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Avoiding Product Marketing Errors
Six Tips for Using Product Review Public Relations

© Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

The product review is a job interview for your product. You wouldn't go into a job interview unprepared, would you? Then why send in your product unprepared?

For sales and marketing executives, the product reviews that are written by industry media and analysts can have a significant impact on the industry visibility, acceptance and sales of the product. The product review, in essence, is a ‘job interview' for your product, and the product has to be able to speak for itself.

Product reviews help decision makers (users or buyers) evaluate competitive products and narrow their selection process. In this sense, reviews serve as part of the marketing communications (pre-sales) effort. Properly leveraged, they can help to shorten the sales cycle and speed up the customer evaluaton period. There is a lot that the vendor can do to help the product review process along, and to try to get their product reviewed in the most favorable light. Much of this is simply understanding the review process, and developing the structure and materials that will help the reviewer see your product as you (and your top customers) do.

Product reviews (and reviewers) vary widely in thoroughness, consistency and benchmark comparisons. Keep in mind that the reviewers have only so much time, and have to ramp up very quickly on many different products. (This includes operator/user interfaces - which, regardless of what any vendor claims, are not always ‘intuitive'.) The extent to which you help this process along could, in fact, impact the understanding of your product's value, and the nature of the review that it receives.

So as you put those finishing touches on your product offering, and dream of someday proudly attaching ‘Editor's Best', MVP or ‘Best of Breed' to your advertising and sales collateral (or better yet, striking a deal with a major distributor or OEM relationship), remember that some very deliberate actions on your part can help you get there. Here is a checklist to prepare for your product reviews:

  1. Make sure that you clearly understand, and can articulate, your product's positioning in the marketplace. In other words, what it is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. There are two ways standard ways that products can be evaluated: as unique, or in comparison to something else. For the most part, there will be comparisons, so know how your product ‘stacks up', and what constitutes a valid comparison. If you don't know this, and don't communicate it to the reviewer, then you shouldn't be surprised if the comparisons are not to your liking.

  2. From the beginning, go after good reviews. There is nothing that says your first reviews have to come from a disinterested third party or major publication. Why not get the reviews from those who use and like your product? Some of your beta-site or initial users may be enamored with your product and have a valuable competitive and/or historical development perspective, so why not have them write a review for one of their industry publications? (A review by a user who is a professional in his or her industry often carries tremendous legitimacy.) How about those users that drive your technical support people nuts, that in fact may be pushing your product to its limits? Why not have them write a review and help them get it placed? They win - you win. Enthusiasm is a valuable commodity - it is up to you to channel it.

  3. Develop a self-contained review kit. This is essentially a ‘press kit', or ‘info pack' strictly for the product reviewer. It serves to educate them as to the need that your product fills, its characteristics and possible uses. Your review kit should contain: other reviews (reviewers aren't naive, and they don't expect virgins - they like to see what others say about your product), all files, hardware and accessories necessary to demonstrate the product's features (this could be a defacto benchmark - so don't just discuss compatibility or special interfaces - include demo files). Include a self-prompting demo if you have it and it is appropriate for the product. In other words, an out-of-the box fully configured setup, even if it's not sold that way. Remember, the more you try to put your product in context and get the reviewer directly to the point of functional use, the easier you make the reviewer's job - both for your product and others.

  4. Handling inaccurate or ‘unfair' reviews. Vendors have reason to be concerned about ‘unfair' product reviews by major publications, industry analysts or those who host specialized web forums. (See related article below on web muggings.) The same process that accelerates industry acceptance for your product can also delay or negatively impact its acceptance. For that reason, product marketers should carefully lay the groundwork for product reviews. If there is an improper review, take every opportunity correct the review. Try to get the editor (or whoever) to acknowledge the review was unfair. To do this - you have to be specific about why it was unfair - not just that you didn't like it. Then set the stage for a comprehensive ‘Letter to the Editor', where you would have had free rein to talk about your product and its features - and probably have it published. Never, ever, under any circumstances, get into an emotional dialogue with the editor or analyst and then lose the opportunity to perform ‘loss recovery' on the review. Reviewers aren't perfect, and both editors and analyst firms know that. It your product isn't reviewed ‘fairly', and you can make a case for that - then use this concept of ‘fairness' to get across your side of the story. But if you get into an emotional discussion, trying to prove ‘one-upmanship' with the editor or chief analyst, you will surely cut off your nose to spite your face.

  5. Using outside help to get your product reviewed. Some product publishers use outside help (e.g., advertising or public relations firm) to help them publicize their product. If that is the course you intend to follow, you should make sure (surprising as it may seem) that the agency knows how to do this - either having a valid process or understanding how products are reviewed in your markets. Case in point - having written occasional product reviews, I once came across a product that supposedly did business planning for a small business. Intrigued, I wrote and asked for a review copy, enclosing copies of reviews that I had written to establish my legitimacy. By return mail (much later) I received a letter from the public relations department of a major Boston advertising agency (which, not surprisingly, has since gotten out of the public relations business) stating that the product was only provided to "major publications" for review. I found this to be amusing, since the firm was no doubt being paid to obtain exposure for the product, and when contacted by an interested party, said ‘no thanks'. The marginal cost of a review copy is negligible (products can always be returned), and the upside of a favorable review is significant. Make sure that your outside advisors understand this - and don't fall into the trap of an elitist philosophy toward reviewers.

  6. Demos: No one can speak for a creation like the creator. The best advocate for your product is the creator. Also, the person who is best at demonstrating the product is one who is intimately familiar with it. It used to be that this required one-on-one meetings, but with interactive Internet demo software, much of that is not necessary - or desirable. Another method, for products that do not lend themselves to interactive or software demos - is a demo video, on tape or DVD. With high-quality digital minicams and editing suites, even the tightest budget can produce a reasonable demo video. It's not broadcast quality, but you don't need broadcast quality. Certain products don't lend themselves to actual demos - for example, most emergency equipment. Video permits the product to be demoed under actual conditions, by proficient users. A realistic example might be performance in the field for GPS units. (See related article below on business video.)

Product public relations, like the public relations effort for any endeavor, requires the active management of the communication process between the vendor and those who would review the product. By understanding public relations principles, anticipating reviewers' issues, proactively managing the process, and effectively positioning your product, you can go a long way toward gaining favorable exposure and industry acceptance. Conversely, poorly managed reviews can create a ‘hole' that could take you a while to dig yourself and your product out of. In highly competitive markets - that ‘hole' could also be the one where you bury the product.

© 2007 Jeffrey Geibel - All Rights Reserved

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