Online forums: a way to interact with prospective customers?

Participating in forums is an interesting activity for many businesses. To take the world of travel as an example, there are so many travel forums out there now that the online chatter is almost deafening.

The good thing about these user-content sites is that they give perspectives from real people who’ve really been there. Readers are also hungry for information. They will search until they find exactly what they’re looking for, and they will read lots of content.

The majority of the chatter on travel forums is from travellers themselves exchanging information, but there are a few travel businesses who manage to make a useful contribution and attract customers in the process.

HOWEVER – it’s really important to understand that forums are meant to be a platform for the exchange of information, and not a marketing tool. If you do add content to a forum, be sure that you are adding value and not just trying to sell your services or products. Entries that are clearly sales messages will be moderated out, and you may even be banned from a forum if the moderator believes you are using it for commercial purposes only.

Think about the readers’ reasons for browsing the forum and you’ll realise there’s no point in posting sales messages – in fact this could even work against you. Forum participants are looking for helpful content, not ads. So if they sense an ulterior motive in an entry, they’ll skim past it.

The benefit to this style of communication with your audience is that you are presenting yourself as a genuine and helpful source of information – just as you do in your blog – which means readers who are interested are likely to check your profile and find out more about you. It’s also a useful way to find out more about your target customers – what questions are they asking, what are their concerns, problems, worries, etc. You can learn as much as you contribute.

Here’s an example of a forum entry from a business that’s written in a clear and informative style, with a straightforward comment at the end designed to raise interest in the business.

Notice that the final comment isn’t pushy, it doesn’t come across as a sales pitch – it’s just informing readers that this experience is available. Some forums won’t allow this kind of comment. But you can still post good content without adding a call to action. Just be helpful, informative and clear and interested readers may well end up at your website. Include lots more helpful information on your site, and they’ll stick around for a bit longer.

A good way to find forums that are relevant to your business is to set up Google Alerts on specific keywords. You’ll find that many of the links that appear in your inbox are forum entries, and this will lead you to the best forums in your area. Make sure you rummage around the site to get an idea of the readership and the quality of the content. This will help you decide whether you can genuinely add value and attract the readers who are likely to be interested in what you do.

Methods that are helping tourism businesses acquire overseas customers

Cable Beach fishingRead about the challenges faced by small tourism businesses marketing to the world – and ways to overcome them – in my new article. I will post in more detail on each of the marketing issues tackled in the article. But for the impatient, here’s a link to the full version: Marketing Niche Accommodation & Tours to Overseas Visitors.

The challenges and solutions come from 12 tourism operators plus my own experience of working with tourism and small businesses in general.

If you are faced with other marketing challenges that aren’t mentioned in the article, if you’d like to add ideas from your own experience – or if the ‘solutions’ don’t cut the mustard for you – please feel free to add a comment to my posts or contact me directly.

Thanks to the following tourism operators for their input:
Sharyn Rogers, Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage
Tony & Julie Smith, Rawnsley Park Station
Miriam Cooper, Granny Rhodes & Mulberry Cottage
Jason Miller, Rich & Lingering
Wendy Deighton, A River Bed
Jane Morgan, Cosmos Centre & Observatory
Anne Grebert, Anangu Waai!
Phil Walcott, The Rainbow Connection
Elizabeth Fleetwood, Hobart Historic Tours
Fiona Reddaway, Bright Brewery
Jeff Rivendell, Huon Valley Apple & Heritage Museum
Neil Schults, Prime Mini Tours

I’ll be writing profiles of each of these businesses for our new site devoted to online marketing for tourism – a work in progress, soon to be launched.

Ten Reasons Bloggers Can Help The Environment – Blog Action Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Blog action day is an experiment in the power of a very new media – blogs. Blogs are very different to most print media – they are not as dependent on advertising revenue to exist. Blogs provide a lot more freedom to write about topics that don’t necessarily serve the interests of advertisers or big publishers.

Because bloggers are not as dependent on advertising revenue as newspapers are, we can encourage people to consume less, and not tread on the toes of our advertisers.

Bloggers do not depend on donations from wealthy sponsors as political parties may do. So bloggers are able to advocate for the environment rather than the interests of a lobby group.

Bloggers do not have to report on what already exists, but are free to explore sustainable possibilities.

Bloggers are innovators, willing to connect with other and share ideas. In this way bloggers can encourage a co-operative rather than competitive model of solving environmental problems.

Bloggers know how to network – how to connect like minded people and get things to happen.

Bloggers can communicate quickly with their audiences and in this time of global crisis action is needed right now.

