Predictions about the future often turn out to be right, but
somehow the reality is rather less outlandish than our imagination would
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
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
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
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
CASE STUDY: WINDOW SHOPPING WITHOUT THE WALKING
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
’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
’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
SITES FOR SORE EYES: SUPER STRATEGEMS FOR SEDUCING THE CYBER SURFER
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 (www.calafia.com) 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
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.