New Technology, Old Problems: Securing Ink for Cutting-Edge Tech


Back in 1996, software developer Eric Robichaud decided to eschew retail channels and sell his Rhode Island Soft Systems line of utilities and computer games via e- commerce. While Net denizens had no problems adapting to e-commerce, Robichaud found a significant problem trying to convince the tech media to write about his Net-exclusive products. Ten years ago, many tech media writers and editors were convinced that products not available via retail were not worth covering. "I was surprised the media did not take download-only products seriously," recalls Robichaud, who today directs technology marketing as the CTO for ETR Consulting in Woonsocket, RI. "By the late 90s, it seemed the Web had become a daily part of business life, and everyone had business e-mail addresses. It was very odd that the press wouldn't take the products seriously if it wasn't sold at a store in a box - and the bulk of all software products were being distributed electronically by then. More curious to me, however, was that the press didn't want to accept photos and press releases electronically - they still wanted old-fashioned slides and paper faxes." Fast-forward to 2006 and Robichaud notes promoting new technologies is still something of a challenge. "It seems that every day there's a new technology," he says. "But unique can be a challenge too, if people don't 'get it' yet. Not too many people were writing about VoiP back 10 or 15 years ago. If a product is seen as irrelevant, it's going to be hard to break through." So how can today's PR professionals successfully promote new and different technologies? Ready, Aim, Etc. As the tech industry reinvented itself in the years following the dot-com bubble burst, so has the tech media. Needless to say, many media and promotional opportunities that existed as recently as five years ago are no longer in place. "I remember when a few technology trade publications looked more like the Sears catalog," says Jonathan Stotts, director of public relations for Cartesis, a business performance management software solutions provider in Norwalk, CT. "Now the pubs that survived may only be one-tenth the size they were at the start of 2000. Back then there were a lot more technology companies fighting for a bunch more editorial pages. As a PR practitioner, there was too much noise. Even if you got a full page article in Red Herring, you were only 1/200 of the issue." But Stotts is not nostalgic for the old media set-up. "I think the technology press and industry maintain a fairly consistent equilibrium," he says. "Right now is a great time to be pitching to the tech pubs because each outlet and article has a lot more influence than it did at the peak of the tech bubble." New media opportunities also help to spread the high-tech word. "Bloggers are an important part of any media outreach, particularly technology," advises Jeremy Pepper, president of POP! Public Relations in Scottsdale, AZ. "The key is finding the right blogs, the right bloggers to speak to - and not just the well-read ones, but the right vertical blogs." When Mark Bruce, president of HiTechPR in Rye, NY, was preparing the 2004 U.S. PR push for the ColorPeak multi-primary TV technology from the Israeli manufacturer Genoa Color, he arranged product demonstrations with a select number of influential bloggers who would be most receptive to this particular technology, including one outlet that focused entirely on the history of color television (a perfect fit, since he was promoting ColorPeak as the new wave of color television). For Bruce, the big surprise came in discovering new media was rich with not-so-new writers. "Most of the bloggers we talked to were in their sixties, seventies and eighties," he says, with a laugh. Of course, high-tech PR also includes providing updates to the analyst community. Even privately-owned companies have to do the PR dog-and-pony show for the analysts today in order to stay on the high-tech radar. For Keira Shein, partner in Arlington, VA-based agency WilkinsonShein Communications, the analysts are not only a target for promoting new technology, but they're also a resource for keeping abreast on the industry. "Working in this realm, our job entails translating the complex works of engineers into powerful business and marketing messages that translate our clients' value proposition," says Shein. "Working with technologies such as optical components, we are challenged on a daily basis to keep up with the latest technology innovations, both by our clients and their competitors. We overcome this challenge by staying apprised of the latest developments in our industry through reading trade publications, analyst reports and conferring with trusted analysts to make sure we have a thorough understanding of the technology, its benefits and its emerging role in applications." The Time Is Right In high-tech PR, as in life, timing is everything. Trade shows generally offer a specific point on the calendar for new product introductions. Michael Becce, CEO of MRB Public Relations, Red Bank, NJ, believes this venue offers the best of all worlds. "We have always found trade shows to be very effective in generating media placements as they enable clients to show new technologies to journalists (many are in areas inappropriate for media tours) within a few days," he says. "It also provides a forum to meet with analysts and media in a face-to-face session, which establishes relationships on a different level than over the phone." However, standing away from the crowd can also have its advantages. For Tom McFadden, marketing communications manager at Aethra, Inc. in Miami, getting media attention is often best obtained when the competition is quiet. "My primary challenge has been distinguishing our product, from a news standpoint, from other products," explains McFadden. "In our industry (videoconferencing manufacturer), the differences between products are microscopic. All manufacturers follow ITU standards, so no one is charging out of the gates with groundbreaking technology. Timing has allowed us to overcome this challenge. We released our newest line of products this year at a time when not much else was going on in the industry." But Does It Work? Of course, the challenge in promoting new technology is showing that it not only can work, but that people are willing to talk about it. Arranging beta tests and securing glowing case studies is still a must-have to prove a new technology's worth. "PR for B2B software in the U.S. is all about customer success stories," says Stotts at Cartesis. "People just don't put their career on the line by buying unproven software solutions. Before making purchasing decisions, prospects look for the opinions of their peers. That is why it is critical for Cartesis to share customer success stories with the mass media." If no case studies are available, a memorable demo can help sell the story. When Mark Bruce was preparing the PR promotion for the Genoa Color television technology, there was one rather noticeable problem. "We had no product and no patent," he recalls. "We had a prototype that looked like one of those kids' science experiments consisting of a circuit board, three office projectors and a DVD player." But despite this awkward situation (or perhaps pushing it due to its off-beat nature), Bruce persisted and used it for one-on-one demos. "People saw the demo and left convinced," he adds. "The editorial board of Popular Science saw it and brought us back for another demo. It wound up winning their 2004 Grand Award for Home Entertainment in their "Best of What's New" issue, beating RCA, Sony, Microsoft and HP." For Eric Robichaud, the lessons he learned in 1996 still seem to be relevant. "Ultimately, I think that today's media requires the same approach that we took 10 years ago," he says. "Build credibility for the product, and the media will take notice." Contacts: Eric Robichaud, eric@etrconsulting.com; Jonathan Stotts, jstotts@cartesis.com; Jeremy Pepper, jeremy@poppr.com; Michael Becce, mbecce@mrb-pr.com; Mark Bruce, info@hightechpr.com; Keira Shein, keira@wilkinsonshein.com; Tom McFadden, tom_mcf@yahoo.com

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