A year ago, a stroll down the cyber-high street would have been
fairly uneventful, with no reassuringly familiar brands. Walk down the
same street today, and it is bustling, with money changing hands for
books, computer equipment, clothes, food - everything you might find in
real shops. There are two types of e-tailer in this new shopping
environment: on-line extensions of already well-known brands, and those
which only exist on-line.
The latter are of increasing interest to PR agencies, as they represent
a new and fast-growing client base, as well as a fresh set of issues and
The last few weeks have seen a rash of communications companies hiring
in their own PR agencies. Recruitment agency taps.com took on
Miller/Shandwick; auction site humptydumpty.com hired Bite; fashion
retailer boo.com appointed Modus Publicity; and Firefly started work for
The basic PR aims of understanding the client, developing the messages
it wants to project, and targeting the media in which it wants to appear
are the same for on-line brands as any other client. But the
non-traditional business model of many internet companies can complicate
Since anyone can found a cyber-company, they tend to be low-cost
start-ups, causing a disparity between the fees a client is prepared to
pay for PR and the nature of a business that has an instant window to
Jan Stannard, joint managing director of Marbles, which carried out
consumer PR for Freeserve, says: ’There are three angles anybody
carrying out PR for an on-line brand needs to be aware of. The first is
seminal branding - Freeserve, for example, was the first free internet
service, and ’first ever’ stories are national news. The second is
content-led, and this is a tougher area for PR, as there are so many
companies on the net selling the same thing. The third is a business
angle, such as a venture capital-backed start-up, or an off-line brand
But for all on-line companies, however they approach their PR, the
central aim is to get traffic to the web site and to keep people using
it - known as ’stickiness’.
Internet use among consumers is increasing, but most people still rely
on word of mouth and pointers in the media to find their way to sites
they want to use. This usually means a traditional consumer or
business-to-business campaign is crucial to the launch of a
cyber-trader, with on-line PR a secondary strand.
Fortunately for PROs in this sector, the internet is starting to shake
off its ’techies only’ image, making consumer campaigns more viable.
When internet bookseller Amazon was set up in the spring of 1998, Joe
Public Relations, which still holds the account, faced a media which,
apart from specialist hi-tech titles, was simply not interested in
Joe Public Relations managing director Matthew Wood says: ’We refer to
Amazon as a consumer brand, but we differ from other PR companies in
that we have been brought up on the internet. We were hammering on the
door of consumer journalists for a long time before we cracked it. The
internet is now more relevant, so there is more coverage in the popular
But Wood adds that, despite the client existing on-line alone, on-line
PR itself is not a significant part of the package. ’We keep an eye on
the on-line magazines, but don’t really do on-line media relations,’ he
says. ’Working for an internet company is the same as any other brand -
you have to get the relevant messages to the audience. The biggest
barrier is that most people still do not have access to the internet,
even though the numbers are growing. Our role is to champion the medium
and make it attractive to consumers.’
The consumer PR for Freeserve also had little in the way of on-line PR.
Marbles’ Stannard says the sole aim of the campaign was to launch the
ISP to consumers.
’We focused on traditional media with some on-line PR, but there was no
real need to emphasise that side of it,’ she says. ’The real focus for
an on-line brand is still the traditional media, especially when the
site is aimed at people who don’t go on-line regularly.’
Amazon rival BOL.com approaches its PR mix in the same way - at least
for now. Fleishman-Hillard worked on the launch of BOL, and account
director Jonathan Jordan says the agency always uses a combination of
on-line and conventional PR.
’The number of internet users is increasing at a dramatic rate, and we
will be doing more on-line PR, but we will continue to take a mixed
approach for the foreseeable future,’ he says. ’On-line PR can do
wonderful things, but not in isolation. I don’t see that changing until
new media is as mobile as a newspaper is.’
The key to any campaign for an on-line client is getting the right mix
by creating a fully integrated campaign.
