Blog Better Week: How to Write a Product Review

This week I’m focusing on how you can improve your blog.  So far I’ve discussed how to build your momentum by scheduling posts ahead of time, the basics of search engine optimization, and how to spice things up with pictures.  Tomorrow’s post will finish up the series with a book recommendation for bloggers of all skill levels.

Bloggers – product reviews are timeless content that will attract more readers, especially readers you’ve never had before. People search the web for product reviews, and if they like the quality of your review, they might stick around and read more articles.

Reviews for enterprise-quality products, like SQL Server tools, are really hard to find.  Some magazines task their writers with banging out quick reviews, but the writers may not have your level of IT experience.  They might look at features, get all excited, and not understand how the features would work in real life.

Two Burned Thumbs Up!
Two Burned Thumbs Up!

Here’s a few tips on how to write a useful review:

Spend at least a month with the product, using it on a daily basis. If you find that the product solves a need, and that you get excited to use the product instead of doing things “the old way”, mention that in your review.  On the other hand, if you have to remind yourself that this product is installed, and if you find yourself cringing when you open it, then that needs to be reflected in your review.

Talk to somebody who’s used it for longer than a month. Ask the vendor for a few contact names of customers.  Granted, these customers have been hand-picked by the vendor because they love the product, but you can still get useful information from them.  Ask the user why they picked the product, how much they paid for it, and whether they’d buy it again.  Ask for at least one thing they don’t like about the product or the company.

Call for support. Even if you’re not having a problem, make one up.  My personal favorite: “Hi, I’m trying to run this on <insert really new or really old OS here>, and whenever I double-click on the desktop icon, nothing happens.”  See how the support experience goes.  If you’re connected directly with the person who wrote the code, that’s a good thing and a bad thing – it means they probably don’t have any customers.  If you’re connected directly with someone who doesn’t even understand the product, that’s just a bad thing.

Make a list of the product’s competitors and ask why they’re different. Don’t just ask the vendor whose product you’re reviewing, either, because those bozos all say the same thing: “Nobody competes with us!  We’re unique!”  Yeah, and so are snowflakes, but there’s a bunch of those too.  Tell your friends about the product, and odds are they’ll know a competitor.  Call or email the competing vendor and ask, “Hey, I’m evaluating Product X – why should I choose your product instead of Product X?”  They’ll be more than happy to tell you all the ways Product X bites the big one.

Introducing - The Pinto Four Wheel Drive
Introducing the Pinto Four Wheel Drive!

Don’t write the review until you can list at least three things you don’t like about the product. If you can’t find those three things, you haven’t used the product long enough.  For example, I’m drinking the Apple Kool-Aid, but even I can tell you three things I don’t like about a piece of Apple hardware within the first month of using it.  (My iPhone: the battery life sucks, it doesn’t fit in docks when it’s got a case on, and the browser keeps reloading pages whenever I switch windows.)

Send your review to the company before you post it. This isn’t an attempt to blackmail the company – rather, you’re asking them if there’s any inaccuracies.  You might have misunderstood how the product worked, or maybe you got some details wrong.  Ask the company’s marketing department to double-check your work before it goes live.

DON’T write too many sponsored reviews. Companies like PayPerPost, ReviewMe and SponsoredReviews offer bloggers $5-$500 per blog post depending on the blog’s popularity and the number of words & links in the review.  Done right, it comes off as somewhat funny and doesn’t offend too many people, as this example post shows.  (It still left me with a slimy feeling, but it’s still the best-written one I’ve seen.)  Done wrong, it exudes spamminess, and readers will unsubscribe from your blog after just a couple of those posts.  I’ve personally avoided these because I’m not in blogging to make money, as I discussed in my series on How to Start a Blog.

Amazon Earnings Report Snippet
Amazon Earnings Report Snippet

DO include an affiliate link to buy the product. Don’t be ashamed to make a little money off your work.  If you’re going to do a book review, sign up for the Amazon Affiliate program and generate an affiliate link for the book.  Use that link in your review article.  When someone clicks on your Amazon link to order the book, you get a 4% cut of the revenue.  Here’s the hilarious part: no matter what they buy, you get a cut, as evidenced in this screenshot of my Amazon earnings report.  If you’re reviewing something that’s not sold by Amazon, consider signing up for Commission Junction, which offers similar programs for other vendors like Newegg. I don’t make much off these programs – around $100/month – but it’s a nice perk.

