Rave Reviews Through Relentless Tracking
By Mike Nikolich, CEO Tech Image Ltd.
What's a great product review worth to your company? According to the VP of marketing at one of the country's leading PC manufacturers, an "Editor's Choice Award from PC Magazine adds $3 million to our company's bottom line." In the digital video industry, NewMedia Magazine's Awesome Award is worth at least $2 million in sales, according to the president of one hardware manufacturer.
If great reviews have such an impact on a company's sales, how does a negative review effect a product's success or failure? And, if the stakes are so high, why do so many companies approach product reviews with a casual attitude? For many companies, the review process consists of simply responding to an editor's request for a loaner product and then waiting for the results to appear in print. This type of approach to a product review may spell disaster.
Tech Image has refined the product review process to a science. We believe that if you have a decent product that is reasonably priced and competitively positioned, then the product should gather good reviews. And good reviews lead to increased awareness, sales and profits. So what steps should companies consider to maximize the return on their review investments?
The Review Process
Successful reviews don't happen overnight. A 'first look' review requires a lead time from one to three months, with a one-week review window. For stand-alone reviews and product comparisons, a lead-time from three to six months, with a three-week window, is common. Therefore, with a new product launch be sure to plan your attack well in advance, and learn the landscape of deadlines so that all the reviews come out close to each other. With existing products, be sure that reviewers will have enough time to adequately work with your product before they pass judgement in print.
There are a few simple steps to remember, which differentiate managed, professional reviews from slapdash shotguns that yield hit or miss results. Like everything in business, it boils down to execution, communication and a process:
- Determine a targeted priority list of reviewers;
- Create a pool of products that gets most reviewers covered simultaneously;
- Document your activities with Product Acquisition forms and phone calls;
- Verify the magazine's needs and review criteria;
- Provide pristine product and documentation, including specific reviewer guides for installations, FAQs or other materials;
- Maintain persistent but unobtrusive contact during the review cycle;
- Oversupport any problems that arise, and
- Ask for a status report prior to publication.
To help you get the most out of your product reviews, this report covers the following topics:
- Developing a winning review strategy;
- Selecting materials you need to successfully position your product with reviewers;
- Determining reviewer guidelines;
- Managing the review process, and
- Damage control - strategies to consider if the review isn't going well.
Developing a Winning Strategy
With all the current micro marketing tools at one's disposal, it's surprising how many companies are still taking a shotgun approach to having their products reviewed. A shotgun approach might generate a favorable review or two if you're selling a bulletproof, mass-market product for $14.95, but it won't convince an editor to review your $495-3D modeling software or $4,995 video engine. And most companies don't want to risk that much overhead in product exposure, so you need to be selective in your reviewer criteria.
Tech Image recommends establishing a 'loaner pool' with a small amount of product that is tracked through each assignment, thereby creating the need to prioritize your targets. A loaner pool keeps your accounting department happy, and it provides you with a good reason to probe would-be reviewers as to how genuine or immediate their need for your product is. Pools also force you to get products returned in timely fashion, but be sure that products which are returned from a review get thoroughly refurbished before they are sent out to the next reviewer. First impressions are always important, especially with this much at stake.
Instead of a shotgun approach to reviewers, we recommend analyzing your key publications and prioritizing them by their level of importance to your target market. If you already have a lead tracking program in place, study which publications generate the best leads. Computer Shopper might be willing to evaluate your high-end NT server, but will that review have the same impact and credibility to your target audience as InfoWorld might?
Recently, a client came to Tech Image with a big problem. Their products were getting hammered in reviews, despite the fact that they seemed to perform as designed and advertised. After analyzing their review process, we discovered the problem. The company was responding to every review request, without bothering to qualify the publications. Further, the company used a 'duck and cover' strategy for its reviews. In other words, they'd ship out products, provide no follow-up, cut back on the documentation, and hope for the best.
Since the company's products appealed to a niche market, we recommended targeting reviews to 10 key vertical publications, plus a handful of general interest computer magazines. Then we began the process of generating great reviews in those 15 or so publications. The strategy worked. Within nine months, the company began winning awards again for its products. Now it continues to dominate product coverage in all of its important publications and is firmly re-established as its industry's technology leader.
If your review process seems unfocused, then it probably is. Consider tightening the focus by identifying your core publications. Make a point of meeting with the key editors, reviewers and review assistants during media tours and at trade shows. Begin planning your review cycle at least twelve months out if possible. Consult resources like Media Map and Bacon's for preliminary information on new target publications. Then cross-reference your personal knowledge regarding the personal quirks of different reviewers or publishers and develop a strategy to meet their needs.
