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This chapter is from the book

Making Sausage: How Reviews Happen

“It’s too bad that none of the apps I get pinged about are really of interest to me, and often downright sloppy. The first step to making it big in the App Store should be making a good app, methinks.”

  • —Brett Terpstra, TUAW blogger, web and app developer

“I don’t know that app developers and marketing managers are really aware of what a really good review takes out of a blogger and how even though they may be giving us a $6 app, or even a $60 keyboard, my time and energy is worth so much more than that. Even if the “work” is fun, it’s still testing and putting something through its paces and it’s still work. I run a small consulting business and a family. It’s really hard for me to justify giving away free or really low-cost advertising for someone else. My family and my health come first, and my friends, too! This is why I’ve had to scale back my review posting, but I really want to get back into it, just in a healthier way.”

—Melissa Davis, TheMacMommy (http://www.themacmommy.com/)

To better understand how bloggers decide what makes it to the home page and what gets thrown into the email trash, consider how bloggers actually put together their reviews and what they’re looking for. It’s a bit like making sausages.

The end product is a lot prettier and tastier than the process itself might indicate. Otto von Bismarck once said, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” The same advice goes for doing reviews. Trying to find good review fodder among the onslaught of pitches can be a frustratingly inefficient process.

What Do Bloggers Look For?

Bloggers live for the product that is exciting, newsworthy, different, or extremely useful to write about. When a product doesn’t fit one of those criteria, it’s likely to be overlooked. At TUAW, we deal mostly with apps and accessories. While we focus on Apple-related software and hardware, other blogs might cover books, automobiles, fashion, photography, and other merchandise.

What we have to say about the way we in which we review items transfers to these other arenas. The experience of human excitement is universal. So, if you’re reading this book and you create Café Press and Zazzle items or you are an author trying to get your book reviewed, adjust our criteria accordingly. These apply to other blogs, other products, and other interests.

Here’s a list of what we specifically look for in apps. Certain qualities jump out and make us take notice. The kinds of apps we want to review offer these features.

An exciting app is either completely unique (something quite rare) or achieves its utility in an attention-grabbing way. An exciting app makes you stop, think, and react. They inspire a “wow, that’s cool” reaction. There are hundreds of thousands apps in the App Store. “Me too” apps make our eyes glaze over whenever we see the press releases for them. The exciting app? That’s what we live for.

We recently found an app that scanned automobile VIN numbers and instantly offered wholesale and retail pricing estimates, including Bluebook values and more. Within an hour, nearly every blogger at TUAW had downloaded that app and used it to scan their car. That kind of app is exciting, or as one of our readers put it, “Erica, Thank you for this article! This is one of the most useful apps I’ve ever downloaded! It is so easy to use and provides great information with little effort.” That is what we look for in an exciting app.

Newsworthy apps fit into a larger story. When an app fits an ongoing narrative that’s caught the attention of the blogosphere, it provides a coverage hook for bloggers. This allows us to tie app coverage concretely into current events and promote that app as part of the story. During the Hurricane Sandy floods (no relation to co-author Steve Sande), we actively looked for apps that supported offsite backup to help guard against natural disasters.

When a developer transforms a pedestrian concept to create an app that achieves its goals in a new way that is faster, better, more connected, or just plain more fun, we sit up and take notice. Different matters. There’s no reason for developers to mimic the functionality and even the UI of every other app in its category, so why not start by creating something that’s special?

If you do, and if your press release is focused on pointing out the advantages over competing apps and showcasing features that aren’t available anywhere else, you’re going to get our attention.

To be fair, one infamous app was designed to let users text and drive. It offered new and different functionality, and it did its job well, but we dismissed it in the end—it was suitable only for Darwin Award winners.

Function matters, too. We don’t care how pretty your app is if it does something extremely useful. Yes, an ugly app with a bad UI that does something amazing can win our hearts, like Ambrosia’s Snapz Pro X. It’s an OS X screenshot utility with all the design aesthetics of the former Soviet Bloc. But, we reviewed it positively when it finally updated for Mountain Lion. Apps that improve our lives and help us get things done are always welcome. If your app creates some functionality we haven’t seen before and does it well, that’s going to catch our eye. At least it usually will.

Developer devotion and commitment also play important roles, especially when an app or product offers complex features and/or synchronization capabilities. In exchange for product investment by users, be prepared to step up to the plate on a regular basis with updates, bug fixes, and improvements based on user feedback.

