guest post by Kelly Diels
When I was wondering how to create an effective, money-making review site, I thought of Robb Sutton.
Robb Sutton’s review site, Mountain Biking by 198 “pulls in thousands in review product every month” and in the last 15 months has received over $100,000 dollars worth of review product. He’s also got several other sites, including a coffee review blog, and oh yes, makes a pretty decent living as a ProBlogger.
That is, when he’s not hanging out with the likes of me and telling me all his secrets.
Kelly Diels: Robb, tell me all the dirty details about review sites.
[looooooooooooong pause. Isn't it a little early in the conversation to have offended him?]
Kelly Diels: Robb?
Robb Sutton: I’m here. Sorry…was just closing up a few things. Now you have my 100% attention.
Kelly Diels: You know a girl likes that.
Robb Sutton: Yes, they do!
Kelly Diels: I mean, so I’ve heard. Tell me, dahlink, how you got started with review sites.
Robb Sutton: Well, it all started with an idea that had nothing to do with reviewing product, ironically.
Kelly Diels: Go on…
Robb Sutton: I had this idea that I was going to have a trail review site for mountain biking that was all user submitted content. About 5 minutes into the process, I realized that you can’t have user submitted content without traffic. So I started a blog where I reviewed parts, bikes and other related products and that took over what was the user submitted part. Basically, I used it as a traffic generator that became the model for Bike198.com.
Kelly Diels: So you’re inadvertently brilliant?
Robb Sutton: I fell into it…I like to think of it as a progression. I had some experience being on the other side of the fence in the corporate world, so I knew how to quickly adapt that to blogs.
Kelly Diels: How did you get your pretty mitts on things to review?
Robb Sutton: Well, back when the industry had no clue who I was, I relied on current contacts and cold contacting through emails and phone calls. Now it is a combination of them finding me and me finding them.
Kelly Diels: Do you work with PR companies, or companies directly?
Robb Sutton: I work with PR companies, directly with manufacturers, distributers and some retailers.
Kelly Diels: And for those of us who just got really scared, what does that process look like?
Robb Sutton: Typically, I send out an email explaining who the site is, what we do and what the process is. I then include examples with some simple search engine and site stats. If it is a smaller company, you pretty much get to the right person right away. A lot of times through that email and you are off and rolling. For larger companies and some smaller ones, a follow up call is required to get in touch with the right person. Phone calls always convert better than emails, but I always start with emails so they know who you are when they pick up the phone.
Kelly Diels: Gawd, it is almost like online dating.
Robb Sutton: Yeah, a little bit!
Kelly Diels: What sorts of strings get attached to the product and reviews?
Robb Sutton: No strings really. Sometimes you have to return the product if it is super expensive. But sometimes you don’t even have to do that. Most companies know what blogging and review blogging entails these days.
Kelly Diels: Which brings us to Disclosure, baby. Tell me how you handle Big Brother, the FTC.
Robb Sutton: I have a blanket disclosure on all of my sites that is linked up in the footer that explains links, products, etc. I am very up front with my readers on the process so there is nothing that is hidden that could be considered bad by the public or FTC. Everything is up front and honest.
Kelly Diels: And if you’re just not into her the product? What do you do?
Robb Sutton: I write the truth! Bottom line is that you are writing for your readers and not the companies. If you are just going to write glorified advertisements then no one is going to take you seriously. Back everything up with facts and everything turns out ok.
Kelly Diels: Sing it, sister.
Robb Sutton: Even companies I have given poor reviews to in the past still send me stuff. They want to reach the audience and you want to deliver the goods. Its a win/win.
Kelly Diels: All press is good press…
Robb Sutton: Actually…that is very true.
Kelly Diels: Seriously. The first time someone trashed me online (Allyn Hane, lover, I’m a-talking to you) I was delighted. But I digress. What kind of traffic are companies and agencies looking for?
Robb Sutton: They are looking for targeted traffic.
Kelly Diels: What does targeted traffic mean?
Robb Sutton: The specific number isn’t really important. 100 targeted eyes are better than 10,000 that aren’t targeted.
