Vendor support, or sponsorships as they're commonly known, are a fickle subject in hookah as of late. What is vendor support? What is a sponsorship? The short answer is that essentially any time that a company, whether it be a manufacturer, vendor, or what have you, sends someone a product in return for something else. Whether it be a short plug at the end of a review, a blog post such as this, or even just subtle plugs here and there on social media. Paid content - even if no money is actually exchanged. It's something that I've seen talked about here and there over the last few months, and it's something that I think needs talked about. There seems to not be enough conversation in hookah lately, and my ultimate aim in everything that I personally do, whether it be reviews, blogs, or videos, is to spark conversation. I want to give my viewpoint, but more importantly, I want to hear yours. So today we'll be talking about this, this "paid content" conversation, as it's rather important to everyone, whether you be a reviewer yourself, or if even if you're just a consumer reading things like my blogs, or just reviews.
We're going to take this all the way to the root of the conversation first. Let's talk about hookah, as an industry. Hookah is a small industry - I don't think there's any debating that. As a small, and relatively underdeveloped industry, it's rather simple. You go to a website, and you see a product description. Take this one for example. What did you learn from this product description? It's 31 inches tall. It's a Khalil Mamoon. It has pears. Okay. Maybe the height and weight are important, but is that all you want to know? Isn't there more to it? Don't you want to know how it smokes? How it purges? How it holds up over time? Objectively, this product description provides facts about this hookah, but it's not enough. And a company, in the hookah industry, cannot accurately convey how a hookah smokes. There's a void of information, and that's where reviewers come in.
What do reviewers do, exactly?
Before we even talk about sponsored content, it's important to first talk about what reviewers are, and what we do (bloggers such as myself and Dudewheresmyhookah also fall into this category). At the root of it all, we're just fans of hookah. Maybe we're a bit more into it than some, but we're really just enthusiasts. We love hookah, and we love the conversation around hookah. We love smoking, we love sharing, and one day, we decided to publicly share our thoughts, in a forum or video format that's relatively easy to understand. If you look at my earlier video reviews, you would probably say that the "easy to understand" bit wasn't entirely accurate... but I try not to think about those days. At the end of the day, we all just share our thoughts, and we very objectively give our honest thoughts on different products. Reviewers have something that's very unique - perspective, and taste. What separates a hookah review from a product description, at the end of the day, is perspective. Take any of my reviews - for example, my recent Ventura Peach review. I absolutely loved it, and over time, I've reviewed many different peach flavors, and I've always been rather critical of them. So you have my perspective, based on my past reviews, to judge where I'm coming from on any of my reviews. If you've seen any of my mint reviews, you know that I absolutely love mint flavors, but I'm still highly critical of any mint flavors that I try. Because I have self perspective. I'm a fan of that kind of flavor.
So, many reviewers do it, and we do it for a while. We build a base on where we come from, and people start trusting reviewers; maybe because they like what we have to say, maybe they've bought a product and had similar experiences, or they just agree with us. There's no set reason for why people follow reviewers, but at the end of the day, a trust is built. People, just like you, come to read reviews or read blogs, and you see the honesty that gets put into said reviews. You see for yourself that honest and fair things are being said, and you trust a reviewer for that.
From an industry stand point - what are reviewers? Remember how I was talking about that void of information? Reviewers fill that void - because of their perspective. Reviewers, like myself and /u/m2i5k6e6 from Reddit, have a perspective on what we're talking about. And, because of what we do, we have experience with similar products, so we're able to gauge the quality of a product in comparison to those of its kind. We have a point of reference on which to compare things, and we're able to share this information through our reviews, or even blogs. We're able to talk about that Khalil Mamoon Double Pear, and why it, objectively, isn't as good a Shika (I'm just making something up, bear with me). We're able to say, "hey, this cheap ceramic bowl sucks because it doesn't have the heat retention that my HJ Harmony bowl has." We can give facts to back up our statements, because of the experience we have, and the perspective that we've built over time. We can provide information that isn't readily available from 5star, HookahHeroes, or Hookah-Shisha in a product description. You understand, at least for the most part, where we're coming from, and why we're saying what we are. We have a little bit of information about just about everything in regards to hookah, and while we may not be all-knowing gods or anything like that, we have a solid grasp on what we're talking about. We're exposed to more products than the average consumer, and have a basis as to what we're saying, and why - we have things to compare them to.
Who's Doing What?
Now that we've covered what reviewers do, and why the industry needs them, we come to the main issue. The main reason that I've seen this talked about as of late is that many people, across many different platforms, feel that they're being misled by reviewers because they're being sent product for free, for review. While that may not carry true to every single case, or accurately portray the entire issue, it's the main root of the issue without a doubt.
