BLOGGING 101: How to Start Reviews and Giveaways


Today’s Blogging 101 is on REVIEWS & GIVEAWAYS.

LET’S GO WAY BACK. When I first created Mom Spark, I was baffled at the giveaways I saw on other mom sites.  They were giving away expensive electronics, clothing, and other high ticket items.

How were they doing this and how could I get in on that?  I didn’t have a clue.  In my own naivety and inexperience, I reached out to a fellow blogger who was giving away a Flip Camera and asked her for her contact’s info.  Obviously, I didn’t receive a response and I soon felt like an idiot for asking.

I quickly realized that I needed to start from the bottom and work my way up.  You know, like my fellow bloggers did.  Who did I think I was anyway?  It’s takes time to build up relationships with companies, and I had just begun.  I wasn’t even receiving pitches or inquires from brands at that point, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what to do with them.

HOW I STARTED DOING IT. To get started, I began giving away items that I had purchased myself.  I would buy items that I put into my own household and thought my readers may like, too.  I remember my first giveaway VERY clearly.  I didn’t have much of a budget, so I searched high and low in Target’s clearance isle.  I found some awesome photo frames and purchased them.  I had my first prize!  At this point, I wasn’t reviewing the products, just simply giving them away.  Finally getting my feet wet.  Not expecting or wanting anything in return, but just the pleasure of providing something cool to my readers.  It also gave me a ton of practice.

THE NEXT LEVEL=REVIEWS. After a couple months, I wanted to take giveaway posts to the next level and add reviews to the mix.  How cool would it be to express my opinion AND provide a giveaway?  I started reaching out to a few moms who had interesting products and I slowly started receiving items in the mail to review.  I had it all planned out and organized, by assigning a day for each review and giveaway to be posted. All I had to do was write them.  I mean, how hard could that be, really?  Just sit down and write my thoughts, right?

Wow, was I disillusioned.  It was so much harder than I realized.

I’ll never forget my very first review, because it took me all day to write.  It was on Ann Tillage’s book, Don’t Rock That Baby!, which didn’t take me long to read and form an opinion, but took me forever to express in a post.  I realized at that point that writing a decent review took skill, and most of all, time.  More time that I had scheduled in my calendar.

FEAR. I started to panic.  I had already committed to do five other reviews and I honestly didn’t know if I had the chops to do this review biz.  I felt a bit overwhelmed and questioned why I was even putting myself through the stress and self-doubt of being a notable reviewer.

Then I remembered why.  I was doing it for my readers.  I had a voice that my subscribers, as few as they were at the time, trusted.  I was also providing a way for moms to experience the products for themselves.  I was immediately reminded of the winner of my first giveaway who told me that her winnings were blessings, as small as they were, because times were tough economically.  I never even considered that perspective before.  Suddenly, something as innocent of wanting to share an opinion and offering a giveaway to my audience became much more important to me.

STAYING TRUE. I have either been extremely lucky, or I am easy to please, because I have had mostly positive experiences with the products I have reviewed.  I did have one bad experience with an item, which was a skin care product.  It was a tough decision, but I chose not to publish the negative review.  Why?  Well, because I should have never taken on the review in the first place.  I have extremely sensitive skin and most products break me out quite easily.  This particular skin care product was no different and I hated to judge the product on my abnormal skin.  I let the business know about the problem and I returned the product.  After that, we split ways.  This was obviously a special circumstance, but saying that, I still stand by the importance of staying true when writing reviews.  If you do have something negative to say about a product, you can still do so with class and respect.  Saying “I was disappointed that this product didn’t offer A, B, and C” is much more harsh than saying, “This product blows.”

GIVEAWAY RULES, PICKING A WINNER & SHIPPING. Giveaway rules totally depend on who you are doing the giveaway for.  When I was purchasing the giveaway items myself, I could pretty much set whatever rules I wished.  Of course, this changed a little when I started working directly with brands.  Some businesses will require a visit to their website, and some will totally leave it up to you. Regardless, it is pretty standard to include the following rules, after your review and description of prize:

  • at least one comment to enter (you can offer other methods as well)
  • deadline that includes date & time (I usually run my giveaways for one-two weeks)
  • disclosure (more on this below)

Selecting a winner is typically done by using a random number generator, like random.org.  Before using a random number generator, it is good to review the entries (comments) to make sure they were completed properly.  Weed out any “illegal” entries to get a more accurate final number of entries.  Don’t beat yourself up if you overlooked a bad entry, especially when you receive hundreds or thousands of comments.

It took me a few months to realize that the brand/PR firm could ship out the prize directly to the winner, and not to me.  This way, the item is only shipped once, which means less chance of damage, and I am not standing in line at the post office with a cranky toddler.  Saves time overall.

BURNOUT. I’ll be honest, there have been times that I have taken on way too much.  I don’t recommend it.  I remember once, last year, I had 10 outstanding reviews/giveaways, which may not sound like much for a legit review blog, but was a crazy amount for me.  I was completely overwhelmed and suffered from serious burnout.  I learned my lesson quick, though, and started saying “no”.  The last thing I wanted to do was rush through work that I wasn’t proud of.  Yes, I wanted the practice and experience, but publishing valuable content was more important and would be better received by my readers.