Kelly Diels: How do you demonstrate “targeted eyes”? I feel like we just took a sharp right turn into a gun range.
Robb Sutton: Targeted traffic is basically qualified leads. When someone subscribes to your blog, they are targeted because they want to digest that subject matter. And don’t shoot!
Kelly Diels: I can’t. I don’t even know the process for getting a gun permit in Canada but I know it takes forever. Also I’m a lover, not a shooter…Tell me about a review or a product that got you all hot ‘n bothered.
Robb Sutton: Hmmm…
Kelly Diels: I went to a sex toy party on Friday night and, given the subject of my blog, I’m pretty sure that I can review those products and claim them as a tax deduction. But again, I digress.
Robb Sutton: [laughs, possibly uncomfortably] Yes, you probably could…An example of an interesting product/review was when I got in a fork from a manufacturer because of comments I made about how I didn’t like the direction they were heading.
Kelly Diels: Umm… “got in a fork”? Dude. translation, please. I mean, it sounds naughty but even I’m drawing a blank.
Robb Sutton: Suspension fork. It is the thing on the front of the bike that is the suspension.
Kelly Diels: Oh it is a thing. Not a position. That clears everything up. So why was this fork so fabulous?
Robb Sutton: Because it was sent to me after I made the comments. I backed everything up with facts on why I didn’t agree. And they said…ok…try it out for yourself. I thought that was pretty cool.
Kelly Diels: That’s pretty smart marketing, actually. And..? How was the fork?
Robb Sutton: Great product. Still don’t agree with that one aspect.
Kelly Diels: I had no idea forks were so controversial.
Robb Sutton: They are a reputable company that produces a great product but I just didn’t agree with the “new standard” they were introducing.
Kelly Diels: Ok, Mr. Fancy Britches. I get it. YOU HAVE OPINIONS – which, I’m thinking, is probably why your review site works.
Robb Sutton: Doesn’t everyone?!
Kelly Diels: Yes, darling. That was a compliment in disguise. I think that is what reviews are about – good, solid, well-reasoned opinions…So. You get loads of free products, but how do you make money? You can’t eat forks.
Robb Sutton: Affiliate revenue, direct advertising, e-book sales like my Ramped Reviews (aff), pay-per-click…I like to diversify.
Kelly Diels: And what about all the companies kissing your…site? Do they ever buy advertising?
Robb Sutton: They do, and it is a lot easier to sell advertising space to people you already have a working relationship with.
Kelly Diels: And what does that do to the separation of church and state, editorial vs revenue? Do you feel awkward about reviewing your clients?
Robb Sutton: Not at all. Everything is explained up front. No surprises. Keep in mind that nothing is written that is pure emotion or inflammatory. It is all fact-based opinion.
Kelly Diels: That’s right. We all have niches. MINE is pure emotion and inflammatory prose. So stay outta that one, my love…Ok. Going general: do you think review sites of higher ticket items – like bikes, cameras etc – work better than other kinds of review sites, like say restaurants or experiences?
Robb Sutton: I think it is about equal. I also run a coffee review site (coffeeobsessed.net) that does really well and it is very young. I think the possibilities are wide open.
Kelly Diels: Now you’re speaking my language. The language of love/caffeine.
Robb Sutton: Yeah, I’ll leave that one to you! I’m obsessed…I’ll admit it.
Kelly Diels: With coffee? Or mountain bikes?
Robb Sutton: Nothing better than a great cup of coffee, but both. And blogging, of course.
KellyDiels: I ask because I like coffee and mountain bikers. I may have mentioned this before: THIGHS OF GRANITE.
Robb Sutton: Very true! And a strong grip.
Kelly Diels: If you do say so yourself. With whom can I verify this? I have to fact-check, you know.
Robb Sutton: Any cyclist…but especially mountain bikers because we have to ride technical terrain.
Kelly Diels: Well, there you have it. The secrets of review sites, hot coffee, and rock hard…thighs.
Kelly Diels writes for ProBlogger every week. She’s also a wildly hireable freelance writer and the creator of Cleavage, a blog about three things we all want more of: sex, money and meaning.