Let me start by pointing out that I am a public relations fanatic. I think PR is the best, the greatest, the most cost-effective marketing function there is. Time and time again I've seen PR people pull off marketing miracles that translate into consumer action, especially when paired with direct marketing.
This is especially true when you are talking about the specialized business-to-business marketing that high technology products demand or when you want to do direct marketing like the techies do. (By the way, most technology marketing people try to emulate consumer product marketers, but there are strategies that work for both.)
The technology arena has an advantage not enjoyed by many other vertical segments — an exploding market that is covered in most mass media as well as in an amply funded and diverse group of vertical market media. There are hundreds of technology trade publications, each of which covers a specific portion of the market. The automotive market is the only other vertical market that comes close to receiving as much coverage, but I don't see 30 publications focused solely on tires. I do see computer software features on the local evening TV news. I see daily newspapers with extensive technology sections. The opportunities have never been more exciting or more distracting for a technology PR person. While Seventeen Magazine may be covering some computer software, for example, your target market may not be made up of 17-year old girls.
Understanding the Value of Public Relations. If you are responsible for direct marketing in your company, understand what the PR department does. In a hi-tech environment, where marketing dollars are often tight, you'll see an inordinate emphasis on public relations programs, including product press releases, partnering announcements, product reviews, industry analyst relations, industry awards and editorial relationships. When a product manager has a new version of software, one of the first things that comes to mind is the press release.
Public relations helps establish and maintain mutual communication, understanding, acceptance, and cooperation between an organization and its various publics. It's about building reputations, developing relationships, creating a positive image, and informing and persuading people. Depending on how strategically your company utilizes public relations, you can expect to see that department producing press releases, customer success stories, and company spokesperson commentary in industry round ups, and product reviews. More strategic PR departments will do more than implement these basic tactics.
To understand the value of PR, consider you are shopping for a new computer. You see an advertisement touting one computer and read a positive article about another. All other things being equal, which one do you choose? The one with the positive article, of course — that's public relations at work. Now, what if you read the article, then see an ad, have your techno-savvy friend recommend it and then receive a press release about an award won by the computer? That's integrated marketing, where the targeted customer pulls together all of the information and messages available to them in order to form an opinion and make a purchase decision. And it is a great model to aspire to if you are in a hi-tech company's marketing department.
Using PR Resources in Direct Marketing. Let's focus on how PR can make your DM programs more effective and how you can leverage what the PR group is doing. Start with the familiar press release. If you do nothing else with your PR department, leverage the press releases. While not written by an objective third party, credibility seems to rub off onto press releases. Ethical communication practices are the stock in trade for a PR practitioner. “If it is in a press release, it must be true,” the thinking goes.
Press releases also make great direct mail pieces. They are cheap (when compared with a four-color, “special envelope needed” piece of collateral); they are fast to produce; they should contain your key messages; and they tend to stand out against the dozens of slick direct mail pieces that show up on a prospect's desk every day.
Last but not least, press releases are becoming more appropriate to targets outside the media. As the Web becomes more important in every marketing plan, PR people are learning to take press releases directly to consumers and not bother with the media coverage. They know that media coverage conveys instant credibility, but they also realize that the Web, while undiscriminating, has done a great job of democratizing information. Press releases are less and less being written just for the media, and are starting to be direct-to-consumer using more consumer-oriented language and concepts.
What other public relations deliverables can direct marketing leverage? A customer success story becomes instantly more credible the minute it appears in a newspaper, magazine or on the TV or radio. Get reprints made and use them as a mailer or as an invitation to your next seminar. Invite the subject of the article to speak. Consider links from your home page to the magazine's coverage of your customer. Perhaps you can use the media coverage your PR generated as a lead in for your next seminar. Leverage those great media quotes. Take a lesson from movie marketing people. When was the last time you saw a movie ad without reviewers' quotes?
Roberta Carlton is director of corporate public relations at Cognos, Burlington, MA, a business intelligence software vendor.