Sunday, February 12, 2012

5 Tips On Selecting a PR Agency

  PR is dead, right?  Not really.  It has just morphed into something with much stronger social media and inbound marketing components.  

Unfortunately, many PR agencies / pros did not evolve, which makes it hard for marketing executives to decide whether their agency is effective or not, as well as picking the right one to partner with.

As we revamped our messaging and had several major announcements coming up, we decided to shake things up a little and went through the process of finding a new PR agency.  Here are tips that worked well for us.

1.  Set your goals.  What is the primary reason behind PR efforts in your company?  Is it to bring new business?  Raise money?  Get acquired?  Get noticed?  The primary reason will define the type of agency you will go after.  

In our case, the primary reason was business expansion.  We had over 500% growth last year and we are gearing up for more this year!  We wanted to augment our SEO and inbound marketing activities with increased social media, relevant industry press, blogger and vertical community campaigns.  We have also a major launch coming up.  All that made it a good time to look for the right PR / social marketing agency.

2.  Understand your target markets.  Who is your buyer and how do they find products / services like yours.  If you are marketing to SMB segment, it probably is not the most effective strategy to go heavily after top industry analysts and major publications.  A better strategy may be going to after tier 2 / 3 analysts that blog a lot, as well as vertical communities, bloggers, etc.   

3.  Define success criteria.  How do you recognize the right PR agency when you come across them?  Here is my high-level checklist:

- Industry experience.  It is much easier to work with an agency that has experience in your market segment.  They typically know your sub-segments, market trends and competitors.  They would probably  have have ideas what worked and what didn't in terms of messaging and launch / marketing strategies.  They would most likely have relationships and a database of contacts with key industry figures, analysts, bloggers, and journalists.

Otherwise, you may find yourself spending lots of time bringing your PR agency up to speed in all these areas.  It would take time for them to build a database of contacts, build relationships, etc. 

- Inbound marketing / social media experience.   You would be surprised how few agencies "really" have these skills.  Most claim they do.  70% of the ones we looked at, did not have these skills.  20% thought we would win if only we could be active on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.  Clearly, we don't need a PR agency for that level of social media presence.  Finally, 10% really understood what it took to win the "inbound marketing battle" with detailed plans and tools that went far beyond the typical social media efforts.

- Track Record.  We wanted to see previous success stories with other clients.  In all fairness, there is only certain level of success even the best PR agency can bring to a company.  However, you can look at their past / current clients' press releases, media coverage, SEO rankings, and messaging and get an idea on how creative is the agency.

- Available Resources.  If a great PR agency is slammed with work and more clients than they can handle, you may not get the attention you need for your success.  So, it is critical to find an agency with enough resources and time to dedicate to your success.  It is also important to find out who specifically will work on your project.  You would want to be comfortable with that person's background, attitude, availability, etc. 

- Proximity.  In this day and age, proximity seems to be not important.  There is Skype, email, IM, and social media for effective remote communications.  That is mostly true.  

All other factors being the same, I much rather work with an agency that is local.  For example, we have spent two days with our new PR agency in person to kick off our upcoming launch planning.  I can't imagine having the same interaction quality, chemistry and results via Skype, con call or email.  

- Attitude. It is critical to find a PR agency that REALLY wants your business.  There  are plenty of stuck up, unfriendly agencies out there.  It will be very ineffective and frustrating to work with them.  

For example, one of the finalists presented really well at the first pass.  However, during the second meeting their attitude turned into, "we get enough business without you" and "you should feel lucky that we are taking you as a client," "sign the agreement now and don't waste our time."

There is no place for an attitude like that.  If they are acting this way before getting the contract, imagine how difficult would be to work with them through the launch when you need their presence most.

- Budget. There is a wide spectrum of prices - from a few thousand dollars a month (typically from PR contractors) to tens of thousands dollars per month (from "high end" PR agencies.)  More expensive does not necessarily mean better quality.  It could mean overhead, bloated infrastructure or just arrogance.

The "stuck up" PR agency was double the price of its competitors.  They "justified" it by more services they provide.  However, after looking in-depth, they were offering half of what others were providing.  

This said, I would warn against the "nickel and dime" approach.  You have to recognize a good deal and know when to stop the bargaining process.  PR agencies are in business to make money as well.  If we are not being fair to them, the relationship may not last.   

4.  RFI. After you know approximately what you are looking for, try to obtain a list of PR agencies that are active in your segment, as well as the ones you have worked with before.  Send out an RFI (request for information) outlining things you are trying to accomplish and what kind of help you are looking for.  You can easily find templates online.

5.  Proposal / Selection.  We ended up with around 50 RFIs sent out.  We got 12 responses.  Picked 3 finalists.  We invited each one of them to pitch the final proposal with expected results, resources, dates, plans, etc.  This step brought some surprises too.  The strongest candidate at the RFI stage turned out to be a "fluff" agency. 

However, #2 agency came in very strong.  We were very impressed with every single attribute of their final proposal.  And we made our selection.

Once the selection process was over and we signed the contract, the winning PR agency came into our office the following week for a 2 days kick-off session.  We refined out social media / inbound marketing plan,  brainstormed on the messaging,  and assigned specific action items.  So far, we are very happy with our choice.  

The proof will be, as everything in Hack Marketing approach, in our launch success and the delta in the overall metrics we have identified.

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