Pay-to-Play Marketing

Pay-to-Play Marketing Opportunities: Should You Play or Pass?

I just received an email with the subject line: Re: Featuring Fusion Marketing Partners as a top Sales Tech Services Company. The body text opened with: This email is a reminder that we have shortlisted to feature Fusion Marketing Partners in our upcoming Sales Tech special edition. Based on my previous email, we excitedly look forward to knowing your thoughts on this honored recognition and discuss what it entails for Fusion Marketing Partners.

If you are not familiar with such offers, this might cause some excitement, and perhaps lead you to send an email to your CEO bragging about how the trade media is finally noticing how special your company is by recognizing you as one of the top 10 companies in your industry.  Naturally, you respond to the email and soon discover that what you are really getting is the ability to spend anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for the honor of being listed, plus a short article and the rights to reprint and distribute the article.

Now that you realize this is more of a paid promotion than an industry accolade, a little bit of the air goes out of your bubble but you may still decide to participate because at least this will be a good vehicle to generate leads and gain some marketplace awareness. Plus, your CEO gets to be featured in the article and will be thrilled with the chance to pontificate about how great your company and its products/services are.

Most of the publications that make these pitches exist just to get companies to part with their promotional dollars and offer no industry thought leadership. Occasionally, they are a sidebar revenue generator for legitimate publications. For example, Forbes has a pay-to-play component that allows companies to participate in councils that are described as: Invitation-only organizations where top executives and entrepreneurs like you build professional skills and gain connections and visibility on Forbes.com. Members are each grouped into a relevant council to ensure maximum benefit for the community as a whole.

The difference between Forbes and other pay-to-play models is that Forbes qualifies council members and makes them go through a rigorous editing process before publishing anything at Forbes.com   My clients and I have participated in the Technology and Business Development Forbes councils and find them to be worthwhile for awareness and lead generation.

Sometimes, you have to talk to a salesperson to find out what the fee is to play. The higher the cost, the more likely they are to hide the details. In the case of a lower-cost promotion, the email will contain language like: The expense for the profile with unlimited reprinting rights is $3000. The profile will incite and provide information that makes a prospect looking to have a business association with (insert your company name). It has been a proven formula to increase revenue. Several of our previously featured companies were able to close more prospects by using the featured profile in their pitches.

Sure, this well-tested language sounds great, but are the promotions actually a proven formula to increase revenue? In my experience, the answer is not because they do not help you close prospects and increase revenue. If this is the only way you can get attention, perhaps you should try such offers.  Otherwise, my advice is to find better uses of your promotions budget.

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There are a number of flavors of pay-to-play. I talked above about the publication model (online or printed) but there are also video versions. For these, you will get an email or phone call (more likely) telling you that a famous producer has heard about your company and wants to interview you for a feature to be aired via cable television or via a private network like airline flights. Former secretary of state Alexander Haig was the spokesman for one of these called the 21st Century Business Series. Many companies paid substantial amounts to be featured on one of these videos.

At this point, my colleagues and I receive five or more of these pitches every week and we never participate in this type of pay-to-play marketing. We read the emails because we find them amusing and mostly non-original, and also because we don’t want to miss an opportunity for our company or one of our clients to participate in a valuable opportunity for media exposure (kind of like the saying: with all this ___ here, there has got to be a pony somewhere!).

One last thought. When I talk about pay-to-play marketing, I am using the term as a description, not a pejorative – to separate it from unpaid media. After all, the vast majority of marketing can be called pay-to-play.  I just want to make sure that what my clients and I pay for has a solid return on investment, and the types of promotions I talk about in this article usually fail this test.

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