Tuesday, May 26, 2009

PR Perspective: Standing Out in the Show Crowd

If you’ve been working in public relations for more than a few years, especially if you came into the industry as a junior AE in the agency sector, you’ve undoubtedly put in your fair share of hours on the event floor. Although trade shows in some industries are experiencing a rapid decline in both attendees and exhibitors, they can still be a valuable weapon in your marketing arsenal. Although, for the most part, the marketing team proper may see trade shows and other events as tried-and-true lead-generation methods, they’re also one of the best ways to meet new media contacts face to face, strengthen current relationships and, most importantly, land some key media coverage now.

Even though the number of trade exhibitors has begun to dwindle, one thing remains the same: There will still be fierce competition to win the attention of the increasingly smaller corps of overworked, thinly stretched media professionals covering these events. Due to this year’s trade show reports across a range of industries, it is obvious that a large portion of exhibiting companies have cut back on the number of shows they’re attending and reduced their support staff at the shows they do choose to attend. On the same note, media organizations are cutting back on the staff they’re sending to cover the shows. Editors and writers are now finding themselves covering twice the space in half the time. So, in an attempt to make their lives easier and to increase our chances of capturing their fleeting attention, I’ve put together a few suggestions for increasing your chances of gaining positive media coverage in a crowded atmosphere.

Take advantage of the pre-registered media list.

Seems like common sense, right? Well, you’d be surprised at how many PR reps fail to take full of advantage of a show’s media list. You’d be even more surprised at how many PR reps don’t even know it’s available. What you probably won’t be surprised to learn though is how many PR reps go about ineffectively using - or blatantly abusing - the pre-registered media list. Please do not mass email your latest press release to the media list every two weeks in the months leading up to a show. Also, never distribute a pre-show press release with the headline “Company X to Exhibit at So-and-So Trade Show.” Anyone can pick up an exhibitor list and find that information. If you’re going to issue a press release, at least make sure it’s about a newsworthy subject. How about this approach: instead of blasting out a press release to everyone on the list, take the time to craft a nice letter to your key contacts. It doesn’t have to be a release. Include a map to your booth, perhaps. A recap of what your company has been working on. What products you’ll be showing. If you’re hosting a cocktail party or other after-hours event, forgo the email and instead send out some hard-copy invitations. If you’re hosting a press conference, send out invitations early enough so that you’re the first on the schedule.

Schedule a press conference – If your news is press conference worthy.

A new product launch is news, but it’s often not press-conference-worthy news. If you’re considering calling a press conference to announce a new product, now is the time for you to play devil’s advocate. Make sure you’re certain that a press conference is the proper forum for your latest announcement. If you’re not 100%, don’t schedule one. You want to be remembered by your target media, but you don’t want to be remembered as the guy who calls unnecessary press conferences. Doing so will not only guarantee you won’t get any coverage this time, but even the most story-strapped writers will think twice about attending one of your pressers in the future. And remember, free food & booze does not make up for the lack of a story. Make sure you have something new, something big and something worth writing about. If you don’t have the next big thing to announce, but you still want journalists’ undivided attention, there are other ways to host smaller, informal events. Hosting a media tour at your exhibit one hour before the opening bell is a great way to give your top five-10 writers semi-exclusive access to what’s new. It’s an event that’s rarely used by tradeshow exhibitors and I’ve found that this approach often has the tendency to become an impromptu industry brainstorm that can help your company’s strategy as well bring about story ideas.

Don’t make it about you. Make it about them.

OK, we all know about the elevator pitch. We also know how important a journalist’s time is, especially on the tight schedule I mentioned above. Logic and common practice would tell us that we need to sink the shot as soon as an editor approaches our booth. Not so in this case. A trade show-covering journalist gets hundreds of pitches whizzed at him throughout an event weekend. Anyone taking this kind of assault naturally begins to build up defenses. Catch your target off guard. Slow down the pace for once. Now is a great time to build a relationship, especially if you’re one of the few who are attempting such an approach. If you know the journalist, ask about the family or about a shared interest. If you’re not familiar, ask what stories he’s currently working on. Ask about him some of the other interesting products/companies he’s seen at the show so far. Ask HIM what cool things YOU should be checking out instead of simply telling him why he should be interested in your widget. Not only will he feel like he’s found a safe place to catch his breath, but he might also let you in on some industry buzz that you may have missed out on.

Lighten the load – literally.

The days of overstuffed-folder press kits are over. Fortunately for you, a lot of companies have yet to receive that memo. If you need an easy way to identify media professionals at the next trade show you attend, look for the people carrying ever-growing stacks of hard-copy press kits. Don’t be that guy. Consolidate your press kit into an electronic version. CDs are great. Flash drives are even better. Load them up with whatever will fit, and let your editorial contacts take from them what they need. Include text and PDF versions of your press materials, photos, logos and video, and don’t forget to include a links page with your website social media URLs. Arrange everything in an easy-to-use format, and place the flash drive and your business card (with on-site contact information) in a small, custom-sized plastic zipper bag and hand it to the journalists as you’re talking to them. I promise you’ll receive more than a few thanks for your consideration.

Follow up.

Not incessantly. Not with “Have you decided to do a piece on my company/product/etc?” A simple, quick response is all you need to keep your brand top of mind. For extra effect, get out the pen and paper again, and work on your handwriting. “Thank you for taking the time...” “I appreciate your interest...” Write with empathy. “I know you’re busy recovering from the show...” Now isn’t the time to hard pitch, but it is the time to solidify your position as an industry expert and a reliable, understanding resource.

Maintain relationships with customers like you do with your media contacts.

Your relationships with your trade media are similar to but different than your relationships with your consumer media. In general, trade tends to be more of a two-way street. They need the story ideas as much as you’d like to get the information out, but don’t simply settle on that exchange. An honest trade-pitching flack will tell you it’s really no problem getting new product releases printed – nay pasted – in an industry pub, but the key is taking your coverage to the next level. Your press kit and pitching efforts should contain at least three story ideas for every piece of product information, and an easy way to make this happen is to maintain contact with your most evangelical customers. An insider PR guy can do this more easily than a hired agency gun, but these efforts should be clearly included in your marketing plan, even if you’re pitching it to a client. Once you’ve established a network of reliable customers, maintain regular contact to collect story ideas and case studies that you may then relay to your media contacts as needed. For more information on cultivating customer relationships, please check out my previous post, “Making Brand Evangelism Work for You.

I will be exhibiting with my company, ShopBot, Inc., at the 2009 Bay Area Maker Faire, May 29-31 in San Mateo, CA. I will also be exhibiting at the 2009 Association of Woodworking and Furnishings Suppliers Fair, July 15-18 in Las Vegas, NV, where I will be presenting the “Strategic Brand Positioning” seminar (yes, I will be discussing social media) and participating in the “Marketing Lean and Green” panel discussion.

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