Writing Product Reviews [Better Writing with Jeremy Ep I]

  • AvatarJeremy Tarrier

 

With this post we introduce the latest member of the B2Bento team, Jeremy Tarrier (@JeremyTarrier), who’s joined us this year as the lead content manager. Deviating slightly from regular programming, we present the first in a series of posts on “Better Writing with Jeremy” . We look forward to your feedback.

Have you ever read a product review and thought “I could do better!” but didn’t know where to start?

In this article we will investigate the process and motivations behind writing product reviews. Our focus will be on product reviews published in the on-line media but the same principles apply to magazines and other printed media.

If you prefer to skip the what and why sections I won’t be overly offended, click here to jump to the how.

What can you write a review about?

To get you started on ideas of what you could review, here is a short list for inspiration:

  • physical products such as a mobile phone, camera or book
  • audio CDs or an album you have downloaded from an online store
  • desktop software
  • web application
  • mobile application
  • movies
  • seminars and webinars you have attended.

Why do we write them?

There are many motivations to write product reviews from the altruistic to those that are more self-interested. Here are some of the more common motivations.

Establishing yourself as an authority

By writing and publishing a review you are an author, not necessarily an Asimov or Rowling, but an author none the less. Being a published author automatically makes you an authority but only establishing credibility will make you a recognized authority on a subject.

Once readers recognize and accept your views then you can become their “go to person” for product reviews. You can expand on this to become a recognized authority on other related topics.

To make money

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to make money by promoting products. Unless you are fortunate enough to be financially independent then you need to make a living.

Writing product reviews is a long established way to promote affiliate products such as those on ClickBank.com and Amazon.com. If your product review resonates with the reader and he/she makes a purchase using your affiliate hyperlink then you receive a commission for the sale. A product review is like having a salesperson working for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t even need to pay him/her!

Product awareness

If you use a product or service that you strongly feel could benefit others then you can write a review to promote awareness. This akin to making a public service announcement, however it does not preclude you from receiving compensation for your efforts.

Why do people read reviews?

Information

These readers are not necessarily motivated by the need to solve a problem or make a purchase. Many people skim read magazines or websites as they are generally interested in the subject matter and will pause to read an article if it is pertinent and provides information they consider useful or interesting.

Whilst this group of readers may not immediately appear particularly important, they do represent a significant audience. By providing a memorable review, readers may well return to your review when they have a more immediate need for the information or actively seeking your other reviews.

According to a survey commissioned by Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, “the reach of consumer reviews isn’t limited to the online world; seven in 10 consumers who read reviews share them with friends, family or colleagues, thus amplifying their impact.

Thus, writing reviews that appeal to this segment helps establish you as a recognized authority.

Research before they buy

When faced with a problem one of the first reactions is to search for solutions on the internet. Product reviews are an excellent opportunity to help your reader find a solution and provide valuable insight into how well and how easily the product can solve the problem.

Independent product reviews can sway a reader’s purchase decision in either direction. According to the 2011 Cone Online Influence Trend Trackerresearch reveals four-out-of-five consumers have changed their minds about a recommended purchase based solely on negative information they found online. … Positive information has a similar effect on decision making, with 87 percent of consumers agreeing a favorable review has confirmed their decision to purchase.”

To justify their purchase decision.

People buy on emotion then justify with logic. After making a purchase there is often a sense of “buyer’s remorse” and a nagging anxiety that it was not a necessary purchase or that there is something better out there.

A well written product review provides such readers with clear, concise and logical information that will support their purchase decision. A reader who, based on your review, is satisfied that he/she made the correct purchase decision is more likely to read your reviews when considering future purchases.

Characteristics of a good product review

It’s personal

Your reader is a person, you are a person. Readers are more likely to trust a review that reads as though it comes from a real person not a faceless organization. Treat your readers as real people, make good use of “you” and “I” to establish rapport and trust.

Conversational

It’s a sad fact that in the internet era people have shorter attention spans. Use a conversational style to engage your readers and keep them reading. Write in the same way you would tell a friend about a product you feel would be helpful to them.

Experiential

The plain facts about a product are readily available from advertisements, brochures, datasheets and the vendor’s website.

Reviews are the opportunity for readers to learn “how was it for you?” rather than having to trust what the vendor tells them they will experience.

This is where you get the chance to exercise your creative writing muscles and tell your readers about your experience using the product.

Objective

Your review should be factual and untainted by personal prejudice or bias. This appears to contradict the need for the review to be personal and conversational however your readers will appreciate clear statements about the capabilities of the product or service.

It is a delicate balance which becomes easier as you gain experience writing reviews.

Concise

People searching the internet for answers are expecting short, sharp, bite sized information on which to make their decisions.

Avoid long, meandering text that provides little meaningful information.

Based on personal experience

Hang on a minute, didn’t we just go over a review needing to be experiential? Yes we did, however that was referring to writing about what your reader can expect to experience when using the product.

