Vine isn’t quite what I expected

Thought I might shed a little light for those who are interested in what the Amazon Vine program actually is as I’ve had access to view it for a bit and was a tad… I won’t say surprised but it’s been interesting to see another side of the review game.

TL;DR – not an expose, not bashing anyone (really, I’m not,) just “oh, that’s interesting.” No trade secrets exposed. I’m still learning what’s right, wrong, and outdated old information that’s no longer correct on the Vine program.

You’ve probably been on Amazon and seen reviews featured that say “Vine Voice” – here’s an example:

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Vine Voice means a person is in the Amazon Vine program and can request products for review. The phrase “Vine Customer Review of Free Product” and a link to the program page accompanies every Vine-related review.

Freedom isn’t free, it costs about $1.50

Let’s focus on the word “free” here for a second because that’s maybe a misconception… incorrect description… badly relayed… basically something’s up with that if I’m reading everything correctly. Going by the dictionary definition it’s not costing or charging anything. On Amazon’s side, this is true. A Vine member does not pay Amazon. Amazon probably does not pay the seller. The seller pays to ship and produce an item that the reviewer gets.

But the reviewer gets to pay taxes on the worth of that product at the end of the tax year. In the United States that’s coming in at an average of 15% tax rate if I’m reading this right. You get a “free” $100 item, you get a 1099-NEC at the end of the tax year showing how much you were given. You’re required to pay your tax rate on that unless I’m reading this incorrectly. Living in a state without a state income tax I’m not sure if additionally most states would require that as well.

Everything I’m reading indicates more most 15% – basically whatever rate you’re going to pay for self employment taxes 12.4% Social Security, 2.9% Medicare, 15.3% total. Check out 1099-NEC tax rates and you’ll get an idea of what you pay.

$100 valued “free” item costs you ~$15.30. Yes, that’s heavily discounted, but it’s not free. I looked at several new Vine reviewers are really want to reach out to them and say “Donna, you know you’re going to have to pay taxes on every single item you’re posting your 11 word reviews for right?”

A product may be valued differently than priced I’ve noticed. Usually it’s close however. $100 priced might be valued at $87. Supplements and health items are usually valued at $0.

To get into Vine you have to complete a tax form and have it approved. The IRS knows who you are. Pretty sure you’re going to be paying at the end of the year.

All that said, this can also fall under hobby income in which case you still report it but taxing is quite different. Quite a bit depends on why you’re in Vine. Really, you’ll need to talk to a tax person and not get advice from the comments section of a blog.

You get what you get when you get it

Item a total piece of garbage? You can’t automatically return it. I mean you can swap it for another if it’s defective, but there’s no returns on “free” items.

That said, you can open up a ticket with Vine and have it removed from your orders / eventual balance. Takes a day or two, and a long description of why,

You have to maintain a certain number and percentage of reviews

The first surprising thing I ran across is that Silver level Vine members can leave up to 50% of items un-reviewed before they get their accounts flagged and potentially halted. There’s little reason in the Vine program if you’ve dropped to silver to churn out “works, great, here’s a review.” and yet some Vine members have a list a mile long of one to two word reviews that are not helpful at all.

Side note, click on helpful on a review if it actually is. That’s one way people maintain reviewer status, or get into Vine in the first place.

You can get booted for not being helpful, posting fake reviews, etc… and yet there’re page after page of unhelpful useless reviews posted… something’s not right. There’re people in the program that it seems couldn’t post two paragraphs for a review to save their life. How they got voted helpful and invited in the first place confuses me.

It’s actual work

There are a couple of tiers of access.. gold and silver. To maintain gold you have to review at least 100 vine items and 90% of your orders every 6 (sometimes 9,) months. Silver tiers are limited to $100 products or less and 50% of products have to be reviewed.

Gold can order 8 items per day and anything’s fair game. You want to stay in Gold, you’re going to write a review that’s useful and be voted as such. You’re also going to review at least nine out of ten items you receive. Silver is three items a day and a $100 limit. I don’t know if that’s $100 of product a day or 3 items up to $100.

