Some Techno Thoughts on Getting the Word Out

In my job as a corporate web guy, and in my capacity as a compulsive organizer of events, I have had a lot of cause to ponder the use of technology to promote what ever it is I am involved in. Here are a few random thoughts for others in the same boat.

First, if you are promoting something, you need to be able to say what it is in a few words--preferably one sentence. This sentence should encompass all important aspects (live music, dancing, research support, computer repair, topless car wash... whatever), and should avoid excessive hyperbole. I am not a fan of exclamation marks! These smack of desperation! If the thing you are promoting is worthy of attention, that attention should be grabable by a simple explanation of what you have on offer. Some call this a "value statement".

Note: this is not the same as a press release. It is far more succinct and direct. While your press release should be consistent in message with your other communication, it is addressed to a different audience with different needs.

Once you have your value statement, put it on a flier. Your flier should have a large banner headline with the thing you are promoting, and a single eye catching graphic, and a minimum of text. Think of a flier as a road sign that must be read at 65 mph. Of course, you should also include administrative information like cost, how to pay, location, time, how to contact, website etc. in smaller type.

I think the flier is a useful intellectual exercise since, if you are doing it right, it helps you streamline your message and clarify your "brand" (your event name, theme, look etc.).

This flier can be sent out using traditional mail, posted at suitable places and left out at related events and venues. I am all for posting and leaving out. I am not a fan of traditional mail. Printing and postage have gotten awfully expensive, and life is too short to spend it folding, addressing and stamping fliers. These days, the people who are not connected to the internet are such a minority that they can, in most cases, be safely ignored.

This flier should also be a PDF download from your website. The core of the website should be the same message as the flier, and share the theme and other "branding" details with your flier. However, the website allows you to offer online payment options (thanks Paypal), interactive directions and a place to display photos and video of past programs, which helps new customers understand what you are offering, and brings old customers back as they look for images of themselves and their friends.

The website needs to be clean, free of excessive text and hyperbole, and offer your customers all they need "above the fold". This means that your event description, payment options, time and place, navigation menu, and email sign up should appear on the first screen your visitor sees. He shouldn't have to scroll down to find important stuff.

If you've done it properly, your visitors will be signing up for an email list when they visit your site. Email is the most pervasive and effective tool currently available for contacting your customers. However, it is not without its pitfalls.

If you have a large list, you will quickly find that the anti-spam limitations of your email provider will make sending out a message to be a daunting task. You may need to break your mailing into batches of 50 or so and then wait between mailings. Also, if you are doing this, be sure to put people's addresses in the "BCC" field, so that you aren't sharing every address with the other 49 people in the batch.

You may quickly find that AOL or Yahoo mail is just not doing the job. You may then want to consider automating the process. This can be done several ways.

You can, with the help of your web host, install a mail management program on your server. I use SubscribeMe. This gives you complete control of your list, but you do run the risk of getting blocked by folks like AOL.

You could use a service like "Constant Contact" to manage your list for you. This is better for getting around spam blockers, but does limit the number of messages you can send, and involves a regular fee.

Which ever way you go, when you send messages, be sure they follow the same rules of clear and succinct communication you used with your flier, and do not spam your clients with excess communication. Contact them only when you have something useful to say.

Beyond these, there are now a lot of new tools available.

Facebook offers the option of establishing explicit relationships with your clients, and allows mass communication without the need for mail management software and without the peril of spam blockers. Unfortunately, most of your potential clients probably aren't on Facebook. So, I would suggest creating a Facebook "Page" or "Group", and then linking to it from your website. This means you will need to send messages twice (once to the email list and once to the Facebook group). You can however, take the liberty of communicating more regularly with this group than you would with an email list, provided you don't overdo it.

Interestingly enough, the VAST majority of groups and pages on Facebook are utterly passive, and are more about people self-identifying as being involved in particular things--but that doesn't mean you have to be passive. Facebook offers powerful tools, and you should use them.

There are other social networks available to you (Tribes, MySpace, Tagged), but for reasons that I may go into in another post, I would not suggest investing much effort in them.

There is also RSS. This is a syndication tool that allows people to subscribe to a regular news feed from you, and using tools like "Feed2JS" even post your feed to an infinite number of web pages. However, so few people understand or use RSS that it cannot be relied upon for mass communication. I use it to supplement other activities and broadcast content to multiple web pages, but don't expect it to do much beyond that.

A tool that automatically generates RSS is the "Blog". I won't define a blog, since if you are reading this, you are already familiar with at least one. The blog, with its serial postings, would be most effective for those who have a continuing relationship with their clients. I could see it for a musician, who could mention upcoming gigs as well as reflect on past events, philosophy of life etc. I could also work for a teacher. Susan deGuardiola has made an excellent use of her "Capering & Kickery" blog for a combination of education and promotion.

Which brings us to the latest in "Web 2.0": what I would call "micro-communication". This would encompass text messaging and "Twitter". These two tools, which are often combined into one, allow you to send very brief messages to any number of people, and with Twitter, even post it to a massive community where even more people can stumble on it.

If what you are doing lends itself to that sort of short-burst communication, and if you have a younger crowd who are tuned into that, then this could be useful. However, this is a niche tool -- even more so than Facebook.

In all your communication though, remember the 65 Mph message you composed for your flier, keep it simple and keep it consistent, always be ready to respond to feedback and questions, and be willing to fine tune your message based on that interaction.