The Perils of Paid Reviews [u]

Posted on by Larry

[There are some excellent comments at the end of this article. Please take time to read them.]

Her note earlier this week got me thinking: “I think you and I might be the only people not charging for interviews [at NAB].”

Randi Altman is the editor-in-chief of PostPerspective.com. She’s also a friend and someone whose work I respect a great deal. I had written to congratulate her on her video interviews at NAB.

Her comment took me back to the beginnings of my career as a trainer when I was thinking about adding product reviews to my site and I talked with someone whose opinion I respected – at the time.

I asked his thoughts on product reviews. He said that he only reviews products where he gets to keep the hardware afterward. I asked if that alters the review he writes. He responded: “Who cares about my review, as long as I get free gear out of it?”

I was shocked. I still am, for that matter. But his opinion is not unique. Sadly, most reviews today are paid for by the companies providing the product to be reviewed. Not all, fortunately, but way too many.

The problem is: who controls what you read? For paid reviews, the vendor controls the content; if not explicitly, then implicitly. Who’s going to write a bad review for something you are paid to write? Right, that’s not going to happen. When a reviewer gives up control, they make money – but their audience loses.

The problem is that there is no good, functioning model for making money publishing news. Web ads are, at best, ignored. Pay-by-click only works when you have millions of readers – and we’ve all seen how sponsored articles have shifted into “click-bait” headlines.

The best option for smaller sites is sponsorship. But how do you explain the return-on-investment to a sponsor for supporting news and reviews, when the same money can blast out an ad on Facebook? Worse, sponsoring a news site means a reviewer may be writing about your competition or highlighting problems in a sponsor’s product. It takes a brave and confident company to sponsor a news site.

I’d love to say I have a solution – but, I don’t. Since I started my website, I made a point to offer everything I write for free, and charge for video tutorials. For many years, that system worked great. But, now, the market is saturated with video tutorials – not just from me, but thousands of other folks. My readership is up, my revenue is down.

What’s the alternative? I haven’t figured that out yet.  Nor has any small publisher with less than 100,000 readers. Look at Apple’s new News+. They aggregate content from hundreds of world-class magazines – for $10/month. If you are a specialized publication, you’ll starve.

Fashion, sports, entertainment, maybe politics, can drive large enough numbers for this model to work. But niche publications need access to better marketing, better distribution and better revenue to stay afloat.

 

It’s this conundrum that creates the need for paid reviews. Reviewers need to make money to pay the rent, but the trade-offs are pretty severe. It is so easy to take the money – and so dangerous.

We are awash today in fake news because websites are not what they seem. Reviews are not objective. Interviews are sponsored PR puff-pieces. It is increasingly hard to tell the source of news or information today. If someone is being paid for a review, why would they EVER say anything bad about the product? And, if a reviewer doesn’t point out the trouble-spots, how will any reader know the true value of a potential purchase? Worse, what happens if the reviewer doesn’t mention that they are being paid to write the review?

I’m not going to stand on a pedestal and say “I’m the only light in a sea of darkness.” There are many reputable journalists and review sites out there. But, increasingly, they are in the minority.

Sadly, the burden falls to us as consumers to figure out if we are reading real news or being sold a bill of goods.

When I was younger, I never asked my guests on my podcast how they earn their money. It seemed impolite. Now, I ask it almost every time I’m interviewing a start-up or web-based company; especially if they are offering a “free” service. Why? Because we need to know how they are generating the revenue they need to stay in business.

Facebook is a classic example. They provided a “free” service allowing us to connect with friends, while they make their money selling our personal, private data to anyone with a checkbook. The damage this has caused to our society is almost incalculable.

It reminds me of Arthur Weasley’s quote in J.K. Rowling’s book Chamber of Secrets: “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

We all need to eat. Sponsorship is not, in itself, bad. But, the next time you read a glowing review ask yourself: “Who’s paying for this?” All of us have opinions, but that doesn’t make them correct. Informed opinions are hard to find. Informed opinions without a hidden agenda? Priceless.


9 Responses to The Perils of Paid Reviews [u]

  1. Bob Cole says:

    Well stated. Of the many dozens of excellent articles you have written, this may be the most important to date. Thank you for bringing attention to this problem. Perhaps we need to create a set of standard ethics statements, outlining the circumstances of a review: “Item borrowed and returned to vendor”, “Item gifted by vendor in exchange for this review”, etc.
    Another source of “reviews” is the user feedback on the websites of online vendors. I’ve often found these mini-reviews helpful, but recently I discovered a set of bogus 5-star reviews for a manufacturer of LED video light fixtures. It was basically the same glowing review, rewritten many different ways, but with the identical set of phrases describing the fixture’s DMX capabilities. (The only reason I noticed is that I did a search for “DMX” which isolated the whole string of fake reviews – apparently the faker was told to highlight the DMX controls.) When I alerted the website, they took action – but they really should’ve been able to weed out these reviews themselves.
    Internet, R.I.P.