What’s more is you’re also subjected to Amazon’s quite often arbitrary review interpretation. If you’re not familiar with reviewing items, or haven’t reviewed a lot, the general thing is you post a review, if it’s a popular item or company your review gets looked at sooner and approved or not…

If it’s not a popular item your review may sit in limbo for a while doing nothing. It appears if it sits there long enough (because it’s not a popular product,) it’ll get booted for some reason such as going against review guidelines. I’ve written enough reviews in my life to know what review guidelines are and when I didn’t violate them. I’ve had two booted and accepted with next to no changes.

Why’s it on Vine?

It seems that most items are on the Vine program to get reviews because they don’t have enough legit reviews, or they’re not a popular company and need reviews, or they’re launching a new product and want reviews right off the bat. I have seen some well established companies. Not many but some.

I’ve also seen a few companies with a ton of reviews already get on Vine. I don’t know why they’re there.

Doesn’t work well on mobile, and some content region restricted

I’m not going to bash this, but it’s a behind the scenes website that works but is not the Amazon experience. If you want to use it on mobile you find yourself rotating the screen, scrolling down, and zooming in, radio buttons float off. Designed for desktops. That’s ok.

Searching is sometimes difficult, and items that are listed as available sometimes aren’t. You want that guinea pig cave? Too bad son! it may say it’s on Vine but nope. You want that $1800 mattress? Nope they’re not going to pay to ship it to you so all those reviews are going to come from one area of the country near their warehouse.

Yeah, large heavy items on Vine may have a ton of reviews from near where the warehouses are because the seller isn’t going to pay to ship 150 pounds to the other side of the country. I mean, I don’t expect them to, but it does make one wonder if all the perfect sleep reviews people give are because they’re also in a region like San Francisco where the hottest it gets is 74 degrees… you don’t have reviews of that mattress in Nashville where it was 108f and 94% humidity to contrast with a swamp butt review.

Complaining? No. I just wanted that Serta mattress…

You’re stuck with that product for six months

Evidently this section is outdated text on the Amazon Vine site and no longer the case.

Per the review guidelines you may not sell or give possession of the products to any person or entity for six months following your order. This one amuses me greatly because dog clothes, kid clothes, dolls, toys. By that rule none of these should be in the Vine program.

Having read this, I will now tell my seven year old that that Brenda Barbievitch (a knockoff doll,) is now mine and I shall have to play with her. Guinea pigs? Give back that clothing! I don’t even know how we’re going to keep possession of, and potentially return the vitamins.

Sellers can contact you

Write an honest review a seller doesn’t agree with? Like with anything else on Amazon the sellers/venders/mfgs can reach out via Amazon’s messaging system to contact you to attempt to make things right.

Unfortunately fixing the problem is rarely the offer, more like the customer agent doesn’t realize that offering a refund on a Vine item isn’t a compelling reason to remove or revise a review. Fix the product.

Don’t post five stars on a completely average item? You might get contacted.

Is it worth it?

I believe if you want approximately 85% discounted merchandise that you are willing to sit down and write a review which will take your time, yes. Something to realize though is you are limited to the items currently participating in the Vine program – which is let’s say 13,000 or so, and those come and go, and some of the stuff is not worth that 15% you’re paying, nor is there any ability to return it to credit your eventual 1099 earnings.

Some… very little I will note.

It’s an interesting program.

Taxes and fees

As noted in the comments people have their beliefs on the taxability of a hobby in the United States, so I made a phone call to an former-IRS employee I know who said it comes down to everything having an entry on a ledger sheet and that if you’re audited this will come up since there was an 1099 issued by Amazon and that’s reported to the IRS by Amazon. My accountant said the same, and since I work around property lawyers and this article is about a year old as of this update the general consensus when I’ve talked with them about product reviews was “it’s written on the 1099 you’re issued by Amazon how you have to file it – if you don’t, well that’s your choice and you’ll find out if you get audited.”

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Paul E King

Paul King started with GoodAndEVO in 2011, which merged with Pocketables, and as of 2018 he's evidently the owner. He lives in Nashville, works at a film production company, is married with two kids. Facebook | Twitter | Donate | More posts by Paul | Subscribe to Paul's posts

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