I seldom recommend an ad campaign until a press release has tested the media, and has proven that we can get a qualified response from the target audience. We don’t always get in with our press releases, but we always try.
On the flip side, for industrial marketing, an ad is the logical conclusion to a successful press release campaign. A client should be willing to take out an ad schedule after a successful press campaign shows the media and the market can be profitable.
Press releases are simple, yet complex instruments to write. Simple because they can take almost any form and still be published. Complex because every element adds to or detracts from your chances of being published. Additionally, releases can be so general that they serve very little of the marketing function (i.e., they produce no inquiries, no prospects, and no sales), or they can be written to draw the maximum response from the best qualified prospects. Which would you like to have published?
In this article I will spend a paragraph or so on the basics of a press release, then discuss how to make your releases effective. Finally, I’ll reveal the secret formula (Shhh — make sure no one is reading this article over your shoulder) that magazine editors use to select the press releases they will publish.
How Is a Press Release Used?
A press release is a one or two page write-up of your product or service in a “news” style of writing. It’s sent to magazines and newspapers, usually with a black and white photo. The magazine sets the type, and when it appears in print, it looks like an article the publication wrote. It’s always published for free. Everyone likes new products, even magazine editors, and the editors know that their readers like new products too.
The chance of having your release published depends on the quality of your release and the publication. Industrial magazines are easier to be published in because their circulations are smaller, their audience more focused, and less publicity material is aimed at them. They are also more “market friendly,” what’s good for the market they serve is good for their readers.
It’s much harder to get your release published in consumer publications. It’s like shaking hands with the Pope — you can do it but usually not without a great deal of trouble and expense. The numbers tell you why. Industrial publication circulation figures are usually 5,000 to 30,000, the latter being a fairly big industrial magazine circulation. They are almost always under 100,000. With consumer publications, a circulation of 100,000 is small if you are shooting for the general interest magazines like Newsweek or House Beautiful. Targeted market publications (like Runners World or Field and Stream) can be less, but either way the amount of releases they get are staggering.
First, let’s make sure your release is strongly considered for publishing, then we’ll make sure it’s effectively written to generate the maximum response. After that we’ll look at the (shhh) secret process.
The Importance of a Professionally Presented Release
The closer you can come to the accepted standard for writing press releases, the greater your chances for being published. Why? (1) The standard format makes it easier for editors to read, scan, and edit. (2) It tells editors that you know what you are doing, and your organization will be a responsible firm when dealing with their readers. (3) Well-presented releases add credibility to your offer, and editors will feel their readers will receive a good product.
Any editor in his or her right mind would never accept a release from a firm whose marketing material is poorly formatted or is full of typographical errors. They believe the product is probably like that too. Most editors get so many releases they simply can afford to be choosy, and they are. And they have a very good reason; it’s their neck on the line when the release is published. A poor selection of editorial write-ups can get the editor (or publisher) a lot of calls from disgruntled subscribers.
Essential Parts of a Header
The top of the release is called the header. It is separate from the body copy and contains background information about the release material. Make sure it contains a release date, for example, “For Release May 1996.” If your news can run anytime, say “For Immediate Release,” in large bold print. Send releases two to four months prior to the publication date of the magazine, one to two weeks prior to the publication date of the newspaper where you’d like it to appear.
The header also contains a line stating “For Additional Information Contact:” followed by your name, company, and phone number. After that, give editors a kill date. State “Kill Date” and the date after which you no longer want your release to run. If it’s o.k. anytime, state “No Kill Date.” The header presents information at a glance to the editor about the background of the release.
The Biggest-Benefit Headline, and the Benefit-First Release
Like in all the ads I write, I write the objective of the release first. Since I can’t sell the call as hard as in an ad, my marketing objectives of a press release are usually to generate the maximum number of inquiries and orders from qualified prospects.
Start with a great headline. Write the headline with as much thought and care as you would write a headline for an ad. Capture at a glance the major portion of your market. An easy way to do this is to start the release with a headline that offers your biggest benefit. The formula for an effective release headline is NEW PRODUCT OFFERS BENEFIT, BENEFIT, BENEFIT.
