I probably have 3 or 4 drafts that I never published here, totaling at least 10-12,000 words, discussing my stance towards sponsorships and sponsored campaigns.
It’s an extremely complicated and messy topic. Even today, an attempt to break things down resulted in 2500 words that still didn’t fully articulate things.
We have taken part in a couple of sponsored campaigns over the years, and with each opportunity I weigh a number of factors.
What are we being asked to do?
Is this a tool, brand, or retailer that I support?
Is the sponsor trying to influence me?
Are they trying to put words in my mouth?
Can the potential results fit their goals?
We’ve said no to some opportunities for advertising and sponsorship, and yes to others.
But, I tend to say “yes” where opportunities are fitting, and I won’t apologize for that.
I am lucky in that I can and will turn down disagreeable advertising and sponsorship opportunities. If it ever comes to ToolGuyd’s continuation or my sacrificing my ethics and ideals… my ethics come first. There have been tough times in the past, and there might be tough times again in the future.
However, I’m not so lucky where I can turn down opportunities that feel like a good fit for ToolGuyd. If an opportunity checks all the boxes regarding interest and ethics considerations, I will consider it.
Saying “yes” to opportunities I agree with allows me to say “no” to opportunities I don’t.
I am open to alternative ideas.
The industry has changed, and things are more complicated, with some brands and retailers giving more opportunities, information, and samples to sponsored parties, eschewing or even eliminating traditional press release, media communications, and sample submission practices.
We’ve seen and heard of influencers and media sites purchasing social media clout in order to chase such opportunities.
I will continue to turn down opportunities which are disagreeable, and there was one a few months ago where I agreed but then backed out when conditions changed and it became ridiculous what I was asked to do. It’s okay to “leave money on the table.”
Sponsored projects or explorations help to support ToolGuyd, certain content, and also contributor content and certain reader giveaways. They also sometimes provide testing opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, in regard to sample availability and also time commitment or effort justifications.
Each opportunity is a learning experience, and although each partnership or arrangement has been unique so far, it might eventually be the case where I can figure out a more streamlined or “standard” approach.
To me, sponsorship makes possible “above and beyond” time and effort, such as a project that focused on a particular brand or product exclusively, or an exploration that crams extensive hands-on opportunities into a specific time frame.
One thing I am still not open to is the idea of sponsored reviews. Most proposals I’ve received in the past have been flexible enough where terms can be modified. And when they weren’t, I declined. I recall at least one arrangement where reviews were kicked out of the contract and replaced with an advertisement either preceded or followed unsponsored content.
The entire tool review industry, and media industry as a whole, has shifted.
I’m open to any suggestions, recommendations, or feedback you guys might be willing to offer.
We’ve said yes to opportunities in the past, and if there are future opportunities, I will consider them on a case by case basis as well. Here’s the hard part – striking sponsored reviews from the list, and striking out anything that might feel unnatural (such as the robotic endorsements you’ll find on the radio), what would you do if in my shoes?
I tend to make ToolGuyd-related decisions from a I Am the Reader standpoint, a philosophy that goes back to the beginning of our 11-1/2 year journey so far.
So, maybe put yourself in my shoes. What might you be open to as part of partnerships or sponsored arrangements?
To me, the sponsored component is for time and effort beyond what I could or would offer or deliver for free.
In a comment reply in another post, I wrote:
The approach I took here means that in an alternate reality I would have posted this same exact post in the same exact way, except unsponsored, without mention of any partnership, and at a much later date (if it wasn’t caught up in the black hole that is my backlog). Isn’t that how these things should go – that one should’t say anything under sponsorship that wouldn’t still hold true otherwise? But given my schedule and how I rotate testing tools into my mix of go-to’s, it would have taken maybe a year for me to give the tools half the hands-on time.
It’s a very loose analogy, but I enjoy making and giving away pickles. If a friend or even an acquaintance asks, sure – here’s a jar of pickles. Now let’s say someone asks for a jar of sauerkraut. That’s something I’d be interested in experimenting with, and could find a way to work into my schedule down the road. But now their timetable is specific, disrupting my schedule, they want 4 jars, requiring more work, and the experimentation might require ingredients or equipment I don’t already have. They’re willing to pay, and I am encouraged to share about the experience. If it turns out to be foul, then nobody gets sauerkraut.
