Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Soliciting Tea Bloggers to Review Your Samples

I've been uninspired to write lately, which is why my posts have slowed down a bit, but today I read a Google+ post by Nicole of Tea For Me Please that got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. So first, thanks Nicole!

Nicole commented about unsolicited comments from tea companies, which she describes as companies "...practically demanding that I write about their product and promote it to my readers without so much as a proper introduction..." This post sparked a lot of discussion.

Cinnabar of Gongfu Girl also offered a particularly relevant comment here: "It's always the same formulaic communication that starts with them saying how much they like my blog, followed by statements that prove they haven't actually read anything I've written."

The rude approaches described by Nicole, Cinnabar, and others in the discussion, can offend tea bloggers. They can make a negative impression, and they can make it unlikely that a blogger will ever accept or review samples from your company, or promote or write favorably about your company. In this post I want to explain how I think it is best to approach tea bloggers. This all seems like common sense to me, but the fact that so many companies don't follow it makes me think it is worth writing about.

Offering samples is a good thing:

First, I want to say that I love samples, and I think that sending free samples to bloggers can be a great way to gain visibility for your tea company. I'm certainly not trying to discourage tea companies from offering samples with this post. Rather, I would like to encourage tea companies to think about how they approach bloggers when offering samples.

Pictured here are some samples from Life in Teacup that I recently received. This company is one of my favorite tea companies, offering unusual Chinese teas that can be hard to find elsewhere:

Another very different shipment, also of high-quality Chinese teas, was from TeaVivre, a new tea company that ships directly from China, that has quickly gotten my attention as offering high-quality Chinese teas at reasonable prices:

If you want to read some reviews, I recently posted reviews of TeaVivre's Xin Yang Mao Jian and their Chun Mei (Zhen Mei), and of Life in Teacup's Zhang Ping Shui Xian, Charcoal Roasted, Zhang Ping Shux Xian, Traditional Greener Style, and Keemun Mao Feng. Stay tuned for more reviews.

So, how to offer samples?

If I were to give some advice to tea companies offering samples, I'd make the following points about how to approach tea bloggers:

  • Be honest, and avoid flattery. Don't say that you like a person's blog, or read a person's blog if you are just finding it for the first time. If you actually read the blog regularly and enjoy it, then it's okay to say this, but it is better to show this by commenting regularly or referencing the posts in your own writing. But if you just found the person's blog in a list of tea blogs, and are emailing them primarily to offer samples for reviews, then say that. There's no reason to be ashamed of making honest attempts to promote your business, but flattery and dishonesty can make a very negative impression. These sorts of actions come across to me as unnecessary, unprofessional, and desperate, three qualities you absolutely do not want associated with you or your business.

  • Understand that an offer of samples is an offer, and be fully content with bloggers refusing your offer. - It is reasonable to offer samples to a blogger with the understanding that they will review them if they accept the offer. But a blogger is always free to reject any offer of samples. Accepting samples, and reviewing them, even though it involves receiving a free product, is a lot of work. By offering someone samples, you are asking someone to do free work promoting your company. Getting upset at someone for refusing to do you a favor is never a healthy thing to do. And if you're upset, recognize that this is your own private issue and not the blogger's, and keep your thoughts to yourself--sending a nasty note to someone in a case like this is tremendously unprofessional and disrespectful.

  • Read the blogger's blog and site, and make sure they are a good match for your offer, before offering samples. - If you offer samples of flavored green teas to a blog that exclusively reviews Pu-erh, you're making clear that you did not take the time to even glance over what the blog is about. In some cases, bloggers post policies about samples and reviews; make sure to read these notices if one is posted. Always read the "about" page if a blog has one, and always read a number of posts before contacting the blogger. By contacting a blogger without checking to see that their blog is a good match, you are wasting your time as well as the blogger's time.

Watch who you hire to do your PR:

Nicole also remarked in her comment that in some cases, it seems that companies are paying PR firms to do this. I want to chime in, publicly, that I've also experienced this. In one exceedingly silly case, I was having trouble with a certain company posting ratings and reviews on RateTea which I suspected to be fraudulent. The pattern I saw was a series of new sign-ups, all with hotmail addresses, who would write a few reviews (with 100/100 or near-100 ratings) of this company's teas, and never review any other company's teas or log in to the site again. Needless to say, I deleted the accounts, but in order to cut down on spam, I did some detective work and tracked them down to a PR consulting firm that the company had presumably hired. I emailed the firm, and although I did not receive a response or apology, the fake reviews stopped.

