In business, modesty can only get you so far.
As a kid, you may have learned that self-promotion is arrogant and tacky. For entrepreneurs, however, a major part of selling your product or service is selling yourself and your company. This can take the form of a big-budget advertising campaign, but if that is something your business can't afford, favorable press coverage can often be had for free and can sometimes generate more publicity than traditional advertising techniques.
A mention on the Today show or Oprah can sometimes reach more people more effectively than a $2 million Super Bowl commercial. Especially when your business is new, appearing in an established mainstream magazine or on TV is better than a paid advertisement for building your company's reputation in the mind of the consumer.
"Consumers are aware that the most credible mention of a company is in a story appearing in a paper like The Wall Street Journal and the least credible is in a 30 second advertisement," says Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, a marketing firm based in Atlanta. "Brands are not built by ad resources. Brands are built by PR."
But if spending thousands of dollars a month to retain a PR professional is just as out of reach for your company as a big ad campaign, how can you reach the masses? One of the best ways to get the attention of the press is to tell the public an interesting story in which your business or product just happens to play a role. "PR comes when people hear a story and they want to know more," says Chip Heath, co-author of Made to Stick. "The best thing you can do is look for your 'Jared' story."
The Jared he's referring to is Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who lost more than 200 pounds on a diet that included Subway sandwiches. Subway's marketing team originally nixed the idea of using Fogle in ads, instead going with the "7 Under 6" campaign, which promoted the menu's seven sandwiches with less than six grams of fat. Eventually, however, the marketers saw how Jared's weight-loss story would capture the public's imagination, and Jared became the Subway spokesperson -- and remains so today, now appearing in spots with celebrity endorsers as well.
"Telling the story of Jared is just much more effective than quoting a statistic," Heath says. "We're just wired to appreciate stories over statistics."
Small businesses, many of which are born out of garages and living rooms, have a leg up, because of the compelling, bootstrapping narratives that make for entertaining profiles.
Ries emphasizes the need for business owners to make sure they have an announcement worthy of press attention before they seek coverage. "You can't get press unless you have something to talk about," she says.
The best time to try attracting attention to your brand is when you have something new or innovative to offer -- the launch of a unique service or a new solution to an old problem.
"If you are first in something, you have created an opportunity for the media to talk about you," Ries says. "It's important for your pitch to have some news value -- you are trying to attract the attention of the news media after all."
Heath agrees that an innovative product is more likely to attract attention. "If you want to generate PR and generate buzz, then you want to highlight or create some unexpected element of your product or service," he says.
"The Wii does that," Heath adds, referring to Nintendo's recently launched and much-hyped video-game console. "Instead of competing in the arms race for better graphics and more power, it gives you a new way of interacting with a video game. JetBlue does that by giving you your own personal TV and blue potato chips. Those specific, unexpected elements are going to cause people to talk about you more often."
Another way to generate press attention, says Michele Miller, partner at Wizard of Ads, a Scottsdale, Ariz., marketing firm, is by attaching your company's name to a charitable cause. The media like to cover businesses giving back to the community, she explains.
Four years ago, Chinese-food restaurant chain P.F. Chang's, established an event called the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. It began as a community marathon, where local bands set up along the route to play for runners and runners raised money for various charities. Last year, the event attracted close to 50,000 participants. The fundraiser has been very effective in raising the restaurant's profile and generating goodwill towards the company, according to Miller.
"Find some way to get connected with the community," Miller says. "But it must be something from your heart. The charitable component of an event or story is powerful if it is genuine and authentic. Slapping a pink ribbon on something gets old after awhile. Pick something that means something personally to you."
Another important way to generate media interest in your business is by harnessing the power of your own personality. "A company should have a spokesperson -- not a celebrity endorser like a Britney Spears -- but someone who can be seen as the face of the company," Ries says.
"A company's founder or CEO needs to represent their company in the eyes of the public," Ries adds. "Many times entrepreneurs are so busy running the business, that they have no time for the promotion of it. Business owners must make the time to get out from behind the desk and go out to be the voice of the company. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and many others started as small businesses but grew into huge empires, in part because of the strong personality of the founder."
Once you've figured out what your message is, you need to determine exactly which segment of the public you are trying to reach, experts say. There are two schools of thought: A business can try to target its message to a smaller group of people who are already predisposed to liking their product, or a business can try and reach the broadest possible segment of the market.
"My personal belief is that we overemphasize niches in marketing," Heath says. "Everybody talks about Jared. Everybody on JetBlue talks about the blue potato chips. Why not try to find a message that resonates with as many people as possible?"
Yet, Miller contends it is better to focus your energies by reaching out to your most likely customers. "Too many small businesses try to use the gunshot approach of hitting the whole mass demographic," she says. "The best thing they could do is pick a segment who best reflects who their customers are and just keep talking to them. Sometimes you have to let the rest of the market go, or your impact will not be as strong."