It has been a noticeable trend. Over the past few months, phone brands have been handing out embargo letters to the media that do not seem to be overly concerned about the one thing that was considered most important not too long ago.
A review of the device itself.
That might seem a little strange when you consider that for quite a long time, the main idea of giving a phone to the media was to get it reviewed. A review is generally a detailed look at different aspects of the phone – its design, performance, price and so on – and generally ends with some sort of score given to the phone and a recommendation to the readers as to whether it is worth investing in. It is like a review of a film or a restaurant – basically a person with some expertise in the field giving his or her opinion of how good a product or service is.
Brands often give phones (I keep stressing phones because it is happening the most in this field) in advance to the media to enable reviewers to finish reviews by the date the phone is launched. The idea is simple: curiosity about a phone is generally at its highest when it is launched, so it makes sense to have perspectives about it available at that time. People who hear about a phone could go online and see reviews and opinions about them which would help them make an informed purchase decision.
Of course, to make sure that the media houses did not start writing about the phone before it was actually released, brands made them sign what we call an embargo – a document in which the media house undertook not to write about the phone given to them until a certain date. This often covered information like first impressions, photographs and of course, reviews.
Well, it did, until recently. If what we have been seeing over the past few weeks is any indication, the review seems to be slipping off the radar. Brands now seem more concerned about unboxings, first impressions, sharing of images on social networks. The most detailed analysis of all – the review – seems to have been placed on the backburner. We had initially felt that it was just an accident, but its almost constant exclusion from “coverage details” seems to indicate that brands might just be getting a little more interested in unboxings, first impressions and the like.
And there is a very good reason for this. Unboxings (generally just opening the phone’s packaging and discussing what’s inside it and sharing the first impression of the phone) have their own benefits. For one, they take lesser time – a person can do an unboxing if they get a phone a day or two before the launch, unlike a review that can often take anything from one to two weeks. Secondly, they are shorter and more succinct than reviews so those with a lower patience threshold will prefer them. Thirdly, they tend to introduce the product rather than offer a critical opinion, which of course, just suits most brands. After all, when you give a device for review, there is a chance that the review could be a negative one too.
So if we are to believe some of our sources, the stress of many brands has shifted more to these shorter, less opinionated pieces. To be fair, no brand has ever told us to NOT review a phone. But unboxing and initial impressions, as well as camera samples and product images, suddenly seem to have got a little more priority than the good old review.
Now, is that a good or a bad thing?
Honestly, it is not for us to say. It really boils down to what the brand itself considers to be important – hey, it made the phone and is selling it, remember? On paper, it would seem that the stress on first impressions might deprive users of information, but then, it is not as if reviews have been stopped. They just are getting relatively delayed and sometimes do not come out in sync with launches. There is also a perception that conventional product reviews have been declining in importance as they feel “their quality has suffered” and that some reviews seem almost like product promotions. Professional product reviewers are also facing challenges from their amateur counterparts. “Look, you might write a detailed 2000 word review of our phone, but many consumers will still react as much to a 150-200 word review on Amazon or Flipkart. So it does not really make too much sense to invest heavily in it,” a phone company executive told us.
No, the era of the phone review is not over. As we said, no brand has told us not to do a review. It is just that unboxing and first impressions seem to be a little more top of the mind as far as brands are concerned. Whether this is a passing phase or the dawn of a new era, only time will tell. All we can say is that both features have their places in the media, and complement each other if anything. Each can be useful. Or useless. In the end, no matter what the brands think, it is up to the writers to step up and do their features justice, be it an unboxing or a review. And of course, let the reader decide.
(The author has worked in the public relations and corporate communication roles, before moving on to tech journalism. The opinions expressed in the article are his own and based on his experience).