Web-based firms move past hype

Web-based businesses are nothing new, so reporters covering them aren't buying into the theatrics used during the early days, resulting in balanced coverage.

Web-based businesses are nothing new, so reporters covering them aren't buying into the theatrics used during the early days, resulting in balanced coverage.

While the internet revolution is barely into its second decade, there's a certain familiarity to coverage of web-based businesses today.

Many of the journalists who rode the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s - and then soul-searched during the slump that followed - are still at it, even if they're now reporting from different outlets. But experience with the internet roller coaster has given them some much-needed perspective that they now bring to their coverage.

"We're getting back to a very balanced time," says Jennifer Gehrt, cofounder of Communique Public Relations. "The reporters are much savvier about cutting through the hype and are able to ascertain which companies really have a compelling service to offer over the web."

Changes in coverage

But if today's web-based business coverage is fairer and more nuanced, there's obviously a lot less of it. "Compared to the '90s, when there were a lot more publications with much larger staffs devoted to technology, it's now a lot more challenging [to get coverage]," notes Gehrt, whose clients include e-learning company Knowledge Anywhere.

Compounding the reduced space for web-based company stories is the huge shadow now cast over such businesses by the search-engine giants.

"You have to have your finger on the pulse as to when Google or Yahoo is making an announcement so you don't have your release timed for the same day," cautions Tim Smith, VP at OutCast Communications. "But there's often a follow-up story to every announcement they make, so you do get the opportunity to draft on that."

Michael Young, SVP and tech practice group leader at San Francisco-based Access Communications, adds that a major change in the coverage of web-based businesses is that the site itself is no longer the story.

"Nobody is going to write about the features of a website or what it does because the level of sophistication of both the reporters and their audience is so much greater, and the expectations are so much greater," he says. "But you will see stories on the people behind it who brought the vision to the market or what consumers are doing with it. The couple in Fargo, ND, making $100,000 a year selling DVDs on eBay is still very compelling."

Richard Laermer, founder of RLM Public Relations, notes that the internet has become so mainstream that many business editors no longer cover it as a separate topic. "A web-based business is now just another business," he says. "So you don't have to have a better technology, but the model has to work. So many reporters have been burned that now the first question is, 'How are you going to make money at it?'"

Smith, whose agency represents Zazzle, a site that lets consumers make, sell, and buy customized T-shirts, stamps, and other products online, adds that reporters are also trying to look at the web more from the consumer's perspective. "With Zazzle, it was a John Doerr company, and Disney was a partner, so we knew we'd get a lot of attention," he says. "But it still took interviews with digital artists to get the best coverage."

Laermer adds, "With web-based business stories, you're now able reach out to a much wider swath of outlets. We used to go to Vogue and Elle with sites that were aimed at women, and they would say 'We really don't get this.' Now we represent Bluefly.com, and Lucky and Vogue and InStyle ... can't get enough of it."

Other outreach methods

But with web-based business, consumers are increasingly turning to their peers for information, which means it's the news groups and blogs that are really carrying weight. "If you have good information to share with them, and they can do some analysis around that, it's a good way to get your client some coverage," Gehrt says about pitching blogs.

As the web becomes more established, the tools for pitching internet-based businesses have also come full circle, with traditional media tours now back in vogue, replacing the elaborate media stunts of the Go-Go 1990s. "There are times when a media stunt can be relevant, but, on the whole, it's so difficult to pull off," Gehrt notes. "And if you're trying to manufacture news, most savvy reporters will see through that."

Pitching... web-based businesses

  • Focus on the consumer, not the technology. A site's graphics won't dazzle a tech reporter as much as the benefits that the site brings to the public will
  • Virtually all journalists, and their audiences, are now comfortable with the internet, so broaden your pitch to include a range of media outlets
  • Eschew the mega media stunt. It will only remind veteran journalists of the hype they bought into during the dot-com bubble and could make it harder to get them to look at your company in a balanced light

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