An Insider Look At Amazon Vine Product Reviews, And A Crusade For Transparency

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Lon Seidman is a longtime top 100 reviewer on Amazon. He’s also a member of the little-known Amazon Vine Voices program, where reviewers get free review products. In addition, Seidman cross-posts his Amazon tech video reviews on YouTube.

The Disclaimer

Tech product reviewer Lon Seidman starts each of his video tech reviews with a disclaimer, one he wrote himself. Unless he’s bought the product with his own money, the phrasing usually goes something like this:

This came in free of charge through the Amazon Vine program. I’ve had no direct contact with Amazon Vine or the manufacturer. The opinions are my own and no one is reviewing this video before I publish it.”

It’s a good bet you haven’t heard wording like this in front of most product reviews you watch, but Seidman hopes you’ll be hearing it in more places soon.

A Crusade

Seidman is on a crusade for full-disclosure in online video reviews on YouTube and elsewhere, something he says is sorely lacking today. Disclosure of how the products come into reviewers’ hands, he says, is the right thing to do for all parties – the video reviewer, the brand, and the consumer. In addition, (as we pointed out in a previous article, “7 Ways Your Influencer Marketing Could Be Breaking The Law”) it’s against the law to not disclose your sponsors on any platform, new media or old.

Unlike most YouTube product reviewers, Seidman got his start on an unusual platform – Amazon.com.

Top 100 Amazon Reviewer

Seidman has long been one of the top 100 rated “customer reviewers” on Amazon (although the exact ranking varies over time). He’s been reviewing products for more than 10 years (more than 600 to date) on that platform, many as part of Amazon’s Vine Voices program. Not to be confused with the Vine video platform owned by Twitter (nor with Amazon Video Direct, for that matter), Vine Voices is an invite-only membership group, where top reviewers can opt to receive free review products from companies that distribute on Amazon.

Seidman has a somewhat unique approach, in that he does video reviews of many products, which stand out in the Amazon review section for their in-depth analysis. In addition, he repurposes the content, also posting a slightly different version of the videos to his YouTube channel, Lon.tv, aka “Lon Reviews Tech,” where 90,000-plus subscribers track his insights.

Here’s the #influencermarketing #disclaimer that @lonseidman does at the start of his #tech #reviews

A video posted by Dane Golden (@danegolden) on

He also seeks to be as authentic and honest about his reviews as he possibly can. He doesn’t accept any sponsorships that require pre-approval because he is known for his honest reviews, and believes his audience has come to expect that from him.

It took him a while to get his format down. Now, much like SaabKyle04, who does car walkthroughs, Seidman has established his own unique repeatable format that can show all product features. It’s complete but time-intensive.

And he’s found his own niche, focusing on niche products that may not make it onto YouTube channels like The Verge. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to get the reviews right and respond to as many user comments as possible.

“It’s exhausting,” he says.

Seidman started doing reviews on YouTube only after reviewing products on Amazon for years. And after following Amazon’s strict adherence to honest reviews, he’s brought those sensibilities to YouTube for the past three years.

Give Honest Reviews

On Amazon Vine, the products are always sent via Amazon and not from the manufacturer themselves. So from the start, he never felt beholden to give positive reviews in exchange for free stuff. If the product was bad, or if there were some things about it he didn’t like, Seidman would say so. And shoppers on Amazon, and later on YouTube, appreciated his thorough, frank approach.

“You had a lot of freedom to just kind of take this thing and figure it out,” he says of the products they send him.

[In the video above, Lon Seidman reviews the LG 24MP88HV-S Monitor – IPS Display With Super Thin Bezels on his YouTube channel. Here’s what the same video looks like on Amazon.com where he reviewed it with only 3 out of 5 stars, even though he got the product for free from LG.]

Eventually, Seidman became one of the top-ranked reviewers on Amazon, almost by accident, right around the time Amazon had begun offering video uploads to its reviews.

“I never intended to become one of the top 100,” he says. “I knew how to produce video and I figured – why not set myself apart a little bit and upload videos? I had a YouTube channel that was just kind of sitting there. So I just started putting those Vine reviews up on YouTube.”

Once that happened, the YouTube and Google search engines started driving traffic to the reviews on his channel, and his views and subscribers started to grow.

