So You Got a Bad Review

Don't panic! You can turn this around.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It happens to everyone eventually. No matter how much you poured your heart and soul into a product, someone isn't going to like it. And that someone will let you and everyone else know it by posting a negative review. What to do about it? That depends on what brand you're presenting to the public.

Who Reads That Review?​

The first thing to consider is that reviews are moments in time, and are not an effective means of communicating between reviewer and creator. Some platforms, like DriveThruRPG, allow you to answer the review. Others, like Amazon, no longer allow comments in response at all. Amazon allows other readers to upvote reviews, while DriveThruRPG does not. This should influence your response: on DriveThruRPG, directly responding to the reviewer will be clear, while on Amazon you can only send a private note to the reviewer (I get many private notes from the companies I review, more on that later). And of course, on forums and other comment sections, you're joining a dialogue, not just responding to a review, so you'll want to keep that in mind.

Your response is best guided by the platform, which determines who sees the response, and the content of the review itself. The mechanism in responding to the review is important to keep in mind; more often than not, you're not responding to the reviewer but to future customers who will read the review. Those potential customers are far more important in convincing the reviewer is wrong (if they are indeed wrong!).

The Review is Harsh But Fair​

These reviews are gifts, as they are essentially editing your work by telling you what's wrong. If you can't make the edits, acknowledging the flaws and promising to do better is helpful. Even better, fix the flaws and explain in your response that the review improved your product. This is easier with digital products you produce personally. Your response makes the reviewer feel good, makes you look proactive, and turns a review into an opportunity to potentially retain future customers.

One point of note here: Amazon companies now contact me every time I give them less than a stellar (five star) review in an attempt to "make things right." Three star reviews don't warrant this kind of response and the emails I receive via Amazon are clearly form letters managed by a call center. This process pivots on the idea that somehow, if I got a new version of the product, I would give it a better review. If the reviewer believes the product is fundamentally flawed, this doesn't fix the issue and it certainly doesn't endear you to reviewer. Focus on addressing the flaws, not placating the reviewer.

The Reviewer is Uninformed​

If the review is misguided or ill-informed, your response is an opportunity to correct an oversight. Almost no one ever goes back and edits their review unless it's a professional platform (like EN World), so sending a note to correct an error in the review has dubious value unless you want to be able to state later that you told the reviewer what they got wrong and they didn't change it. In short, it puts the onus on the reviewer to fix their error.

The bigger issue is that the review may mislead other consumers to think your product is flawed in some way that's not accurate. If that's the case, your response is an opportunity to inform everyone else what the reviewer got wrong. Remember, for platforms that can see your response, you're talking to that audience, not the reviewer who already made up their mind.

The Review is Ridiculous​

The reviewer may make outrageous claims that are simply not true. The problem is that all reviews seem equally valid, so it's your job to show how it's biased. You can be factual, you can be sarcastic, but pointing out that the review is ridiculous is important. Not responding means that the review stands as is, and that wildly inaccurate one-star criticism will stick around to haunt you for the life of the platform.

One way you can politely deal with these issues, which larger companies do all the time, is to simply take it off line. Show that you respect the person's concerns by giving them an email or other means of communicating with you to provide a refund or otherwise set the record straight. You probably don't want these types of reviewers as customers anyway. This shows you care and are the reasonable person in contrast to the reviewer.

The Review is Rude​

If the review's just plain rude, you can of course just flame them to the ground in your response. This might not quite work out in your favor when others stumble upon your response years later. Generally speaking, a reviewer is considered "one of the people" and you, as a producer, are considered to have more power. So the onus is on you to appear calmer in your response. But if the audience is on your side (say, in a forum where you're well known), you have a little more latitude to fight back. Some reviews simply can't be salvaged though, and you may need to just let it go and move on. Or, if you own the platform, just yeet them.

What Not to Do​

If your mental state isn't a place to deal with negative reviews, consider not publishing content to the public. The implied contract with these platforms is that if you publish something, you're opening it up to public criticism. That's the tradeoff for receiving payment in return.

You may want to turn off notifications and not read the reviews at all. One of the challenging aspects of crowdfunding and Patreons is that consumers let you know in real time if they like or dislike your product by their financial support, and you experience it in real time. If you're having a bad day, this can be personally devastating. If you feel very protective of your work or can't deal with criticism, those platforms are not for you.

But all that aside, taking things personally and going after the reviewer and not the review (publicly or privately) is a mistake. It makes you look bad. It ensures the reviewer will give you more negative reviews in the future. And because of the aforementioned power imbalance, it often looks like bullying even though you are the one being attacked.

Still Up to the Challenge?​

Take some deep breaths, go for a walk, get some sunshine, or even wait a day, and then respond to the review. Like reviews, your response is a moment in time. Your response will be at its best when you're calm and receptive to feedback.

