Is PR the Answer? Remaining Relevant in Changing Markets

In an online discussion I was recently involved in, prompted by my blog on Borders’ recent announcement, I was asked whether I thought PR could be the answer for businesses that are feeling the pressure from increasing competition and ever-narrowing margins. My short answer: “Yes, I think that PR, in a broad sense, can definitely help businesses in our current environment.” What businesses really need to do is fully understand their audience, what their audience wants and how what they’re offering fits into this mix, and how it stacks up against the growing number of competitive choice that customers now have.

Lately I have a definite bias toward PR (again, in a broad sense). For many businesses demand is largely driven by word-of-mouth–the Internet, and social media, have impacted the power of word-of-mouth immensely. Satisfied customers and clients tell others about their experiences, as do unsatisfied customers, and reputations are built – or destroyed.

Businesses can nurture the recommendations they receive through their services and quality as well as through leveraging and extending that communication through other means that might include traditional PR or online social media efforts. The “big value” in PR-related communications is that the messages come from someone else (as opposed to advertising where we say good things about ourselves).

In this area (and others) I also think that having a specific niche focus and becoming known for some specific element of service/quality/product can be helpful. Back to the Borders analogy – Borders was a mass retailer which seems to be less and less effective in the offline world. While online companies like seem to be effective in appealing to the masses, offline it seems like those businesses that serve smaller niche markets – and serve them well – do better. I’ve heard of some small, specialty bookstores in certain communities, for instance, that are doing well selling specialty products to small groups of customers.

When I’ve worked with clients in challenging industries or that are seeing a decline in demand for their products/services and increasing competition, one of the things I tend to find is that they are holding on to old, established beliefs about both their customer base and the value their product or service could/should provide. One memorable client would often say about customers who were leaving (in relatively large number): “They just don’t get our value proposition. We have to do a better job of explaining our value proposition.” My assessment was that their value proposition had become outdated in light of new options available to the market.

It’s  not about customers understanding *your* value proposition, it’s about you accommodating to *their* value proposition – providing them with what they want/value.

My bias in working with all of my clients is helping them understand their market and market position and developing a strategic plan for their efforts. This begins with identifying/clarifying their mission (who they serve and why), evaluating where they’re currently at and identifying where they would like to go (their goals andobjectives), and doing an environmental analysis (inside and out) which leads to a SWOT (discussion of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). Then, developing strategies that leverage their strengths and opportunities and minimize their weaknesses and threats – and tactics/action plans to drive the strategies and achieve the objectives. And finally, and most importantly, implementing and monitoring the plan.

In the old days with limited choices for products and services, and limited communication venues to hear about those products and services, companies could offer a product and expect customers to buy it.  Customers had limited knowledge of what else  might be available — they were part of captive markets. Customers aren’t captive anymore. Not only are we able to be more aware of competitive offerings available literally around the globe (rather than through our local vendors), we’re able to find out about what other people think about those products and services like never before.

It’s word-of-mouth on steroids.

What do businesses need to do to survive and thrive in this environment? The same things they’ve always needed to do, but the pressure has intensified. They need to:

  • Find a niche that isn’t being filled effectively and fill it
  • Thoroughly understand market needs and competitive pressures
  • Provide a product/service that customers value
  • Make sure that customers know about and have easy access to their product/service
  • Listen and be ready to adapt and shift as the environment changes

Easy? No. Rewarding? It can be. What are you doing to ensure that you’re remaining relevant to your target market?

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