Interview by Mike Sullivan
Hey everyone, I’m Mike Sullivan. This is MO.com, where we feature small business owners and entrepreneurs and bring you hints, tips, insights, and perspectives on what it takes to be successful.
Joining me today is Ryan Evans, a Chicago entrepreneur and the President of Rand Media Group. Ryan’s also launching a service called Bite Size PR, which aims to bring media attention to small businesses. Ryan, thanks a lot for joining me today. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Yeah, I actually started off in the financial industry. I went to school for finance and economics, and I started doing that. I did some real estate stuff. I did some commercial estate lending, and I worked with a company that acquired commercial real estate and did that for a while. Then I went off and did work for kind of a dot-com during the late ’90s, which was, I’m having a little bit of déjà-vu now with some of the funded tech companies, but I did that. I got a bunch of worthless stock options, and then from there I went on and did some investment banking and that sort of thing. After a while, I just started getting tired of the financial industry, and I actually got laid off and then made into a contractor in the same day. I thought, “Hmm okay, this is an interesting situation. I think I’ll use this to kind of go off on my own.”
I did some consulting, and I thought it was going to be in the financial space. But it ended up I was drawn more toward the marketing and sort of doing some web projects. So I started doing that sort of thing, and it was really by accident. I had this relatively big project that I took on and kind of made some big promises and then hustled to make those come true, and I did. After that, the business had kind of grown exclusively from word of mouth from there. So I had a client, then they recommended me to someone, and then I started doing work for them. Then it kind of grew there. Literally, in 2008 is when I sort of officially started Rand Media Group, but it’s only because I looked around and said, “Oh, I guess this is what I do now.”
We do marketing, and we build websites and do that sort of stuff, so that is the company. That’s sort of been the evolution of it. It hadn’t been, what I was taught in school, this grand strategic vision and I didn’t put together an Excel spreadsheet and hit any kind of sales numbers or any of that. I just sort of went out and did work and did a good job, and people called me. So that’s how we got here.
Let’s talk about Bite Size PR. Can you tell me a little bit about the service and maybe where the idea came from?
Bite Size PR, I can’t really remember how the idea happened. I couldn’t remember if it was me or a friend of mine. I think that a friend of mine came up with it, but he said, “I didn’t come up with this idea.” But it essentially is very simple. I don’t know if you or anyone is familiar with HARO and Reporter Connection and all these sort of things, but these services put out requests. So they say, “Hey I’m looking for someone in marketing to talk about social media trends,” or “Hey I’m looking for a personal injury attorney or someone to talk about the latest fashions or whatever.” They put out these requests for experts and stuff like that to source, to profile businesses, to do interviews, to do all that sort of stuff. I used to do that. So I would go through these, and I would subscribe to HARO. It came out three times a day, and for the most part there’s a long list of completely irrelevant queries for me. So I’m not into fashion. I’m not a left-handed juggler. I don’t have relationship problems, all this kind of stuff. So I was filtering through all that to find the one or two things every other week or once a week or whatever that were relevant to me, and I was spending a lot of time doing that.
So the story that I remember was that I would do that, and then my friend said, “Gosh I wish someone would just write these for us.” However it happened, if it was me or him, I think it was him, I said, “That’s a good idea. So let’s take a crack at that.” Basically, what we did is I had some people at Rand Media Group just start doing that. We started testing it out with some people that I knew, just peers, and who I thought would be a good fit for it, and we just did that. All we did was look out for, we built a little profile, real low tech. We didn’t build a website or anything yet. There was a little profile on them so the writers had the information. We would monitor requests, and once something came through, we would actually write the email to the person making the requests and say, “Hey, this looks . . .”, we would actually respond on behalf of, like we were the client. So we’d say, “Hey, my name is Andrew, and I’m a perfect fit for the story because I own a software company and this is what we do,” blah blah blah blah.
Then we would send it to Andrew, and then Andrew would copy and paste it and send it from his email account. If it made sense, then the reporter got back to them, and then they did whatever they were going to do. So that’s kind of how it started, and when we did that, it actually worked. It actually worked really well because I think that a relatively small percentage of the people who subscribe to those services follow up and actually answer the questions properly, do it in a timely way, or a reputable, all these kind of things. It’s a relatively small percentage. So just by the nature of doing that, and doing it well and doing it consistently, we got results from people. Then from that, we decided, “Okay, there are some things that we need to do to track how well we are actually writing these pitches.” So we built a web application around it. We made it really easy for people. They didn’t have to copy and paste anymore and send an email. They can just hit “Accept” and we fire off an email from our server and it looks like it comes from them.
But they can improve it first before it gets sent off, and over edited, rate it, that sort of thing. So we built some of that functionality. Then we’ve also built a database beyond those services, because we can’t rely on them all the time to have a relevant story. So we’re starting to build services in what we call long-tail media. So people that are doing things like this, that have legitimate shows, and we’re trying to filter out a lot of spam that’s creeping up in HARO and that sort of thing. So we’re filtering out that sort of stuff. We’re building a database of people that are legitimately wanting to hear from certain niches. Then we’re just matchmaking and writing a response for these people. Just basically connecting them. We’re not coming up with stories. We’re not coming up with unique angles or anything like that, that a big PR firm would do. All we’re doing is matchmaking relevant media contacts with the people that they want to talk to.
Talk about how PR is important to small businesses today.