Your Turn: How do you deal with negative reviews?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

delericho

Legend
I thought the rule was "never read the reviews", much like YouTube's "never read the comments"? Otherwise, don't you risk Cthulhu-esque levels of madness? :)

Regarding the "review is ridiculous" block: I once made a comment regarding a product where they were charging a given price, plus delivery costs, for the physical product, or they offered a book+PDF bundle at a higher price. But the bundle had a much higher delivery cost than just the book (sending those PDFs to the UK is expensive!). Needless to say, the publisher was less than pleased at my mentioning that in my not-quite-review (it was a thread here), since it's obviously an outrageous thing to suggest they'd do.

They then checked, and fixed the issue.

(And, incidentally, that's why I'm not naming the publisher - the story had a happy ending, so I really don't want to risk causing them any trouble!)
 

AnotherGuy

Adventurer
I save my fairly aggressive reviews for particular series and movies, but they pretty much deserved it. Disappointing roleplaying material on the other hand allows for tinkering.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I find that, when dealing with this sort of thing, it's best to follow a four-step process.

terror-trax-track-of-the-vampire-3.webp


And that's how you deal with a werewolf, vampire, mummy, or other supernatural threat. I'm not sure precisely which one of those we're using "bad review" as code for, but this should take care of it either way.
 


Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I don't mind bad reviews. What gets me is anonymous bad ratings, which provide no useful information and no meaningful way of response.

If enough people dislike the way I formatted a product or the way I wrote it, or even what I wrote, I can adapt. Anonymous one or two star ratings are just crap with no way of understanding or addressing the complaint.
 

TheSword

Legend
Great article, that I think applies to far more than just TTRPGs.

Our business openly solicits feedback and reviews and I won’t lie, it can sometimes be painful to read - and even more painful to have to respond with gritted teeth.

Keep calm and don’t take it personally is always good advice. Also If people are anything like me, frame of mind may not be a constant thing. Don’t respond to your reviews on a Monday morning, or when you’ve had to open up on a bank holiday because someone else called in sick!

A review can be coloured by the reviewers mood as much as anything else, and there are plenty of keyboard warriors out there. I can honestly say most of the customers I have the warmest relationship with now, are folks that really slammed me hard with bad feedback and we built a relationship on the back of correcting it. Then original issue is forgotten and all that is left is the goodwill that remains.

Chin up folks!
 

Dave Goff

Explorer
Two times when I've reviewed D&D adventures sent to me through my website come to mind.
With one, I gave a good review and then just mentioned that a font used in info boxes was hard to read. The author got back to me and let me know they changed the font and asked if I could update the review, so I did. Great interaction over all.
Another one, I said great things about it and then included just a couple of small things that could have been better, but ended it by saying I absolutely endorsed the product and encouraged people to get it.
The author was very sad about that review and asked if I could possibly take it down. I tried to explain that it was actually a positive review, but they couldn't take the criticism of the small things. I even said I could update the review when they were ready and they indicated they were just going to stop writing.
I took the review down, as requested, and tried to be encouraging, but got no more response.
Then I decided to check other reviews and found that they were similar, and the author actually got into arguments about it in the comments section. That's never a good look for anyone. This really made me sad, because the author was really talented, and I think had self-confidence problems.
The upshot is if you get a bad review, use it as an impetus to improve and build a connection with the reviewer.
And never, ever, get into public fights with reviewers. It will never turn out well.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The upshot is if you get a bad review, use it as an impetus to improve and build a connection with the reviewer.
And never, ever, get into public fights with reviewers. It will never turn out well.
Thank you for sharing this. One thing I think is tough to hear for creators is that feedback is part of how money gets made on the Internet, and while you can try to ignore anyone who has a criticism of your product, it's going to happen anyway whether you engage with it or not.

Which is to say that if someone is having a tough time, mental health issues, etc., publishing may not be for them. Unfortunately, humans aren't robots who are in the same emotional state every day, so you could be fine when you publish the product, but then get a scathing review on a bad day. I have this with my Patreon and certainly the ups-and-downs of Kickstarter are not for everybody. Some days, I shrug it off; others, it feels like a personal attack when I lose a patron (or worse, someone joined only to download all the stuff and quit immediately).

It's up to the individual to determine how criticism affects them, and developing a thick skin is a good skill for any creator to have. I've been so beaten up by the public at my day job that I can handle most stuff, but I still have bad days, and on those days my best response is to leave it alone until I'm in a better frame of mind.
 

pogre

Legend
(or worse, someone joined only to download all the stuff and quit immediately).
OK -dumb question from the old guy incoming: Is joining a Patreon and downloading all the stuff and then quitting bad form? Honest question. I am not big into subscriptions - I understand why subscriptions are the dominant model, but they do not work well for me. Anyway, I thought about joining a Patreon and downloading the stuff and leaving - I have not done it, and I certainly would not want to do something that is insulting, dishonest, or plain rude.

