E-retailers see the benefits of maximizing PR

As more and more eyeballs migrate online, e-retailers stand to reap the benefits if they smartly market to these audiences.

As more and more eyeballs migrate online, e-retailers stand to reap the benefits if they smartly market to these audiences. A recent survey from Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation (NRF), done in collaboration with Forrester Research, showed that while 57% of the online retailers queried acknowledge that the recession is hurting their bottom line, eCommerce's growth is still outpacing other retail outlets' growth.

Additionally, 46% of those online retailers do not plan to cut their overall budgets, and 24% will actually spend more than last year. Of those planning to spend more, 60% said they would do so on “social marketing,” including blogs and social networks.

E-retailers are learning to capitalize on the ways social media platforms like Facebook can be used to reach consumers. However, PR is more than just social media, and e-retailers are finding that in matters both online and off, outreach from professional communicators with media contacts can be of great value.

“Originally, [online retailers] saw social media as a marketing and sales channel,” says Ellen Davis, VP at the NRF. “But what they're learning is that social media provides a great opportunity to raise awareness about a brand and can be used for smart PR opportunities.”

Direct marketing and SEO remain popular, as well; of those willing to spend more this year, 65% will increase their “e-mail spend” and 80% will increase “search spend.” Allowing PR to drive the conversation can help maximize the way these disciplines work together.

“People who do direct marketing may have in the past given up on social media quickly because they couldn't monetize it,” Davis says. “Others say [it's an] opportunity for us to get our name out there. [If it's part of] PR, there's a world of possibilities.”

AutoTrader.com, a site for buying, selling, and researching cars, is one online retailer investing in PR. It recently enlisted GolinHarris as AOR to focus on consumer media relations. Done alongside the company's social media endeavors – AutoTrader.com has Facebook and Twitter pages – the company seeks to use its PR efforts to both drive traffic and build awareness of the brand.

“At any one time, maybe only 5% to 10% of the American market is [searching] for a car,” says Mark Scott, senior manager of media relations at AutoTrader.com. “If we make sure we're a regular presence across the media spectrum, people are going to come across our messages. As people search and see their friends are friends of AutoTrader.com, it'll increase their understanding [and] awareness of our brand.”

The decision to hire a PR firm was not only precipitated on the need to “build [a] relationship [with consumers] over time,” but also to do so across a large landscape.

“Taking on a PR firm increases your bandwidth, the number of stories you pitch and get,” says Pam Morris, VP of fashion for Alison Brod PR. “Sponsorships and advertising make people familiar with a brand name. PR can explain what to do with your brand.”

Morris adds that the firm has helped client Piperlime.com, an accessories e-retailer, with blogger outreach – an important PR strategy for online retailers in the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle areas, where links from bloggers can lead to sales.

“People can click directly to the site and, for instant gratification, [visitors] can click and purchase,” Morris notes.

The firm has also created a pop-up shop for Beauty.com, which is an offline “way to bring the site to life [and] offer something exclusive.”

Zappos.com believes its Facebook page, blogs, and active Twitter presence, including by CEO Tony Hsieh, helps the company build strong relationships with customers, according to Aaron Magness, head of the new business development and marketing division. However, the online retailer's PR firm, Kel & Partners, provides Zappos with valuable media outreach, as well.

“We sell a lot of product, and we want that product to be recognized in [consumer] magazines and TV shows,” Magness says. “That's where they can drive awareness and information. Our firm [is] not out there telling everyone we're on Twitter.”

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