I think that most small business owners and entrepreneurs understand that they need to have PR. They need to have exposure. They need to get in front of people who want tell their story. Most of them have no idea how to do that. This is a very simple way for those entrepreneurs to get a start, because currently there’s a big gap between, “Okay if I want to get PR, I either have to learn how to do it myself and pitch myself,” which takes you away from doing your business and doing what you know how to do and puts you into that game, or you have to hire a PR firm which typically, I don’t really know a ton of PR firms that start below a couple thousand dollars a month, at least. Some of them are $10,000 a month. So most small business owners understand that hiring a PR firm doesn’t really make a lot of sense most of the time. So what this does is it gives you an entry point. It gives you an entry point to start talking to people, doing interviews and getting better at being on camera or getting better at responding to people, getting better at polishing their message and that sort of thing. It also gives them exposure for niche markets.
I think this is kind of where media is going. It’s becoming much more fragmented. You can now have a blog about Argentinean wines, and a certain section of the population is going to find that interesting, and there may be enough traffic to sustain that as an operation. If you’re an Argentinean wine, that’s where you need to talk. It’s great to be in the New York Times, but it’s also great to be in some of these long-tail niches. So that’s kind of where we think the media industry is going, and we are trying to help small business owners get access to that without contracting a big PR firm and without doing it themselves.
I think the other thing about it is that a lot of small businesses struggle with credibility. Let’s say that you’re a social media consultant or something like that, and there are a lot of them out there, how do you distinguish yourself from other social media consultants? One of the ways that you do that is by putting together a press page and showing the interviews or showing the things that you’ve done on that press page. We’re an access points to that. We’re not probably going to get you in the New York Times. We’ve had some big mentions, but we’re probably not going to put you in the New York Times. We’re probably not going to put you in The Wall Street Journal, but we’ll give you access to a lot of long-tail media where you can start to build some of that exposure and get out there. We have had some mentions. We’ve had some mentions in CNN Money, and we’ve had some in Crane’s and stuff like that. But that’s not really what we’re trying to do. We’re not breaking through the gatekeepers. We’re not hobnobbing with people at MSNBC. We’re just matchmaking.
Anyway, it’s a nice entry point for small businesses to get exposure and to start building up their press.
Do you have any measures in place to see how effective your pitches are?
Yeah, so that was the number one . . . it was great when I had friends and peers that were doing this as a part of the test case, because I could say, “Hey, how’s it going? How are the responses and that sort of thing?” That was fine, but once that went away, we had to build some mechanisms to do that. So one of the things that we do is monitor mentions where we can, and that’s not always an easy thing. But we set up Google alerts to make sure that we’re capturing when people get mentioned. Then the other thing, I think the more practical thing that we’ve done is we’ve built some things in our application where people can rate the pitch, so that when we send it, they can say, “This wasn’t really a fit,” or, “Yeah, this was perfect.” That has been very helpful.
The other sort of piece to that along with the rating is we give people the ability to change the pitch. Sometimes we’ll put something, and they say, “Oh gosh, this would be a little bit better if we added one technical sentence or reworded this thing or did whatever.” We monitor the percentage that our clients are changing these pitches. So if we’re seeing that the pitches are being altered substantially, then we know that there’s a problem there and we need to do something about it. Or where they’re all getting five star ratings, and they’re getting sent out, that’s good. We also have a feature where people can reject pitches and say, “This just is totally off base.”
So we track all that stuff. We make it that if someone rejects a pitch, we don’t count it against them. So that’s kind of how we do it. Just a few different metrics, and we’ve come a long way from that, from just sort of having an email and doing a phone call and saying, “Hey, how’s it going?”
As far as PR goes, are there things that small businesses can be doing to increase their exposure?
I will qualify this by telling you that I am not a PR person, which is kind of funny. If you were to say, “Hey Ryan, I want to do PR,” I would say, “I don’t really know what’s involved there.” We have this service that gets press. So understand, sort of, my frame of reference. I will tell you that a lot of it comes down to perceived credibility. So to get people to respond to you and to want to interview you or want to do something with you, there are a few real basic things. Number one, you start with your website. If you have a website that your cousin built and it’s a total mess and it’s got cheesy graphics on it and things are all messed up, it seriously detracts from your credibility. I think that the core of your business, what you do and the nature of your business also is one of those things. Sometimes things aren’t as mention-worthy. So I think that if you’re one of those businesses that isn’t mention-worthy, you have to think of some sort of angle or some sort of way to position yourself as being interesting. Otherwise, why are people going to write about you unless you have something interesting to say?
So I think that’s kind of another thing. I think this is, to some degree, a minor point, but I think that people are checking this out a little bit more, is your social media presence. Followers is such a really bad metric, but if you have a, I’ll say it this way, a following and if you have credible people that are interacting with you and that sort of thing, I think that’s also sort of an indication for people that you’re legitimate.
That’s all I got. Other than that, I don’t know. You’ve got to talk to one of those expensive PR consultants. They’ll tell you all that good stuff.
So we’ve talked about Bite Size PR. Now can you tell me a little bit about Rand Media Group?
Rand Media Group is actually one of those more expensive firms. We do a lot of different work. We do web design. We do search engine optimization. We run pay-per-click campaigns. We run other media buying campaigns. We also do social media marketing. It’s a little bit different of an animal. But those are the kind of things that we do, and we work with; well I always struggle with the definition of small business, because to me it seems like small business ranges so much. But Rand Media still does deal with small businesses, but they’re sort of bigger small businesses. They’re businesses that have tens of thousands of dollars in marketing spend per month. Those are the things we do.
But we’re a full service marketing agency, if you will, so we’ll integrate several things at once to execute someone’s online marketing program. It’s one of those things where, if you’re a company that you might have a marketing manager, but you don’t have a really big staff, you don’t have a couple designers, and you don’t have a programmer, and someone to monitor all your search engine marketing, we’re a good firm for you. That’s kind of our niche. We’ll come up with a strategy, and we’ll execute it amongst a few different tactics.
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