Rant 1.5 – Is your favourite sports gadget blog truly independent?

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After a recent post, “Rant 1 – 2019 – The Problem with sports watch reviews, freebies and tech bloggers” I started to think a bit more about the issues of the INDEPENDENCE of reviewers/bloggers in the sports gadget market.

We all have our favourite sources of online news, scandal and general tech-titillation. I’m no exception. Some of my favourite sources claim to be independent or expert; others, to me, don’t seem to care.

If you directly asked any sports gadget blogger “Are you independent?” Then the blogger would immediately find a high horse upon which they would promptly jump and a lecture would ensue. The lecture would cover phrases like “I always buy the kit I use myself” or “I always return manufacturer samples” or, perhaps more honestly some would say, “This is a free sample that I am going to keep but probably never use, but here I am disclosing that to make myself independent of the giver“.

For the avoidance of doubt: If you want to get a long response from a comment to a tech reviewer just bemoan their lack of independence 😉

I cover part of the topic of independence in this link: Rant 1 2019. Actually, that “rant” was more of an explanation of the overt difficulty in financially succeeding at writing a sports gadget blog. Of course, there are many ‘behind the scenes’ factors that come into play when trying to succeed like ‘credibility’. Credibility seems, in part, to be linked to the word independence in this game but let’s put that to one side for a minute.

Rant 1 – 2019 – The Problem with sports watch reviews, freebies and tech bloggers

Indeed does independence really mean anything useful to the reader? Probably not, as we shall shortly see…

For example, the fictitious IREALLYDONTLIKEGARMIN.COM almost certainly has an explicitly-biased agenda. Would you accept their view as an ‘independent’ view? Clearly not. Oh…wait a minute. Their view probably REALLY IS **independent** of Garmin. I mean TOTALLY INDEPENDENT OF GARMIN. It’s just that they are going to be supremely biased.

So do you want INDEPENDENCE or do you want a lack of bias? We’ve changed the question already. Perhaps if you also read the fictitious, ILOVEGARMIN.COM then you would be getting both a pro and an anti set of views and thus your opinions, overall, might be balanced. Wouldn’t that give you what you really wanted all along? Maybe you should read MORE BIASED content instead of the ones you think are independent?

Wider Than Independence

Clearly, I’m playing with words to some degree, so I’ll hone in on the point I’m trying to get to. To cut a long waffle short, I came up with this list. It’s a good list, a beautiful list (there’s a phrase that could catch on):

  • Independent,
  • Unbiased,
  • Balanced,
  • Fair,
  • Impartial,
  • Objective.

Just glancing through the list you will probably immediately start to re-evaluate your opinion of your favourite sources of online gadget content. WHICH IS FINE. You’ll still like them. In fact, you’ll probably like them more if you better understand the angle that the author(s) is/are taking.

Let’s get the dictionary out:

  • Independent – “free from outside control“, or “not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence” (read that again, closely);
  • Unbiased – “showing no prejudice for or against something”;
  • Balanced – “taking everything into account; fairly judged or presented“;
  • Fair – “treating equally without favouritism or discrimination”;
  • Impartial – “treating all rivals or disputants equally“; and
  • Objective – “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”.

Using those definitions let’s apply them to sports gadget bloggers:

