Ask most PR people and they’ll tell you PR increases sales. Ask them by how much and they’ll start to get awfully vague just like all marketers do when you ask a specific question like this. The problem with answering this simple question is that PR affects a company’s reputation and that in turn affects its sales. This is compounded by the fact that other things also affect the reputation of a company, such as competitive actions, customer service and customer experience. As a result, you get this less than impressive equation:
PR + Other things = sales
Now in certain, rare circumstances you can all but eliminate the ‘other things’ part of the equation. That tends not to be possible in larger companies, or even small but established companies. Even when it does happen there are often caveats you need to throw in. Intuitively though we all know though that a great piece of media coverage in a great publication tends to help the sales efforts of most clients. So how does PR deal with this?
The answer isn’t to try and isolate the other things to prove PR is helping sales. The answer is to make sure PR is being applied to the sales process. To do this effectively you have to know what the sales process is of course and this is where most companies fall down. Sales and marketing are all too often at war and seem to try and do their best to make the other’s life more difficult. But for PR to really increase sales, PR needs to get much closer to the process of sales. Most really well run companies can articulate their sales process and will be able to identify a host of points in a process where customers are open to influence and therefore where PR can help. In other words, PR and sales can work together to advance customers through a process which results in a sale. So how come so few companies explain their sales process when you pitch their business and how come so few PR people ask about it? The reality is that marketing and comms people tend to brief PR agencies. I’d therefore really encourage PR people to get in front of the sales side of the organization when you pitch and then regularly after that. We can learn a great deal by talking to sales. We learn what challenges really exist in selling the client’s products or services. We learn what the real differentiators are and we learn the points in the process that are most critical to them and therefore where PR can help the most.
To put this all another way, PR can increase sales but only if it really understands what it takes to make a sale.
Heineken recently created a wonderful stunt (see here) in Italy where they effectively conned 1100 people into attending a classical music concert with poetry thrown in, on the same night as a major soccer game. For the record Italians love soccer about as much as they do pasta and the Catholic church. The 1100 duped attendees yawned their way through 15 minutes of the event before it was revealed that it was a hoax and that instead of listening to some violinists and watching poetry appear on a large screen, they would instead get to watch their beloved soccer match. This news was greeted with huge applause. Various media were in attendance to see the joke be played and they duly broadcast news of the event with word spreading around the world.
To some extent, what made the event such a success was the simplicity of the idea and the fact that even I can capture the essence of the story in a single paragraph. What really made it a success though was that this was an entertaining story that people could tell at parties (as I did on Saturday night) and in bars around the world. Indeed it was the perfect tale to be told by one bar patron to another, presumably while sipping a Heineken. When you really think about this campaign you have to say it was wonderfully executed and a real triumph of marketing. Hopefully it will be recognized as such and become a case study from which others can learn.
I’ve been reading Change by Deign written by Tim Brown, IDEOs CEO. It’s a good read and really gets you thinking. Relatively early in the book he quotes Henry Ford who, when talking about his first car said: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” His point being that real innovation requires people to think beyond the current way of doing things. He goes on to say that you can actually learn more from the people at the fringes than you can from the masses. What he’s saying is that the people who are distorting the use of a product can tell you more about how to improve it than those that are simply using it in the way it was intended.
All this got me thinking about innovation and PR and I quickly concluded that our industry has been focused for years on incremental innovation. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any true game changing innovation. Press releases, product reviews, profile pieces, consumer stunts etc etc. When the Internet started to play a role in PR, the email pitch got developed and we discovered how to create micro sites. When social media came along we developed (or Todd Defren’s guys did) the Social Media Press Release and we learned about Facebook communities and Tweeting. In short there was some good innovation but it wasn’t innovation in the way Tim Brown would use the word. It wasn’t someone dreaming up a car, when there used to be horses. It’s my belief that the industry is at a point in its history where that kind of innovation is really needed and the opportunity for it really exists.
I’m afraid I don’t come to you with the answer here but hopefully someone out there has figured out that in the same way as the stagecoach business was a transport business and thus could have transformed into an airline business, the PR business is a reputation business and can be transformed from a largely influence based model to a business that actually manages reputations far more directly. The person who really figures this out has the chance to completely reconfigure the market. When they do, the list of major PR firms will look a lot different.
Two years ago PR people were just discovering Twitter. Now most PR people can’t imagine life without it. What makes Twitter so ideal for PR? Here are some reasons:
- You can build your own community around a brand and create a frequency of contact that is hard for other social platforms to compete with.
- Twitter is the ultimate ‘elevator pitch’ platform
- Brands can use Twitter to express personality AND messages
- Twitter enables you to respond to events and news real time in a way that some other platforms can’t
- Twitter is (for now) cool
- You can measure your brand’s performance on Twitter for nothing
- Twitter is making Google search way better by making it real time – that means real time news
- Twitter doesn’t make the same demands on a brand that blogging does (legal doesn’t need to review tweets (yet)
- If it can be said in 140 characters you can say it – free speech with a character limit
- Twitter enables you to hear real time the conversations that surround your brand, your competitors and or the issues you care about
- Mavens are on Twitter
- Analysts are on Twitter
- Editors are on Twitter
- My mother isn’t.
As a PR person you’d expect my answer to be “Heck yes!” But in reality I’d give a qualified yes. Why qualified? Here goes:
PR is often described as ‘earned media’ versus advertising’s ‘paid media’. In other words the space or time we get, we have earned through clever argument or persuasion rather than simply having bought it. It’s argued that earned media is more valuable per square inch than advertising because it carries real weight. However, there are a few things that lean in favor of paid media:
- READING VS SEEING – Many people will look through magazines and newspapers and read only a fraction of the content but notice a lot of the ads.
- SENTIMENT – It’s not always clear cut whether a piece of press coverage is actually positive, whereas as adverts are designed to be.
- ENTERTAINMENT – paying for space gives you license to use it how you want to. That includes being funny. This gives you the chance to entertain people as well as educate them. PR (as a I referred to in a previous post) is often restricted to educating which can be … boring.
These, and other factors, tell you there’s a reason advertising continues to take such a large slice of the marketing budget. But, the arrival of digital communications brings about a chance to shift the balance in favor of PR and away from advertising. Why? Well:
- PR CAN = PAID & EARNED – In a digital world PR can create and own the equivalent of paid media real estate in the form of blogs, twitter feeds, YouTube channels etc.You own it, you control it (sort of).
- PR CAN BE FUN – With your own platforms, you have broader license and the chance to create content that is down right entertaining. This creates a new way for PR to engage brands and customers.
- PR Can be measured – technologies to measure the effectiveness and even the sentiment of earned media are now available at alarmingly low prices (free even). This is where advertising has usually had an advantage. Large ad budgets have supported measurement, whereas low PR budgets haven’t.
- PR can be found – advertising has owned SEO but thanks to digital, PR is starting to fight back. A great product review found through a search is far more valuable than a great advert for the product….
- Social – social networks are made up of people, not adverts. PR knows how to influence people…
My point here is not to say that PR is better than advertising but rather to say that each has a real role to play. However, it’s getting harder to see where one starts and the other stops. The middle ground is the battleground that some larger companies are already using to their advantage by getting ad agencies and PR firms to compete for their $$$. If only there was such a thing as a truly integrated marketing services agency….