Wirecutter's Standing Desk Review Pay to Play Strategy

I am writing to share an untold story about a very popular website review site called the Wirecutter. This site is one of the most popular websites in the US – with over 8.6 million visits per month according to Alexa. This is a story about deception and kickbacks. It’s a story about making advertisements look like journalism, known as commerce journalism. Like millions of people, we had never heard this term until recently.

The Short Story

The Wirecutter once gave NextDesk products a glowing review. The Wirecutter standing desk review named the NextDesk Terra “The Best Standing Desk”. Then the CEO of the Wirecutter sent the NextDesk CEO an email to solicit kickbacks. (Wirecutter CEO even used the word “kickbacks” in his email. See copy of that email below. NextDesk believes it makes the best product on the market (others agree, see actual reviews by truly independent sources like Digital Trends and PC Gamer) and did not need to pay any affiliate site kickbacks for standing desk reviews so it refused to pay the Wirecutter any money.

After the NextDesk refused to “pay to play”, the Wirecutter updated its standing desk review. It did a 180 and named another desk “The Best Standing Desk” and claims this desk offers “95% of the polish”. To reach your own opinion, search “Jarvis desk review wobble”.

The Wirecutter boasts that their standing desk reviews and all reviews are “Independently Chosen Editorial Picks”. That’s why we were shocked by this email from the CEO of The Wirecutter:

Dan, thanks for your phone call. Helluva week here with me doing everything from writing to editing to being ceo. I’m sure you know what its like. Small business problems. I’m glad that Jacqui connected you with our writer. He’s a special guy for the project, since as you know, few editorial outlets have the guts to really look at standing desks. That’s part of something I wanted to talk to you about. We’re having problems figuring out how to cover the costs for this standing desk guide going forward after crunching the numbers. Our site thrives on a model that is basically that if we do high quality content and feature high quality gear, and readers buy it, we support the work through kickbacks. If readers like our work and the gear, it covers the cost of the work.

So with our standing desks guide, it’s a rare case where we have no such agreement and the piece itself is the most expensive one we do.

Would you ever be open to figuring out such an arrangement where we can both support our work and grow together?

Also, I would like to talk to you and just hear the origin stories of Next Desk. As you can imagine, we are in our editorial and publishing world trying to win market share from much bigger and better funded places, with only our wits and our ideas and work to compete with. I’m sure you can relate given the quality of your desks and the fact you’re kicking butt of big furniture makers.

Is there a good time I can call you back?

B,
***
Brian Lam
http://thewirecutter.com
http://thesweethome.com

On Monday, July 14, 2014 at 6:47 AM, Dan Lee wrote:
Brian,
Sorry I missed you.
I know that you a were wanting to know if we had any new NextDesk offerings for you to review later this summer or early fall? We have a new Pro Series NextDesk with a Harmon Kardon sound system coming out soon. Would you like to have us send you one to review?

Cheers,
Dan
Dan Lee
CEO

The Long Story

I am writing to share an untold story about a very popular website review site called the Wirecutter. This site is one of the most popular websites in the US – with over 8.6 million visits per month according to Alexa. This is a story about deception and kickbacks. It’s a story about making advertisements look like journalism, known as commerce journalism. Like millions of people, we had never heard this term until recently.

Back in 2013, Time said this about the Wirecutter:

Brian Lam, founder of the Wirecutter, is the former editor of gadget megasite Gizmodo. But his second act isn’t a rerun of his first one. The Wirecutter focuses only on reviews of the best products in a bevy of categories, from Android phones to Bluetooth headsets to humidifiers to computer bags for women. On a Web overrun with news blogs, it’s something different and rarer: a smart, reliable buying guide.

At the surface, the Wirecutter does look like a smart, reliable buying guide. That’s exactly what we thought when our company was first contacted by the Wirecutter back in 2013. But when you begin peeling back the layers, it’s something entirely different.

The Wirecutter is a paid affiliate site that pushes kickbacks like a used car salesman from the 80’s.

In 2012 NextDesk was approached by the wirecutter, founded by Brian Lam. Our small company, NextDesk is a manufacturer of standing desks. Our products have earned significant applause and accolades from many trusted sources over the years. For legitimate unpaid standing desk reviews, see www.nextdesks.com/reviews.

