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Caveat Emptor: "Pay-forPlay" Media Outlets

There are a wide (and growing) variety of alternative media outlets currently pitching companies with media opportunities. Most of these are for television or cable broadcasts, with some radio and Internet. While some of them are valid opportunities, others are the equivalent of an infomercial, with high costs, low visibility, poor production values, and, most importantly, hard-to-quantify results. Some of these programs air very early morning on obscure local affiliate or cable channels – who's watching them?

If a company has a great story, it doesn't need to go the pay-for-play route. One client was recently considering shelling out $8,600 for a segment, which we advised against. Two weeks later, their spokesperson appeared on CBS' "The Early Show." While many clients won't appear on the highly competitive network morning shows, pay-for-play is often not necessary to secure coverage. And pay-for-play holds little credibility with financial and industry analysts, reporters at mainstream publications or programs, and other key audiences.

Aside from having to pay for coverage, pay-for-play opportunities often lack credibility because of the organizations that do appear on these programs. For instance, a recent ad in Forbes for "Summerall Success Stories" highlighted "companies and organizations that define 'success.'" Of the 25 organizations listed, 7 were law firms (including an organization that consults on sentencing issues), 3 were faith-based organizations (including a Church of Self-Realization), 1 each was a basement finisher, a restaurant fry system manufacturer; and a union local. Just as in an advertising buy, companies need to consider the right vehicles based on readership and on the other companies advertising there, companies considering pay-for-play must consider who else will appear on the program, and determine whether their audience is the same as that of a basement finisher.

If you are considering pay-for-play opportunities, a better solution is to participate in the many advertorial packages that Forbes, Fortune, Business Week and others regularly feature. At least this way you can measure your potential audience: it's the readers of these key publications, not some insomniac waiting for the latest Juiceman infomercial.

Key Internal Questions

Although there is no hard and fast rule that dictates which opportunities are always worthwhile or which are worth rejecting, pay-to-plays are typically at the very bottom of our list. However, each opportunity should be considered based on its own merits and based on helping meet the company's business objectives – not respond to a vendor's hard sell.

  1. Does the opportunity line up with current corporate (media) objectives?
  2. Is the vendor offering to tell a strategic story that maps to the company's goals?
  3. Is this a good use of the executives time?
  4. Will this segment help the company achieve its objectives?
  5. Is the timing right?
  6. Is this the best use of the money?

Below we have outlined some key questions to ask when an alternative media opportunity is pitched as well as a listing of those vehicles we are familiar with. Those listed in bold are ones that we would be more inclined to accept an opportunity.

Key Questions to Ask Vendors

  1. Is it pay-to-play?
    • If it is pay-to-play it is usually because they don’t have a subscriber base/audience.
    • Be careful: Some offer initial segments for free, but charge a back-end fee. One Web streaming "news" site charges a monthly fee to keep the segment's link live on their Web site.
  2. What are the production values like? Can we see sample segments?
    • For the most part, these outlets are not worth the fee (sometimes as much as $40,000) because the TV programs are carried by small, local, independent stations and air at off hours (Sunday at 4am). Production values are typically poor, which means even if they let you use the footage to be re-purposed, the quality is unprofessional.
  3. Who is the audience?
    • Can you clearly define your audience and HOW you measure and document that audience reach?
  4. Of my peer companies, who have you recently signed up? Can I see their video segments?
  5. If you're not talking to my peers, what other companies are you talking to? What other companies have signed up?
    • Are these credible organizations?
    • Are they trying to reach the same audiences?
    • What is the selection process to identify companies?
  6. If it's a broadcast opportunity (as opposed to online or VNR), when/where does it air?
  7. If there is no cost for us, how does the outlet generate revenues?
  8. For VNR vendors, how do you ensure stations pick-up the video segments you produce? What's your staff's newsroom experience?
  9. How do you back up your claims? (One VNR vendor claims that "you may not be aware, but you regularly view several of our news feeds every time you watch the news." Yet over several days, clicking its list of "daily" stories found the same message: "Story Not Yet Scheduled for Release.")

Web-based outlets that are not pay-for-play

  1. ON24: http://www.on24.com
  2. Yahoo FinanceVision: http://finance.yahoo.com
  3. VentureWire: http://www.venturewire.com/
  4. CIO Radio: http://www.cio.com/radio
  5. CNET Radio: http://www.cnet.com/cnettv/0-1519376.html?tag=st.ne.1012.re.direct
  6. InternetNews Radio: http://stream.internet.com/
  7. TechWeb Today: http://content.techweb.com/today/
  8. VNUNET Radio (U.K.): http://www.vnunet.com/Radio
  9. VirtureCast: http://www.virtuecast.com/
  10. Wall Street Transcript Advanced Services: http://twst.com/ – This is one that you might consider if the CEO has some free time in a media tour.

TV that is not pay-for-play

  1. CEO Exchange – One of CNN's star reporters, Jeff Greenfield is the host. It is produced by PBS through its Chicago affiliate, WTTW-TV. The show is sponsored, in part, by Business Week magazine. The program itself is a series of monthly one-hour specials featuring in-depth, candid interviews with two internationally recognized and respected CEOs in conversation about managing issues, organizations and technologies in today's rapidly evolving global marketplace. Each show also reveals the personal side of business as guests discuss some of the intangible values that drive their business strategies and decisions. Each program is recorded live on the campus of a prominent graduate school of business such as the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The shows have featured Thomas Stenberg, Chairman and CEO of Staples, Inc., and Raymond V. Gilmartin, CEO of Merck & Co. They discussed the topic of creating new categories, businesses and markets. http://www.pbs.org/wttw/ceoexchange/series/aboutceo.html

Print that are not pay-for-play

  1. MacReport
  2. Wall Street Transcript (part of http://www.twst.com)
  3. Wall Street Corporate Reporter: http://www.wscr.com/

Pay-for-Play

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