FOCUS: CYBERMARKETING - Big hits on the small screen/The value of PR is crystallising in relation to marketing on the Internet. Tom Dawn reports on how traditional roles fit into the new medium as it heads towards commercial maturity

Predictions about the future often turn out to be right, but somehow the reality is rather less outlandish than our imagination would have supposed.

Predictions about the future often turn out to be right, but

somehow the reality is rather less outlandish than our imagination would

have supposed.

The role of PR in relation to the Internet is no exception. Two or more

years ago, you may have read in PR Week that the future role of PR

practitioners was as communicators and content providers for Internet

sites, and that equally PROs would be committed users of services such

as e-mail.

Since then, this has become the truth for most consultants, and the

Internet has actually achieved many of the astronomical growth figures

predicted for it. The Internet has not turned the PR world upside down,

although it has added significantly to the range of media with which it

is concerned.

Today we need to focus on predictions for tomorrow. The most common

message is that business has to prepare for development of the Internet

as a channel for commerce - companies have to make it a key plank in

their marketing strategies now.

This translates into a simple enough question for PR practitioners: how

does the role of communicator and content provider fit into a

marketing-focused Internet strategy?

If you are not fully persuaded of the commercial importance of the

Internet, consider the recent example of Crown Business


The communications and production company won a significant commission

to shoot a video for Brussels-based Lucent Technologies BCS this year,

mainly on the strength of its web site content. Indeed, no one from

Lucent and Crown actually met face-to-face, as all correspondence took

place using e-mail.

It is a good story, although probably not a model for the majority of

businesses. Yet the way we work is changing steadily, relentlessly.

In terms of straight delivery of press releases, hi-tech agency A Plus

has measured important change. ’Looking at preferences for how editors

want their press releases delivered, the trend shows it has gone from 75

per cent to 80 per cent preferring paper to around 50 per cent at our

last survey,’ comments Andrew Smith, business group director. ’Certainly

by the end of 1997 the majority of the press will want to receive

information in an electronic format.

’However, some want to receive paper as well. I think even the most

evangelical cyber-PR person is probably just thinking wishfully if they

think traditional methods are about to die out,’ says Smith.

The A Plus survey provides clear evidence of how far Internet

communications have reached within their target media. The agency is now

thinking of new strategies for marketing business among more mature

Internet users, and it is not alone.

’Our view is that we’re seeing a watershed in the Internet,’ says Jamie

Corsellis, managing director of consulting and strategic planning firm

Corsellis-Montford Group, whose customers include BT, 3i Corporate

Finance, and the British Army.

’Whereas many companies have been running headfirst at the Internet,

they’re now looking for tangible returns out of it, which leads to

diverse requirements, depending on the business. Our stance is to look

away from the advertising focus and to define areas of communication

around business units,’ he says.

Corsellis calls his approach ’developing communities of value’, which

involves identifying value-added services that will appeal to narrow

groups of clients. For example, he quotes the considerable success of

Auctions Online, which made hard-to-sell sales catalogues freely

available on the Internet, and benefited by building new customer


The concept of adding value to what companies ostensibly see as a sales

promotion medium, is also valuable in promoting brand loyalty. For

example, the Tampax site establishes a position of authority by

providing women’s health information.

Similarly, Legal and General, an early coloniser of the Web, also

concentrates on giving clear explanations of its products. This will

soon extend, for example, to include interactive computations to help

people estimate the savings they could make by re-mortgaging their


Compaq’s recent cost of ownership advertising campaign, which drew

100,000 ’hits’ is a good example of hi-tech brand building utilising the

fact that the Internet is still primarily a forum for IT information.

The content was provided by PR agency Firefly, based on its research

among IT and finance directors. The original report sold 200 copies at

pounds 45 each, of which 10 per cent were downloaded and paid for

electronically across the Web site.

Branding is, of course, a key marketing issue, to which interactivity

can add a new dimension. Durex, for example, runs a regular survey at

its Web side, questioning visitors about their attitudes towards sex in

addition to providing product information. Visitors filled in the

questionnaire before downloading a free screensaver, providing amusing

fodder for a Durex-branded press release.