The moral of the story here is to be very careful when hiring PR firms. Because a PR firm who engages in disrespectful behavior like this can damage your company's reputation, I would advise people to really drill PR firms on the topics of respect, ethics, and interpersonal communications, before hiring them. If a company cannot demonstrate to you that they consistently communicate respectfully, honestly, and ethically, then find another company.

A sample solicitation:

If you want to offer samples to a blogger, it's really easy. First, make sure the blog is appropriate for your offer, and if not, find another blog that is more appropriate. Then write something simple, like:

"Dear X: I represent Y tea company; I'd like to offer you samples of teas for you to review on your blog, please let me know if you're interested."

If the person responds that they're not interested, thank them for their time and leave them alone. It's one thing if you have something specific more to say--that's fine, but including flattery, or adding a rude response if they decline your offer, will just dig you a deep hole that you may never get out of in that person's eyes.


  1. Excellent post. Most of your points also apply to situations where someone approaches a blogger for publicity/other written coverage that doesn't involve samples/reviews. It's important for marketers to take the time to evaluate the appropriateness of their message to that particular blog. Aside from it being a question of respect, it is also efficiency. A press release about a company manufacturing the latest brightly-colored plastic tea gadget is unlikely to be considered valid content by a blogger whose posts are exclusively about the forms and practice of Chanoyu.

    1. Thanks...I have actually gotten some of these press releases about brightly-colored plastic gadgets, which you mention here. I have not published any of seems a little off topic to my blog which focuses on loose-leaf tea, sustainability, and is more oriented towards tea business owners and serious tea enthusiasts than casual tea drinkers.

  2. I checked out TeaVivre, and would hesitate to order due to some suspect health claims on their website. They have a lengthy article calling pu-erh a "miracle weight loss tea" that "can help you shed pounds" ... without a single scientific (or other) citation. It's not their only such article, either – another describes "green tea slimming diets" with similar enthusiasm and lack of references. Even if they do offer quality tea, that's all the more reason they shouldn't need to mislead people with these overly confident and unscientific claims. I know you have written about this too, in your tea and weight loss article.

    Life in Teacup on the other hand is a very interesting company, with a philosophy I really like. I plan to buy some of their sample sets once I work through more of my existing stash. I think Ginkgo, who comments here sometimes, is the owner?

    1. I also do not like this aspect of their site. Maybe we can put some pressure on them to take these articles and claims down. I am never quite sure where to draw the line in terms of talking about a tea company. For example, Teavana puts forth bogus health claims, and sometimes also engages in pushy sales practices that go against my values. I don't like this at all, and I like to draw attention to it...but I still like to review their teas for what they are, and as much as I don't like all their behavior, I don't think it's crossed the line into me wanting an all-out boycott. I still feel comfortable posting reviews of them with live links to their site. With TeaVivre I feel similarly; I don't like these health articles and I'd encourage them to take them down. However, I think the tea samples they've sent me have been very good and I want to recognize them for that.

      And yes, Gingko, who comments here, and runs the Life in Teacup Blog, is the owner!

  3. Thanks Alex - much enjoyed reading this. I haven't really had any issues like these since I don't review teas. So, the samples I've been given by tea friends I've simply enjoyed without having to create a whole post about them.
    Regardless, I think one should also consider the other side of the coin. I'm not sympathizing with the pushy people you mentioned, just looking at what it means to be a small tea company sending out samples. Most small companies make little money, everyone knows it's not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. Tea samples, and mailing out samples is both time and money. So, if you send out 50 samples, you have to hope to get something in return. However, I think quite often there is little actual return on a tea review. It depends so enormously on who the blogger is. It is hard to know how few, or how many reads a blog gets. For many bloggers the number is actually pretty low. (I will try and resist the urge to highlight the advantages of being part of the Tea Trade network.) Anyway, for the company it can be very hard to gauge who is "worth" asking for a review. If blogger "X" only gets 5 views a day, then the chances of gaining some sort of marketing advantage off his/her review is practically nil. On the other hand, you might be lucky and find that "Y"'s blog is well read. How to know? Even if it's a well known reviewer, who knows how many readers will actually buy the tea. So, it's not always easy to be a small company trying to spread the word about how good their tea is.
    As to the blogger: Yes, it can be tough work. There are lots of people who review quite large numbers of teas and I admire them, for drinking and writing their way through them all. However, there are also some advantages. You get to try all sorts of different teas, a much wider choice than most people. You don't have to shell out for big bags of tea, you may or may not like. You get to sample. Sometimes tea reviewers get samples of new teas, before they're even widely available. Now, if you're not somewhat crazy about tea, then that's one thing. But if you're tea passionate, it's quite educational. I find that every tea I try teaches me something, and adds experience. Well, like I said I don't have to look at piles of teas waiting for reviews, I just get to enjoy them.
    Anyway, the advice you gave to tea companies is good. I'd just add; do research on who you best market your tea to. If you don't, you only have yourself to blame, if you are left disappointed.

