A Rant – Gear testing and the media

Spot the difference.

I came across a very interesting blogpost by Jules at Ambles and Rambles today and it kind of ties in with one of my once in a blue moon rants. It all concerns gear companies, gear testing and outdoor magazines.

So, go get a cup of tea if needs be cause this is a long read and it may meander a little (but go read Jules’ post first)….

When it comes to product group tests in the printed press I can tell you a few things now (not for wanting to upset any magazine or person in particular) that even the gear companies have issues with ‘group tests’ and ‘best in test’ labelling in magazines.

Not because they’re afraid of the competition and being made to look a bit….well…not very good but namely because as you dear reader and most people see, such tests as being somewhat unfair on many levels. Some are good of course, and it doesn’t take you to be Einstein to see this. But if I have any gripe with any particular outdoors mag and their group test, it’s with Trail.

It’s pretty obvious that some of the kit won’t have been used for more than a day in some group tests, yet they will put it in print that the kits been used and abused. Sure, some of it has make no doubt. That’s a given. But every single product?

View west from near Wansfell Pike. You may find this view familiar in some gear review photographs in Trail.
It’s not a bad view eh? Can’t blame em for coming up here often.

There’s a joke that does the rounds online how most of the kit has only ever seen the day of light atop Wansfell Pike in the Lake District for example (the view is often the giveaway in the background in pictures). The tent or what have you was simply there for a photo shoot and then used in a printed review. One recent example was a group test of tarps by Trail Magazine which were scored after a photo shoot by Stanage Edge in the Peak District. One of whom was a blogger who even blogged about it all. They took part in you see, blogged about it. They even wrote how they were testing one of them for the coming months ahead to review for the magazine.

Yet only three weeks or so later it was all on glossy paper and promoted as though they’ve all been testing the tarps for months on end previous! You can clearly see in the photos (yeah, I’m sad!) that all the pics of the tarps were done on the same day in the same area. So, how the hell were those shelters hammered over a period of months? Or at least a significant period to gauge wear and tear in varying weather conditions? Were they tested in the months previously? Not from what I’ve read and heard.

Cripes! I can take a bloody bit of gear up a hill for one night and come back and think it’s mint. Easy! But give me the same kit and use it for a several nights in a row I may think differently. Use it and abuse it over 3 months for nights at a time, I may well go home with a different opinion.

How can one or maybe two or three people at best compare and abuse a wide range of kit in one short season for a magazine anyway? Granted, their experience counts and knowledge too. I’m not disputing that at all. Most kit is samey and so any one with half a brain will know what to expect and make a judgement accordingly. The design and materials used will merit much of this, for example. Many of us purchase gear by experience, wants and needs – so we seek factors that will satisfy such finer details.

Some gear co’s are really quite particular/reluctant in what kit they send in for review to magazines as a consequence of all the above. What may surprise some is sometimes the mags often have to ask for kit to be sent in!

Already you’ve got a possible minefield and conflict of interest there. And that’s before you even consider the big boys who chuck lots of money at the mags in the shape of advertising etc. Where’s the budget brands? Where’s the old favourite?

Oh aye! Gear testing is bloody marvellous!

The savvy gear co’s have cottoned onto this and consequently send more and more of their kit to bloggers like ourselves as one example. Even retailers are at it. These actions will have a knock on effect for magazines incomes of course. Goes without saying.

But when you think about it, the internet and ‘power to the people’ revolution has been creeping in more and more in the past few years. Social networking is where it’s at. To coin an old phrase….’word of mouth’. That’s all we as bloggers, users of Facebook, Twitter and forums are doing. And some who work at the  magazines don’t like it. They can’t compete in many respects. Think trip reports, videos, new places to tread your feet, fab pics of wild camps – never mind the odd opinion on outdoor gear.

Some businesses have flourished and failed by the sword that is the internet and social networking. Often you’ll learn of kit online before the mags do. Be it fledgling cottage industries or some breaking news from the outdoors retail world. Alpkit have done fantastically well on the basis of word of mouth on the quality of their kit that’s cheap and solely sold online (great customer service too). It’s only recently you find more of their products being put into outdoors print. Yet, it’s us the end user, the social creatures as we network in the virtual world who’ve helped raise awareness of the company – not the magazines per se.

It’s all a very grey area and times are a rapidly changing. Magazines, the printed press are still struggling to find their feet and establish a successful and long life business model to keep alive. Maintain a level of income, if you like.