Bloggers know their audience and know how to write about environmental issues so that everyone can participate in change.

Bloggers are individual thinking people who want a future. We are free from the pressures faced by corporations with balance sheets, governments with voters, media with ratings and pressure groups with short term agendas.

Bloggers have demonstrated that they can adapt to new technology. It is likely they can embrace and encourage the changes in thinking that will stop global warming.

Bloggers are many. We have the numbers to bring about change.

I urge all bloggers to realize the power of this new media and consider ways in which you might inspire your audience to participate in political and personal changes to stop global warming. Blog action day is just the beginning.

Postcript: check out The Web Is Coming Alive, at The Action Blog to see what else is happening on Blog Action day.

Global marketing challenges for small businesses

Earth in HandsI’m preparing an article on marketing challenges faced by small tourism businesses wanting to attract overseas visitors.

[Update: article now available here: Marketing Challenges]

It’s based on interviews with 12 tour and accommodation operators spread around the country, which have resulted in a series of common challenges and possible solutions – many of them relevant to all small businesses.

The solutions are drawn from the operators themselves and our experiences of working with small businesses in general.

Niche or small businesses marketing to a global audience face some real challenges – but also have some distinct advantages in the arena of online marketing. The article will highlight some of these, but before I publish, I’d like to invite you to contact me with your marketing experiences.

You don’t have to be in tourism. The same challenges face most small businesses and we are constantly listening and researching to find the best-fit solutions for these.

The article is currently focusing on 4 areas:

  • Alternatives to traditional, high-cost overseas marketing options
  • Building reciprocal links with other sites to attract more customers online
  • Tracking visitors to your site, how long they stay and what they do
  • Positioning your business to communicate the value of your personalised approach

The article will be published next week, with a series of blog posts relating each challenge to small business in general. So watch out for those and give me lots of feedback.

Inviting a Guest Posting from ChrisG

ChrisG’s BlogChris Garret is offering a number of guest posts to help build his Technorati ranking. While Technorati ranking isn’t a focus for us, a guest post from Chris definitely is. So Chris, I hope our invitation reaches you before the queue is well and truly full.

Our blog is indexed in Technorati, so the invitation will appear there. And I’ll include this pingback Get Your Guest-Posts Here for good measure.

As many of our online marketing and blogging clients will recognise, Jane, Julia and recommend ChrisG as an excellent source of information on blogging. Brian Clark at CopyBlogger and ChrisG are the top two blogs on this topic, closely followed by Daniel Scocco at Daily Blog Tips.

Why your PR focus should be on media releases and search marketing

Publicity is all about attracting attention to your business from your target audience. It’s the core of public relations – the relationship between you and your public.

In my experience as an editor and now a publicity manager, the best ways for a small business to achieve this are:

  1. Press release campaigns: sending specific messages to targeted media contacts.
  2. Search marketing: optimising your site so that journalists and your public can find you.

We have just seen coverage in Australian Traveller magazine and The Age travel section for one of our Hidden Jewel winners – Auswalk. These features are examples of how a business can benefit from being linked to an authoritative article relating directly to their business. The content of the feature is likely to draw interested readers – and the recommended businesses are likely to be their first port of call when they decide to book.

So how do you become a source that journalists choose to recommend?

In this case, the Australian Traveller article was a direct result of our May 2007 press release campaign, and shows how a press release can continue to bring results even months after distribution. Even if a media release isn’t picked up immediately, many editors will file releases that contain useful background and links for future articles.

The Age article demonstrates how publicity isn’t always a precise science. While our contacts at The Age did receive the press release, it is quite possible that the feature writer used online search to obtain their information. We may never know because asking a journalist where they sourced their information is something we rarely do – they are very busy people after all.

However, we do know that, increasingly, journalists are using Google to research their articles. I used to do this myself when I worked as a travel writer and editor, and the information and leads I obtained from the sites would then form the basis of my research. The more authoritative and useful the information, and the more helpful the leads, the more likely they were to be recommended in my features.

Assuming a journo writing about walking holidays in each state would use ‘walking holidays Victoria’ as a keyword (a word or phrase typed into a search engine), a quick Google search turns up Auswalk in the top 3 links, below the sponsored links. So it would only take a few seconds to find the best source for this information.

This is why online marketing is important not only to attract your public directly, but also to enable journalists researching on a particular topic to find you. Publish your media releases on your site, along with lots of other optimised, authoritative content, and your chance of coverage increases even further.

So take your keyword analysis seriously – being found by the media can result in a multiplied effect if they include your business in their publication, significantly raising your credibility and your public’s awareness.