Although it is possible to write about a product or service without ever having used it, your reviews will be easier to write and be more meaningful to your readers when you have personal hands-on experience.

So where do you start?

In this section I aim to equip you with a set of activities that will help you in preparing to write your review. Some of the activities here will not be appropriate to every product or review so use your discretion.

As you go through the activities you may find it helpful to record your experiences and findings. Use your notes when writing your review, it’s easier than trying to remember it all when faced with a blank screen.

Other tools that may come in handy include a digital camera, scanner, and image editing software.

Where appropriate I have included a number of questions you can answer to help build up material for your review.

Get the product

There is no substitute for personal hands-on experience when writing a product review. Buy it, borrow it, ask the manufacturer/vendor/dealer for a review copy (see FTC caveat).

  1. How easy was it to get? – exclusivity, rarity, limited edition
  2. How long did it take to arrive? – digital download, high street purchase, courier delivery, standard postal service
  3. Is it available in different formats? – eBook, audio, video, large print

Unpack it

If it is a physical, boxed product (including digital products delivered on CD/DVD).

  1. Take a picture of the box/packaging.
  2. Did it arrive intact? – poorly packaged product may indicate an alternative supplier or delivery channel is necessary
  3. Can the product put back in the packaging? – important for storage and for sending a product back for refund or repair
  4. Does the packaging reflect the contents? – clear image, list of contents, “This way up”
  5. How easy was it to unpack? – sometimes it can be physically challenging to unpack a product
  6. Was everything included? – power cable with appropriate plug, printer or data cable
  7. Are there instructions on how to unpack and prepare the product for use? – are they in usable language, do they make sense

Install it

Follow the instructions.

If it is a software product you may want to take screenshots as you go through the installation process.

  1. Were the instructions accurate?
  2. Was anything unclear or missed out?
  3. Were there sufficient pictures to help identify what should be done?
  4. Were there any special requirements? – some software require additional components not supplied with the installation media
  5. Were there any unexpected messages during the installation process?
  6. Did you experience any problems with the installation process?

Use it

This is the core part of your review. Actually use the product.

If it is a software product you may want to take screenshots as you use it.

  1. What was the problem you used the product to solve?
  2. Did the problem solve the problem? – was it a complete solution or was there something the product couldn’t do
  3. How easy was it to use? – intuitive or did you have to perform metal gymnastics to figure it out
  4. Were there any problems using it? – was the manual/on-line help sufficient, was there support available
  5. Were there instructions or tips as you went through the process?
  6. Were there any surprises, good or bad?

Gather your thoughts and prepare to write your review

If you followed the process outlined above and recorded your experiences then you will already have a reasonable amount of material for your review.

Now it is time to get your material organized and supplement it with facts, features and benefits, and a list of pros and cons.

You may need to use information from the advertising materials, product manual and other sources such as the vendor’s website.

Write a description of the problem you wanted to solve

This is a very important step. It will provide you with ideas for the headline of your review and start the conversation with your readers.

It could be a single sentence or it could be a whole paragraph. It all depends on the complexity of the problem.

Write a description of the product you are reviewing

Do not be tempted to copy this from the product literature, another article, or another review. Firstly, unless you have permission, it’s called plagiarism and it can lead to all sorts of nasty repercussions ranging from being black-listed by the search engines to litigation. Secondly, your readers will quickly notice if it doesn’t gel with the rest of your review. Remember: wherever you found it, they could find it too.

Write the description in your own words. Sometimes it helps to write down simple bullet points then talk to a friend (even better if it’s a stranger) about the product. If your friend gets the message then your description works. You will then have a natural way of describing the product that others can understand.

I am often asked, “How long should it be?” There is no fixed size for a description, nor in fact for most things in copywriting. The more complicated something is, the more words it takes to describe it adequately.

Keep the length within reason. If you find yourself getting bored writing about it, your reader isn’t going to enjoy the experience either. You have about 5 seconds to capture a reader’s interest so your description needs to be both appealing and concise.

Identify the most important features of the product

Products have many features, sometimes too many for a review. The trick is to identify those features which are important to your review.

Using your description of the problem, identify the features that were important in solving the problem.

For example, if your problem was taking clear photographs in poor conditions the the important features could include:

  • waterproof design
  • lens shield
  • textured grip
  • low light / night vision feature
  • high speed storage
  • rapid flash recharge

Convert the important product features into benefits the reader can understand

A list of features isn’t particularly interesting to read, what is interesting is what can be done using those features.

Alongside your list of important features write what that means to someone using the product.

Using our previous example:

  • waterproof design – Keeps working in the rain. Can use it by the pool
  • lens shield – Keeps the rain off the lens
  • textured grip – Doesn’t slip in the hand
  • low light / night vision feature – Clear photos even when it’s  poor light

Now you can convert this into a short sentence or two that encapsulates both the features and the benefits in a way that will make immediate sense to your reader.

This helps with not only your description of the product but also with your conclusion of why the reader should get the product.

