As the public relations agency team began implementing the MoneyCentral reviews program, two challenges to successful media review wins became apparent. First, the agency team researched MoneyCentral’s competitive landscape and discovered how crowded and fiercely competitive the online personal finance category was as several other Web sites offered similar services and could jeopardize MoneyCentral’s advantage regarding media reviews. The team realized the competition on two levels: not only does MoneyCentral compete with traditional portals such as Yahoo! and AOL, but also the service competes with other heavy-hitters in online finance including banks (e.g. Bank of America and Wells Fargo), brokerage firms (e.g. Schwab and E*Trade), media sites (e.g. CBS Marketwatch and TheStreet.com) and niche sites (e.g. OnMoney.com and InsWeb).
In light of the crowded marketplace, the agency team developed a public relations strategy of targeted MoneyCentral messaging that would effectively showcase the service for reviewers by highlighting the Web site in compelling ways based on the reviewer’s own criteria for judging Web sites. Strategic, targeted messaging via verbal and written communication with key review media clearly positioned MoneyCentral as a superior online finance resource in relationship to the competition. In brief, this challenge required identifying differentiators, establishing reviews criteria with the media, and then clearly and consistently communicating these differentiators through proactive outreach and in-person meetings with reporters.
Secondly, another challenge to the PR team regarding media relations was the fact that writers, editors and reporters who covered product reviews rarely ever shared their own personal biases toward or against Internet based consumer products and their competitors. To overcome this barrier, the PR team worked closely with each writer to establish effective media relationships for the client as they went on tour for interviews. To accomplish this, the PR team communicated with each writer and asked strategic questions in order to prepare talking points, questions and answer sheets (Q&As), and additional press kit materials so that each review writer would have all relevant MoneyCentral materials for objective product review. Additionally, the PR team provided the client with briefing books that contained in-depth writer biographies and meeting objectives to ensure client success on site demonstrations during interviews on each media tour.
Planning and research for the MoneyCentral reviews program was extensive and multifaceted. The PR team first identified key reviews then made recommendations to the client. Working from the media outreach plan, the agency team then tracked and monitored the timing of these reviews and identified the key reporter for each. Secondly, the PR team researched the reporter in charge of the review, noting any biases toward MoneyCentral and any other players in the space, in order to effectively address these biases in proactive pitches and client interviews. To accomplish this, the PR team researched and analyzed past MoneyCentral coverage as well as other financial site reviews to determine how the service was positioned and what elements were important to each reporter’s audience. This research also analyzed which areas of the MoneyCentral site were criticized in the past, as well as which areas were consistently praised.
At the onset of this PR program, the team and the client established a specific metric to determine the success or failure of the reviews program: Win 80 percent of identified top-tier reviews in technology and financial publications. The PR team recognized that one significant way to position MoneyCentral as a category leader was to identify and leverage current industry trends. To pave the way for review success, the PR team determined which key online finance technology features were being touted in the industry, general and specific to the online personal finance space, then talked about MoneyCentral’s innovations using these features. In addition, the PR team conducted a competitive analysis of the key players in the space in order to determine what features MoneyCentral offers that clearly out-performed its competition, as well as the areas that needed careful positioning to deflect criticism. The agency team then used this competitive knowledge in proactive media calls to position MoneyCentral as an innovator and category leader.
The strategic approach to the MoneyCentral reviews program was equally comprehensive. Initially, the agency team tracked industry coverage on a daily basis to identify breaking industry trends and statistical data that supported how MoneyCentral’s site features should be considered “best of breed.” The team also tracked set review criterion for judging financial portals, typically in terms of: ease of use, depth and usefulness of data, editorial content, tools and interactivity and timeliness in providing instant financial news and information. The industry research and competitive analysis findings were then drafted into strategic, targeted messages and talking points to best explain how MoneyCentral’s technology tools, financial services and editorial content are specifically designed to help consumers research, decide and take action on their personal finances as part of a current and emerging trend in online personal finance.
The team then identified and tracked media review awards of key importance to the MoneyCentral client. To do this, the agency set up a buddy program that focused on building strategic relationships between key reporters and the client. To keep communication channels open about reviews and other coverage opportunities, the team assisted the client in building essential relationships with key review reporters through regular contact via email and telephone regarding new MoneyCentral site features and their relationship to current finance trends. Through this proactive media contact, the agency recommended in-person briefings and product demonstrations to position Money Central as a category leader and to show off new features that surpassed the competition, with continued emphasis on how the service embraced the latest trends in online finance. The agency also recommended that MoneyCentral executives conduct three press tours during three months to cultivate relationships with key media and analysts.
The PR team also leveraged the launch of new site features and used the statistical trend data to interest reporters and reviewers in one-on-one meetings. In addition, the team recommended that MoneyCentral demonstrate how MoneyCentral has deep technology tool and service integration with MSN, Microsoft’s major Internet portal, as a differentiating factor above the competition. By playing up MoneyCentral’s deep integration with technology features (e.g. email, instant messaging and mobile access) that traditional finance sites could not offer, the team gained another important distinction to highlight with the media.
The execution of the campaign consisted of message development, the media buddy program with reviewers, and three press tours. To support these elements, the PR team developed messaging that clearly communicated how MoneyCentral was ahead of the competition regarding industry trends and key site features. The press tours reached 63 analysts, reviewers, and reporters with briefings about current MoneyCentral features, its integration with MSN, the site’s innovations reflecting industry trends, its significant differences from the competition, and the future vision of the service. Analyst briefings proved to be a key factor in this mix because they are often called upon by the press to offer their insights, research expertise and analysis about products and the future trends within their area of industry research. This proved to be a winning formula.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
As a result of the comprehensive reviews program, MoneyCentral won an unprecedented eight reviews in leading technology and finance trade publications from June through December 2000. Key publications that ranked MoneyCentral as first among online financial sites included Barron’s (for the fourth year in a row), Forbes, Kiplinger’s, Money, PC Magazine, PC World, TheStreet.com and Yahoo! Internet Life. All the media review wins MoneyCentral received in the past six months emphasized the service’s usability, integration, depth, usefulness, editorial content, tools and interactivity for every level of user and identified these as clear advantages over competing financial Web sites.
MoneyCentral’s review wins, which earned 10.8 million media impressions, attracted attention with the public. Internal Microsoft metrics and external Integrated Decision Support System metrics also showed that site traffic significantly increased throughout the six month time period, reaching a record traffic month for November when MoneyCentral attracted 11 million unique users.