Three small computers

A true story from the days before the IBM PC.

A small start-up made microcomputers for business in the days when they were still called microcomputers.

The company had one basic computer design. It was similar to every other CP/M computer on the market at the time. Except in one important respect: there were three versions.

Version one was the budget model. It was for buyers looking for a bargain. The second version cost almost twice as much. It was the mainstream model. At the top of the line was the professional version. This cost three times as much as the budget model. It cost more than almost every other CP/M computer on the market.

You can probably guess which was the most popular. The elite model sold more than the other two. A number of customers took budget models. Usually this was part of a multiple order where managers got elite computers and peasants got the budget ones.

The mainstream model barely sold at all.

As you’d expect there’s a sting in the tail of this story. Internally the three computers were identical. They had the same processor, same memory, same disk and ran identical software. The only difference was in the colour of the cases and the badges on the front of the machines.

The start-up computer maker was very successful and went on to other great things.

A computer maker couldn’t get away with this today – too many people would point out the emperor isn’t wearing his new suit.

Even so, there’s a useful lesson here.

Chasing Facebook

Craig McGill makes a good case for social media strategists not putting all their digital eggs in the Facebook basket at the Contently Managed website. His In Social Media strategy, should you put all your digital eggs in the Facebook basket? wisely warns that Facebook could go the way of sites like Friends Reunited, MySpace and Bebo,

McGill says old-fashioned websites should stay the mainstay of any strategy – because that’s where people buy things and learn more information.

Now that’s marketing….

Horse races

Betting on horses is “an investment”. Yeah right.

When I was at school my dad worked for a firm of bookmakers. I sometimes used to go to his office after lessons and wait for a lift home.

While I was there one day I saw some of the betting slips lying around. The company name was at the top, there was space to handwrite the bet and a column to add up the amounts.

The best bit was at the bottom where it said:

Total invested.

That’s right ‘invested’. Not squandered, risked, gambled or not-quite-lost-yet.

Talk about screwing with customer’s minds.

Publicity for beginners

A basic guide for business owners and others who think they may want publicity. This is an updated version of a story originally posted in 2008. 

If you have a product or service to sell, you want the greatest number of potential customers to hear about it.

While word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping off point when you’re starting, eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience. This means working with blogs, web sites, newspapers, magazines or broadcast media.

There are two ways to get attention; advertising and publicity. Newcomers often confuse the two. That’s a mistake, they are radically different and work in parallel universes.

Advertising and publicity are different

Advertising is always strictly commercial. You buy a fixed amount of space in a printed publication or air time from a radio or TV broadcaster. Online advertising generally comes down to display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. Both can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an application like Gmail.

When you buy advertising you provide the advertising content, or what people in the business call copy, at your cost.

Use advertising professionals

If you’ve enough budget you can hire a creative team to prepare the copy. This costs money, sometimes a lot of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: clued-up advertising professionals know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy will run. You have complete control over the message and its delivery. Well up to a point; some publishers will refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.

Cost per reader, viewer, listener

Advertising prices depend on the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think in terms of CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.

Publicity isn’t for control freaks

In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions – they won’t consult with you. They may choose to listen to you or read your material, they may not.

In principle it all depends on your message’s newsworthiness. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll take notice.

Journalist ethics

Surprising though it may seem, journalists have an ethical code. They are not for sale. Their job is to keep readers informed regardless of commercial considerations.

This is why you should avoid applying commercial pressure when seeking publicity. Don’t imply you will place advertising in return for favourable treatment.

At best you will insult journalists or offend their professional pride. At worst you will create a situation where ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story. They may even choose to take a hostile approach just to emphasise their independence.

Professional journalists don’t regard aiding your sales as any part of their job. Nor should they.

Media is a business

This may seem confusing, after all media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a longer term view makes good business sense. A media property with a strong ethical code will be held in high regard by its readers, listeners or viewers.

This not only means that more people get to see editorial; it also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, i.e. more involved or wealthier, kind of customer.

At the same time, research shows advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Who controls the message?

Even when a journalist does respond to your publicity in a largely favourable way, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs.

They choose the angle. They also get to decide how many words to devote to your message and they can choose whether your rivals get to comment or not. An editor might choose to use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

You wouldn’t normally expect to pay money to a publisher when they use your publicity. However, there are some media properties that will ask for a payment in return for running it.

We call it advertorial

Alternatively some properties might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. In fact there’s a whole spectrum of arrangements from total separation of editorial and advertising all the way to properties that are, in effect, nothing but paid advertising.