As long as we stick with pickles and sauerkraut, we’ll be fine. Start doing your own pickled mackerel, then we’ll readjust 😉
The reason we’re here is because you consider these points of view, that you have these tough conversations with yourself. There are enough “yes-men” in social media who’ll happily review any tool as long as there’s a paycheck. Shills. You are most certainly not a shill.
At the end of the day, this has to put money on the table. Someone has to pay to keep the lights on. No one reasonable is going to argue with decisions the help you do that, as long as there’s a balance.
But seriously, no mackerel. That’s just….wrong.
Thank you, I appreciate it!
I can’t imagine how bad pickled mackerel would smell after a few days. Fits the analogy too – I think fermenting mackerel would be a terrible experience, and I know you feel the same, and so that’s an idea I would never entertain.
The Japanese seem to pickle lots of things (like plums and mackerel) that may seem foreign to some western palates – but walking around the Netherlands – I’ve seen may pickled herring stands doing a brisk business for snack food.
Meanwhile – in the pickle analogy for tools – keep posting about a variety of new ones – and even if some only like cucumbers and cabbage – expanding to mackerel, herring and plums might be enlightening or at least entertaining.
I’m hungry, and ToolGuyd’s menu never disappoints
While explaining things is appreciated, you don’t really have to justify how you operate the site to anyone, much less disgruntled commenters who disagree with a positive initial review of a sponsor-provided product, probably just because it’s not the brand they like and are loyal to, and not because of any actual personal experience or even research.
I’d suggest taking all the opportunites you are comfortable with and can handle. I’d be fine with whatever doesn’t take excessive time/effort and hopefully generates income and good content in the process.
The main thing I like to see is explicit acknowledgement and disclosure, in every installment, that an article or review or tool is part of a particular sponsorship of a particular length of time by a particular company.
The other thing would be exclusive content. Seeing the same ‘new’ stuff on ToolGuyd after it’s shown on every tool channel on YouTube for the past weeks/months is a little disappointing. While some of that is to be expected in a world where the major tool brands are owned by gigantic corporations, I have to think there are still brands who are a bit more particular and a better fit for ToolGuyd over YouTube hype.
It will be interesting to see what winds up on the site going forward, but I’m fine with, and expecting, a mix of big-name sponsors and their new products, and hoping for a few pleasantly smaller ones as well.
My schedule is still disrupted to the point where I can’t dissect a press release the moment it hits my inbox.
And as mentioned, some brands have moved away from press releases, and will prioritized sponsored parties. Thus, for some things you’ll see news or coverage following others’ sponsored reviews. I have been talking to some brands about this, and especially complaining to those that look the other way when sponsorships and monetary connections aren’t disclosed.
I find it ridiculous when there’s no press release or media information for tools that brands buy influencer content for, but what can you do?
With regular tool news and launches, I’ll still cover tools I find of interest. There’s even more incentive to do so even when everyone else on all channels are doing the same.
For some tools, we will usually be first. For others, we might not be first, but I always still strive to be more thorough.
As an example, Festool had a sander promo a while back, and a lot of influencers and media channels hyped this up as the must-buy deal of the century. That gave me even more reason to provide my own breakdown and opinions. https://toolguyd.com/festool-pro-5-ltd-sander-deal/
This is your site. If a company give you a tool to review and they don’t pressure you on what to say about it fine. If they give you a tool and expect you to say good things about it then it’s advertising, and that’s fine too if you state what it is. I mean, most people who have an audience aren’t going to endorse or advertise a product that they don’t want their name associated with for whatever reason.
I think you’re objective and thorough. If you want to have paid for tool advertising I wouldn’t have a problem with that, I would just hope that you would be upfront about it. In the end, if we don’t like something, and article or product, then it’s easy for us to ignore, skip, or provide feedback in the comments.
This site and the community of readers provide a ton of value and I’m sure we all know that you try to do your best to be objective without being “bought”. Keep up the great work.
Well said. I agree
Okay… We live in a world with Patreon, Kofi, and a hundred different “Tip Jar” style revenue streams. It’s safe to fall back on those if you can’t get enough ad revenue from tool companies to keep the project going.
