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A guide for business owners and others who want publicity. This is an updated version of a story first 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 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 different and work in parallel universes.

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 can be display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. All can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an app.

When you buy advertising you provide the content, or what advertising people 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 lots of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: 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.

Cost per reader, viewer, listener

Advertising costs depend on audience size: the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think about CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.

Publicity isn’t for control freaks

You have little control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions — they won’t consult you. They may listen to you or read your material, they may not.

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

Journalism 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 to emphasise their independence.

Professional journalists don’t regard helping your sales as their job. Nor should they.

Media is a business

This may seem confusing. After media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a long-term view is good business. Media properties with a strong ethical code are held in high regard by readers, listeners or viewers.

This means more people get to see editorial. It also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, more involved or wealthier, customers.

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, maybe 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

Some media businesses might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. 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.

As a rule, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your 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 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 – 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.

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 help get the message to the right people at the right time.

Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.

No guarantees

Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should 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.

Trawling through my on-the-job-training notes from 30-odd years ago I found this gem from Harold Evans, the former editor of The Times. He was writing specifically about newspapers, but the basic idea applies equally online.

Content and design go hand in hand:

Newspaper design cannot begin to exist without news and attitudes to it; without something to express to a defined audience.

And newspaper news cannot effectively be communicated visually without newspaper design.

The problem is to communicate, within the same physical context, not one message but a series of disconnected messages, of infinitely varying significance, and to do this with speed, ease and economy in a recognisably consistent style.

Harold Evans, Newspaper Design

Update: It has to be said: the term ‘inescapable reciprocity’ is fine when discussing the finer points of newspaper design with other journalists. I’m not sure I’d allow it in a newspaper headline. And it is terrible for search engine optimisation, who would ever Google that term?

New Zealand’s news outlets were late to the live blogging party.

British news sites had been using live blogging successfully for around 18 months before it blossomed here during the election. Most UK newspapers and the BBC use it to great effect on their web sites.

Live blogging is, without doubt, the single most important development in journalism of the past few years. It is the first uniquely digital format. Until live blogs, almost every piece of online journalism used formats re-purposed from print, TV or radio news reporting.

You might argue that tweeting news predates live blogging. I’d say tweets are a truncated, maybe even crippled, version of the live blog.

New Zealand live blogging

Live blogging took off in New Zealand during the 2011 election. It was used before then, but it took the sustained political campaign to hit its stride. There were live blogs at the NZ Herald and on the Stuff website.

Special mention should go to Toby Manhire at the Listener, who gave his election live-blog a highly personal flavour – for my money he is New Zealand’s first successful live-blog by-line. I also enjoyed Alex Tarrant’s election diary at interest.co.nz.

Where NZ Herald and Stuff went wrong

One criticism I have of the NZ Herald and Stuff live blogs during the election was they would close mid-afternoon, at around 4PM – long before the day’s news cycle finished.

I guess that was a function of the shift systems at the papers, but it would have been best to have journalists pass the baton rather than shut down. An election live blog needs to run almost 24 hours.

Before the election

A few New Zealand reporters were early to use the live blogging format, most notably Chris Keall who live-blogs press conferences and important meeting for the National Business Review. It didn’t always work, but hat’s off for pioneering the format.

Live-blogging works brilliantly when a story or event unravels at a steady pace. It is perfect for Cricket, other sports coverage tends to be good too. This is why it was a success during the election.

Fast moving news

With fast-moving news stories it gives reporters a way of keeping up with developments. Live blogging is better than constantly updating a static news story. It allows links to other coverage and, this is important, it encourages people with news to contribute. Reader comments can be worked into a live blog.

Live blogging doesn’t work well when the story is too long and rambling, it can get confusing. It often tends to be weak on providing background because live bloggers get caught up in unfolding events. Likewise it doesn’t lend itself to analysis.

Where it didn’t work

One story that a number of outlets tried to live blog — and failed — was when Steve Jobs died. This was one main piece of news, his death, which could have been dealt with in a more conventional news story. The live blogs struggled to find interesting things to say and varied between mawkish and ghoulish.

Live-blogging shines when skilled writers cover complex, unfolding news stories. It tends to be less useful dealing with scripted or structured events. There are times when it stinks.

Rarely a day goes by without a live-blog on one of the top UK newspapers or at the BBC website.

Recent months have seen The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the BBC successfully live-blog events as diverse as riots, cricket matches and the European economic melt-down.

Live-blogging strengths:

  • It’s a quick and inexpensive way of staying on top of a rapidly developing story.
  • Live bloggers are able to add and verify incoming items from journalists in the field, social media services like Twitter and from other news media.
  • It’s easier for live-bloggers to get away with including links to rival media than it is for journalists writing conventional news.
  • Likewise, the informal nature of a live-blog gives journalists freedom to depart from strict news structures.
  • Readers are able to get involved and can pass journalists extra information and make comments.
  • Live blogging has built-in feedback mechanisms.

Live-blog the election

The ultimate live-blog opportunity would be an election count. Combined with good graphics and live data it is potentially the best way to follow developments. Likewise live-blogging sports events is also a great alternative to radio or TV, especially on a smartphone. It works especially well with cricket which has just the right structure for the format.

There are problems with live-blogging. It is sometimes hard to make sense of what’s in front of you if you join part-way through the unfolding story. Scrolling back through the story can be confusing at times. Live-blogs can get out of control and the person in the driving seat may be distracted. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Facts missing in action

Most of all, the important facts can be buried in a live-blog. Writers sometimes assume readers joining the live-blog are up to speed and so they don’t repeat key facts.

Live-blogs rarely compete with a well-written, structured analysis. There are times when the classic inverted pyramid approach is still king.

Live-blogging gets story out fast

I’ve seen live blogs of important product announcements. It’s a great way of getting the story out fast, but there’s not always enough time for the research and information gathering needed to put things in context. Live-blogs of announcements generally follow the public relations script.

Similar criticism applies to events like company annual general meetings – or anything that is stage-managed. A little distance helps journalists get past manipulation.

When it doesn’t work

Live-blogging doesn’t always work. One of my jobs involves monitoring and commenting on Australia’s technology press. I found the live blog coverage of Steve Jobs’ death disjointed and confusing. Others found it disrespectful and I know of a few who objected to the semantics of live-blogging a death.

At the moment journalists are constrained by their tools. Newspaper content management systems don’t take kindly to live-blogging, they tend to have strict, inflexible formats. No doubt this problems will solved soon and some of the problems will go away.

Live blogging has been slower to take off in New Zealand.

That’s more than can be said for live-blogging itself. It’s here to stay. Now we need to get better at it.

Will readers pay for online news?

There is evidence readers will buy specialist information. Business newspapers are able to find subscribers. NBR readers buy news. The Economist does well online.

Yet no-one seems to have cracked the puzzle of selling general news.

Not even Rupert Murdoch.

Which is strange, because for years people paid for printed newspapers. Many still do.

The Guardian reported Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper, The Daily, sold only 80,000 subscriptions. That’s one-sixth of the subscribers he said it needs to break-even.

This is strange. For years readers handed over hard cash to buy printed newspapers. What were they buying if they weren’t paying for news?

You can find an answer in Julie Starr’s simple test for whether people will pay for news. Her blog post is a thought experiment. It underlines where print readers find – or maybe ‘found’ – value in their daily newspaper.