At the extreme end of the scale you are dealing with vanity publishers – people who will take your money and make you look good. Your mother may like the result, but you won’t sell much this way.

As a rule of thumb, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your prospective customers. Experienced publicity people discount the value of these publications.

Apart from anything else, readers tend to know when they are looking at paid-for editorial and learn to trust it less than truly independent content. In particular, younger, media literate, people are especially cynical about this kind of material.

One commonly used measure is that four of their readers would be worth one reader of a more prestigious, editorially independent title. That also applies to advertising in these publications – you can expect to pay less for space in a publication that isn’t fully independent.

Publicity specialists

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists to do it. The most common arrangement involves hiring a public relations or PR consultant. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company can save you time and trouble. They’ll help you prepare your message and train you in the art of handling the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.

Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. Other operators keep all this information in their heads, Palm Pilots, even on paper. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.

No guarantees

Be warned that public relations companies rarely guarantee results. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid any PR operator who makes that kind of promise.

One misconception is that publicity is all about issuing press releases or holding press conferences. Both can have a role to play, but most important PR takes place out of sight.

Truth is the best spin

The smartest spin doctors are those who always tell the truth.

Public relations types and other communicators can’t afford to be known as professional liars. They don’t have to.

First class propagandists tell the truth. They tell the truth in such a way the people receiving the message have no idea they are listening to anything but facts. That’s because they’re not.

Skilled propagandists simply serve up selected truths designed to further their goals.

Public relations people need to remember truth is especially important when dealing with the press.

Journalists are automatically on guard when speaking to communications professionals. We expect untruths and misdirection. Mistrust is part of our training.

If we spot a lie, we’re going to mistrust everything else from the same source. And the liar will find it hard to be taken seriously in future.

When we talk among ourselves, journalists often tell each other this PR professional or that politician is a liar: a reputation no-one wants.

Dealing with journalists when you want publicity

If you have a product or service to sell, you want customers to hear about it.

Word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping-off point when you’re starting out; eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience.

Popular web sites, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio have the wider audience. Publicity is an effective way of reaching it.

Publicity often means working with journalists. There are ways of doing this properly and there are traps to avoid. First the background:

Publicity isn’t advertising

Businesses can get media attention through advertising or publicity. They operate in parallel universes.

Advertising is a commercial deal between you and a media company. You buy access to consumers. You provide what the advertising industry calls ‘copy’.

If you’ve got a large budget, hire a creative team to prepare your copy. It is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: talented advertising specialists know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy runs. You control the message and the delivery. Up to a point. Some publishers refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.

Journalists control your message

In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make the important decisions. They may listen to you, they might not.

It all depends on newsworthiness. If your message strikes a chord, they’ll take notice. If the message is boring, they’ll ignore it.

To get publicity, you must convince journalists your story will interest their readers.

If publicity is that simple, why does it often go wrong?

No easy short cuts

Straightforward marketing messages are rarely newsworthy. Rather than working to find fresh, newsworthy angles, companies look for short cuts.

The most obvious is applying pressure. It can backfire badly.

Some companies imply they will place advertising with a media property in return for favourable editorial treatment.

At best this insults journalists or offends their professional pride. At worst ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story or they choose to take a more hostile approach just to prove their independence.

This is good business

You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance of promised advertising. As we’ll see in a moment, some will.

The best ones won’t. That’s because readers prefer editorial with a strong ethical code.

Not only do more readers read the editorial in an ethical publication; more readers get to see the advertising material. Better still, properties with strong, ethical editorial standards deliver better – more involved or wealthier – customers.

Advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Their story now

Even when a journalist responds favourably to your publicity pitch, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs. Their loyalty is to readers, not to you.

Journalists get to choose the angle. They decide how many words to devote to your message and they choose whether your rivals comment or not. An editor might use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

There are media properties that will ask for a payment to run your publicity material or agree to run it if you buy advertising elsewhere. You may be tempted. The audience won’t be as good and you may be disappointed by the results.

Using a specialist publicist

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialist public relations or PR consultants. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company will save you time and trouble. They’ll prepare your message and train you to handle the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.

They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each potential outlet.

Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should go out of your way to avoid PR operators making that kind of promise.

Checklist: Dealing with journalists

  • Publicity isn’t advertising. You’re not in control
  • Newsworthiness is everything.
  • Journalists want material that will interest readers
  • Journalists aren’t your sales people
  • Publications with strong editorial values are the best outlets
  • A PR or publicity professional can get better results