Monday, October 01, 2012

Getting Started Reviewing Products

I occasionally mention the products I'm reviewing at the time on Facebook or Twitter, and lately I've had a few friends ask me for ideas on how they can get started reviewing, too. I finally figured out that instead of copy/pasting the basics into multiple emails or FB messages, I'd just type up a blog post so I'd not only have an easy link to share, but so any of my blog followers who are interested can check it out, too!

Before I get started, I want to make one thing really clear- Most of us are not going to get super rich doing product reviews. It would be awesome if that happened, but more likely you'll most often either be given a sample product in exchange for your review, or sometimes a small amount of money or store credit. Also, it's far from being "easy money" or "free stuff". Reviewing a snazzy new mascara obviously isn't as hard as a 12 hour day digging ditches or anything, but most reviews are going to take at least a few hours of your time. Building up your blog's audience and finding leads for companies to work with is going to take even more time.

With those warnings out of the way, here's my advice for how to get started!




1. Start a blog. (If you've already been blogging for a while, you can skip past these first few steps!) Some companies will work with you if you're just on Twitter/FB/etc, but those are few and far between. If you don't already have a blog, blogger.com and wordpress.com are both simple to use, even if you don't have any web design experience. Plus, they're free! You can eventually consider moving to your own domain, but I'd suggest a free option to begin with.

2. Build Content. No matter how awesome you are as a person, nobody is going to visit your blog if there's nothing there worth reading, so start filling that sucker up. While there is no hard and fast rule, many companies will require that you have a certain number of months of posts up before they're willing to consider working with you. New blogs come and go all the time, so they want some proof that you'll be sticking around.

Not sure what to post about? Start with something you enjoy. You can review books you've been reading, restaurants you've been checking out, the new fall shows on TV, whatever catches your attention. Having some reviews you've done on your own to show companies you want to work with comes in handy. You can also post about everyday life, document your quest to organize your house, share your craft projects, etc. You'll generally find that anything you're passionate about is bound to have an audience of like-minded people.

3. Build an audience. The chances of many people just stumbling across your site in the great big internet are pretty slim, so it's your job to get them there. Sharing the link to your new posts on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook will bring the people you already know over to check things out, but unless you want an audience of just your mom, your cousin and two of your coworkers, you'll need to expand.

Any kind of online discussion group is a good place to start, especially if it's about a topic you blog about. You'll also find groups about blogging (I like 20 Something Bloggers) where the members will be especially supportive of your blogging efforts. Just Googling the topic you're focusing on with "blogs" or "bloggers" (ie "book blogs" or "mom bloggers") can turn up some handy sites.

Hosting giveaways is one of the fastest ways to gain followers, but unless you're willing to buy the items to give away yourself, it may take a while before a company will sponsor them for you. But if you're looking to gain followers quickly, it may be worth purchasing a $10 Wal-Mart or Amazon gift card (or something similar that pretty much everyone loves) to use as a giveaway prize.

One last great way to get people to your blog is to go to THEIR blogs. If you leave comments on blogs you like, chances are that at least some of those people will come back and check out yours in return. This does NOT mean you should leave a comment that says "Nice blog! Come check mine out at blog.com!" That's just annoying. Put some thought into your comment, show that you've really read what they've written. You're much more likely to make friends and gain faithful readers by developing a relationship that way.

4. Make it easy to follow. Any company you work with is generally going to want to know how many people your blog reaches. They're obviously not going to want to send you a $200 product if only 10 people are going to see your post about it. It's a good idea to offer at least two or three ways to follow your site, since not every reader will have an account for each method. Some of the most popular are:

