From the December 1999 issue of Startups

What's one of the best ways to get publicity for your business? Promoting it with press releases. But the "old way" of writing and distributing releases just isn't as efficient as it used to be.

Once you create a newsy message about your product or service, you have to use several media directories to find the appropriate editors, address hundreds of envelopes, fold the releases, stamp the envelopes and send them. OK, so it's not the Ironman Triathlon, but it is like watching a black-and-white TV set when you should be watching in color. That's where electronic press releases come into play.

Unlike their hard-copy counterparts, electronic press releases are shorter in length (typically four to five paragraphs, compared to one to two typewritten pages) and less expensive to send (no postage or envelopes necessary). Best of all, they allow you to reach a much larger audience, since there are many Net-exclusive journalists and publishers not mentioned in traditional media directories.

Can all those e-mailed bits and bytes really draw the media to you? "We send [all] our press releases over the Internet," says Steven Hoffman, 33, co-founder of LavaMind, a CD-ROM game and Web site development company in San Francisco. LavaMind's releases have garnered publicity in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Business Week, as well as on PBS, ABC, CNBC and dozens of other newspapers, magazines and TV stations. What's more, Hoffman estimates publicity from his e-mail press releases is responsible for generating half of LavaMind's sales, which nearly doubled last year.


Monique Harris recently got her 15 minutes of fame when an electronic press release she sent to 30 editors generated 12 mentions.

Easy As 1-2-3

Trial and error are part of entrepreneurship. But by using the 1-2-3 online contact approach to create and distribute your releases, you'll avoid common potholes in the road.

1. Create your release the "write" way. Many wired journalists receive 25 to 200 electronic press releases per day (not to mention the dozens that are faxed and mailed). Understandably, they don't have time to go through each one with a fine-toothed comb.

However, your goal isn't to get the release printed word for word. It's to entice interest so the journalist visits your Web site, requests more information or decides to do a story on you. So your job, and the general rule of thumb for writing any electronic press release, is to keep it short, sweet and to the point. "All the critical information should be contained in the first screen of the release," advises Tina Koenig, founder of Xpress Press News Service, an electronic PR wire service in Hollywood, Florida.

Starting with the "subject" line, be as clear and concise as possible. Koenig recommends five to six words maximum. "You can be creative and funny as long as your message is clear," she says. "Go easy on your use of caps and the word `free'--in short, anything perceived as the vernacular of spammers."

If you have your own media list and plan to send each release individually (see Step 3), the first sentence of the release should briefly explain why your release is relevant to the journalist's audience. Personalizing each e-mail this way shows you've done your research and makes journalists more receptive.

The first paragraph introduces your tie-in factor. This is where you build momentum for what you're promoting by announcing intriguing statistics, facts or a surprising bit of information. If you can hook your message to a current news item, even better. Example:

"According to a recent research report by Net Trend Trackers, more than 5 million small-business owners are expected to get online within the next six months. For many, `staying technologically astute' is their number-one concern about crossing the barrier."

The second paragraph connects the item you're pitching with the tie-in factor. It should also answer the essential questions: who, what, where, when and why. Example:

"However, with a few clicks of the mouse, business owners can access their own, personal e-commerce advisor and a custom-built Web site through EZ Start-Up Web Service in New York City (http://www.websiteaddresshere.com). The service works with small-business owners who want to open shop online without having to know a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo."

Include your Web site address, in parentheses, right after the first mention of your company's name. "Use the entire URL, including http://, so it is compliant with all browsers and e-mail [programs]," Koenig advises.

In the final paragraph, add another fact or two, if appropriate; then give your contact information, including Web site and e-mail address. Example:

"Users can visit the Web site for tips on setting up an online presence, or they can hire EZ Start-Up to handle all the logistics. For more information, contact Dan Jacobs, dan@ezstartup.com, http://www.websiteaddresshere.com, (240) 123-9876."

Before you hit the Send button, run that puppy through a spelling checker. Your words may be put together well, but if they're spelled wrong, you won't be taken seriously.

2. Format for reading ease. Since not every person who receives your release will have the same e-mail program you do, it's important to follow a few general formatting rules:

  • Compose your messages using standard Courier 10-point typeface. Do not use Rich Text Formatting. Deviating may make your release unreadable for some recipients.
  • Type only 65 characters per line. Hit the Return/Enter key at the end of each line; otherwise, your message may scroll beyond the edges of the recipient's screen.
  • Don't attach files to your release. No pictures, no charts, nothing. People are leery of opening attachments sent via e-mail; they could contain a virus. If you have something that requires more power than plain text, include a Web site link in your release. If Mr. or Ms. Media wishes to see it, he or she can just click over to your site. Problem solved.

