I don't want to go back and talk about the FTC's new rules about blogging, it seems pretty cut and dried that if you're going to do product reviews on your blog you'll have to make sure you tell everyone what you're doing. Not a big deal, most of the people I know are doing this already and are doing it honestly.
But what I've been thinking about more and more is product reviews in general. I've been doing them for two and a half years now and my feelings over that period have changed quite a bit.
At first I was all giggly that someone would send me something and ask my opinion on it. Me! Who can't get anyone to listen to me when I say something as simple as "Where is your coat?" or "Did you make your bed?"
I decided that I wanted not to do reviews so much as giveaways (though that may just semantics) where instead of offering an opinion on how it worked for me I would be able to give stuff away. It just seemed more fun that way and frankly I don't need that much "stuff." But the biggest reason I did it was to boost my traffic on weekends, which are traditionally the slowest time for blog traffic. It worked like a charm, that first summer I went from getting three or four hundred visitors a day to thirteen or fourteen hundred. [Said in a squeaky old man voice] "Back in those days that was a lot of traffic!"
Weekends were my biggest draw and I thought my evil plan was working very well, thank you very much, but then things began to happen. Other people started asking how to get into the racket (which I was happy to share info on, plenty of fun to go around) and then I started getting a little pickier. I didn't want to do just any giveaways and I began turning people down. I started to worry about what to do if I didn't like something that was offered and I started getting stuck in the middle between making sure the sponsors shipped out their stuff on time and the winners who would sometimes say "Where is my stuff? I haven't got it yet."
With all this talk about the new FTC rules I've heard a lot of people say, "But I already let people know when I get free stuff and mombloggers are already an honest group--why is the FTC getting involved?" and while I agree I've noticed a few disturbing trends that I'm not entirely comfortable with.
1. Product reviews are becoming ineffective.
I've wondered if the days of blogging product reviews are limited--or at least limited for all but the very highest tier of bloggers, i.e. those that see enough traffic to make the whole thing cost-effective because product reviews are becoming so common their power is diluted. You know how I said that I got such a burst of traffic when I first did giveaways? Well while after a year my overall traffic had increased and caught up to what it was on weekends but the weekend giveaways didn't grow likewise, that traffic stayed stagnant and now my week day posts are by far more popular (which is typical of blogging traffic).
Readers have so many things pitched to them that they're starting to tune a lot of it all out the way you tune out commercials on television and radio or ads in a newspaper. They're demanding better and better stuff and some have stopped entering giveaways all together because they've entered every contest they've seen for a year and still haven't won one stinkin' thing so why bother to continue?
Right now companies are experimenting with reaching out to mombloggers but I think that it won't take too many years before they figure out how to do it smarter--i.e. demand that momblogs tell them specifics about their readership and traffic and limit their offers to those that make it cost effective. That doesn't necessarily mean those with the biggest reader base, someone might have a very loyal following that is smaller but more focused on a particular topic, but I do think they're going to figure things out in another year or two or five and the market will naturally adjust.
Which leads me to point number two . . .
2. Blogs should not be judged by what they review or give away.
In fact that's completely backwards of how it's supposed to work--blogs judging products.
Now that I'm working on the marketing end of things and reaching out to bloggers the same way marketing people have reached out to me I'm a little more cognizant of blog statistics. I've seen how blogs can be selected for product reviews and frankly, just because you're giving things away doesn't mean you have good content, a large readership or a blog that will be around for the long haul. It just means that you got someone's notice for one reason or another.
Maybe your content fit the product, maybe they found you through dumb luck, maybe through the friend of a friend, whatever, but I don't like the way that product reviews have become a blogging status symbol as if you're only a quality blog or a blog worthy of notice if you've got products flowing to your door. In fact, I find that often the exact opposite is true, that those blogs who have the best writing and quality content are usually those who shy away from reviews. Doesn't mean they never do them, it's just not their bread and butter. Or Wonder Bread and Land o' Lakes in product placement terms.
I've had readers tell me specifically that they skip my giveaways (even my husband has told me that) and I have to say I don't like reading reviews myself. They're usually boring. They're usually very flat copy wrapped up as a glorified advertisement--not that there's anything wrong with advertising, which is one of the major arteries of capitalism (Long live capitalism!)