To Blog Or Not To Blog – Take 2

To Blog Or Not to Blog That Is The QuestionJane pointed out an interesting post published in The Age titled To Blog or Not To Blog.

Disclosure: I like The Age :) Having lived in Melbourne for 6 years I came to appreciate its independent editorial streak.

The post on blogging has some really good points. But I want to take up two of the points the author (Kristen Le Mesurier) makes in relation to business blogging:

  • Blogs cannot be used for marketing purposes
  • Blogs must be written by ‘the blogger’, and only the blogger. Do not hire someone to write your blog. Write it yourself.

I’d like to make the case that many Australian small businesses can – and should – use blogs as part of their marketing. If you run a small business and want to know why, you can call me and I’ll explain in person. I also guarantee I’ll show you a way you can start a business blog with zero capital outlay and start to benefit immediately. Blogging isn’t suitable for all small businesses, but it is for a lot of them.

I also want to look at the notion of the importance of who writes a blog. For me, authenticity and trust are two of the most critical elements of good business blogs. As many of you may already know, one of our services is a ghost blogging service. If this notion suggests that I may be clueless (haven’t I read Naked Conversations?), I’d like you to hear me out for a sec.

Experts in a field often produce ‘thought leadership’ articles for publication in newspapers and magazines. They are excellent for building awareness. Do the experts have to write the entire article themselves? What if they dictated the core of the article, and a professional writer tidied it up – better grammar, checked references and citations, organised the article using headings. Is the expert still the author? Definitely. (If not, journalists could hardly claim a byline when an editor is involved). Publishers use editors all the time, and a good editor will retain the author’s meaning and ‘voice’.

Well, its the same with blogs. Its entirely possible for an author to draft, dictate or otherwise ready some content, and to have an assistant or editor bring the article (or post) into shape ready for publishing. If the author reviews the edited copy and approves it prior to publishing, even better. That is exactly how we help business owners with their blog posts. They are often very busy running their business, so a phone interview is the most common way of getting the initial content. We edit, include links or images they have specified, edit grammar/punctuation and so on. And leave it as a draft post, ready for them to publish when they have reviewed. In practice, not everyone is fluent on a keyboard, and the process of using a ghost blogger actually results in the author being able to express themselves with greater clarity than when they try to type it themselves.

Picasso said “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. If that is the case, then a good ghost blogger is also a liar, able to convey someone else’s truth through words.

So, a business owner doesn’t have to pen their own blog posts to be able to have an authentic blog. Its exactly the same with CEOs of large businesses. It would be a brave person who would disregard a memo from the CEO as not being authentic because they felt the CEO only dictated it, whereas the PA wrote it. Truth comes in many forms.

Now, back to my other point. Kirsten asserts don’t let blogs become a PR or marketing tool. Promoting yourself, your company and its products or services is self-defeating. You’ll lose credibility.. If a business was to publish a blog that was nothing more than a series of self-promoting ads for the company and its products, I would agree. People don’t watch ads, why would they read ads on blogs? What many bloggers understand however is that good content will find an audience. If you write interesting content, people read it. Just like they read interesting articles in newspapers and magazines. If you are consistently authentic and truthful, many of your readers will trust you. In many situations people are looking for someone who knows what they are talking about, and who they can trust.

If you can write a blog that shows you know what you are talking about and that you are trustworthy, you aren’t going to need ads. Definitely not the sort of ads that Kirsten is envisaging when she talks about losing credibility. I agree 100%. A business blog is a fantastic way to talk about what you really know, to describe what you really do, and to let your clients get to know you a lot better than they might if you didn’t write a blog. Its a lot of disclosure, and prospective clients can make up their minds with a lot more information to hand.

Now of course some people will blog and not tell the truth. Same as the way some journalists or newspaper owners will publish and not tell the truth. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time .. etc etc.

Some people discuss the ‘rules’ of blogging. Like any media, the real rules are often more complex than we would like. In the case of blogs, the ‘rules’ involve the publisher and the readers, and are constantly changing. Blogs (which are just websites, but usually with a more personalised and conversational style) are similar to other media. You can have blogs that are like newspapers, blogs that are like magazines, blogs that are like TV or like radio. Does an audience trust any of these media? Depends. And its the same with blogs. Blogs let small businesses become publishers. If they become good publishers, then their blog is a powerful part of their marketing tool set.

Ok, to wrap up this very long post, David Meerman Scott has written an excellent book called The New Rules of Marketing and PR that describes the role blogs can play in marketing and PR. Its a great read, and I recommend it thoroughly. Follow David’s advice and ‘Think Like a Publisher’.

