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Assessing the Internet as a Publicity Tool

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I am an Everyman when it comes to computers and the Internet. Just like most people, I got yanked online kicking and screaming because of my job. I’ve worked in public relations for well over 10 years-worked with the likes of mega-label Virgin Records, best-selling author Michael Crichton (still do!), the giant screen boy-band film *NSYNC: Bigger Than Live, and a host of other big-name clients-and it always struck me as slightly ironic that when the first PR firm I worked at got online, the whole place cheered. I mean, aren’t we supposed to “relate to the public?” How can you relate over a glorified typewriter? I had just gotten proficient at distinguishing a truth from a lie from a human voice on the other end of a static-filled phone and now this?! But these days, clients want publicity coverage via the Internet in addition to traditional print and electronic media outlets.

I am ambivalent about the Internet as a publicity tool. I don’t know if it’s just that it is new and untested, or that it is so time-consuming. Keep in mind that I may change my mind about all of this next week. Things move rapidly in this electronic world, and no one knows what’s going to happen next. If anyone tells you any different, they’re lying.

The main question in my mind is: Is it worth spending time trying to get a Web site to cover a new book? I don’t think so. At this point, I believe there are too many obstacles between the author and the end user (public) to justify the time and energy needed to get coverage from a site. Also, the payoff for the amount of time expended is not that great. You may sell two or three books, sure, but if it took three weekends to make that happen, is it worth it?

 

I agree with many people that the Internet is probably the most important marketing tool of the 20th Century, and now, the 21st. Never before has the consumer been able to learn so much about the world just by sitting in a chair and staring at a screen-not to mention the fact that consumers now have hundreds of thousands of choices if they want to buy a music CD, video, or a book that’s been out-of-print for 10 years. All of these choices are a direct result of the Internet.

Buying goods and services that have never been available to a lot of people is terrific. The problem is: How are people going to learn that these goods and services are available? One has to be fairly proficient at using search engines, and there’s a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat. It’s like trying to find the correct spelling in the dictionary when the reason you’re looking it up in the first place is because you don’t know how to spell it. It still takes time to search through all the results to find exactly what you are looking for.

Also, not everyone uses a computer. This can be for several reasons, including cost, technological familiarity, physical location, and access. If only a small portion of your target market goes online, what’s the point?

 

Considering all of these factors together makes it clear that the Internet caters to a specific type of person. And that type of person may not be the appropriate target audience for your book.

An argument can be made that the people plugged into the Internet are the same people who buy books: educated and middle-to-upper-income, generally speaking. But what about the executive who is constantly traveling? Or the housewife with four children to look after? Or doctors who work 36 hours at a shot? How often do they spend the time to search the Internet to learn about new books? I don’t know the answer to that and I suspect no one else does either.

New vs. “Traditional” Media

Many Web sites “repurpose” materials from their original source and aren’t interested in material from other sources (you, for instance), unless it has already appeared in their print counterpart. For example, some well-known newspaper and magazine Web sites do not include original material or stories. They take stories from the actual physical newspaper or magazine and upload them. Typically, they do not have reporters write new stories specifically for their site. The same thing holds true for news programs. CNN’s site is a natural extension of their broadcasts. If you don’t have access to a television, you can go on their site to check out the latest news.

 

Another thing that gives me pause about the Internet is experience. Traditional media have had the luxury of learning what works and what doesn’t over a long period of time. Newspapers and magazines have been around in one form or another since before Moses brought down the tablets. Cave dwellers were recording “the big woolly mammoth takedown” eons ago. Because newspapers, books, and magazines have been around for such a long time, we have come to expect a certain level of professionalism and integrity from them. The Internet has not been around long enough for us to trust it fully, in my opinion. Are the people creating these Web sites seasoned journalists? Are they held to the same ethical standards as traditional publications? Can they tell the difference between fact and opinion? I don’t know and that makes me nervous.

The Internet seems to be run by younger people. In many ways, I think that’s good-a fresh perspective and all that goes with it. However, a new reporter working for a traditional publication is mentored by a more seasoned editor. There are checks and balances for young journalists. Is someone watching at the upstart news sites?

Summing up, I’m not convinced that the Internet is a cost-effective publicity tool because:

• Searching for the right site takes time, and I don’t think most people have long enough attention spans.

• Many people still don’t have access to the Internet, nor do they know how to use it.

• Web site visitors may not be the target markets for your book.

• A lot of chaff is mixed in with the wheat.

• Repurposing of materials means that a site may not even consider yours if it wasn’t previously printed.

• Some Web site operators lack experience and integrity.

• Supervision and standards are weak both for personnel and for information.

The Internet is, of course, an amazing research tool. But that’s another story.

Joseph Marich Jr. is President of Marich Communications Inc., a literary, entertainment, and consumer public relations firm based in Beverly Hills, California. This article is adapted from his first book, “Literary Publicity: The Final Chapter,” published by Delmar in April 2001. For more information, go to http://www.marich-communications.com.

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