Firefly director David Hargreaves says his agency has received briefs to
treat on-line PR separately, which he believes is a mistake. ’On-line PR
needs to be thought of in the same breath as traditional techniques,’ he
says. ’You would think on-line companies would be aware of that.’
But on-line PR for on-line companies is being taken more seriously and
Firefly, which is positioning itself as ’the communications company for
the digital economy’, does work for a number of on-line clients,
including Loot.com and FT.com. The agency has set up a system whereby
journalists on web sites can download images from clients in around 30
seconds and has produced the equivalent of a VNR for media web sites, an
electronic file rather than tape.
Many internet PROs say much of the work they are doing is on-line, such
as creation of banner ads and links, often overlapping the type of work
done by advertising agencies off-line. This is because the web is seen
as an editorial, rather than an advertising medium - it’s about building
communities through informing people, not just promoting products.
Firefly client Sage.com, for instance, is trying to make itself a single
point of access for small- and medium-sized companies, covering
everything from carrying out credit checks to dealing with issues such
as the minimum wage, rather than just a seller of accountancy
New media specialist Fodor Wyllie counts the on-line arm of book
publisher HarperCollins, fireandwater.com, and the Evening Standard’s
thisislondon.com among its clients. Director Grace Fodor says on-line
campaigns are becoming more specialised.
’On-line PR is about looking at existing tactics and seeing how they can
be made to fit an on-line environment, as well as specific tactics you
would only employ on-line,’ she says. ’Many cyber companies such as
Amazon see themselves as mainstream consumer brands which are also
interested in on-line PR. It’s only in the last year or so that on-line
PR has been carried out properly rather than on an ad hoc basis. But
we’d never do just on-line PR, as it goes hand-in-hand with
She adds that the agency has just set up an on-line PR and marketing
division in recognition that this is an increasingly important area.
Among the techniques the agency is focusing on is targeting e-mail
newsletters (e-zines), on-line magazines (webzines), and newsgroups with
news announcements, features, case studies, opinion pieces, competitions
and product reviews.
Indeed, one of the greatest challenges for on-line PR is identifying the
target media and carrying out proper research - there are thousands of
titles on the web, and they are much more diverse than traditional
Fodor says: ’We need to educate clients who may not be happy to invest
too much in on-line because it is so new, and costing works differently
- you may be targeting up to 200 on-line media sites.’
As a result, many agencies in this sector are now targeting listings on
directories and links from appropriate search engines to drive maximum
traffic to client sites.
One of the on-line tactics Fodor Wyllie is employing for client the
Daily Mail’s soccernet.com is supplying regularly updated news headlines
to on-line media, which can take the user back via a link to the site
for the full story.
A similar tactic is used by Profile PR for its client dvdplus.com, the
on-line seller of DVD-based films and games, which was launched in
Account manager Jenny Hodge says Profile has set up long-term
relationships with on-line media like Ziff-Davis, which now has a DVD
’basement’ on its site, ziffdavis.com, and relies on Profile to supply
it with film reviews as part of the deal. She adds that building
relationships with the relevant on-line media can work wonders in
raising the profile of on-line clients.
’PR for an on-line brand like DVD-plus is essentially the same as for
any off-line brand, but it’s about selling a concept as well as a
product. You also have to think about creating on-line links wherever
you can. Dealing with on-line media is instant PR - if they are going to
run a promotion, you need to have something on the site the same day,’
Nik Harta, a director of 4DC, a new media marketing company which
implements on-line campaigns, including for Online Travel Club, based at
onlinetravelclub.co.uk, agrees. ’In a lot of cases, the teams behind
media web sites are not big and we often work with them to produce valid
content that meets their needs as well as ours.’
E-commerce is expanding at a rapid pace, and PROs need to learn quickly
how to create the most effective campaigns, with a mix of traditional
and new techniques. The day when on-line clients are served by on-line
campaigns alone may be some way off, but it’s already an issue for PROs
in this sector.
