Real Reporting: How to Write a Product Review When You Don’t Own the Product

About a month ago I hired a new team member, Hannah Riley, to be my copyeditor and writer manager. She's been a wonderful asset and has really helped our writers improve their work. When they don't improve on something though, she's on hand to touch up their work herself.

As such, the quality of the articles and sites we've been producing has been much better for the past five weeks and I know this trend is only going to continue.

If you've ordered any article packs or custom sites from us in the last 5-6 weeks, Hannah has been involved.

As a way of introducing you all to Hannah, I asked her to write a post that would benefit everyone here. We thought about the topic for a while, and decided to go with writing review posts.

Everyone will write a post for something they've not physically bought at some point, but making that post really quality is difficult.

This is something that Hannah's been really good at, and helping our writers to put out decent content without giving away the fact they've not bought the product has been key to improving their output.

So today's post is a step-by-step guide to writing product reviews that don't suck, even though you don't own the product.

Over to Hannah...

I have this friend. She's a really prolific writer, and she self-publishes a huge number of e-books for this incredibly specific niche market that she's cornered simply via the sheer number of things she's written.

She comes to me every month or two and asks me to leave reviews on some of her newest books, and I oblige because I'm a great friend—a friend with a secret. I've never actually read any of her books. I spend each day editing thousands of words for my job, and I simply don't have the time to read novellas as a favor.

However, I do have time to help her out by writing reviews, even without having read one of her stories cover to cover.

Maybe this situation is familiar to you, or maybe you've just been hired at a job that requires you to write product reviews. Maybe you run a site or blog and need to up your hits by providing content that's useful and current.

Or, you want those coveted clicks on affiliate links. Whatever your reason, one important half of the equation is clear: you're writing reviews about products. The other significant half? You're writing reviews about products you don't own.

You're probably thinking that sounds like some insurmountable feat—how are you supposed to market something and provide useful information when you haven't used it, held it in your hands, or even seen it in person? In this article, it's my aim to help you learn how to write a product review when you don't own the product.

It's possible, and it's a lot more engaging (in a good way!) than you think.

Understanding Styles

One of the reasons that writing product reviews can work so well even when you don't own an item is that you're still framing your words using the proper style that captivates readers and inspires trust. In general, product reviews fall under two writing-style categories:

I own the thing, so I have firsthand experience- This probably doesn't sound like what you came here to learn about, but hear me out. All this writing style involves is presenting information in a way that sounds as though you have personal experience with the product: "I read this book, liked this about it, and disliked this about it."

It only works if you've really, really researched the product above and beyond the call of duty or if you truly do own the thing. It's better to use the style below instead, in part because it's more honest, but also because it's actually more helpful.

I don't own the thing, but I've done a ton of research-This is likely the tack you're going to take with your reviews. With this, you don't even need to involve yourself; forget the "I" statements. Instead, you'll present information in an unbiased way by placing value judgments on the product(s) you're discussing after elaborating on plenty of background information.

This maintains a trustworthy, expert tone that's still very useful to readers as an honest endorsement. The neutral language gives an impression of expertise without making readers question your intentions.

Getting Started

Now that you understand the importance of using the proper style, let's take a look at the absolute most critical element of writing your reviews: research! This is the only way you can effectively accomplish your goal of providing precise product information and an accurate assessment.

Remember those long nights spent in the library writing citations for your thesis? Or how you earned that e-Ph.D. learning everything you could from WebMD about what that weird rash might be? Yep, research. Who knew it'd come in handy so often?

When you first start writing a review, you need to throw yourself into the research with as much enthusiasm as you can muster. It's going to become your key to writing successful evaluations because it's the only way you can gather information aside from using a product (which we've definitely established you won't be doing).

You don't just want to give readers the impression that you're an expert. You want, for those hours you spend doing this legwork, to try to actually become a version of an expert—a pseudo-expert. This ensures you have a strong grasp on enough information to give a comprehensive assessment.

But what do you actually research? Don't just read others' reviews. Whether you're doing a stand-alone review of one thing or a comparative review of multiple items in the same category, you need to get a range of information. Look at the manufacturers' sites and understand all the features.

Search for the competition and learn all their products' benefits and downsides. Check out the pricing. Take notes on everything. After all that, start to pore over customer feedback and ratings. Once you've compiled all this information, you're almost there. It's time to start writing.

