As the broadcast PR industry adapts to the complicated media landscape, paid placements are becoming a more frequent part of the mix.
With the January 2008 launch of its Bento product, FileMaker's goal was clear: The database software company wanted as many people as possible to know about the product's release.
As with most every product launch, driving awareness of something that has never existed before can be tricky.
Because the product is specifically for Mac users, the company had a very targeted audience. FileMaker worked with Medialink to reach that audience and deliver traffic to the company's Web site. But rather than just rely on traditional earned media, the company utilized paid guaranteed placements of video to promote the launch.
"I can't think of many PR tools that would help you spread awareness in a short period of time," says Kevin Mallon, senior PR manager for FileMaker. "In order to get the kind of awareness we were interested in getting, you have to go in for something that includes guaranteed placements."
A viable option
As the media landscape has transformed, particularly for broadcast PR, guaranteed placements have become an option that is more frequently part of the plan. While some rail against the practice as being straight advertising, others see it as a viable option for broadcast PR campaigns that practitioners ignore to their - and their client's - detriment.
"Where I draw the line is with the content," says Larry Thomas, COO of Medialink. "If the content is intended to educate about a brand or issue and is done in an engaging, educational manner, it's PR. When it actually comes down to the content trying to sell something, [like a] price comparison, then it becomes more of an advertising message."
The video for the Bento launch was pegged on "Get Organized Month." It featured an organizational expert who talked about the utility of the software, and ended with a call to action for viewers to visit the FileMaker Web site. This strategy, which Media-link calls "narrative marketing," ran during breaks on news stations, such as CNN, CNBC, and Fox News, and was intended to complement earned radio outreach, which began running in November 2007. During the week of the product rollout in January, Mallon says the number of visitors to the FileMaker site reached a record high of nearly 100,000 visitors in just one day.
"The ultimate goal is not just to generate earned media, but to reach and engage an audience to tell them - rather than sell - [about] an issue," Thomas says. "If there's no blending of a guaranteed component, [you're] missing an opportunity."
FileMaker's Mallon is frank about the industry's need to embrace guaranteed placements.
"If a PR person has qualms with it, get over it," he says. "You can't argue with the results."
Many factors have contributed to the growing use of guaranteed placements: the blurring line between advertising and PR; the mandate to reach consumers directly - especially niche groups of influencers and other hyper-interested parties; and, the increased need to show ROI.
For the broadcast PR industry, additional pressure has mounted because of the FCC's unprecedented move last September to fine Comcast $4,000 for airing VNRs without proper disclosure. That has made broadcasters even more leery of relying on VNRs and other outside video content.
Industry pros say there's not much choice other than greater reliance on guaranteed placements.
"You need to be providing a multifaceted package in order to actually hit the target audiences," says Bev Yehuda, VP of products for MultiVu. "PR is about reaching out. Think about all the different media that can include. It's an evolving situation."
With a variety of avenues to explore (see below), blending paid and earned media has become easier for broadcast PR pros.
"This is not advertising," says Nick Peters, SVP of marketing and strategy for On the Scene Productions. "It's using advertising platforms to supplement earned media and get your message in front of targeted audiences. It's one thing to tell a story to a journalist, another to craft a message that goes straight to the public."
Outreach via different media streams was what the PR team at Isaac Mizrahi had in mind when it introduced the designer's new Web site. The launch campaign included paid video placements on DirecTV, along with SMTs and ANRs.
"We wanted to take an extra step and thought this was the best way to do it," says Erika Stair, PR director for Isaac Mizrahi. "It did drive traffic to our site, which is what we wanted. We're launching a book in October, and we will do an SMT and paid placements as well."
While blended campaigns might not be the answer to all of the industry's problems, given the evolving landscape, it appears guaranteed placements will have a place in the PR pros toolbox for some time to come.
"We live in an opt-in culture," says Doug Simon, president of DS Simon, which worked with Isaac Mizrahi on the launch. "[Guaranteed placement] is an important part of the toolbox. But far more important is creating content and sharing it in a way that people will want to engage with it, with you, and with your brand."
Paid options for video
Guaranteed placement on a broadcasting station:
Companies purchase time that would normally be slotted for an advertisement, but the content is created by a broadcast PR firm.
Digital out-of-home networks:
Places like health clubs and sports bars have screens where video can air - for a price.
PR pros can purchase a spot on popular Web sites to run branded players, banner ads, and other content.
While not yet as popular as the other options, some carriers are offering space to purchase the opportunity to reach their customers.