honest and ethical thing to do, it’s the law in many countries including the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK). More on that later.
But, consumers need honest product reviews. Here are some of the benefits good reviews offer:
- Educates readers about new products.
- Provides an unbiased alternative to the company’s marketing materials.
- Keeps companies accountable by exposing areas where a product could be improved.
- Allows the reader to compare various products with information from a third-party.
These consumer benefits are why some sites specialize in publishing honest, unbiased reviews. If this is a type of writing you’re interested in, these sites represent a real opportunity.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the regulations surrounding writing reviews.
Product Reviews and the FTC
As I mentioned earlier, if the reviewer receives money or a product for writing a review that fact must be disclosed in many countries. That’s because receiving a payment or a free product may influence the review. These laws are in place to protect consumers.
In the US, reviews fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC guidelines include not only reviews, but social media mentions, contests, affiliate marketing, and other types of product mentions where a writer receives compensation. If you write reviews, familiarize yourself with the FTC’s Endorsement Guides.
The US is not the only country that regulates product reviews. The UK, for example, has laws that apply to product reviews. You can find some of the information about those laws in this government publication.
If you write reviews, familiarize yourself with the laws in your country.
Important note: I am not a legal professional. This post should not be considered legal advice. If you have a specific legal question about product endorsements and reviews, consult a legal professional.
What Professional Writers Say
Many experienced writers have strong feelings about writing product reviews. Recently, I caught up with two writers who have differing opinions on product reviews. Both writers make some excellent points.
Sharon Hurley Hall on Product Reviews
Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional freelance writer with more than 25 years of writing experience. She prides herself on creating well-written, well-researched, and accurate content. She’s written for many publications including Crazy Egg, Mirasee, Unbounce, and many others.
Here’s what Sharon had to say about writing product reviews:
Question: How did you get started writing product reviews?
Sharon: I started writing product reviews even before I started freelancing, writing for reviews sites as a way to keep my hand in while I was teaching journalism. Once I made the decision to go freelance, I started looking around for other opportunities to write reviews of all the new web stuff I was exploring. That came with a site now called Appvita, which then was called What’s New Online. The interesting thing about that site was that there was a template for writing the review which included likes and dislikes, killer features, top tips and alternatives. It was a good way to learn what information absolutely HAD to be included.
Question: What do you like most about writing reviews? What do you like least?
Sharon: The best part of writing reviews is figuring out what features of a product or service will really help readers and finding a way to explain those in an understandable and useful way. My least favorite part is creating screenshots. I know they are often important, but it takes a while to get them right. I can easily spend more than an hour preparing images for an in-depth review.
Question: How would you advise a company that wants to ask bloggers to review their product? What’s the right way to go about it?
Sharon: I’ve had a lot of approaches from people wanting me to review products, and they’re a mixed bag. The best ones check to see what topics I cover so they can approach me with a product I’ll find interesting. They will also accept that I’ll have to provide an unbiased review. And they will also realize they aren’t doing me a huge favor by providing a product for review. If anything, it’s the opposite. An atmosphere of mutual respect goes a long way.
Question: What advice do you have for a blogger who wants a career reviewing products?
Sharon: Start reviewing the products you already use. Post reviews on the sites you shop at as well as on your own blog. And let people know if you want to review particular categories of products or services. Once you get your name out there, many people will come to you. You can also try signing up for advocate programs for the products you really love.
Lauren Tharp on Product Reviews
Lauren Tharp has over sixteen years of professional writing, including ghostwriting. Lauren is the managing editor of Be a Freelance Blogger, a resident expert at Freelance Writer’s Academy, and an editorial assistant for Copyblogger. In addition to her other projects, Lauren also mentors new writers.
Question: What is your number one pet peeve about companies that that contact you to ask you to write product reviews?
Lauren: These companies seem to think that I’m a wizard rather than a writer – or that I’m at least a head editor of the publication I did the review for. I’m not. I was given the assignment and I wrote it. And I thought that would be the end of the story, but nope. Every two weeks or so I get a request from a company asking me to “review” (promote) their product.
For one, I don’t review or promote any products that I haven’t actually used (which is why the original assignment took me so long to write and research). Two, I’m not in a position to get that story published, even if I wrote it. I’m just a writer. I’m not in charge of making those kinds of decisions.
So the “too long; didn’t read” version of my answer is: I wish that the companies who wrote to me understood my role in the writing process and would write to the editor rather than me. Because it’s frustrating to have to say “I can’t help you” to the multitude of e-mails I get.
Question: Is there a right way for a company to go about asking a blogger to write a product review? What advice would you give to a company that wants to encourage bloggers to review their product?
Lauren: One, I would offer to let them actually use the product in question. It’s the only ethical way to do it, in my opinion. And, they should be prepared for an honest review — whether it be good or bad. Not a straight up promotion.
Two, I would ask bloggers who already prominently feature reviews on their own blog. If the review you found written by a particular writer was written for a publication rather than for themselves, then it’s the editor or owner of that publication you want to talk to, not the writer themselves.
Question: In your opinion, what can brands do instead of asking bloggers to review their product?
Lauren: I actually think asking bloggers and YouTubers to review their products isn’t a bad idea. But, again, it depends on the type of content creator.
I personally am not the one to be asking. However, there are lots of other bloggers out there who would love a project like that.
Question: I’m a regular reader of your blog, but some of my readers may not know. What type of article do you prefer to write?
Lauren: On my business blog, LittleZotz Writing, I write advice for writers looking to go freelance. I love writing articles that educate and, hopefully, entertain the reader.
However, I’m pretty much open to writing whatever type of article I can get paid for. [laughs]. And that’s another beef I have against writing reviews: An ethical review is generally something you don’t get paid to write. If you get paid to write a review, then you’re allowing a certain amount of positive bias for the product in, before you’ve even started. It can become a sticky situation really fast – and that’s something I just don’t want to deal with.
For Writers and Product Promoters
This post wouldn’t be complete without some advice for brands that use reviews to promote products. In this section, I describe a few alternatives to reviews. As writers, we can offer some of these alternatives to a company that asks us to review their product.
If you’re thinking about asking a blogger to write a review, remember that there are other ways to promote your product. Here are three ideas of what to do instead:
- Hire the writer to write for your blog. A good business blog can build a community around your product. Many successful brands are known for their high-quality blogs. Sadly, many small and new businesses don’t have enough time to devote to their blogs. By hiring a writer for your own blog, you can elevate the quality of your blog and draw more traffic to your site.
- Build a strong social media presence for your brand. If you don’t have a social media presence already, you are missing a lot of business opportunities. Most bloggers are familiar with social media. Some offer consulting services in this area. They may even help you set up a targeted social media campaign. (Keep in mind that if you pay someone to share about your brand on social media that is considered a paid endorsement. It falls under the FTC regulations.)
- Network in person. Putting a face with a brand still works. Trade shows and conventions are good way to meet your potential customers. Most have a vendor display area where you can set up your product and demonstrate it to attendees. If you get the chance to be a keynote speaker at such a gathering, take it. Although your speech shouldn’t be a sales presentation, you will raise your brand’s visibility.
Brand Takeaway: To successfully market your new product you need several different tactics. If you want online reviews to be one of those tactics, be sure to do your homework. Contact the right person (the owner or editor of the publication, rather than the writer). Make sure that your product is a good fit for the blog’s audience. Remember that the writer must disclose any monetary relationship between the two of you.
Do you write product reviews? Why, or why not?
What advice would you give to other writers wanting to write reviews? What advice would you give to companies who want to approach a blogger about writing a review?
Share your thoughts in the comments.