MEETING MORE BRANDS. So, how did I move from giving away Target clearance items to HP Laptops?  Time and experience.  As Mom Spark grew, the more offers I started receiving via email, and the less time I had to spend reaching out to others.  When you build up a loyal following that respects you, brands will notice.  Another HUGE way I started meeting brands was by attending blogging conferences.  Don’t underestimate a conference expo hall!  You never know the long lasting relationships you’ll create with brands by just simply speaking face to face.  It’s extremely important and often goes beyond those reviews and giveaways.

DISCLOSURES. When I first started, disclosures were not a typical element of a review, but as we all know, it is now.  Disclose everything.  Disclose any compensation, whether it be in cash or product.  Disclose when you haven’t received anything in return.  Even when it all seems very obvious to you, disclose it.  I am still getting used to this and I’m far from perfect on disclosing every little detail, but I’m getting better.  I suggest creating an overall blog disclosure and one for each individual post.  There is a great general disclosure template for blogs that can be found at www.disclosurepolicy.org.  For an individual post, just simply state at the end of your post (or the beginning if you wish) that you were compensated via cash, product, etc.

WRITING IS A SKILL, EVEN WITH REVIEWS. As I stated earlier, I was completely ignorant to how difficult it was to write a decent review.   Like any skill, it takes practice, practice, practice.  The more reviews you write, the better you’ll get.  Remember to use your actual experience in you review, and not just the fact sheet, which is a common mistake among new bloggers.  For my reviews, I try to include both elements and specially state “from fact sheet” or “from brand’s website” when including the brand’s pre-written content.  Don’t let those facts engulf my post, though.  A good review sounds natural, as if you are talking to your mom or girlfriend.  The length of a review should not be too lengthy, unless it’s completely necessary.  Remember those most people have short attention spans. (which means that they may not read this post!)

PROMOTING YOUR REVIEW & GIVEAWAY. So how do you get the word out about your review and giveaway?

  1. Your feed. Your subscribers will see your post via your feed, and many will come visit and enter your giveaway.
  2. Your social networks. It’s okay to promote your review and giveaway on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, but don’t overdo it.  Your followers will start to tune it out if it becomes too often.
  3. Giveaway listing sites. There are sites dedicated solely to promote your giveaway, so use them.  I have included some resources below.

COMPENSATION, OR LACK THEREOF. This will probably turn into a future Blogging 101 post, because there is so much to say about it.  Typically, the compensation for a review is the product itself, assuming you get to keep it. This form of compensation is a way to avoid a biased review that cash can create, and for the most part is fair.  BUT, what about the work that goes into the giveaway and promotion of the product?  In my opinion, any promotional workwarrants cash compensation, although it is very difficult finding businesses who understand and/or agree.  Many times, compensation also depends on the quality of your blog, page view stats, and number of social network followers.  There is no magic formula for figuring out what you are worth, though.  It’s honestly trial and error, and should not be expected when first starting.

TAXES. You may need to claim large ticket items that you receive for reviews on your taxes.   If you receive cash as compensation, make sure you include it as taxable income, because it is. (even if you don’t receive a 1099)  Please seek the advice of a tax professional before filing your taxes.  It will come back to bite you if you don’t.

SELLING OUT. There is a stigma about review bloggers in the mom blogging community that I have yet to understand, but it does exist.  Some see blogging as something that should not include brands, sponsors, and giveaways and would even dare say that we are “selling out” if we engage in it.  I disagree.  I would only be selling out if I didn’t consume food, use cleaning products, shop for clothing, use a computer, or, in other words, DID NOT BUY OR USE ANYTHING AT ALL.  Obviously, this isn’t the case.  It is a natural part of life for me,  and countless other mothers (and humans for that matter), both online and offline.

There is, however, another side of the coin that I can’t ignore.  There are reviewers who just simply want the products.  Of course, you must have some interest in the product you want to review, but to take on a review solely for your own pleasure can be dangerous.  Remember, your audience trusts you to be ethical and trustworthy, so always keep that perspective.

HARD WORK PAYS OFF. I know that sounds completely cliché, but nonetheless, it’s true.Just a year ago, I had just entered the review and giveaway world, and now I’m not only getting better at it and receiving more opportunities, but I am giving others the chance to get their feet wet, too. Hard work also includes making a TON of mistakes.  Trial and error are my two best friends, and you’ll hear me saying that A LOT in my Blogging 101 series.  From my experience, it seems to be the best way to learn.

RESOURCES. I have put together a list of great resources for reviews and giveaways that have worked for me in the past:

LET’S HEAR FROM YOU. Okay, now it’s time to hear from you.  Is there something I missed that you would like to share?  Did you learn something new?  What questions do you have?  I’m here to help!

Have an idea for a future Blogging 101?  Email me at momspark@gmail.com!