Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Are Bargain Wire Services Really a Bargain?

[caption id="attachment_73" align="alignleft" width="425" caption="Bargain wire services say they deliver a lot of sizzle for a little juice."][/caption]

Over the past several years, a staggering number of press release distribution services have appeared vying for the business of public relations firms and companies eager to get their messages out. It used to be that Businesswire and PR Newswire enjoyed a near monopoly over the business of distributing press releases to journalists, and they are still the market leaders, but today they face dozens of upstart competitors. (They include PR Buzz, PR Leap, PR.com, Online PR News…the list goes on and on.) Among these new arrivals, each one has its particular idiosyncrasies and pricing structure, but most insist that they deliver results comparable to the premium services at a lower cost, or in some cases no cost at all.

Do they live up to their claims?

The short answer is you get what you pay for. All things being equal, Businesswire, PR Newswire and a few other, similarly-priced wire services deliver more and qualitatively better results than low priced services. That doesn’t mean that low cost distribution services aren’t in some instances a reasonable choice. Nor does it guarantee that the premium services will forever enjoy their advantages. As with all Internet-based technology the landscape is constantly changing.

Traditionally, the principal reason for using a wire service was to get a press release into the hands of journalists in hopes of interesting them in covering the story. Premium wire services maintain large media databases and provide a variety of tools for targeting releases to appropriate media. Lower cost services vary considerably in their ability to directly reach journalists. Some dispense with direct delivery entirely and rely wholly on Internet-only means of distributing news.

Even the premium services are less effective in generating press coverage than they once were. The reason is simple. The number of press releases being foisted upon the media each day has ballooned. At the same time, many publications have cut back on their reporting staffs. Journalists simply don’t have time to wade through the flotsam that lands in their in-boxes. As a result, press releases in general produce fewer press stories.

But press releases have acquired a secondary purpose that has made them an end in themselves. Virtually all distribution services use RSS feeds and other techniques to make press releases available to news aggregators such as Google News and other sites in order to put them directly in front of consumers. The aim is not only to garner attention for the “news” contained in the release, but also to direct traffic to the website of the company issuing the release.

There are a whole host of SEO (search engine optimization) techniques that can be used to make this aspect of release distribution more effective. But again, the premium services, Businesswire, PR Newswire and their chief Internet-age rival PR Web, seem to have a leg up. Releases posted on these services generally produce more news site pick-ups and lead to more repostings than their lower cost rivals.

To understand why, it’s important to know something about how search engines like Google rank web pages. Two key factors that Google uses in its ranking system are relevance and importance. Does the website contain content relevant to a particular search term? And, is the website important to users?

Importance helps explain why releases distributed by premium services consistently rank higher than those distributed by their lower cost competitors. Businesswire, PR Newswire and PR Web tend to include news by large corporations with familiar brands while smaller services are more likely to feature news from smaller companies. Because news about big companies is more interesting to more people, the websites of the premium services generate more web traffic than the sites of smaller services. Google, therefore, considers them more important. That’s why a press release posted on Businesswire will rank higher than the same release posted on, say, PR Leap. News aggregators like Google News and Yahoo News use similar criteria in selecting press releases they choose to post, which is why releases distributed by the major services generate more postings and repostings.

Still in some cases, low cost distribution services deliver good value. Some are effective because they target specific industries. SHOOT Publicity Wire (www.shootonline.com) is one that I use to target the advertising industry. SHOOT has a large subscriber base among decision makers in the advertising industry (who receive stories posted to the service in an email). Its stories are also consistently picked up by Google News. At $49.95 per release, it is an excellent value.

A low cost service may also be a valid choice if budget considerations preclude the use of a premium services. If so, it is essential to maximize the effectiveness of the service by making the best use of SEO techniques so that the story is more likely to gain a favorable Google ranking and be picked up by more news aggregators and other sites.

Finally, it is important to remember that wire services are simply one tool that can be used in an effective communications program. For generating press coverage, no wire service alone is as effective as a talented p.r. professional who understands his or her client’s business and has appropriate, well-established media relationships.

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