The Volume/Personalization Trade-Off

The trade-off between volume and personalization is an ever-present dilemma in public relations. If, as I do, you subscribe to the notion that one of the best ways to build loyalty is to develop a relationship with people, then you’ve likely hit the point where you have to make a trade-off between the number of people you can engage with and the quality of those interactions.

A couple of weeks ago I received a pitch about the upcoming launch of Gary Vaynerchuk‘s first book. The pitch wasn’t fantastic, but as I’ve followed Gary’s activities for a while and it was well enough targeted, I replied and moved on. Fast forward to this weekend, when I read an interesting post by John Cass about a similar (not identical) pitch that he received. Reading the comments (those on the original post and the re-post on Social Media Today are all worth reading), I started to really think about the optimum point along the scale/personalization continuum when it comes to pitching.

Volume/personalization extremes

Purists will tell you that you need to read 10-20 posts or stories from each person you pitch, and that you should completely tailor every pitch you issue. Meanwhile, some other people will argue that by reaching a large volume of people with your pitch, the law of averages says you will connect with enough people who do care that you will come out ahead.

I’d argue that there are downsides to both extreme, although I still favour one side over the other.

I’ve written before about some of the issues involved with personalized blogger relations. The primary one, of course, is time. Even if you take just a minute or two per post you read, that time adds up quickly. To then tailor personalized emails takes more time. When you work for an agency, the process can quickly chew through your client’s budget.

Once you get to the kind of numbers that Gary mentions in his comments on John’s post, you’re talking astronomical amounts of time. That limits this approach to a very small number of recipients.

This brings us to the other extreme – mass communications. This is the approach that relies on building a large list, emailing out a standard (or mail-merged) email to that list and letting the law of averages do its work. Sure, you may annoy some people but you’ll also hit other people who will take the action you’re after. This is the “email marketing” form of pitching – the collision of the two tactics.

Is the sweet spot in the middle ground?

In an ideal world, every company would take the former approach. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that wonderful place – time is tight, budgets are tighter and we need to deliver results for our clients and bosses with less resources than we would like to have.

I wonder if the ideal solution, as with so many dilemmas, is somewhere in the middle.

The chart above shows roughly how I view the dilemma. At the top-left of the curve, you have the idealists who say you should completely tailor every word of every pitch you send out. Small, highly-targeted outreach also fits into this part of the curve. At the opposite end of the chart, you have the spammers who pitch massive numbers of people with the same message. They’re easy to spot – they’re the ones where you’re bcc’d, with no salutation or a “Dear Blogger.” They often lead with the words “For Immediate Release.”

I’ve worked for clients where their only targets are one or two highly influential blogs, and in that case you can function over  at the top-left of the curve. However, unless your target audience is an extremely small number of sites (or their readers), you may need to make some compromises.

Still, I am strongly (and often vocally) against untargeted spam pitches that hit everyone with the same email. Note that the potential “sweet spot” I suggest sits closer to the tailored, low-volume end of the scale than the other. Critically, it sits above the tipping point where the volume reaches the point where significantly less personalization is possible.

The reality of the “sweet spot”

In this sweet spot, for a new client:

  • You research the targets of your pitches – you read their stories or their websites;
  • You create a pitch template covering the key points you wish to communicate;
  • You tailor that template for every person you pitch;
    • That personalization includes, but isn’t limited to:
      • The medium you use to pitch them (if that information is available)
      • Your greeting
      • Your opening paragraph
      • The points on which you choose to focus
      • The supporting collateral you offer – do they lean towards video? Images? Interviews?
  • You keep some less-critical parts of the email the same, to save time and budget.

Time changes things

I say “for a new client” above because, as time goes on, I believe the line in the chart moves up – as you get to know the market and the media in that market better, you can reach more of them more effectively in less time, meaning more personalization, less time required and better use of resources.

Having worked on some accounts for a while now, I can reel-off the names of key journalists, how they like to be contacted, when the best times are to reach them and the types of information they like, without even needing notes. That makes the pitching process more cost-effective as time goes on – meaning the line in the chart has moved way up the Y axis.

Your thoughts?

I’m curious as to your thoughts. Does this click with the challenges you face?

Let me know what you think – I’d love to hear your feedback.

22 comments
Tom Lopy
Tom Lopy

what should i do to target audiences with my website [edited: website removed]?

Tom Lopy
Tom Lopy

what should i do to target audiences with my website [edited: website removed]?

Jesse David Hollington
Jesse David Hollington

I tend to get pitches at both extremes, as the site that I write for tends to be influential in its particular industry focus (in short, iPod services and accessories). Most of the pitches are for new products, and considering the wide breadth of different products out there, it's not surprising that some of the "releases" are outright spammy in nature.

