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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Part II

Post image for “The Truth They Don’t Want You To Know!” – (PART 2)
In Part 1 of this series I discussed how golf companies use traditional advertising, watered down tests, and giveaways to manipulate content and ensure that nearly everything you read about those companies and their products is overwhelmingly positive. I’ve also explained why $o many media outlet$ are $o willing to play along. In Part 2 I’m going to show you exactly what can happen when you don’t play along, and I’ll expose the clever tricks that other media outlets use to mask their fluff as as unbiased, objective content.

Content Has Consequences

(Written By: GolfSpy T) Everyone who has ever written a review for an audience the size of MyGolfSpy’s quickly comes to learn that every review written, in fact nearly every word written, comes with consequences. Consequences aren’t always bad. It should surprise no one that when MyGolfSpy or most any other site publishes a positive review, the majority of manufacturers are quick to post links on their Twitter and Facebook accounts praising the review. Some publish the reviews on the company blog, and many put links on their websites. This is great for us because it drives even more readers to the site, and those readers click on ads, and ads are where the money comes from. At its most basic level, positive reviews = more money, and everyone who operates a website has figured this out. In short, to the benefit of everyone (except the guy looking for an honest, detailed, and unfiltered assessment of golf club), the current system works, and works very well.

While the majority of the larger media outlets work comfortably within this system, there are a select few that, like MyGolfSpy, have fought to maintain their objectivity.  More than one golf company has been shocked after MyGolfSpy chose to publish what that company considered to be a less than positive review. And why wouldn’t they be shocked when nearly every other review they’ve ever received has been universally positive?

Protecting Their Advertisers

What I’ve been slow to learn (and probably never will) is that you’re not supposed to say anything even slightly negative about a golf club – especially if 1) The company is an advertiser, 2) The company provided you with the club 3) If you ever want to get anything else from that company. Though not all do it, the most egregious players on the media side have gone so far as to delete negative comments, and in many cases ban the offending readers from their sites.  Imagine that…banning a loyal reader because he said something negative about a golf club (produced by one of your sponsors).  The unfortunate reality is that site operators are forced to choose sides.  Either you’re in it for the truth, or your in it for the money (which means you have to protect your advertisers to the detriment of nearly everything else).

In one recent incident, an OEM that provided equipment to MyGolfSpy was so outraged by a mediocre review (not bad…just average) that they informed us they would no longer provide us with equipment or work with us in any other capacity (it’s probably not who you think). This was done despite the fact that we’d had nothing but positives to say about other equipment in their lineup. Unfortunately, this is far too common as manufacturers have grown accustomed to fluff and actually expect that every club reviewed will be as good or better than the last. I also believe it also speaks volumes about a company who, rather than address the criticism, or ask our testers why they didn’t like a club (the type of stuff that could actually lead to a better product), believe their only recourse for a mediocre review is to take their ball (and clubs) and go home.
In this particular case the company in question went so far as to suggest that the mediocre review did not stem from ordinary performance, and unimpressive subjective numbers, but rather as retribution for a positive review on another golf site.  At best the accusation is comical, but at its worst it calls into question my integrity, the integrity of our process, and the integrity of the average golfers who take time out of their lives to test clubs for MyGolfSpy. These are potential customers and rather than accept that their club simply wasn’t well received, a major equipment manufacturer chose to either call our testers liars, or suggest that somehow they were duped by MyGolfSpy. It’s as offensive as it gets, but it’s the most extreme example of how stating an unfiltered opinion about a golf club can not only lead to the loss of direct access, but can transcend the business aspect of what we do, and quickly become personal.

Personal attacks aside, I’m more or less able to shrug this one off with a smile, but could you imagine if we, like so many other golf sites, depended on this company to put food on our table? When between $30,000 to $60,000 in annual ad dollars for a website (exponentially more for magazines) come with the stipulation (spoken or otherwise) that nothing negative is to be published, is it any wonder why the overwhelming majority of reviews and other content are incomprehensibly positive?

Criticize Without Actually Criticizing

Now even the most blatant corporate fluffers have developed clever little techniques that give the appearance of a critical eye, albeit without the risk of actually saying anything negative.  My two personal favorites are to criticize the grip, and to talk about how much you dislike the shaft graphics.  These two largely insignificant details are ideal targets because, grips are easily changed, many people don’t care about shaft graphics, and most importantly, in the majority of cases, the equipment maker isn’t directly responsible for either.  It’s a bulletproof way of appearing unbiased without risking your paycheck.

Now to be perfectly fair, when we test clubs, it’s not too uncommon that a tester will tell us he doesn’t like the grip (the shaft graphics thing is less common), but they might also tell us they think the club is ugly, has lousy feel, and that when they hit it they have absolutely no idea where the ball is going to go.  Where we differentiate ourselves is that, while we’re happy to publish a quote when our testers say something positive, we don’t sugarcoat it when they say something negative either.  Unfortunately some believe we should print the positive and turn deaf ears to the negative.  We don’t believe believe its our place to censor our testers (or our readers), and we don’t believe predictably positive reviews offer any real benefit to those of you interested in making informed buying decisions.

