The “@”. Fanmail for the 21st Century

I spoke to a few digital marketing people at Sony this week about Twitter. How it works and how it is being used by celebrities and music artists in particular. It got me thinking about how fanmail has changed and the potential implications for pop stars.

When I was growing up in the 1970/80s a fan letter to a pop star was something that took a lot of time and effort.

First of all you had to have an idea of where to send it. If the address of the record company wasn’t on the sleeve such research would probably involve a trip to the library. Next you would probably need to hand write the letter. Then put it in an envelope, walk to the Post Office, buy a stamp and put it in the mail. Then wait…and wait…and wait…and wait some more.

If you were really lucky then perhaps, after what would seem like an inordinate amount of time later, you would get a two line letter back from some faceless person saying thank you for your letter to XXXX. Please find enclosed a picture of XXXX or something similar.

The sender would be over the moon and would probably dine out on this story in the schoolyard for weeks – their friends clamouring to see a glimpse of the picture. Oh and of course i you were really lucky it would be a SIGNED picture – WOW!

Now fast forward to February 2009 and I am an up and coming artist using MySpace and Facebook to connect with my fans and build up a community around my music. I am able to publish new material, announce things like new tour dates in advance and give them an insight into what I am up to. Fans can chat to each other and build their own networks based on their shared interest in my music. That schoolyard has got a lot bigger.

However if a fan writes on my Facebook wall they probably accept that it is more of a promotional tool rather than me personally and might more readily accept that I won’t be responding individually to everyone. In a sense the site itself is a 21st century multimedia version of the standard picture fans got in response to their 1970s letters.

But a true fan still wants a SIGNED one. Something personal just for them. Now let’s say the artist joins Twitter. Its easy for them to do (assuming their name is available), after all they only have to type up to 140 characters a few times a day maybe, and all from their mobile. Not a great deal of time to invest. Next thing they know they have 5,000 followers, then 10,000. The artist themselves only follows a handful of fellow music industry people and their “real” friends.

Then those followers start @ing them like crazy. Because the difference to the 1970s is that now the fans’ required investment is really low as well. It takes them seconds to @XXXX from their own phone and they know it goes to XXXX directly. Suddenly in this world fanmail goes through the roof. What do they do? Ignore them? But that might lead to some really upset fans. Respond to every tweet? Very time consuming. Delegate responding to someone else? Yeah but now it’s not authentic and will the fans respond badly to this?

It’s all too soon to tell. But what one can see is that in the 1970s the volume and expectations of fanmail were low as it took a lot of time to send a letter and it was to someone so remote that any response was fantastic.

On Twitter the potential for volume and expectations to be high are real and artists need to consider the potential issues around this before diving into this exciting new world.

3i Online Media Presentation video

Last November I presented at 3i‘s offices in London to a group of their portfolio companies. Others who spoke that day included Deborah Saw of Citigate and Philip Stafford of the FT – so I was definitely not top of the bill :-) .

The video below is an extract from my session giving an overview of the online media world. It’s sort of an extended remix of our recent animation. Not as pretty, clearly, with me in it and longer at 15 minutes. For those online experts out there I doubt there will be much that is new, but for anyone else it might be worth putting the kettle on and settling down with a cup of tea/coffee – after all you can always pause me after 30 seconds :-)

Online Media Presentation from RealWire on Vimeo.

Corrections: For anyone that watches I have subsequently established that Earth Times doesn’t only publish articles regarding environmental topics. Not sure if this is a change in recent months or whether I imagined it and Facebook did exist at the 2004 presidential election but didn’t have quite as many members!

If Freakonomics covered the pitching issue

The provision of pitches by the PR Industry to the receivers of news would appear to suffer from a significant level of inefficiency in the allocation of resources. This is due to PR suppliers charging too high a price for a given level of demand. Over supply to the most in demand journalists leads to frustration for them, and a lack of productivity and efficiency on the part of the PRs, causing reduced profitability.

To improve this situation the industry needs to invest, either internally or via external suppliers, in ways of reducing the price and/or correctly segmenting the news market such that each pitch can achieve the maximum return for the time invested.