    • Larry says:

      Bob:

      This is one of the reasons I moderate all the comments on my website. It’s OK if people disagree with me – provided they are reasonably polite – but it is not OK to use my site for spam or outright falsehoods.

      The big problem is that paying for comments or reviews deeply damages trust, which is why we turn to a review in the first place. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know who or what to trust.

      Larry

      • Bob Cole says:

        I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it, but I agree with your position on moderation.
        How do you suggest that we respond to the problem of fake reviews?
        I didn’t want to “name names” as I am not fond of lawsuits, but I just checked on the same website, and found 14 more bogus 5-star “customer reviews” in about 5 minutes of looking. I suspect there are many more. This is very dismaying, as I was assured a month ago that “We are currently discussing ways to handle this blatant misuse of our site and will be sure to remove these types of reviews.”
        Do we have to name names? Would that even help?
        The actual product is actually very good! But the ethical lapse is troubling. And at a time when middle school teachers have access to software which detects plagiarism automatically, I don’t buy the idea that a major retailer doesn’t have the resources to edit out near-duplicate reviews written under different customer “names.”

        • Larry says:

          Bob:

          I don’t have a complete answer – but it seems to me that we need to hold website accountable for the quality of material posted to their site. As you have done, if they don’t clean up fake reviews, they need to be told, or that fact promoted to the wider community.

          Personally, I think naming names is appropriate, provided you back it up with facts.

          Larry

  2. stu aull says:

    ….all of which is why I continue to appreciate what you have offered over the years, Larry!
    But what a sad commentary on the Review process for, well, EVERYthing I suppose; be it cars, toasters or editing gadgets. God help us. And thank you.

    • Larry says:

      Stu:

      Agreed. It’s the law of unintended consequences. All the reviewer wanted to do was “make some money.” The result of which is that no one believes their reviews anymore. Once you lose the trust of your readers, it is very hard to get it back.

      Larry

  3. Misha says:

    This is why I strongly encourage high schools around the country to include a media literacy course as part of their curriculum. It is increasingly important that students think critically about the messages they receive: learn to question sources and information, and understand that media is part of culture.

  4. Dave says:

    Great article on many troubling issues, Larry. You’re one of the very few in the field who’s even bothered to bring up the subject of industry ethics in the last few years.

    The sad truth is that we’ve all somewhat helped make the business what it currently is; a constant tsunami of articles/videos/panels for “Visual storytellers” to find ways to “monetize” their business leads directly to a lot of them delighted to charge for the “story” of the paid review. After all, it’s only “storytelling,” and no one said that stories have to be true. Mission accomplished and money collected, right?

    Then you get what we currently have: an ever-increasing cadre of shills (#PRODUCT! #BRAND! #VISUAL STORYTELLING!) If your bottom-line in all cases is always “take the money and run,” the business then starts to self-select for those who remain in it by rewarding the shills; voices of others who aren’t so blatantly mercenary get completely drowned out.

    IMHO, a major part of the problem is the utter absence of any ongoing discussions about ethics and values in the industry. Instead, the constants are monetizing, self-promotion, networking, influencing, branding, viewers, subscribers, gear/software, etc. Great, but all of those things can proceed without ever paying any attention at all to what the business becomes when those are the only practices the community ever values and reinforces.

    As you cite so well in your article, we certainly already see where it all leads; if not… well, then, I’d say the term “willful blindness” applies. You can’t fix what no one will talk about openly.

    Misha makes an excellent point about teaching media literacy to students — absolutely! And I would add to that: how about also teaching people on the supply side (media creators) some critical thinking about the messages they send out and how they may actually influence/affect the people that watch their creations? Because they do, otherwise no one would bother with advertising! Encouraging at least some self-reflection on what you may be doing to contribute to the problem would not be a bad thing in the field at this time. Otherwise — anything goes! Hey — you’re monetizing your storytelling, right?

    It would be fantastic for any notable industry publication/trade media to hire an expert in business ethics for a regular column/blog – it would at least be a start, and that subject area is completely missing from all industry discussions. (And I do mean a bona-fide expert, preferably one who can cite actual case studies outside the field as well — not some visual storyteller who has decided to add “Ethics Influencer” to their laundry list of monetizable skills #LIkeMySponsorOnFacebook! #Dunning-Kruger Effect).

    Until everyone makes it part of their business to address these issues and not just wait for, you know, a space comet to maybe bring a solution someday, you will have a business that’s increasingly devoid of any ethics or integrity, as you point out…. We seem to to well along the way to that right now.

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