Nontraditional PR

To my knowledge, most large media companies are still struggling with how to handle PR in the current online landscape. Some of the questions I’m most commonly asked include:

  • Should we recognize bloggers? Which ones, and how?
  • Should we participate in online forums or not?
  • Can we influence democratic online news systems like digg.com?

There are no short (nor scientifically-proven) answers to these questions. But blogs, forums, and democratic news systems have become incredibly important mediums of communication, and major brands simply cannot afford to ignore them any longer.

Blogs

If you have any doubt as to the importance of blogs, I want to dispel it. According to Technorati (which tracks 49 million blogs:

The Pew Internet study estimates that about 11%, or about 50 million, of Internet users are regular blog readers. According to Technorati data, there are about 75,000 new blogs a day. Bloggers update their weblogs regularly; there are about 1.2 million posts daily, or about 50,000 blog updates an hour.

Some blogs, like that of our own Henry Jenkins, may attract a few thousand influential readers a day. Others, like Joystiq, are for-profit enterprises that attract millions of visitors a month. Both types of blog are important in their own ways. And research has shown that people greatly value the “honest” opinion of their favorite bloggers, even if they recognize that that opinion may be biased.

So how do you engage bloggers? First, you need to identify the blogs that are relevant to you. This research process needn’t take long: just use Technorati to identify the top ten or twenty blogs in your area of interest. Then, visit those blogs; many of them will have a list of links (“blog roll”) to other blogs which may attract less traffic but which are nevertheless quite influential.

Second, don’t do anything. I’m only half-kidding. Every blog (and/or blogger) has its own character, theme, and attitude towards others. You are taking a large risk if you approach a blog before you have come to understand these things by reading along for at least a few weeks, and before reading some posts from the blog’s archive. And you can’t just read the posts; the comments on them are equally important (they help you understand the blog’s community of readers.)

You might find that a blog, despite being extremely popular, is unlikely to appreciate contact from you because (for example) it has a strong anti-corporate streak, or because its author(s) have a tendency to mock anything that crosses their path. (There are many other reasons; these are just examples.) If so, look for greener pastures, but don’t necessarily ignore the blog, and don’t necessarily reject requests that may come from it.

Once you feel like you really understand a promising blog, you can occasionally reach out to the author(s) with a bit of news that they would find particularly interesting. (What might they find interesting? You’ll know because you’ve been reading along.) Only my opinion: I think “reaching out” works best when it comes with a personal touch; i.e. rather than emailing a typical press release, why not send a personalized email, without too much filler text, that simply says something like:

Hi [firstName],

I thought you’d be interested to know that my company is doing XYZ. [Another sentence of two or information about it.] If you’re curious, you can find more information at http://www.someaddress.com.

You may also want to add something like “I can also arrange for you to chat with [some important person] if you’d like to learn more”, depending on the initiative and its importance to you. Over time, you may develop an informal relationship with a blogger — almost always a good thing.

In general, I’ve found that many bloggers tend to appreciate a good interview with interesting, notable personalities. For especially significant initiatives, you may wish to identify key bloggers who are receptive to corporate contact and offer one of them the opportunity to interview said “personality” on the subject of the initiative (and anything else they care to ask about.) As with everything else I’ve recommended, it would not be wise to over-utilize this particular method of interacting with the blogging community. Everything in moderation.

If your efforts are successful, you’ll find that one or two well-placed blog posts will organically mushroom into many more across the blogosphere. Bloggers feed off each other; you don’t need to reach them all, just as long as you reach one or two key points of influence.

Online Forums

Much of my advice for blogs applies to forums, the most well-developed of which have communities with a distinct character that you need to become familiar with before you dive in.

Once you understand a forum, you can occasionally participate in discussions that are taking place within it. (Say, for example, that people are discussing a problem with your product. Or sharing ideas for future features they’d love to see.) If you do jump in, you must identify yourself as a representative of your company. Failure to disclose this could infuriate the community should they discover your identity.

However, identifying yourself has its own risks. In many (but not all) cases, a large forum community will have its share of more emotional, more vocal members. These members may pounce on you if they are unhappy with your company in any way, shape or form. If that happens, the proper response is polite acknowledgement of their concerns, and (ideally) a candid response to those concerns. It is entirely possible that this will not appease some people, and that’s OK. Many other people will recognize and appreciate your effort to engage the community. Most companies just don’t bother.

Engaging a forum is non-trivial. Unlike a blog (which simply requires a few minutes of your day to read and has few authors), a popular forum can potentially require hours to digest (given the volume of posts), and once people know you’re there, they can and will post messages to your attention. You’re by no means required to respond, but you can’t ignore everyone forever. Suffice to say, don’t enter a forum discussion unless you’re ready to remain a part of it for a few days, at least.

Democratic News Systems

Democratic news systems like digg.com enable users to submit a news story for consideration by the community as a whole. If community members like the story, it will rise up from obscurity to ever-greater levels of visibility. The most popular democratic news systems can drive tens of thousands of unique visits to a given site — and that doesn’t include secondary traffic generated by other sites (i.e. blogs) that jump on the bandwagon.

