Table of Contents

1.     Introduction–what is the reviewer’s guide
2.     Objective–discusses the focus of the guide
3.     Strategy–how the reviewer’s guide differs from other marketing collateral
4.     Key content–what you should talk about
5.     Major elements–a model or template for a basic reviewer’s guide
6.     Process–how to get a quality reviewer’s guide on time

1) Introduction: It’s the context, stupid

A company introduced a new product, a desktop relational database management system. For the first time, someone could buy a full-feature relational database that ran on a standard desktop PC. It was a breakthrough product. The company had done a quality job, and the product was priced very attractively. It looked like a sure hit.

Then the first reviews started rolling in. A major industry publication panned the product. Sure it handled triggers and stored procedures like the established server-based relational databases, but it didn’t support massive amounts of data or thousands of concurrent users or provide certain other large enterprise capabilities. The review was devastating.

What went wrong? In hindsight, it is easy to see: the reviewers looked at the product in the totally wrong context. They compared a product that cost a few hundred bucks to ones that cost tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a stupid mistake but very easy to make. The company protested and the publication ran the standard correction a few weeks later, but it never had the impact as the initial review. The product suffered because of it.

What’s the lesson? It’s the context. You can’t spoon feed an analysis of your product to reviewers and analysts, but you can ensure they understand the context within which to evaluate your product, that they are comparing the proverbial apples to apples. This is the primary job of the reviewer’s guide.

So, Rule # 1 of the Ultimate Reviewer’s Guide: establish the context. If you get that right, everything else will fall into place.

A reviewer’s guide is a document that helps the product reviewer or evaluator better understand your product and come to this understanding more quickly. It can play a key role in ensuring you get a positive review that portrays the product in the appropriate way. And, it provides your best and only chance of communicating with the reviewer while he or she is actually writing the review or evaluation report.

This document will provide you with six rules and a model for creating an effective reviewer’s/evaluator’s guide. If you market a product or service, even a Web site, and are counting on the opinions of others—reviewers, evaluators, analysts, influencers of all sorts—to help establish the product and drive sales, your efforts will benefit from a reviewer’s guide along the lines described in the following pages. Reviewer’s guides, also known as Evaluator’s guides, are also effective when used with prospective customers who are evaluating your product.

2) Objective: Make the Reviewer’s Life Easy

Reviewing products for publications, Web sites, research firms, or investment companies is not a great job. Although thorough reviews take a lot of time, the money is often low and the pressure to meet deadlines is high. And if you are evaluating the product as a prospective buyer, you probably have other responsibilities; evaluating the new product is an added burden.

Rule # 2: make the reviewer’s job easy.

How do you make the reviewer’s job easy? In short, by doing as much of the legwork for him or her. That means understanding what the reviewer needs to know to write the kind of review or report he wants to produce and providing it quickly and easily, usually right here in the reviewer’s guide.

What are the kinds of things reviewers want to know? Of course, you will provide factual product information. Beyond that, every reviewer is different—you can see what a particular reviewer wants by reading previous reviews he or she has prepared—but some or all the following are likely:

  • Market data—many reviewers like to add an overall market perspective to their reviews, citing published syndicated research from leading research and investment firms, trade associations, the government, and others.
  • Core technology background—especially where a product is based on advanced technology, reviewers like to see details about the underlying core technology.
  • Financials—sales, revenue, revenue growth, profitability; especially when dealing with a product from a new company or in a product category where the financial viability of the provider is an issue.
  • Competing products—you only need to identify them as part of the competitive landscape, not go into details. If you don’t identify the competitors you are willing to be compared to, the reviewer will go off and dig up competitive comparisons on his own, and he may come up with some you don’t want to be compared with (the context issue again).
  • Customer references—some reviewers like to do a reality check by calling people who have used the product. Others just want to know that you actually have customers. You only need to provide name and contact information; the reviewer isn’t likely to believe a testimonial or case study without talking to the customer directly.
  • Problems—these include lawsuits, such as patent infringement; court orders; FTC or other regulatory actions; and other things affecting the product that the reviewer and the reviewer’s audience would want to know about. If it is important, the reviewer will find it out anyway so he might as well find it out from you, which gives you the opportunity to present it in the best light. 

3) Strategy: No Hype

Reviewers have very sensitive BS meters. They will smell hype and BS a mile away, and they resent it. It makes them skeptical of everything else you may say about the product, and it makes more work for them because they have to wade through the hype to get to the solid information.

This brings us to Rule #3: no hype, at least within the reviewer’s guide.

If you are compelled to add hype and are willing to risk ticking off a reviewer, toss a couple of marketing brochures into the package along with the reviewer’s guide. At worst, it will be easy for the reviewer to throw the hype straight into the trash. Then again, the reviewer might actually glance at it and you’ll have gotten lucky.