  • Google Friend Connect - This is only available if you're using Blogger, but it makes it easy for readers to subscribe to your posts via Google Reader or their Blogger dashboard.
  • RSS Feed - Somewhat like GFC, but open to any platform. This lets your readers subscribe via the feed reader of their choice. The site you use to blog will most likely have an easy way to set this up.
  • Email subscription - Some people prefer to read blogs via email. Again, most blogging platforms have a way to set this up in a few easy steps so whatever you post is automatically e-mailed to your email subscribers.
  • Twitter - Tweeting the link to your latest post with a few attention-grabbing words is an easy way to let people know you've posted!
  • Facebook - You can set up a separate fan page for your site, which people can "Like" just like any other business's page. You can then post links to new posts that will show up in their news feeds. This is also handy for asking for opinions ("Would you guys rather see a post about makeup looks for Fall or a review of this new mascara this week?")
5. Associate/Affiliate Programs. While this isn't quite the same thing as a product review, I'm going to throw it in here because it's kind of on the same line. Many sites have programs where if someone buys something through a link on your site, you receive commission. My favorite is Amazon's associate program, since they sell pretty much everything. Say, for instance, that I review the book Cats Are Awesome by Tallulah Jane. (Sadly, my cat Tallulah is yet to write any books that I know of, but let's just assume she has.) Because I have an Amazon associate account (you can sign up here), when I pull up the page on Amazon where I would normally order that book, there is a little button I can click at the top of the page that says "Link to this page". Clicking that gives me the html options for a text link, an image link, or both. I usually go for text links, because they feel the most natural to insert in a post. For example... "Have you guys read The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling yet? What did you think? As good as Harry Potter?"

I think that what I like about this is that you're not annoying your reader with ads or trying to sell them something. If they do click that link and buy the book, you make about enough to buy yourself a fast food taco. If they're not interested in the book, though, they don't walk away feeling like you've tried to shove it down their throats. And say that nobody clicks your link to buy? All you've wasted is about 60 seconds getting and inserting the link. No big loss on anyone's part.

Plenty of other sites have affiliate programs. There are a lot of clothing sites that offer a commission if you place their banner ad on your site and people click it and buy. For me, the small amount of money I'd likely make from that given my relatively small audience isn't worth cluttering my sidebar with ads. The amount of advertising and affiliate linking you're comfortable with is totally up to you.

6. Keep it Legal - The Federal Trade Comission (FTC) has strict laws and guidelines about blogging in exchange for complimentary items or monetary compensation. (Any kind of compensation, really.) You'll want to look these up and follow them carefully not only for ethical reasons, but because breaking them can land you a serious fine.

To simplify it as much as possible, if you received the dress, lipstick, soda, restaurant meal, hotel stay, *whatever* that you're blogging about for free in exchange for writing about it, you have to say so. If you are receiving money or other compensation for your post, you have to say so. This doesn't have to be anything fancy; I usually just put something at the bottom of the post along the lines of "I received a complimentary product to facilitate my review, but all ideas and opinions are my own."

7. Keep it Honest. Notice that "...all opinions are my own" at the end of my disclosure in #6? Your readers should be able to trust you. If you hated something, you are free to say so. Of course, the most tactful way is to say something like "This product didn't really work for me because blah blah blah, but you may like it if you..."

If you are sent something you don't like, you can always contact the company to discuss it before you post. For example, I was recently sent a clothing item that was just NOT something I would ever wear. I tried to make it work, I really did, but it just wasn't happening. I chose to email my PR contact for that campaign and be honest with them. I asked if they would like me to just write about the other product they sent me, or if they would like to send me something different to review, or if they just wanted me to honestly say that this item didn't work for me. (They went with the last option). Now keep in mind that in this case, there was nothing *wrong* with the product, it just wasn't my style. Other people might like it. But just because I got it for free doesn't mean that I have to pretend it's amazing.

If there IS something wrong with the product you get, you may want to contact the company in that situation as well. If you order the brand new Electronic Floofyfloffy and it arrives shattered into a thousand pieces, it's better to email the company and let them know rather than just posting "This is a piece of junk, it broke before I even got it!" If you receive a scented candle you've heard everyone raving about, but it smells like feet, there's nothing wrong with emailing the company and letting them know you think you may have gotten a bad one. In short, you have a much better chance of building a great relationship with a company if you give them the opportunity to fix their errors before you publicly bash them.

8. Where to Find Stuff To Review. This is both the hard and the easy part. It's a good idea to start out reviewing a few products you already use, just to get the hang of it. This not only helps you to develop a style of writing and reviewing that works for you, but it gives you an example that you can show a company that you'd like to work with. Whenever possible, I always try to include a link to a past review of a similar category when I'm asking a company for something. For example, "I'd love the chance to try out your new Super Snazzy Lipstick! Here is a link to a recent review I did for Pretty Pink Lip Gloss."

