Lately several people have asked me how they can get things to review without having to pay for them. I spend most of my time these days reviewing things from various companies–primarily kitchenware and books–so I have some experience in this area. Here, then, are my “secrets” for becoming a professional reviewer.
First of all, you have to look at the situation from the publisher or manufacturer’s point of view. The manufacturer wants to be sure that he isn’t being tricked into giving free product away to some random person who isn’t a legitimate reviewer (the more expensive the product, the more important this will be). Therefore, the burden is on you to prove that you are a legitimate reviewer — and thus, the burden is on you to be a legitimate reviewer. You can’t snap your fingers and declare that you’re a reviewer; you have to earn that label.
Earning through experience
One of the most important components in proving that you are a legitimate reviewer is collecting a body of published reviews. Whether you publish them on your own web site, some other internet site, magazines, or newspapers, all that matters is that the venue appear to the manufacturer to be a reasonably professional and legitimate one.
Don’t expect a manufacturer to see you as a legitimate reviewer if you’ve only been writing reviews for a month, or even several (the length of time will depend on the company). Don’t expect someone to see you as a legitimate reviewer if you’ve only published five reviews. I didn’t start requesting review copies of items and books from companies until I’d been reviewing for more than five years (and had more than 350 reviews on the internet), although some publishers approached me themselves a couple of years earlier than that. The standards will vary by company and product, but I’ll come back to that shortly.
Earning through audience
Part of proving your legitimacy to a manufacturer is proving that there is value in sending you an item. This means you need to prove that others read your reviews. With traditional magazines this is easy; companies have probably heard of the big-name magazines, and for smaller ones you can give circulation figures. Other people’s web sites can get trickier. At some sites I can quote my reviewer rankings, but not all sites provide such measurements. Try to get some sort of statistics regarding site visitors or page views, if you can.
If you have your own web site, try to get access to statistics regarding the number of unique visitors to your web site. You might also discuss average page views over time, or, if you have some sort of newsletter, number of subscribers. Don’t overwhelm the manufacturer with details, but do provide enough straightforward information that he can make a judgment as to your value as a reviewer.
Earning through professionalism
You must behave as a professional if you want to be seen as one. Your communications with manufacturers should be straightforward and clear. When sending email, don’t use strange fonts and colors or smiley faces.
Spell-check everything, and make sure that your reviews (and every other communication you produce) are well-written. Keep a couple of good grammar books around and brush up now and then. If you don’t write well, you won’t be taken seriously.
Be polite and professional when you approach companies. Track down contact information for their marketing and publicity divisions rather than customer service, as customer service people probably won’t have any idea how to handle your inquiries. If you can get a specific name, address your correspondence directly to that person.
Keep the letter short and straightforward; remember that the time of the people you’re contacting is valuable and don’t waste it. Limit yourself to one topic per paragraph. Explain what your qualifications are, where you’ve been published, and what kind of audience you have. Provide a few suggestions for items you’d like to review (I’ve found that, in particular, publishers tend to prefer that you request specific items), but don’t provide more than a few and make it clear that you’re happy to review whatever items they most need reviewed. (However, if you have restrictions on what you’re willing or able to review, do note that.)
Include a link to or text of a sample review. Pick a review that isn’t too long yet showcases your abilities. Try to make sure it’s a review of something related to the products the manufacturer produces. If you’re approaching a kitchenware manufacturer, don’t send a sample book review. I also give the URL for my full collection of reviews so that the manufacturer has the option of browsing more. Do not send a file attachment unless someone asks for one–emails containing files often get blocked, dropped, or stripped due to virus concerns.
You may not care to do this, but I also wrote up my review philosophy and included a link to it. This answers up-front the questions that some companies have had about impartiality and so on. Consider using it to answer any questions that multiple manufacturers ask you — it saves time for both you and them.
Compartmentalizing things in this manner rather than enclosing all of this information in your letter wastes less of the recipient’s time. He or she can read the letter and then determine whether any of the rest of it merits a look.
Differences between manufacturers
Different industries have different traditions and needs. For example, in the publishing industry it’s traditional to send out review copies of books. It’s expected, and there are very few publishing houses that don’t have some sort of process for this. It’s mostly a matter of finding out what that process is and how to become a part of it (or whether you even can). The greatest difference is among three categories of published book: self-published books, small-press books, and books from larger, traditional publishing houses.
Since experienced, well-known reviewers don’t have time to review everything, the smaller publishers and self-published authors are often eager to find someone willing to review their books. I sometimes find I get more inquiries than I can handle from these quarters. If you want to get review copies of books, start with these people and then use them as a part of your “resume” when you approach larger companies later. Keep one thing in mind, however. Some of these new authors aren’t used to this process yet and don’t quite understand that they aren’t somehow trading a copy of their book for a guaranteed positive review. Make it very clear somewhere (in that review philosophy, for example, if you have one) that you write honest reviews and that there is always a possibility that you might write a negative review of something.
Not all industries have this sort of traditional review process. For example, while some kitchenware manufacturers make it a habit to send items out for review, many do not. The entire idea might be new to them. Understanding this can help you to approach them in the right manner. You aren’t entitled to free merchandise — that isn’t what this is about, and if you approach people with that attitude it’s likely to show.
Writing A Professional Review
There are several things to keep in mind regarding writing reviews if you want to be seen as a professional reviewer.
Write detailed, thoughtful reviews
Remember that not everyone shares your needs. Include enough detail on an item or book that someone who has different needs than your own can still make a decision based on your review. From the manufacturer’s point of view, it means that even your negative reviews can positively impact sales figures. From the consumer’s point of view, it means that all of your reviews are potentially valuable — not simply valuable to those who share your needs and attitudes.
Write honest reviews
Don’t flatter a product simply to keep the good will of a manufacturer. Don’t slam a product simply because you’re biased against one aspect of it. Try to write honest, balanced reviews that carefully weigh both positive and negative aspects of the items you review. Do allow your annoyance or enthusiasm to show; personality gains and keeps readers. However, you have to make sure that when all is said and done, you’ve given a product a fair shot and written a detailed, honest review that covers all the bases.
This turned out to be a long article, and perhaps I’ve made it sound as though being a professional reviewer is difficult and complicated. The more expensive and unusual the items you review, the more true this is. It takes a lot more to convince a major kitchenware manufacturer that you’re a legitimate reviewer worthy of their time and attention than it takes with a small-press book publisher. The higher you aim, the more effort you have to put into the shot. If you really love reviewing it can be worth it, but you might not make much money compared to the amount of time and effort you put in.
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