The Price of a pitch

Price in this equation is the Price a receiver of PR pitches pays per story they subsequently produce. Before I expand on this a bit of background. Andrew Smith posted last Friday on the topic of pitching and the frustration journalists experience with activities such as phone calls asking “did you receive my email”, the latest being Charles Arthur at the Guardian.

As well as being a chartered accountant I am also an economics graduate (sad I know) so I thought I would try to provide a Freakonomics like perspective on this issue – hence the equation. (By the way if anyone is as sad as me and wants some more detailed graphs etc relating to this analysis then please just let me know :-) )

Getting your story covered is an issue of supply and demand

Supply – the stories pitched by PRs.

Demand – the journalists, bloggers, editors, publishers and broadcasters need for interesting stories for their readers/audience to help fill column inches, web pages, airtime.

The receivers of news choose to write, talk about or publish- the story and therefore it is they who are making the “purchase”.

The Law of Supply and Demand

In a market supply and demand are brought into equilibrium by the price mechanism.

Suppliers want to supply more product as the price rises. Consumers demand more product as the price falls.

At the equilibrium price (PE), the equilibrium quantity (QE) is produced and consumed ensuring an efficient allocation of resources.

The “Price” of a story is a function of the time invested and interest level

From a receiver of news perspective i.e. editor, journalist etc I would suggest that the Price that the receiver of news is prepared to pay to “purchase” a story is the time I have to spend per story that I talk about or publish i.e. the equation at the start:


Investment of time includes the time it takes to review emails I receive, telephone calls made to me – chasing, pitch or otherwise – and meetings, interviews etc.

News market segmentation

The news market though is not a homogenous one. Not all receivers of pitches have the same level of demand.

(It is also worth noting that demand for PR pitches probably shifts on an almost minute by minute basis depending on the availability of other material for articles, blog posts etc but I think I should leave the concept of elasticity of demand and substitutes for another day!)

In demand journalist (Charles Arthur) scenario

The most in demand journalists are highly likely to be generating articles on their own without needing to rely on PR pitches as much for their material. Consequently their demand for pitches is low and consequently the price they are prepared to pay is low – see graph above.

The PR community on the other hand wants the most in demand journalists to talk about their pitches the most and so these journalists probably get sent the most emails, receive the most calls and yet will use the least stories because their demand is low. The effect being that the PR suppliers are expecting this market segment of consumers to consumer a high quantity of product at a high price.

The result – excess supply of pitches in this market segment.

Market implications

In reality there are multiple demand curves as there are many different types of receivers of news.

The best performing suppliers will either be the ones that are able to lower their prices across the board for all receivers and/or ones who segment the market such that they charge the right price and supply the right quantity in each.

For example a publisher of a niche market website publication who has limited in house resources to produce content may see pitches as a good source of material and therefore be prepared to pay a higher price.

Implications for the PR Industry

So how should PRs (and RealWire) seek to improve the situation for Charles and all the other receivers of releases?

Based on my formula above the Price can be reduced by

– Decreasing the investment required of the receiver
– Increasing the proportion of interesting stories they receive

Decrease investment:

To achieve this you need to do things like:

– Make sure they are as relevant as you can make them
– Ensure that the title tells the story effectively, reducing time to establish interest
– That they are in a format that makes receiving easy e.g. no attachments.
– Give them options for how to receive the pitch e.g. RSS

If you have taken the time to do these things well it is more likely that the recipient will invest the time at least reading the subject header of your email. It is then also a question of tracking usage to see if the recipients of your pitches cover any of your stories and trusting that if you have done these things well you don’t need to call everytime.

Effect? Reduced investment on the part of the recipient through reduced emails, less time to establish interest in the story and reduced phone calls.

Increase proportion of interesting stories:

This is clearly a trickier area as a lot is about message, creativity and having compelling stories to tell. I won’t get into what makes for a newsworthy story here as others could cover that far better than I.

However there are other ways of increasing the interest in your story such as using multimedia content – images, audio, video – including links to relevant websites for further information, and including background documents such as technical specifications.


The provision of pitches by the PR Industry to the receivers of news would appear to suffer from a significant level of inefficiency in the allocation of resources. This is due to PR suppliers charging too high a price for a given level of demand. Over supply to the most in demand journalists leads to frustration for them, and a lack of productivity and efficiency on the part of the PRs, causing reduced profitability.

