On the first day of the 2008 NewComm Forum, which took place last week in Santa Rosa, Calif., two back-to-back sessions provided some new insight into the goals communicators have for their news releases, what metrics and results they value, and some Web-minded ways in which they are trying to breathe new life into this 100-year-old tool.
The first session, “SNCR research presentation: Exploring the ROI of online press releases,” was delivered by Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University, and Jiyan Wei, marketing and product development for PRWeb at Vocus. These three musketeers presented findings from a survey of 423 respondents, roughly one-third each of
self-identified marketers, public relations professionals and small business owners.
One striking finding shines some light onto the goals these different communicators have for their news releases. According to survey respondents, PR people primary use news release to announce news and enhance a person’s or an organization’s thought-leadership status. Folks who self-identified as marketers, on the other hand, are interested in search engine optimization (presumably meaning making their Web sites more findable) and reaching out directly customers or consumers. Small business owners also seek to reach consumers directly, and they also see news releases as sales tools.
Additionally, small business owners are more likely than PR pros to be interested in reaching bloggers and getting their news releases on social media sites such as Digg and StumbleUpon. These findings lead me to believe that many people still see the public relations function as “getting press,” and it seems as though online coverage simply doesn’t carry the same significance as ink on dead trees.
The challenges with online news releases? No surprises, I suppose: Communicators struggle to “cut through the clutter” created by the wealth of information, particularly other news releases, on the Web. Effective targeting and distribution is another oft-cited concern, as is meaningful measurement.
The specifics of measurement, of course, vary based on one’s goals. If I’m trying to announce news, I might want to know how many significant news outlets carried my story and what other people are talking about it – or perhaps how many media inquires you received. If my goal is to generate leads and sales, was I successful in driving traffic to my site or getting phone calls – and at what rate did those inquiries convert? If awareness or visibility is your goal, a simple page-view metric might be good enough.
The survey findings also show that increasing visibility is a popular goal among older respondents, while search engine optimization and reaching bloggers or social media sites are more popular goals among younger respondents. Communicators indicated that affordability and the detail or accuracy of analytics are two factors that affect whether they use newswire services more often.
In the very next session, “Perspectives on the social media press release,” Todd Defren, principal at SHIFT Communications, and Maggie Fox, CEO of the Social Media Group, took attendees through a discussion about the ins and outs of their ideas for giving the news release tool a good facelift. Moderated by Jen McClure, the founder and
executive director of the Society for New Communications Research and organizer of the NewComm Forum, Defren and Fox were, in friendly a way, pitted against other on the premise that their respective agencies have two significantly different approaches to social media news releases.
(For those who want to catch up a bit: A sample of a SHIFT client’s SMNR is here, and you can also see the most recent version of SHIFT’s suggested template for SMNRs. See a real-life SMNR from the Social Media Group here, as well as an
explanation of SMG’s “Digital Snippets” platform for SMNRs.)
They started the discussion with a bit of “violent agreement,” to use Fox’s words, on one key point: If you’re putting a news release on the Web, why wouldn’t you put links in it? Sounds simple, but this is a revelation to some. If you have interesting photos or videos, include those, too. Be Web-friendly.
The two PR thought-leaders diverged on the matter of opening SMNRs to comments from the public. Defren is in favor of doing so and is quick to note that he believes these comments should indeed be moderated, keeping them free from obscenity, irrelevance and other abuse (criticism doesn’t count as abuse). Fox says companies don’t always need to host the conversation and to strive for that control is arrogant.
Some disagreement arose between the presenters and the audience (me included) about desire to host and control versus simply leaving the commenting door open. While I tend to believe a newsmaker should at least allow for – but not expect or, heaven forbid, require – commenting directly at the news source, I suppose the corporate tendency to fear direct Web-based feedback leaves plenty of room for experimentation along these lines.
Fox makes an interesting point when she declares social media news releases and social media newsrooms to be redundant. Whether that’s true depends on your specific approach, but the concept is crucial: It gets us thinking about how each of our tactics fits (or should fit) into a larger strategic effort.
If your news releases resemble the Defrenesque SMNR, you’re certainly not being redundant. The master version of the SMNR, hosted on your organization’s news blog or perhaps with a newswire provider like Marketwire, serves as a source of topical information and gathers comments and coverage from around the Web. The Foxian Digital Snippets approach to SMNRs steps far away from the “write it and publish it” approach to news releases and functions much like a topic- or product-focused newsroom. With this approach, creating a newsroom to aggregate your newsroom-like releases does seem redundant.
If I may, allow to be climb up on my soapbox for a minute:
Someone in the audience at this SMNR session asked if journalists are interested in this new approach. It’s certainly a logical and important question, but it assumes that journalists are the most significant audience. In many cases, they are, but that’s changing as more communicators become willing and able to reach their publics directly. I’ve certainly written plenty of news releases that aren’t really targeted to reporters. Either way, we’ve seen other studies that show reporters love — need? — things like links, RSS feeds, additional multimedia content and so on from PR people. So whether you’re following a news release template or just looking to be smarter about putting your information on the Web, you’d be wise to include some of these Web-friendly elements.
One final note: A woman in the audience who said she was from Google gave the group some valuable insight. She said the company does few news releases, mostly just for earnings reports and other financial matters. Google has more than 150 official blogs, and with the key audiences being Web users, Web-centric consumers and Web publishers, Google knows how to reach those groups easily and directly.
“If we’re making news,” she said, “there’s going to be a blog post on it.”