    1. I think having reviews online helps a lot, regardless of how much traffic the blogger gets. Why? Because if I'm considering tea X from company Y, I'm going to google '"tea x" "company y" review', and seeing a positive review on any blog that looks legit, whether that blog gets five views a day or five thousand, is going to increase my confidence in buying it.

      If, on the other hand, there are no results for that search, the tea is a big question mark. There's no assurance of quality.

  4. I recently received a request to provide a link to a tea company's web site. I responded that I only furnish links for companies I have actually reviewed. Their comment was they did not support tea begging. What? Apparently, they forgot they contacted me first and that they were link begging. Its all good.

    1. Wow. Some of the stuff that is coming out of this discussion is outright comical.

    2. Everyday Tea Drinker, since you mentioned it, I remember there was a link on a tea forum to a LinkedIn discussion about "tea blogger" and "tea beggar". I have to say that the word "begging" makes me feel very uncomfortable. As a seller, I have people kindly asking me for samples, and all I see on them are kindness and enthusiasm in tea. As a tea drinker, I ask a lot of Chinese tea producers for samples, including samples of teas to just satisfy my curiosity and that they know I wouldn't be able to buy in bulk and sell in the States. Sometimes if it's too rare or too expensive to give to me, they just tell me so and there is no hard feeling. But there is always mutual respect. I feel all of us here value respect. And some people who don't whole-heartedly value it, I hope, only if they could fake it and not say something into people's faces :-p

    3. I just found the linkedin thread you mention...a really interesting read.

      And everything that you are saying here makes sense to me. It's one thing to throw around a word like "begging" in a casual discussion, but it seems tremendously rude and disrespectful to directly use that sort of word in a conversation with a blogger, especially after approaching them asking for a link. But sometimes things like this are so completely rude that I can't take them seriously!

    4. People involved in the LinkedIn discussion all give some opinions with a positive attitude. But I feel the discussion topic was raised because bloggers sometimes are thrown words with rather negative attitude. On the other hand, probably some of the rude vendors and PRs are not keen to communication with bloggers to begin with and probably that's why they don't get it how bad some of their demands to bloggers sound.

    5. I have avoided contacting tea sellers for samples, unless they offer them on their web site, to avoid the appearance of begging. As Alex mentions reviewing tea is a bit of work, and there is a potential for return to the seller so I am not sure begging applies anyway, but I am fairly new to blogging and not sure what is acceptable behavior for the blogger. It is easy to recognize bad behavior though when it is directed your way.

    6. I don't think there is any universally "acceptable" behavior for bloggers or for tea companies. Different people have different ideas of what constitutes professionalism, respect, etc. And it gets confusing because people often tend to throw around accusations that others are being disrespectful or unprofessional, when they get frustrated.

      Lately I've been working on articulating a clearer value system which includes more objective criterion for distinguish respectful communications from disrespectful I've been writing about this sort of topic here on my blog a lot too.

      A place where this is happening more directly than on this blog is on the Why This Way wiki; Why This Way is a new religious group that some of my friends and I have started, based on consensus. You might want to start with looking at the page on the rules of communication that the group has agreed upon.

      I personally have found these rules to really clarify exactly where I draw the line about respectful and disrespectful communication. This not only helps shape how I communicate with others...but it has also been shaping how I respond or react to other people's communications--specifically, helping me to not necessarily take things too seriously or take them personally when people communicate with me in ways that I see as not particularly constructive, but rather, to just ignore that aspect of their communication and look for ways to connect with them generally.

      I'm not sure if that makes sense, I feel a bit rambly now, but hopefully some of this will be helpful at clarifying the confusion you expressed about not being sure what kind of behavior is acceptable.

  5. I was so glad to read that I'm not the only one who feels this way!