  • Independent – clearly if you get pre-release samples (I occasionally do) or pre-release information (I often do) then the sports blogger (me) is patently NOT *in*dependent – they are DEPENDENT on the product/information being provided in some sort of non-public manner. It’s quite possible to make a living from building a blog around this TOTALLY DEPENDENT way of operating – I can think of a few as I’m sure, can you. Think about the ramifications of dependence on a blogger’s livelihood should they decide to become TRULY INdependent. Game changer…no samples, no info, no inside track. (Actually I REALLY am independent from Garmin’s formal sources but that’s another story, I’m clearly dependent on them to make and sell products)
  • Unbiased – Bias is a personal thing to us all, based on our life experiences. I suspect we are all biased in many ways; all the time. I would contend that bias is a necessary evil, inherent to the human condition. Perhaps BIAS only becomes a problem when it becomes entrenched and unchanging and turns into a prejudice?
  • Balanced – So if we are biased then it is important to realise that and accept that. Perhaps even state that. BUT THEN check our own opinions and endeavour to gather counter-opinions in an attempt to give a balanced view. From a personal point of view, my personal product bias would be in favour of Garmin – yet I often write negative things about Garmin. I TRY TO PROVIDE BALANCE.
  • Fair – Are the same levels of criticism and scrutiny applied to either side of a specific discussion about which product might be best for a certain type of usage? Probably they are usually not as content is usually about the applicability of one product whereas “Top 10” type content necessarily becomes very, very short on detail and reliant on soundbites.
  • Impartiality – is even trickier. In the sports gadget market, it is VERY hard to treat all rivals equally when all rivals are not equal. We might bemoan an excess of coverage towards GARMIN but they are the market leader in many segments. So by weight of numbers, coverage of their products would be PARTIAL. Perhaps the blogger could instead be proportionate in their coverage but then that proportionality would also be partial!
  • Objective – the representation of facts is not as obvious as it sounds. What exactly is a fact? It is a fact known to many people that Garmin sports watches generally have the most features. But it is probably also a fact that many competing brands have EXACTLY THE SAME number of GENUINELY USEFUL FEATURES for MANY TYPES OF USERS. Some people choose their facts carefully. Me too, probably.

Me? In case you were wondering, I’d say I was: mostly independent on opinions but dependent on timely information and not that dependent on the product; frequently biased; driven to deliver balance; mostly fair; partial but proportionate; and objective. I’m sure I could do better (even though I have a day job).

But I think the ‘Me?’ question could perhaps be posed in a different way. After all, this post is really about YOU and how you arrive at your views.

What if you don’t care about partiality, independence and the like? What if you just care about hearing a certain viewpoint? Or many such viewpoints? It’s just that you want to hear those viewpoints in a well-put manner. Most intelligent people have opinions and they have opinions because they can always change them, whereas blindly sticking to supposed ‘facts’ can be limiting especially because the capability of tech is continually changing the facts of what can be achieved and how well it can be achieved. Plus, one man’s fact is another man’s counter-fact eg “The sky is blue”…is a fact. But the man in Australia says “Nope, the sky is black here with stars in it”. Two “facts”, just not sufficiently clarified or comprehensive in their scope.

Some of you might want to hear a dependent, biased view simply because it might challenge your way of thinking. But then you need to judge the speaker/writer to some degree to weight their opinions and might come up with a list of important characteristics about the person rather as well as what they write.

  • Sound judgment – using shrewd assessment to reach correct conclusions
  • Integrity – honest & moral
  • Likeability
  • Expert – knowledgeable

or SILE (silly?)

We would all like to think we have those characteristics, I guess. Nearly everyone I know has integrity and many of them are knowledgeable in their field but are too modest to say so. Personally, I know quite a bit “about all-things-triathlon” as I am deeply interested in it from many aspects but there is an AWFUL LOT to know and I don’t know it all – physiology, training principles, motivational psychology, mechanics, electronics and so on.

If you applied the SILE criteria to your other favourite blogging reads I suspect you’d discover some inconvenient truths as well as some rather pleasant ones.

#Discuss

this post has been ‘refreshed’ for new converts to the5krunner

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gingerneil

Very good post.
Makes me think of the old saying “owe the bank £10,000 and you’re likely in trouble. Owe it £100Bn and the BANK is in trouble”. (or some nonsense like that).
There are some reviewers and bloggers (can you think of any?! 🤔) who have worked their way into the latter category. They are very dependant on obtaining products early etc, but it’s very very much in a brand’s interest to ensure they have a review or opinion ready on day 1. There’s very much a mutual dependance there. Does that subconsciously influence the end review? Dunno.

tfk, the5krunner

I was more writing this piece from the point of view on the perceptions and understanding of “independence”.

if you were a BIG ManU fan and inadvertently got in the ManC end for a local derby. (let’s say 20 years ago). would that affect your behaviour and attitude towards the match? probably..both while you were watching and afterwards as you reflected on the game. ie relationships DO matter, even if subsonsciously

