Pressed for Advertising Cash?

Marketing budget trimmed? Still expected to keep the top line growing? Are there unreasonable expectations of results you should achieve? Welcome to the new “new economy.”

If your focus is long term, don’t despair! Here’s another marketing tool to help build traffic.

When my brother and I started our company, we had an unbelievable advertising budget. Know what it was? Close your eyes. Do you see… nothing? Exactly. That was the ad budget.

This was in the heat of the dot-com boom in 1998, when eyeballs mattered and consultancies were raising gazillions of dollars. Jeff and I had to figure out how a self-funded startup in Brooklyn could compete for mind share. With focus on conversion rates, we were different. No matter how different we were, it was a challenge to market into all that noise. Our nonexistent advertising budget couldn’t reach anyone, forget frequency. What to do?

Cultivate an effective public relations strategy. Every business with $250 million or less in annual sales needs a PR strategy. Few have one. PR is one of the most leveragable marketing tools a company can have. Done well, it can be better than any paid marketing or advertising. Unfortunately, it’s often not done well at all.

Our expert advisor is Dean Rotbart. A Pulitzer Prize-nominated former Wall Street Journal columnist, Dean is founder of the TJFR Group.

Dean told us, “An ad in the Wall Street Journal will cost you tens of thousands of dollars, but get quoted by a columnist and now you can be on equal footing with Microsoft or IBM.” The first thing a company needs to do is increase its PR IQ. Dean cautions companies against hiring PR firms to develop media relations strategies. “Strategy has to be done by the people behind the business. Hire a PR firm if you need arms and legs to do grunt work, never to be the head. PR must be implemented in a company top down.”

Dean isn’t very popular with PR firms and doesn’t care. Companies hire him to get results with journalists. He’s not a big fan of canned press releases; leave those for earnings reports or other dry content. His secret is to develop relationships with journalists who have influence in your industry.

Tip: Develop an internal “Reporter of the Month” club. All month, study one journalist at a time. Learn what she cares about, whom and how she quotes. Learn what makes her tick. Talk to her about what’s relevant.

Dean explains, “Print and read every story they wrote in the past year.” Journalists are creatures of habit. Ask yourself, have they written about something similar to what you have in mind? Highlight every person they quoted. What kind of people are they? If they quote one person often, contact that person and find out how they got to know the journalist.

Dean elaborates “Once you get to know them, send a note commenting specifically on one of their stories.” This is not an opportunity to be self-promotional. “Write as an intelligent and cogent reader. Explain why the article was helpful. You can add a note about you and your expertise, the key is being subtle. Maybe after a couple of these intelligent notes, you can call. Journalists are flattered by someone who knows their work and chose them above all others.” Journalists are people, too.

Dean’s advice works. We’ve watched many Internet consulting companies fail. In the meantime, we built our business by getting free (hence very high return on investment) exposure from the “press” and by publishing. With the valuable perspective of hindsight, it was a perfect strategy for the long term.

If your focus isn’t long term, this approach is probably not for you. It doesn’t have the immediate impact of advertising. PR demands patience and hard work before yielding worthwhile results.

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