Based on our initial research, we agreed to send them a Terra standing desk for review. They reviewed NextDesk and 6 other standing desks.

We received the following email from the Wirecutter a few days before the article:



Payment Request #1


8/14/13 I wanted to reach out to you before we published our guide and ask if you guys offer any affiliate program on nextdesks.com? After looking over your site I'm guessing the answer is no, so if you can I'd love to chat more about it and see if we can work something out for the Wirecutter.

This was the first time our company had ever been asked to pay someone for reviewing our product. We thought it was odd, and had to research what “affiliate program” actually meant. The pay to play model was not one that we had ever used before and we had no intention of paying for standing desk reviews. This seemed like a major conflict of interest.

Payment Request #2


8/21/13 Sorry for my delayed reply. We pushed our standing desk guide to next week since it needed some final polish. I'd obviously love for us to set up an affiliate agreement with you guys so the Wirecutter would be incentivised in linking directly to your store.
NextDesk declined to pay.

NextDesk Gets a Glowing Review on the Wirecutter


August 29, 2013, Wirecutter published their standing desk review. Here’s what they said:

Our Pick — The NextDesk Terra is the best adjustable standing desk. In a nutshell, it’s beautiful, and when you see what other desks are like, you really appreciate beauty. Sure it starts at $1500, but it feels like it’s worth every penny whereas its competitors in the $1000 range don’t quite feel like $1000 desks."

Here’s what the Wirecutter writer of the article said:

“I don’t part with that kind of money easily, but after seeing all the desks out there, I bought a NextDesk Terra.”

The Wirecutter ultimately said: The best electronic adjustable height desk is the NextDesk Terra.
Also important is what the Wirecutter said about another desk, the Ergo Depot Jarvis Fully desk (later name changed to Fully:
They are noisier and clunkier. It’s a more basic technology, so it’s cheaper.

Payment Request #3


8/29/13 Let’s see how this exclusive offer does with our readers and hopefully in the future we can chat about more affiliate stuff.

NextDesk declined to pay.

Payment Request - #4 -- Brian Lam sends inquiry to NextDesk website


4/18/14 Hey there, Wondering who the best person to talk to about partnerships is. I'm the founder and publisher of The Wirecutter, which wrote the guide to Best Standing Desks featuring your great standing desks. Hope all is well!

NextDesk declined to pay.

Payment Request - #5 -- Brian Lam sends email to NextDesk


4/29/14 Email received from Brian Lam at WC. I’m the founder of The Wirecutter and used to work at a site called Gizmodo and Wired Magazine. My background is in editorial, but I’ve taken over the publisher role at The Wirecutter lately. What do you do at NextDesk? You’re lucky to be a part of a company that is making a great product and knows how to conduct customer service like diehards. I am referring to the way your company handled one particularly impossible reader of ours. I used it as inspiration to my staff as what we should do when providing reader service.

I’m reaching out because we’ve had a lot of great success with our readership with our standing desk article that features NextDesk and I wanted to see if there was a way we could try to work together on promoting and supporting the guide we did.

NextDesk declined to pay.

The Wirecutter Applies Subtle Pressure


6/20/14 Brian Lam sends email “Dan, we’re about to recommend our readers wait before buying any standing desks as we begin reevaluating the field this summer. just giving you a heads up before we do so”

The Wirecutter updates their site with this statement:

6/24/14 WAIT: June 24, 2014 Setting this guide to wait status while we research new models. Our current pick is still decent with no major flaws, so if you need a new standing desk right away, this is still a good choice.

Payment Request #6 – Brian Lam Says we Support our Work Through Kickbacks


7/17/14 We’re having problems figuring out how to cover the costs for this standing desk guide going forward after crunching the numbers. Our site thrives on a model that is basically that if we do high quality content and feature high quality gear, and readers buy it, we support the work through kickbacks. If readers like our work and the gear, it covers the cost of the work.

So with our standing desks guide, it’s a rare case where we have no such agreement and the piece itself is the most expensive one we do.

Would you ever be open to figuring out such an arrangement where we can both support our work and grow together? Also, I would like to talk to you and just hear the origin stories of Next Desk. As you can imagine, we are in our editorial and publishing world trying to win market share from much bigger and better funded places, with only our wits and our ideas and work to compete with. I’m sure you can relate given the quality of your desks and the fact you’re kicking butt of big furniture makers.

