Small-business owners, and financial advisors in particular, know that one key to survival is getting the word out about the products and services they offer. Public relations, by whatever name it is known, is a means to an end.

The problem for many advisors is they don’t do a very good job with the PR game. Some have been in business so long they operate solely on referrals and thus don’t do the PR thing. Some, however, are too busy with clients to get in front of enough prospects, and while they wonder and worry over how to bring in more prospects, many overlook creating buzz through news.

Press releases can be an inexpensive and effective way to get one’s name in front of a lot of people at once. A newspaper or magazine editor may call and want to know more about a press release sent in by an advisor, and that is what most people think of when they think press release. But editors aren’t the only audience for press releases anymore. In fact, if done correctly, editors may comprise the smallest audience for a press release. Consumers are the new target for press releases, because on the wide-open bits and bytes of the Internet, everyone has access to much of the same information. The news – it’s not just at breakfast anymore.

Paradigm shift

Once upon a time, people with press releases to share had no choice but to send the release to editors at newspapers and magazines, hope the news item was deemed worthy of follow-up, and wait.

That is still part of most strategies, because the print media represent a tried-and-true method for disseminating legitimate news. But the days of newspapers being labors of love, operating on razor-thin margins and employing large staffs of editors and writers, are gone. As large corporations have scooped up most newspapers across the country, the papers are expected to produce sizeable profits, and to do that most have trimmed staff and space for actual news.

“There are half as many reporters as there were in 1980,” says Greg Jarboe, president and co-founder of SEO PR, which has offices in Boston and San Francisco. “Papers are continuing to downsize. There are fewer journalists at mainstream media outlets. They are stretched thin and have smaller news space to fill.”

It is more difficult to catch the eye of an editor, according to Jarboe. While that may sound like bad news for advisors who already feel they are fighting an uphill battle to be noticed in a crowded marketplace, it doesn’t have to be – if they are willing to embrace technology. Services are being created that allow professionals with advice to offer the ability to reach consumers directly while keeping things news oriented instead of sales oriented.

The Internet has made it possible. Consider Google and Yahoo. Most readers have heard of those search engines. Those who haven’t should immediately contact their grandchildren or the kid across the street and ask about computers. Both portals have searchable news sections, and both news sections are open to news from independent advisors, with a little help from an online newswire. These press release distribution services will take an advisor’s press release and put it into circulation on scores of news sites all over the Internet. Each advisor should do his homework and choose a distribution service that best meets his needs. The best-known newswires are BusinessWire, PRWeb, Market Wire and PRNewswire, but those are not recommendations, merely a starting point for advisors.

“Remember, the newsroom and geographical reach offered by a service is less important than ensuring that your releases are included on major online news sites,” says David Meerman Scott, the Boston-based author of “The New Rules of Marketing and PR” and himself a PR entrepreneur. “Ultimately, this is direct marketing, search engine marketing. You are reaching people directly with information they are looking for.”

“It’s like Tivo for press releases,” Jarboe says. “People find [an advisor's news] when it’s of interest to them.”

Level playing field

So the egalitarianism of the online world may make it possible to reach consumers directly with news, but how is the little guy supposed to compete against the giants in the financial world, the companies with entire departments dedicated to getting the company name in the news? Well, there are a couple of first steps – one technical, one message-related.

On the technical side of things, advisors need to find out what keywords people use to search for retirement-related information. This can be accomplished with a number of tools. A quick Google search using “keyword research tools” yielded several. Jarboe likes Keyword Discovery (www.keyworddiscovery.com).

“It comes as a stunning revelation to many people that you can find what people search for,” Jarboe says.

Once an advisor knows what keywords people use, he must then use those words in his press release, taking advantage of search engine optimization (which is what the letters SEO in SEO PR stand for). The days of embedded meta tags – hidden keywords that only search engines could see – for optimum search engine placement, are over. Google, Yahoo and other search engines now scan large chunks of documents looking for keywords. If ‘retirement security’ is a keyword combination frequently used by seniors, those words should be in the press release’s headline and body, especially the lead paragraph, Jarboe says.

When it comes time to establish the message of the release, those well-researched keywords are going to come in handy. They’re going to allow the advisor to be found by people searching for the precise services he can offer. But the content can’t just highlight a certain product or service, and that can be difficult to deal with.

“Nobody wants to step aside from their product or service,” says Brandy Hines, customer service manager for Eastern Media Network in Knoxville, Tenn., parent company of Press-Release-Writing.com. “That’s the hardest thing to get through to clients.” But, if advisors don’t take it to heart, they will lose potential customers before they even read the entire press release. Scott agrees.

“The key for everyone to understand is a good news release is about reaching buyers directly and solving a problem they have,” Scott says. “Few people understand that right now. What works – and independent advisors understand this probably better than anyone – is people have unique situations. Those can be written about in language that those potential buyers are using.”

Think about the releases from the perspective of the readers, Scott suggests. Then write about the subject as if it is a news story. Don’t sell an annuity, for example. Seniors don’t care about the annuity nearly as much as they care about keeping their money safe and making it last as long as they do. Find out what their hopes, dreams and worries are and come up with keywords to address those. Scott proposes poring over the notes from a bunch of client meetings and looking for similar words and phrases. If several people talked about leaving a legacy or safe money, use those words in a press release. Think of it as personal keyword research.

“Make it about what they need,” Scott emphasizes.

Also, as soon as a press release is distributed via the chosen service, the advisor should post it to his Web site, as Jarboe says Web pages that include press releases are among the most heavily viewed pages on any site.

Worth it?

Is the effort that goes into getting noticed online worth it, especially for advisors who are working with individuals 55 and older? The short answer is, yes. The long answer is, heck yes. According to figures from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which tracks the attitudes and online usage of Internet users across all demographics, a full 33 percent of adults 65 and older use the Internet regularly. That is up from 22 percent in 2004, just three years ago. Move to the 50-64 age group – the next area of fertile territory for senior advisors – and the percentage jumps to 70.

Seventy percent of senior advisors’ next, or current, crop of clients use the Internet, and nearly three-quarters of those users get their news online. And chances are good that many of them are using sites like Google and Yahoo to search for the news they seek. That means chances also are good that they will have the chance to see a well-worded, problem-solving, relationship-starting press release from a savvy advisor who realizes the time is right.

“Not many people are doing this right now,” Scott says. “Advisors can really differentiate themselves by reaching consumers this way.”

The purpose of all of this is not to say that traditional methods of getting noticed in the news are dead. Traditional media are still looking out for newsworthy stories and events. Most trade publications rely on information they discover in press releases to fill pages every month. And when a reporter does pick up the phone to find out more, that payoff is large.

“When you get published, it generates results,” Jarboe says. “You get 20 times more traffic from what a journalist has written than from the press release.”

Twenty times more traffic. That’s a nice figure, but an advisor can’t assume he will get coverage from every release he writes. The vast expanse of cyberspace makes it possible for an advisor to get some mileage out of every press release he writes, in the form of direct-to-consumer messaging. And people are online at all hours of the day; they don’t limit their news to just breakfast and bedtime. The world moves 24/7, and now your news can, too.