The Outline

Most reviews will have similar structures. That's not to say they should be completely formulaic every time, but generally, people look for reviews to find certain key pieces of information, such as features, comparisons, and evaluations.

Most people read them because they have some kind of problem or need, and they want to know how that product does or doesn't solve their issue. It's your responsibility to give them this information in a way that's fun but complete. Most of this simply involves organizing your research, and to do that, you can use this basic outline.

Starting to write­-As you sit down and start planning out your review, keep the overall tone in mind. You want your writing to sound upbeat but honest. It's okay to have a sense of humor or a desire to make people smile, but if you go too far with the hyperbole you can lose readers' trust.

Introduction that sets the scene-As with most engaging writing, you want to place readers in the middle of a dilemma. Evoke emotions and describe a scenario that relates to the item. Determine who your readers are and what their problem is. Then, introduce the product and briefly explain how it can solve that problem, which you'll expand upon further in the review.

Brand kudos- Next, give a little background information about the manufacturer if it's relevant. You'd want to know if a company has made a name for itself or is a newcomer, right? How has it worked to break into or improve the industry? This might not be relevant in all situations; only include it if it's something really stellar.

Product features-Focus on the facts here, but don't overwhelm. Provide some basic, factual points about the item and discuss what it promises to do. This is where you can mention the pricing and manufacturer's information you found during initial research, but you'll also need to answer a few questions. How does it work? What does it advertise in terms of what it accomplishes? How does it claim to achieve those results?

Evaluation-Now we're getting into the good stuff. This section is the main reason that people came to check out your review in the first place; this is where you get to appraise how well the item delivers on its promises. This is also the part where you'll be synthesizing all the customer feedback you found during your research, because those opinions and results are what determine whether or not you'd ultimately recommend the product.

Discuss the pros and cons of the item, and be sure that the assessment is balanced. Avoid honing in on the benefits and ignoring the downsides unless the product has offered excellent results for most people.

It's okay to mention areas that need improvement as long as you're reporting accurate information, and its more helpful to readers overall to offer an honest portrayal.

Focus on the results the product provides and how well it does (or doesn't do) what it advertises.

Closing judgment-It's time to wrap up your review, and you do this by giving readers an overall judgment of whether or not the product lives up to its promises and solves the problem you initially presented. Tell people if it's ultimately a smart buy and if the item represents good value and performance. End on a positive note by repeating something it does well.

One more tip-If you're writing a comparative review, turn this outline into mini-sections and follow it for each product. At the end, provide an overall judgment that ranks the top three or five products and includes justification for why each one earned its particular rating.

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So, there you have it. It's not exactly the same as interrogating your friend about her book you didn't read, but the principles of extracting information and organizing it in a useful way are what really matter most. You want your reviews to bring traffic and evoke a sense of trust from readers at the same time. Hopefully now you have a better idea of how it's less like an undertaking and more of an opportunity.

  • GetItGoing

    Very helpful! I don’t think I’ve seen this information anywhere at all.

  • Deepak

    Hey excellent article. I was looking for something like this for a while 🙂 Thanks!

  • Thanks for the helpful tips Hannah, its something I have struggled with, reviewing a product I don’t own!

    I feel I am giving my readers false info when I haven’t held the item, felt its weight, seen how it performs, etc. especially when its a physical item. Not so important with digital but knowing how a software performs can be a pro or con.

    However I see giving a review on the company record, the type of product, what to expect, and what other reviewers are saying can all add weight to a product that should be good to own.

  • John Cyscon III

    great article, thanks! i look forward to seeing your work in action.

    • Hannah

      Thank you, John! I’m excited as well.

  • Thank you for this. Alot of people seem to just read other people’s reviews and rejig them. This will definitely help.

    • Hannah

      Thanks, Tom! I think it always helps to frame these kinds of articles as learning opportunities; there’s a lot of great information to dig up that can really help people (and you in the process!). That’s one of the best parts 🙂

  • Great advice and tips Hannah – thank you!

    I’ll be using this as a guide for a new site I’m working on.

    All the best, and to Dom,

    Mark

    • Hannah

      Hi Mark! You’re very welcome. These are pretty tried-and-true tips for me, so I hope they help you just as much.