This issue raises the main question - is free product enough to make a reviewer biased enough to give their product a glowing review? Are reviewers abusing this? Are they being overtly positive in exchange for said free product? From my perspective (which is bound to be different from yours), no. Something that /u/m2i5k6e6 has said time and time again on r/hookah when this issue has arisen: a reviewers reputation is the most important thing to any single reviewer. Staying honest is, in turn, what makes a reviewer trusted, like Mike is. The reason that reviewers even get free product is because they are trusted, and people trust what they have to say. A reviewer's reputation is absolutely not worth a glowing review for something that may be a terrible review. Sure, if a reviewer is extremely harsh towards a something they were sent for free, a company may end up hating said reviewer at the end of the day. That's 100% a possibility. But having a company love you... what's that really worth? More free stuff? If a company is awful, why would you want more free stuff from a company that sucks? At the end of the day, said free product is not worth the trust that you lost by putting out that terrible review. The reality of the situation is this - we're fans, just like you, of hookah, and we want to see the industry grow, and we're doing our part in helping provide information that needs to be out there. Most of us don't want a job in the industry, at least in a professional sense of the word. While many reviewers have gone that route in the past (Hookah and Beyond, SmokeOrPass, and HookahRev, for example), their reviews have never been impacted as a result of that desire. They simply wanted to help grow the industry, and now they're just doing it in a different way. Those reviewers are much the exception to reviewers as a whole. We just love hookah, and we want to be part of the conversation with the rest of you about it.
I'm going to talk for a minute about my relationship with HookahHeroes. HH sends me free product, and in return, I write blogs for them, and mention them if I got something from them. There's never been any single mention of influencing what I'm saying, or telling me "hey, gimme those good reviews boss", because that's not what our relationship is about. HookahHeroes believes in me and what I'm doing. They believe in my blogs, and what I'm saying in them. They believe in my reviews, and what I'm talking about. They're just providing me with support to continue doing what I'm doing, and they're doing it because they believe in me. If I'm being perfectly blunt - I could not afford to do all of the reviews that I do if it weren't for the support that I receive in this way. And even if I put out a negative review, HookahHeroes isn't mad at me for doing that. Take this review, for example. I was severely disappointed with the flavor, and I was almost just plain mean about the flavor being not what I wanted it to be. HookahHeroes didn't scold me for this review; hell, I don't even think we talked about it to be honest. I'm significantly lucky to have such support from this company, and my main point here is that this kind of relationship is what a sponsorship should be. Companies shouldn't try to influence what anyone says. And any decent reviewer will be highly critical of any sponsorship that they take. I wouldn't be blogging and reviewing for HookahHeroes, or B2 hookah for that matter, if I didn't believe in them, and they were trying to change the content that I'm putting out. I chose them because they support me, and they enable me to do what I'm doing, and I think my work speaks for itself with the content that I'm putting out there. Even if I wasn't sponsored by them, I would still support what they do, because they're good companies. While I may be speaking largely from a personal perspective, the same can be applied to any reviewer worth watching.
While it may seem that I'm starkly just defending all reviewers, I'm not an idiot - I am aware that there are many out there that do abuse this, and that do put out falsely positive reviews. There's no good answer as to how to fix that problem, but I don't think that all sponsored content should be flamed because of the few that abuse it. Do I think that they should get away with it? Absolutely not. The only real way to fix the issue is to not support them, and support those that are putting accurate and honest reviews out. Let them fail, and the problem fixes itself. "But Wade, how do I even tell them apart?" you may ask. Well, like the last question, there's no good answer. The only real way to figure it out is to read the comments, do the research, follow up, and see what kind of support they're getting. I'm not saying everyone that's popular is right, because often times it's much to the contrary for that. Ask around, and listen to what people are saying. And the fact of the matter is that many reviewers just don't know what they're talking about, and they're simply not informed enough to be giving the information that they're trying to say. While that may sound insanely condescending, I don't believe that it's inaccurate.
The truth of the matter is this: I can't change how you view me. I can't make you think "oh, I read this blog, he has to be telling the truth." What I can do, however, is creating content that speaks for itself. I'll keep putting out reviews, because it's my way of helping. It's my way of giving back to the community that has taught me so much. Without these communities, I likely wouldn't be smoking anything other than Al Fakher, Starbuzz, and even *gasp*, Fantasia. I, and many other reviewers like myself, have learned so much by being a part of this community by being active members. Now, we know what we know, and we want to help others learn. We're doing that by providing honest reviews. We're talking about things we love, or things we even hate. We're giving info that we think needs to be out there, and we're doing it out of love - because we want to help everyone else, the same way that we were helped. Vendor support is something that enables us to do that on a larger scale, and as such, I can't say I have any issues with it. At the end of the day, I think my content, and any other honest reviewer's content, speaks for itself. However, that's just my perspective. You may disagree, and that's totally fine! Something that I've come back to many times in this blog is that reviewers want to be part of the conversation, and that's what this is too. Tell me what you think - why is sponsored content bad? Do you see it actively in the hookah community? Do you think that I need to say "this was sent to me by X", every time that I do a review? Why do you feel that way? Don't hold back - let me know! I want to know what your thoughts are on this concept, and how you view it. I hope that I've at least helped provide some perspective to the issue, and I know most of you will hate me for it, but at the end of the day, it's just my opinion, and you can take it for what it's worth. As always guys, thank you so much for your continued support in doing what I'm doing, it means a ton to me, and happy smokes!