Advertise Your Services for Free

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Free is good. But when it comes to publicity—as in, how do I get my business on TV or in the paper and not have to pay for it?—free can be hard. In fact, it can be downright evasive. If you’d like to advertise on a miser’s budget, you’ll have to be quick on your feet. You’ll have to be creative. But you won’t be the first. Take Muhammad Ali, for example.

Back when The Greatest was just a cub, he asked a Life photographer to do a spread on him for the magazine. “Never,” came the reply, and fast. “You’re nobody.” Not to be cowed, he asked the photographer what his specialty was. “Actually, it’s underwater photography.” At this point, most people would hem and haw or switch the topic to sea urchins. But there’s a reason Muhammad Ali was The Greatest: “Did you know I’m the only fighter who trains underwater?” he asked. In a week, the photographer was in the gym, shooting the champ bobbing and weaving in a pool he’d taken a sudden, inexplicable liking to. In a month, Muhammad Ali was on the cover of Life.

It’s a simple point. If you’re quick, creative and willing to work, you’ll get your share of free publicity without getting wet. Let’s take a look at the rules.

Free Begets Free
There’s a maxim: “You have to spend money to make money.” Fair enough. There’s also a little-known corollary: “If you want something for nothing, give it away.” Otherwise put, find a charity you love and donate your time and talent. You’ll be doing some good, and cameras are likely to follow.

Five years ago a group of webmasters, coders and Bay Area networkers lugged a few hundred pounds of cable and hardware to an Indian backwater named Dharamsala, just south of Nepal. Why so far? They were installing—at their own expense—an intranet for the Dalai Lama and his exiled government. Up until then, the Tibetan leader ran his global campaign of resistance, a campaign that made him a Nobel laureate, with no more technology than a fax and a typewriter. But when the Americans were done, his government had everything from e-mail to strong encryption. And the technologists who built the network had their 15 minutes of fame—they were featured in papers and Web sites from India to London to Los Angeles.

Bear in mind that you don’t need to hop on a plane to do some good while growing your business. In fact, you can find a worthy project in your own back yard—say, a network for a needy school or a Web site for a shelter. Nor do you have to donate your own equipment, which can be costly. Time and expertise are often enough. Just remember that with the press, a little good will goes a long way.

Write
Not code, articles. And not in computer magazines, either. Learn what your customers read, what piques their interest and what they value, then call or write the editor and offer to write an article free of charge. Draw on your area of expertise. If you’re an e-mail maven, tell your readers how to get rid of spam. If you’re a security buff, tell them why their wireless network is open to attack—and how to fix it. You’ll establish yourself as a voice of authority in your field, and you’ll add to your resume to boot.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Don’t assume you’ll be writing for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or the Washington Post, even if your clients read them religiously. If you’re an unpublished writer and you’re looking to do a piece to spread your own gospel, try the local paper. You’ll have a much better shot at getting in. And once you do get that article published, be sure to ask for reprints. Include them wherever you can: on your Web site, in your press kit, in your mailings. Remember, even the smallest papers have circulations in the thousands—how long would it take you to hand out that many business cards?

Study, Study, Study
To be in the news, you have to make the news. Barring war, crime and scandal, nothing’s as newsworthy as a study that tells people something they only guessed at, confirms what they knew was true or, better yet, slaughters a sacred cow.

In the past few days, the New York Times, ABC and CBS, just to pick a few, ran four new studies in their headlines. Two of them had to do with technology: “Study Refutes E-Mail Myth at Work,” which claims that knowledge workers aren’t swamped by e-mail, as we’d expect, and “Study: Car Phone Benefits Equal Car Phone Accident Costs.”

Given, these were big, pricey jobs by wealthy firms, not one-man shows. But there’s no reason you can’t hitch a ride on their coattails. If you’ve got a healthy client base, you’ve got the makings of a good, newsworthy poll. Just put a local slant on your question. For example, ask your clients for a breakdown of their yearly IT budgets for three years running, then compare that to data from the national average—data you pull free of charge off the Web. If you find that your city spends twice as much as others its size (i.e., you’re in the middle of a new Silicon Alley), or you find that your city spends half as much as others its size (i.e., you’re in a technology hinterland), that’s enough to interest the city desk at your local paper. If you’re the expert they quote in tomorrow’s edition, you can expect your phone to ring off the hook.

Bear in mind a few points about taking your own poll:

 

 

  • Don’t be afraid to be controversial. Attack a common myth you know is false, and get the numbers to back up your opinion.
  • Narrow your focus. A national poll can set you back tens of thousands of dollars. But a local study with 100, 200 or 500 users is within your reach.
  • Follow the rules. Studies and polls have their own methodology. Before you dive in, go to the library and hit the books. Make sure you act like the pros.

 

The Product Review
A product review—correction: a good product review—can be a lovely piece of free publicity. A few words in the local paper can keep you busy for months at a time. A review in a national magazine can hike your sales by 20 to 40 percent. So how do you get a local reporter to notice you, or better yet, how do you catch the eye of Walter Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal?

You can go the old-fashioned route—to wit: write a brochure and a press release. Send them off to a paper in care of the editor, and wait. After a month or two without a response, gnash your teeth, pick up the phone and try to get someone on the line. Or, let your clients do the work for you.

Let’s say you’ve got a client who thinks you’re smarter than Dean Kamen. Kudos. Ask him to write the newspaper a quick e-mail. Nothing fancy, just something like this: “I’m a reader of your paper and a user of SmartTech’s English-Urdu dictionary for the iPaq. Last week it helped me tremendously when I had unexpected guests from Pakistan. Frankly, I think your readers would like to know about something this useful.” A kind word from a customer has more traction than a brochure and a dozen phone calls any day.

The Press Release
Last but not least, there’s the press release. In truth, this little tool is the most potent in your arsenal—and it’s also the hardest to master. If you have any doubt, go to Google, search on “press release” and read a few. You’ll be asleep in less than a minute: The world is full of flat, zestless writing that starts with “For Immediate Release.”

How do you buck the trend? First, you need to know the system. When you write a press release, you send it by fax or e-mail to the assignments editor at a local paper. By the time he’s had his third cup of coffee, he’s received, conservatively, 200 or 300 of these in his inbox. Thus, he’s apt to read them with an eye toward efficiency—a polite way of saying “over the wastebasket.” If you expect yours to be noticed, you have to catch his eye in the first paragraph, and better yet, in the first sentence. The best way to do this is to write honestly. Don’t hype

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