As the internet becomes an integral part of the lives of consumers and
business people, PR has a crucial role to play in what will soon be a
SECURITY ALERT MAINTAINING ON-LINE CONFIDENTIALITY
One of the barriers to promoting an e-tailer through traditional or
on-line channels is consumer and business discomfort about the security
of handing over credit card details to pay for goods.
Suzy Frith, chairman of Citigate Technology, the corporate,
business-to-business and IT division of Citigate Dewe Rogerson which
handled financial PR for the flotation of Freeserve, says: ’Dealing with
companies on the net requires very careful planning because there are so
many unknowns. In on-line trading there are continual security and viral
alerts, and you have to be prepared to tackle individual or corporate
horror stories. The networks security market will be one of the boom
markets as e-commerce is affecting virtually every business model.’
The Government is aware that this problem is holding back the potential
of internet companies and earlier this year published a consultation
paper, ’Building Confidence in Electronic Commerce’. The aim of the
paper was to boost public trust in trading over the internet, by
updating the law in a number of ways.
Speaking at the launch, Trade and Industry secretary Stephen Byers said:
’The way we do business in the future is set to change dramatically. It
is essential that the UK is at the forefront of these changes and
building trust is crucial. Our proposed legislation will enhance
confidence in the technologies which people can use to ensure others
cannot read their credit card data when they shop on-line, and
businesses can use to ensure that sensitive information is not being
read by competitors.’
Feedback from the consultation paper has been fed into the draft
Electronic Communications Bill, which was launched in July. The bill,
which should go through Parliament in the next session, pending the
Queen’s Speech in October, forms part of the DTI’s policy of making the
UK ’the best environment worldwide in which to trade electronically by
2002’, by which time it estimates global e-commerce will be worth
between pounds 250 billion and pounds 350 billion.
By 2003, Fletcher Research estimates that the biggest sector of on-line
retail in the UK will be the computer market, which could be worth
pounds 1.35 billion in internet sales. Sales of air flights could hit
pounds 500 million by that time, followed by clothing at pounds 400
million, then food and drink at pounds 350 million, and books and music,
which could also be worth around pounds 350 million.
UK use of the internet is currently growing by 10 to 15 per cent a month
- the highest growth rate in Europe.
In the past six months alone, one million UK consumers have bought
DIGITAL SOUNDS YALPLAY USES ON- AND OFF-LINE PR TO REBRAND
Yalplay.com was relaunched in July this year as Europe’s premier on-line
music and video store, with its distinctive orange and purple logo.
It was formerly known as iMVS.com.
IMVS, founded in 1995, claims to be the UK’s oldest e-tailer. It has a
list of more than 250,000 titles in all genres of music, and a global
A pounds 5 million venture capital fundraising campaign was undertaken
by Pro Ven Private Equity to rebrand and market Yalplay across Europe.
The consumer PR is being carried out by Le Fevre Communications, which
kicked off with a launch part in July, and has implemented a campaign of
on-line and off-line techniques, including offering comment on music
industry issues such as downloading music from the internet, running
competitions and sponsoring film and music festivals. The target
audience is older than most high street music retailers as the consumer
needs a credit card to shop on-line.
On-line PR has centred on the web sites of the national broadsheets.
Le Fevre senior consultant Joshua van Raalte, says: ’We have a rapport
with all the journalists on the publishers’ web sites and on music
publications, but we can’t focus on on-line PR until we see more people
are using on-line publications. You need to sell the story to on-line
journalists, but that would not be a complete campaign.’
Yalplay had already forged links with other internet brands to generate
traffic in its previous incarnation, including Yahoo, Virgin.net, and
the Electronic Telegraph.
Yalplay is now the exclusive music and video retailer for
Currentbun.com, the Sun’s free internet service provider. It has also
just moved into interactive TV by teaming up with free interactive
digital TV service Open. From this autumn, consumers will be able to
order Yalplay’s CDs, videos and DVDs through the TV, without internet
access, to reach an even wider audience.