A Secret Admission Process

If you’re now thinking “Wow I’d love to get free stuff,” and wondering how you can join the program, we can’t help you there. Admission to Amazon Vine is shrouded in mystery as an invite-only membership.

“It’s like Fight Club,” Seidman says.

At first, Seidman reviewed a lot of video cameras. He was running a small local news startup, and kept buying different moderately-priced HD cameras to try to find the most cost-effective solution for reporters in the field, meanwhile doing extensive reviews on them on Amazon.com.

“I just liked to pontificate on what I felt was good and bad about the products,” he says.

His reviews got lots of likes from Amazon shoppers, which are called “helpful reviews” on the platform, as in: “Was this review helpful to you? Yes? No?”

He thinks the helpful reviews got him on Amazon’s radar. Soon he got an invitation to the secret society of the Amazon Vine program. That was almost 10 years ago, and he’s still going strong.

Video Reviews On Amazon

A very small percentage of reviewers use the video option as he does, and those that do usually shoot the video on their phones. His process is different, using a multi-camera setup with a TriCaster switcher that he switches himself while he talks.

Unlike the written reviews, each of his videos is vetted manually by an Amazon staff member after he uploads – mostly for decorum and so that they’re sure he’s not sending anyone to another website to buy it. But his opinions are uncensored.

Honesty Wins

“If you think it’s a piece of junk, they don’t have a problem with you saying that,” he says. And Seidman feels perfectly comfortable telling the world when he’s found that a product is of poor quality.

“I have to sleep at night,” he says.

But the system is not without conflict. Each day he gets 25 or so offers from generic Chinese tech product vendors who want his “honest review.” In the past, when he’s been critical, he says, he’s heard from the vendors (but not Amazon).

“They get really angry with you,” he says.

Fortunately, Vine members only have to review products that interest them, so Seidman does significantly fewer “no-name” product reviews these days. Not because he’s afraid of doing negative reviews, though. He’s just found that his YouTube fans aren’t interested in certain types of products, so he doesn’t see any reason to invest his time in reviewing them.

Seidman is an advocate of Amazon’s commitment to honest reviews and how they continually crack down on offenders. The company even sued more than a thousand fake review factories last year, which is against their terms of service as well as illegal. But it’s an ongoing struggle, which motivates him to do his job better. He says that, sadly, a lot of product reviews on both Amazon and YouTube today are paid sponsorships by brands that are not disclosed.

“A lot of people who are on the take are not disclosing that they’re on the take,” he says.

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Seidman believes that as a an influencer, he owes it to his 90,000+ subscribers to disclose any incentive he’s received, and what form those incentives have taken. If he gets something free from Amazon Vine, he says so. He occasionally does do sponsored videos, but only on YouTube, and he discloses fully the business relationship (if not the actual dollar amount of the compensation).

The Vine program allows him to have five items “checked out” at a time, and he must do a review within a month on Amazon. In the past, reviewers could only keep or throw away the product. But now Amazon files a form with the IRS stating the value of the product they send reviewers (who are now required to report that value as income). And reviewers can now sell or gift the review products after six months.

Insider Gripes

The private Vine member forum apparently didn’t like the change in tax reporting. Which isn’t surprising – Vine reviewers could be expected to, of course, review the review system, and that was a big change. One other insider gripe, Seidman says, is about how some top reviewers will down-vote other top reviewers in order to raise their own rankings by comparison. It’s a very competitive arena.

On his YouTube reviews, Seidman also adds a clearly-labeled affiliate link to purchase the product on Amazon. He says the money he makes from the link doesn’t sway his reviews. He does it because they may follow the Amazon link and buy that product or something else, in either case he gets credit for the sale.

“Even the stuff that’s junk, I also link back to Amazon,” he says.

In addition to his verbal disclosure within the video, he adds a written disclosure in the video description, along with a link to even further disclosures. Some fans think it’s a little “TMI,” but Seidman believes complete transparency in influencer marketing campaigns is essential.

“A lot of people who are doing what I’m doing are getting paid to do things and they’re not disclosing that they are being paid. That’s a violation of federal law. But, beyond just being a ‘goodie two shoes’ about it, I’m really concerned that it drags my reputation down. I’m spending a lot of time trying to be as objective as possible with this, operating in a space, unfortunately, that is being defined by people not being objective.”

