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Interview: Getting Free Review Products from Amazon with Thomas Duff

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Product reviews increase the value of your blog, podcast, or show, since you’re giving fans a look at products they may be interested in purchasing. However, buying all of those items yourself can be pricey, especially if you work in a niche like technology, where each item costs hundreds of dollars.

Lots of people in our community work with brands to provide reviews, but did you know that you can actually get free items directly from Amazon? The Amazon Vine program pairs content creators with writers and manufacturers who want their products reviewed. As a Vine reviewer, you get free items which you’re obligated to review on Amazon and can also review on your on blog/podcast – but becoming part of this program can be a little tricky. Today, I sat down with Thomas Duffbert, who’s a reviewer with Amazon Vine, to learn more.

Allison: For people who don’t know, can you give us a little info as to what the Amazon Vine program is?

Tom: The Amazon Vine program is a formal reviewer program that Amazon developed to allow manufacturers and publishers to get their products in front of people who try out the item and post a review on the Amazon website.  Those reviews then show up on the product page, along with any other reviews that people may have posted.

The main difference between the Vine program and people posting their own reviews is that the manufacturer can get a set number of items in front of people who have committed to try the product and write a coherent review.  There’s no expectation that the review will be positive, and in fact Vine reviewers tend to be much more honest in their opinions because they’ve committed to give the product a chance.

How did you get started reviewing for Amazon?

The Amazon reviews grew out of technical user group programs run by technical publishers. They’d send me a book (free!) and I’d write a review of it for a user group I was part of.  I was then asked if I minded also posting the review on Amazon. I thought it only fair since they sent me the book at no cost.

From there, my reviewing sort of took on a life of its own, and I started climbing up the ranks of the Amazon reviewers. Depending on whether you’re referring to the new or “classic” ranking system, I’ve been as high as #20.  Once you get a top 100 ranking, people start contacting you asking if you’ll review their book.  I’ve gotten to the point where I have to say no to a majority of the requests, as I know I’ll never be able to read everything I’ve received.

How often do you get items for review and what types of items do you receive?

The Amazon Vine program sends out a “targeted” newsletter on the third Thursday of the month and a general newsletter the last Thursday.  The targeted newsletter is generally made up of seven to ten items, and you’re allowed to select up to two.  I’m not sure what they use for their targeting algorithm, but it needs some work. Offering me baby supplies is a bit useless when I’m 50 and my kids are 25 and 23.

The general newsletter is made up of all the items for the month that still remain in the system after the reviewers selected items from the targeted newsletters.  That list is generally around 14 – 18 pages of ten or so items per page.  Again, you can choose another two items based on what’s still available.

The offerings are all over the board in terms of what shows up.  It used to be primarily books, and books still occupy well over half the items each month. But there are also treasures like multi-function printers, food selections, children’s toys, appliances, cooking utensils, tech gear (like headphones and iPad covers), and countless other items.  Some of the items aren’t just things that will appear in a FedEx box, either.  For instance, last month there were three full-sized refrigerators being offered.

I’ve read that part of getting chosen for the Vine program is not just ensuring you write reviews, but also having reviews posted that are deemed “helpful” by other Amazon users. What are some of your best tips for writing helpful reviews?

There are two things I keep in mind when I’m writing a book review, and I think they are essential in terms of keeping yourself in the right frame of mind.

First, remember that there’s a real person behind what you’re reading.  Writing is not easy, and the author poured themselves into what you hold in your hands. That doesn’t mean you have to love everything you read, but it does mean that a review of “this book sucks” with no reasons why is not permissible.

Second, understand that you may not be the target audience.  I always read the preface of a book to determine what the author(s) is trying to accomplish. The content may be over my head, but if I feel they did what they set out to do, then it should get a good review.

It sounds like a great way to build your blog’s content with product reviews – but also a lot of work. Do you think the free stuff is worth the time you spend reviewing products?

This is a pretty common question… why do you review stuff? The most obvious answer is you get free items, which is always fun.

The more important reason to me is that writing reviews has (I hope) made me a better writer.  I’ve co-authored two books, as well as written countless tech articles over the last nine years.  My reviews and blogging didn’t necessarily lead to all the other writing, but it’s good practice and discipline to keep writing on a regular basis.

If at any point I felt the work I put into it was more than what I get out of it, I’d stop.  But I haven’t hit that point yet, so I continue on.  I get books to read and toys to play with, I improve my writing skills, and the author/manufacturer gets feedback.  So far we’re all happy…

Thanks, Tom, for all of the great information on Amazon’s review program! Readers, anyone out there also a Vine reviewer and want to share your experiences? Does reviewing with Amazon sound like a good idea to you? Leave a comment below!

Thomas Duff (also known as “Duffbert”) is a software developer focusing on collaboration technologies in Portland Oregon. He started working with Lotus Notes in 1996 in version R3 and has written and maintained hundreds of applications in large enterprises through the years. He also holds Lotus principal development certifications starting at version 4 and going up to version 8, as well as Microsoft and Java certifications. Tom is a prolific writer, both in various industry publications and at his website, Duffbert’s Random Musings, at http://www.duffbert.com. He also is a frequent speaker at conferences and events focusing on Lotus technologies. Tom and Marie Scott coauthored IBM Lotus Sametime 8 Essentials: A User’s Guide (Packt Press, 2010). He also coauthored IBM Sametime 8.5.2 Administration Guide (Packt Press, 2011) with Marie Scott and Gabriella Davis.