THAT said… I only mean it’s a perfectly safe world when it comes to getting funding. If you deem a revenue stream necessary, this is your site to do it with. Although I appreciate you telling us all we are welcome to suggest things, at the end of the day we’re still freeloading off your experience and hard work. Even adding our suggestions into your option pool, we’re slowing down your process.
So, unless one or more of us suddenly decides to Sugar-Daddy the whole site, I think it’s safe to say you have complete trust from us to fund this how you see fit. It ends up being up to you anyways.
The number one and two reasons I keep coming back to toolguyd:
Unlike for instance another site, most of which “ reviews “ are actually PR pieces straight from the manufacturer. I will glance at that one maybe once a week or so. But I stopped commenting and caring. Critical comments are not approved. I am not going to write another letter to their editor to point out proper disclosure and that a review should be hands on the tools … so all their copy / paste with stock photos, and various “ articles “ that only promote one manufacturer or product are lazy and dishonest. Plain and simple.
Good on Toolguyd to keep things simple, honest and transparent.
Just a Medic
If you had an annual subscription plan, I would have renewed mine several times by now. And would again, as long as the price remains so reasonable. Keep up the great work.
Somewhat of a tempest in a teapot. It sounded like advertising, and you made it clear this was funded commentary. Maybe some folks were looking for some form of “purity” but far be it from me to tell you how to run your railroad. If you believed what you wrote, and I have no reason to suspect you didnt from your past writing, then all is good.
To be honest, I started reading it but dropped out after a couple of paragraphs, was a little too glowing. Sitting here now reflecting on it, it wasnt the glowing writing that caused me to lose interest, it was that I have about as much interest in a Kobalt power tool as I do a Walmart branded fly reel.
I read it all the way through. There were some stylistic choices early on—like SHOUTY-CASE MARKETING COPY!—that didn’t feel like what, or how, Stuart would have written a review of something else. I didn’t appreciate that, and because it was right at the start, it was hard to spot the reset when it returned to more nuanced analysis. If I had any feedback to offer, it’d be that: be gentle with the caps lock and the copy-and-paste; both detract from your writing’s “voice” and thereby make make you sound like someone else.
As other have said, though, you can turn this into a lemon-squeezing tutorial website if you want to. We have no say in it, other than with our eyeballs. I appreciate your consideration of how to go about this because it shows you aren’t on autopilot and are willing to change, which is all I ever ask of my media (and politicians).
I’ve written some opinion/advice posts for another tool site that also has a popular YouTube channel. I enjoy writing, and enjoy sharing my opinions, but I really enjoy reading your posts as they are objective and straight shooting. I’ve seen few (possibly just me reading into things) outside influences from the manufacturers on this site, quite unlike even the site I’ve written for, which rarely gives fewer than 4 out of 5 stars on their reviews.
Having a tool company (or any other company, for that matter) sponsor you must be nice. I’ve offered to do reviews for the other site and was tempted by the concept of getting “free” tools to review, but I don’t think I can do that. My house is full of DeWalt, Milwaukee, Ridgid, Ryobi, and Ego power tools, all of which I’ve spent my own money on (the sole exception being a tool kit won in a giveaway). Companies (not to mention the giant corporations that usually own them) exist to make money. By their very nature, they are going to want to sponsor those who will make them more money. In layman’s terms, if a tool sucks, they will expect at the very least a positive review; if a tool is merely okay, they will expect a glowing review. If they give a tool to a reviewer who is brutally honest, I wouldn’t expect that sponsorship to continue.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy reading the posts and watching the videos from even the most unscrupulous of tool “reviewers”, but I visit this site along with the forum daily due to your ethics and especially your content.
if a tool sucks, they will expect at the very least a positive review; if a tool is merely okay, they will expect a glowing review. If they give a tool to a reviewer who is brutally honest, I wouldn’t expect that sponsorship to continue.
Generally, that’s not the case, but I’m sure it’s how a lot of reviewers feel and behave.
I try to approach reviews from a more “what and why” standpoint, because I feel it benefits a wider audience. A tool that works well for one’s needs might be terrible for another’s.
“Show don’t tell” is a good motto to review tools by. Don’t tell someone they should buy the tool, show them why it might or might not be a good fit for their individual needs and wants.
