Punk Rock Public Relations
Jennifer Mattern knows a thing or two about online promotion, particularly in the niche markets.
She promotes her solo public relations business by blogging on that very topic at NakedPR, then shows off some business writing on BizAmmo. She rants on Fad Marketing, runs technology and music blogs, a writing community, podcasts and well…put simply, this woman has a LOT of web sites.
Along with all the sites, she somehow finds time to do promotion work for clients as varied as indie and punk musicians to a former NFL offensive lineman.
What follows is an interview where we discuss going solo, learning the ropes of the interwebs and of course, a lot of personal branding, promotion and marketing ideas.
RJ: A hot topic going around the blogosphere these days is “personal branding,” particularly online, how important do you think this really is?
JM: Personal branding is essential if your name is important to your work. It’s not essential if your name isn’t your focus. For me, it’s vital, which is why I won’t put my name behind a project I can’t be proud of. That’s because I run my business under a variation of my name, and obviously my freelance work as a writer is all in my own name. Personal branding isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. It’s simply easier now than it ever has been before. We can use blogs, social networks, forums, and more to get our own names “out there,” with a corresponding marketing message. For me, the essence of what I try to convey is something I tell a few of my friends occasionally… I don’t care if people love me or hate me, as long as they respect me. I make it a point to be sure that people can trust what I say, whether it’s positive or negative (and I make no effort to hide the negative or put your stereotypical PR “spin” on it). It just goes back to the blunt honesty I mentioned before. I’d say blogs are your best tool as far as personal branding goes. You can certainly do some of the same things with article directories regarding trying to build a reputation as an expert on a subject, but personally I don’t tend to take those writers all that seriously (although I’m sure other people do). With a blog on the other hand, you can demonstrate not only your general expertise, but also share your personality, show that you’re following industry developments, and actually network more directly with your readers as well as other colleagues. You get your name out to those interested in what you do, in addition to others in your field who are also blogging on the subject. You can market your services from your blog. You really can’t beat blogging as a personal branding tool right now.
RJ: Given your line of work, I imagine you’ve got some ideas on how freelancers, whether they’re writers, web designers or programmers can brand themselves.
JM: Just get out there and do it. Don’t think you have to wait until you have 20 years of experience under your belt to go out on your own in PR consulting. Spend a lot of time building contacts with potential clients, colleagues, industry professionals, etc. That’s really how a freelance career picks up some speed – referrals from those people. Build a portfolio like you would with any other kind of freelance work. If you don’t have much experience, then volunteer to do some PR work for a non-profit, local artist, small business in your target market, etc. Most importantly, I’d say if you really want to get into PR right now, get yourself brushed up on social media as well as more traditional PR tactics and find that happy medium where the two can meet effectively (and do that by learning the basics of those tools before even bringing PR into the mix, don’t just jump on the bandwagon).
No matter what kind of freelance work you’re interested in, look for a niche. I’m a huge believer in niche marketing. Don’t just say, “Hey, I think I’d like to be a freelance PR consultant.” Instead, say something like, “I’d like to do freelance PR consulting for small Web-based software manufacturers,” or something similar. Don’t say, “Hey, I want to be a freelance writer.” Get more specific, such as “I want to be a freelance Web copywriter, specializing ad copy for contextual (ie Adwords) ads.” You don’t have to get quite that specific, but it can help. You also don’t have to choose just one niche (similar to how I work with webmasters as well as musicians… they have distinct needs, and I simply market to them separately).
If I had to give you a quick step-by-step guide to getting started in freelancing, it would be this:
- Choose a niche that you’ll stay passionate about even when the money may not be there early on.
- Find a need within your target market, and figure out what you can do to fill it.
- Spend some time doing real business and marketing planning.
- Don’t set your rates too low early on. Raising them later can be nearly impossible for a lot of freelancers. Set them where you ultimately want them, and you can always offer sales in the beginning to get your first few clients on board. Learn how to crunch the numbers properly as well (account for self-employment tax and business expenses, and know that your estimates will more than likely be lower than the actual expense; know that a $50 hourly rate for an employee of a company does not equate to the same end take-home pay as $50 per hour for a freelancer; factor in the fact that most freelance consultants only get to bill out a little over half of their actual time worked, so 40 hours working at $50 per hour should be looked at more like 23 billable hours working at $50 per hour; etc.).
