Reviews in HEMA
Updated: Jul 25
Hi pals! Happy new year from tomorrow on!
So, after earlier today I pointed out that a recently issued review of a very hot product was quite poorly done, quite many people hit me on messenger to ask me what “a good review” would be in my opinion.
So I figured out I could just write it up here rather than somewhere else, for anyone's casual interest along with that of actual reviewers.
Before doing so I've also been browsing the internet a bit looking for gear reviews from different people, and comparing the viewers of each to its characteristics.
PLEASE NOTE: I haven't just written that more views = better reviewer. It is just a parameter.
In case anyone is missing on this, I have “some” experience on HEMA gear, having been more or less openly involved in various design phases or improvement phases of quite a few products many of you use regularly, while also running my own HEMA gear brand. But I ain't here to make publicity, I was just pointing out that I've been thoroughly reviewing gear and proposing (and usually getting implemented) improvements for years now on multiple items from several brands. So, not to sound cocky, but I know what I'm talking about.
Please note I am not here for calling out anyone, and I will do my best to not do so. Please understand I have nothing personal against anyone. Really.
WHAT ARE YOUR REASONS TO MAKE A REVIEW?
You know, it may sound weird to say this, but to make a review, you must have a reason to do so.
You're not waking up tomorrow and deciding to review your jacket, usually. If that's the case, really, someone else will have already done, and with likely more reasoning behind it.
So, why do people make reviews?
I find that there's three major reasons for that, each of which does not necessarily exclude the other ones:
The majority of the reviews come from the reviewer’s intention to push the gear they find good and thus help a) the public in choosing their gear and b) the producer in selling more pieces of good gear. This point has a side effect, where said reviewers may (I say MAY) sometimes end up bashing against pieces of gear they don't like/find bad in attempt to push the same equilibrium as above in the same direction from another side. That's to be avoided if possible, which does not mean you have to say everything is fantastic, but making a review with the explicit intention to bash on a product is something to be done only if such product really deserves a mediatic massacre and is NOT undergoing one. Remember you are putting at stakes someone's earnings and possibly their life and family when you do so, trying to make them sell less rather than helping others sell more. Take that into account.
The majority of consistent reviewers, those having a YT channel or blog/website, also make reviews for they have to. To keep the channel/blog/whatever active! This does not mean they do it ONLY for that reason, and it may not even be their main reason for reviewing, but it really is a thing that someone with a gear-reviews youtube channel has to do reviews to keep it active.
Another major cause for people to make reviews is them having been between the first ones to have purchased/received a new piece of gear. This likely is a contributing factor mostly for “casual” reviewers, and the majority of these reviews are on Facebook or other social media.
Each of the above points is a GREAT reason to make a review (wanting to help, wanting to stay tuned in with your public, wanting to showcase new stuff), but each point's nature leads to the risk of completely messing up with what you are going to do, and even making your review become toxic rather than helpful. So if you are thinking of doing a review and identify in one or more of the above points (very likely), please WATCH OUT from these mistakes:
Type 1 reviewers can sometimes end up making very personally biased reviews of gear pieces, influenced by their own way of fencing, their body shape, their pain tolerance or even their own sympathy. If you find yourself doing a review which includes Type1 motivation (even as secondary motivation), you may want to first check other reviews of the same pieces of gear, and also ask the opinion to other people you know who possess the same gear, in order to have a wider look at the bigger picture and spot possible misunderstandings of yours or personal biases you fell into. That will help you to make a review that is actually useful for everyone. Also, remember that the review will affect the people watching it into buying or not the gear you are reviewing, but may also help the producer making the gear better. A good practice may be contacting the producer in order to express them your criticism, positive or negative that it may be, and see what they have to tell you about that. Last but not least, reviews must be a tool for the public to make their evaluations. If you make a review just saying a product feels bad or good to you, without making a thorough explanation of why, along with its pros and cons, your review will be useless at best, and counterproductive at worst, since what is ok for you may not be so for someone else and vice versa.
Type 2 reviewers may sometimes feel the need to review a piece of gear even though they aren't yet sure about what to say in its regards or haven't thoroughly tested it. That sometimes leads to superficial reviews, or the publishing of quite useless “first impression” videos where some form of pre-judgement on a piece of gear is issued despite basically never having tried it up. Such reviews, especially if made by highly followed/trusted reviewers, are very harmful. In fact they may end up “tricking” someone into confirming their bias on a product and buying it without sufficient information, just to get told a couple weeks later that it was not as good as expected. And that sucks.
