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Direct marketers increasingly use news releases for SEO purposes

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The online news release is, more and more, augmenting how marketers reach out directly to their customers, driving online traffic and generating leads. In the process, the rapidly evolving phenomenon demonstrates the use (and sometimes abuse) of online news releases in ways that public relations practitioners had never envisioned.

“The traditional use of a press release had always been to announce news and to enhance thought leadership, but people hadn't thought of it as a marketing tool before,” said Mihaela Vorvoreanu, assistant professor of communication studies at Clemson University, in Clemson, S.C., and one of the authors of a new study about online news releases.

“Of course marketers also want to announce news, but increasingly they use news releases for search engine optimization, driving click-throughs to their Web sites, and to reach customers directly,” Vorvoreanu said.

Vorvoreanu's study, “ROI of Online Press Releases,” was conducted under the auspices of The Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) in the spring of 2008 both online and by telephone. Its 423 respondents were evenly split among marketers, public relations practitioners and small-business owners.

“Marketing has hijacked the traditional press release and repurposed it,” Vorvoreanu said. A new form of news release is often the result, filled with keywords and phrases with lots hyperlinks.

Making it discoverable
“You can post your press releases to your own Web site, and if you do a good job with search engine optimization, it will be discoverable,” said Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, a corporate communications consultancy in Concord, Calif. “Even better is getting it on wire services so it shows up in aggregators like Google News and Yahoo News.”

Holtz said news releases that are digitally rich can greatly augment their usefulness to marketers. In addition to the textual content, ingredients might include embedded video or audio, RSS subscriptions for corporate updates and tags so the release is found easily by the blog search engine Technorati.

Online releases also can be easily posted to the social bookmarking site Delicious, for later access and sharing.

Since marketers are using news releases as a direct-marketing tool, it pays to do it well. For news releases intended for user groups or blogs, Vorvoreanu suggested outlined, bulleted formats, rather than the traditional narrative approach.

She also said good headlines and subheads that include keywords are essential, as are keywords embedded in the body of news releases. Outbound hyperlinks within the news release—to the corporate Web site, for example—should be augmented by inbound links from other Web site pages to drive up search-engine success.

The use of news releases as a marketing tool can have some unforeseen negative consequences, Vorvoreanu noted. When poorly targeted, worded or distributed, they not only won't accomplish marketing's search engine marketing efforts, but could harm brand prestige, she said.

“One colleague told me of a marketer who sent out the same news release every day for three days in a row, hoping to have search engines pick it up,” she said. “This could be very annoying to journalists.”

The key to keywords
She also noted that marketers, in their efforts to laden news releases with lots of keywords to enable it to rise in search engine rankings, can create jargon-filled text that's opaque to most humans.

“The risk for marketers is that they may look at online news releases too much as a tool, and not enough as a channel through which they can tell a good story,” said Jiyan Wei, product manager with Vocus, a software and database company serving the public relations industry, based in Lanham, Md.

“Marketers focus on what they do well, which is optimizing the press release for search,” Wei said. “But they may forget about the time and thought that's necessary to tell a good tale.”

Vocus owns PRWeb, which distributes news releases over the Internet via RSS. Wei and Holtz were co-authors with Vorvoreanu of the SNCR study.

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