Smaller tool brands continue to treat tool samples as a form of compensation, and I can’t help but object to this.
A well-known tool company, one I’ve communicated and worked with in the past, contacted me on social media. They want to send me tool samples from some of their brands. Great.
The brand did away with press/media communication efforts a couple of years ago, and after a long period of inactivity, I stopped checking their site for news.
As I haven’t heard from them in a while, and their tools haven’t been highly visible to me, it could be fun to explore any new offerings.
We ship samples for review to post on your social network – Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube. We require one post per brand. In return, you can keep the items that we sent for review!
Please provide your name, address, job title, brands you are interested in, and email so we can send additional details.
This has become standard “influencer marketing” type language, and I greatly dislike it. Wow, I can keep the tools this brand wants exposure on? Gee golly, my good luck!
Generally, unless as part of a paid sponsorship, I don’t guarantee coverage – favorable or otherwise – on any particular platform, and I’m always willing to send something back.
I asked the company rep to email me, as I don’t like providing my address via social media messages. Discussing these things via email provides a good history, and also helps me see who I’m talking with, whether it’s directly with a brand or a third party marketing agency.
For [brand1] and [brand2], we ship one pre-determined item from each brand every other month. In most cases you will receive an informational one-page sheet that describes the product features and benefits.
The [brand3] program is a bit different. We are in the process of finalizing the timelines, but 2-3 samples will be shipped out per year. We will reach out as a heads up to let you know when to expect the next sample. These products will be tailored to your profession, so please confirm your profession with us, if you have not already.
This part seems straightforward, and roughly matches what some tool brands have done in the past.
But, this was also in the brand’s email as “reviewer program” requirements:
The samples ship the first of every other month and we require you to post on social media before the 30th. In return from a social post, you keep the product that is used.
The same thing goes with posting the [brand3]; submit one post before the 30th of that month, and tag our brand.
As soon as a brand says “we’re sending you a tool, and you must post about it, and by a certain date,” that’s no longer a media or review relationship.
“we require you to post”
When a reviewer does not have freedom in test sample selection, must guarantee a minimum number of posts, and have the content published at a certain time, that’s basically an unpaid sponsorship arrangement with unfavorable terms.
Reviewers should never enter an agreement, paid or unpaid, where they are required to review something without foreknowledge.
In my experiences, unsponsored press and media relationships rarely involve any requirements. (An offer for very high-valued welding equipment, which I declined, required a posting agreement.)
Tools are not compensation. Test samples are ways to answer questions and gain insights that simply are not possible without hands-on time.
This is important enough to repeat. Test samples are ways to answer questions and gain insights that simply are not possible without hands-on time.
For product brands, it is well understood that test samples and review opportunities are a means towards increased exposure. In a press or media relationship, goals can align without having to match.
Brands get exposure, I gain insights, readers or followers benefit from answers to questions and whatever added information or opinions I can provide. My goal is to provide information that can help readers with their purchasing decisions. When a sample is no longer needed for editorial purposes, I give it away.
There’s nothing I need tool-wise that I couldn’t or wouldn’t buy myself. Accepting a tool sample and working it into my use and test schedule? That doesn’t do me any favors, and hasn’t for a very long time.
That’s why “digital marketing,” “social media marketing,” and “influencer marketing” contacts’ offers, where I can “keep the tool for free in exchange for content,” always trigger an eye-roll from me. “Free tools?!” stopped being a novelty for me well more than a decade ago.
To sum things up, this brand wants specific product exposure, a minimum amount of posts, and by a certain date?!
A “review” where the reviewer is obligated to post x-number of times, by a certain date, and in exchange for the ability to keep the tool for free – that’s not earned media.
To me, that’s paid media, with the tool intended “in lieu of cash compensation,” which is explicitly how another tool brand phrased a different review opportunity last month.
I treat press/media content as earned (free) content, and any content with time, quantity, or other conditions is paid/sponsored territory, and ToolGuyd has strict rules for each.
In this case, things didn’t work out, as the brand is entirely focused on sending predetermined tools to trade-specific social media influencers. But if that wasn’t the case, there are too many conditions that I couldn’t agree to.