Consequently it saddens me how they fail to promote or even maintain one avenue where they could generate income and pay their wages or even excite and engage their audience more via all sorts of online media (eg features, pictures, red hot news and videos) via their online portal – ie their website (think LFTO/TGO). Aye, web development costs money but the dividends can be excellent. Look at the likes of Outdoors Magic . An online magazine that works but (I mean this kindly) lack the finesse some magazines offer in terms of a variety of good features. Even they’ll need to up their game to compete. The online community there is dying a death. Perhaps they need to begin engaging more on social networks? Even so I bet Outdoors Magic gets more hits a month than most outdoor magazine sales combined.

Journos know the game is up and some are very reluctant to admit that, adapt to that and even take advantage of it unfortunately. And I say that from experience chatting with those in the industry. What I’ve learnt in the past couple of years is how small the outdoors media community really is within the UK. Everyone, knows everyone. There’s not hundreds of people beavering away typing stories or spending day after day in the hills to dream up a nice feature for you to read while sat on the toilet or lounging in bed (though how I’ve managed to partner those two habits together is beyond even me right now!).

Bullseye!

Business is business. Gear companies will go where the money and exposure is. And some will consider the likes of myself or you or others to be much cheaper at promoting their wares in a arguably more fair and objective way than they ever could with a magazine (and often with both if truth be told).

It’s a targeted audience after all!

Some blogs get more traffic in numbers (and I’m on about blogs of any given subject here not just outdoorsy) than even the UK’s best selling outdoors magazine.

I find it frustrating how many in the outdoors community/media fail to see what’s happening under their very noses. Those who’s bread and butter is to be seen to be out there already know this. And we’re seeing the signs of it already. Even individuals are paid now to measure and monitor social network activities for brands. That says it all!

Isn’t it exciting to interact with a given company online? Engage with them, learn more, hear the latest news – all the while sharing this within your community of friends online and more in the wider world? Share opinions and stories and have brands engage with that too?

As human beings we love all that sociable stuff (well, most of us at least). We build loyalties and associations with that. And so, the printed press becomes more and more an outdated way of receiving information. It’s happening now. And they’re at a loss to what to do. The printed press is becoming more and more a relic of a bygone age to some generations – there’s no doubt about that. No matter how sad it is.

So, when you see the recent revamp by TGO Magazine you see not only an editor who’s trying to evolve with the times, but also offer something you won’t find online. Namely well written and inspiring features and decent gear reviews (at least they actually abuse a strict limited number of kit over a season as part of a team unlike one I’ve mentioned above – though they’re more than welcome to comment on here about this if needs be). But even then in time they’ll need to adapt again.

I’ve always argued with such media that they need to marry the offline world with the online world. Gear companies/advertisers will love it and the magazines would love it too (cause it’ll pay their wages and it’s a constant stream of traffic/exposure). Merging the two successfully and in an inspiring way will bring the best of both worlds and be a win win for all concerned – even the reader. After all, I don’t particularly enjoy reading from a smart arsed phone or cumbersome laptop. I like to hold paper, roll it up, admire the quality of the print for a given photograph and so on.

But let’s imagine you read a feature in a magazine and thought “I’d like to see that in action”. You could then pay a visit to it’s sister website. You could watch a video about it. Gain a different perspective from it. But the video would offer something extra that the written word couldn’t produce. And in turn the video on it’s own could be presented in such a way that would then make you feel the need to purchase the magazine. Both could accommodate advertising and such like. So, the publishers will be happy no?

So as for gear reviews? Do they provide the information you need? Because all of what I’ve just said links into it.

Yes would be the definitive answer and you’d be a liar to say otherwise. We’re all influenced in a Derren Brown kind of way every minute of every day into making some kind of decision. And it comes in many shapes or forms.

Even so, some are more immune than others. You’ll find any person who’s new to a given subject or activity will seek the opinions in some shape or form. Their source maybe debatable of course and even that is subjective to your very own opinion. I’m no expert on geology so what’s wrong with me asking for advice from an amateur geologist as opposed the inaccessible professor who’s shot off to Utah or somewhere or other? Nothing. But I’ll be mindful of the advice they give considering. Common sense aint it.

Occasionally, the odd troll or green eyed monster will demand to know how I’ve fell into favour with the likes of Rab or Terra Nova, Vaude, Merrell or whoever. The condescending tone that yours truly has no knowledge or experience of the outdoors world and consequently some kind of Walter Mitty – essentially, how dare they (the companies) even consider me or I engage in typing out my thoughts on a product submitted for testing! Oh and of course they’ll say I’m arrogant and all the usual petty childish remarks. Is it supposed to be different then if I were in my 50’s? Does age mean something? A tent’s a tent after all. Sub zero temps are sub zero temps wherever you are. 80mph winds are no different here than on some hill in Austria. Even so, it’s pretty clear from which point of view I talk about gear.

That of a UK backpacker. Simple.

