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Hidden away like some Cinderella before the prince discovered her, online pressrooms do not often attract much attention, much less a second look.

But like the fairytale character, online media rooms can offer a striking example of the power of Internet to transform a humble servant into an essential information hub.

Indeed, the ability to harness the power of the Web to market and communicate in new ways is the new competitive advantage—and companies that ignore that fact do so at their own risk.

What has happened?

The Shift from Mass to Micro Marketing

Until very recently, most companies used corporate Web sites as a kind of warehouse for official company documentation, and pressrooms as the attic where old releases were stored. However, information dissemination is traditionally conducted by mass communication, over mass media (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines), to mass markets.

This conventional approach relies on "pushing" information out to the broadest segments of users through advertising, PR, telemarketing and direct mail. These promotional tools don't go away in a world increasingly defined by the Internet. But, they are profoundly affected by the Web and a welter of new digital technologies, which are changing how we market and communicate.

This new marketing and communications model has changed how companies deliver information to their constituencies, and it has made this information easier to find, access and use. It combines both old and new communications approaches, media and tools.

But, increasingly, the new model is shaped by the concept of "micro" over "mass" marketing. Micro marketing is the term used to connote the ability to target and reach increasingly narrow market segments through new digital media and new digital tools—including email, blogs, wikis, webcasting, podcasting and more. And with RSS, a specification that allows for the sharing of content over the Internet where users can select or "pull" in just the content they wish.

Online Media Rooms

Online media rooms sit right on the nexus of the transition between old and new ways of communication, and they provide a stunning example of the power of Internet to transform a humble servant into an information hub.

Let's take a closer look.

Today, most online pressrooms are used to archive releases and to provide contact information to the press. Press materials are optimized for print and broadcast media and used to reach the large segments of users, such as customers, investors, editors, analysts, partners and employees. Other company information is hidden away—far from the information user and typically in small pockets or "silos" of information—and hard to access, find and use. As a result, journalists are lucky to find the archived press release they need, and in many instances even luckier to find contact information for a real PR person.

But new digital technologies are quietly changing all that—and the transformation is providing competitive advantage to companies that apply these technologies strategically.

Powerful database technologies can now take what was once a mountain of data, hidden away throughout the corporation, and place it where it can be organized and searched. Moreover, the Internet has enabled communicators to provide information on demand, 24/7, coordinate and control it, and make it accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Large companies—and small ones, too—can now communicate to an increasingly fragmented and diverse audience of customers, employees, partners, investors, analysts and reporters globally, speaking in a consistent voice—throughout the company and anywhere in the world. And they can do it faster and at far less a cost than with traditional methods.

Communications teams can now tailor information for a specific region, product or country and respond to breaking news directly affecting the company, its customers and partners. Press materials can be targeted to ever-more-narrow market segments, with information customized to meet specific needs.

For example, a wireless editor in Germany can now search for all the information related to products sold in that country, while a US financial analyst can find information relating to the sales to a specific industry—each using the same data base and pressroom.

From Pressroom to Media Portal

New online pressrooms can now distribute news through a much broader range of communications methods—from printable hardcopy materials to streaming media broadcasts—providing a richer, broader array of resources and services for editors, analysts and others. These can include streaming video and audio presentations, interviews, features, webcasts (Web broadcasts), webinars (Web seminars) and blogs (Web logs), along with more traditional printable materials such as press releases, white papers, backgrounders, articles and magazine coverage.

All of these can be accompanied by additional links, recommendations and suggested reading, enhancing the user's experience and knowledge base. In addition, all content can be optimized for search—not simply from the company's Web site or pressroom—but from any Web search engine.

In addition, a Media Resource Room in a company's news site can offer images, photos, company logo—and for broadcast media, b-roll and corporate videos.

Growing Importance of RSS

The growing importance of RSS as a mechanism for online information distribution cannot be overstated. Despite the current low adoption rate among companies. RSS is the HTML specification that allows for the sharing of content over the Internet.

