It seems like a dream come true: a brand sends you a free product, and asks you to try it out and write a review on your blog or social media profile. Everybody wins: you get something for free, the brand gets exposure, and your audience gets information about products they’re interested in. Easy, right?
The truth is, writing sponsored reviews can be trickier than it seems. When a brand sends you free products in exchange for your reviews, they’re obviously hoping that you’ll write a glowing recommendation that encourages your followers to buy. But what happens if you don’t like the product, or if there are significant shortcomings that your readers should know about? Staying honest without jeopardizing your relationship with the brand is a fine balancing act, but with a few simple guidelines, you can enjoy the benefits of being an Influencer without risking your integrity.
Be completely transparent
Transparency is one of the most important aspects of writing sponsored content. Anything you write for compensation, whether it’s free products, special access, or financial reward, needs to be clearly disclosed as sponsored content. This is not only an ethical approach, it’s a legal necessity (click here for a .PDF from the FTC about their disclosure requirements). If you’re writing a sponsored review about a product that was sent to you for free by the brand, or if they have compensated you in any way in exchange for your review, you’ll need to disclose this clearly and plainly. This disclosure must appear within close proximity of the review itself and should not be hidden or obscured in any way. A typical disclosure might look like:
“I was sent a free [product] by [brand] in exchange for writing a review on my blog, however all opinions are my own.”
Brands are aware of this requirement, and most brands will make including this disclosure a required part of your agreement. Even if they don’t specifically require a disclosure, for your own protection, you’ll need to include an open, honest disclosure.
Honesty and accuracy are non-negotiable
Brands work with you because your followers listen to you. Your followers listen to you because they trust you. Clearly, honesty in your reviews is crucial. Brands know that bloggers probably aren’t going to love every aspect of their products, and that there will probably be a few shortcomings along with all the positives. Your review should be honest and straightforward. If you adore the product, say so. If there are flaws, mention them. If you praise a product that is actually a clunker, your followers will have a hard time trusting your opinions, and you could lose your audience – and your marketability to brands.
Accuracy is an important part of the honesty equation. Don’t make independent claims about the product that you aren’t certain are true; when in doubt, refer to what the brand itself has said about the product, and stick to your own experiences with the product.
The trick is to frame your criticism carefully. Try to avoid overly harsh or negative language; present flaws in a factual, neutral way, and be sure to include any of the positive aspects of the product as well.
Communicate with the brand
What do you do if you get a product and realize that you really, really don’t like it and won’t be able to write a positive review? Writing a scathing review on your site will likely permanently damage your relationship with the brand, and may make it harder to work with other brands in the future. And naturally, you can’t just lie and write a positive review, as that sacrifices your integrity and could be legally risky.
The best approach to this type of situation is to communicate directly with the brand. In general, you should be professional, concise and sincere. You can simply let the brand know that the product wasn’t a good fit for you, and you don’t feel that your review would be beneficial to the brand. If you choose, you can give some information about what specifically you didn’t like, but don’t be overly harsh or critical. In some cases, the brand may be able to rectify the situation – perhaps you received a faulty product or an outdated version. In other cases, the brand may simply thank you for your time in reviewing the product. Be sure to thank them in return for having given you the opportunity to try their product. Even if you never work with that brand again, it will be a clear demonstration of your professionalism and integrity.