Why Do Bloggers Review?

Blogs are an advertising-driven business. We write posts including news, reviews, and help articles to attract a large audience. We want to grow that audience so we can sell ads on the site for revenue. Without the ads and audience, we’re not getting paid.

But, it’s not just about business. Bloggers are addicted to writing and to community. We love discovering things and telling people about them. In the case of tech bloggers, it’s all about the latest thing. There’s nothing we love more than getting excited about a new app or tech product and sharing that excitement with others.

We blog because we’re curious, because we love trying things out, and because we love talking about the experience of trying things out. We serve an audience that wants to know whether an item is a good buy and/or a great value. The audience wants to know what new apps are worthy of a spot on their home screen or a place in their gear bags.

There’s so much information, so little time. We serve those who let us do that job for them. To the reader, it’s a free consultation; a chance to pick the brains of an IT professional.

Attracting Readers

We attract readers by writing about new products, including apps or accessories. Readers want to know the details about a product—things like the price, availability, and features. They also want opinion. Bloggers help entice them to purchase the product or warn them to steer clear. Blogging isn’t journalism. It’s opinion writing flavored with passion and personal experience.

When an app is really awful, we usually pass on the opportunity to review it. Most bloggers won’t go out of their way to trash a new app that doesn’t make the cut.

Providing Criticism

Steve once had a developer who wrote a wonderful pitch about his educational app. The application sounded great, but when loaded and launched, it was one of the worst he had ever seen. It was filled with misspellings, the user interface resembled an unsolvable puzzle, and some of the text was so small (and non-resizable) that it was unreadable. To top it off, the app repeatedly crashed.

The app was essentially an amateurish attempt to repackage old CD-ROM content for mobile devices; it was awful. Rather than embarrass the developer publicly and potentially ruin any chance of him ever selling another app, Steve wrote him a personal email telling him of his concerns for the app, explaining why he wasn’t going to review it.

Although Steve provided constructive criticism, the developer remained adamant on one point. He truly believed his app was really well done. It wasn’t. Several horrible reviews were subsequently published by other blogs, proving that it wasn’t just Steve who found the app awful. We hope that the dev decides to fix the glaring issues with his app.

Most bloggers aren’t out there to make you feel like a failure. For the most part, we point out the good and not-so-good features of your product in their reviews. We want to provide valuable information to our readers, not make fun of you or other product developers. You can best help us by crafting items that we’re going to be enthusiastic about reviewing. Always send in your best work.

Product developers who listen to blogger criticism and use it to improve their products are much more likely to receive the repeated attention of bloggers in the form of reviews. Developer Saied Ghaffari of It’s About Time Products (http://www.helloiat.com/) creates training and other apps for Apple’s iOS and Mac platforms. Steve made a comment in one post several years ago noting that the name of one app—“It’s About Time: Learn the Switch to Mac”—was a mouthful and difficult to fit into a blog headline.

Recently, Saied pitched a new ebook and app, and both had succinct names: “Hello Mac OS X” and “Hello iPhoto.” He pointed out in a conversation with Steve that he had listened to the feedback and took it to heart. Did it make Steve feel good that a developer had responded to criticism in a positive way? Sure! Did that positive response color Steve’s decision to review Saied’s new products on TUAW? Absolutely.

How Do Bloggers Perform Evaluations?

When a blogger evaluates a new or revised product, it’s generally because we saw something that really caught our eye. Something “popped.” It grabbed our attention and made us take notice. At that point, we often ask for a review unit or, in the case of apps, a promo code, but we do so with no guarantees or promises attached.

Making these requests doesn’t always mean that we’ll write about it. Remember that subpar app Steve looked at? He received a promo code, but applied that admonition we all hear from our parents: “If you can’t say anything nice about a person, keep quiet.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t publish negative reviews. We do. Sometimes, we do this because we have a point to make about the app or its quality. More often, we do because we have an editorial calendar that requires service. You cannot commit to an iPhone-, iPad-, or Mac-App-of-the-Day without writing up some app.

For the most part, bloggers prefer to skip products they don’t like as well as the vast oceans of the mediocre. Doing so is not always practical, especially in a daily business where content drives readership, readership drives ad views, and ad views drive paychecks.

For many bloggers, reviews are a daily fact of life and, as much as we would prefer to highlight the special, the terrific, and the exceptional, we spend a lot of time navigating the common, the tedious, and the adequate.

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