Type 3 reviewers are the heroes of the day, meaning they come up being the first people getting some new piece of gear and they decide to make a review of it. That's absolutely great, do it! Just remember that trying to rush a review to be between the very first to make one, or to provide information to others as soon as possible, may sometimes end up in incomplete/superficial/biased reviews that then (like in point 2) may end up tricking someone in buying a piece of gear they won't like, especially since in this case there likely isn't many other reviews to go checking, due to the early nature of such reviews. So, do it, but please take just a little extra time to be sure about your impressions and ideas on the product.
So, there's several ways to make a “review”. These range from a videogallery of images with captions or audio, to the very standard of the reviewer with the person live-speaking in front of a camera while showing the gear they are reviewing, to sparring videos mixed to any of the above, to some actually weird stuff we will get into later.
These are all fine methods per se, but some of them have better communicative/expositive capabilities, while other ones are maybe easier to set up, but at the risk of being less clear.
The most widespread reviewing method between consistent reviewers is what I call stand-up reviewing. I dunno if someone else has given it an official name and I don't care.
I name it after stand-up comedy, meaning the reviewer is there in front of the public (camera), usually standing up even though some do it while seated or even crouched. You can think of Matt Easton, Dave Rawlings, HEMA Reviews... they all basically do this: speak about the product they have in hand or are wearing, explaining its pros, cons, how it was to deal with the producer, etc...
This is the clearest and most thorough type of reviewing, for it allows the reviewer to physically show the product, directly point out at its parts, wear it, explain how it felt during use and even mix up a few clips or edited photos for extra clarity. Yet this type of review gets better the more experience in doing it one has, and that's probably why it's mostly experienced reviewers doing it right.
A bad way to make such a review, apart from any technical difficulties (embarrassment, camera quality, English level, etc..) is ending up making it a superficial opinions video (overall good/overall bad) or first impressions video. This type of review allows you to give your thorough opinions while unbiasedly and straightforwardly demonstrating pros and cons of an item. Use that possibility!
Another possibility is that of making a product video made of close-up shots (either videos or photos), with either audio or written narration. This method allows for a less dynamic exposition, but it is usually favored by less experienced reviewers for it doesn't force them to make a full discussion in front of a camera, sometimes in a foreign language. It also lends itself very well to last-minute edits and additions, while stand-up makes those immediately evident.
If you choose this method, be aware that it is a bit more difficult for the audience to grasp what you specifically want to tell them about that very small detail you filmed yesterday and are now writing the narration of, than it would be if you were just pointing at it with your finger while speaking of it. You need some planning, but fortunately as said above the method lends itself quite well to later adjustments. It is thus more time-consuming but quite easier overall if well planned out.
And please, don't make us suffer 10 minutes of sparring videos trying to show how the product performs in this format. Really, sparring videos don't add much. Just explain.
OF BAD AND GOOD REVIEWS
But what is it that actually makes a review good or bad? It is the amount of information you can transmit and their quality.
Imagine a long review of a mask that explains you how its suspension system is inherited from that of medieval helmets, so that the impact force is spreaded by the leather straps on a wider area of your skull while also offering a dampening effect, just like they did in 1300s helms and whatever, like that example in that museum... That is a lot of information for sure, but maybe the people watching the review would have been fine at “it dampens impacts a lot thanks to the suspension system”, and may have appreciated if you had told them the bib is not penetration resistant. Being clear and direct in your evaluation and explanations is very important, so that you don't run 20 minutes of video then forgetting some crucial details. So, in general, trying to touch all aspects of the product from its ability to fulfill its role to the level of comfort it ensures in doing so, its durability, any flaw or great features you think it has... don't stop at surface level, go deep, but stay on topic.
Another way to screw your review up is by failing to be neutral. That can happen when reviewing gear produced by friends of yours, or gear that was provided to you for free to review as an example.
This happens even if you aren't aware of it, favor biases you. A good practice is that of making it known to the audience if the piece was provided with any advantage or if you are tied to the producer or reseller. Nobody will accuse you of favoring them if you will not do so, don't be afraid. Protect your public from your biases, and they will only be happy of you doing so.
Last point of this advice will be about motivation: all good reviews come from people with good intentions, but not all reviews from people with good intentions are good reviews.
So, if you are making a review just to earn the favor of a producer, or to gain renown in the community, or for any other disingenuous reason, please just don't. I like to be straightforward about this.
If you have good intentions, just follow the above points and reflect on what you are doing and why, and try to do your best.
I guarantee that by this premise you can't do too bad :)