In the past few weeks, I have received countless emails and LinkedIn messages from people offering to help me. It’s been everything from getting tax credits on my employees and gaining more clients to guaranteed media stories without an upfront investment.
Some of the influx is the time of year, but most of it (if I had to guess) is due to all of the AI that now comes with templates to help you reach more prospects faster with messaging that supposedly works.
Except it doesn’t.
How many of you have received the same type of communication and actually responded? I’d venture to guess it’s less than 10 percent of you. And of those of you who responded, how many of you have had success with these companies? I’m willing to bet it’s less than one percent.
Yet, here we are. Our inboxes in every corner of our world are filled with this stuff.
I don’t want 10 new clients every month. No one can guarantee media coverage unless you pay for it. And my accountant is already all over the tax credits I’m eligible for.
The Deceptive Allure of ‘No Upfront Investment’ Offers
Let me give you an example of a recent email from a PR firm wanting to feature me in stories.
“Our research team shared your details with me. I’m a media researcher with a ‘pay on results’ PR firm. I find it fascinating that Spin Sucks is a PR and marketing agency focusing on changing the industry’s perception. As someone who works in the media, I think it’s important to challenge stereotypes and promote transparency.
“I noticed that your company is in the marketing and PR industry. Based on your website content, it seems like you’re interested in staying ahead of the curve. With that in mind, I’d like to share a media request with you that’s closely related to industry trends.
“Would you be interested in hearing more about it? Additionally, I have other media requests that could be an even better fit for Spin Sucks. Would you be open to discussing them? There is no upfront cost. You pay only when we get something published.
“Looking forward to hearing from you!”
First off, the email itself is horrendous, but that’s not what this article is about. Notice how they offer me several media requests with no upfront investment?
Why Top-Tier Media Coverage Isn’t Always What It Seems
Likewise, a client recently forwarded me an email from someone who claims to be able to get them stories in top-tier media—without upfront investment. His question to me was, “Worth it?”
After I rolled my eyes so hard they might still be stuck in the back of my head, I called him and asked if he was really interested in the offer. He said, “I don’t know. If they can get me featured in Forbes and TechCrunch, maybe.” So then I asked him why he thinks those publications will help his manufacturing business.
The truth is, it sounds REALLY good to be featured in stories without an upfront investment. We have these illusions that one article will help us reach our sales goals for an entire year. It’s also something you can brag about on the golf course and that your mom can brag about when she’s playing bridge with her friends.
Of course, that’s not how it works, but it doesn’t stop the emails—and the appeal to the ego.
Paid and Earned Media Are Not the Same
There is a place for paid media—it is one-fourth of the PESO Model™, after all. But you would be wrong if you think the stories will be the typical journalist who interviews you and writes a glowing story. Instead, they will be what we would have called advertorials in a past life.
The story will almost always be written by the firm you are working with and never involve a journalist.
In some cases, the story will have a disclaimer at the bottom saying it was paid for, some will have a “paid for” banner, and others will call it a council, which is code for “they paid for this.”
Like I said, there is a place for this, but don’t be fooled by the allure of getting rich and famous without paying for it.
The Dangers of Paying for Media Stories
Getting a story about your organization in top-tier publications is a great way to build your brand. It builds trust and authority, and it provides third-party credibility. That’s why so many PR professionals work their entire careers to carefully hone relationships with the journalists who will eventually benefit the brands and executives they work with.
This is called earned media. You are earning the trust of well-respected journalists who can easily make or break you with the swipe of a pen.
It’s hard work to earn the trust of journalists, just like it is with customers. But if you’re featured in a publication that your prospects and customers respect, that third-party validation goes a long way to skyrocketing trust. So it would make sense to pay for media coverage, right?
It’s Just an Advertorial
As we discussed above, paying for coverage is akin to an advertorial. Forbes, for example, has Forbes BrandVoice. You can pay them a fee to write so that you can write for the readers. This is an advertorial, and it is clearly disclosed as such.
This is not the same as getting that third-party validation. Yes, it helps with brand awareness and keeping you top-of-mind, both important things in marketing your organization these days, but it does not help build trust or authority.
These firms that are offering to get you placed without an upfront investment? Go back to that email above. Do you want them to write content about your organization? Hopefully, a robot wrote that email because I hope a human in charge of my brand could string together a few sentences more coherently.
But there’s the rub. The content is likely to be pretty low-quality. Not only are the people writing the content they’re “placing” for you—who are not journalists, BTW, they’re likely using generative AI to produce it. That’s how they can take the risk of no upfront payment. If they don’t produce a story that any old robot can write, no one will want to read it. Hence, zero results.
Now I want you to consider the last article you read that said PAID ADVERTORIAL or ADVERTISEMENT. Did you entirely skip it? Or did you read it through a different lens?
Disclosure Is Necessary
When I was a young whippersnapper, just out of college, I was tasked with writing an article about termite and termite care. It was a six-page article that our design team made into a beautiful, glossy piece. I can still picture it in my head. It was beautiful and really well-written if I do say so myself. I was excited to see it in print.
When it was finally published, it was an insert in one of the home and garden magazines. I got a copy and opened it to my article, only to find PAID ADVERTORIAL printed across the top and bottom of every page.
I was so upset, I cried! I called the publisher and asked what the heck (remember, I was just out of college, so I hadn’t yet had this experience). I’ll never forget him chortling and saying, “What did you think would happen? We have to disclose that you paid for it.”
It still makes me sad. I would have much preferred to put my media relations skills to work and place that article with the same publication but with the reporting of a journalist. Alas.
And There Is Risk In Paid Links
But if you’re not convinced of the importance of earning articles and stories in top-tier publications, this last reason will be the showstopper.
When you pay for stories, there will likely be a link to your website. That makes sense because Google rewards links from highly authoritative websites to your site. We do this with our earned media efforts—establish enough credible content on our client’s websites that a publication is happy to link to an article on their site.
But the difference is that we’ve earned the link, which Google views very differently than if you pay for your media stories (and links). The search engines have been very clear that if you pay for a link to your website, it must be tagged as sponsored content. If it’s not tagged, you risk getting dinged by the search engines, which is a no-win game.
Paid Media Is Not a Viable Shortcut
All-in-all, this is not a great prospect for most organizations. When we talk about paid media in the PESO Model, it means sponsored content and native advertising. Doing things like boosting your informative and educational content on social networks. It’s not paying for stories in top-tier media.
It won’t end well. You won’t get the results you’re promised. And though there isn’t an upfront investment, you will end up paying through the nose.