Despite the growing range of cheap digital marketing tools, small businesses are still at something of a disadvantage when it comes to promoting themselves and enhancing their visibility.
Many companies in this category lack a high-profile in terms of physical presence and won't typically have a huge amount to spend on paid methods such as advertising. While search and social media have certainly levelled the playing field to an extent, they're still highly resource-intensive tasks that demand both time and technical skill.
Given this situation, could it be worth it for SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) to branch out into PR? In this guide, we'll delve into the issue and provide some actionable advice on whether PR is right for your fledgling firm.
Budget and time are big issues for companies at the smaller end of the scale and determining where to deploy your limited resources is a perennial consideration. Should you take an advert out in the local press, commit to an email marketing campaign or host an industry event to create buzz around your business?
Print advertising and other traditional techniques have seen something of a resurgence this year and it's often the first thought for companies looking for a quick burst of publicity at a key time. But a one-off advert or even a short campaign is likely to do very little for you in the long term and is invariably a costly route to take.
It can also be hard to ascertain the return on investment gained with traditional advertising and it's a bit like a light bulb - when your campaign is turned on, you'll attract leads and when it's off, you won't.
Opting to go down the digital marketing route can be significantly more cost-effective than traditional advertising and in the case of social media, rolling out a suite of profiles is completely free.
However, committing the time to keeping your social media accounts updated with fresh, relevant and engaging content is difficult to say the least. Similarly, gaining insights on your performance from analytical data requires a degree of expertise and the software involved is rarely free.
The same is arguably true of using your website as a flagship for your digital promotion. While any old Tom, Dick and Harry can put together a product or service page, it takes experience and knowledge of best practice to optimise this for maximum visibility in search engines and get the behind-the-scenes technical considerations spot on.
Outsourcing social and/or content marketing can be something of a double-edged sword for your average small business. Taking this route will negate some of the cost savings gained by marketing via your website, but could be well worth it for the expertise that agencies can bring to the table in cases like these.
Rolling out changes to copy or aesthetics on your site can also be an issue when relying on a third-party, however, simple content management systems like Wordpress are a boon for small companies that want to take the reins on the digital marketing front.
Having someone who is able to tackle such tasks in-house is a valuable asset and despite being something of an intimidating prospect, there's a lot of free resources that'll let you learn a lot yourself.
However, while simply doing online marketing is easy, doing it well can be an incredibly resource and time-consuming task. Finding the time to plan and implement the right measures in an effective and concerted way can be a constant struggle and is an additional burden on top of your regular daily work.
Getting the entire company to collaborate is one potential way to tackle these issues, but there's often a discrepancy between what's considered "real work" and "marketing". This can mean that tasks where the value to the business isn't immediately apparent (like writing a blog post or finding quality content to share via social media) will often be pushed back.
One popular option for newcomers to the digital marketing sphere is pay per click (PPC). This can be rolled out on your behalf by a third-party agency or off your own back by simply setting up a Google Adwords account.
With PPC, you pick out certain search terms where you'd like your promoted result to appear (i.e. those related and relevant to your business) and put in a bid for placement in a search engine's sponsored links - shelling out the agreed price every time your advert is clicked.
As with traditional advertising, however, PPC isn't likely to bring in many leads when your campaign isn't running. And picking which keyword battles to fight can be a defining factor in how well your PPC efforts perform.
How PR Compares
In pure monetary terms, PR wins out. A simple exercise would be to compare the cost of taking out an advert in a local or trade press publication with sending a press release to the same source that later generated coverage.
Despite this, it'd be misleading to say that gaining this coverage is guaranteed. We could (and have) devoted entire posts to developing media relations or putting together the perfect press release, but in short, you need to ensure the news you share is:
- Genuinely interesting
- Not overly self-promotional
To this end, how well you collaborate with your PR team can have a big effect on how effective your campaign will be and whether or not your news gets picked up by key publications.
Editorial coverage carries greater kudos than paid for space. It is therefore more valuable than advertising in that regard because people tend to believe a positive, third-party review much more than a company tooting its own horn. From news items and corporate announcements to the placement of informed opinions pieces, it gives the speaker much more credibility to be reported by a journalist than simply to have parted with hard cash to buy a space in which you can say pretty much what you like.
And public relations isn't strictly limited to press releases either - there's a veritable range of options available for small businesses looking to promote themselves and build positive sentiment. For instance, sponsorship of events or local teams is often a popular route, as is award entry.
I'm by no means arguing that advertising isn't effective, but it can be a bit hit and miss at times. In the online world, you're more likely to complete Navy Seal training than click a banner advert and as marketing pioneer John Wanamaker lamented, it's notoriously difficult to quantify the effect of offline advertising.
Unlike buying advertising space, however, your PR efforts won't guarantee you coverage. And even if you do get a prominent position in the press, it'll be similarly hard to ascertain the effectiveness of your activities.
One area that straddles the line between PR and marketing is social media - which has turned traditionally qualitative activities into something that can be quantified. By using a mix of quality content, engagement and tactical offers, it's possible for small businesses to simultaneously generate goodwill among their prospective customers and bolster sales.
Many PR firms now offer social media management or consultancy as a matter of course and this can be a valuable asset to tie in with a wider PR campaign.
By positively influencing sentiment using the above PR tactics, it's possible to turn strangers into customers and further delight them into become brand advocates and promoters. Coming across as a positive brand can add value in several key areas.
Dedicated supporters will be more likely to stand behind a company in times of adversity, while those attracted by a swanky promotion are more likely to be swayed solely by what's best for their wallet. Similarly, a good profile can help you attract and retain high-quality employees who fit with your culture and values.
The Bottom Line
The dawn of digital has made marketing a key concern for companies up and down the size scale and unfortunately, there's no one answer as to what's best in terms of marketing and PR. Which type of promotion you opt for will largely be dictated by your products and services, circumstances, budget and resources.
Nevertheless, we're firmly of the opinion that in the right cases, PR can be an effective avenue for small and medium-sized companies that are committed to collaborating and promoting their business in a concerted, sustainable way.
Do you think PR is a viable route for small businesses or would you recommend channelling all your efforts into online marketing, social media or traditional adverts? We're always keen to hear what you have to say so don't be a stranger and leave us a comment below.
And if you're a small business owner looking for advice on media relations PR or simply want to chat about digital marketing and social media - get in touch with RDPR today or check out our free guide on the best marketing and PR options for small businesses:
Images used courtesy of Iabnol, My Life In PLastic and Internet and Tacos on Flickr.