On the other hand, we get a lot of very personalized ones due to an existing relationship and the knowledge from the manufacturers that our site is one where they would prefer to see their product release news posted or their product reviewed. While we remain as neutral as possible in our approach to product news and reviews, obviously a personalized message that specifically highlights why we would care is going to get a lot more attention than a generic "For Immediate Release" type of message.

The completely spammy ones tend to frequently be ignored outright just based on their tone. Further, there are those where we're obviously on a mailing list that's completely unrelated to our target readership. For instance, we're a site about iPod-related technology and accessories, so chances are we're not particularly interested in a press release about new home water heater technology -- at least not unless it has iPod or iPhone integration hidden in it somewhere. :)

However, in a sea of spammy so-called "press releases" it's often hard to find those situations where there *is* something interesting for our particular readership, unless it's specifically highlighted in the release.

Ergo, this is also where the completely non-personalized marketing messages do tend to fail miserably. In the very least, I think people need to personalize for different *categories* of audience. You may not be able to custom-tailor your news releases to every individual customer, but breaking down your mailing list by the focus or interest of each group will probably take you much further.

For example: If you're pitching a new home theatre receiver, your pitch to an audiophile blog or magazine would highlight its sound fidelity and quality, whereas a pitch to a home-theatre related site would need to emphasize its tight integration with other home theatre technologies, and a pitch to an iPod-related accessory site would highlight its iPod, iPhone or iTunes integration. A generic press release that glosses over these important target-specific issues is much more likely to get ignored in a sea of similar pitches that don't highlight that particular focus that the reader may be interested in.

So you may not be able to write a custom pitch for each one of the thousands of people on your mailing list, but you should at least spend some time separating your mailing list into the industry focus areas that you are targeting, and ensure that your pitch is targeted to interest those groups. The time to "triage" your contact list and identify focus areas may represent some initial time investment at the beginning, but I suspect it would ultimately pay off in the longer term.

Jesse David Hollington
Jesse David Hollington

I tend to get pitches at both extremes, as the site that I write for tends to be influential in its particular industry focus (in short, iPod services and accessories). Most of the pitches are for new products, and considering the wide breadth of different products out there, it's not surprising that some of the "releases" are outright spammy in nature.   On the other hand, we get a lot of very personalized ones due to an existing relationship and the knowledge from the manufacturers that our site is one where they would prefer to see their product release news posted or their product reviewed. While we remain as neutral as possible in our approach to product news and reviews, obviously a personalized message that specifically highlights why we would care is going to get a lot more attention than a generic "For Immediate Release" type of message.   The completely spammy ones tend to frequently be ignored outright just based on their tone. Further, there are those where we're obviously on a mailing list that's completely unrelated to our target readership. For instance, we're a site about iPod-related technology and accessories, so chances are we're not particularly interested in a press release about new home water heater technology -- at least not unless it has iPod or iPhone integration hidden in it somewhere. :)   However, in a sea of spammy so-called "press releases" it's often hard to find those situations where there *is* something interesting for our particular readership, unless it's specifically highlighted in the release.   Ergo, this is also where the completely non-personalized marketing messages do tend to fail miserably. In the very least, I think people need to personalize for different *categories* of audience. You may not be able to custom-tailor your news releases to every individual customer, but breaking down your mailing list by the focus or interest of each group will probably take you much further.   For example: If you're pitching a new home theatre receiver, your pitch to an audiophile blog or magazine would highlight its sound fidelity and quality, whereas a pitch to a home-theatre related site would need to emphasize its tight integration with other home theatre technologies, and a pitch to an iPod-related accessory site would highlight its iPod, iPhone or iTunes integration. A generic press release that glosses over these important target-specific issues is much more likely to get ignored in a sea of similar pitches that don't highlight that particular focus that the reader may be interested in.   So you may not be able to write a custom pitch for each one of the thousands of people on your mailing list, but you should at least spend some time separating your mailing list into the industry focus areas that you are targeting, and ensure that your pitch is targeted to interest those groups. The time to "triage" your contact list and identify focus areas may represent some initial time investment at the beginning, but I suspect it would ultimately pay off in the longer term.

John Cass
John Cass

Hi Dave,

Great post, one of the ironies for me here is that Gary's publicist probably would have gotten a review from me if they had simply said, "Gary has a new book about social media, would you like to review it?" I would have jumped at the chance. The irony being the post would not have even needed to be addressed to me. I think the email set my expectation that it was personalized at the beginning of the email, but the last paragraph clearly indicated it was not.

Maybe this whole discussion is all about setting expectations with people. Perhaps the two extremes can work:

1) Hello this is a non-personalized pitch email.
2) Hello this is a personalized email, I read your blog.

