Reviewers should be paid, not paid in kind

I get a lot of emails like this, asking me to review things:

Our first review roundup is of Bluetooth Speakers under £50, and we’d like to send you a couple of units (at no cost to you of course – and you can keep them, no strings attached) to review on your site. You can review them however you like (video, text, audio, however), we’d just specify a few little bits and bobs in order for us to create an infographic afterwards (Just how to score them, etc – We don’t want to gag you in any way!)

We’re hoping to run this with a number of different sites with interest in a variety of musical styles and genres, as well as gadget review sites, tech blogs, lifestyle blogs and more – and we’d love for you to get involved.

It’s a pitch I’ve responded to once before – I reviewed a speaker here that a phone retailer gave me – and it’s taken me a while to work out what I think about it. And ultimately, I think it’s something that I shouldn’t have done, and something I don’t intend to do again, and something you should be really wary of when you read reviews on blogs.

When you review things, your job is to represent the readers: firms have enormous amounts of money to put their message across, and a reviewer’s job is to warn people if that message is fraudulent. We’re the child watching the Emperor’s bare arse, shouting “The Emperor has no clothes!”

To do that, you need to be properly independent.

For example, about eight years ago Microsoft flew me to America, which was very nice of them. They took me to a presentation, and paid for my hotel, and bought me dinner, and took me to Universal Studios, and encouraged me to write about their PlaysForSure music DRM.

I flew home and gave PlaysForSure a kicking.

I’m sure Microsoft was very disappointed, but I don’t work for them: I worked for, and was paid well by (oh, the good old days) a magazine whose readers wanted to know whether to invest in PlaysForSure kit. The answer, clearly, was no, and it was my job to say so.

I wonder, would I have toned it down a bit if I wasn’t being paid by an independent party, if my only payment was Microsoft’s generosity, if I wanted to go to America the following year and have more of those delicious chilli fries?

I’d like to think not, but you can see why some people might be tempted.

Being paid in kind makes it much, much harder to fight against that temptation.

I think there are three kinds of review.

One, there’s the review of something you bought with your own cash money. Most of the things reviewed on this blog fall into that category – my exploding coffee machines, my iPad, my nifty USB condenser mic, and so on. Those reviews are cheerfully biased, because I’m mouthing off about my own experience. Nobody’s paying me to include facts and balance, so if I want to say that DeLonghi coffee machines kill kittens or that my USB mic is better than toast, I can.

(This category also includes things I happen to have around because I’m using them for something else, eg a new toy I’m playing with because I’m going to talk about it on the radio).

With that kind of review my payment is your LOLs and the joy of getting something off my chest.

Two, there’s the professional review. You’re paid to cut through the bullshit, provide context and tell the reader if this thing is worth their time, attention and/or cash right now.

For that, your payment is money. If you want more, you need to deliver an accurate, fair and useful report. You’re answerable to the editor, who acts as the readers’ representative here on Earth.

Finally there’s the SEO review, where a company like the financial website that approached me today asks you to write a review containing a link (today’s email is one of very, very many, with others suggesting they write guest blog posts that will just thrill you all).

When you do an SEO review your payment is in goodies, and if you want more, you need to be nice.

You’ll be told to be honest, of course, but a subtle shift has occurred: you’re not in the telling-the-truth business, but the scoring-free-stuff business. Future gifts depend on keeping the Gift Fairy smiling. And that means being overly nice about the things the Gift Fairy provides. Being honest, as I was with my speaker review, makes the Gift Fairy sad.

But was I completely honest? The speaker I was reviewing cost £99. A quick Google found it widely available for £60. Was the headline of my review “FOR FUCK’S SAKE DON’T BUY THIS FROM THEM THEY WANT NINETY NINE QUID FOR IT”?

Of course it wasn’t.

 

4 thoughts on “Reviewers should be paid, not paid in kind”

  1. Surely the value of reviews is been devalued anyway by a couple of factors. One is the gaming of reviews by PR folks and content-poor web aggregators – delaying bad reviews, cherry-picking favourable reviewers, street teams (or whatever the equivalent is nowadays for products) and so on. The other is just idiocy. For example, I was on Amazon the other day, about 2 days before the announcement about the launch of GTA V. Amazon, to their credit, have now wiped them, but there were a dozen reviews of a game that hadn’t even been written yet. Weirdly they were actually quite mixed – All of them from fanboys but a fair number saying that this imaginary game wasn’t as good as the last one. How shit must your imagination be if an imaginary game sequel is worse than the real original one one? (OK, that latter star wars films may be to blame here!)

    We can’t trust reviews or reviewers any more. Look at something like tripadvisor. There are loads of reviews which read like brochures and there are loads which are written by people who should be cared for better by their communities. Most (normal) people don’t review shit. Assuming they don’t sell out then mibbe there are a few reviewers who you might trust, or know to be consistently wrong. Something like reading the Daily Mail film reviews and going to see the one they hated most.

  2. Oh, absolutely. User reviews are hopelessly broken.

    > We can’t trust reviews or reviewers any more.

    I think you can trust (most of the) pros still. If people are actually employed as reviewers, they’re usually trustworthy – and if they aren’t, they’re usually exposed pretty quickly. As you say, it’s about finding the ones you can trust, or the ones whose views you can reject completely.

  3. Wait… you’ve missed the point: Reviewers don’t need to be paid by anyone… they need a Reviewer Card :)

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