Happy trails. That reads better than unhappy trials. As someone who, prior to reviewing, worked sales & marketing for three different hifi firms, I once was the one who solicited reviews on behalf of my bosses. I was the one to whom reviews happened. Oy veh or hosiannah? A such, I may just have a few tips for newer manufacturers, on how to maximize their “getting reviewed” experience.
To start with, let’s call a spade a spade. Chances are, you’re in a bleeding hurry. You’ve spent time and money to launch your company and very first product; in fact, likely far too much on either. You need a return, pronto. You need sales, now. But, urgency isn’t necessarily the right frame of mind to proceed with caution that’s grounded in being well informed. Say you attend your first trade show. Say you’re being romanced by a guy who seems terribly enthused by your stuff. You’re so excited and flattered by all of his attention and profuse vibes, you promise him the world premier review. “Pick it up before the show closes.”
There are a number of reasons why this may not be a good idea. Do you know this guy? Do you know who he writes for? Do you know whether that publication has any credibility in the market? Do you know whether if you publish there first, the people you really (should) want to be reviewed by won’t give you the time of day? One often is judged by the company one keeps. Fair or not, it’s a fact so be mindful.
Reviews are part of a service industry. In some ways, they’re not so different from getting your home inspected before you put it on the market; or hiring an arbitrator to settle a dispute. It’s common sense to shop around on price, expertise and reputation. You’ve got a lot riding on this. Do your homework. Evaluate your options.
Timing is important. So is sequencing. So is picking the right people. A favourable or even enthusiastic review can open the flood gates. Are you ready for that? In this segment, little is as counterproductive as being back-ordered by months because you can’t fill initial orders. It’s hard enough on the established guys who test the patience of their distributors and dealers. For newcomers, it can quickly spell bad word of mouth and no serious business interest. The best product is no good if nobody can get it on time. Can you ramp up production quickly should your chips land that way? If you’re a bespoke slow-build company, be sure to communicate this upfront so it becomes part of the review and part of your MO and identity.
A negative review can slam your doors shut. Are you ready for that? Can you recover? Do you have a plan B in place? Are you sure that your product is competitive, sounds right, looks right, is priced right? Have you done due diligence on yourself? How about the reviewer? Don’t complain if you only learn after the fact that he was always going to compare you to your very fiercest competitor. This is all stuff one handles beforehand.
Timing includes sequencing. That’s about generating consistent exposure, not just one big bang and then nothing. It also doesn’t help to have your very first review published in the doldrums of summer when sales tank. Let’s step back and look at some items that should be on your due diligence list.
1/ Know the players. Survey the print and online media in the markets you plan to enter. Learn of their ranking relative to influence and reputation. Learn which writers are the biggest experts in your particular component category. Learn who the major opinion makers are. Learn what their biases and tastes are, what equipment they own, what type room they use. Do you fit in? Can you predict issues based on those basics? Are certain writers more predictable and steady in their opinions whilst others are wild cards that could go either way, for reasons you can’t decipher?
2/ Know the policies. Can you select a writer or does the publication assign you one? Will they cancel the assignment if they don’t like the sound or go to print no matter what? Do they take and publish measurements? If you’re selling a no-feedback single-ended tube amp or single-driver widebander and have never run it through all its measurable paces, you may not want a magazine to go there first.
3/ Don’t expect something for nothing. Publishing is a business like any other. Be they online or in print, magazines can’t work for free. Most of them rely on advertising so inquire what’s expected.
4/ More timing. Each publication has its own turnaround times. Inquire beforehand how long from receipt of your loaner to publication the process will take so you can prepare accordingly. With print magazines, page count ties to adverts. During slow season, adverts shrink, so does page count. This could mean that a planned review gets bumped back by an issue or two. Be sure to inquire about that possibility so you can plan accordingly.
In no particular sequence, here are a few tips from hard-earned experience. Never dispatch virgin product. If you want to be assured that your product is written up with the required break-in hours on the clock, supply it fully preconditioned. Reviewers tend not to have multiple systems and rooms to dedicate one system just for break-in purposes. Especially busy reviewers who publish four or more reviews every month cannot afford the downtime involved in using their own gear for break-in.
If you must supply cosmetically imperfect product because you set aside a traveling demonstrator for these purposes rather than factory-fresh units, be sure to communicate this beforehand. Otherwise reviewers are expected to chronicle everything about their experience, including scratches, discolorations, mismatched veneers etc. Included in the “everything” also are all the human interactions that lead up to and are exchanged during the review. If your replies are always 2 weeks late, expect a mention. If you can’t answer questions or answer them evasively, the writer could consider you incompetent. If you’re impatient, short-tempered or otherwise unpleasant, expect it to influence the writer’s mood.
Manage expectations. That’s a biggie. If you promise delivery “next week” and nothing happens for two months, you’ve just painted yourself into one very dark corner. Everyone understands that shit happens. All it takes is prompt communications to prevent delays from causing real problems. Like other professionals, reviewers operate within schedules. When promised gear fails to show up on time, it creates issues. Do you really want to start a review on a bad foot?
