Over the past few weeks I’ve read several takes on the Nielsen/inPowered MediaLab study evaluating the impact expert reviews, user reviews and branded content have on consumer  familiarity, affinity and purchase intent. The general consensus was third-party expert reviews won out in all three areas, but none of those articles addressed how to run an effective reviews campaign. There is a lot more to securing expert reviews than just shipping a sample to a key influencer, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. Great review campaigns start with research and require precise timing and subtle influencer opinions to create the most positive outcome possible.

Let’s start with research. If you’re not doing your homework your luck will eventually run out no matter how great the product.  Real PR pros know the products they pitch inside and out -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

The best way to way to avoid a public surprise and negative coverage is through a critical review.  Many journalists will evaluate a product and provide an unpublished write-up for a fee.

The resulting findings are then used to plan and adjust your strategy.  If it’s early in the process you can tweak the product, but if you’re too far down the road to make changes you can deal with most issues through your messaging and marketing materials.  You will always be better off acknowledging a shortcoming than allowing the media to uncover it for you and tell the world about it.

Research also applies to which influencers you target.  You or your agency should be looking at what a particular media member enjoys writing about, studying their tone and understanding their impact on readers and followers.  Reading a competitor’s reviews can provide great insight into how best to position your product in a way that addresses their shortcomings.

Knowing who not to send samples to is in some ways more important than who you do decide to target.  If a competitor gets crushed and your product doesn’t win in the areas where they fell short, don’t send a sample to that outlet or influencer expecting different results.

With an understanding of what our product is and who we want to send it to let’s talk timing.  Ideally you’re working with 4-6 months’ lead time to send samples under embargo.  That much time is necessary if your plan includes long lead publications who are writing their November and December gift guides in June and July.

If you don’t have the luxury of advance samples you can still do well with just a month or so by targeting short-lead outlets like web, newspaper and TV.

Both scenarios work the same way and start with an honest conversation with the product manager about the expected ship date.  No one benefits from being overly aggressive on the delivery date, and it usually leads to frantic calls begging influencers to hold their review.

Working backward from the ship date, you’ll need to set due dates for supporting materials and decide if you can deliver the samples in person or mailing them.

No matter how your products get to these editors and reviewers, clearly communicate on all collateral and in every conversation the date and time the embargo lifts and when reviews can be published. This will avoid coverage popping up before customers can buy your product, thus diminishing the ability of the review to drive traffic and sales.

With the Who, What and When answered let’s talk about how to influence reviewers.  The best outlets and media members will often go radio silent during a review, but there are still opportunities to exert influence.

As I mentioned earlier, delivering samples in person is a great way to influence a reviewer.  This gives you the opportunity to demo the product, so there are no questions or ambiguities regarding its intended use.  A deskside demo or a few minutes at a media event can provide an opportunity to position the product in relation to competitors, customer needs, a trend or recent events.

A reviewer’s guide should be delivered with all product samples. The included collateral should reinforce positioning, anticipate questions and problems, communicate all features and benefits, provide step-by-step directions for setup and use, and contact information.

Scheduling a call after the influencer has spent some time with the product to answer any follow-up questions or address performance issues is critical.  However, many media members will not participate in a second call making your initial meeting and reviewer’s guide all the more important.

In summary, expert reviews are a powerful tool to raise awareness and increase sales, but without planning and proper execution they can have an equally powerful negative impact on a product or brand.


Mark Olson is a vice president at Max Borges Agency.