When a brand supplies a tool, it’s generally a professional courtesy to talk with them about any major problems.
This week I sent back a jobsite radio to one brand and a battery to another. In the first product the Bluetooth feature seems to have failed, and in the other the battery charge gauge seems to have failed. Both could be 1 in a 1000 random issues. Those issues will still be discussed in follow-up coverage, but the brands have a chance to investigate and hopefully share or summarize their findings.
The key is to find balanced behavior. The review that doesn’t have brand contacts might throw up a YouTube video with “Brand X radio FAILURE – watch before you buy!!” headline to solicit views. Is that being brutally honest?
In 11-1/2 years I had one brand ask how I planned to test a tool and then tell me that they didn’t want me to try that because it’s not what the tool was designed for. I objected and it never happened again.
We’ve been cut off from one brand before, and after a period of time the relationship was restored.
I try to meet professional courtesy with professional courtesy, and a confident about not ever being obligated to offer a “glowing review” if it’s not warranted.
Brands don’t seem to mind when I’m critical, or at least if they are they don’t make their objections known to me, and I presume this is because I try to be objective and am as equally fair when praise is deserved.
There are reviewers who will praise bad quality tools to stay in sponsors’ and advertisers’ good graces, and the same ones might trash good tools to punish brands aren’t in their favor.
There are manipulations and phony endorsements, but also a lot of honesty and integrity out there. It’s unfortunately a burden on readers and viewers to judge each source.
OH! While I’m sharing behind the scenes observations and insights, I was talking to a brand about potential advertising, and they informed me I could review their tools and they would promote the reviews on their social media channels to help drive up my affiliate revenue and commissions. I haven’t reviewed one of their products since, as the “offer” didn’t sit well with me at all.
Most brands, however, especially larger ones, operate with far more integrity than critics of tool review samples give them credit for.
Aside from the “review our stuff and we’ll make sure you get more pay out of it” discussion, I’m at a struggle to recall any other ethical misalignments.
Stuart, I one of the many reasons I frequent your site is because you are aware of the bias that we all have (whether we want to acknowledge it or not), and are honest about how the financial side can play into those biases, and have taken steps to mitigate it. I appreciate your sharing with us “how the sausage is made” and appreciate your opinions and honesty.
Corporate and/or brand distancing is vital to maintain objectivity, I am very suspicious of websites that tout one or two brands all the time. It is difficult to be successful without some measure of sponsorship, but for me there’s a threshold that when reached puts everything one says in question, regardless of whether or not it is true and unbiased. Don’t change Stuart, I hope your readership continues to grow because I believe you offer some excellent content…
After reading the other responders thoughtful responses I almost didn’t comment because all I have to say is you’ve done a good job of presenting items that interest me and I haven’t felt shilled. Thank you, keep it up.
Perhaps you might pull a few ideas from publishers of successful magazines or review sites like Wirecutter. Advertisements are obvious or content is marked as advertising, products provided for review are disclosed, and editorial content is not influenced by sponsors or advertising. The approach tends to generate loyal readers and allows the publisher to charge higher advertising rates. Higher advertising rates supports better journalism which attracts more loyal readers. It is a self-reinforcing process. It can go both ways however. Companies that have high confidence in their products and who keep making better successive generations of them should not be concerned about objective reviews.
How many reviewers and tool news sites are taking money from Lowes, Kobalt, Hart, Skil etc. and not mentioning it? If most of your posts are not sponsored posts and it is clear which ones are sponsored this seems like a really easy call.
Kobalt is in a really interesting space in the market, and it looks like a lot of your readership is interested in this coverage.
It is very strange that people are bothered by you being transparent on the sponsorship. I wonder how many articles those same folks read every day without realizing that free content on the internet is almost universally supported by advertisers and sponsors.
This is just a question of balance that only you can judge. If your audience perceives bias, you will lose theIr trust. Mostly I perceive good judgement so I appreciate your opinions. Keep up the good work and stop navel gazing while you’re lockdown.