Know ahead of time whether your delivery will require the recipient to pay VAT, customs clearance or other COD charges. If they are, say so upfront and make arrangements for immediate reimbursement. This can get especially embarrassing if you’re shipping expensive goods declared at full value. Reviewers aren’t expected to cover €1’000 delivery fees.
If you’re shipping across international boundaries, do not use postal services. Most domestic post can’t track shipments outside your country. If anything happens to your package midway or in the destination country’s customs, it can be very challenging to resolve issues. Use proper couriers like FedEx, UPS, DHL, TNT, Schenker & Co. who provide customs clearance and constant tracking.
Be absolutely sure your packaging conforms to global standards. Little makes as bad a first impression as a big inductor that busted out of its tie wrap and wreaked havoc inside the chassis because you underestimated the results of a 3-metre drop of your parcel on concrete. Good packaging isn’t cheap but if that’s where you pinch pennies, you’ll pay for it sooner than later.
Ask your assigned reviewer for receipt confirmation and an ‘all clear’ ahead of the assignment to assure you that everything is working as it should. Also ask upfront about expected return formalities. Some publications will automatically contact you with a pickup request once your review publishes. Others expect you to contact them.
Most reviewers aren’t engineers. Whatever technical background and design solutions you wish to see covered in their review, be sure to provide this information. This could be a PDF, a URL, a word doc, a white paper, a patent or similar. Ditto for photos. Some magazines take their own, others want to use yours. The more you can provide and the better their quality, the better for you.
As a new company, nobody knows you from Adam. The more background information you can provide the reviewer, the better the chances that some of it will end up in the review. This could even include your listening preferences, your favourite music and your own reference system. Whatever communicates where you’re coming from, what you’re trying to achieve, what sets you apart… that’s what you ought to make available unasked. It marks you as a prepared professional.
Be absolutely certain that your pricing is sustainable. It’s very bad for business if the pricing published with your first review includes insufficient margins to let distributors and dealers make enough money. It’s just as bad if you increase your pricing by 30% past the first review to compensate. Now you simply look greedy.
If you’re the PR guy interfacing with reviewers because that’s your job description, introduce yourself as such. Let the reviewer know that for any technical questions exceeding your grasp, you will refer to your in-house designer. Or, provide the reviewer with a name and email he/she may use directly for such questions. If your designer is a genius but dweeb with lacking people skills, you’ll obviously want to field such questions yourself.
If you’re unclear about anything, say so. It’s far better to admit that you’re new and unfamiliar with the game than to pretend and be caught out as a pretender. Some publications have a review equipment coordinator. With some, reviewers are authorized to requisition their own products. In either case, it’s good form to first deal with the owner, publisher or editor to introduce yourself, express interest in a review and ask what the next steps and involved formalities are. Nobody expects a newbie to know all or any of it. But if you pretend to know and then misstep, you only have yourself to blame.
Part of your due diligence trail could be communicating with fellow manufacturers to learn about their experiences. Like most any other business, much of this involves networking. The more people you reach out to and get to know, the more opportunities arise and the more information you’re privy to. It’s no rocket science but often uneasy turf for engineering types who know how to build something but then freeze when it comes to dealing with people. If that describes you, acknowledge your limitations and hire a sales manager or PR person/firm to help you.
In the bigger scheme, reviews are part of sales and marketing. For most designers, marketing is a dirty word. To them it’s a very ambiguous subject which involves spending money they find from hard to impossible to justify. If that’s you, ask yourself why even the man in the street knows of Bang & Olufsen, Bose and Monster Cable. The fact is, marketing is at least 50% of any product’s success. Reviews are part of marketing. Make the connection. Then promise yourself to treat this subject with the due seriousness and preparedness it warrants. Saying yes to the first review inquiry and counting yourself lucky to having been asked is most likely not the right way forward.
Famous reviewers who are very busy could be less interested in being third or fourth when they could instead break stories. If you’re after a big-time reviewer, be mindful that you may have to offer first dibs to be considered. But, don’t discount smaller lesser-known publications either if you like their style and quality of content. With the Internet, it’s child’s play to link to reviews (or create a PDF if in print – that requires permission and a possible fee) which prospective buyers can find through your own site.
In the end, you ideally shouldn’t just have formed a company and launched a product but have a plan as to what comes next. Whilst much of it is adapt as you go along, due diligence on your part is an absolute requirement. It’s the thing which separates the amateur and dilettante from the professional. Making a go of it and enjoying reasonable success is hard enough as it is. Lack of preparation and forethought then shouldn’t be things you can accuse yourself of when things don’t work out as you hoped.
To close out, when dealing with reviews, here are three good points to remember:
1/ whenever you don’t know something, say so. Don’t hide behind a mask of knowing. Instead ask for help to learn the game and all its rules.
2/ be as complete and prepared an informational resource for your reviewers as you can. If you can help them pen a more complete and interesting review, you make them look better. Who doesn’t love that?
3/ remember to embrace criticisms constructively. They can help you make a good product even better. That’s how you win.
The most thorough in the business, you can read Srajan Ebaen’s reviews over at his own 6moons.com.