- Create a website / portfolio, and a blog if you do plan to get into personal branding (as a freelancer, you probably should).
- Network, network, network!!! (And not just with potential clients! Get friendly with others in the industry who may lead to referrals in the future as well.)
- Do something to market yourself every single day, whether it’s launching an advertising campaign, to simply posting to your blog.
RJ: Public relations isn’t one of the more common solo businesses, can you tell me a bit about what you do?
JM: There are quite a few solo PR practitioners actually, so I wouldn’t really consider it uncommon in any way. The big difference between PR consultants and other independent career lines (such as freelance writing, marketing consultants, and designers), is that PR consulting is less prevalent in an online environment at the moment, so you might hear about it less often. There’s also the issue of awareness, in that there are a lot of people (business owners included) who really still don’t understand what public relations is, so the bulk of the chatter about hiring consultants really doesn’t fall on us.
About what I personally do…. I started my firm entirely offline, specializing in music publicity. I launched an indie music webzine shortly after launching the home-based business as a means of networking with musicians in the area, my primary client base at the time. That led me into networking with other webmasters heavily while learning the ropes of Web design, basic programming, and simply managing and monetizing websites. I realized pretty quickly that there was a genuine need in that market (the webmaster / online entrepreneur market) for PR writing and consulting. Nearly all similar services I was seeing advertised to this market were from internet marketers giving bad PR advice and generic writers trying to sell their services as press release writers, without even grasping the basic elements of press releases. They were simply becoming a hot topic in online marketing for their SEO potential at building backlinks, so a lot of writers wanted in on the “game”. I spent the bulk of my first year online building up a few key clients and spending time networking to build my reputation as an authority source with members of my target market.
While I now specialize predominantly in online PR, I do still take on music publicity work, and I’ve branched into book publicity, although I haven’t targeted that area heavily up through now. I spend a lot of my time networking with artists, online business owners, webmasters, and writers (I’m also a freelance business writer on the side, although I spend most of my “free” time these days working on my own dozen or so sites). My clients include a pretty diverse, and interesting, crowd, from a popular punk musician and artist to a former NFL offensive lineman to well-respected online entrepreneurs. I consult with my clients on PR strategy and planning, PR writing projects, and more (I also help them with guerrilla marketing tactics and business writing, trying to offer a slightly broader approach to exposure and image building than strict PR tactics). Online PR is still a relatively young industry to work in (the PR industry as a whole is still desperately trying to get a solid grip on social media), and it’s exciting to be able to take part, always learning as I go.
RJ: What promoted you to go it alone in this industry? What’s it like freelancing versus say, having an office at Hill and Knowlton?
JM: Actually, I made the decision to go the solo route while doing some work for a large nonprofit (mostly on the fund raising side of things, getting companies and volunteers involved in fund raising events). It wasn’t my first taste of nonprofit work, but it was probably the politics of a nonprofit office that really pushed me. I’d toyed with the idea and done my research for about a year before starting my business. I wasn’t sure at that time if I would have had the nerve to go through with it, but in the end, it was a pretty sudden decision. Enough was enough, and I decided I didn’t feel like working for someone else anymore. To this day I blame it on my Aquarian blood.
I wouldn’t trade my home office for one with any firm, large or small. I’m sure each situation has its own perks, but what I’m doing is truly ideal for me, and I’m able to wake up every morning knowing that I’m going to love my job. That’s rewarding enough. As for specific differences, I’d say one of the biggest downsides of working independently is that you don’t have the resources of a large firm backing you. You don’t have an office full of colleagues to consult with if you need them. You don’t have a supervisor looking over your shoulder guiding you in your early days. You don’t necessarily have access to all of the fancy tools and huge media databases that the larger firms have. You certainly have to work a bit harder to make your own media contacts, and build a relationship with journalists when you don’t have colleagues within a firm to help introduce you within a new market.
