Paid Reviews: Pervasive, Pernicious, and Profitable

Posted on by Larry

Let’s start by positing two fairly obvious truths:

  1. Businesses need to sell their products to new and existing customers
  2. Product reviewers need to earn a living.

Both of these seem self-evident, but they lead us down some strange paths.

One of the big challenges for any business is that marketing has become far more diffuse over the last dozen years. Where, in the past, audiences could be reached in large groups via television, magazines or newspapers; today, audiences are scattered across a much larger media landscape; from broadcast television to social media to podcasts, websites,  and print.

Where once the entire family watched the same television show at the same time, today, each of us is watching our own custom media on a cell phone. And all of us click to hide ads as fast as they appear. Ads have become obstacles, not assets.

Selling to existing customers is relatively easy. In many cases, though not all, companies know who bought their products, which allow them to market new products through a variety of direct-to-consumer marketing vehicles.

But how do companies reach customers who haven’t heard of them before? Advertising, of course. But, far more effectively, through influencers and product reviews. In general, we are far more likely to buy a product based on comments from someone we trust than simply based on an ad.

THIS IS WHERE THINGS TURN MURKY

I first discovered this many years ago when I learned that a reviewer I trusted would only review a product if he could keep the produce once his review was done; even if that product cost thousands of dollars. I was both surprised and incensed! Because, now, I couldn’t tell if he liked a product because it was good – or because he was paid. This bothered me so much that I stopped collaborating with him or reading his reviews.

Being paid in money or product meant he had no incentive to give a bad review. In fact, there was every reason to give a good review, even if the product didn’t deserve it; or the free goodies would stop.

Over the years since, product reviews became even more compromised. Paid reviews proliferated. Today when a company contacts me, their first question is: “How much do you charge for a product review?” In other words, paying for reviews is now the norm, not the exception. I deal with this question many times each month.

Paid reviews are a direct corollary of my second statement: “Product reviewers need to earn a living.” There is good money to be made getting paid to review or recommend something. Many influencers or websites earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year recommending products that they don’t use, but are merely paid to tout.

It’s reached the point where I assume all influencers are paid for their comments.

Sigh…

This is not to say that all reviews are paid. There are many review sites that don’t accept payment for reviews and return all hardware when reviews are complete. But not all of them. And not all websites disclose whether they are paid or not. The burden is on us to determine whether to trust the review or not.

It’s beyond my ability to change this situation. All I can say is that I don’t accept payment for my reviews and that I return all hardware when my review is complete. (Software is harder to return, but I generally ask for a limited license so that it stops working after a while.)

I can afford to do this because my income comes from other sources. Still, I don’t know if I would be this “virtuous” if reviews were the only way I could feed my family.  Paid reviews make it hard to determine whether you can trust a review or whether the product actually works. But I don’t see any easy alternatives that still help companies get the word out about something new.

Like you, I need to find reviews I can trust.

EXTRA CREDIT

If you want to know my rules for product reviews, you can read them here. When I write a review, I have two goals:

  1. To help you decide if this is a product that would benefit you
  2. To provide feedback to the developer on ways they can improve their product

In this process, your comments are extremely valuable because they expand on what I don’t know, as well as provide clarification or correction on where I may have made a mistake.


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5 Responses to Paid Reviews: Pervasive, Pernicious, and Profitable

  1. George Henderson says:

    A common sense of personal integrity has morphed into something that doesn’t resemble honesty.
    Like you said, people gotta’ eat so they sell their souls. I’m reminded of old television commercials where Mickey Rooney recommended bad insurance policies to senior citizens.
    Keep the faith, Larry. … and thanks!

  2. Cirina says:

    One of the things I’ve always admired about you, Larry, is your high level of integrity. You have maintained this position for years and you are right. It is also why so many people in the tech industry turn to you for your opinion. They know they will always be told the truth. Frankly, most “influencers” are just bad actors who have appealing personas. The heyday of pretty people hawking products might linger, but believability is over. We’ve wiped the fog off the window and can see it for what it is, paid advertising…not professional reviews.Thanks for bringing this up!

    • Larry says:

      Cirina:

      I am honored by your comments. I don’t know how to “fix” this problem. These days, it seems honesty and truth are being out-shouted. Why believe reality when you can make up your own?

      it creates a difficult tide to swim against.

      Larry

  3. What a wonderful statement, Larry, and indeed your concern for such moral issues (and not just the technical and artistic ones) periodically comes through. If you can solve the issue you aptly raise, maybe you can go on to propose ways of increasing honesty in sales practices in general…

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