For years, big-name PR agencies — and sadly, most game publishers, movie studios, record labels, plywood manufacturers, etc. — have focused most or all of their publicity and marketing efforts on scoring the big kahuna: coverage, big or small, in top-tier media. A small column on the fifth page of USA Today‘s Money section was — and still is, to some extent — a glorious achievement, to be pursued at any expense.
Quick digression: the Internet’s been around for a while. I remember having a Geocities site back in 1997 or something. Since the birth of the hideous Dancing Baby there have been countless sites run by enthusiasts — for free, simply maintained out of love for the subject matter. You could say these guys were the low-fi ancestors of today’s blogging elite. There were chat rooms, message boards (BBS anyone?), and generally a ton of places where consumers gathered to learn about products, talk about them and share their love for them.
Is that really any different than the current situation?
Even today, a lot of — if not most — PR departments spend all of their time chasing rainbows with those top-tier outlets, sacrificing a huge potential audience. We’ve long been taught that, while quantity of coverage is important, the quality of that coverage is of the utmost importance. So let’s think about this for a second: if you’re a major player in your industry or have a truly exceptional new product, then it’s quite possible for you to get great placement and positive editorial tone — high-quality coverage. If you’re repping a company that doesn’t have those things — that could still be an excellent company with a tremendous product, but one which may not be interesting to the mainstream audience — you’re going to be in for a tough climb to get to the peak of media notability. I’m currently focusing a lot of my time on GOG.com, which is in just that sort of situation: it offers an amazing product — a slick website, a great offering of games for a particular audience, and a fairly revolutionary outlook on digital distribution (DRM-free and all that jazz). However, can we really compete for media coverage with companies like Activision, with their billion-dollar-and-then-some revenue?
So what do you do? Well, back in the day we’d focus heavily on enthusiast media, and that’s definitely still the case today. You’ll always have better luck with journalists who are active in the industry in which you’re operating. But even back when I first got into the PR game with BioWare — at a time when the company was still working hard to make a name for itself — in 2000 or so, I realized that we could work with the websites and other outlets that didn’t necessarily get a million hits a month — the ones that were usually overlooked by bigger companies and agencies — to not only secure a significant amount of coverage, but also to ensure that coverage was incredibly positive.
You see, people who aren’t used to being treated as “special” — and no, I’m not talking about that kind of special — appreciate the effort that much more. I’ve long believed that, through personal attention and caring about everyone’s needs and desires, you can effectively create a massive network of evangelists to help spread the word about your products. This general concept birthed “viral marketing,” which became a big bullet point on big agencies’ service offerings a few years ago when YouTube rose to prominence and when ilovebees put Halo on the map.
Even then, a lot of marketers didn’t catch on. They pushed out some half-assed attempts at engaging fans on a more individual level. And they still spent most of their time chasing the holy grails of coverage — magazine covers and whatnot. Don’t get me wrong — that coverage is still important. But should you sacrifice close interaction with your most vocal supporters — the people who pay for your products, love them and are loyal to your company?
With the recent rise of Twitter and Facebook and other forms of social media, once again companies are hopping on the “individual people are awesome” bandwagon. They still don’t “get it,” though, and spend most of their time simply pushing info to consumers without realizing that it’s a two-way road. Check out this short post by Derek Sivers about companies’ inability to use social media effectively, equating a bad date with many companies’ social media policies. Get with the program, folks — people (as opposed to media) have always been the primary influencers. When Jimmy started his Geocities site in 1997, the 20 people who visited his site were still there to hear what he had to say. When I hopped on an IRC network in 1998 to talk about Diablo II, I was still talking to people who were passionate about the product and gaming in general. Social media has simply offered a handful of convenient and well-publicized places for individuals to convene in order to discuss their lives, their passions and their favorite products and companies.
“Public relations” isn’t “media relations,” folks. The definition of PR seems to have moved away from its literal meaning — relating to and interacting with the public. If I focus my attention on individuals — or any number of “second-tier” websites and blogs (or third-tier or fourth-tier or even the guy who only gets 3 hits a year) — I can reach a massive audience. Those individuals appreciate even a moment of your time — particularly if you’re working for a company they adore — and will become extensions of your PR efforts (not necessarily your media efforts, of course), telling their friends, Twitter followers, and everyone else about your company and its products. They want to help you succeed. Let them do that. It just takes a bit of your time.