What all of these sites purport to do is provide information that

Internet users are looking for, while adding something to the brand

image of the products. An important concept is to provide a ’reward’ for

visitors, such as the ubiquitous screensavers.

It is the focus on information which public relations continues to

understand best.

However, the industry is also in the business of selling customer’s

products and services, and the low return rate of visitors (including

journalists) to sites indicates that the pulling power of the Web can be


Many attribute this lack of attraction to the low quality of information

that is generally available.

’What everybody has realised about the Internet is that a lot of company

information is not of much interest to anyone,’ says Paul Lindsell,

managing director of Lindsell Marketing.

An example of Lindsell’s approach is an editorial-based resources site

for information-based marketing services company TDS. This is aimed

squarely at key TDS customers, who include senior marketing managers and

directors, and includes free services such as headline market research

report findings, contacts information and marketing data.

But others feel the essential problem of the Web is that it depends on

’pulling’ visitors instead of ’pushing’ information on to them. A

considerable number of ’push’ technologies are becoming available,

however, based on the concept of newswires and news services.

Compuserve has the excellent Executive News Service, which provides a

keyword search of the main news wires, only six hours behind the live

service. In the US, search engine company Excite has launched a free and

automatically-delivered clipping service. Desktop news delivery from

US-based services such PointCast have stimulated a wave of


In the UK, new services such as PR-Wire offer a Web-based point of input

for press releases into information services such as Reuters, MAID,

Lexis/Nexus, FT Information, and Dow Jones.

The key technology push for true mass Internet audiences is widely

anticipated to be Internet on TV. The first large-scale products are

currently hitting the US market, but this is a market where several

rival technologies (including Intercast, Sky Interactive Text, and

DirecPC) have to slug it out. There is even a British interest in there,


But among these flashy new solutions, boring old e-mail should not be

forgotten as the simplest, and often the most welcome, push


Innovative press services such as Compaq’s Web site provide a useful

model. Visitors from the press can highlight their areas of interest

from among Compaq’s products and services, and are then added to its

e-mail press release distribution list. This service will be extended to

all visitors to the Compaq site.

The ease and value of e-mail-based distribution of news services is

still vastly underrated, despite any number of inspiring examples. Try

reading the US-based Ragan’s Interactive Public Relations newsletter if

you need inspiration.

There is no doubt that most of us value good quality information, and

most of us know we can get it at selected Web sites. But it often takes

a special reason to nudge us in the direction of a particular site, and

PR has to keep reminding itself that it has to provide those nudges, in

addition to making good quality information available in a variety of



Meadowhall is one of the largest shopping malls in Europe, situated near

the Sheffield turn-off of the M1. Now six years old, the centre launched

its first Web site last November.

Information about Meadowhall was published on the Web beforehand, but

only by individual Web enthusiasts.

Such ad hoc situations are common on the Web, and in the worst case mean

that ’anti’ sites, critical of an organisation, may be the only

Web-based information about a company.

’You’ve got to have a right to reply in there,’ warns Meadowhall’s

marketing manager Wilf Geldart. He adds: ’It’s about future-proofing

ourselves against new developments in retailing.’ Key objectives for the

site were to provide an informational and educational role for the many

schools which study Meadowhall as a prime example of urban regeneration.

Also the site is intended to provide another shop window for the 280

retail outlets at Meadowhall.

A few retail outlets have links to their own Web sites, and those that

did not were invited to contribute information about themselves. The

most succinct was from an outlet which could only muster ’men’s and

ladies’ wear’.

’We were fairly disappointed with the response of a few outlets,’ admits


The site attracts 2,500 hits per day, with the most popular feature

being a multimedia walk-around of the centre, based on photographs of

Meadowhall, which visitors can navigate around and zoom in or out of,

using their computer keypad.

Another popular feature of the site is a product finder, which uses a

specially-compiled database of every shop’s range of goods. Users can

enter, say, ’Reebok trainers’ to find which shops sell them.

’We didn’t have a clue what sort of targets to set when we began,’ says

Geldart, who has been very surprised that half the visitors to the site

are from overseas. ’They’re not from people who will be popping down

here at the end of the week,’ he says.