Just like when creating an ad, the headline of your release will determine how many people will read the rest of the release. So offer benefits, benefits, benefits. And you’ll get response, response, response. An example: “New lightweight tennis racket offers easier swing, faster ball speed, and is less tiring.” When this is your headline, every tennis player will read it and continue reading the rest of the release.
Editors cut releases from the bottom, so keep all the important stuff at the top. The editor knows anything cut from the bottom of a correctly structured release won’t be missed. So continue the benefit of the headline into the first few lines of your body copy. “A new lightweight tennis racket that won’t tire you out when you play has just been introduced by the Racketeers. It offers more accurate ball placement, better control, and is easier on the elbow than heavyweight rackets.”
See how many benefits are crammed into the first two lines? And chances are 98% they won’t be cut because they’re the first two sentences. In the Benefit-First type of release, the most important information is found at the top of the story. Benefits presented in the first two sentences won’t be cut. Nice formula, isn’t it!
Crafting the Body Copy of the Release
Keep writing the body of your release in an inverted pyramid style, with the most important information at the very top of the story. Whatever style of writing you select for your pitch, make it sound like it’s “news.” If it sounds too much like an ad, or if the body of the release is written with too much sell, it will take too much time for an editor to rewrite. The result is that it won’t get rewritten; it will just get tossed out.
Then double-space the body copy of the release. When releases are reviewed, the editor goes over them with a red pen and strikes out anything that does not conform to the style and content of the magazine. He then marks brief copy changes inside the double-spacing, and writes instructions to the production department in the margins. So leave big margins too. Anything you can do to make the editor’s job easier and faster gets your release closer to being published.
At the very end of the body copy of the release, write “For Additional Information Contact:”, then your company name, address, and phone number. After your street address, put the word “Dept.” with an underscored line after it. The magazine will insert their publication’s initials in this block when they publish your release, so when you get inquiries you’ll know from which publication they came.
Try to confine your release to one page, with the body copy double-spaced, and use very small type to cram more in. If your release runs over one page, don’t break a paragraph in the middle — end the first page at the end of the last full paragraph, type “MORE” at the bottom of the page so editors will know to look for another page. If there isn’t one, they’ll know it’s missing. Start the next page with a fresh paragraph.
Releases end with the number sign typed three times (###) or asterisks (***); either set of marks signals the end of the release. Busy editors appreciate this.
If you are writing a release to be published in a particular magazine, read some of the other releases in the magazine and copy the magazine’s particular style of writing. Write directly to the audience of the magazine. When you send your release, mention the name of the column in which you’d like it to appear. Editors are flattered by people who take the time to know their magazine and direct their energies specifically to it. To increase your chances of being published even further, include a personalized letter to the editor with your release.
How to Include Photos
If it’s a photo release, include a crisp black and white 5″ x 7″ or 8″ x 10″ glossy finish photo, unfolded. Also, note: the envelope size you’ll need for mailing photo releases is larger than a standard number 10. If there is a crease or fold in the photo, it won’t be usable since the crease will show up when printed.
The correct way to identify a photo — and your release photos should always be identified — is to take a shipping label or file folder label, write the product name, your company name and phone number on it, then stick it to the back of the photo.
If you write directly on the back of the photo, chances are the pen or pencil will push into the emulsion side of the photo (front) and scar the photo, making it unusable. Editors know this scar will show up if the photo is printed, so it won’t be.
If it’s not obvious which end of your product is up, write “TOP” in very small letters in the top white photo margin. If an editor doesn’t know which side is up, he won’t guess — he’ll simply toss it out and use another firm’s release.
Send a photo with each release (not separately). Photos are never returned, so don’t ask. If you need it, have a duplicate made before sending it out.
The Selection Process:
Viewing a Release as an Editor
Let’s take a look at a press release from the other side of the desk. At this moment, you are the editor.
It was unusually cold and damp when you awoke this morning, and your wall heater still hasn’t been fixed. Too bad you ran out of coffee over the weekend. Looking at life through bleary eyes, you shower, dress, and get into your car still groggy and tired. As you drive to work, it starts raining hard. You can’t ever remember seeing such a heavy volume of cars on the expressway, even for a Monday.
