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Is Sending Out a Press Release Really Worth the Money?

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This story appears in the December 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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So you hired a PR firm. And on the eve of your first big announcement, your new rep lays out a plan for a press release. This press release will go everywhere, the rep says, to thousands of outlets, with a potential audience of nearly 100 million people. He gives you a lot of other numbers as well. You don’t quite understand them, but then you’re not a PR person, and 100 million people is a lot of people. Sounds great, you say. And out it goes.

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You’ve just participated in the press release industrial complex, a system in which the only guaranteed outcome is that public relations agencies, newswires, distribution services, content aggregators and media companies all make money. One company that distributes press releases, Comtex, says it processes up to 80,000 of them a day. Kevin Akeroyd, the CEO of another such firm, Cision, says, “The overall volume of press releases both in the U.S. and globally, as well as price per press release, is at an all-time high.”

But, what about you, the entrepreneur paying for all this? The value you receive is less certain. To understand why, first you need to understand how this system works. Which means following the money.

Everything starts with the PR firm, which will charge an entrepreneur hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to write a press release. Then the firm will use some of that money to distribute the news through a variety of “press release newswires.”

Related: 4 Ways to Get Publicity on a Budget

Pricing varies, but one such firm, PR Newswire (which is owned by Cision), has a program that charges customers $795 for the first 400 words of a release and then $205 for each additional 100 words. Once a press release is posted to a newswire, it gets distributed to top-tier outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance, CNBC and MarketWatch. But, that doesn’t mean it arrives as editorial coverage, where it’ll be promoted through, say, Yahoo Finance’s social media accounts. Rather, it will most likely be posted to an automated section dedicated to press releases. The areas are clearly labeled; Market­Watch, for example, has “Press Release” written at the top and “The MarketWatch News Department was not involved in the creation of the content” at the bottom. (There are also middlemen at work that, frankly, are too complicated to get into here. But, they make money, too.)

These press release sections — some of which newswires pay to post on — don’t get many readers. They serve mainly as a way to drive incremental ad revenue for the publishers. Nevertheless, there are enough of them that the newswires can produce impressive-sounding audience numbers — often by tallying individual websites’ total monthly users, rather than the actual number of people who viewed the press release. Clients who use PR Newswire, for instance, may get a 32-page report full of charts, numbers, brand-name journalistic outlets and feedback like “Your release has generated 245 exact matches with a total potential audience of 90,730,143” — which is an exact quote from a report one publicist showed us.

Little of this, of course, creates actual news. Instead, it creates “the optics of news,” says Jon Bier, founder of Jack Taylor PR. “I don’t think the people picking up press releases are journalists wanting to write about that product. They’re websites designed to pick up press releases so PR folks have websites to show they picked them up. It’s an industry speaking to itself.”

“It’s become borderline useless,” says Ed Zitron, CEO of EZPR, a San Francisco-based media relations firm.

Take the following press release, which ran on one of the press release newswires, BusinessWire, and was picked up by MarketWatch: “State Street Global Advisors Strengthens U.S. Intermediary Sales Team.” The release ran on Yahoo Finance, NASDAQ.com, The Street and 21 other media outlets — mostly random local radio and TV news station websites (like KEYC in Minnesota and NewsChannel 10 in Amarillo, Tex.) that have nothing to do with banking, or Boston, where State Street is located.

Related: How to Get Booked in the Media and Get Publicity for Your Business

Jason Kintzler, CEO of Pitchengine, a company that builds tools to help PR folks better connect to audiences, believes many PR agencies are fleecing clients by leading them down this path. If you’re blasting out a press release to everyone, he says, it’s exclusive to no one, and the likelihood of a reporter being interested in a story — typically the main objective of a press release — drops. Real coverage is then replaced by a bunch of metrics many people don’t understand. “Part of it is that — as an industry — we’re lazy,” Kintzler says. “Many people are just going through the motions: I do it. The clients are happy — it says it went to a billion people.