Skye A Cohen
You know I read that recent kobalt thing and theese two things went through my head: good for him, making a buck to feed his family. Also this is boring and I don’t care to hear about how well this stacks up to “name brands”., It felt like a paid review. No offense meant I really do appreciate the website and after reading your thoughts on so many tools etc I imagine it might pain you to hear that someone is looking at it like that as I know you do try to be objective and Don’t see yourself as a gear in a sales machine. I look at it almost daily and do appreciate the content even if I do tune out part way through occasionally as I did with the recent kobalt one
Stuart, I trust your reviews and see you as an honest guy. I think that it might be helpful to some of us is you defined what exactly a sponsorship is. I am assuming that they pay you something to make a number of posts on their products and probably give you the products to test. I would also assume that the content and thoughts in the review/write-up are your own.
I think that most people will probably turn a somewhat skeptical eye towards a post marked “sponsored”, but I don’t know for sure. For me, I’m not really interested in the Kobalt tools because I wouldn’t want to buy into a store-brand platform again. I did that with Craftsman Nextec and it hasn’t exactly worked out great.
Terms change depending on the campaign or arrangement.
Usually, a sponsor might propose a broad or narrow focus. If the tool/brand/retailer is one I could support unsponsored, I consider whether their campaign is aligned with my ideals.
Sometimes the “deliverable” is a banner ad, with a zero-cost post about the topic.
Other times, a sponsorship might involve my heavily focusing on to-be-promoted tools in lieu of my everyday tools. Or I try something different. Or run an extensive comparison I otherwise couldn’t justify.
What I provide is usually discussed and set to a contract, such as x-number of posts, and permission for the sponsor to use our copyrighted materials created as part of the sponsorship, if they so choose.
There will usually be boiler plate requirements about y-number of images, specific key points that might be optional or mandatory in mentioning, certain hashtags or tags that should be included, and public disclosure requirements.
Basically, there is a sponsor goal, such as sharing about a new product launch. There will be a deliverable, x-number of posts, or a banner ad for y-number of days or weeks.
In the case of a banner ad, I might complement with unsponsored posts. This is usually if I can’t fit in a natural-feeling post. You’ll see the post start with “Brand is sponsoring ToolGuyd this week, and…”
Some brands are open to that idea, others aren’t.
I feel that if specific messaging is to be passed along, it needs to be in an ad. Posting an unpaid mention of the ad or the acknowledgement of the sponsorship in a post is usually acceptable to me.
In a hypothetical campaign, Brand X might say “we would like you to post about how Tool A is compact, light, and awesome for rugged use.” I might respond by saying “how about I focus on using that tool in a specific project/testing/usage and share the results.” Then, there’s a timetable, say 2 posts in the month of July.
On my end, I might propose a working headline e.g. “I Used Tool A exclusively in my cabinet project, here’s what I found.”
But, I’ll also give myself a goal based on initial criteria, while being able to shift the exact topic from what is proposed to what I find more agreeable.
So I’ll set about an exploration with a question in mind. Can Tool A fulfill my needs, and is it really as compact, light, and rugged as emphasized?
A brand might simply want exposure for the launch of Tool A. I will usually tailor my experience to vet claims. Sponsored or unsponsored, I have to be honest and truthful. Then, usually what happens is my post topic evolves based on my experiences.
For a tool review, I spend time with a tool, with some simulated use and also natural project-based use over time. For a sponsored exploration, the timetable can be strict and so I reorder my priorities and seek to answer specific questions.
If a brand is launching a new line of cordless power tools aimed at DIYers and value-minded pros, the underlying question might be “why should I care?” The brand might tell me what I could include in my message, but I’ll have the freedom to approach it without restrictions.
My plan might be to pick one tool to focus on in a post, by my reaction of “OMG these tools are awesome, I love using them” might prompt me to share about my findings.
Drafts are usually required to be submitted for legal reasons, and the only feedback I have ever received was in the form of grammatical corrections or a tag/hashtag reminder regarding social media content.
Ultimately, the brand or retailer gets the “above and beyond” exposure they were looking for and in a specific time frame, and I provide it in a way I am most comfortable with. If I can’t find terms I’m comfortable with, no deal.
Sorry, I know this is a lot.
Basically, I see sponsorships as a purchase of my time and effort, usually as I work to answer a specific question or vet specific claims, with the understanding the outcome will be shared in a timely manner. If the message is to be controlled, that becomes advertising without any paid editorial components.
Often there will be a “so why should readers care?” component where I try to find a give-back solution.