Transparency Is A Win-Win-Win

And he feels disclosure helps not just the customer, but also the brands and the YouTubers.

“The professional marketing people, the ones that work for the big companies, get it,” he says. “First of all, they know it’s a law and they have to comply with it. But, they’re also very understanding of what’s going on.”

For instance, he’s done some non-paid reviews for Dell and Lenovo, where they either lend or give him product for the channel.

“They understand that the opinion of the influencer should not be messed with. They get the risk that they have in putting their product out there, but they know that their product has certain attributes that are good. At the same time, both companies, I think, are aware of the value of getting that feedback, even though it’s public and out there in front of everybody. The fact is that I’ve seen things, even with Dell, that I knocked on their products last year have improved this year. I don’t know if it’s just me. Other people may have had similar opinions of it, but I’ve seen an improvement in areas that I was criticizing the year before.”

He says that by having influencers criticize certain features of a complex product, it actually helps manufactures build things better.

“If they know this influencer is going to ding them on this again next year,” he says, “they might be more likely to make the thing work better.”

Dell even allowed him to interview a product designer on video, without a PR monitor. Seidman feels that with open conversations such as these, influencers can bring much greater value to improving products for consumers.

Not Every Customer Likes This

But it’s an uneven road. There’s no calming down some adamant, self-appointed consumer-advocates on Seidman’s channel, who have been known to comment frequently, saying “How dare you say anything bad about this product that I love?”

But Seidman says he believes that a review that is not 100% positive can actually be an advantage for the seller, because the review feels more frank.

While he has taken sponsorships from Synology and WD, he doesn’t do sponsorships where someone tells him what to say.

“For me, it’d be hard to do a scripted video and have it be taken seriously from my viewers, because my videos aren’t [scripted]. I have to find a way to make it very native to what I’m already doing. I will not take money from a company that I don’t have a belief in the product for. I’ve had a few people reach out and say, ‘Oh, we want you to advertise our phone cases’ or something. It’s just not something I cover on the channel, first of all, but secondly, I don’t know this company from a hole in the wall. I can’t vouch for them.”

For his sponsorships he does in-depth videos about granular product features in a way that his viewers will enjoy, and that integrates well into the theme of his channel.

Influencer Marketing For Brands

“That provides a lot of value to the viewers because they’re interested in this content already,” he says. “It also provides value to the brand because I’m providing some really good search traffic for them. I actually had somebody email me yesterday from a sponsored video that I did for a brand that actually answered the question better for him than the brand’s own content did.”

The key, he says, is not just reach or format, but it’s relevance, too. Just because he has a good number of viewers, doesn’t mean he should take advertisers outside his channel’s tech nice. For instance, even if he also liked cooking in his spare time, for instance, he wouldn’t do a sponsored video on his channel about kitchen products.

The best companies, he says, also have a rapid response approach for working with influencers. YouTubers like Seidman often do their reviews as second jobs and have limited time, so it helps if he can get an answer right away if he doesn’t understand how a product feature is supposed to work.

Brands, Get Your Products Ready First

And don’t send him a product to review that isn’t ready for market.

“Nothing upsets me more than me getting something that hasn’t been ready yet and I have to install 1200 firmware updates and all this other junk. If it’s being sold to consumers, it should be in a consumer-ready form when it gets to me.”

Don’t Try To Control The Influencer

“I think the one thing that the smaller brands aren’t as adept at is understanding that they shouldn’t feel that they should control the content. All this crazy drama stuff that comes out of these brands – none of them understand that your product better be ready for consumers if you want an influencer with some degree of a good reputation to review it.”

But no matter the offer from a sponsor, Seidman would never jeopardize the trust he has built up with his fans.

“I think there’s greater value in building an audience that is built to last,” he says. “I think, in the end, the brands will benefit by having people who are objective and the brands will benefit by improving their products to kind of pass the smell test by these objective people. If you want to be an infomercial channel, fine – state it as such. If you want to be objective, be proud of the fact that you’re being objective and disclose to people exactly how you’re getting these things and what the relationships are.”

Dane Golden
In a world with billions of online videos, I’m passionate about creating lasting affinities and mutually beneficial relationships between brands and their customers. Please connect with me on social media using the links below: