Free Publicity: A Guide

We looked at how to create a fact ridden ad last time!

In this article Evan Burgess explains why you shouldn´t be cheap with free publicity.

Free Publicity

Would you like to gain attention for your business or product? Publicity is a great method. Though it doesn’t always involve money, to get the most out of publicity you need to spend some thought dollars!

Free Publicity is Not a Free Ad
Many businesses that are starting rely solely on free publicity. In my view, free publicity is a double positive, because publicity is free. It can be argued that a lot of back room deals are done where stories appearing in newspapers and other media are somehow bought or engineered. Often the stories are so vapid, like “Star seen with new dog” you would realise there’s something under the surface. It would be wise to understand however asking for a free advert is not the same thing as seeking publicity. The only reliable way you could get a free ad is if you do some kind of contra deal.

Though publicity does have the intention of selling a product or service, publicity is not advertising. Sometimes, advertising can lead to publicity, but publicity is not the paid advert itself. This phenomena is when the advert gets people talking, or for example, a catch phrase from an advert becomes a day to day phrase. This turns into word of mouth publicity. Some people do shoehorn advertising into the spectrum of publicity, but to me, this is like saying everyone who walks into a shop is a customer.It doesn’t meet the definition that I go by, that they have some kind of intention of buying something! I am not talking about browsing or window shopping. Rather, I am referring to some people being free riders, wanting something for nothing.  Someone using a cafe’s toilet when there is a sign saying “Customer Use Only” is free riding. I feel there’s a subtle difference between that mentality and to the one which gains free publicity. The key distinction is a media outlet can only justify giving free publicity if it feels the audience will want to know about it. Make sure your press releases contain interesting, targeted material!

Have you factored everyone into
your publicity drive?
Wikimedia commons image.
Story Value
The activity of a business can lead to publicity. Such as when Marks & Spencers lingerie became popular in France. This was seen as humorous, French lingerie was long seen as superior. But publicity is never when you send in an advert and say “I am releasing a product, can you put something in for free?”

Some people are so attached to their product they don’t realise other people don’t see it the same as them. Some people are even a little delusional over its appeal. When I was 19 I was doing a business workshop at the Prince’s Trust and a man who wanted to make computer games was asked about his target market. He said “Everyone.” The man in charge said, “Right, but what we’re trying to ascertain is how many customers will realistically buy your product. That will help you budget for what to spend on its marketing.” “Well, I would say about 4 billion people.” There was some confusion. “Do you really think that grannies will be playing your computer games?”, “Yes, I can imagine that.” “Right, but what we’re trying to get at is how you will actually launch this product, those people who your product is directly targeted at.” “Computer games are for everyone!” It is true back then lots of people had computers, but the desire of an elderly lady to play a computer game was often to recreate a real life game like chess, solitaire or bridge. His games did not appeal to that generation. So before you start your publicity drive, start with a focused approach.

Even with products that have a wide appeal, you need to start with a wedge in the door that hits trendsetters. That wedge is often an appealing story directed at the type of people you wish to reach.  Our products can be like our own children, we love them! But divorce yourself from your product for a second and think what is really in it for a media outlet.

Imagine a cola company sent out a press release stating “Here is a picture of our new can of cola, a picture of a can of our zero cal alternative, and a lemonade. Please tell people about that.” There is no incentive to publish. There is no story, it doesn’t have a beginning, middle or end. There is no narrative. The product is not new, the offering is not new, and the benefit behind it is entirely one sided.

Compare that to a new company that is offering a free trial of its product or service. It could be a new product, or an old product done in a new or different way. This offers interaction to the reader (they can choose to take part or tell a friend), it means the reader appreciates the magazine or outlet for bringing this to their attention and it informs them of something. And if there is a response to this trial, the company will probably make money! This can be seen as a synergy of positive activity, a virtuous circle if you will.

When you are making a new product, you should be building this kind of idea into it from the design. This could be known as forward compatibility. There is a strong argument that you can build failure into your product by having too rigid a focus, meaning the paradigm you create limits its success. Does your current paradigm have any scope for publicity?

What has Story Value.

A story that really works ought to have at least one or all of the following components. It should be unusual, mysterious, good natured, intriguing and/or allow interaction. When the Beatles released a new record, it was a story because everyone wanted to know about it. When you release a new product, it isn’t a story in itself. But if you for example released a new product and held an event to launch it, where you offered demonstrations, a display of your skill, a lesson in your skill or some entertainment, this could well get coverage.

In general, as a test of the solidity of your idea, perhaps write down your plan and blank out your name and your product. Imagine if it was someone else’s unknown product, as foreign to you as your product is to others. Does this story motivate you? Could you imagine a conversation where you said “I read in the paper about this” to your friends? If it seems like it can generate buzz, submit a press release. If you are unsure, go back to the drawing board.

The Media Outlets Perspective: What Not to Do and What to Do

For the media outlet you are submitting your information to, you must consider what value your press release offers. Be ruthless with yourself. Do you offer anything worth knowing about to the media outlet’s audience? This must be as interesting as the money value the space would otherwise generate. This is not the same as thinking “They have readers that would buy my product”. As Alan Sugar liked to say, anyone can sell £10 for £9, that isn’t what a media outlet wants to do. The media outlet has paying customers, they don’t need to give you something for free. Imagine if their clients found out they had paid and you did not! For a media outlet, there are far more people who would like something in it than can be sustained. If you are trying to make money, remember other people are too! Not only that, you must have a take it or leave it approach. If they can’t fit it in, that is the way it is.