It’s difficult because “sponsorship” means different things to different people. For some people, they’ll say the words they’re told to say, and that’s that. The next month, everything changes and they’ll promote any and every paying party. I’ve never signed onto a partnership or agreement where I’ve been told what to say.
And, things are always changing. It used to be that brands wanted “ambassadors.” Now it’s “sponcon.” I try to weave carefully to avoid putting myself in the position of a spokesman, and see sponsorships as opportunities to engage in activities or testing that I otherwise couldn’t justify.
I try to be clear in posts about what is being sponsored, although “sponsored exploration” sounds vague, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
Going back to the pickle analogy, sponsorship would be “hey, we’d like you to make sauerkraut in July.” I’ll accept, and share, and the sponsorship component justifies my having to put making a batch of hot sauce on hold. I guess the hesitation is that some people assume the sponsorship component is for my to make sauerkraut and then to say “mmm, tastes great!” regardless of how they really taste.
I appreciate your disclaimer at the start of the review, I would like to see a tag or something similar as well.
An example of what not to do is over at ‘shoptoolreviews’ or ‘protoolreviews’ websites. They don’t disclose they are paid advertisements, overwhelmingly positive, delete comments and are generally uninformed about the real world use of the tools.
Thanks, I’ll give it some thought on how to add a badge of some kind to such posts in the future!
A lot of “review” review sites are essentially Amazon affiliate schemes. I recall looking at some other forums about how one can pass through thousands a month of passive income due to that. The sites look nice and all but essentially aggregate whatever Amazon considers top by their reviews. One reason I stopped using Google search recently is because every other result was some sort of gamed site. So much for access to quality information.
Sites like Toolguyd are pretty much one of the last wave of actual person-run sites. There are obscure no-profit hobbyist sites but I wouldn’t even know where to find them now.
Google used to update their algorithm to filter out those garbage sites, but it appears they have given up. Those sites know how to game the system, and there’s unfortunately nothing to be done about it. I have the same frustrations, from both ToolGuyd and consumer perspectives.
Did I miss something where someone complained about your sponsorship deals? Seems above board to me. Heck I’m even cool with you ebaying the provided tool afterwards even though you are opposed.
We all gotta pay the bills and thus far your reviews, sponsored or otherwise, have seemed genuine, usefull
and entertaining. Keep up the good work!
Can’t do that. If a tool enters my hands at no cost, it must leave my hands at no cost.
Accepting money, favors, or anything of the sort for samples is a huge no-no. It’s not a grey area, it’s completely in the “totally unethical” side of the line.
I don’t see what the problem was with the recent Kobalt review, Stuart was up front with the fact it was a sponsored review and you can make your own determinations based on that.
I like the practice of informing the reader what is sponsored content, all of the other reviews that Stuart does seem to be straightforward and honest so it leads me to give him the benefit of the doubt on sponsored content reviews that he wouldn’t overly fluff a product unless it was worth it.
I would appreciate knowing when you are shrilling. I take what you recommend with a grain of salt but would prefer to also balance when you are getting paid also.
I usually aim for at least a disclosure at the start of a post, and at the end, and with repetition where fitting.
Just my $.02 on general ethics and being able to look in the mirror and be reasonably content.
Like most of us, it appears to me you are a good guy trying to do the best you can with what you get given/presented. What more can anyone ask?
I also ask myself this: Am I, or “they” in this case you, dealing with a situation where the other party has resources, i.e. a legal and PR team, that it’s really unrealistic, except to perhaps another lawyer, to be able to easily figure what I’m being offered without a similar team?
If the answer is “Yes”, then I, very unhappily over the stacked deck, conclude it’s a “Me first” and not a “Win-win” situation and walk away. I don’t want what they have bad enough to give them what they are demanding, and try not to wish them an early death.
If the reviews were honest, many tools would receive 1 and 2-star ratings. “Everybody gets a trophy” may be fine for a 4-year-old’s soccer team, but that edict should never apply to corporations and multi-nationals.
This all sounds reasonable to me. I would figure that there are enough brands out there that makes tools you really like already. Being sponsored by them would seem like a no brainer to me as long as you could still be honest. Most decent manufacturers don’t really make “bad” tools, just tools with varying ratios of pros and cons.