Five Places to Find Review Items for Your Blog

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Last week, Brilliant Bloggers focused on working with brands, and part of a relationship with a brand could be receiving items for review. I definitely don’t think that you should blog for free stuff, unless what you’re getting are cars or something. Just remember that cookie samples and free books don’t pay the rent. Even if it’s something your family uses, think to yourself – is this $5 sample of laundry detergent worth the hour I spend writing about the product? $5 per hour isn’t even minimum wage.

But enough lecturing about monetization of your blog. The fact of the matter is that in some cases it isn’t just about the value of the product you receive. Reviewing products could also be really good for your readers. A well-placed review can draw readers via social media, SEO, and more, so much so that it even makes sense to buy the product to review it. If you can be part of an affiliate program, it makes even more sense to review a product.

Paying for a product certainly isn’t optimal if you can get it for free! So here are five places you can find items to review:

1) Contact brands directly.

Brands love working with bloggers in many cases, but few have the time and manpower to spend all day looking for bloggers who would be a good fit for review items. Don’t be afraid to approach them. In your email, make sure you highlight what you can bring to the table – what’s your pagerank? Traffic numbers? Network size? This doesn’t just apply to brands – contact individuals as well if someone within your niche is launching a new product. Some brands/people will say no. That’s okay! But some will say yes. If you never ask, you’ll miss out on every yes.

2) Attend conferences.

When you go to conferences in the blogging world and within your niche, you’ll be able to talk to lots of brands on the expo floor most events have. Many are giving away free samples – just go up to the booth and talk to the representative for a few minutes. Even those that don’t have free samples are willing to work with bloggers if you make a case as to why you’d be a good fit for a product review. Take their card and follow up as soon as the conference is over. Remind them of your conversation and your continued interest to do a product review. You might have to follow up a few times to get a response, since lots of other bloggers are probably doing the same thing.

3) Walk around your house.

Again, buying your own products isn’t optimal, but if you take a quick walk around yourself, you might have dozens of products that you already own that would be great for review. For example, if you run a blog about cooking, what kind of baking chocolate is your favorite? You probably have some in your pantry right now – talk about it! Or if you run a blog about fashion, why not write about your favorite pair of reliable go-with-anything black heels? The things that are part of your everyday life are interesting to readers not because they’re new, but because you think they’re the best!

4) Network with other bloggers.

When I launch a new product, I’m always will to send free review copies to people I know via social media…if they interact with me long before I have something to give them. If you approach me on Twitter for a copy of my book and I have no idea who you are, I want to know about your traffic numbers and such, and I might say no. If we’re already Twitter-friends, I’m probably going to say yes, even if your blog is brand new or you have a small network.

5) Network with other bloggers.

Wait. Wasn’t that tip number four? It’s not a mistake that this is tip number five as well, because there’s a second way where networking with bloggers could help you get review items. I have long-term relationships with some PR companies and brands, and if I know other bloggers who would be a good fit for review products, I pass on their contact information. Like I mentioned before, most companies don’t have the time/manpower to go out and find bloggers. If a blogger they already like and trust recommends another blogger, they’re happy to send products.

Remember, if you’re going to get free items, especially expensive items, you want to make it worth the company’s time and money to send you products.  If you don’t have a lot of traffic yet, think about what else you can add to the equation – Will you tweet about the product? Run a giveaway? Wear their t-shirt to a conference? Think about what you can do for the brand and what the brand can do for you – and make sure it makes sense for both of you to work together.

Posts that Take Your Blog to the Next Level

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Read any blogging 101 guide or blog about blogging and the authors will tell you to write list posts, reply to interesting comments as new blog posts, and report relevant news in an interesting way. Yeah, yeah, we know already. If I hear one more time how important it is to write lists posts, I’m going to throw up into my coffee. And I don’t like to waste coffee.

So what can you write to take your blog to the next level? These types of posts are great for engaging readers and draing traffic to your blog:

Event Coverage

Booths at an industry event for my video game blog

You need to be going to the major events in your niche. Not only is this a great way to network, but readers who can’t go to these event love to hear about the booths, keynotes, and after-parties. Make your readers feel like they were there too, and take advantage of the opportunity to be first to report on stories when industry news is announced at the events. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to be first. Remember, others in your industry are also posting about the event, so entice readers to check out your blog by putting a unique spin on every post you write.

Reviews

Many new bloggers and even some established bloggers don’t do reviews simply because they aren’t offered products. While it is nice to get freebies, the lack thereof shouldn’t stop you from posting reviews on items and services you were going to buy anyway. Doing reviews is a great way to establish relationships with companies in your niche, and if you write a good piece, even if it isn’t positive, the company is more likely to contact you with free products in the future to review.

Don’t forget that you can ask for products to review, too. The worst a company can say is no, and many companies will gladly send you product samples in exchange for your promotion. All you have to do is ask. Going back to my previous point, events are a great place to ask for samples to review. Company employees are usually authorized to give away x-number of their products at industry events, so you can score some major swag in exchange for reviews if you just ask. It’s also a lot harder for people to say no to your face!

Personal Stories

Believe it or not, people really do want to hear about your life. Stick to topics related to your niche, but don’t be afraid to tell your readers about your day or share a story from your childhood. It makes us all feel more connected. Even if you have an “about” page that shares your blogging journey, dish a little from time to time to keep us interested. Remember, people don’t just visit your blog to get information; people visit your blog to get information from you. If we feel like we’re emotionally invested in your life, we’ll come back, the same way people watch soap operas every single day.

Allison Boyer is a writer for BWE’s blog and the owner/manager of After Graduation. She thinks it is hilariously ironic that this is, essentially, a list post.

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