Reviews: The Good, the Bad, and the Frustrating

It’s easy to see why many companies regard reviews as crucial to their marketing efforts. After all, what’s more powerful for sales than having a well respected reviewer practically tell people to go out and buy your product? But are reviews really that important? And if they are, how do you go about getting them? And what do you do when you get a “bad” review?

The importance of reviews

There are two schools of thought when it comes to reviews. One regards them as an essential marketing tool, though one not without risk, and the other thinks they’re an unnecessary distraction.

Part of the problem is that it can be extremely difficult to correlate reviews with sales. But Adamant’s Gareth Michael Skarka has another perspective on why reviews might be overrated.

We’re a small, niche-market entertainment business. Gamers will pick up stuff that interests them—even if there are reviews that say a product is poor. They’ll pick it up to see what they think of it themselves. They don’t invest much in the “authority” of reviews, preferring to keep their own counsel. Gamers are opinionated and amplified by the internet. If there is a review that says it’s poor, there is bound to be another that says it’s good. Even in the face of ‘internet conventional wisdom’—for example, “this game is nothing but poorly designed power-gaming”—sales of the ‘poor’ products are largely unaffected. Gamers purchase what interests them.

So why do so many companies chase reviews? The most obvious benefit of having your product reviewed is the opportunity to let gamers know it’s out there, and to build buzz. It never hurts to have someone respected in the community endorse your product. Such an endorsement helps to separate you from the competition. Even if the review hasn’t convinced the reader to buy your game, when he comes across it in his local store, it’ll already be familiar—even if the review was less than positive.

For unknown companies with few products and little capital available for marketing, reviews offer a relatively inexpensive option. Thankfully, reviews are also more useful to companies with less brand recognition. As a company grows, and with it their reputation, customers are more willing to take a risk on it’s products, even in the absence of reviews. This is not to say that reviews do not benefit more established companies—only that reviews are proportionally more effective as a tool in the hands of those without an established customer base.

Reviews can benefit companies beyond tracking customer interest; the review itself can tell you a great deal about your product. It is easy to dismiss one bad review as an outlier. It’s a lot harder if the majority have concerns about your product. If this is the case, it might be time to take a second look.

You can also use reviews for marketing in less obvious ways. HinterWelt’s William Corrie uses reviews from retailers to open discussions with other retailers about his products.

Often, the hardest thing about contacting retailers about your product is the opening statements. With a review like those provided in industry magazines, you get a third party resource to reference. You can say things like “Scott Thorne of Castle Perilous said the Squirrel Attack books will sell well” or reference what a customer is saying as an independent reference. It is always difficult to just say to a retailer that your product is good… because. Whether it is a customer review, a retailer review or more informal reference to the comments of another industry professional, it can open doors.

So how do you make the most of the whole review process?

Useful reviews start with the right reviewer

To start, you need to find someone willing to review your products. It’s an accepted practice to offer a complementary copy of the product, and you can usually find any number of willing amateur reviewers. But remember, at the end of the day, you want a useful review, and that means a few things:

First, it means someone who’s going to actually analyze the product. Just listing off the table of contents may tell the reader something about it, but it doesn’t give you any information about what the reviewer thought. Similarly, a review that just says, “It’s great” or “It’s terrible” doesn’t tell you much about what’s working and what’s not.

Second, you need to take into account the reviewer’s audience. Are they the type of customers you’re trying to reach? If you publish board games, a model train forum isn’t likely to expose you to the right audience. More than that, any comments the review generates aren’t likely to be helpful, because they’re not coming from the demographic you’re targeting.

Preston DuBose, from 12 to Midnight, explains:

Seek out reviewers who prove, through other reviews, that they know how to analyze and review a product based on its merits. There’s nothing wrong with a reviewer expressing personal opinion, but good ones back it up with reasons why.

Audience is also important in other ways. Are they the type of audience that typically engages in conversation about reviews? If so, you’re much more likely to get useful information, whether or not the review is a positive one. And then, of course, there’s audience size to take into consideration. As Joseph Goodman says:

’Quality of the reviewer’ takes on a new meaning when it’s a reviewer with a well-read blog.

Finally, you don’t want to overlook the credibility of the reviewer.

…it’s not just his grammar skills, but his stature in the industry. An endorsement from Monte Cook can drive a direct increase in sales.

Once you’ve found a few people you’d like to review your product, setting up a review is very simple. Finding the right person and the right audience… that’s the trick.

What to do if you get a “bad” review

Now, of course, eventually, you’re going to get a bad review. It might be because there’s a problem with the product, or it might be because the reviewer had a fight with his girlfriend. The important thing is how you handle it. The last thing you want to do is to turn a bad review into a bad reputation for you.

Fred Hicks, of Evil Hat Productions, puts it all into perspective:

Thank your detractors. Yes, it may appear that a man possessed of little more than a simian intellect has just reviewed your product in some sort of strange moon-language, but the point remains that he invested time in writing something about your game. He probably has readers, too, some of whom will disagree with his opinion. Let them take on that job. Your job, as a publisher, is to be gracious in the face of any critique. Say thank you, perhaps offer a factual correction or two, stated neutrally and calmly, and make your exit. Exposure is exposure. Leave a link to your product behind, and you’ll probably net a few sales no matter what this joker said.

Besides, your goal here is to get useful information from the review, so in that respect, negative reviews are actually MORE helpful, because they point out ways you can get better. Maybe it’s too late to change this product, but there’s always the next one.

Just remember: many gamers don’t even read reviews

Reviews are just one tool in your arsenal—one you should use in conjunction with other marketing tactics. “Gamers purchase what interests them.” Reviews might help lead gamers to your product, but in the end it helps to remember that they can be more helpful to you than they are for your customers.


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