A Model for Social Media: HARO

Sometimes a really cool emerging marketing tool isn’t a technology at all. It’s just a great idea about how to use technology in a new (and incredibly easy-to-use) way. HARO is one of the coolest marketing tools around and it’s no further away than your inbox.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?

“HARO” stands for “Help a Reporter Out.” The brainchild of “CEO, entrepreneur, adventurist” Peter Shankman exists for one mission: to link reporters to sources and sources to reporters.

HARO started out the way lots of great ideas get started: to make life easier for the inventor. Shankman describes himself as “a spectacular example of what happens when you harness the power of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and make it work to your advantage.”

From the looks of his accomplishments, he’s not too far off the mark. He’s an astounding networker, tireless blogger, busy PR pro, and seemingly never sleeps.

Through his work, he’s gotten to know lots of reporters and lots of reporters have gotten to know him. Always ready to help them out, Shankman started getting swamped with requests for sources from his journalist friends. Also always ready to take advantage of technology, Shankman deflected those requests to a Facebook group he created to link reporters and sources together.

Unfortunately, Facebook caps group e-mails around 1,200 people, forcing Shankman to move his service off Facebook and onto the Web. Good move. The “little list” Shankman started now includes 25,000 reporters (including regular inquiries from “The Wall Street Journal” and “The New York Times”) and 80,000 subscribers.

The concept is amazingly simple. “Sources” (a business, agency, expert, etc.) simply fill out a four-line form here to receive daily digests (usually two to three) of story queries. Journalists need to fill out a slightly longer form with information about who they are, what publication they write for, what kind of person is needed, etc. After submitting, the inquiry is added to the list the next time it’s published.

If you think this sounds a little like a service called ProfNet, that’s because it accomplishes pretty much the same thing (connecting reporters with sources), but in a much more streamlined, open, and (more importantly!) free way. Actually, Shankman had a bit of a run in with ProfNet early on. “Profnet threatened to sue me because I was copying what they were doing — Reporters were sending me the same queries they were sending Profnet, and we were BOTH posting them,” Shankman said in a follow up e-mail.

Even though Shankman contends that ProfNet had no legal basis its threat, he still switched gears. He decided he could do better if he used a social-media model that’s a lot more open. And he has: ad sales on the list now top $1 million annually and the service is growing like crazy.

The most interesting thing about HARO isn’t that it’s an incredible way to connect with reporters about your (or your clients’) business — though that’s pretty cool. What’s really amazing is HARO represents an incredible example of the strategic use of social media in a business context. If social media is really just technology that facilitates conversations, then HARO is one incredible conversation starter!

If you look at the characteristics of HARO, you’ll see a model for using social media that can be extended to just about all businesses:

  • Have a clear and common purpose. HARO connects reporters to sources. That’s it.
  • Provide value. HARO is successful because it provides a valuable service to all subscribers. Reporters get sources they need. Businesses get exposure. Everyone’s happy.
  • Be friendly. HARO is published as a digest a few times a day. It’s incredibly well-indexed and uses in-line links so users can jump between reading the inquiry headline index and the actual index themselves. HARO doesn’t spam, doesn’t load a bunch of annoying ads, and always comes sporting a subject line that makes it easy to auto-filter.
  • Keep it simple. Signing up for HARO takes about 20 seconds. Scanning the inquiry headlines in the e-mails you receive doesn’t take much longer. In addition, HARO doesn’t try to be a “community” for reporters and PR folks; doesn’t include video, audio, or pictures; and requires nothing more than a simple e-mail client that could run on everything from a cellphone to a netbook to your computer.
  • Be open. HARO doesn’t make you jump through hoops to join or post a query.
  • Make connections. HARO is social media distilled to its simplest form: connecting people who need each other together and facilitating their conversation through introduction.

If you’re thinking about social media as an emerging marketing tool, it’s important that you take a look at HARO. It uses technology that’s been around literally for decades but uses it in a way that reflects the purest essence of the value of social media. Like services such as Craigslist, it’s a game-changer that changes the game by staying true to its roots, staying focused, and providing something that people need cheaper, faster, and better than its predecessors.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.