Keeping hype out of the reviewer’s guide is a considerable challenge. Many managers love hype about their product, which is completely understandable, and the people who work for them are more than happy to give them what they love, the more the better. This may make for good office politics, but it produces a poor reviewer’s guide.

When I write a reviewer’s guide, I steer clear of effusive adjectives and superlatives and descriptors of all sorts. I avoid any terms or phrases that do not directly add substantive information about the subject. The reviewer is looking for information, facts, details, and data, not poetry. You want crisp, clean prose that is concise and to the point. The only exception is when writing an evaluator’s guide. Prospective customers expect a certain amount of hype but don’t overdue it.

4) Key Content: Product Information

OK, it we aren’t going to give them our marketing hype, what are we going to say? This answer is easy: reviewers want solid, factual information about the product and the context within which to understand the product.

You probably can already guess Rule # 4: give reviewers information, detail, facts, and data that help them understand the product and the context.

Reviewers actually have some very specific information needs. These include:

  • Who is the intended target market—who is going to want this product
  • Why will they want it—what exactly does it do for them
  • What’s new, different—what has changed about the product since the reviewer last looked at it or since the last release or the previous model
  • Product feature and function overview—summarize key features and functions
  • Critical purchase details—when it is available, where and how it can be purchased, pricing, support, training, and such
  • Company overview—a brief summary of the company (include references to principals only if they are absolutely critical to understanding the product)

Some companies put out guides that detail every feature and function: what it is, why it is there, how it works, why it is important. This guide is not a reviewer’s guide; it is closer to a sales guide. Good sales guides are a very useful tool (see my upcoming report The Ultimate Sales Guide), but they serve a different objective and are aimed at a different audience, several different audiences in fact. Reviewers, however, do not need or want all this detail, and they will resent having to wade through it.

Others produce reviewer’s guides that read like mini-user manuals. Press F-5 for this feature; click on Tools, Options for some other feature. If this kind of documentation is required to understand and evaluate the product, then provide the reviewer with the actual documentation and manuals that you will provide the buyer or user. The quality of the documentation itself will become part of the reviewer’s evaluation.

5) Major Elements

The following table offers a model or template incorporating the major elements of a reviewer’s guide.

Major Element Purpose/Role
Table of Contents Make it easy for the reviewer to find information fast.
Background Establish the context in which the reviewer should evaluate the product.
Market Overview Identify who will need a product like this and why they need it.
What’s New Highlight what is new, different, or enhanced in this version of the
Key Features Summarize the key features of the product.
Competitive Landscape Summarize where and how this product fits into the competitive
Pricing and Packaging How this product is sold and its price.
Technical Requirements List the technical specifications.
Corporate Background Briefly summarize the company.
Appendices Technical details, speeds and feeds, customer references, additional
documentation, performance tests, benchmarks, etc.

6) Process

The hardest part about developing and writing a reviewer’s guide is to look at the process of evaluating your product from the standpoint of the reviewer. It is a question of what they need to know versus what you’d like to tell them. Because, in your heart, the only thing you really want to tell the reviewer is that your product is wonderful. But that won’t get you a good review.

The need to present your product as a reviewer sees it makes the reviewer’s guide an excellent candidate to turn over to an outside writer. A good outside writer will not share your internal bias, jargon, or worldview–influences that can creep into the reviewer’s guide and put off the reviewer.

Therefore, Rule #6: write your reviewer’s guide with the reviewer’s needs and interests foremost in mind.

Although in-house resources, such as product managers, documentation writers, or support engineers, know the product best, they are not the best choices for writing the reviewer’s guide. In addition to the substantial difficulty they will have trying to view the product the way the reviewer does, they cannot make the reviewer’s guide a priority given their primary responsibilities. As a result, in-house reviewer’s guides rarely get done on time or are so rushed that the quality suffers to the point where they may actually be counterproductive.

Clearly, I have my own bias, but in the case of a reviewer’s guide a quality outside writer like me will almost always do a better job, deliver it faster, and at a cost that is less than the actual cost of in-house people, especially when you consider the cost of taking them away from their primary work. And more importantly, as an experienced outside resource, I bring the critical reviewer’s perspective that your people simply cannot provide.

You are welcome to visit my Web site,, to see samples of my writing, including a reviewer’s guide. While you are there, you may also want to check out my report titled The White Paper White Paper—required reading for anybody trying to communicate about complex products and services.

And watch for my upcoming reports:

  • The Ultimate Web Content Guide—how to create killer online content
  • The Ultimate ROI Guide—how to communicate value
  • The Ultimate Sales Guide—how to create a document that can actually drive sales
  • The Ultimate Case Study Guide—how to write believable customer testimonials