Press releases do have their defenders. Some PR folks argue that releases provide trustworthy information for reporters. The theory: Reporters can most likely trust a press release from Procter & Gamble because the information should have been vetted through legal and compliance teams. And press releases can serve a purpose — legal requirements for public companies, distributing important information in one fell swoop or increasing the odds that a company’s official statement will appear in web search results. “Press releases are still useful communication tools that media and analysts and financial reporters reference,” says Jacqueline Chen Valencia, partner at the marketing and communications firm Connective Agency.

They can now also be directed to the right audiences, says Akeroyd, CEO of Cision. He says press release distributors are now “SaaS-ifying” — modernizing to work more like targeted advertising. Instead of blasting a release out into the void, he says, companies can now use data to theoretically reach better audiences, and PR agencies can now track the efficacy of a press release, measuring not just the reach but the actual revenues driven by the press release.

For example, let’s say I’m a CEO. My ad folks come in and say they bought a trillion impressions. From those trillion impressions, we got a billion clicks. Those billion clicks turned into a million website visits, which turned into 100,000 sales. On the other hand, my PR people come in and say we got “covered” in Yahoo Finance and 400 other places. They talk about coverage and share of voice, not actual sales. It’s vapor. But, with better data and measurements for press releases, Akeroyd argues, the PR people can better measure how their press releases supported broader business objectives.

Related: 12 Most Common Writing Mistakes You Want to Avoid at All Costs

So where does that leave you? Simple. If you feel you’d benefit from hiring a PR firm, ask a lot of questions. What model will it follow for press release distribution? Is there a strategy? Can it be attached to hard revenues? Can it demonstrate fruitful relationships with actual human journalists in your actual field who have written actual news stories about other clients? If not, keep looking.

“Our job is not to throw information against the wall,” says Bier from Jack Taylor PR. “It’s to tell a story to the right person at the right place at the right time. Spamming on the wires can’t do that.”

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Unilever Turns Up the Heat on Facebook & Google Over Tech’s ‘Unintended Consequences’

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Unilever has issued a stern warning to digital platforms including Facebook, Google, and YouTube: do more to improve transparency and clean up the “swamp” of fake news, exploitative, and socially divisive content, or be cut off from its multi-billion dollar digital advertising budget.

CMO Keith Weed recently spoke at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual leadership meeting held in Palm Desert, Calif. CNBC quotes him as saying, “We need to redefine what is responsible business in the digital age because for all of the good the tech companies are doing, there’s some unintended consequences that now need addressing.”

Two of the most important consequences being referred to include the threatening of safety of users, especially young children, and loss of trust by consumers and companies at large.

While it’s unlikely that Unilever will turn its back on the two largest digital platforms, Weed’s words matter because of the sheer amount of ad budget Unilever holds across its portfolio brands. MediaPost reports that in 2017, the company spent approximately $9.8 billion on marketing and advertising, a quarter of which went to digital.

Beyond the public denouncements, Unilever is also working with IBM to develop a blockchain with which the company can more effectively reduce ad fraud via a record of what media is purchased and how it is delivered.

A separate MediaPost article shares YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s response to Weeds comments on Monday. In her own statement at Recode’s Code Media conference, she assured,
“We want to do the right set of things to build [Unilever’s] trust. They are building brands on YouTube, and we want to be sure that our brand is the right place to build their brand.”

Recent efforts we’ve seen in support of this include significant updates to its Creator Program policy. Further, in light of the recent Logan Paul controversy involving a video in which a suicide victim was filmed inside a Japanese forest, the company has suspended running ads on his channel, per Ad Age.

While brand safety is a concern on the minds of many marketers, Unilever’s public comments this week indicate that brands are viewing the issue with a much broader lens, and seriously questioning the role these platforms play in people’s everyday lives, beyond the world of advertising. In this important cultural moment, people are looking to brands and platforms to assume responsibility and be proactive to keep their spaces safe, trustworthy, and suitable for communities.

