Three quarters of the PR email I receive is irrelevant. Why?
By Josh Bernoff
As promised in previous posts, here is the analysis of all the PR emails I got in the last half of January.
For the record, I really like working with PR people, I just don’t like all of their tactics. If you find this to be a bit too much navel-gazing, perhaps you're right. But after 14 years as an analyst, I've received tens of thousands of these emails, and I thought it was time to look into how effective they might be, how they got to me, and why. My intent is not to bash PR, but to provide some data we can gnaw on as we think about how much effort goes into this activity, and what value might come out the other end.
When reading this, keep in mind that as an analyst, I get many of the same types of emails as reporters. My inbox probably looks like other "influencers" -- people, including bloggers and analysts and authors, that companies want to reach, especially because reporters and customers may ask our opinion. This is not an attempt to replace our professional advice to analyst relations people, as provided by my colleague Kevin Lucas. It's just a personal response to what I see every day.
Methodology. For a two week period, January 15-28, I tracked every single PR email I received, a total of 114 emails regarding 88 different companies. I didn’t count PR emails trapped in my spam filter. I sent each emailer a reply with a short personal note and a request for more information on how they use email for PR -- more on those responses later.
- Relevance. I'm starting with this since it's the most instructive. It's purely subjective, but since I'm the target, I get to judge it. Amazingly (I never counted before) more than one in five of the emails I got were completely irrelevant, like the German-language newsletter and the release that reveals "Tony Duquette Files Infringement Suit Against Michael Kors.” Who are Tony and Michael? I have no idea, although Tony is apparently dead and his company designs clothing. About half related to industries I used to cover; I haven't been a TV analyst for a full two years, but apparently once you're on the list, you're on the list. The remaining 27 emails at least had a shot at relevance, and a total of four of them (4%) were actually interesting news I would look into.
Significance. This is just sad. An awful lot of effort is going into sending me the three-quarters of PR emails in my inbox that have little or no relevance to me, to my clients, or to you. This makes the whole PR industry look bad -- it's the tragedy of the commons, and the reason that Chris Anderson and boing boing had to fight back against the onslaught. Please stop the waste and spend your effort reaching out to people, personally, who are likely to care.
- Sources. 57% of the emails came directly from somebody at the company being promoted. The rest were evenly split between PR firms and mailing services (either wire services or emailing service providers like Constant Contact).
Significance: Companies both large and small feel they can do this themselves. The big guys are professionals. The little guys save some money this way, but don't tend to be as professional in how they handle lists.
- Timing. This was an interesting time period to review since it included a holiday and the very big event of Barack Obama's inauguration. The most popular day to send PR emails was the day after inauguration day (since, I suppose, it included all those releases that didn't go out on the previous two days).
Significance. What day it is doesn't matter to me, but it does to those who work for weekly magazines, which is why Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are the most popular.
- Personal touches. 56% of the emails came from a person, while 29% came from an obvious machine address. (The rest came from a machine address with a person's name attached.) 15% had my name in the body, the rest did not. Three of the 114 emails had a delivery priority of high.
Significance: Neither I nor anyone else receiving these emails is stupid enough to think that the personal touch of adding a name by itself makes a difference. As for the delivery priority, that's just silly -- whatever you have to say, it's not that important. (If you tell me that adding a name or boosting the delivery priority increases the open rate, I would ask if that is a true measure of anything of value in PR emails.) However, when you say "Josh, I read your latest piece on . . ." (and get it right), I will pay more attention. I can recognize a PR email a mile away so the From address doesn't affect this, but an email from a person has one big advantage: if I am a little interested, I am far more likely to respond by hitting "reply".
- Getting off the list. Two-thirds included an instruction to unsubscribe, either a link to click or text along the lines of "If you no longer wish to receive emails from this company, respond to this message . . ." Every single email from a mailing service or a wire service included the appropriate instruction, because these services know the spam rules. PR agencies were the most likely to omit such an instruction.
Significance: I am an analyst, I am not your friend. This is not an informal little note to a bunch of your friends, it is a PR email. The implied but unwritten message "you can always email me if you have a problem" is not sufficient; I would respect you a lot more if you had the nerve to include an instruction like "if these sorts of emails aren't relevant to you, email me back and let me know." If what you've sent me is interesting, that won't be a problem. If it isn't, you've at least shown me that you respect me. (One PR agency that I think is among the best convened a meeting after receiving my little survey, and decided they would change their policy in just this way.)
- Format. About one fourth of the emails were newsletters. Another 44% were releases of some kind -- some with a note, and some with a link in place of the release text. 14% were promotions of an event of some kind, and another 14% were just a note.
Significance. A newsletter is a fine way to package up a bunch of information. But since I didn't care that much about most of these companies, this just made it a package in a nicely formatted box that's easy to ignore. Of the "news" formats, the note is the best for me -- it's informal, interesting to read, and likely to spark interest in me (especially if the note really is personal). A note with a release is better than a release. Most releases have so little news content in proportion to the number of words, they're the bran muffin of PR techniques -- and these days, statistically speaking, the little news nuggets don't tend to be very interesting. (I love those ones about how somebody's CEO is speaking at an event, or somebody got a customer -- that's a real sign of desperation, folks.)
I am contributing this in an attempt to be constructive. PR professionals, show it to your boss or your client when they insist on the broadest possible distribution. Channel your energy into targeted, personal outreach to a few people whom you care about and know about, and you’ll do much better. And our inboxes will thank you.
Coming soon: what I learned from the 18 people who answered my survey.