Is a sponsored review’s content dictated by whoever signs the check? Sponsored reviews, i.e. reviews of products or services paid for by the manufacturer or service provider, are increasingly part of the blogosphere. But are they just internet commercials? Less conspicuous spam?
A Matter of Technique
Ultimately, spam is only spam if it is unwanted. A review is only a commercial if it is frivolous hype. A review that conveys useful (honest) information is welcome. The problem with sponsored reviews is often not of charlatanism, but of bad technique. In writing the review, the blogger loses sight of the effectiveness of actually reviewing the product, but instead panders to what he/she believes will please the client — a review of a toaster becomes a devotional, not a testimonial of how well it handles bagels.
Overuse of SEO
Of the more commonly used techniques, overuse of search engine optimization is probably the most common, and frustrating. A prospective consumer trying to find out about a product winds up trapped in multiple web pages of identical phrases. After being guided to the same few sites again and again, he or she begins to wonder if there are any credible sources at all.
If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Lie about It
Bloggers writing sponsored reviews naturally want to please their clients. But their clients know their products well. Their clients undoubtedly devoted extensive time and resources in development, test marketing, and identifying the potential customer base or demographic. A good review of a smaller, inexpensive microwave may emphasize the value and small kitchen footprint, but it should not fail to mention that the product is better suited to a single person who needs to cook microwave burritos, than to a family of five trying to thaw three pounds of hamburger in a hurry. Unqualified endorsements are neither a service to the client nor to the reader. They are not simply a matter of dishonesty, but of bad technique.
Bloggers who fail to disclose their relationship with their sponsors sacrifice their number one asset – credibility. Clarity about this relationship sounds counter-intuitive, but uncertainty spawns suspicion. If the reader knows, “He’s getting paid to say nice things,” the writer has put him or herself on an even footing with his audience. The value of the review will be judged on the merits of its information.
More than Caveat Emptor
Credibility is the reviewer’s greatest asset. If a window cleaner’s spray attachment is annoying to use, it should come out in the review. A blogger’s fair and specific criticism enhances his or her credibility, and may not dissuade the product’s potential consumers – perhaps the sprayer doesn’t sound like such an inconvenience to the reader. But just as praise should be meaningful and specific, so should criticism, “Yuck, I hated it” is no more helpful than, “Fabulous! I was so glad I got it!”
Get the Facts Right
If a blogger doesn’t know how to cook, he should stay out of the kitchen. Nothing destroys the veracity of a review faster than factual errors. Bloggers who don’t know about their products, shouldn’t write about them.
Bloggers who want to maintain their credibility must focus on the product or service, help the reader understand its merits and demerits, and avoid writing reviews that just drop rose petals around their subjects.