But when you try to appear to be something you are not that's when a company is more likely to fall down. I think that's what happened with Gary's publicist's email, for me anyway.

Hey, maybe it’s a case of testing pitch emails before sending them out with the community. I don't expect that every aspect of an email will be personalized. But I do expect that people will be transparent about whether they have read my blog or not.

The description of how to get into the PR sweet spot seems perfectly reasonable to me, you suggest people read a journalist/blogger’s work and even tailor where appropriate. If you are just giving the facts about a campaign I think it’s quite reasonable to reuse them over time.

John Cass
John Cass

Hi Dave,   Great post, one of the ironies for me here is that Gary's publicist probably would have gotten a review from me if they had simply said, "Gary has a new book about social media, would you like to review it?" I would have jumped at the chance. The irony being the post would not have even needed to be addressed to me. I think the email set my expectation that it was personalized at the beginning of the email, but the last paragraph clearly indicated it was not.   Maybe this whole discussion is all about setting expectations with people. Perhaps the two extremes can work:   1) Hello this is a non-personalized pitch email. 2) Hello this is a personalized email, I read your blog.   But when you try to appear to be something you are not that's when a company is more likely to fall down. I think that's what happened with Gary's publicist's email, for me anyway.   Hey, maybe it’s a case of testing pitch emails before sending them out with the community. I don't expect that every aspect of an email will be personalized. But I do expect that people will be transparent about whether they have read my blog or not.   The description of how to get into the PR sweet spot seems perfectly reasonable to me, you suggest people read a journalist/blogger’s work and even tailor where appropriate. If you are just giving the facts about a campaign I think it’s quite reasonable to reuse them over time.

Amy Flanagan
Amy Flanagan

Nice post. Very clear and thought provoking.
To me, new media is just like old media. There are brands that will always blanket the world with generic messages (the junk mail of yesteryear) and brands that will invest the time and resources to deliver thoughtful communication. Unfortunately some categories do not warrant the latter and so there will always be junk mail in the world - in every form.

Amy Flanagan
Amy Flanagan

Nice post. Very clear and thought provoking. To me, new media is just like old media. There are brands that will always blanket the world with generic messages (the junk mail of yesteryear) and brands that will invest the time and resources to deliver thoughtful communication. Unfortunately some categories do not warrant the latter and so there will always be junk mail in the world - in every form.

Daniel Young
Daniel Young

It really depends on the size of the market. The 'individually tailored' approach is feasible here in Australia because the media landscape and the blogosphere is relatively small. This makes the targets more sensitive to the mass mailing approach because they all know each other. There was an amusing case recently whereby an agency spammed local bloggers, food writers and journalists with a mail merged pitch on a new premium cat food product. The pitch and numerous responses were played back in the public domain - in print and online - much to the embarassment of the PR firm.

Daniel Young
Daniel Young

It really depends on the size of the market. The 'individually tailored' approach is feasible here in Australia because the media landscape and the blogosphere is relatively small. This makes the targets more sensitive to the mass mailing approach because they all know each other. There was an amusing case recently whereby an agency spammed local bloggers, food writers and journalists with a mail merged pitch on a new premium cat food product. The pitch and numerous responses were played back in the public domain - in print and online - much to the embarassment of the PR firm.

Kathy Moore
Kathy Moore

Nice post. Your graphic is clean and instinctive - I can see this being a helpful visual for clients who may not always recognize the value of less is more. Plus I agree with Kellye - the personal aspect of pitching can't be underestimated. Great job and a good read.

Kathy Moore
Kathy Moore

Nice post. Your graphic is clean and instinctive - I can see this being a helpful visual for clients who may not always recognize the value of less is more. Plus I agree with Kellye - the personal aspect of pitching can't be underestimated. Great job and a good read.

Jennifer Gaines
Jennifer Gaines

Definitely, definitely do your best to hit that sweet spot you speak of! As a blogger, I get a million email pitches a day. (Ok, maybe 15 or so.) About half of them are totally off-target. In fact, it's obvious that the senders have never even looked at my blog. This irks me to no end. I delete these with no response. Most of the other pitches are on-target but not personalized at all. Unless it's REALLY interesting, which they're usually not, I delete these as well.

The few on-target, personalized pitches I get every day make me smile. I may not always write about the topic, but I will always respond. I especially like it when they say something along the lines of "I saw that you recently wrote about blah, blah, blah..."

Anyway, in short, a little personalization will go a long way, and hitting that sweet spot is key.

