For start-ups, the allure of a pay-for-placements situation is obvious: they just want media coverage, why pay when they don’t get it? Recently I heard from a company (I won’t name them) that wanted to involve me in a pay for placements concept.
It’s a bad deal for everyone.
- It’s a waste of money — The URL for the TechCrunch story says “We are worth at least $3k.” It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it brings up a legitimate question: how do you value a single placement? If you’re measuring traffic and conversions, and that single placement sends you a lot, then you have a sense of the value after the fact. But so many factors go into even that issue. You could work very hard on an article and then the reporter posts it at 3pm on a Friday. Traffic fail. You could work hard on an article and the week it’s about to run a major news story pushes you out of the way. The article could come out and offer only a small mention with no link back. Sure, it could be the New York Times and based on the deal you work out it could have cost you a few hundred dollars, but provide little value.
- You’re not getting the best work — Put yourself in the shoes of a PR agency person. During their day they need to put time into various clients. On the one hand is a client that’s on retainer and building a relationship. On the other is a pay-for-placement situation. The PR person knows that any pitch they do may or may not result in coverage for any of a number of reasons that are outside of their control. An editor may kill a story, a major event could push it off, the client could give a lousy interview or it could just months before closing (and therefore: getting paid). Chances are, they’ll put their time and effort into the retainer client.
- You need more than just your story — Sure, you think your story is great, and so does your mom, your girlfriend, and the guys in the co-working space. But what happens when you bring it to reporters? “Your story is boring until proven otherwise” writes Amy Westervelt quoting Lora Kolodny. What’s going to make it exciting? What will work for each individual reporter? What will resonate with your intended users? Sometimes this is apparent, sometimes it takes trial and error. Often an outside perspective can add tremendous value, since your firm isn’t steeped in your own messaging. While your firm is certainly there to help amplify your message, it’s just as important that they ask tough questions as part of the planning process. This doesn’t take place at the moment you write the pitch, it happens much earlier.
- PR isn’t just about media — Great, you had a successful launch. You told your story and a few reporters picked it up. You even got a boost of traffic and sales. Now what? How do you move on, what’s next for your marketing program? What is going to help your sales team? Do you need third-party validation? Reviews? Maybe you’re looking for funding and you need business credibility. Are you ready for brand-building PR? What other influencers play a role in the buying process? How do you reach them? What channels work? What content do you need to produce? So much work left to do!
- Time Matters — Rebekah Iliff at AirPR points out that what she calls “9-11 PR” simply doesn’t work. At best, a launch takes between three and six months to truly succeed, but 60 to 90 days can work in a pinch. Just about every PR person has a story about a client that came in at the last minute needing help. Success at that point is more about luck than skill. But the launch that took time to build properly not only has a greater chance to success, but helps lay a foundation on which to build.
- Relationships Matter — Most people see PR people as “those guys who know reporters,” but just as important are the relationships we build with our clients. The more we get to know the companies and the people we work with, the more opportunity we see. This could be as simple as knowing that our client grew up in Iowa and the reporter attended school in the state. It could be having enough knowledge of the technology by listening to countless analyst and reporter briefings, to better pitch a highly technical publication. These aren’t things you can learn in a single meeting or call, they are tidbits that you learn over time. It’s also how the client learns to trust their PR counsel. The give and take has tremendous value for both sides.
- You Can Spend Your Money Better — The CEO mentioned above asked me “If a start-up only has $10k to spend on a launch, should they hire a firm who may or may not get them any exposure? Or would they be wiser to craft a great story in-house (or with some spot advisement), research the top 10-20 places they should be featured, and then make a listing on our exchange?” My advice would be very different. Rather than spending a little and expecting a lot, get a subscription to Muck Rack and do the PR yourself. If you as a start-up know the audience you want to reach and it’s a relatively tight audience, then go ahead and do the work on your own. You may also be able to engage a freelancer for a little bit of money to help. It’s not helpful to anyone to try and engage an agency when you have neither the budget nor the need. Everyone walks away from that unhappy.