There are a few great companies to work with when it comes to having leads and offers for product or website reviews sent directly to you. Here are a couple that I've had luck with:

* Buzz Agent- This is one of the few sites that does NOT require you to have a blog, although it can help. They will match you with new products via a few screening questions, and then you're either sent the products themselves or coupons to redeem for free ones. In exchange, you're expected to tweet, post on Facebook, blog, or talk to people in person about the products. I like that you're free to pick how you share the info, and you don't have to do a ton of different options. Of course, the more you spread the word, the more likely you are to get more campaigns in the future!

*My Blog Spark- This is one of the first companies I partnered with, and they don't require that you have a ton of followers to join! I only get a few campaigns a year from them, but they're a pleasure to work with. (My recent Publix giveaway was sponsored by this company.)

*Social Spark- I usually do one or two posts for this site per month. There are occasionally products to review, but more often they want you to review/spread the word about a website. I only accept if it's something that feels like it will fit my blog. Most posts pay around $15 for around 200 words, so not a bad gig at all.

*Bloggerdise is a site where pretty much anyone can post that wants bloggers to work with them in some way. There are a TON of posts here, but you really have to sort through to find the gems. There are a lot that want you to post about them for little or nothing in exchange, but if you dig enough you can usually find something good.

*Business 2 Blogger Job Board- This is pretty much what it sounds like - a board where you can find businesses looking for bloggers. There aren't a ton of jobs, but most are pretty good quality.

*Net Galley- Here you can get advance copies (usually ebooks) of upcoming book in exchange for reviewing them on Amazon, your blog, or other sites. This is a GREAT resource if you want to build up a book review blog!

*Book Sneeze- This is similar to Net Galley in that you get books in exchange for reviews, but differs in that they have a lot more paper/physical books available (although they also offer ebooks). The subjects are a little more limited than Net Galley, though. Although you can find books on a variety of topics, there's a pretty strong majority of spiritual/religious topics. You also need to complete your review of one book before you may request another. The good news is that you only need 30 followers (GFC, Twitter, FB, just about anything they can confirm) to join!

*Tomoson- I'm listing this one so low on my list because most of the products listed on this site require you to have upwards of 1,000 FB/Twitter followers to be considered. Otherwise, it's an easy way to find products that are looking for reviewers!

*Crowd Tap- This site lets you earn points (that can be redeemed for rewards) for answering questions, but they also occasionally have "Sample and Share" opportunities where you get to check out new products. They do a lot of campaigns for Old Navy that result in free clothes for you and friends if you're picked!


*Products you see on other blogs- If you follow many giveaway blogs (and it's a good idea to, especially in the beginning, to get an idea of how those with a lot of experience do things) you're bound to occasionally see a product reviewed that really catches your eye. The fact that it's on another blog is a pretty good sign that that product's maker is open to working with bloggers- yay! (See "Crafting the Perfect Pitch" below for how to proceed if you spot something on another blog you'd like the chance to review!)


*Anything else! Seriously, y'all, pretty much anything. Contact the publisher of that new book you're excited to read to see if they'll send you a copy before it comes out in stores. Message the owner of that amazing Etsy shop to see if they'd be willing to trade a pair of earrings you've been eyeing for some publicity. Contact the hotel you're planning to stay at next month to see if they will offer you a discount on your room in exchange for writing an honest review of them on your blog and a travel site like Trip Advisor. Halloween is  coming up- e-mail your favorite online costume seller and let them know you'd love to review the costume your kid is freaking out over and help them promote their site. Running a little short on money for cat food this month? Ask your favorite company if your cats can taste test their new formula of dry food. The worst they can say is no.

9. Value Your Time & Creativity - When you're just getting started, it can be tempting to jump at just about any offer that pops up. At some point, though, you need to ask yourself- Am I really willing to spend 3 hours writing and taking photos for a review in exchange for a free $3 lip gloss? If you need to build up content and were planning to review the lip gloss anyway, then by all means go for getting it free. But don't sell yourself short. Your time and your words are worth something. A good review post should be equally beneficial for both you and the company you're working with.