Is there a good time I can call you back?

Brian Lam

NextDesk declined to pay.

The Wirecutter Flip Flops

At this point, the Wirecutter has attempted to get paid and get kickbacks from NextDesk on at least 6 times. NextDesk does not wish to pay for standing desk reviews. The Wirecutter now flips their pick to a competing product. Here is the update to their website article on standing desks:

2/17/15 Updated: After more testing, we're recommending the ErgoDepot Jarvis as the best standing desk for most people. It's not as fancy or as beautiful as the NextDesk Terra, but it's a thousand dollars cheaper. We still think the Terra is aesthetically better, but the Jarvis is better for most people because it's just as functional and much cheaper. We still recommend the Terra as our step-up pick. This guide is set to wait status while we update it with that info and a whole lot more soon.

But for most people, the Jarvis offers all of the benefits of the Terra for less than half the price.

After NextDesk declined the Wirecutter’s “Pay to Play” offers, the Wirecutter flipped the recommendation to the Ergodepot Jarvis (now called Fully). In an Ergodepot Jarvis desk review, it called the Ergodepot desk “noiser and clunkier”. Now it’s the top pick and you can purchase it by clicking one of their 8 links to buy the desk. Many of these links were to Amazon, who pays the Wirecutter each every time a product is purchased.

Independent reviews are extremely valuable to the community, but all reviews should be fair, unbiased and honest. We believe that millions of people are being mislead by the Wirecutter each and every month. We believe that consumers have no idea the review their reading may be motivated by much more than a desire to write about great products.

Please contact us if The Wirecutter has solicited kickbacks from your company.

4/22/17 NextDesk Response to The Wirecutter Response

I am writing to address several points and correct some factual inaccuracies. You call our claims false but they are backed by emails from your employees, including your own CEO, plus historical records of your website as archived in the Way Back Time Machine. The only one making false claims is you.

First, you attempt to build the illusion that your “business team” and “editorial team” are independent. In your response you claim, “our editorial staff makes recommendations without knowledge of affiliate relationships or fees.” This is blatantly false. The truth is your editorial staff and your business salespeople work very closely together and in fact, it’s sometimes the exact same person.

Case in point #1 – we received an email from your CEO where he says:

“Dan, thanks for your phone call. Helluva week here with me doing everything from writing to editing to being ceo. I’m sure you know what its like. Small business problems. I’m glad that Jacqui connected you with our writer. He’s a special guy for the project, since as you know, few editorial outlets have the guts to really look at standing desks. That’s part of something I wanted to talk to you about. We’re having problems figuring out how to cover the costs for this standing desk guide going forward after crunching the numbers. Our site thrives on a model that is basically that if we do high quality content and feature high quality gear, and readers buy it, we support the work through kickbacks.

I believe most would interpret this statement as:

a) Even your CEO writes, edits and solicits the kickbacks. That’s far from separation. It’s the exact same person writing and soliciting kickbacks.
b) Basically, your CEO is saying we won’t review your new NextDesk model unless you pay us a kickback. There is no separation here. This is not the independence you attempt to sell to your readers. That’s pay to play.

We offered a review desk to your CEO and the response was basically “pay us a kickback”. So, the only NextDesk you’ve ever reviewed was our original model that is now 4 years old (2-3 versions ago) when we’ve made many improvements and added 4-5 new models to our lineup.

Case in point #2-

If the “business team” and “editorial teams” are truly independent, then why are they working together in tandem, even before the article was ever published to extract kickbacks from our company? Before the Wirecutter published the Standing Desk guide, we received an email from your “business team” member Christopher Mascari where he says “Mark Lukach, who is writing our Best Standing Desk guide, passed me your contact info. I wanted to reach out to you before we published our guide and ask if you guys offer any affiliate program on nextdesks.com?” Now why would your writer “editorial team” tell your “business team” contact us right before the review published. Maybe to exert some pressure and get a kickback?