Are there Patreons that this expected and others that it is a no-no for?

Sorry for going off-topic.
 

ced1106

Explorer
I used to be a DriveThruRPG reviewer, until I stopped because I accumulated so much RPG material. IMO, While a bad review is a concern, it's more important to get your RPG product noticed. Reviews only work when someone is already familiar with your content, or if it's suggested by a newsletter or recommendations. If you're concerned about a bad review, that means you assume someone's reading it, which may not even be the case.

So reviews are part of selling your content, but only part. Pre-CoVid, I would have said that you should attend game conventions and run your RPG, and now there are online GM'ing and other options. Yes, your product is supposed to sell itself, but, no, that's the ideal world. Try running online GM sessions with your RPG for free, and ask your players to give your RPG product ratings and reviews.
 

talien

Community Supporter
OK -dumb question from the old guy incoming: Is joining a Patreon and downloading all the stuff and then quitting bad form? Honest question. I am not big into subscriptions - I understand why subscriptions are the dominant model, but they do not work well for me. Anyway, I thought about joining a Patreon and downloading the stuff and leaving - I have not done it, and I certainly would not want to do something that is insulting, dishonest, or plain rude.

Are there Patreons that this expected and others that it is a no-no for?

Sorry for going off-topic.
Yes.

At least for my Patreon, it's a subscription model with the value directly determined by how much product is offered at a support tier. What this means is that you could join at five dollars/month, download all the content that is immediately available, and then cancel your subscription. What's offered at that tier is worth far more than five bucks, because otherwise I'd just sell the products exclusively on DriveThruRPG. So the Patreon is a better deal, with the assumption that if you support the Patreon over time, more products get added, and therefore you have an incentive to stick around as a supporter and keep your subscription longer. Conversely, each monthly payment directly supports the creator, paying them to keep producing more product.

When people just download everything and then quit (sometimes within minutes!), it's a lopsided deal. The consumer conveys the message to the creator that they like the product, not the creator. They treat it like a coupon rather than a social contract.

Where this gets really problematic is when physical product is involved as a reward for a tier. I've spent considerable effort signing books, packaging product, paying for shipping, taking it to the post office ... only to discover that the patron was already gone by the time I shipped the product. So at the higher support tiers there's even more personal investment on behalf of the creator.

Patreon and creators all accept this as part of doing business on the platform. It's not just Patreon either, it's an ongoing problem with ebook creators on Amazon where people read the entire book, don't like it, and then return it, forcing the creator to PAY AMAZON BACK.

Add all this up, and on bad days, these types of fast-transactional relationships can be very demotivating.
 

TheSword

Legend
I think you have to see the downloading of existing stuff as just another part of marketing. The hope is they like the stuff enough to want everything else you provide.

Sure people can do things cheaply by joining downloading and cancelling every few months, but most people who are really into the work will pay for it any way to ensure they keep getting the content. Better that folks download and read for a fiver, and maybe stay long term than never read at all. At least in most cases there is no cost of sale with digital rewards on Patreon.

I think you just have to see it as another form of marketing.
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
I feel incredibly lucky that I've never gotten a really bad review. I'm still keenly aware that not all games are for everyone. When playtesting TimeWatch, playtest feedback was really good -- except for one playtester group where the PCs literally suicided their characters rather than continue the adventure. (There was a bad GMing-style mismatch that I needed to address in GM Advice. But daaaamn.)

And honestly, the problem many designers have is that they don't get ENOUGH reviews (good OR bad). Reviews matter.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I think you have to see the downloading of existing stuff as just another part of marketing. The hope is they like the stuff enough to want everything else you provide.

Sure people can do things cheaply by joining downloading and cancelling every few months, but most people who are really into the work will pay for it any way to ensure they keep getting the content. Better that folks download and read for a fiver, and maybe stay long term than never read at all. At least in most cases there is no cost of sale with digital rewards on Patreon.

I think you just have to see it as another form of marketing.
Totally valid. It's still hard to take though, especially when it happens in waves. But if I wasn't able to handle it I wouldn't be on Patreon -- which is why it's not for everybody.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I feel incredibly lucky that I've never gotten a really bad review. I'm still keenly aware that not all games are for everyone. When playtesting TimeWatch, playtest feedback was really good -- except for one playtester group where the PCs literally suicided their characters rather than continue the adventure. (There was a bad GMing-style mismatch that I needed to address in GM Advice. But daaaamn.)

And honestly, the problem many designers have is that they don't get ENOUGH reviews (good OR bad). Reviews matter.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the biggest concern for most products isn't that anyone's mad at you, it's that nobody even cares enough to get mad. It's hard to rise above the noise of social media to get noticed, and triply so to get someone passionate enough to write a review.
 

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