[Late Addition: on the topic of blogs as a marketing tool, Seth Godin makes the point far more eloquently than I can: Looking for Trouble]

Footnote: After starting to write a comment on Kirsten’s post, I realised two things. One, the comment was too long, so I made it a post. Two, the Age’s Terms and Conditions for comments (yup, they have them and I read them) ask us not to promote any goods or services. A bit hard for me not to promote blogs … lets see if the The Age get blogging enought to support trackbacks :)

A great example of effective publicity

I’ve just published a 7-step guide to Creating Press Release Messages for the Media, and during my research I came across a wonderful example of effective publicity produced by Harrods, the famous London department store.

The image alone, with just a short explanatory caption, is enough to tell a story and communicate a promotional message.

Following my 7-step guide, here’s how the message works:

1. Think of publicity as giving

Harrods has gone to a lot of trouble to provide entertainment in the form of a good laugh and a bit of a scare (in a good way!), while telling its audience that there’s something here worth seeing. For women who love shoes (aka women in general), this is a great story. It certainly added something to my day.

Notice that Harrods isn’t asking their audience for anything – i.e. come to our store, buy our shoes. They are giving you an entertaining story with no overt expectation that you will reciprocate in any way.

2. The million-dollar marketing questions

Why should I listen to Harrods?
Because this isn’t something you see every day, and I’m intrigued to know why they have gone to such lengths to publicise the great value of these shoes.

Why should I trust Harrods?
Well, an established name like this doesn’t need to worry too much about gaining trust.

Why should I do anything about it?
Because this is clearly the ultimate shoe collection, probably with some scarcity involved, and shoes are my life. Even if I can’t afford 62,000 pounds for a pair, I can at least salivate over a collection prized by celebrities. It’s a story that’s also worth forwarding to my friends for their amusement.

Now we look at these questions in more detail.

3. Why should I listen to you?

The curiosity and intrigue mentioned above comes from what I would call a ‘surprising scenario’ – and this is a very effective technique for getting an audience to pay attention to what you have to say.

The image makes me want to know more – a good example of using images well. It tells a story, it’s simple and it includes a human face and an animal – both attractive to an audience.

4. Creating a message

Digging deeper into the message, Harrods has created a story through the clever use of an image, which has attracted journalists and producers to the store to find out more. Who designed the shoes? Why are they so valuable? Who on earth would spend that much on footwear? Why the snake? Is it really deadly? etc etc

The juxtaposition of a snake and a pair of shoes suggests the value of the shoes, has a hint of sexiness and danger, and conveys the essence of the message – which is that these shoes are so valuable that they’re worth protecting – seriously.

So the message rides on a surprising scenario, and raises intriguing questions that drive the media to create a story around the message.

5. Why should I trust you?

As I said before, Harrods doesn’t have too much of an issue with creating trust in its audience. The name is enough. We already trust Harrods staff to know value when they see it. We associate the name with top quality goods and service. So we listen.

This is the position you want to reach – not necessarily the heights of Harrods – but a position of trust in your niche area. Then your audience will listen more carefully and will be more likely to act on your advice.

Until you reach this pedestal, your messages need to include endorsements, testimonials or case studies, as well as background on you and your business.

6. Why should I do anything about it?

This is where the psychology of persuasion comes in.

The suggestion here is that the shoes – being designer label – carry scarcity and are therefore worth having as an investment as much as a fashion item. There is also a certain social proof involved, because we’re told that these shoes are favourites of celebrities. In the fashion world, that makes them desirable.

Even if you don’t have thousands of pounds in your back pocket, it’s worth going down to Harrods to breathe in the same space as these shoes – and to be able to tell your friends you saw the Harrods snake. Harrods has given something to you that you can enjoy and pass on.

Finally, getting right to the issue of conversion, how likely is it that anyone going down to the store will end up buying something – a slightly cheaper pair of shoes perhaps? No doubt Harrods has in-store marketing set up in readiness for the extra visitors.

7. Tailor your message to the media

This message is perfect for print, TV and online media because it’s so visually compelling (there’s even a link to a video for those who want to know more).

It’s also the kind of story that online audiences are likely to forward to their mates – encouraging viral marketing (publicity that spreads naturally). I did it myself!

Read our 7-step guide for further advice on preparing and tailoring your message.

Resources to help launch your summer press release campaign

GerberaHave you thought about planning your pre- and post-Christmas press release campaigns?