For our magazine we had a bizarre experience where someone sent an e-mail with some pictures of their product and saying they were selling it at a location. We are happy to put in pieces where space allows that have a local interest element, but pictures of products and a location is not local interest. This was clearly an advert. We couldn’t fit in any more content unless we bought more space from our printers, and we weren’t going to buy more space to fit in someone’s free advert. 

For some reason the person took it upon them self to mislead their friends on Facebook by publishing our reply to their cut and paste e-mail, in which we directed them to our prices. They omitted their original message, which would have explained our reply, and claimed they had simply been seeking publicity. They claimed we gave poor customer service, in the same breath of saying they would never buy from us. I believe many people would agree, if you are trying to get something for free, you aren’t a customer. If you aren’t offering anything in return for free, you are not offering value and can’t justify publicity. It is always wise to offer something with a request, no matter how small. This does not mean money, but at least something in return. Which company can divert their attention from paying customers to people asking for free coverage? Not only that, but the implication you are happy to use something for free and give it a punt, but not pay for something will get you nowhere. A trick or treat mentality is unsustainable in business. This whole situation could easily have been avoided if there had been some thought put into the gaining of publicity.

The same person wrote later on Facebook, from an event they had a stall at “25 minutes in and I already hate the general public.” Imagine we had given this person a free advert! Personally I can’t think of anyone less deserving, it would have been what Stephen Covey would call a “lose lose” situation. In all likelihood, the free ad would not have triggered much response as it was short sighted and niche, selling expensive products. The magazine would have given away space for free, so the people who did respond to it would be insulted online. There must be some give and take. The free element of publicity is referring only to the money, but ingenuity must be spent in order to obtain the service of a media outlet. The publicity piece must generate at least as much interest as an article!
Exhibiting Your Product or Service

If you have a product, and wish to market it with publicity, the best way to do this is to think of how your product is used. How can you put this product into a great situation, and then have a story about this? For example, if you made websites, could you make a website for a charity or local community cause and take that story to the newspapers? If you are a fitness coach, can you take part in an event for charity or do well in an event, so that the local community will be impressed? If you are a financial adviser perhaps you just had a windfall?

Some great examples of this include when CrossFit Cirencester raised money for charity by running an ultra marathon and raising more money than their target, or when Elite Health & Fitness had obstacle course lessons where the fee went to charity. Tough Mudder was coming up, so it was fresh and relevant. This is good spirited and synergetic thinking. It shows that the PTs can perform in a way clients want to be able to. Who better to get training with?

Once you have mastered this synergetic thinking, it is time to make sure your publicity piece is targeted at a media outlet whose audience would use your product.  Facts and figures in the story are also massively useful in making captions that readers can easily digest! Readers always read captions and quotes before the article.

Ways to Add Value

Men’s Health magazine has a target audience of people who most likely shave, want to look good and smell good. Is it any surprise razor companies, fashion companies and aftershave companies give free samples out with the magazine? This adds value to the men buying the magazine. Buying into a media outlets audience is why people pay money to advertise. A good ad campaign should bring in more money than it cost to run. In the same way, you must try and get more money back from your publicity campaign than it cost to run. If this means hours putting it together being worked into a wage, so be it! If you put 10 hours in and expect to get paid £10 an hour, make sure the campaign gets you more than £100! This may take time to come back to you, but a seed must be allowed to grow. If you turn any publicity event into a data capture, you may well have a compounding effect that goes beyond any one publicity drive. This works very simply, anyone who responds to your publicity is asked if they would like to know more in future, and their contact details are kept.

In the case of our magazine, we have readers in a geographic area. This means that the people attracted to us should consider who those people are. These people need some things, plumbers, handy men, trades people are in constant demand so only need small ads. But to capture someone’s imagination can be much harder.

Adding value is key to achieve this. There are essentially three parties involved in a publicity campaign. The trader, the media outlet and the audience. How can you add value to all three parties? A very simple way is that you as a trader will get some trade, the media outlet will have something nice for their audience to consume and the reader may get a discount, free trial or learn something useful.

Your product(s) or service(s) may have a wide appeal, but our magazine has an appeal to only those living in our area. So choose from your array of items on the market what applies best to the media outlet you are engaging with. As Stephen Covey explains wonderfully in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, there are “lose lose” situations! Often, this is when we believe in only win or lose. We see someone losing and believe this must mean we are winning, when in fact we have both lost. A “lose lose” publicity drive is very simple, the outlet gives space at cost, triggers no response, has the audience thinking “Why is that there? I didn’t need to know that!” lowering the status of the outlet. 

This has the end result that the trader makes no money and says “don’t bother with that outlet, it doesn’t work anyway”. I would argue if the trader had to pay for the same space, they’d have spent more time thinking of what would get a response. The very fact they wanted something for free meant they didn’t put something of quality into circulation.

This doesn’t have to happen if thought is put in first about how everyone can gain. People who see publicity as an afterthought because it doesn’t cost money, will often see negative results. 

Always write down the three parties, and work out what each has to gain from the deal. Check it with another business person or colleague to see if it makes sense. If so, proceed! Whilst there is no guarantee this will work, it stands a far better chance, and will help you gain insight for future.

Always be prepared to rewind and adapt your original idea! You will soon find something far better than you imagined possible.
If you wish to advertise with the Cirencester Scene visit here. If you have a publicity piece, submit it! Although we cannot guarantee inclusion in the magazine, we have unlimited space online!

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