Helping customers through the product maze

Buyer's guides offer a great second chance to get a product noticed, but it's hard to make it stand out in a crowded list. David Ward finds ways to make an entry shine

Buyer's guides offer a great second chance to get a product noticed, but it's hard to make it stand out in a crowded list. David Ward finds ways to make an entry shine

While they can be overshadowed by the holiday gift guides put out by general-interest publications or even the flurry of new year-round shopping magazines, buyer's guides do have a lot of built-in advantages as a PR tool.

While seasonal gift guides often end up being wish lists for consumers, buyer's guides tend to be read by an enthusiast audience on the verge of making a major purchase.

"Anytime somebody is looking to buy, they're going to look to buyer's guides as resources of information," notes Steve Hoechster, SVP and national technology practice leader at Euro RSCG Magnet.

Deborah Peters, media relations manager with Bender/ Helper Impact, says that another benefit of buyer's guides is they tend to focus on products already on shelves, which can give PR pros another chance to get clients' information to consumers well after a formal launch.

Peters, whose clients include Fox Home Entertainment and DreamWorks Home Entertainment, focuses on home entertainment buyer's guides from magazines, such as Home Theater, that highlight the latest in HDTVs and audio components, but also include lists of DVDs ideal for home viewing.

"With so many DVDs coming out every week, you can't always get the coverage that you want," she says. "So this is another opportunity to get notice for something that was actually quite good, but may have gotten lost in the regular coverage"

And there are plenty of buyer's guides to choose from. GolinHarris VP Carrie von der Sitt says, "There are a couple of categories with a high prevalence of buyer's guides, such as electronics and autos. But I've even seen parenting magazines with special buying sections aimed at new parents that feature new cribs and strollers."

Russell Rowland, EVP with New York-based HWH Public Relations, which lists consumer electronics giant Samsung among its clients, suggests buyer's guides should be considered the low-hanging fruit of an ongoing PR campaign.

"Buyer's guides are more like a staple, and not really a main course," he points out. "It's easy to get their editorial calendar listing, so we know when they're coming and what products are going to be in them."

The drawback, Rowland adds, is that many buyer's guides don't include pictures or detailed descriptions of the product, and instead feature pages of spreadsheet-style layouts with model numbers, price points, and product specifications.

"The key thing about a buyer's guide is that it's probably an easier issue for an editorial staff to put together," he says. "What they do is send an Excel sheet for you to fill in. As such, we assume our products will be included and end up putting most of our focus on getting on the cover."

While there are some standalone guides, von der Sitt notes that most buyer's guides are extensions of traditional media brands. But she stresses that you simply can't assume your regular contacts at an outlet will be the same ones you'll pitch for their buyer's guide.

"You need to determine what editorial staff is in charge of that specific publication and then re-supply them with materials and art directly," she says, "because you can't ensure information will make it through whatever infrastructure is at the publication and get to the right person."

Von der Sitt also recommends providing additional materials, such as ad sales or marketing numbers, that highlight the consumer acceptance of your client's product.

"Maybe you can put together focus group research that suggests why this product has been so popular with a target audience," she says. "You need to send what ammunition you can pull together that shows the editor that this really is a product they shouldn't miss."

Hoechster notes that some buyer's guides are opportunities for outlets to do a complete re-review of a product.

"There are occasionally publications that turn to an outside independent lab to test products and create some sense of distance between the regular editors and the buyer's guide," he adds. "Others may use a combination of testers and regular editors to provide commentary, and maybe even a reader's poll."

If the buyer's guide is being put together by an editor you're unfamiliar with, Hoechster says, "it may be worthwhile to have a briefing by the product manager, so when this person gets the product, they can evaluate it with some background. You also want to make them aware that there is somebody who is technically knowledgeable about the product that they can contact any time they have a question."

Some PR pros are leery of buyer's guides that don't have a distinct wall between editorial and advertising. But Tom Marx, president of the marketing and communications strategy firm The Marx Group, notes that shouldn't matter to the PR pro because it generally doesn't matter to the consumer. "As long as consumers feel they get valid, up-to-date information that's easy to access and answers all the questions they may have, I really don't think they care," he says.

But the need for timely content is driving the migration of many buyer's guides from print to online.

"If you're a particular enthusiast with a real niche interest, such as for Ferrari accessories, you may go to the buying guide in Forza, a print magazine aimed at Ferrari owners," says Marx, who specializes in automotive and tech clients. "But print buyer's guides are a challenge in terms of circulation and sourcing, while online buying guides are flexible, more topical, and easy for people to access. So for categories like stereo equipment, most consumers will first look online."

Regardless of whether they're print or online, Marx says, he advises clients to blanket every buyer's guide they can.

"I don't think there are any limitations when it comes to buyer's guides," he says. "But the real value the PR pro can bring is providing the knowledge of what buyer's guides are the most effective, as well as the best ways to get into them."


Technique tips

Do find out if the buyer's guide is simply a listing of model numbers, price points, and product specifications or if it offers full-featured evaluation

Do understand that some buyer's guides are ad-driven, so stay in contact with your client's media buying firm to potentially double-dip editorial and ad support

Do work hard to get your client included among the cover products. Guides often stay on newsstands for months and can serve as a great billboard

Don't assume the same editors and reporters who review your product in the magazine's regular issues will be the ones handling the buyer's guide

Don't just focus on print. Many buyer's guides are moving online and can offer up-to-the-minute information on a client's products

Don't forget to use the buyer's guide to offer updated information on products that have already been launched, such as changes in price points or new features

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