Christmas lead-up is a great opportunity to create content that captures the imagination of the media at a time when they are looking for light-hearted and captivating stories. Catch your audience when they are feeling high-spirited and generous!

The post-Christmas period is notoriously slow for news, so the press will be glad of stories that fill the gaps – a great chance to jump in with a message that can be turned into a good read.

Then it’s time to kick-start your 2008 publicity plan – what’s the most important news you want to convey as the new year shifts into gear?

We’ve put together a guide – 7 Steps to Creating a Press Release Message for the Media – to inspire you to get started.

And we’ve developed a special Summer Publicity Campaign Offer. The offer is available to everyone on our new Offers List, so if you’d like to join the list, send us an email with the words “Offers List” in the subject line.

Being on the list means you’ll be the first to find out about our special offers, which will then be publicised via our blog and newsletter. It’s worth getting the heads-up because, like all good special offers, ours are always limited in some way. They will either need to be taken up by a deadline, or they will only be available to a limited number of businesses.

Once you are signed up to the list, you will receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription by clicking a link. This is a necessary step in our list management, and is there to protect you from unwanted spam. Details of our Summer Publicity Campaign Offer will be sent out to you as soon as you click to confirm.

My next post will give an entertaining example of great publicity, explaining why it works and linking it directly to our 7-step guide.

What you need to know about advertorial

Have you ever sent out a press release only to have someone from the publication call and ask you if you’d like to place an advertisement?

Frustrating isn’t it? You’ve given them a story that would surely enhance the editorial content of their publication, but they still want your advertising dollars.

Advertorial is magazine or newspaper content that looks like objective editorial but is in some way endorsed by the business or organisation being written about – usually through placing an ad or paying for the editorial space.

Some publications are completely up front about this: they will only run editorial about you if you pay for an ad. Others will give priority in their editorial pages to advertisers, although they won’t guarantee coverage.

Here’s an explanation of the various kinds of advertorial you may come across:

  1. You can book advertorial in exactly the same way as you’d book an ad. The advertorial is written and designed by you, so readers can tell that it’s not a standard editorial piece. The cost depends on size, just like an ad (e.g. half page, full page, double page etc).
  2. You can write the advertorial and have it designed by the publisher’s in-house designers. This will make the advertorial fit with the style of the publication, but it will still look slightly different or be labelled as ‘advertorial’. The publication may charge you for both the space and the design cost.
  3. Most publications will have their own staff write and design the advertorial. This means you don’t have complete control over what is written, or the style in which it is written or designed, but you do have the opportunity to approve content before it is published. This type of advertorial will look more like editorial in the magazine, using similar fonts, editorial tone, style etc. The publication may charge you for the space, the design cost and the editorial cost. Others will have different ways of costing this type of content, so make sure you know what you’re getting, what the charges are for and how much control you will have over the finished piece.
  4. Instead of paying for the advertorial space, you place an ad in the publication, and receive editorial space as part of the deal. This is strictly advertorial, although it is likely to be created in-house, sometimes using content supplied by you.
  5. With online publications becoming more popular, new rules are emerging. For example, one online magazine plans to allow advertisers to place a link in their ads to editorial about them. So a feature may appear in one issue only, but all subsequent ads can link to it, bringing the content up again in later editions.

Advertorial is a contentious issue, because it means that the editorial isn’t strictly objective – it has a promotional intention behind it. Some publications, such as Australian Traveller, don’t run any kind of advertorial. They don’t even accept invitations to experience tours or accommodation, because they believe that editorial written on that basis is biased.

Advertorial can certainly be damaging when it isn’t handled well. I have seen articles that are clearly supplied by an advertiser, and they are so badly written and so blatantly promotional that no self-respecting reader would waste their time reading on. This can work against you, creating an impression of incompetence and suggesting a lack of respect for the intelligence of your audience. Don’t be tempted to do it.

On the other hand, I have seen businesses spend money on advertising in order to receive a fabulous feature that comes across as pure editorial. For them, it’s worth the spend.

A good editor working with an established advertorial policy will always ensure that advertorial is clearly labelled, and is useful and relevant to the readership. Because in the end, if the readers get nothing from the story, the publication as a whole loses out. And it’s in the best interest of the advertisers to see good editorial content in the same publication. So check out the publications you are sending your release to, and make sure the editorial content is good quality.

At PublicityShip we don’t get involved in advertorial deals as we believe that authentic, objective editorial more effective than advertising. While our clients are completely at liberty to buy space for their story, we try our best to achieve editorial coverage without the need to pay for the space.