To further explore the overarching question of how technology, including digital platform giants, can be used to bring us closer together versus further apart, join us at SMWNYC April 24-27. Register today and save 20%.

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Facebook’s Next Step in Building Community: $10M in Grants

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Facebook has made several important announcements as of late the support its mission to create more “meaningful communities.” The latest? Investment in a newly announced Community Leadership program designed to support its community-building leaders through a variety of residency and fellowship opportunities that offer training, support, and funding.

Here’s how it will work: Facebook will name five “community leaders in residence” and provide up to $1 million each to fund their proposals, in addition to providing them with the opportunity to attend a customized leadership development training session.

Moreover, Facebook will select 100 individuals to join its fellowship program and receive up to $50,000 each for a “specific community initiative.” They’ll also participate in four in-person gatherings during which they will have the chance to meet and collaborate with other fellows.

Another key initiative in the works? Expanding Facebook’s “engineering team for community safety,” which is headquartered in London. In particular, the company hopes to double the number of employees focused on such efforts including detecting and stopping fake accounts, protecting people from harm (e.g harassment and scams), and making it easier to report content, by the end of 2018.

Further, Facebook outlined new tools for group admins, including page personalization options (e.g. color and the ability to pin announcements to the top of the page), the ability to create and share group rules; and more features to monitor Group Insights.

Outside of its Communities Summit, but along the theme of ensuring time on the platform is time well spent, the company also confirmed last week it was testing a downvote button that would allow users to provide feedback on comments in particular. The downvote button is being tested within a limited group of U.S. users for the time being.

This is not to be confused with a “dislike” button, but rather a more “lightweight way for people to provide a signal to Facebook that a comment is inappropriate, uncivil, or misleading”—this according to a Facebook spokesperson quoted in TechCrunch.

Here is what the button looks like in action:

Image via TechCrunch.

As the screenshot depicts, the user will have the ability to select whether the post was found to be “offensive,” “misleading,” or “off topic,” the choices aimed to help guide Facebook’s course of action with respect to the particular piece of feedback.

Forbes adds that, the downvote option in its test mode only applies to public posts as opposed to Group posts or the Pages of public figures. It also doesn’t affect the ranking of the post and the number of downvotes a post gets won’t be publicly shared.

These initiatives by Facebook to reverse some of the negative perceptions of its role in society come at a critical time as brands and citizens alike are putting more and more pressure on the world’s leading tech platforms to course-correct their products for the safety of their users. Just this week, Unilever threatened to yank ad dollars from Facebook and Google due to the company’s growing dissatisfaction with their overall impact on society.

“We cannot have an environment where our consumers don’t trust what they see online,” stated Unilever CMO, Keith Weed, to the BBC.

Learn about Facebook’s increasingly complex role in society by joining SMWNYC April 24-27. The conference will offer multiple sessions designed to explore where brands and platforms fit into tech’s future in our world. Register today to secure your pass.

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5 Ways Cryptocurrency Can Help Entrepreneurs in 2018

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Cryptocurrency has revolutionized the way we transact value, invest our savings and raise capital with its decentralised digital cash system. Blockchain technology is a once-in-a-lifetime invention; never before in history have we been presented with such a breakthrough in financial technology. In 2018, entrepreneurs are well positioned to become early adopters of blockchain technology.

1. Raising capital

Cryptocurrency has disrupted the way early stage companies raise capital. With initial coin offerings, startups around the world can raise money quickly and cheaply from a wide pool of global investors. The valuation of a company is almost immediately reflected by the market, a process that has traditionally been challenging for early stage businesses. Shares are issued as tokens and tradable almost immediately, bringing large amounts of liquidity to the company.