10. Craft a Perfect Pitch- So, you've picked a company you want to contact. What do you SAY to them? This can be super scary, especially the first few times you do it. I think we're pretty much all afraid of rejection, especially at something we're still learning. In this case, though, unless you want to limit yourselves to sites like the ones listed above that will send leads your way, you're eventually going to have to suck it up and ask for what you want. I'm going to give you a basic outline to follow to make those first few e-mails a little less terrifying.

First, it's a good idea to have an email address just for your blog. Most companies are not going to take your request seriously if it's coming from BieberFan4Life@hotmail.com.  (Unless it's a Bieber blog and you're requesting to review a Justin Bieber t-shirt, but I'm guessing that's pretty rare.) Your blog's name makes a good email address, so something like YourBlogName@gmail.com is going to look more professional.

Now that you have your e-mail address, you need theirs. If you found the product on a site like Bloggerdise, you'll already have the contact e-mail, but if it's something you saw on another blog or just a random product you'd like to review, you'll have to do a bit of hunting. Start by pulling up that company's website. Almost every site has a "Contact us!" link somewhere on it. If your're lucky, there will be an email address listed there for PR or media inquiries. Voila! Other times, you'll only have a generic contact email, or even just a form to fill out.

I usually keep my email title simple, something like Product Name Blog Review.

What you actually say in the e-mail will vary depending on the product and your overall writing style, but it should always be kept professional. Here's a general idea of an e-mail I might send:

First, we're going to introduce ourselves!

Hello,

I recently came across (Product Name) on the blog Straight On Till Morning (or whichever site or blog where you saw it, at the grocery store, wherever), and would love the chance to review it on my blog, as well as possibly run a giveaway so that one of my readers can try a bottle! (Make sure to be clear about what you want. If you just say "I'd like to try your products", you're leaving a lot up in the air. If you specify "I'd love the chance to review your Sassy Scarlet and Lovely Lilac lipsticks, and host a giveaway for 2 lipsticks of the winner's choice", they now know exactly what you're expecting.) I have been planning to feature some environmentally friendly laundry detergents (insert theme of your choice here, obviously) and I think yours would be a great fit! I love that it comes in Peruvian Llama scent, that's so unique! (This is a good place to stick one or two details that attracted you to this product. This shows the company that you're actually interested, and that you're not just sending the same form letter to a billion people.) 

My blog, Straight On Till Morning (http://blog.lovemanythings.net) currently has 2485729478 Facebook fans, a Google Page Rank of 5, and receives approximately 10,000 unique visitors per month. (Oh how I wish those were my stats! If you're not sure how many page views you're getting, you can sign up for Google Analytics to keep track. If you don't feel like your numbers are going to impress anyone yet, just be honest and say something like "My blog is new, but I'm working hard to grow my audience.") If you would like to get a feel for my writing style, here (insert link) is a link to a giraffe-scented fabric softener I reviewed last month.

Hope to work with you soon!
(Your name)
(Your url)

So, to review: We told them who we are. We told them what we'd like. We gave them an idea of how many people will see what you write about them. And we kept it fairly short.

If you fall into the "I'm new, but working hard to grow!" category for the stats section, it may be a good idea to throw in a sentence or two about why they should consider you. "I worked in an Italian restaurant for three years, so I'm excited to try your "Meal in a bag" version of some of my favorite foods!" or "As a mom to three active kids, I've been searching for shoes that will look cute without wearing out quickly, and I'm sure some of my readers are, too!" Just give them some idea about why YOU would be able to write about their product with some authority.

After you send the e-mail, all you can do is wait and hope. Getting back a rejection (or no reply) sucks, but I'm living proof that it won't kill you. And I can't tell you how flippin' awesome it is the first time (okay, *every* time!) they say yes. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that you will be AMAZED at what you can get (both in blogging and in life in general) if you just ASK for it.

I hope these tips have helped, or at least pointed you guys in the right direction!  If you have questions or your own tips to share, please leave them in the comments!

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