’This is as much a marketing experiment and testing new media as

anything,’ says a spokesman for Meadowhall’s national PR agency GTH

Media Relations.

’There aren’t any set rules about how to do it properly ... but we’re

aiming to discreetly get Meadowhall’s name in the press.’

The PR agencies aim to generate awareness of the site. Key sectors where

it has been reviewed include the consumer technology titles and national

IT publications such as newspaper supplements. It also targets

specialist IT titles as a means of reaching consumer IT journalists, and

hopes that the national coverage will trickle down into regional news



The Web has been called the world’s biggest library - but with the

lights turned out.

However useful or interesting your site may be, it is money poured down

the drain if your audience never finds you. Probably the single most

important thing to do after launching a Web site, is making sure people

find that site when they are looking for you or for your products and


In addition to the well-known search engines and indexes such as


and Alta Vista, there are also sectoral specialists. For example, the

marketing industry is served in the UK by Marketing Forum, which

includes 2,500 to 3,000 marketing-related companies, through their trade

associations PRCA, BPMA, ACE, ITMAR, and TESSA.

According to Frank Joshi, director of Martex Communicators, creator of

Marketing Forum, joining the club benefits companies individually and

collectively, as the site becomes a marketer’s resource, drawing over

15,000 hits every week.

In fact, raising the profile of a client’s site is developing into a

fine art, dubbed by Matthew Ravden, Bite’s managing director, as

’digital PR’, a term for transferring what is common practice in

traditional media relations to the new medium of the Internet.

Bite is currently working with Sony Music’s Technology and Media

division in Europe to develop a Web site for all of Sony’s musicians.

The main focus of its digital PR will be to contact major search engines

and indexes to make them aware of the importance of the new site. It

will follow up by informing major Web sites such as Microsoft Network,

Virgin Net, Compuserve America Online, and so on.

There is no underrating the importance of being in the top ten sites

recommended by a big search engine, based on a user’s keyword


Equally, huge numbers of people pass by a handful of Web site front

pages almost daily, and there are more ways of getting to them than by

paying for an advertising slot.

Danny Sullivan, proprieter of Calafia Consulting ( and

Web searching and promotion specialist, offers some further tips for Web

site creators. He explains that search engines work with text , so

practitioners should make sure their company name appears in text, and

not just in graphics, on every page.

Search engines will also be helped by including mega-tags and, if you

are feeling really sneaky, mention your competitors’ names so that you

siphon off a portion of people searching for them. Sullivan also advises

that inside pages at your site should include good text content,

relevant to your products and services. As a final warning, he points

out that advanced graphic features may prevent a search engine from

indexing your site.

Sullivan will chair a seminar on ’The future of searching’ at the

Internet World show in May, one of a number of presentations dedicated

to issues such as branding and commercial exploitation which now face

the marketing profession on the Internet.

Once you have your audience, it is perfectly likely that they may have

difficulty locating information within your site and channelling their

search is just as important as it was to attract them to the site in the

first place.

Clear indexing is, of course, essential and within the grasp of most of

us. Having said that, most people begin by underestimating the human

resource that has to be invested in maintaining a site, making sure that

it remains up-to-date, and that it hangs together.

Miniature site-based search engines are an invaluable tool, and there

are many available. Hi-tech agency Leading Edge has invested in an

off-the-shelf Internet Press Centre that demonstrates the essential

features useful to the site.

The main element useful to visitors is a fully searchable press release

archive. Equally, the Press Centre (designed and marketed by Content

Content, developers of PR-Net) includes on-line forms to help PR

professionals input new press release information easily.

The second element useful to visiting press, is an e-mail robot which

will notify visitors when a new story appears in their chosen areas of

interest. This idea is simple enough, but surprisingly rare in Web


They key factor is that users can establish a permanent line of

communication with the site on their first visit, and then receive

reminders to return when there is information of interest to them.

Services such as IPMG Newsdesk, and the Compaq press centre, are also

experimenting with the idea of personalising news stories for individual

journalists, so that a filtered selection of news awaits them when they

visit the Web site. However, the desktop delivery of personalised e-mail

is still in its infancy, and would appear to be a very important step in

the direction of improving accessibility.

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