Preparing a product for the beauty parade

Sending a product out for review can be a nail-biting moment. David Ward discovers how you can secure the fairest possible write-ups

Sending a product out for review can be a nail-biting moment. David Ward discovers how you can secure the fairest possible write-ups

For a nation of people known for self-confidence, Americans have become surprisingly dependent on the opinions of others, especially when it come to media product reviews.

It's not just the advent of dedicated shopping publications, such as Lucky and Cargo; now virtually every consumer magazine, as well as many trades, have a section for reviews, though often it's reduced to a picture and a short paragraph.

This creates more opportunities for reviews, but it also gives PR agencies the added burden of sorting through all these magazines, as well as newspapers, broadcast outlets, and websites, to find the right outlets to look at their clients' products. "The real key is to know the audience for your clients' products, and that will dictate the media you will target," explains Liz Barrett, SVP with Dome H&K.

Once a media-target list is established, it becomes a matter of not only targeting the right journalist within that outlet, but also making sure he or she is interested in doing the review. "We send out pitch letters asking if they'd like to receive the product, so there's a certain sense that you're pre-qualifying editors," says Wayne Schaffel, account supervisor with Euro RSCG Magnet, adding that it helps if you have a pre-existing relationship with the publication.

More problematic are the unsolicited calls from media outlets looking to review products. While in some ways they can make the job of getting reviews a bit easier, it does require more due diligence. "Unfortunately there are people who know enough about the system, and they'll go to great lengths to make you believe they are real journalists," says Kristin Greene, SVP with Ruder Finn Switzer. "So feel comfortable in verifying the request, particularly if they are a freelance reporter."

Even if the reporter checks out, there's usually only a finite amount of review product on hand, and not every outlet is appropriate for your client's new line. This is especially true for the host of new online sites now reviewing products.

"It's a very subjective call," admits Shawna Lynch, SVP with the home-video division of Bender/Helper Impact. "Most often we tap into various sources that monitor and measure traffic, and, if it's a new site, we may look at it because some sites are so new they're not on the Nielsen ratings. If they have ad support, we will typically service it."

When a review request has to be turned down, a certain amount of tact will be required.

"If we get a call from a media outlet who's not on our target list, we might clarify the product messages for them," says Barrett. "Maybe the reporter is not clear on what the product is, and, once he or she finds out, they realize it's not up their alley. But the last thing you want to do is risk a relationship with a reporter because you never know where they're going to end up."

But getting good reviews is a lot more than simply getting the products in the hands of the right reporters. "It's all about the hand-holding process, managing expectations up front about when you can get product to the reviewer," says Greene.

Some reviewers - such as The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg - want to have as close to the consumer experience as possible and so only want finished products, along with the support material that will come in the box.

But in most cases, you need to send more than the product and its packaging. "We always create a press release along with a fact sheet that gives a lot of details, such as suggested retail prices and the retailers carrying the product," says Barrett. "Even though it's a product review, you still must find the news nugget."

Given the long lead times of many consumer magazines, some products are also sent out for review long before they've been finalized.

"Most folks are very understanding if you're working with a beta version, but you have to be clear with them as to whether you're giving them a first look or a final review," says Greene.

When it comes to low-cost items, such as food and beverage products, Barrett adds, "I would advocate generosity with product samples. It's great to give a reporter one to take home to try with his or her family, one for photography, and one to share in the office."

Of course you can't take that approach with a $7,500 HDTV or other high-end technology that is sent out for review on loan. "We always have the reporter fill out a loan-request form, spelling out when the product is coming back and when the review may appear," says Greene. "We'll go as far as to send them a FedEx slip along with packing instructions."

PR pros say there are the occasional problem reporters seemingly intent on getting as much free stuff as they can. "I'm not going to say that no one has been blacklisted because it has happened," says Lynch. "When you find out that they're selling things on eBay, you're definitely much more restrictive of what they're going to receive."

Once the product and all the support material are in the hands of the media outlet, a PR person can offer up customer support to help the reporter through any problems. But beyond that, there are no real guarantees your client's product will win raves.

By steering products away from reporters known for giving harsh reviews, you can stack the deck somewhat in your client's favor, but, at some point, you have to have faith that reviewers will realize a good product when they see one.

"You do give up a certain amount of control in return for the credibility and believability of the third-party endorsement from a writer or editor saying this product is good," says Jerry Schwartz, president of GS Schwartz & Co. "If everybody knew that the only reviews your product was going to get would be good, the credibility factor would be gone."

"If you're not going to get a positive review, you want to know about it first, so you want to stay in contact with the reviewer throughout the process," adds Greene. "Often they will let you know if they're giving something a bad review, and you have to realize that, ultimately, it's someone's opinion."

Technique tips

Do establish the product audience, which will determine the media outlets you target

Do contact journalists ahead of time to make sure they're both interested in the product and have time for a thorough review

Do send as much support material as you can. Journalists often will want to see the pitch for a product, even if it's not the angle they'll use in the review

Don't ignore the trade press. Many consumer-media reporters read the trades to see what is coming out, so a good review there might trigger a flood of general-media interest

Don't send unsolicited product samples for review. They'll likely end up in a pile on the journalist's desk

Don't hesitate to say no. It's your job to make sure an outlet is appropriate to review your client's product

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