To my knowledge, there is no acceptable way to “influence” these systems, outside of submitting your own news for consideration, and perhaps making it easy for visitors of your site to signal their interest in the story (re: the “digg this” links on this blog, which direct the reader to digg.com website with my post info pre-filled in.)

Any attempt to manipulate democratic news systems (by, for example, coordinating the activity of many employees and/or friends to vote on the story) can potentially be detected by the community. When this happens, the resulting outrage is very ugly. I’m not saying manipulation is impossible. I am almost certain that some people are currently manipulating digg.com (it can probably be done with a dedicated group of people, all working from different locations, who behave like natural members of the community with similar interests, but simply act in tandem once in a rare while to benefit a particular story.) But communities are constantly searching for novel ways to ferret out manipulators, often with surprising creativity. You do not want to be company that first discovers a method of cheating the system no longer works! And anyway, this kind of thing is unethical — if a large number of companies found a way to manipulate digg.com, it would lose the characteristics that make it special, and would probably disintegrate as a result. And that would be a real shame.

211 responses to “Nontraditional PR

  1. David,
    I’d like to share my own recent experiences with nontraditional PR on blogs, forums and digg. After months in development, my partners and I launched an online platform for trading video games, Goozex. Like most startups, the budget for the all important marketing rollout plan simply isn’t there. I have been directing the marketing efforts and one of my main strategies has been to make a presence in online nontraditional PR channels. The first place I had some success was to spend a little to post a classified on Fark.com that yielded mixed results. I was able to moderate the forum there, but the life cycle was too short, only a week. We had an ROI of about $3 per user on that. I posted on forums left and right, offering signup coupons and majority banned me for life (spam is not appreciated – bottom line).

    Then something funny happened. A user on his own submitted a thread on the Over Clockers forum about our site. Immediately we were getting users from this unlikely source. Then another user posted a Digg message. We attempted to moderate that message board, but users reacted negatively to our presence and so we left a Digg post to quickly fade away.

    We finally hit the jackpot with a highly active forum on cheapassgamer.com. And just like you said, from the hundreds of users coming from that site, there are only a handful that are vocal and critical of our service. We have since then made a special coupon for their readers and the admin of the site has agreed to work with us.

    I have also tried to reach out to prominent writers on Joystiq and other popular video game blogs, and only one person has shown interest. I am working carefully on building that relationship and hopefully creating a brand champion.

    In summary, tread carefully through forums and blogs because the life cycles can be lightening fast and if you’re not prepared you can actually damage your brand image. Be professional on the forum posts and be honest with members. Also, be clear and understanding that not everyone knows what you know and you may have to answer the same question time and again. Forums can be a great place to do some customer analysis, but you must be able to weed out the perpetual complainers. Address their underlying point and move on. Finally, the ROI on forums and blogs is unbeatable if managed properly and you must have a system in place to record where new users are coming from.

    There’s more to say, but I should leave it at this.

  2. Hi Mark — Thank you for sharing your experiences! And thank you as well for mentioning promotional activity and how it is generally treated by forum members (i.e. as spam.) That’s a really important issue that I forgot to address.

    It can be easy to cross the line from “informational” and “responsive” to “inappropriately promotional (aka spam)”. This probably deserves an entire article of its own!

  3. I would say that the issue of spam has been my biggest barrier to overcome with regard to forums. Generally, I have had success when I approach the forum admins on a “corporate” level. By that I mean I’m not posting as some “noob” on the forum about this great site that I found, but instead write a professional email reaching out to their admins. The emails typically say that I am interested in advertising on their sites with a banner ad and forum thread. Ad and forum rate negotiations can be tricky, but I often use a benchmark site and Alexa to lower their sometimes unreasonable offers.

  4. There are other ways to interact with forum members, beyond promotional activity. For example, say that a thread discussing your product has been started by a consumer. (Assume that the thread is drawing a lot of attention and is part of a popular website.) Further, let’s say that the discussion is turning negative; people are concerned about an issue of some kind, are expressing confusion, etc.

    It might be appropriate to pop in, identify yourself as an employee of the company, and candidly answer a few questions. This is different from promoting your products, and if you handle it right, cannot be labelled as “spam” by any reasonable moderator.

  5. I partially agree. On the one hand you are correct and I have done this to some positive results. On the other hand, I have gathered so much useful customer and competitive analysis from just sitting back and observing. Some malicious users have been very blunt about their methods, that I feel that if I had intervened they would have posted somewhere else on the web. Now we know what to look for and how to curtail such things.

    And, I would argue that if you are patient enough and you trust your service/product, an unknown brand champion may emerge and do more good for you than you could have done. This just recently happened on two forums and it really makes your life as a marketer for a start-up that much easier.

  6. Right. This is all very situation-dependent. I’ve observed several situations in which an extremely negative thread was salvaged by a candid, patient, respectful corporate representative (they still get attacked by people, but other people speak up to defend them, and the overall tone of the thread starts to shift.) I’ve also observed defensive reps get shot down. And, of course, there are some situations that reps should stay out of entirely.

  7. Yes, I completely agree with that.

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