PR Strategies for the Digital Age: Has Product News Lost its Allure?
Part 1: A Historical Perspective
When I started out in this industry 20 years ago, I loved to hear the senior staff trade anecdotes about the PR agency workplace prior to the PC era. They would have me and my fellow “Generation Xers” in stitches with war stories about press releases written on old fashioned typewriters and mishaps involving poorly applied white out (or “liquid paper”). Or how press releases were sent back and forth to clients via snail mail, so approvals would often take several weeks until the arrival of FedEx reduced this process to a mere 3 or 4 days (still one of the most “disruptive” business services ever launched, IMHO).
Fast forward to 2010 and I find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of sharing my own war stories about the PR industry before the arrival of email and the Internet. The “millennials” recoil in horror at my tales of standing at a fax machine for 16 hours straight on the day of a product launch. They laugh when I attempt to convey the pure joy that accompanied the arrival of our first plain paper fax machine, ending years of frustration with chalky, filmy thermal fax paper rolls.
One way back memory members of Generation Y have a hard time believing is this: THE BUSINESS PRESS REGULARLY COVERED NEW PRODUCT NEWS! It’s true. In early-to-mid-90s, I worked with several product divisions of Digital Equipment Corp and we could almost guarantee coverage in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, et al for just about every single product launch ─ even for complex technologies like microprocessors. How was this possible?
Prior to the Internet, coverage of the technology industry was dominated by two dozen or so companies. Among them were familiar names like IBM, H-P, Intel, Texas Instruments, Oracle, Dell, Cisco and Sun Microsystems along with fading brands such as Digital Equipment Corp., Silicon Graphics, Data General, Wang and Informix. The media’s obsession with entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley start-up culture had yet to materialize.
With less companies to cover and lots of print pages to fill, it was common for business media to agree to pre-briefings on product news on Friday and hold it over the weekend under verbal embargo until Monday morning. That’s when the coverage would literally pour in from all the trades and business media. We would average about one new product launch each month, which allowed all of us to amass impressive clipbooks ─ not to mention forge genuine relationships with the members of the business media. I took this all for granted for a long time and boy I sure do miss this pre-Internet phenomenon.
Obviously, today things are much different. Not only in terms of how embargoes are received, but in the kinds of news items that capture a writer’s attention. Just a few years ago, product news still held some allure in the trades. News coverage relied on a steady stream of products and their new capabilities and enhancements. Since 2007; however, there’s been a slow shift with fewer journalists covering product launches. Three reasons for this change are abundantly clear:
1) Shortened News Cycles: The Internet has reduced news cycles from days to seconds.
2) Page View Journalism: The rise of digital media and its ability to measure page views is providing journalists and bloggers with insight into what readers actually want to read about. Concurrently, publishers are increasingly focused on driving more traffic and page views to appeal to advertisers.
3) Increased Noise Level: Unless you’re a closely watched brand like Apple, Google or Facebook spending millions on a product launch event or a pedigreed start-up with tier one investors and well-known entrepreneurs at the helm, a story on your product launch is unlikely to cut through the clutter.
So, the question remains… Is the product launch dead?
Whether or not we like it, things are changing fast. I don’t believe product launches or embargoes are dead just yet, but they are going by the wayside, slowly but surely. Whether you have an embargo in place or not, the quality of the content, the media strategy and, once again, the content, is what will get you maximum results. We as PR professionals need to adapt and evolve our strategies for the product launch. In part two of this series, we’ll be sharing some of our newly formed best practices and recent successes helping clients launch new products into this new environment.