Prepare Materials, Especially Reviewer Guides
Crisp, well-written editorial materials will help you correctly position your product with reviewers. Before you contact a reviewer, make sure that you have an updated press kit which includes:
- Product release
- Backgrounders on the company and product
- Bulleted benefit copy tied to features
- Slides and photos (both in-use and beauty shots)
- Current pricing information
Another key element is the reviewer's guide. This can help create a great review because it will assist a writer in understanding how a product is positioned and identifies its strengths. A good reviewer guide contains these elements:
- Product name
- Pricing information and availability
- Target market segments
- Key message
- Key features and benefits
- Hardware installation
- Software set-up instructions
- Recommended benchmarks for evaluation
- Cool things to do with the product
- Troubleshooting guide
- Contact information for support
We recommend providing this guide in advance of sending the actual product. This also helps ensure that a review will be apples to apples, another common problem which untracked reviews often fall into. Getting this information can help an editor better understand specifics about your products, which can often lead to increased exposure, by alerting them to additional, appropriate products in your line.
Determine Review Guidelines
If a publication is interested in reviewing your product, determine if the review will be a 'first look', a full stand-alone review or a comparison review. While Media Map and Bacon's can provide information regarding editors' preferences and lead times, there is no substitute for making calls to key editors and determining exactly what type of review the publication is planning, and who the reviews editor will assign to actually test your product.
Is the reviewer planning to install the product? Does the reviewer want a turnkey solution? Is the reviewer a technophile, technophobe or somewhere in between? What is the reviewer's timeframe for testing your product?
These questions can be answered during your initial phone call. If the reviewer is receptive and it is not too expensive or inconvenient, offer to schedule a face-to-face meeting and deliver the product. You may save countless hours of frustration by investing your time upfront, while there is still time to counter any possible problems.
"First looks" generally require lead times between one and three months and the reviewer normally has between a week to ten days to complete it. Lead times for stand-alone and comparison reviews are usually longer (three to six months) and the review window can be as long as three weeks. Keep these deadlines in mind so that time doesn't become a negative factor. The reviewer will appreciate your professionalism and may be more inclined to keep you in the loop as the review progresses.
Product Acquisition Forms
Once you've determined the reviewer guidelines, use a product review acquisition form to secure in writing what the reviewer needs from your company and how they plan to evaluate your product. A good product acquisition from will contain the following:
- Name of publication;
- Issue date the review is scheduled to appear;
- Deadline to receive review copy of product;
- Where to ship the product;
- Editor in charge of the review;
- Person performing the review;
- Hardware and software requirements;
- Optional items that are recommended for use, but not required;
- Benchmarks that will be used in evaluation; and
- Additional support material needed from the manufacturer.
Most editors are happy to complete a product acquisition form because it keeps everyone on track. If a reviewer refuses to complete a product acquisition form and is unwilling to provide specific written information for the review, consider this a red flag and evaluate whether to decline the review. Why take chances?
Finally, before shipping a hardware solution, thoroughly check the evaluation unit for any 'bugs' before it leaves the building. Make sure the product you ship for review is every bit as complete as one you would ship to a customer. Remember the old adage, "You only have one chance to make a good first impression."
If you've maintained regular contact with reviewers as they evaluate your products, don't be afraid to ask them how the review is going. More times than not, if a reviewer encounters a problem, they'll appreciate any help you can provide. Many times the reviewer's guide can answer simple questions.
If a more detailed explanation is required, arrange a conference call between the reviewer and a top engineer or technical support specialist. Try to directly facilitate the call, so that you can maintain contact with the reviewer's questions and hear the answers provided.
As a policy, Tech Image prepares weekly review tracking reports for clients and schedules a weekly client conference call to discuss review status. While this doesn't guarantee great reviews for poorly designed products, it does keep everyone in the loop so there are few surprises, if any.
What happens if your review is not going as well as planned? While it's human nature to voice concern, try not to get defensive. Instead, try to understand what happened. Determine if anything can be done to correct a situation prior to printing. Possible strategies include:
- Provide on-site technical support, if the reviewer agrees;
- Try to replicate the problem in your lab;
- Point out all possible solutions in writing;
- Ask to have the review delayed or pulled; and
- Inform your upper management if there truly is a problem with the product.
If you feel the product is not being fairly evaluated, it may be worth a discussion with the magazine's editor. However, be objective and don't burn any bridges. The person whose feelings you bruise today might be assigned to your next three products! And remember, most reviewers do not set out to sabotage a product intentionally, but they do feel obligated to inform their readers about product shortcomings.
Great Reviews Don't Happen by Accident
A great review happens by design. Public relations professionals who understand the process know the best way to maximize results is to manage every step of the review. Taking the time initially to develop a review strategy, preparing useful press support materials and diligently tracking all phases will yield dividends through increased exposure, award-winning reviews and a much higher success rate than your competitors who rely on shotgun methods.
Tech Image Ltd., "The Media Relations Experts for Emerging Technologies," provides Intelligence Reports on a variety of public relations topics, including:
- Developing Budgets for Public Relations Programs;
- Product Review Tracking;
- Sales Lead Tracking;
- Trade Show Public Relations; and
- Global Publicity Campaigns.
Copies are available via fax, mail, email or the web.
Phone: 888-4-TECH-PR, extension 222
Mail: Tech Image Ltd., 3265 N. Arlington Heights Rd., Suite 301, Arlington Heights, IL 60004