Yet, I’d say PR is an excellent field for the entrepreneurial generation that I’m a proud member of. It’s an industry undergoing major changes, and not all of the big firms (or small ones) are catching onto online PR as much as perhaps they should. There’s no one with an “old school” mentality holding back the work I do, which I’m grateful for (and I’m certainly not one who just jumps on every online PR fad that comes along… I actually speak out against several on my PR blog). I can work with whatever clients, from markets to individual clients, I want to. No project is ever forced on me and I can accept and reject work depending on anything from my time to my values.
Another huge benefit, at least in my case, of being self-employed is that I have the freedom to really be me. I don’t put on a “game face” with my client. I’m bluntly honest, speak my mind, and it’s one of the biggest reasons I’ve been able to build a reputation within my market and keep a pretty steady client base. I don’t have to sugarcoat things or worry about a client running to a superior or colleague on the account if they don’t like what I have to say. Due to the fact that most of my clients know how I work in that sense before they even hire me, I have the ability to work with a forward-thinking group who are actually interested in learning about what I’m doing for them, instead of clients just looking for a “yes man” or someone to do grunt work (and uneducated clients are a huge pet peeve of mine in PR… I don’t feel like we really do a good job within the industry of helping people to understand exactly what PR is and what it can do, especially now in the online environment, so I’m really excited to work with the kinds of people I get to work with).
RJ: How did you personally market yourself when you first went solo? How did you hustle for gigs?
JM: My initial marketing was pretty easy. I had family involved with music locally and elsewhere, and that led to a few contacts. It’s really amazing how word can spread in the indie music scene. It’s as though each independent band in the tri-state area knew each other. I was only running my business part-time at that point (went full-time in early 2006), so it filled my schedule well enough to keep me happy. When I wanted to branch out beyond that, I launched my webzine and set up a Myspace profile (I wouldn’t recommend it as a great way for most freelancers to market themselves, but when you’re working with bands it’s vital.) I really didn’t have to do too much else back then. Even when I moved into predominantly online PR work for webmasters and online entrepreneurs, I’d say I only spent about six months really doing any aggressive marketing before the “word of mouth” factor kicked in. The bulk of my business very quickly was coming from repeat clients, referrals from clients and colleagues, and people who would read my forum posts or blog posts who would contact and hire me because they liked my approach or what I had to say. It comes back to the personal branding game, and in my case I couldn’t have done without that. Build a reputation and the business will come. I think too many freelancers are often impatient in that department. Rather than building a name for themselves to land better gigs down the road, they spend all of their time marketing themselves towards gigs with less long-term potential.
RJ: Now lets talk about your domain name addiction. What was your first site and how did it snowball into, well, how many web sites do you run now?
JM: Even though I joke sometimes about my registering domains being an “addiction,” it’s not really that bad. It’s more like my version of “retail therapy.” I do definitely register more on a bad day than a good day, but that’s because I tend to take a break from my typical work when I’m having a lousy day and instead use that time to brainstorm ideas (which I then need new domain names for in some cases). My first site was actually my business site. My first “real” site ,as in content site that I actually work to monetize and build an audience for, is an indie music webzine. I launched that as a networking tool back when my PR firm was exclusively a music publicity firm, to help me meet area musicians. I then expanded into an indie music blog (which I recently sold, because I’ll be adding a blog to the webzine when it’s relaunched in a few weeks) and an indie music directory, which I’ll likely shut down soon as I’m planning to combine that with the webzine as well in the near future.
RJ: What’s the largest number of domains you’ve owned at any one time?
JM: Because I use at least 4 or 5 different registrars, I’ve never tallied up the full count at any given time between them. At the most, I’ve probably had between 80 and 90 domains total.
RJ: Have you considered a 12 step program?
JM: No need for that. I’ve been good about keeping registrations down lately, because I’m preoccupied with unloading other ones first, before I end up saddled with another renewal fee for domains I won’t use. I actually have a free domain waiting on me with one registrar, and I haven’t taken the time to come up with something, so the addictive nature of them as certainly subsided at least a little bit. Here’s another reason I tend to end up with extra domains sitting around: I’ll choose one domain, and later I’ll find something much better for the particular project. That happened a good deal after I found the word search tool at PCnames.com, which made finding better domains incredibly easy. I love playing with that when a new niche or idea strikes me… couldn’t live without it now.
RJ: How on earth do you find time to update all these sites along with your other work? I’m almost scared to ask about your daily routine?