3. Distribute it to the right people. If you've been online longer than 30 days, you know what a nuisance spam (unsolicited e-mail) can be. So as you build your media list, remember that the shotgun approach--"send-it-to-everybody-who's-got-an-e-mail-address"--essentially means spamming the press. Do it enough, piss off the right folks, and word of your incompetence will spread like wildfire to the very people you're trying to impress.

Instead, target the magazines, newspapers, radio and TV talk shows geared toward your audience. Don't forget to include the online newsletters, e-zines, Net-based radio shows and informational Web sites in your particular category. Many get hundreds of thousands of visitors a day.

There are two ways to reach the right people: The do-it-yourself approach entails searching for each publication, program and Web site in your target market (both online and off) and collecting e-mail addresses for the appropriate editors, journalists and producers. Since most media outlets have Web sites with contact information, this is often just a matter of querying online search engines. Also, send your release to owners of informational or news Web sites, which are always looking for new and interesting ideas to help them keep their content fresh.

As long as you have something newsworthy to share, the do-it-yourself approach is almost guaranteed to get publicity. The downside: It's time-consuming. If time is of the essence, and searching isn't really your schtick, you may be better off hiring an online press release distribution service to do all the legwork for you. For example, the Internet News Bureau, an online PR service in Bend, Oregon, has several targeted modules to reach editors in niche categories. All you do is submit your release, and they immediately forward it to the media people in your niche.

If you take this route, it's important to use a reputable service, so your good name doesn't turn to media mud overnight. How to choose? Koenig recommends asking three key questions:

1. How do they target the media? Most services either send the full text of the release, or just a headline link, possibly included with others. Headline links are less enticing because they require journalists to sort through lots of prospective stories (possibly missing yours) and visit a Web site for the full story.

2. Do they send the release to everyone on their list, or segment by industry? Narrowing your focus is key to getting PR, so "if a service says they focus on one particular industry, and your story is relevant to that industry, give them a try," says Koenig.

3. How does the company get media e-mail addresses? Koenig advises, "A reputable service allows the media to subscribe or `opt in' to receive news releases," ensuring your releases go to receptive targets.

Once you've distributed your electronic press release, check your e-mail at least two or three times a day for any press inquiries. Follow up on any you receive within 12 to 24 hours. Then watch out: You could be the next media darling in no time.

Get Up To Speed

To learn the craft of online publicity, check out these articles and sites:

  • "Clickviews: Articles and Commentary on the Art & Insanity of Web Site Publicity," edited by Eric Ward
  • "The Ten Commandments For Sending E-mail to the Media," by Paul Krupin
  • "The Care and Feeding of The Press: A guide for press relations staff (or those who play them on TV)," by Esther Schindler

The following companies offer online press release distribution services:

Or you can visit online advertising trade magazines ClickZ and Web Marketing Today for lists of online PR services.

Goof Proof

Stephanie Sebeck, vice president of operations for NETrageous Inc., an Olney, Maryland, company that helps businesses market themselves over the Internet, says these are the most common mistakes businesses make when using online PR:

1. Sending the press release to a whole group of editors, instead of individually to each one. "This is especially bad when they put the e-mail addresses to the `To' field rather than the `BCC' [blind carbon copy] field," Sebeck notes. "Editors get angry when they receive a release addressed to 200 editors--especially when they can see all the e-mail addresses!"

2. Sending a release to the wrong editor. "Just because you can e-mail your release to thousands of editors doesn't mean you should," Sebeck cautions. "Don't send a press release about online scams to the food editor."

3. Not using a compelling headline in the e-mail's subject field. Sometimes, a headline alone can determine whether your release gets read.

4. Sending a boring release. Online, just as on paper, you've got to pique an editor's interest . . . or you'll end up in the "Trash" file.

Clip It

Once your online efforts lead to a published article, make sure to have reprints made. Distributing press clips with your marketing materials not only makes your business look newsworthy, but also promotes your product or service to potential clients.

For more ideas on maximizing your PR efforts, read 303 Marketing Tips Guaranteed to Boost Your Business (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $17.95, www.smallbizbooks.com)