Jon @ Active JR

You raise some interesting points, especially the independent aspect. I think you can be independent, even if you receive pre-release or NDA information on a product. However, you will blow all of that if you are biased towards that brand or don’t call out its short comings. But can someone be unbiased and independent to a brand that loans them free stuff? For me it boils down to how hard do you want to play the game? If this is your job, will you risk it all to annoy a brand? If like me (and you) that have a day job, this risk is lowered. But for those that depend on this to put food on the table, I think a small nag is always in the back of the mind about how far to go. You also have the fact that some brands maybe fearful of some bloggers/publications and pamper to them. But on the other hand. The same blogger/publication is not on Apple’s radar and never will be. So does the brand or blogger need to manage relationships or risk being in the cold? Its a fine line to walk. But the 2 biggest problems at the moment… Read more »

tfk, the5krunner

good point on the influencer/reviewer distinction. i think that passes a lot of people by, as you say. I suspect only a tiny number of reviewers/influencers make a living in this field. what is a living for a student is very different to what is required if you have 2.4 kids and a mortgage. I’m talking about blogs there. Youtube is very different and the example you give i believe is correct. the barrier to entry for youtube can be low both in terms of TIME and TECH COST. reviews by people who have not used the product- let’s face it, those reviews ARE MUCH EASIER to write than ones where you get to know a device. it’s 0.5 days vs. 1 week kind of difference. that’s why there are lots of sites doing the former and i don’t think ANY of them can make any money unless they scale up to the point where they can make serious money out of advertsing from high volume traffic (that means many millions of annual page views) My biggest gripe here was that everyone focuses on ‘independence’ when it’s the wrong word to focus on. I think we are all dependent in… Read more »

As someone that gets quite a lot of review samples, being biased towards a product is something that always bothers me. One of the issues I have is, loan or gift, you don’t get an emotional feeling of parting with your money. I love the Huawei P30 Pro, but it is a long term loan, if it came to it would I really part with my money? With the Fenix 6 I loved it, but I was 50/50 about sending it back to Amazon because I am not sure it was worth £600 of my own cash. Then there is the issue of PR companies, as Jon said. I do my best to be balanced and honest if I love a product, I will nit-pick minor problems so that I don’t seem like a shill. Less good products, I will do my best to highlight what is good about it as well as point out why it has issues, with the hope the PR company doesn’t cut me off in the future. In general, this usually is fine, I criticised a sports smartwatch recently, so will have to see how that plays out for me, but most companies are fine… Read more »

tfk, the5krunner

” It is also very rare to get a terrible product, so never feel the need to make a review extremely negative.” yes, probably. but what is a good product? sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes a product might not seem of any use to you. so maybe it depends on your (one’s) ability to put yourself in the mindset of a different customer segment to the one you belong (that’s generally hard to do). and even if you can do that…what about all the other customer segments you haven’t thought of? Also the ‘terribleness’ of some products are not AT ALL obvious from the spec sheet and, perhaps, a terribly implemented feature (or 3) might not come to light until a decent bit of usage with the product. As we’ve said…many reviewers would never get to that stage. “As a tight-fisted northerner I put a lot of emphasis on price in my review, and I have noticed a lot of bigger people don’t do this, which always baffled me as it is quite a significant factor in buying. Though I have now started to realise this is perhaps deliberate, so they don’t have to highlight the poor value of a product.”… Read more »

inSyt

The parting with the money part, highly relevant, as most people who read reviews do so because they want to get value for money?

The wealthy, simply, self review? They buy top of the range, if they do not like it, they move onto another brand.

tfk, the5krunner

I think there are some people like that, for sure
Although, I think purchase decisions can be HIGHLY complex and differently motivated. For example in my case, regardless of value-for-money, I also want to look back and have made ‘the right choice’, so I tend to do quite a lot of research just to get it right.

Other people might want to ‘not get it wrong’ and so buy the most-featured product on a just-in-case-I-haven’t-understood-what-i-need basis.

Barrie

Surely your opinions on yourself are somewhat biased? 👍

tfk, the5krunner

Thanks Barrie, put your adidas back on and get back to the hills 😉

(hope all is well with you)

ItsJustAWatch

Interesting that Ray hasn’t chirped in. Makes one wonder how “independent” he is. (IMO he is very much dependant on a certain company and mostly dependant on other companies)

DCR

Having early access to products is handy (no matter the company – just like 5K with access to Suunto or Polar for example, among others), and certainly helpful from a views standpoint.