Gather your list of pros and cons

Not all review writers like to include a list of pros and cons. Including a list does show your objectivity and can help establish your credibility as an impartial reviewer.

All products have strengths and weaknesses. These are important to your reader. If the strengths outweigh the weaknesses the reader may still choose to buy the product. Conversely there may be one weakness that is the deal breaker.

For example, a piece of software may have all the bells and whistles and seem to be the perfect solution but if it’s not available for your reader’s computer then it’s not a contender. If you have reviewed a similar product that is available for your reader’s computer you have the opportunity to suggest the reader goes to that review to find out more.

Write a concluding paragraph that sums up your experience with the product

This is the closing section of your review. You can draw upon your earlier material and condense it into a few short sentences.

If you like to give products a star rating, whether it is an overall rating or one per important feature/benefit, this is an ideal place to do it. There are readers who will read what is above the first fold (the first information shown) then hit the ‘End’ key to read the bottom. If you capture their interest then they may go back to read the rest.

Writing your review

Now you’ve done your homework it’s time to assemble your review.

Write your headline

This is your chance to capture your reader’s attention. The headline needs to be short and punchy. Grab your description of the problem you solved and turn it into a headline. This often will include the name of the product.

For example, if your problem was to take family photos at the pool without risking water damage to your camera

“Capture your family making a splash at the pool with the Kamra 1000DS”

There are many headlines that could be made from a problem statement. Copywriters can spend hours coming up with ideas and selecting the best. That’s a whole different skill that would take an entire article on its own.

State the problem to be solved

Remember drafting this earlier? Go ahead and do a “Copy & Paste”. Later we will check the overall flow of our review and can make any necessary changes.

Introduce the product being reviewed

You got it! Another “Copy & Paste” exercise.

Include an image of the product

This helps your reader identify what is being reviewed.

Include at least one product image. If you did not create the image then you may wish to seek permission to use the image to avoid copyright issues. (If you obtain permission from the manufacturer/vendor then there is always the possibility they will ask you to review other/future products – depending on how valuable they consider your review.)

If your review is to be published on-line avoid using technologies that are not compatible with your reader’s devices, for example iGadgets do not like Flash. It is better to use an “older” standard technology such as animated GIF files (which is visible on most devices) to display rotating images than using Flash which will not be visible on devices such as iGadgets.

You will find the logical places for images as your review evolves but generally you should include a cover image near your headline.

You can also include your experience obtaining the product, unpacking it, installing it.

Describe how you used the product to solve the problem

Take your notes from the “Use it” activity and write a description of how you solved the problem using the product.

This can be several paragraphs according to the process needed. Remember that your reader wants quick information so don’t be tempted to include every menu option and mouse click. That is your material for another article or “How to” guide.

The reader will be interested in “how was it for you?” so include appropriate commentary on how easy or difficult it was to use the product.

Add your list of pros and cons

Not all review writers like to include a list of pros and cons. Some review styles do not benefit from such a list. Hence, this is an optional section.

If you are including your list of pros and cons, put it here.

Bring your review to a close with your conclusion.

Keep this short and to the point. If it goes beyond one screen it’s time to reconsider what is in your conclusion. There may be parts that are better suited to earlier sections or can be condensed into fewer words.

If you are allowed to include affiliate hyperlinks you could include them here.

Other considerations

Always declare if you have received any compensation or sponsorship to write the review –  US FTC regulations.

Always declare if you will receive any compensation if someone purchases the product via a hyperlink – US FTC regulations.

Even if you are not in US jurisdiction it is better to err on the side of caution and declare any compensation. FTC regulations may still have effect if someone within its jurisdiction makes a purchase via your hyperlink.

Acknowledge all trademarks used in your review. For example, Flash is a registered trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated in the United States and/or other countries

Review your review

Now it’s time to look at the review as a whole.

Ask yourself:

  • Do all the sections flow naturally into each other?
  • Is the tone consistent?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Are there any spelling mistakes?
  • Are there any glaring grammatical errors?

If you answer “No” to any of these questions, go back and change your review until you are satisfied with it.

Personally I find it easier to print my draft review and go over it marking any areas for improvement with a highlighter pen.

When you are happy with the results, get someone else to read it and make comments where things were unclear or where mistakes were found.

Publish and Promote

Once your review is complete it is time to publish.

Whether your review is destined for your own review site or elsewhere it will need to be promoted if anyone is to read it before the search engine spiders have time to index it.

Take your review headline and statement of the problem and get ready to promote your review.

Make appropriate use of social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to get the word out.

Facebook and LinkedIn are easier to use in so much as you can use a headline and have an abstract of what your review is about. This is where your headline and statement of the problem come in useful. Try not to use exactly the same words, keep the abstract relevant but not identical to your review.

Twitter limits each Tweet to 140 characters which is not a lot for a headline. Reserving space for a shortened link to your review and for possible Retweets further reduce the number of characters available to drive traffic to your review. Satisfying these constraints will give you plenty of practice crafting headlines.

 

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