I’m simply unaccustomed and unwilling to treat tool samples as a form of compensation. I can’t sell tools, and I have all the tools I need for project or ToolGuyd use.
I have outright declined “tools for exposure” offers over the years, but more and more brands of interest have been framing sample opportunities with similar terms and conditions. What’s the alternative, for times when I am interested in a review opportunity, but not under conditions or requirements?
I could also buy the tools myself, and in some cases I have, but most of the time the tools or brands are interesting but not enough to win an allocation from my sample budget.
So if I don’t decline outright, it seems the only paths forward are to push things over to wholly earned media or wholly paid media. How does that go?
I have gotten burned a few times over the years and am now wise enough to know not to provide commercial services for free. For instance, I’ll help journalists and such, but I won’t help research companies (many have asked for information to be used in extremely expensive professional reports and won’t even provide a free copy!), or TV producers (a show once solicited and used my ideas and recommendations without any credit).
I also don’t treat or accept tools as a form of compensation. Maybe I can forgive the language if there are no conditions or requirements, but there are almost always conditions.
So when a brand is explicitly trying to buy exposure with conditional tool samples, I hit a “can’t do that for free” wall.
I don’t know how to work with marketers who think they’re paying for exposure with tools. While many tool brands might hope for exposure, and maybe even expect it, that’s very different than outright requiring content in exchange for tools.
I think that some marketers and “social media marketing professionals” need to rethink their strategies. Earned media = exposure from unconditional review sample opportunities, paid media = exposure from paid partnership relationships.
Maybe I’m a dinosaur in my way of thinking.
You tell me – when you see an unsponsored tool review, whether on web, YouTube, or social media, where the tool is supplied by a brand or retailer, do you expect there to be post count and timing conditions or other such requirements?
Based on reader comments from time to time, I know some of you think there are all kinds of hidden dealings, but there aren’t.
In my nearly 14 years here at ToolGuyd, tool review samples outside of paid partnerships are usually provided with a simple “here’s the sample, let us know if you have any questions!”
Modern “here’s what you are required to do, and you can keep the tool!” nonsense just doesn’t seem right to me, and it’s nothing like what I’m used t.
Looking at things objectively, I can understand where these marketers are coming from. When you put a tool in someone’s hand, and ask for a review, there’s a small chance you’ll hear back. (ToolGuyd readers have a high response rate, but there’s a reason why I don’t require giveaway feedback, photos, or other types of winner submissions.)
So, by requiring a certain number of posts or by a certain time, and treating tools as “you can keep it after you post a review” compensation, brands can increase the actual short-term exposure for a given number of review samples.
But what about channels like ToolGuyd that are willing to provide free exposure? Or seasoned influencers who recognize content requirements as typically being part of paid/sponsored arrangements that involve a check instead of “tools as compensation”?
The way I see it, it would serve everyone better if brands allocated some of their samples and attention to earned media efforts, and some to paid media efforts.
Some brands that went all-in with paid media efforts have been seriously burned in recent years, and so that’s not a great strategy.
Paying reviewers under the table – EVERYONE TALKS, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE! – is definitely a bad strategy.
Larger brands can remain all-in with earned media efforts thanks to immense reviewer and end user interest.
Many brands seem to have found a good balance with a mix of earned and paid media efforts and relationships.
There are different approaches to modern product marketing, some more effective than others.
Conditional review opportunities, with posting requirements and tools treated or leveraged as compensation is not a good middle ground strategy. Its motivations make sense, and some content creators might be okay with it, but it’s still unfavorable practice.
These types of offers and opportunities keep coming up, some from brands I’ve had earned media/press relationships in the past.
To put it bluntly, earned media reviews shouldn’t have any conditions or requirements tied to them, and if going the paid media route, tool samples aren’t a valid form of compensation. There are exceptions to this, but I’m talking about $10-50 hand tools, not $1000+ shop equipment samples.
What’s your honest opinion – am I a dinosaur with an old-fashioned way of thinking? Or do you agree that there’s something inherently wrong with conditional tool reviews and tool samples being considered a form of reward or compensation?
Am I wrong to be upset about this becoming a trend?