The fact of the matter is this. I’ve been into outdoors activities in some shape or form all my life (bar a brief respite for drinking beer and chasing women in my mid-twenties). I’m well aware I’m no professional mountaineer or hiked the PCT or strode across an Alpine peak. But what I do have is a passion and drive to submerse myself with the great outdoors. It’s a bloody drug to me. An obsession if you like.

And whatever detractors may say or think – people like that. I like it when I see it in others! It’s inspiring, it’s engaging. I’m out more than most. There’s no doubt I walk more miles on foot on bog and moor in all weathers now than your average Joe Blogs sat at a desk in an office. Half my average month is spent sleeping under nylon on some hill.

Previous trips and experiences coupled with my genuine multi-day hikes (not some two night trip some call a ‘multi-night camp’) all add up to something the gear companies see and like and wish to be part of.

I’d like to think I’m knowledgeable, have a keen interest in science and technologies, am fair-minded and can be objective and constructive too. So, that helps too as far as the gear companies are concerned. I’m part of  or a symbol of one target audience. Backpackers. Those who are new to it in the main I suppose.

Therein, I consequently get approached to try out their wares. Needless to say my relationship with some like Rab is more than just a simple case of trying out some jackets. I’m involved with feedback on prototype products and so on. I know them well on a face to face basis.

Rab Infinty 300 prototype sleeping bag. Final model is in the shops right now.

But all sides concerned know me well enough that I’ll never compromise my integrity when I submit any of their products for review. It’s just not my style. And as it happens, it’s not there’s either. It’s not like there’s gear out there I’ve raved about in the past and no one else agrees. I recall some quarters dismissing my superlative positives on Rab’s Infinity down jacket many moons ago. Now look! I’m not the only one!

Besides, if I’m honest it’s a win win situation for all concerned anyway. What with my work and spending most of my days outdoors I get to be kitted out to the hilt and generally be warm, dry and comfortable. Goodness knows how much money I would’ve spent on the gear I’ve been through in the past year or so. Aye, I’m a guinea pig at times – I’m well aware of that. There’s been the odd trip where the latest garment that’s meant to be the dog’s danglies has been underwhelming in it’s performance. Most of the gear I test doesn’t even get a mention on this blog anyway. In truth I’m no gear freak anyway!

They’re quite simply a tools to a means for me. Nothing more, nothing less.

I couldn’t give two hoots about gear most of the time. I just want to be outdoors. Give me the tools to do it, and I’m out there. I’d say that’s the same for most people no?

Yet, if I do announce in the virtual world my personal thoughts on a particular product and it’s not to a given company’s liking – it isn’t long until I find out about it. And consequently here in lies where some doubt the authenticity of gear in some magazines (OK, one…but there are others you can buy in retail stores).

Gore were not happy with my less than favourable opinions on Active Shell  (linky to blogpost) for example.

So what eh? It’s my opinion of many. I aint daft. I know the crack and I just didn’t rate it and tried to be constructive and fair when I said so. After all, what did they expect??? EVERY person who uses Active Shell to think it’s the bee’s knees???

They were having none of it (well one representative at least if truth be told). The tone and attitude was aloof to put it mildly. Well, boo freakin’ hoo!! Why send it in then? Why not thrive on the feedback? That’s what I’ve been used to dealing with elsewhere? Mark of the company perhaps? Maybe. You can be the judge of that. Personally, I just think it was down to a blinkered rose tinted Gore employee. The sun shines out the proverbial for them, clearly.

I’m not saying they’re all like that obviously. Just wasn’t my lucky day eh.

Anyway, back to the whole point of this post.

Well, erm…..there isn’t one really. It’s just Jules’ blogpost hit a nerve for me. One I know gear companies have issues with too – and I can see why. Reviews and tests are informative where ever you read them. But never take them as gospel, God no. I don’t. Certainly not Trails at least anyway. And I don’t want others too of mine either.

Just use them as a guide. Think of reviews in general as meta critics. Look at the overall cumulative score. After all we’re all human and so are the reviewers. Some will be more impartial than others.

Gear reviews, opinions of any product in whatever field are informative. If they weren’t we’d never buy anything or learn of alternatives.

The world is a changing, and some are being left behind. Move with the times, trust your instincts and learn from others. I do. I thrive on it. I’m like the eager beaver smart arsed kid at the front of the classroom at school (I was as it happens but that’s another story).

There’s always a place for everything in the world, it’s just now we’re living in times where the goalposts are moving. It’s people power now and those at the top don’t like it. And I don’t mean there to be any political connotations in that. Just philosophical. Printed media as we know it needs to evolve and in turn so are gear reviews in the form you choose to read them.

See? I told you this rant would meander a bit. Bet you’re pleased that’s over with! Maybe it’s cabin fever? Who knows? I’ve only been home a couple of days.

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