Dot-coms put best face forward

Being photographed wearing fuzzy-wuzzy bedroom slippers was probably the last thing that Paul Romanchuk, CEO of Norstarmall.ca, had in mind when he hired Maverick Public Relations last year. The fashionable footwear, however, played no small part in generating coverage for the...

Being photographed wearing fuzzy-wuzzy bedroom slippers was probably the last thing that Paul Romanchuk, CEO of Norstarmall.ca, had in mind when he hired Maverick Public Relations last year.

The fashionable footwear, however, played no small part in generating coverage for the launch of the new virtual shopping mall. Maverick sent out 55 pairs of leopard-print slippers to national media outlets, to underline the Norstarmall.ca slogan, ‘So real your feet hurt.’

Both the National Post and Canadian Business magazine took the bait. Not only did they do stories on the new venture, they ran photos of Romanchuk sporting the footgear used to attract their attention in the first place.

‘It was a major coup for us,’ says Julie Rusciolelli, president of Toronto-based Maverick.

The slipper stratagem serves to illustrate just how creative PR practitioners need to be when trying to build brand image and awareness for dot-com clients.

It’s a field in which the challenges grow greater every day. For starters, there’s the sheer number of new dot-coms entering the competitive arena. How do you stand out when yours is the hundredth dot-com story to cross an editor’s desk this week?

The nature of dot-com enterprises themselves doesn’t help, either. Lacking either a bricks-and-mortar presence or a cleverly packaged product on store shelves, a dot-com is an inherently faceless entity. It’s the job of PR, in this context, to help provide a face.

Rusciolelli says that public relations is playing an ever-larger role in the marketing communications strategies of dot-com companies. Many, she notes, are start-ups that have yet to secure full financing, and they know that public relations will deliver a bigger bang for their buck than advertising. Some have also come to realize that their story may be too involved to be told clearly in a full-page print ad.

‘If dot-coms have the money, they should do both [advertising and public relations],’ says Rusciolelli. ‘But whereas five years ago the first line item in the budget was advertising, today it’s PR.’

Every dot-com assignment presents unique challenges. Consider the case of another Maverick client, Excite.ca. This portal site has enormous brand equity in the U.S., where it ranks second only to Yahoo! But the Canadian market was expected to present challenges.

The key, Rusciolelli says, was to avoid treating the Excite.ca launch as a technology story – something that would bore much of the target audience. Instead, Maverick opted for a grassroots approach, targeting community newspapers across the country (approximately 1,600 in all) with tips on some of the ways consumers can use Excite.ca – from checking horoscopes to tracking investments.

‘There needs to be an understanding that you’re dealing with something ephemeral and complex that exists in a crowded space,’ says Ilyse Smith, vice-president with Toronto-based Hill & Knowlton, which serves such dot-com clients as MSN Canada and Etrade.ca.

Dot-coms, by nature, tend to do everything at high speed, Smith says, adapting and evolving constantly as the online world changes. And that, inevitably, adds a degree of difficulty to the job of the public relations specialist.

Take MSN.ca, for example. Since its launch in 1996, she says, the Microsoft online service has gone through several evolutionary stages. Initially, it was a content provider that operated much like a television network. However, as traditional content providers moved online, MSN.ca shifted gears, and now positions itself as a Web portal.

While MSN.ca enjoys widespread brand awareness, that doesn’t necessarily work in its favour. With so much new dot-com activity going on out there, Smith says, many journalists just aren’t inclined to take a second – or third – look at a story they’ve covered before.

Such was the challenge when Microsoft acquired the free Web-based e-mail service Hotmail. Hill & Knowlton’s job was to ensure that the buyout received more coverage than just a brief in the business pages. So the agency took the liberty of opening up Hotmail accounts for key reporters across the country, then printed up business cards that included their new e-mail addresses.

It worked: H&K saw a marked pick-up in Hotmail coverage soon after, Smith says. ‘And we still have one journalist who’s asking for refills on the business cards.’

PR practitioners must use every bit of creativity they can muster when trying to build dot-com brands, she says. That’s particularly true if the client happens to be targeting consumers – who, in general, evince little enthusiasm for technology stories.

Smith’s rule of thumb, in fact, is to avoid the high-tech angle altogether when aiming messages at the consumer audience. Most dot-coms, after all, aren’t selling technology – they’re selling a better way of doing things.

That’s certainly how Workopolis.com, the new online career service launched in January by Globe Information Resources and Torstar, positions itself. And the launch plan developed by Toronto-based Environics Communications reflected this, speaking to the dual audience – recruiters and job-seekers – in highly accessible fashion.

The agency organized a series of Workopolis-sponsored parties in major urban centres across the country, featuring musical acts such as Blue Rodeo and Natalie MacMaster. At the events, Workopolis logos were projected on the walls, and computers were installed in the clubs so that attendees could experience a product demo.

On the day of the launch, Environics also had people dressed in the garb of various professions – a construction worker, a Mountie, a chef, a judge – handing out flyers at Toronto’s Union Station during rush hour.

All that effort seems to have paid off, says Environics vice-president Nancy Evans. Since the launch, the number of career opportunities posted on the site has increased by 40%.

Business-to-business communication, meanwhile, poses its own particular set of challenges for dot-com enterprises.

As a rule, dot-coms targeting business customers need three things, says Lars Hansen, vice-president, technology communications with Toronto-based National Public Relations: investor relations efforts, a focused branding strategy and the ability to prove credibility to the target audience.

Customer-focused events can go a long way toward helping these enterprises build relationships, Hansen says. For example, in the case of new client Edispatch.com (which provides software solutions for wireless mobile workers), National plans a rollout at a series of business symposia this spring.

While business-to-business dot-coms generally have sound ideas, they often lack communications expertise, Hansen says. And in such cases it’s the role of the PR agency to help them understand that customers are the ones in the driver’s seat.

Also in this report:

* Branding dot-coms with PR poses challenges: Companies must resist impulse to move too quickly, or to shift positioning constantly p.B4

* PR meets investor relations: Disciplines converging in high-tech world p.B5

* High-tech PR expertise in short supply p.B6

* PR firms must show creativity in hiring p.B7

* Web impacting corporate reputation: Companies want to know what’s being said about them online – and by whom p.B8

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