Related: IPOs Are Boring But You Must Keep an Eye on These 9 Initial Coin Offerings

This new approach to raising capital has changed the world and enabled the best technical talent to build their companies at high speed. In 2014, a teenager from Canada called Vitalik Buterin raised money for his startup, Ethereum, through an initial coin offering. He wanted to improve on Bitcoin’s blockchain and create a platform for people to build unstoppable applications. With just a whitepaper and a vision, he was able to successfully raise $18 million for his new blockchain, which was valued at over $100 billion as of January 2018.

2. Transacting value

Cryptocurrency enables us to transact value between peers without a centralized authority. It provides a cheaper, faster and more efficient alternative to traditional payment networks. As a company, accepting cryptocurrency payments is becoming increasingly efficient, saving on fees and bringing faster settlement. Soon, startups will no longer need to go through the long process of setting up a business bank account to receive and distribute funds. In 2014, Overstock.com became the first retailer to accept bitcoin, receiving over 800 orders worth $126,000 in bitcoin in the first 22 hours. It has since amassed a $403,000 portfolio of cryptocurrency.

Related: 5 Essential Podcasts for Entrepreneurs Serious About Cryptocurrency

3. Investing for the future

For entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency may be the investment opportunity of a lifetime. Never before in history have retail investors had investment access to high growth early stage companies. Traditionally, venture capital funds and private angel investors have held monopolies on access to investment in the world’s best technical talent. Cryptocurrency provides a gateway for anyone in the world to invest in the world’s most exciting technology, allowing retail investors to own a basket of high growth companies. For example, through the decentralized method of blockchain investment, teenager Erik Finnman was able to invest in Bitcoin in 2011, becoming a Bitcoin millionaire at age 18. These types of investment stories would not be possible with traditional private venture capital fundraising.

Related: Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain Anymore

4. Developing on the blockchain

The blockchain offers powerful infrastructure for companies to run their technology and create entirely new business models in a trusted way without a centralized authority. Blockchain technology is already revolutionizing the way startups create value. The Ethereum platform allows companies to build unstoppable blockchain applications quickly and for free. One example of a company leveraging the Ethereum blockchain is OmiseGO, a payments company that is using blockchain to provide banking services for the world’s 2 billion unbanked population. Blockchain technology is a cost-efficient way of building decentralized applications that can scale to a global population.

Related: 6 Cryptocurrencies You Should Know About (and None of Them Are Bitcoin)

5. Joining the blockchain community

The blockchain community offers access to some of the world’s best entrepreneurs, who are actively investing, advising and building upon the blockchain. Telegram, Facebook, WeChat, Slack and WhatsApp groups have proved popular in building communities of decentralized blockchain investors who can communicate with each other on a daily basis. Many large investments in early stage technology companies can be coordinated within minutes, a process that would traditionally take months in traditional venture capital. For example, in 2017, Brave’s Basic Attention Token sale sold out of its $35 million offering within 30 seconds. The blockchain community offers a strong sense of purpose with all members committed to a common goal of advancing blockchain technology to global adoption.

Related: How Digital Wallets and Mobile Payments Are Evolving and What It Means for You

Cryptocurrency provides a platform for entrepreneurs to raise capital quickly, cheaply and efficiently. Entrepreneurs can transact value through the blockchain at high speed with limited setup costs and invest in high growth technology companies at an early stage. Platforms like Ethereum allow entrepreneurs to build decentralized applications to a global audience for free. The blockchain community offers access to some of the top entrepreneurs, engineers and investors in the world and in 2018, cryptocurrency will continue to provide a viable means for entrepreneurs to create value in the world.

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7 Ways to Get Recruiters and Job Offers to Come to You

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“You are your own brand, and you need to build that brand and promote it as much as possible. It is important that you start building your brand online, because this is where employers are going to be looking for potential employees,” suggests Dima Midon, an expert from TrafficBox. Use all of the online tools at your disposal, particularly LinkedIn, which is a professional network that allows you to really promote yourself as a professional, and someone who is an expert in your field. This is a great tool for job seekers. Make sure that you keep your profile up to date, especially when it comes to contact information, so when an employer searches you, they will be able to contact you if they are interested in learning more.

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