If you're a small business owner with a limited budget, you have probably asked yourself if you really need or can even afford to publicize your company, product or service. A Web site's enough, isn't it? That kind of thinking, however, could hurt your business more than help it.
"It's amazing to me how many small businesses don't send out press releases," states George A. Roberts IV, the president and CEO of Interjuncture, the producer of the largest trade show for the Web-hosting industry, who considers PR a bargain compared to what advertising costs.
"If a company has some new major service or product they're offering, they might put that information up on their Web site, but they don't send a press release out for it. That, to me, is horrible," says Roberts, "because it's amazing how much attention you can generate just by sending out a simple press release."
Now, however, small businesses on a budget don't have to forgo public relations, thanks to a growing number of free or low-cost online solutions targeted specifically to them.
Subscription PR: The Right Prescription
Prepared Response's PR story has a familiar ring. Formed in September 2000 in response to the Columbine tragedy, the small-but-growing company provides security applications that help save lives.
To get the word out to police departments, fire departments and corporations that could benefit from its state-of-the art technology, the company hired a public relations firm. The agency had many other clients and projects, however, and Prepared Response seemed to be slipping through the cracks, with few press releases and even fewer news clippings to show for its investment.
When PR professional Gary Sabol came on board as public relations manager, Prepared Response parted ways with the PR firm and instead purchased a subscription to Vocus, a Web-based software suite that helps large and small organizations target and manage their public relations campaigns. Prepared Response purchased an annual subscription for $6,500, and Sabol and his boss are very pleased with the results so far.
"I use it for coordinating my media contacts," says Sabol. "Vocus is really helpful because not only does it list the media outlet name, but you can extract the name of the person that you want to target."
Sabol also uses the software's media calendar to determine when he sends out press releases, and he uses it to track each campaign.
"Whenever I send out a mailing to a number of media contacts, I can track it," explains Sabol. "Just as important, after you send out a mailing and get some coverage, Vocus lets you to do reports, which you can use to show your boss the coverage you got. It breaks it down by outlet name, geographic location and similar categories."
Sabol also uses BusinessWire, a leading wire service, to distribute really big announcements.
"But to be honest," he says, "even though we use BusinessWire for nationwide distribution, I've received more response from my contacts using Vocus. The bottom line is, Vocus has helped me get more responses than I ever would have without it."
The one thing Vocus doesn't do is help you write the press release. But with its database of 800,000 records, including media outlets, journalists, analysts and publicity opportunities, and its media tracking, managing and report system, the software allows small businesses to quickly and easily target the right journalists at the right publications and then see what worked and what didn't.
"Wire services can be expensive," says Gary McNeil, Vocus' vice-president of marketing, "and they don't get right to the journalist who's covering your topic. Vocus can help you build a world-class media list. We can help you level the playing field."
Not Your Father's Wire Service
Daniel R. Jones has been a journalist, a public-relations professional and a small business owner, so he understands the PR dilemma from all sides. That's why he created SBWire in 2005. Created as a cost-effective alternative to the big newswires, SBWire helps small- and mid-sized businesses write and target newsworthy press releases. The company even offers free distribution services for clients who submit press releases that don't require any editing prior to distribution.
"We review every press release," explains Jones, who serves as president and CEO of SBWire's parent company, TEB Media. "Then we assign what we call a content grade. That determines which journalists will see it and which won't."
Jones says that some journalists are very particular and only want to see the highest quality releases. SBWire distributes the press releases that meet its content grade criteria for free. The process typically takes five days.
"We also offer an option called a Rapid Review, which is a next-business-day guarantee that we'll review the release, assign a content grade and distribute it for them for just $9.95," he says.
While SBWire does not boast a database of 800,000 records (at least not yet), it does claim to have wide distribution and constantly expands its list of media outlets and journalists. It even has a Press Center where journalists can create topical alerts by geographic area, industry or business, so they can control what the kind of releases they receive.
For struggling PR writers, SBWire offers an inexpensive menu of creative services, which let small businesses create and distribute professional-quality press releases.
Jones says this is a cornerstone of the business, because for him "doing PR incorrectly is worse than not doing it at all. Once you've made your first impression on a journalist, it's very hard to remake it," he says. "When I was a journalist, I was much more inclined to write about those companies that made a good impression on me right off the bat."
SBWire customer George Roberts, of Interjuncture, learned this lesson the hard way.
"One of the things that we learned over the years is that you have to almost tell the story for the journalist," he explains, "If you can't sell them on the story, you're not going to get the mention that you are looking for. Obviously, you don't want to write the article for them, but you want to present it in a compelling way, so that when they read your release, they can picture how they're going to turn it into an article."
Another service that lets you distribute press releases for free (and will offer creative services in the near future) is PR Leap, which advertises itself as "the free press release distribution service to major search engines, newswires and Web sites." Live since 2003, the service is built on the principles of search engine optimization, giving small businesses a way to increase their visibility on sites such as Google News and MSN.
Dan Nessel, an online entrepreneur who runs hoodia-advice.org, used PR Leap to get the word out about his supplement advice site. Less than 24 hours after he submitted his release, an editor from nutraingredients-usa.com, a news site devoted to supplements and nutrition contacted Nessel. That coverage led to a large number of wholesale orders and made him a believer.
PR Newswire, one of the leading wire services, is also targeting small and mid-size businesses, offering a free Small Business Toolkit with helpful tips and information.
The Bottom Line
In a world where the right words in the right ears can make or break your business, having good PR can help you stand out from the crowd. And now you don't have to spend a lot to get it done.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about business and technology and contributes regularly to SmallBusinessComputing.com.
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