Drumming up publicity used to be a costly and laborious process of mailing out press kits, cold-calling editors, and spending on advertising and events. Smaller businesses had a hard time getting noticed in many markets. Today, being recognized still takes work, but thanks to the Internet, even small companies can now look big, for not much moola. E-mail is free, and good Web PR can cost as little as your imagination. Read on for ways to generate positive PR online.
Remember that image is everything: The first place to invest is in your Web site. Everything else you do on the Web should lead customers to visit your site, and if you have a dowdy front page with bad grammar and misspellings, you are doomed from the start. Even if you are a one-person outfit, you can make use of professional design templates to create a good-looking Web presence. Find a few great sites in the same industry, and emulate their best features.
Consider what to put on your site: Include product and service information, reviews and testimonials, customer service and technical support contacts, FAQ pages, directions to your office, and other useful details. Review competitor sites and make sure yours is even more complete and easier to navigate. PR info, including contact names and phone numbers, press releases, image libraries, and technical data, should be readily available.
Target key editors and bloggers: Now that you have a good site (and a good product or service!), it's time to get the word out. Start with a small but highly targeted list of contacts. When you think of your industry, who are the key journalists and influencers? And who are the people who influence them? (Bloggers often get their items from other bloggers, and mention their sources in the credits.) Dig up their e-mail addresses and/or phone numbers from their sites, or by searching on Google, and send them information about your product.
A brief personal e-mail explaining why your service is of interest to their readers is much more compelling than a generic press release. Refer them to your Web site for more information. If you have a new product, offer to send a review unit if possible. If you have a service, offer to demonstrate it. Those first few contacts are critical. Once a couple key people have written about your product or service, others will pick it up and things should snowball from there.
Note that even local businesses, such as restaurants or architecture firms, can use this approach. Contact the appropriate editors at regional newspapers, lifestyle magazines, and city guides. If your business has a national scope, also consider posting press releases to Web wire services such as PR Newswire or BusinessWire.
Make your site easy to find: Now that you've done what you can to get noticed in the press, make it easy for consumers to find you directly, too. Say you have a home-improvement company. Get listed on local business-directory and yellow-pages sites such as Angie's List, Craigslist -- anywhere potential customers might look for the services you offer. Use Google to search for similar businesses in your area, and see where they are listed. Survey existing customers to learn how they found you. Make sure to include your Web site's address in all listings, on your business card, and on your letterhead.
Make sure your pages are listed in search results by submitting your site URL to search engines. Doing so is free and easy. For Google, for example, just go to its "Add your URL" page. Make sure to add keywords to your HTML code. PC World columnist Richard Morochove has some good advice about attracting more visitors to your site without having to pay for advertising.
Maintain your Web reputation: Many Web sites, from eBay to Amazon to Angie's List, include some form of seller or product rating system. Even Better Business Bureau and stockbroker ratings are accessible online. Potential customers will find these and use them to decide whether to do business with you. Make sure you know what people are saying about you on these sites, and promptly post responses or resolve any problems that may crop up. Invest in good customer service -- it will pay off.
Develop your contact list: Once your business takes off, you'll start to build up a contact list of editors, customers, colleagues, and others. Maintain these contacts religiously, and touch base whenever you have news of interest. If appropriate, offer yourself as an expert industry resource to editors. Even if an editor ignores you or writes a bad review the first time, don't give up. Chances are, if you write them again and politely explain how your latest product addresses their previous concerns, they'll bite. At the very least, they'll be impressed and more open to future contacts. Also make sure to use networks such as LinkedIn to build your professional address book.
Communicate with your customers: Consider sending out a regular e-mail newsletter with special offers and product tips. Online shopping sites are best known for using this technique to drum up sales among proven buyers, but it works for many other businesses too. If you're an artist, send out some photos of your new pieces or offer a studio tour. If you're a local travel agent, send out a travelogue about a hot new destination that shows your expertise in the area. Use an inexpensive mailing list service such as Constant Contact to manage subscriptions.
Use cross-marketing: Starting a wedding cake business? While you'll want to develop your own site with great photos of your work, the best source of customers may actually be other symbiotic businesses, such as wedding planners, caterers, florists, and so on. Contact them and offer to cross-market. Put links to them on your site, and ask if they will link to yours. Consider offering referral fees or discounts, such as 5 percent of purchases.
Interior decorators, medical and dental offices, house painters, and many other recommendation-based businesses can benefit from similar tactics.
Write your own insider blog: Pat Meier-Johnson, president of Pat Meier Associates PR, says, "Blogging is a great way to give your company a voice to tell good news, express viewpoints, establish credibility, give depth to the name on the front door, and of course address challenges. Blogging can give management a way to tell its side of a story and respond to queries in a way that traditional news releases cannot. Blogs are easy to create and even let you insert video, another powerful and viral PR tool. But don't be smarmy, or you won't have any readers."
Some great examples of insider blogs include those from Adobe and Microsoft engineers, which go a long way toward making development processes transparent for partners and consumers alike. They also help put a friendly face on monolithic companies. Small businesses can benefit, too. Cerulean Studios, publisher of Trillian chat software, maintains a detailed development blog. It garners hundreds of comments that the company can use to improve the product, not to mention untold goodwill from readers who feel a partnership with the company.
Brainstorm viral-marketing ideas: Ever seen the "Will It Blend?" or Sony Bravia videos? Millions of people have -- few of whom were actively looking to buy a blender or TV. There is no cheaper and more effective promotion than a good viral-marketing project. Come up with a great come-on or video, get it mentioned on a couple of blogs, and you're off and running.
You can use contests, surveys, free trials, charity giveaways, eBay auctions, "forward to a friend" promotions, and much more. If you expect your product to be really hot, try "teasing" it by revealing a few tantalizing features and then clamming up, A la Apple. If you've done it right, this will create buzz as people speculate about the product. One great tool for this task is the "microsite," a special Web site with its own domain name just for your new product, contest, or marketing campaign.