But honestly, if you think early access means anything in terms of how I write my reviews – you don’t read them. I just write what I write. Good and bad thoughts, whether or not it makes the company happy. I don’t really care if that’s Garmin, Fitbit, GoPro, Wahoo, or Apple. Or smaller players like Suunto or Polar. You’ll see that again today with a review on early-access product from one of those four companies, assuming my Mac eventually finishes uncorrupting itself so I can get this video that goes with the review published.

I’m pretty sure I’ve pissed off company this year. Shrug.

tfk, the5krunner

quite
early access is not about the quality of the content, your many other attributes do a good job with that.
it’s also about the newsworthiness of the content eg “here’s a picture of another watch like the previous one” is newsworthy from you (me/others) but that same picture even a week later is nowhere near as newsworthy. admittedly not every reader or potential purchaser would be aware of that week’s difference.

ItsJustAWatch

I was just surprised you hadn’t spoken until this point. Because I really do love to hear your opinion, DCR, as well as the opinion of T5KR. (That’s why I’m here) You have so far stayed middle of the road, but you have quite a strong dependence on Garmin. Let me say, I really do love both of your reviews. But if you didn’t have such advance access to many of the products you review do you think your blogs would be as successful? I appreciate the objective articles you both write, because they are very informative. (Even if they upset the company) People are driven to your sites for 2 reasons, you’re usually first to review and you’re through. But I think if the playing field were leveled then you both may not get as many views/referrals/other monetary generating products. So, if push came to shove could you stay objective? Such as if Garmin told you that you “crossed a line?” Along the lines of, “Change your review or no more early access to Garmin devices” I bring up Garmin because they have been developing new products at such a fast pace these past couple years and I would… Read more »

DCR

Garmin has never asked to change anything they didn’t like. Nor has any other company except Limits. Occasionally companies will point out a minor error, which I’m happy to fix (in fact, when I publish reviews I send e-mails to companies saying ‘If there’s anything you found technically inaccurate, I’m happy to correct ASAP’. The key nuance there being that I don’t change something just because they don’t like it.

But there’s zero question in my mind if Garmin or any company tells me I need to change something in my review I’ll tell them to take a flying leap.u

Dave Lusty

I’m curious Ray when did you even start getting review units? Your early reviews were clearly things you bought and wrote about and I certainly can’t see any obvious point when the reviews changed (aside from quantity of reviews making standard structure necessary). I know you put the “I was sent this unit” at the top but too lazy to go and see when that appeared 🙂
I always enjoy the subtle change to that paragraph too. For some reviews it’s “return and go buy my own” and for others it’s “I’ll send it back after review”. Makes me chuckle, although never sure it’s deliberate.

Franz

I think an interesting point has been raised here. If you didn’t get pre release devices would a blog like this or DCR be as successful? I am not sure as the early views make a huge difference.

I think someone else made this point, but you don’t seem to get access to Apple. Which is probably due to your niche focus and they have huge “ambassadors” already.

I can remember when I asked someone in the gym about a Garmin watch and I got pointed to DCR as a great source. It is a good source, but will hit critical mass at some point due to the niche, then that’s when the blog becomes dependant on the brand.

ekutter

I think Ray has made enough of a name for himself that regardless of getting early products, people would flock to his site. I mostly appreciate the difference between reading reviews on a site like this or DCR and that of pretty much any article published in a magazine like RW. Those are totally just marketing pieces written by people who haven’t really used the product or by the manufacturer themselves.

Clearly there are times where both could be a bit harsher on a product, but I do honestly believe they both will call out real issues where they see them. But they also have the experience not to make a mountain out of a mole hill like many users will do in the product forums like on Garmin’s site.

Particularly in Ray’s case, the big companies get as much from Ray as he does from them. By being as honest as he is about the problems, getting early access to the products, and giving the feedback, the products we all get are actually much better. Sure the products we get still have plenty of issues, but not as many if as if reviewers didn’t get early access.

soap

To be fair, Ray, you’re also in a different place than many others.

You are at a size now where companies can’t afford to interfere with you, nor can they afford to ignore you. Someone just starting out isn’t in such a place, the impacts of even small pressures are going to be greater.

