I got a bitter and cynical complaint yesterday (which I didn't publish) about all the positive camera reviews on TOP. I thought it might be an opportunity to explain how all this stuff actually works. I know a lot about this subject, having made all or part of my living from this for eight years now. I'm one of a relatively few people who manage that.
For starters, Jim's Fuji X-E1 review is a particularly poor example of a possible sell-out, because I have zero input on what Jim chooses to write about and he gets zero dollars from writing for TOP. (He's asked not to be paid because he's retired and does this for fun. Besides, I can't afford his fee, and we both know that.) So there's a hard disconnect between whatever he chooses to write and any money that might thereby spill into TOP's coffers. Before a few days ago, I had no idea he'd even bought a Fuji X-E1, much less that he was writing about it, much less what he would say about it when he wrote about it.
But yes, like a lot of people, I make my bones by selling stuff. Two Fuji X-E1's have appeared on my B&H Photo Transaction History Report so far (a few more Fuji items might sell as a result of the review—there's sometimes a bit of a lag between the sales and the reports) and I got $35.97 for each sale. So TOP got $71.94 (at least) to put toward a new office, courtesy of two readers who are about to receive new X-E1's. (I'll let you know in a few days how much Fuji equipment we sold as a result of Jim's posts, total.) I don't mean to be reticent about this—I'm TRYING MY HARDEST to get you to link to B&H and Amazon from TOP for whatever you buy, so I can keep this fun job forever. Don't think I'm not grateful.
You should also know that not only is Jim not being bought, he can't be bought. That is, if he wrote a negative review of the XPRN and I said, "Sorry, Jim, you must rewrite this and make it positive," there's no way that would happen. Even if I tried to buy him off by giving him my whole $71.94. Or, say, $1,500. I know Jim; that little word "integrity" most definitely applies. I'm not sure I could coerce him to change a negative sentence, much less a negative review. It would take a lot of discussion to change one sentence, if it involved getting him to say something he didn't believe or not say something he did. (Believe me, I've had those discussions with writers.)
But even beyond the specific situation, such conspiracy theories don't really reflect how affiliate programs actually work. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, let me 'splain.
It's purely a numbers game. If I get 24,000 page views today (about what I expect), some smaller number represents the separate individual people who visit (some people come several times, or might view more than one page while they're here). Somewhere between .5% and 5% of those readers will click through to one of our affiliates, and somewhere between 2% and 20% of the ones who do will buy something, big or small, and I will get somewhere between 3% and 10% of whatever money they spend. It all adds up. (You could calculate the range of TOP's daily earnings from that, you perceive, except that one number is left out.)
The profit of running a website is entirely wrapped up in that phrase "it all adds up." It's not that a specific review of a specific item leads to sales of that specific item which leads to profits (at least, it doesn't work that way at TOP). I would say that the only thing that reliably correlates to more sales is more inline links, and the only thing that correlates to more sales of a particular product is more discussion or mention of that item over time. And it all correlates to the size of the audience. That's about it.
Conspiracy theories also assume that positive reviews influence sales positively, which I think is assuming facts not in evidence (as the lawyers say). For instance, someone might read a negative review of the X-E1 and it might be the final straw that tilts them over to a purchase of an Olympus OM-D, which they've been considering for months. I haven't run hard data, but my sense is that a negative review can result in just as many click-throughs and just as many purchases as a positive one. In some cases more, since negative reviews tend to be more controversial and more people come in from far and wide to read them.
In fact, knowing what I know about my business, which is a whole lot, I bet I could run a profitable web business publishing nothing but entertainingly negative reviews. It's just that I don't want to, because I don't think it's fun being negative for its own sake. (Well, more than once in a while. Ahem.)
Note for instance that the post below this one, about the backpack on sale, is not a review and is neither positive nor negative. It functioned just fine to inspire click-throughs—it sold 33 backpacks, and would have sold more except that B&H ran out of them.
A little experiment to test my point:
• Hot off the presses, Joyland is author Stephen King's tribute to the classic paperback crime genre. Even its cool cover art pays tribute to the pulp fiction of old. For this reason, though, the master of suspense is not allowing this brand-new title to be released in e-reader format yet! For the time being, at King's insistence, you can only buy it in paperback. Take that, Kindle!
• THIS IS CHEATING!!! You keep this clever little thingy in your top pocket while you're playing golf. See that round button? Press it, and, if you're on a golf course—any golf course—a little voice will pipe up and tell you how far away you are, in yards, from the next hole ahead of you. You're supposed to estimate by eye how far the shot is—devices like this are forbidden by the rules of golf! Still, it's gotta help.
• Sorry to get all macho, but a man is not a man unless he has a really great drill-driver. I love my DeWalt. But it cost twice as much as this one, and came with half as many accessories. If your father is the kind of guy who uses a drill and he makes do with a crappy old one just because he always has, don't look now, but we have a Father's Day idea for you.
None of those things would normally be things I'd mention, link to, or sell. Bet we sell one of each. I'll let you know in a few days.
Again, the keys are: the content draws the visitors; the links make the connections to the affiliate sites; and then people buy whatever they want. I'm really not convinced that positive reviews necessarily drive more sales...
...Even if we were willing to sell out and publish positive reviews just for the sake of sales, which I'm not.
Meanwhile, if anyone wants to write a negative review of a camera they hate, be my guest. It would have to conform to all the other conditionals we place on things we publish, to wit: it has to be well written and entertaining to read; you have to be straightforward about your biases and level of expertise; and you have to be honest about what you really think and accurately support what you say. But of course you can do all those things and still be negative, if you try.
(Thanks to Frank P)
P.S. Wow, that took forever to write. Sorry. I'll get Ctein's column up ASAP.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jeremy: "Very interesting read, I need to remember to buy via click-through to support people I like. I always end up going direct to B&H etc, once I've made my decision, when I could be helping out a good cause without any negative impact to me. A key factor in your equation is the amount of daily traffic you start with, and those numbers won't be significant (25K) unless you are interesting and/or informative, which you can't really be if you give off the vibe of being a 'sell-out' (the cool kids can always sniff them out)."
John Goldsmith: "I wrote a rather negative review of the Fuji X-100 several years ago after a friend loaned me his for a week. That camera was truly all hype, at least for anyone into fast (or even slow!) moving objects. Following that writeup, I'm confident no camera manufacturer will send me any gear to try, unless of course I'm first paid the full price. If you want the link, let me know. In any event, thank you for the insider view. Pretty fascinating."
Mike replies: That's another misconception, actually. Camera manufacturers generally don't even make any attempt to influence reviewers, except by being friendly. The majority of them wouldn't punish you for writing an unfavorable review.
Although I have known exceptions to that. Hasselblad was by far the worst in my personal experience.
Chad Thompson: "Jim's articles were the main reason I held on to my [new] Camera Arts subscription for as long as I did. Well after B&W ceased to be relevant (to me at least). I'm glad to see him back at it even if only in this somewhat limited capacity. Of course I probably said this exact same thing the last time he posted...."
adamct: "For what it's worth, here is how I deal with Wishlists in order to still give TOP credit for the sale. I put things into my Amazon wishlists because it is convenient. Then, when I am ready to buy, I open my TOP Amazon bookmark in one window, and my wishlist in the other. I copy the description of each item from my wishlist into the clean Amazon/TOP window, and add them one by one to my shopping cart. It sounds complicated, but it is actually very, very fast in practice."
Mike replies: Bless you, friend. :-)