The Real ROI of the Press Release

Last Updated Aug 13, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

A year and a half ago, if you had tried to Google either the Next Level Wellness Center or its founder, Dr. Vasili Gatsinaris, you would have had to wade through 16 pages of search results to find the first mention of either one of them. Then in early 2008, the company's publicist Donna St. Jean Conti began issuing monthly press releases for $200 each through PRWeb, a wire service that distributes releases to 30,000 online publishers. Total amount of press coverage the releases generated? One mention in a local magazine — but that's not the point. When the press releases started popping up on page four of Google search results, Conti knew the investment had paid off. "Our primary goal was to make it onto Google," she says.

Well-written press releases have lost much of their power to generate actual news coverage. Journalists suffering from information overload rarely have the time to slog through the number of pitches they receive daily, so publicists bank on their relationships with them to get coverage. If press releases have any potency now, it comes from showing up in Web searches and, hopefully in the process, raising a company's profile online. Thanks to online distributors like PRWeb, your release can become virtually ubiquitous on the Web. But don't be fooled. That's not the measure of success.

Inside the Shotgun Approach

In exchange for anything from $80 to $1,400 and more per press release, big syndicators such as Business Wire and PRNewswire use the shotgun approach, sending your corporate announcement far and wide to news desk terminals, across RSS feeds, and to hundreds of Web sites. Generally, the larger the audience you want to reach, the higher the price. For an additional fee, most distributors will also optimize your press release by inserting links to your company’s Web site and keywords that are likely search terms, both of which can boost a page’s ranking in search results.

Here’s how it works: Many of the Web sites on the receiving end, including Reuters and MSN, will simply republish the announcements, links and all, usually in remote corners of their Web sites reserved for press releases only. The average MSN Money reader probably won’t find the release as she scans the news, but search engines will. The more Web sites republish the release, the more Google recognizes the page as legitimate and the higher up it will appear in search results. For example, if 5,000 Web sites link to a vinyl album collector’s home page, and 10,000 Web sites link to a rival site, Google ranks the latter as more relevant when people search terms like “vinyl albums” and “vintage 45s.”

Why That’s Not Good Enough

According to many clients, paying for press release distribution pays for itself: JKS Communications’ Julie Schoerke says a Business Wire release boosted the traffic to her tech client’s home page from around 100 to about 30,000 per week after the first send. And the doll accessory small business Emily Rose Home Party produced a better return on mailing list sign-ups after issuing a PRWeb release than by using Google AdWords. But as they say in the weight-loss and anti-aging cream commercials, “Results may vary.” Blasting your press releases all over the Web may be a cheap way to get Web traffic, or it may just waste your money. Here’s why:

You may not fool the search engines for very long. Companies may find their releases on everything from well-known Web sites like Dow Jones MarketWatch, CNBC.com, and Yahoo News to the obscure and often irrelevant Earthtimes.org, Congoo.com, and Ad-hoc-news.de. Cincinnati-based publicist Bill Mefford’s travel destination announcements have ended up on soap opera destination Soapdom.com and Spanish-language stock-trading site Bolsamania.com. Book publicist Jennifer Heinly touted a word-of-mouth marketing title geared for small businesses, and found her release reprinted on ScrapbookUpdate.com, Retail Business Coffee Trends, Needle & Handicrafts, and ChainLeader.com. When links to your Web site pop up on a page that has nothing to do with your business, it’s not always helpful, says independent SEO consultant Dan Rosenbaum. “If your only backlinks are from distribution services, it's a good indication that no one cares about the news you’re putting out and search engines will understand that.”

And you really can’t fool customers for long. On the Web, Google searchers are looking for credibility in the form of third-party reviews and recommendations, not a long list of identical press releases. So even if you use a release distribution service to put yourself on the map, you quickly have to generate real human interest in your business. Encourage customers to go to review sites such as yelp.com to rate your services, and reach out to bloggers who write about your industry.

Traffic isn’t money. Flinging your press releases to remote corners of random sites is pointless unless the tactic eventually leads to cash in the till. So before you know whether a PR blast paid for itself, you have to know what the people it attracted to your site did once they got there. “PR Newswire and Business Wire provided us with analytics regarding how many times the release had been viewed and a list of which sites picked up the release, but they couldn’t give us any more specifics,” says Liz Castoro of PR firm JS² Communications. Press release syndicates can offer basic click-through numbers, but you need more than that. Scott Steinberg, who handles PR for digitaltrends.com, says that the lack of hard numbers “at least from an executive budgeting standpoint can make paid press release distribution a tough sell.” The key to getting good ROI is starting with a clear goal, like increased sales or more mailing list subscribers, and having your own site analytics in place to know whether the increased traffic is helping you reach that goal. “Traffic for the sake of traffic doesn’t do any good — it costs you money,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s what you do with the traffic once it gets to your site” that really matters.

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About the Author

Drew Kerr is president of Four Corners Communications, a New York City-based public relations consultancy that specializes in digital and traditional brands. His clients have included Maxim, AOL, driverTV, Sporting News, Mochila, INVIDI Technologies, and the Acerno predictive ad network.