Include product pictures, and link them to buy the item. People love clicking on pictures, even if they’re not scantily clad models.  Take advantage of that psychological impulse and use your aforementioned affiliate link so that when they click on the picture they go straight to the store to buy the item.  (If this kind of tip gets you all excited, check out Problogger’s series on how they made over $100k with the Amazon Associates program.)

If a company approaches you directly about writing a review, it’s not uncommon to ask for compensation in the form of their products.  For example, if a software company asks you to review their Widgetizer Pro, they’ll include a few free licenses too.  Consider using one for yourself and giving a couple away to your readers – maybe via a contest, choosing a random commenter on that blog post.  However, don’t be suckered into putting dozens of hours of your own time into researching the product, testing it, and writing the review, all in exchange for $250 of licensing.  Put a dollar amount on your time, estimate what it’ll take to do a fair job on the review, and ask the company to either compensate you as a consultant or ask for more freebies in exchange for the review.  If you don’t, then you probably won’t put the full amount of time into the review, and your readers will be able to tell you’re doing a puff piece.  Rule of thumb: if your knowledge of the product consists of reading the brochure, you’re not doing justice to your readers.

If you accept compensation, disclose that in the review. Just mention in the review that the gear was provided to you by Company X in exchange for the review.  If you were paid to write the review, things get more complicated – the FTC is considering holding bloggers liable for their sponsored reviews.

Finally, think twice before you body-slam a product. If a product just doesn’t float your boat, consider returning it to the company and not posting anything on your blog.  Maybe you weren’t the target audience after all, or maybe the product could get better in a version or two.  Send your feedback to the company so they can help improve their work.  If you roast a company’s product in your review, other companies will think twice before sending you a product for review.

This happens to me too – authors have sent me several books for review, but I didn’t end up posting the reviews on my blog.  I’ve forwarded my thoughts over, explained why I wasn’t such a big fan, but wished them the best of luck in their work.  No sense in burning bridges – you only have one online reputation.  Guard it carefully.

At the same time, if the product does something really boneheaded, like putting your production servers in danger, then you should probably identify that product before somebody makes a dumb investment.  After all, a lot of people bought Pintos….

Next Up: A Small Book That Makes a Big Difference In Your Blog Skills

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Great timing for me on this post. I have a couple of books coming to me for review and direction from those who have done it is always a good idea.

    I didn’t even know about the Amazon Affiliate program. even for a few bucks a month it’s worth the link. Not like it’s a lot of extra work.

  • What happens if you click your own link while purchasing things from Amazon? Do you get 4% off?

    I’ve held off doing reviews for several products in my corner of the IT world, because it would be too difficult not to slam them.

    If you’re “forced” to use a product because of your current position, is it fair to do anything more than discuss a tool in anything more than a cursory way? You don’t want to appear negative by telling the truth, but you’d be remiss in your “duties” if you didn’t alert the reader to the very serious deficiencies of the product.

    Therefore, I mostly stay silent. What do you think?

    • I haven’t tried clicking my own link because I think it’s against the Terms of Service, and I don’t want to screw myself out of the income, heh.

      About the reviewing a product you’re forced to use – I don’t have a problem with that at all, but I just try to do it in a way that forces the vendor to improve the product. I’d write up the review, send it to the vendor (both support AND marketing) and ask them to correct any inaccuracies. Their response will tell you a lot about the company.

      At the same time, you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot – find out why you’re forced to use the product. If one of your company execs chose that product personally, and he’s got his reputation personally vested in how the product performs, he’s going to take it out on you. I’ve also ran across unseen connections between companies, like when somebody’s brother-in-law happened to be a company investor, and that’s why the product was in-house.

  • Well, in my particular situation these are add in programs for our main ERP system. Some of them are laughably bad, but my company purchased them before I came here and I’m stuck working with them.

    I refrain from doing reviews of them, which would hurt business for the ERP company because I do not want to appear as a chronic complainer. However, at the same point, I wish someone had done reviews of some of the products before I made the recommendation to purchase based on product demos.

    If this is veering off topic, I’d be happy to discuss this via e-mail if you’d prefer. 🙂

  • Do you have a SQL server DBA blog or a blog writting blog? Your about to get dropped from my RSS….

    • Jason – I write about things I find interesting to help people. If you don’t find it helpful, by all means, you should unsubscribe. I wouldn’t want to take up your time. Thanks anyway!

  • Very well written guide on how to write a product review. I like the points especially “If you accept compensation, disclose that in the review”. With so many paid/biased reviews all over the internet, more and more consumers are becoming skeptical about positive reviews.

    By admitting to have received compensation, you are being honest to your readers and this will help in building credibility.


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