While most companies will continue to distribute news in press releases format through "push" distribution, such as a mailing list, a news wire service or email, savvy companies are adding RSS to allow information to be "pulled" in by readers.

With RSS, editors—and other users—can select the exact information they need. Employees can post the requested information to a specific department's Web site while resellers and partners can bring the information right to their own sites.

A Case Study

Lest this sounds too much like a fairytale, I'd like to recount a conversation I had with the head of the online newsroom for one of the country's most highly regarded companies. I was interested in what I would find at a company whose name has been so closely tied to the Internet.

About four years ago, this company's communication department decided to streamline its communication operations in order to respond to a growing demand for information from press and external requestors that was beginning to strain scarce company communications resources. Moreover, the communications team wanted to insure that this large, global company would present a single, consistent voice throughout the company, and around the world.

The team also wanted to make information, which was scattered all over the corporation, more accessible.

In addition, the company was concerned about its ability to reach an increasingly fragmented and diverse audience of customers, employees, partners, investors, analysts and reporters—from all over the world.

There was also a growing need to tailor information for a specific region or product or country. Furthermore, the communications team wanted to respond to news directly affecting the company, its customers and partners as it occurred, and with a rich array of new media.

To accomplish this, the company transformed its online newsroom into a news portal built upon a powerful database that takes advantage of new digital media, with streaming video and audio capabilities. Now, users can search for very specific information by product, country or customer, and access that information in a variety of new ways. Moreover, users will find a much richer array of information resources from company videos to audio presentations.

These are supplemented with recommended links, resources and reading. And for members of the media, there is a special, Media Resource Room on the news portal that provides images, photos, company logo, and for broadcast media, b-roll and corporate videos.

So what happened?

In fiscal year 2004 the company reported a dramatic increase in the use of the Web site and media room over the previous year. The company now provides over 350 RSS feeds that any reader can receive by subject. And it also uses RSS feeds to alert customers to possible security issues. In 2004 the company provided over 630,000 video streams per quarter, while the number of standard press releases it sent out dropped by almost half, from 500 in 2003 to 300 in 2004.

Not only have communications dramatically improved with the introduction of the new portal (and communications intranet that was added two years later), the communications team estimates that it saved millions of dollars in productivity and headcount costs, deferred calls and a reduction in wire service use.

One area the company still needs to address is tracking, measuring and analyzing the impact of its content, media and delivery systems. This final element of the new marketing mix is perhaps the most critical in establishing and quantifying the value of marketing and communications, and in demonstrating the contribution both make to the bottom line. Right now, the use of RSS does not allow for analysis and tracking of who is accessing an RSS feed, but soon that analysis will be available. And, there are other Web analytics already obtainable which offer tracking and analysis of Web site and pressroom usage.

Not for Big Companies Only

Lest you think that online pressrooms are only for large multinational companies with equally large communications pockets, think again. Small startups and larger mid-sized companies can—and do—profit as much as their larger counterparts.

These companies can build or buy pressrooms and reap as much advantage. I am most familiar with hosted versions used by smaller companies. These hosted Media Rooms provide the PR and IT know-how of the sophisticated sites without the investment in time, money or technology. These hosted services appear as a Media Room on the company Web site and allow the PR person or communications team to control the content right from the desktop—without requiring mastery of HTML or additional technical skills.

Best of all, these sites provide traffic monitoring so that you can determine the value and interest in the press materials on your site.

Still Relying on Traditional

It is important to note that the company still relies on traditional forms of mass marketing as a foundation for marketing communications: advertising, PR, telemarketing and direct mail. Increasingly, however, these traditional tools are being used to complement new micro marketing practices and the use of powerful new digital technologies, internetworked and measured for impact.

It's hard to imagine traditional marketing techniques will disappear. But, the fortunes of many companies will depend on how well they adapt to a new economic model in the chaotic transition from an industrial society to a knowledge-driven economy.

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Robin Stavisky has headed her own Silicon Valley firm, New Venture Marketing, and provided strategic counsel to over 70 high-growth technology companies.