Everybody Gets a Trophy

Perhaps the most popular trick of all is to simply not keep score or not pick a winner. At MyGolfSpy we’ve developed a very comprehensive scoring system that blends real performance data with the subjective opinions of our multiple testers.  This allows us to put a score on every club we test. While it’s true that our tests have often shown very little difference between clubs, we think it’s important to showcase those few select clubs that outperform the others.  We also happen to think it’s equally as important to point out those few clubs that under-perform expectations.  At any time you can look through our archives and see what the best and worst performing clubs are in every category.

Now as you well know, others have developed scoring systems too (you may have heard of the Hot List). These type of scoring systems are great because they enable the publisher to give all the golf companies a trophy at once, without leaving anyone feeling slighted. Occasionally they’ll throw a non-advertiser in the mix (usually for a Silver Medal), but as long as their biggest advertisers split the lion’s share of the Medals, everybody wins…except you.

The 1000 Word Review That Says Zero

Finally (and most commonly) is the 1000 word review that says absolutely nothing of consequence. It starts out with a near word for word regurgitation of the companies press release and quickly progresses to discussing how great nearly every aspect of the club is (it’s longer, it’s straighter, it looks awesome, and feels super-awesome), without a shred of actual data to back it up. Most of the time the claims are supported with generalities like “I hit the longest drive of my life” or “I shot the lowest round of the year”.  Of course, golf being what it is, two days later, if that reviewer adds 10 strokes, or only carried a drive 150 yards it wasn’t the clubs, his swing was just off.

OEM’s eat up these types of reviews like Elvis ate up peanut butter and fluff. They’re easy to swallow, and they sure taste sweet when you’re trying to promote your products favorably. Better still; under the most literal of interpretations these types of reviews aren’t biased. They’re favorable to absolutely everything, which is pretty damned unbiased. Of course, the literal definition of unbiased is not the same as objective or even useful.

(Input vs. Control) – And the Power of Friendship

In a relatively short period of time we’ve developed a bit of a reputation. It has even been suggested that, among other things, our primary mission is to piss off as many OEMs as possible. It’s certainly true that we’re not as popular with the OEMs as some other sites.  Some of that is by design, but much of that is predictable consequence of the way we operate. If I’m being perfectly honest, if I worked PR for a major OEM I’d like the other guys better too (they’re better cheerleaders, and they’re much more OEM-friendly), but as a real golfer interested in real information, this is where I’d spend the bulk of my time.

A PR guy’s job is to make sure that his company is always shown in the best possible light. We choose to write openly and honestly about the industry and the products we review.  When reviews are good and content favorable we make their jobs very easy.  When the coverage isn’t as positive as a golf company would like, it gives the PR guys headaches, and there are almost always discussions and repercussions.
From time to time we have been asked to either pull down a post (we don’t do that), or reword an article to provide better cover for a source.  On rare occasions we’ve been asked to add some additional information to a review. If the request is reasonable we’re happy to oblige, but our rule of thumb is we don’t take posts down, we don’t take information out of our posts (unless we find out it’s factually inaccurate), and we don’t give OEMs creative control over what gets published. We do however work on a two-way street, and we’re always willing to listen to the same type of criticism we’re known for dishing out.  Legitimate criticism and feedback from two different golf company contacts caused us to think about aspects of our review system we may never have considered, and the process is better because of them.

There are definitely some great PR people in the industry, and while we’ll probably never be their favorite site, we enjoy working with them and, I believe that even if they don’t always love us, because they hold a healthy respect for what we do, most are willing to tolerate us. Despite what some may think, we’re not robots, we’re actually decent people who love what we do. What we do just happens to be very different from what anyone else in the industry is doing.

We talk to our PR contacts nearly every day. They send us gear, info, and photos, and invite us to many of their events.  They are overwhelmingly good people who, like you and me, have a job to do and they do it the best that they can. Anyone who covers golf equipment can’t help build relationships with his PR contacts, but even this is not without its perils. It’s one thing to criticize a product or paint a golf company in a negative light, but when that company is represented by somebody you have a relationship with, rendering an honest opinion can feel like you’re betraying a friend. It’s a reality that all of us face, and while I can’t find fault with anyone on either side of the industry for building those type of relationships, the human aspect of what we do can complicate things when it comes time to write an article or post pictures of the newest clubs.
What we’ve learned countless times is that however good the relationship is, our contacts have bosses (probably an out of touch old guy in a bad sweater), and those bosses are ultimately the decision makers. So while strong relationships can get you gear for your giveaways and equipment for your reviews, one wrong word and it won’t matter.  Business has to stay business because, when push comes to shove, even if your contacts don’t agree with the decision, they won’t hesitate to use whatever leverage they have (ad dollars, equipment, etc.) to either pull you back in line, or cut you off entirely.

Part III

In Part III I’ll tell you how some media outlets are turning the tables to the detriment of the smaller golf companies, and individuals trying to break into the industry. I’ll also explain how you can identify and separate objective commentary from the paid advertisements and other fluff.

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