JM: I don’t really have a daily routine anymore. Client work always comes first, although I’ve cut down on the amount of client work I’ll take on at once, so I have enough time for at least my primary sites. Not all of my sites get updated like they should. When my webzine relaunches, my editor will be taking care of most of the regular updates while I deal with my column, the back end, and promotion. With my other blogs, I’ve been working hard to get myself set up on a schedule. This week will be the first week that I’ll be allotting one full day to nothing but blogging. The idea is to get at least 3 posts per blog lined up for the coming week. Some blogs will end up updating only weekly, while I have one that I want at least three posts per day on. That final schedule will depend on how much I can write in one day without losing my mind, as well as how well each monetizes (the ones that help me earn a living get priority over ones that have been around a while but don’t monetize well). When I get to a point where I really just can’t handle updating something, I’ll sell it if I’m not able to come back to it. On top of the updating, I also try to make at least a little bit of time each week available for planning and development. I have a few very large projects launching later this year or next year (such as a massive press release distribution / media resource site, a music press release distribution site, a sort of writer referral network unlike anything out there right now, and an indie music community). Aside from my clients and sites, I also work on monetizing my current e-book, writing my next one, writing PLR articles as an experiment in writing income streams, and dealing with hosting a new BlogTalkRadio show. So my schedule can be a bit unpredictable, but it definitely keeps things interesting.
RJ: I understand when you first started your web presence you were a relative neophyte. How did you go about learning the ropes?
JM: I was totally clueless on the Web as far as running a business. You’d think I would have gone with a template for my first site, but I didn’t (I do use them for the majority of my sites now though instead of investing my time into designs). I’m stubborn like you can’t imagine. I made up my mind that I was going to do it all myself, and I did. I simply did it visually instead of hard-coding anything (using an older copy of Frontpage I’d had but never used before). Wow, it was awful. I also have a trust issue. I don’t like the idea of relying on a contractor for something as big as my site’s identity. I’d rather it suck, and know I only have myself to blame. But over time, I did learn a lot. I started moving away from Frontpage when I would dissect the HTML to figure things out. After a while I moved to CSS (I’m not wonderful with it, but I did code one full CSS site and like it… although I did actually move that one to a template instead of expanding the design later to include more features). I love CSS. Basic HTML and CSS will really get you going in the right direction. I was using various content management systems for a while, before finally deciding that WordPress was my Web God. I could do just about anything with it if I put my mind to it. I have plenty of blogs (which are great for someone who likes to sit down and launch a full site in a few hours like me), and I’m using it to create a few non-blog sites (BizAmmo.com was originally more non-blog before reverting for promotion purposes – a big blog was easier to market than a small niche content network; my music webzine is also in the process of being moved to WordPress in a somewhat non-blog environment). I don’t know the first thing about php, but somehow I manage to piece it all together to make the sites do what I want, and frankly that’s enough to keep me happy. If I need something more complex, I’d just bring someone in to take care of it for me. But I still prefer the DIY route. I’m an education junkie…. if it can be learned, I want to learn it and implement it.
RJ: Finally, any last pieces of advice on freelancing or marketing you’d care to share?
JM: I say this over and over again, and it’s probably the most important piece of marketing advice I can give: Do something to market yourself every single day. I don’t care how big or small it is. Just do something! Make one forum post where you’ll have a signature link or get some name exposure. Post to your blog. Get yourself interviewed. Host a podcast. Just send a newsletter to your email subscribers. For that matter, just sign up one newsletter subscriber, and you’ve done some marketing for the day! Call a potential client. Send out a press release. Offer to submit a guest article to an e-zine or website in your niche. Do some keyword research. Improve your meta tags. Thoroughly look at your stats to identify what’s working and what your problem areas are. Start a new ad campaign. Submit your website to a few directories. Exchange links with other sites in your industry. Approach someone about a possible cross-promotional opportunity. Go post a few flyers in your neighborhood. Sign up for a seminar or convention. Comment on other blogs in your niche. The list really is pretty much endless. Don’t just stick to the tried and true. Get creative and keep on marketing yourself. You really don’t have to do all that much even in a day to get huge results. A few blog and forum posts can do wonders, and I’m living proof of that.