Free Advertising: What PR Gets You For Half-Price

Sure, advertising is effective for some goods and services. It permeates everything we read in the news, watch on television or even glance toward driving down the highway. It bonks us over the head with messages about products, services and company images until we submit to buying or simply recognize the brand, so advertising proponents say. But to small businesses owners, advertising often becomes the enemy, a foe that pulls you in with its track record but slaps you on the wrist with its price tag.

Stop, step back and breathe. We have a solution. Free advertising? Not exactly but pretty much. There’s no getting around this one either—public relations is a slippery subject. On the one hand, Andrew Cohen and Scott McClellan may sum up PR as chop full of flacks, but as with every profession, undue criticism creeps up every now and then. On most days and in most firms, though, we are a class of credibility-boosters, sales-increasers, newsmakers and certainly budget-cutters. How? We do something advertising could never do and for half the cost: establish your business as an industry expert in respected publications. “Free advertising” aside, you get an added bonus: third-party credibility. Anyone can run an ad. Only key players get published. Here are the requirements:
1) Actual industry expertise. This one’s not a toughie—everyone is an expert at something. That’s why you’re in business, right?
2) A public relations firm that fits. Shop around until you find someone who meets your needs. We specialize in tailor-fit PR for growing businesses, and know the local and regional media like the back of our hands. But if you’re looking to hit a small market really hard, like let’s say, Kalamazoo, Michigan, a local PR firm might be the best route.
3) Unflinching commitment. To get that full-page spread or glowing blurb about your company, advertising isn’t the only fool-proof method.
4) Leftover ad dollars. All right, so everyone knows that nothing is 100% free. While the cost of the average PR push is 1/58 of an advertising campaign (according to The Fall of Advertising by Alan & Laura Ries), most practitioners charge an hourly fee. Calm down—think about it like this. Paying an experienced professional for a few hours to write, distribute and publish a press release pales in comparison to funding a full-page ad, not to mention design and printing costs.

So, here’s the bottom line for your bottom line: PR pays. Your customers (current and future) read an article about you and think “Wow, they really know their stuff.” It may seem like “free advertising” to you, but to the naked eye, it’s credibility, respectability and industry expertise—isn’t that what you ultimately want to convey? We dare you to try it!

"South Carolina is So Gay"?

Imagine seeing a Columbia bus station ad touting London’s welcoming culture for southern Christian conservatives. Sound unlikely? How about a London subway ad reading “South Carolina is So Gay”? That one’s real—the recent campaign, which promotes South Carolina’s gay beaches (there aren’t any) ran in conjunction with London’s gay pride parade a few weeks ago. Quicker than you could quote the Bible, activists whipped up a mighty protest against the ad, which had been approved by SC Parks, Reaction and Tourism and promptly de-funded by Governor Sanford.

From a marketing standpoint, this ad ignores a boatload of basic principles. Number one: know your audience. That doesn’t just mean the target audience you’re selling to, but also your periphery audiences who will hear about your ad and be affected by it, either personally or as a whole. In this case, Australian gay tourism marketers OutNow Consulting crafted the ad looking into only one kind of climate (sunny blue skies rather social norms), leaving South Carolinian government, gays and the general public in a tough spot. What is everyone left to make of this? Government says the “use of public advertising money to promote a social agenda was inappropriate.” SC Pride says “We wanted to clear the air and do the right thing and pay off the debt [the $5,000 ad expense].” And the jury is still out on the majority of SC.

While it’s honorable that SC Pride is stepping up to ease the conflict, the real culprit is sitting pretty in the outback. OutNow Consulting’s second marketing faux pas? False advertising. South Carolina aims to project unbiased Southern hospitality—pinning that down as targeted toward any certain group would be inaccurate. Furthermore, marketing the state as anything other than a beautiful place that welcomes everyone would be a sizeable embellishment, one that would probably decrease South Carolina’s $10 billion tourism industry, which is bolstered yearly by gay travel.

To see S.C. native Stephen Colbert’s take on the ad, click here.

Cross-Promotional Marketing: From the Big Leagues to Small Business

You’ve seen it more and more recently—your wine bottles offering discounts on gourmet cheese, your cheese suggesting what brand of bread to use, your bread including a coupon for a complimentary jelly. Cross-promotional marketing isn’t just grocery store pair-ups though; it’s a partnership between any two companies who find a common bond in services, products or causes. By partnering up either for product promotion, cause-related marketing or both, well-established brands are bolstering their sales by presenting themselves as complements rather than competitors. Look at Wal-Mart and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture: they recently announced their joint venture to promote local produce, seizing on current consumer trends (environment & buying locally) and refuting rumors that Wal-Mart goes for price over quality.

Cross-promotional marketing goes way beyond the big leagues, though—it’s a daunting but doable option for small businesses. In the big fish tank of your local business community, partnering with similarly sized and funded businesses may seem like trying to hug your neighbor the piranha. Once you find your fish in the sea for cross-promotion, though, there are ways to work together without things getting spiky:

1) Start small. Kare Anderson, author of Walk Your Talk: Successful Cross-Promotion, suggests baby steps like printing promo messages about your partner on your receipts or hanging their posters on the walls in your business (and vice versa).
2) Share the wealth. Cross-promotion has one huge benefit—cost-splitting! Go half and half on ads, mailers and more.
3) Save on events. This is your chance to demonstrate your products & services, support your favorite cause or just get your name out for half the cost. For example, your legal services combined with your partner’s financial expertise might bode well at a business convention or senior citizens fair.

Here’s one thing to keep in mind, however. Cross-promotional marketing goes beyond superficial shout-outs to your partner business. It shows your customers and your community that your business recognizes it’s not the only one in town—instead, it’s a niche in a unique network of products and services that we consume as a whole. Reflecting that sentiment in your marketing is a win-win, for truly understanding your customer base and for significantly upping the bottom line.