To improve this situation the industry needs to invest, either internally or via external suppliers, in ways of reducing the price and/or correctly segmenting the news market such that each pitch can achieve the maximum return for the time invested.

Monty Python and the 0.5% base rate cut

I replied to a question posted by @wadds this morning about when the base rate economic stimulus would kick in. My answer was that the problem is there is little point in reducing the price of something that you can’t buy.

As I have said before many lenders are not passing on cuts unless they have to contractually and consumers are trapped in current deals because of reducing equity levels. The reality is therefore that for many the base rate reduction doesn’t have much impact.

For businesses it is great as long as they have a fixed margin above base rate. But with most overdraft facilities being on annual terms these margins are likely to be revised upwards offsetting the impact. That is if the facility isn’t pulled completely of course.

Hence the second part of my answer to Wadds. It is like Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch. What’s the point of advertising something if you haven’t got the product to sell? Quantitative easing, printing money or any other term you like to use might solve this problem though it could have its own risks. Arguably like waiving chocolate bars in front of someone who is trying to lose weight! Still it would at least mean that the shop would have more products to buy.

IMHO though the real answer lies in creating true wealth not manufactured wealth. To do this requires investment in the one part of the economy that actually creates real jobs – the SME sector. As I have also said in the past the current government has actually taken steps to discourage this not the opposite. Next month Mr Darling should announce radical tax and spending plans to boost the prospects of the engine room of the economy and link this to the government’s apparent Digital agenda. But I won’t hold my breath.

Anyway enough of this lets get to the best part of this post! For anyone who hasn’t seen this sketch before I heartily recommend it and for anyone who has it is always worth another look :-)

Dublin, Guinness and your website analytics

I had a great time last week speaking at the Net Imperative Digital Roadshow in Dublin. Apart from enjoying a great pint of Guinness :-) I found out that Twitter is alive and well in Ireland with over 20 active users in the audience.

As part of my presentation I covered using your website statistics to help you plan and measure the success of your online PR activities. For those of you who aren’t yet active in the online world the following is a (slightly) edited version of an article from my latest Fresh Business Thinking online PR newsletter which covered this topic.

How your website analytics can help your online PR

One of the great things about the Online Media World is that nearly everything you want to monitor or measure is there to be found. In the “real” world it is almost impossible to know what people are saying about you to their friends or colleagues in the pub or round the water cooler. Online there is a vast array of tools which allow you to track what people are saying about you including RSS, social bookmarking and Twitter.

But one of the less obvious PR tools in your armoury is your website statistics package. If you aren’t using a website statistics package yet to track activity on your site then if you only do one thing after reading this article make it signing up for such a service. Google Analytics for example is free, links to their AdWords system and can track multiple websites from one simple to use dashboard.

Why is this relevant to Online PR? Because amongst other things it tells you a number of significant pieces of information about your public relations activity.

1.Referring sites No.1 – You can use your analytics package to tell you if articles that have been written about you in response to, for instance, a news release, subsequently send traffic to your website. Assuming they included a link to your site in the article of course.

2.Referring sites No.2 – What about other news sites that are sending visitors to your website? These sites must be talking about you and by tracking these referrals you can then visit these sites and see what they said and potentially start a dialogue with them if you think you have more information they might find of interest.

3.Referring sites No.3 – Are you getting visits from social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, social networking sites such as Facebook or microblogging sites such as Twitter? If you are then it could be worth your while investing time in finding out what the relevant members of these communities think is interesting enough to spend time sharing, commenting or talking about you.

4.Keywords – The keywords that are driving traffic to your website also gives you an indication of what people find interesting about you. This could be useful when thinking about what stories might be of relevant as part of your online PR activities.

5.Visitor information – Are you getting visits from particular geographic locations? If so are they markets you currently operate in and try and target from a promotional perspective? If not then perhaps it is worth considering engaging these visitors to understand why they find your organisation relevant.

These are just a few examples of how your website statistics can give you an insight into what people find interesting about you and help you to craft a much more effective online PR strategy that is based around starting conversations with people who are relevant to you and about topics they want to talk about.