But the blogs I love the most generally don't do reviews and don't need to--they've got other things to say.
3. Product reviews are inherently biased.
I've said it too. "My reviews are completely my own opinion, nobody has got me in their pocket and I'm open and above-board." However . . . I have seen things that make me think otherwise and even make me question my own integrity.
Oh not that I think anyone is guilty of any great sham out there, mombloggers are generally great and good and nice, but here's an example: I got some toys from a company about a year ago, some paint-ball guns. I gave them to my boys to try them out and within five minutes they came back saying the guns were junk. They didn't shoot properly, they were weak and generally poor quality.
I emailed the company telling them my objections and they thanked me for my opinion and I never wrote the post. I didn't give away any of their guns because I couldn't in good conscience encourage people to buy the product. So I guess I got points for not scamming you all but then was it wrong not to write about my experience? My policy has been not to write about stuff I don't like but then I go to the other extreme and only post on products I do like--like that quilt company I mentioned this weekend. Them I liked.
But the crux of the issue is that mombloggers (including me) are too nice to want to crush a company with a bad review so instead we don't write them at all. There's a whole mountain of negative posts on rejected products out there that you'll never read because we don't want to make someone cry by saying that they're selling junk.
Do readers deserve to find out what they should avoid? I think so. That's what Consumer Reports offers and it seems pretty honest. Me? I don't know that I'm at that level and I don't know that any momblogger can be until we're doing the same thing Consumer Reports does: buying all of the products we review ourselves rather than receiving them for free. Bias gone, problem solved. But is there bias? You bet there is.
I subscribed to one particular blog that I liked quite a bit (no names, thank you) and I saw that on her own in a post she slammed Crocs. She said they were ugly and a definite fashion "don't." I chuckled because, frankly, I too dislike the shoes and I gave her the mental thumbs up. But wouldn't you know it, just a month or two later there she was on her blog, pushing Crocs, because the company had offered her the shoes and now she was a spokesman. Forget that she'd said she didn't like them before, forget that the shoes she was selling were completely hideous (one of their uglier styles), the point is she was there with a smile saying in a very ambiguous way how comfortable they were, skirting all around the issue of her real opinion that that those shoes should never come in contact with anyone's feet unless it was a choice between wearing those plastic "Holy Mary Jane Monsters, Batman!" and a pair of trash bags.
I unsubscribed and stopped visiting which may seem unfair but the obvious bias turned me off. Maybe she legitimately changed her mind or had a reason why things were now different but I had a hard time reconciling the change in position enough to continue reading.
And while that's a bit extreme I see a lot of bloggers pushing products and we're generally doing it because we're being offered free stuff, not because we bought the products ourselves and want to share our happiness with you. There's nothing wrong with making money or getting something for free but I'm human and it will always influence my opinion. Anything I get for free I feel more favorable toward than something I have to pay for, right?
I've seen the Frigidaire campaign offering moms new appliances and I can't agree with it because not only has my experience with Frigidaire been anything but happy, but when I posted about my dissatisfaction I got enough comments from readers sharing their experiences with the company that led me to believe I'm not alone and that the only reason I got my money refunded in the end was because I had a platform on which to rant.
But boy . . . if they came knocking on my door to offer me all new Frigidaire appliances the temptation to put all my experience aside and "give them another chance" would perhaps be more than I could bear. I'm glad they didn't come knocking. (What would have kept me strong is remembering how the Frigidaire stuff broke down . . . I've had good luck with my Amanas and wouldn't want to trade them in).
Try as we might, we mombloggers are too nice to give readers the bad reviews and we're such novices and amateurs in the media that the thrill of getting something for free makes us cut companies all sorts of slack. We end up pushing all sorts of things we'd probably never push to our friends in real life on our own.
So maybe the FTC is smarter than us all and is trying to give us a hint that we need to start looking at ourselves a bit more closely and thinking about that undercurrent of motives. I know I am and I'm seriously considering getting out of the giveaway business for good.
But then it's hard to stop . . . I love getting so much free stuff!
No snow yet . . . but you can still enter this month's Write-Away Contest. It's going to leave you shaking in your boots.
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