So even if you are 100% without conscious or unconscious bias (and I have no reason to believe you aren’t), that really doesn’t say much about how easily (consciously or unconsciously) moved smaller players are.

tfk, the5krunner

“interfere” – yes i think Ray is in that category. I am certainly not….it’s nice place to be I suppose!! #jealous 😉

tfk, the5krunner

I find it very difficult to get advanced access to products. It is very time-consuming and I have to actively do it.

DCR mentioned that I do have early access to some info, and that’s true, however more often than not I have to chase it. It all takes VAST amounts of time. Having said that, for me, I am at a point of change in this respect and it is starting to get a little easier.

You posit [Such as if Garmin told you that you “crossed a line?” Along the lines of, “Change your review or no more early access to Garmin devices” ]. The threat would have to be wider than that, it’s also about access to information and responsiveness to answering questions too, a threat would also have to include stopping CT from receiving product and their rebating/discounting policy. If that were withdrawn from the wider DCR business model, I suspect it would impact materially on his business. However he has probably passed a critical mass where he would still be fine (plus it’s not going to happen)

ekutter

I actually appreciate the mix of those reviewers that have early access, like Ray, and those that don’t, like you. The best part about you not having early access is you can talk about the rumors. Ray can’t.

tfk, the5krunner

he has chipped in now!
he’s NOT independent at all BUT he has many of those other positive characteristics I list above and I guess that’s partly why he does so well. I doubt very few people appreciate the difficulty of getting the right business model to make this type of ‘business’ work. I *DO* know pretty much what is needed to make it work but actually putting it into practice with the right partners and infrastructure and skills is another matter entirely. early access is only one of th eparts of the jigsaw puzzle…it’s the one that most readers first only think of tho

Timo

I run the independent Coros Users Group on FB starting in late 2018 when I got my Apex. I still like the idea of an independent users group. My personal gain is the whole social media experiment. I write with people all over world and have a great exchange of experience! Many thing are not possible in a company’s users group, as early posts of FCC infos and accidentally discovered pictures of new products. This can be somehow divided up into black and white. Company vs. all the nosey guys around. So far so good. But what I was really not aware of: the grass roots marketing approach of the company. I first discovered the word ‘advocate’ in a users post and asked what it could mean. Then I was personally offered to get an ‘ambassador’. What ‘pro athletes’ might do when they get paid by a company is clear for most of the people. But to gain control over public opinion by offering quite normal users discounts, discount codes to share and free watches in return of writing “non-negative” things: this is very new (to me)! Here in Germany we have strict laws against surreptitious advertising. I am quite… Read more »

DCR

Your point is actually interesting, and especially in relation to the company noted. By and large throughout the remainder of the sports tech industry, nobody except for officially sponsored pro athletes are getting paid to post online/etc and by regular non-pro athletic ‘ambassadors’. By any of the majors anyways. Sometimes smaller companies try it when they don’t really understand how the media works, but very rarely the household names you know that 5K or myself write about. COROS however is on an entirely different wavelength when it comes to the quantity of ‘ambassadors’ and like folks. In fact, I think that’s largely why there’s so much discussion – despite actual sales volumes being nearly non-existent. Have enough money to throw gadgets out there, and enough people eventually talk about it. It’s simple. As I’ve said numerous times before, I actually don’t have an issue with other people being paid or given products or whatever. It’s not what I personally do, but I don’t really care if others do it. I just care that they disclose it. That’s all. Clean and simple. Else, you’ll end up like GCN and Wahoo and get sued by the British Government did. And it’s somewhat… Read more »

tfk, the5krunner

Your question starts to encroach on the ‘dark arts’ of social media marketing. There are also ‘paid for’ amazon reviews and things like that which stretch ethicality.

On one of my higher-ranking pages I had some reader polls with hundreds of responses. One company’s products did disproportionately well. For that to happen there must have been something a little ‘unusual’ going on.

DCR says that he wants people to declare their interest. My heart agrees with that but I somewhat favour a more wild-west model where companies are a bit more free to do what they want. (As I indicated in the article facts are not always as factual as you might think).

Ultimately I have faith that my readers are intelligent enough to see through a misrepresentation/mistake and make up their own minds, But then my brain tells me that some people out there (not readers of this blog, of course) may be more easily misled.

Bongom

If Ray doesn’t like a product self preservation kicks in and he doesn’t post a scathing review.
It’s human nature to not bite the hand that feeds you.