Monday, November 25, 2013

Spray-and-Pray as Media Relations Tactic Does Not Work; Four lessons from reading David Segal's column

Most Sundays in the New York Times business section, David Segal writes a consumer column called "The Haggler" in which he helps a reader deal with a particularly difficult problem with a company.  Some times it's a problem with an airline or hotel. Or a situation with an appliance company or ecommerce site that has failed to repair or replace or refund a purchase. Or mortgage or foreclosure issues. And then, as The Haggler, Segal helps solve that week's question.

 In his latest column, Segal takes aim at a problem affecting him:  "unsolicited public relations pitch(es) — P.R. spam...(which) hogs space in his benighted in-box."

Segal then cites a number of subject lines from email pitches that are just way off target.  Pitches like 
  • “New! First Self-Chilling Iceless Drinking Glass — Editorial Sample?”  
  • Christmas Cookie Treat Boxes
  • A document previewer called Igloo
  • A liquor called Pura Vida Tequila, which “will be in the house this season at Qualcomm Stadium.” 
As a long-time reader of the "The Haggler"column, it deals only with consumer complaints. It is not a column clients should aspire to.

Yet, as Segal writes, "some company hired a public relations firm to send the Haggler, and presumably countless other reporters, the same information. This seemed like a waste of energy and money, so the Haggler decided to find out what was behind this antiquated attempt to win media attention — who was paying for it, and why?"

Segal then talked to the managing director of the self-chilling drinking glass company. According to Segal, "It was news to him (the managing director that his company’s public relations firm...was spending any part of Soireehome’s $1,500-a-month retainer on spam email. And it was news he didn’t like." In fact, the managing director said, "“I’m happy to get this call,” he told Segal. “We don’t know what (the agency, which I don't think needs to be named here) does on a day-to-day basis. They just send us a bimonthly report, detailing what they have been able to do for our company.” 

By the way, the PR agency working for the drinking glass company did not respond to questions from Segal -- who takes them to task for not even responding.

Segal then provides other journalists with a tool to reduce the PR spam -- the email addresses for those responsible at Vocus and other databases to remove reporters' email and contact information.

Segal's complaints are valid and instructive. Basically the article makes three valid points for the rest of us:
  1. Spray-and-pray is not sustainable nor strategic media tactic.It takes much more time to qualify a list to make sure the reporters might actually care about the product or service. While it's true that some clients are impressed that the media lists their agencies have created have tons of names, targeting a broad list means what you're pitching will be PR spam to some (if not many) reporters. The solution: Use media databases to help research and refine your targets.
  2. It's always important to know who you're pitching and why they might be interested. This is clearly a challenge as the media has become more fragmented than ever and when reporters might write about one topic and blog about a slightly different topic (or differently). But it is more effective to target a focused list of reporters than to waste time following up with reporters who were never going to be interested.
  3. Agencies need to do a better job in explaining what they're doing, how they develop and maintain their media lists and in reporting what they do each month to earn their clients' fees. Clearly the agency cited by Segal leaves open questions for the client.
  4. PR agencies need to police themselves to avoid being called out by the media. (Segal is hardly the only journalist to complain about the situation.) And in so doing, we can improve relationships with reporters and bloggers and the reputation of the PR industry among clients and others we're trying to influence.
Let me know if you think there are other lessons we can learn from reporters' complaints about spray-and-pray.

By the way, one suggestion from Robert Scoble (via an interview in PRWeek): "Make lists of tech journalists and influencers on social networks. 'I've created a list of every tech journalist I need to find. I have been watching them for years and know what they care about so I know how to approach them.'" Doing so helps you figure out what reporters and influencers are interested in and writing about.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Difference Between Inc. Magazine & Entrepreneur, Part II

Her's the second part of my post about the differences between Inc. Magazine and Entrepreneur. (You can find the first part here.)

Both magazines cover franchised businesses, but Entrepreneur provides much more focus to franchisers and franchisees. Another essential difference is that Entrepreneur portrays entrepreneurs, which it refers to as "treps, in heroic terms. By way of example, Entrepreneur describes itself as "read by the names you know and the ones you will." Inc. also covers entrepreneurs but -- perhaps because of its main competitor -- Inc. refers to business leaders.

One key difference is the definition of small businesses. Recently Inc. listed the "2013 Hire Power Honorees," its ranking of the small- and mid-size businesses that have hired the most employees over the past year.  What's notable is that 14 companies had revenue that exceeds $500 million, of which four companies had revenues above $1 billion. Meanwhile, many of the Top 100 Job Creators that Inc. ranked, currently employ thousands of employees each. One -- Universal Services of America -- employs more than 35,000 people, having added 14,240 over the past year!

In terms of revenue and employees, I'd think those numbers place most of the companies into the large-size company bucket.

Each month, Entrepreneur includes a lot of columns that answer questions -- useful topics about ethics, technology, cash flow, etc.

Inc. also features question-and-answer columns, including "Street Smarts," a column by serial entrepreneur Norm Brodsky (a column I always read, not just because we share a first name), but it also includes columns from executives who are running their own businesses like Jason  Fried, co-founder of 37signals. Inc.'s new redesign got rid of its "Hands On" section but replaced it with a new section called "Innovate" that offers ideas, breakthroughs and disruption to inspire its readers. (The main difference between the old "Hands On" section and the new "Innovate" section is that the new section goes lighter with case studies, making it easier to scan for new ideas.)

Both Inc. and Entrepreneur publish special issues.  Entrepreneur focuses on leadership in March, 100 brilliant companies in June, young millionaires in Sept. and trends in December. Meanwhile Inc. publishes "How I Got Started" in Feb., "How I Did It" in June, the Inc. 500 in Sept. and the State of Small Business in Dec./Jan.