Jennifer Gaines
Jennifer Gaines

Definitely, definitely do your best to hit that sweet spot you speak of! As a blogger, I get a million email pitches a day. (Ok, maybe 15 or so.) About half of them are totally off-target. In fact, it's obvious that the senders have never even looked at my blog. This irks me to no end. I delete these with no response. Most of the other pitches are on-target but not personalized at all. Unless it's REALLY interesting, which they're usually not, I delete these as well. The few on-target, personalized pitches I get every day make me smile. I may not always write about the topic, but I will always respond. I especially like it when they say something along the lines of "I saw that you recently wrote about blah, blah, blah..." Anyway, in short, a little personalization will go a long way, and hitting that sweet spot is key.

david (digitaljoy)
david (digitaljoy)

I think the solution is technology. Set up takes WAY longer, and is therefore more expensive, but (depending on your target audience) the data is out there to send a “mass” email that is fully customized to the target (same applies to print). You can go as far as to customize photos, content, address using a simple “if this then that” algorithm.

For example, if it’s a male, use blue back ground
if you use a blue back ground use the white font
If you are from Ontario use the Trillium graphic
ETC (sorry not a very creative example, but you get the gist)

In most cases the client has that data, for example in most retail locations now, we are asked to give our name and address, combine that with the purchase you just made, now we’ve got a half dozen unique variables (or more)… think of your shoppers optimum card.

I concede that some people will see right through that, but it’s a nice balance between hitting everybody with the same message, and investing the time to individually invest in each recipient..

david (digitaljoy)
david (digitaljoy)

I think the solution is technology. Set up takes WAY longer, and is therefore more expensive, but (depending on your target audience) the data is out there to send a “mass” email that is fully customized to the target (same applies to print). You can go as far as to customize photos, content, address using a simple “if this then that” algorithm. For example, if it’s a male, use blue back ground if you use a blue back ground use the white font If you are from Ontario use the Trillium graphic ETC (sorry not a very creative example, but you get the gist) In most cases the client has that data, for example in most retail locations now, we are asked to give our name and address, combine that with the purchase you just made, now we’ve got a half dozen unique variables (or more)… think of your shoppers optimum card. I concede that some people will see right through that, but it’s a nice balance between hitting everybody with the same message, and investing the time to individually invest in each recipient..

Kneale Mann
Kneale Mann

Despite our best efforts, we humans are impatient. We want instant gratification, instant communities and mature trees on a new house lot on move-in day

It's not about the numbers, you must only share, it's better to give than receive, leave them with more than when you arrived - all true, but once in a while "we" are "they".

We are walking contradictions, perhaps the most common gene shared by all.

And perhaps that is why direct mail remains the largest form of advertising, because enough people say yes to make the fire hose approach worthwhile.

The joys in finding that “sweet spot” far outweigh all the waiting – if we can resist our temptation of being our impatient greedy selves just this once.

Kneale Mann
Kneale Mann

Despite our best efforts, we humans are impatient. We want instant gratification, instant communities and mature trees on a new house lot on move-in day It's not about the numbers, you must only share, it's better to give than receive, leave them with more than when you arrived - all true, but once in a while "we" are "they". We are walking contradictions, perhaps the most common gene shared by all. And perhaps that is why direct mail remains the largest form of advertising, because enough people say yes to make the fire hose approach worthwhile. The joys in finding that “sweet spot” far outweigh all the waiting – if we can resist our temptation of being our impatient greedy selves just this once.

Kellye Crane
Kellye Crane

To elaborate on one of your points: in the sweet spot, you must actually involve a human in the list creation. Far too many PR reps are executing a search in one of the media database programs, and then blindly sending their boilerplate "pitch" to the search results without ever scouring the list. Searching a media database does not count as "research" -- actually visiting the site is key (should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not!).

Also, as you note, the best PR pros are already familiar with the top targets in their fields of expertise. The sweet spot approach you outline really comes into play when you're reaching out to medium/smaller outlets (which I know was Gary V's specific goal). I think you've nailed the method that works best in these cases – making sure everyone has equal access to the information we're providing. Terrific summary!

Kellye Crane
Kellye Crane

To elaborate on one of your points: in the sweet spot, you must actually involve a human in the list creation. Far too many PR reps are executing a search in one of the media database programs, and then blindly sending their boilerplate "pitch" to the search results without ever scouring the list. Searching a media database does not count as "research" -- actually visiting the site is key (should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not!). Also, as you note, the best PR pros are already familiar with the top targets in their fields of expertise. The sweet spot approach you outline really comes into play when you're reaching out to medium/smaller outlets (which I know was Gary V's specific goal). I think you've nailed the method that works best in these cases – making sure everyone has equal access to the information we're providing. Terrific summary!

Dave Fleet
Dave Fleet

Tom - my first tip would be not to leave spam comments on sites.

Dave Fleet
Dave Fleet

Tom - my first tip would be not to leave spam comments on sites.

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