Even though you left 15 minutes early, you arrive at 10:15, an hour and fifteen minutes late. On the way you had encountered a five-car accident which blocked traffic. There are nine phone messages written in various hieroglyphics on scraps of paper on your desk. You can read only four of them. There are 12 voice mails, one from the publisher asking you to come into his office when you get in to prepare for a 9:30 meeting with the magazine’s largest advertiser.
Sitting at your desk, you look at the imposing volume of press releases. Three days are left till the closing of your gala Back-to-School issue. In a stack to your immediate right are about 80 releases. In a stack to your left, there are four unfinished stories, and three uneaten slices of Monday’s pizza in a box from Luigie’s. Everything is marked for your “immediate attention” for the upcoming issue, except the pizza. This backlog of work happens every month around the closing date of the publication.
So how do you, the editor, pick out releases? First, you look through them, and throw out all the ones that don’t give you double-spaces between the lines so you can comfortably make your corrections. This cuts the pile by about a third. It gets rid of the novices. (Now you understand why your releases should be double-spaced.)
As the editor, you additionally trash all the ones that don’t look good: smudges, typos, fingerprints, poor photo copies; figuring if the release doesn’t look good, or if the photo isn’t crisp, the literature your readers will receive — if anything — will be of the same quality. This may reflect poorly on your magazine. So you throw them out. These first two steps take about a minute. (Remember: submit neat, clean-appearing releases, double-spaced, with good sharp, in-focus photos.)
Now you go back through the pile of about 40 releases, knowing you have room for about eight in this issue. Each month some people write with a ball point pen on the back of their photo exactly what the photo is, the release information, or their own version of War and Peace. So you check for writing on the back of the photos, you won’t be able to print these without the writing showing through, and you toss them out too. You see this mistake every month. Some people never learn.
The pictures with no identifying information on them could get imposed incorrectly in the production department, so you throw them out too! Well, that was easy. If it were earlier in the month, you could now take a break. You’d go for a nice lunch, or for a beer. But since things always back up around the closing dates, you have to keep working. You start eyeing the pizza carefully. Is that a mushroom, or did it just move?
The acceptable product releases are now reviewed for newness and freshness, newsworthiness, and evaluated for proximity to your editorial style. Is there a good industry match? Will it be of interest to your readers? Does it look like a good product to introduce? Is it well designed? Are your readers going to be happy or disappointed if and when they get the literature, or if they order the product? If everything clicks, the release advances to the next level.
With about twenty releases surviving, and no other possible way out, you read them. The ones needing the least amount of rewriting make your job easier — and that slims the pile down to about fifteen high-quality releases. But this month you have room for only eight.
Shhh… The Secret Process
So you, the wild-eyed magazine editor now with eight cups of coffee under your belt at just 11:30 a.m., go to the top of the stairs, and throw all the remaining releases up in the air directly over your head. The eight that land on the top few stairs get in, and the rest that floated downward are trashed, or saved for next month’s consideration. And that’s why they call it editorial, because they all don’t get in, and marketers like yourself have to submit to this “part hand-picked” and “part random” selection process that dictates what runs and what doesn’t.
What I mean by this is that there is a great element of risk that your release won’t run, no matter what you do. At the last moment you can get bumped for any reason, or no reason at all. You have to accept this as part of the mystique of the press release, as opposed to an ad which you purchase the space for, and it absolutely does run.
What are your chances of being published? For a new consumer product release, 5%. To an industry trade journal, 20%. If you are known to the industry or your product is industry specific, perhaps 40%. If you call the magazine and speak to the editor personally, your chance for your release being published may be as high as 80 or 90%, from just the one phone call. But the release must still be formatted and written correctly.
Summing It Up
Keep your releases as close to the standard format as possible. It shows that you know what you are doing, the product is probably good, and readers will be happy with you and with the magazine for giving your product firm editorial support. It’ll also get you to the top of the stairs. After that, it’s up to gravity and the luck of the float to get your release in print.
© 1997 Jeffrey Dobkin
Jeffrey Dobkin, author of How To Market A Product for Under $500 ($29.95), now has a second book, Uncommon Marketing Techniques ($17.95) which includes 25 of his latest columns on small business marketing. To speak with Dobkin, call 610/642-1000.