After living overseas for five years, Patty McDonough was in for a surprise when she returned to the States last year. The Internet, which was still in its infancy when she left, had become a giant while she was gone: Web sites were popping up out of nowhere, targeting everyone from sports fans to bonsai-tree enthusiasts. But something was missing, thought McDonough, now 29: How in the world would anyone find these Web sites?
Convinced that there was a big need to fill, McDonough set to work from her New York City apartment, with less than $10,000, deciding to use her public relations know-how to launch her own consulting firm specializing in promoting online brands where people would listen: offline. Today, McDonough's company, McDonough & Associates, is just one of a growing number of companies helping to lure customers or potential investors to Web sites using traditional offline promotions, be it through advertising, public relations or marketing.
These kinds of promotional techniques are paramount in an age when the Internet still hasn't replaced traditional media. Although the number of Internet users continues to soar, most people are still more responsive to promotions and marketing initiatives that target them where they work, live, study or play rather than where they surf.
And the Internet industry is beginning to get the message. With the dotcom boom leaving many investors and consumers yawning and clicking their way through the Net--searching for those sites that stand apart--chances are, more and more money will be poured into offline advertising.
The Start-Up Budget
While having a creative imagination is crucial in the offline promotion category, you also need to have a mind for budgets. Not only do you have to meet your clients' objectives, but you also have to do it cost-efficiently. Few burgeoning start-ups have the cash to spend on huge advertising campaigns, so they expect the most bang for their buck. Meet their expectations, say experts, and you can bring in six figures or more, depending on how many clients you have.
Still, you don't have to have a huge budget to get into offline promotion; many entrepreneurs say they started with very little and worked from home. But their previous jobs with other high-tech public relations firms got them the contacts to attract clients, and soon they found themselves hiring more employees to help with the ever-growing workload.
Consider, for instance, Cynthia Storer, who, with her expertise from her previous PR job, opened the doors of CS&A Public Relations in Denver. Within 10 days, says Storer, 30, she had exceeded her financial goal for the following six months. "I have people calling me at all hours. I can't even go to the post office [now] without having somebody stop me and ask for a pitch," says Storer, who started with just $7,000 and now earns more than $15,000 a month with the help of one full-time and two part-time employees.
But when it comes to getting clients, image is everything. Storer took the little money she had and rented a luxurious suite in the heart of Denver's business Mecca, acquired her own domain name and built a Web site (www.csapublicrelations.com). "It establishes a lot of credibility," she says.
Looks will only take you so far, however. Once you have the clients, it's up to you to keep them, and that's where skills come in. Peter Kent, author of several books about the Internet, including Poor Richard's Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice on Building a Low-Cost Web Site (Top Floor Publishing, $25.46, 877-693-4676), says the best way to get the word out about a Web site is through guerrilla tactics. But Kent warns not to underestimate the power of online promotions, through newsletters or affiliate programs with similar Web sites.
For offline promotion firms, then, that means using both offline and online methods in your business. "If you're promoting a Web site," advises Kent, "you can't ignore online public relations."
Finding Your Market
For the most part, industry experts agree, there is no cut-and-dried way to promote Web sites. You must handle each client on a case-by-case basis. Find out what a site's business objectives are and who they're trying to target, then create a customized plan that meets those objectives. "You always have to be looking at the big picture," suggests Miranda Tan, the 27-year-old president and founder of ExcitePR LLC in New York City.
With one client, for instance, an online essay evaluation service called myEssay.com, Tan and partner Ed Tsai wanted to create a powerful presence for the site in the New York City area while also dispelling the commonly held belief that these kinds of services condone cheating. Through careful research, Tan and Tsai discovered an untapped target market, high school students who didn't quite know what it took to get into top-notch colleges. A grassroots campaign by the partners proved worthwhile, resulting in myEssay.com-hosted writing tutorials at local schools, coupled with four-year plans for college-bound students. "Traffic to myEssay.com increased substantially," notes Tan. "Moreover, the company was able to distinguish itself as both the innovator and the most reputable online essay evaluator service."
Tan cautions, however, that what works today won't necessarily work tomorrow. Even professionals well-versed in offline promotions and marketing tactics must be able to change with the times or cut their losses. This principle seems to have gotten lost among the current crop of offline promotion firms: Dotcoms are looking for cutting-edge ideas, but many are finding that traditional public relations firms can't deliver.
For Tan and Tsai, however, their ability to keep up with the pace of the Internet has helped their business grow exponentially, and this year, they expect sales to hit the million mark. "Because things change so much," notes Tsai, "you constantly have to reinvent the best way of doing things."
It seems that technology can either be your friend or your enemy in this industry, as dotcoms will continue to demand increasingly tech-savvy promotions for their sites. Wise entrepreneurs will take advantage of the technology that's available when creating advertising campaigns for their clients. "At the same time," notes Tan, "these challenges also mean that emerging firms have a huge advantage over lumbering PR dinosaurs who are tied to their old ways."
Vanessa DeRuyter is a freelance writer in Huntington Beach, California, who feels a little offline promotion could do wonders for her writing career.
ExcitePR, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.excitepr.com
McDonough & Associates, (917) 679-8773, email@example.com.