Inc considers its Inc. 500 and the Inc. 5000 (both published each Sept.) to be "the definitive ranking of America's fastest growing companies," and it is Inc.'s crown jewel, especially since the magazine includes profiles throughout the year of different companies that made it in that year's rankings.

In our post about the difference between Forbes and Fortune, I noted that Forbes is more interested in investment opportunities and Fortune is more interested in management. There's not a clear distinction between Inc. and Entrepreneur because they both cover technology, franchising and management, etc. Some articles in Entrepreneur -- like "Ask the Esquire Guy" -- are purposely edgy while Inc. is more meat-and-potatoes earnest.

Ultimately, the difference between the two publications is that Entrepreneur is more focused on "business owners" of smaller companies while Inc. is focused on "business leaders" -- which is to say: people who may not own the company, even as they "tend to blur distinctions between work and personal life, especially between themselves and their businesses."

Let me know if I missed something about the difference between Inc. and Entrepreneur.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Difference Between Inc. Magazine & Entrepreneur

Among traditional media like newspapers and magazines, there is a tendency to focus on large businesses, which represents a challenge for small businesses and the agencies that work with them. Making it more challenging is the demise of Fortune Small Business (RIP 2009) and Businessweek SmallBiz (RIP 2008)

The good news is that there are a lot of media focused on small businesses.

Most cities of a certain size have a weekly paper devoted primarily to small businesses. And in terms of national publications, while there are others, the two main magazines are Inc. Magazine and Entrepreneur.

There are a lot of similarities between Inc. and Entrepreneur but I thought it might be useful to take a quick look at where they are different -- just as I did with a prior blog post, "The difference between Forbes & Fortune."

Interestingly, both updated the designs of their publications recently. Those makeovers also affected the sort of articles they publish. It's also interesting to note that the changes for both were not always dramatic and that key features continued even after the makeover. It's also interesting that though they cover the same sort of businesses, including franchises, the two publications cover things differently.

As background, here's a description (from Cision) of Entrerepenur: "Established in 1977 and published for small business owners and entrepreneurs. Dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs worldwide to start and grow successful companies. Written for busy entrepreneurs who want practical, not theoretical, information."

Here's a description of Inc.: Established in 1979, Inc. positions itself as "the magazine for growing companies, delivering real solutions for today’s innovative business builders. With information and advice covering virtually every business and management task, including marketing, sales, finding capital and managing people, Inc. helps business owners and CEOs start, run and grow their businesses."

Inc. is published 10 times a year (with double issues for July/Aug. and Dec./Jan.) while Entrepreneur is published 12 times a year.

So both publications have been competing against each other for four decades. Inc. used to be based in Boston but moved to NYC a few years ago while Entrepreneur is based in California. I'm not sure their locations make a difference in terms of the type of businesses they cover.

So that's a basic overview of the two leading small business national magazines. I'll post the follow-up, with more insight, later this week. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Cost of Free Advice, For What It's Worth

Being asked for "free advice" is a bit like writers who are "Internet Slaves" because it can be difficult to place a value on the advice or on the content being produced.

Prompted by a reporter working on an article about the perils of free advice, I thought it worthwhile to look at "free advice" from the perspective of the person asking for the advice as well as from the perspective of the person providing that advice. 

From my experience, the people who ask for advice do need to ask several questions, including:

  • "Does this person have the requisite understanding of my problem and the expertise to provide meaningful advice?" After all, even if the person is an expert, he or she may not have enough understanding about my particular situation.
  • "If I follow that person's advice, will I need to hire her to implement it?" If so, the advice may be too self-serving to actually follow it. That said, you may get advice from your mechanic while always expecting him to service your car anyway.
  • "If other people pay this person for their help, why is he giving me free advice?" Perhaps the expert is doing so as a favor, to pay back advice you've provided or to pay it forward. Or, perhaps doing so to generate new business. It's important to understand why you're getting this advice to help in determining whether or not to follow it.
  • "If I listen to this person's advice, how should I respond to the person?" This is particularly important if the business owner doesn't like the advice -- you still have to respond to the expert's advice, even if it's to explain why you're not following the advice.

On the other side of the equation, the person giving the free advice should ask the following questions:

  • "Why am I being asked for free advice?" Is this part of a new business pitch, to help out a friend or relative?
  • "How will I feel if the person follows my advice and it succeeds?" If it succeeds, should I expect some kind of thank you (and how will I feel if I don't receive one)? Will I be happy knowing I helped someone out. (That's often how I feel.)
  • "How will I feel if the advice fails?" Will I feel guilty? Can I and should I make it up to the person?
  • "Do I feel I'm being taken advantage of by the person asking for advice?" It doesn't need to be a quid pro quo, but does this person ever help others?
  • "If I give free advice now, will the person continue to ask for more free advice?" It's one thing if the person is asking advice on something that's a hobby for you, and another if they're asking for advice that you otherwise charge clients.
  • "Could this turn into a paid engagement?" Giving some free advice during a new business process is one thing but in some cases, that process is endless so that you may end up giving away a lot of advice to a prospect who never intends to buy your services.
  • "What are the downsides of providing the advice?"For what it's worth, it's often a good idea to keep in mind the phrase "No good deed goes unpunished" because, even if everything goes well, there could be some downsides to providing good, free advice. 
I know this post isn't directly related to PR or social media. But I felt the connection between "free advice" and being asked to write something for free were closely related that it merited a blog post. After all, part of being a thought leader these days is to give away content and insight to a degree that business would not have expected just 15 years ago. Every day, and with most posts and tweets, we're giving away advice without being asked. So I figure it's worth discussing some questions to consider when asking or being asked for free advice.

Let me know what you think.