Second, you seem to place significance on the fact that the Wirecutter recommended NextDesk product until February 2015. That’s because the Wirecutter spent an entire year attempting to get kickbacks/affiliate fees from NextDesk. In fact, we were asked 6 times. Then you finally found another company that paid you affiliate fees and you switched your pick. But you didn’t want to make it look obvious. So you slowly made changes over a period of time to make our product appear worse, and the competitor (source of kickbacks) appear better. Furthermore, you were always certain to test the latest generation of the Ergot Depot Jarvis, but always compared it to the 4 year old version of the NextDesk Terra. Yes, we offered to provide new updated models but you refused unless we paid a kickback.

Third, in your response you say “another company had entered the field with something nearly as good but for half the price” and “We kept NextDesk’s offering as an alternate recommendation within the guide due to its quality and aesthetics, but we could no longer justify recommending it to “most people” once a high-quality, lower-cost alternative existed.”

Funny how the Wirecutter can flip-flop when there’s money involved. I could spend an hour discussing the quality and performance differences in the built in USA NextDesk product and the Chinese product you’re recommending, but you actually say it best in your previous reviews.

Here is what the Wirecutter said about each product before kickbacks started:

Pre-Kickback Wirecutter Writer Statements about the Ergo Depot Jarvis desk:

* These (Ergo Depot) are cheaper desks first and foremost because of the motors.

* The motors are louder than those on the NextDesk Terra and dont start as smoothly.

* Either the packaging or the paint job on the legs is also subpar compared with the Terra; the legs on our review desk arrived slightly scuffed in places.

* The digital height readout on the upgrade control panel never turns off, which could be distracting if you sleep in the same room as your desk.

* Ergo Depots laminate tops arent great either.

* Its not the prettiest standing desk

Pre-Kickback Wirecutter Writer Statements about the NextDesk Terra desk:

* The NextDesk Terra is the best-looking sit/stand desk you can get.

* Nothing yet comes close to its fit and finish. Its aluminum frame and bamboo top are much nicer than the steel and laminate of the Ergo Depot Jarvis, and its motors are quieter.

* It has a sleek aluminum frame, solid bamboo top, and beautiful, refined accessories.

* The NextDesk Terra is the best adjustable standing desk. In a nutshell, it’s beautiful. And when you see what other desks are like, you really appreciate beauty. Sure it starts at $1,500, but it feels like it’s worth every penny whereas competitors in the $1,000 range don’t quite feel like $1,000 desks. It's still head and shoulders above most competitors when it comes to fit and finish.

* The frame is made of recycled aluminum, which I think looks much better than the black steel of most adjustable desks. Steel is cheaper than aluminum, but aluminum has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal.

* As for the motor itself: It’s great. It’s very reliable. In three months of working at it, I’ve never had it fail to respond. It hums away at 1.7 inches per second, and has a nice cushioned start and stop to it so that it doesn’t jerk.

* I don’t part with that kind of money easily, but after seeing all the desks out there, I bought a NextDesk Terra. That’s how much I liked it. My justification is consistent with how we look at all our products on The Wirecutter: I’m okay spending that much money because I use this desk every day for hours at a time. This is not some novelty item here. You will log serious hours at your desk. I have been working at this desk for months and I still find it a gorgeous desk, one that I enjoy working at. I’ve found it’s worth paying for the best.

* If you can fit it into your budget and want the best, this is it.

All of your comments are archived on the Way Back Time Machine. Here’s an example: http://web.archive.org/web/20140106154033/http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/the-best-standing-desks/

Note that you changed the URL between the flip and the flop. In a subtle change, “the” was dropped from the URL. By changing the URL, it makes it more difficult for readers to find these older comments.

Finally, you said “we recommended the NextDesk product when there wasn’t an affiliate relationship, up until February 2015. And when we changed our recommendation to a new product from another manufacturer, we didn’t have an affiliate relationship with the maker of that new recommendation, either, making NextDesk’s allegation all the more baseless.”

Your statement that “we didn’t have an affiliate relationship with the maker of the new recommendation is blatantly false. Here’s the Way Back Time Machine Link where you have an on-page Ergo Depot Jarvis link so readers can buy it on Amazon: http://web.archive.org/web/20150603092537/http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-standing-desk/

Are you going to tell your readers you didn’t have an affiliate relationship with Amazon?

New York Times, we understand you recently paid over $30 million for the Wirecutter website. You might want to get that check back.