How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Pay-for-Play PR
Updated: Feb 24
Pay-for-play (P4P) brand opportunities have been a hot topic lately. That's probably because P4P "PR" is everywhere nowadays, especially in hyper-growth industries like cybersecurity.
Most people can spot P4P from a mile away, but the tactics so-called publishers and award outfits use can be so well veiled that it makes sense that unsuspecting leaders will fall for them. P4P opportunities are successful because they prey on human emotions, vanity and recognition.
Almost a decade ago the cybersecurity market started to gain momentum. The Home Depot breach changed everything and a introduced a wave of new start-ups and disruptive technology. Building brand recognition and establishing credibility was a challenge for those start-ups, especially as they were up against proven, legacy technology providers. Getting named to lists and landing awards was a quick way to gain visibility and spot on the cybersecurity map.
Today the cybersecurity field is saturated with vendors (3,247 at last count, via Richard Stiennon and IT-Harvest), and buyers are overwhelmed. Nowadays boasting an award win as a trust tactic is more creepy than validating.
As a marketplace expands, so too do the award categories vendors can "compete" in. There's literally a badge for every solution under the sun. And in some cases, if that badge or category doesn't exist, some award organizers will create it at your request —for a small fee.
P4P is sneaky, and not limited to award badges.
That double-page spread in a "renowned c-level" or "popular business magazine" = P4P.
The "producer" that calls you out of the blue to book you on a "special" PBS segment = P4P.
An industry conference that asks you, the presenter, to pay a speaking fee = P4P.
Your alma matter "inviting" you to apply for their 50 under 50 category (et al) for a small fee = P4P.
The media outlet at a major industry conference that invites you for a sponsored in-booth or "in-studio" conference show interview = P4P.
The awards category that asks for a submission fee AND a gala table sponsorship so you can "claim your award in person" = P4P.
You get the point.
P4P isn't PR
PR is earned, it isn't paid. Often times P4P is justified as brand related spend, so it gets lumped in with PR.
It's tempting to throw all P4P into the same bucket. Whether you're pro P4P (less likely) or against, P4P isn't black and white. Select P4P opportunities are credible and valuable, and it's important to remember that paying a submission fee does not guarantee a win.
Think Inc. Magazine's Best Workplaces ($345/submission) or Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies list ($995/submission) — getting named to either list is a brand win, even if only for the exposure you get through the outlet's platform (Inc. Magazine = 11,936,180 UVM and Fast Company = 5,194,044 UVM).
The contributor fee that comes with a spot on Forbes' Tech Council exposes your articles to 65,519,691, supports your SEO strategy and can backlink readers directly to your site (inbound and referred traffic boost).
Every brand action you take must serve a purpose, just like every marketing investment must demonstrate ROI.
Doing P4P is (or should be) a calculated decision, because paying an entry or participation fee is taking a risk. Weigh potential outcomes and ROI against that risk. Take a step back and balance your motivations against outcomes, and your audiences against perceptions.
Consider these factors:
Does this opportunity propel your personal/professional brand, or does it move the company's needle? Are you trying to make a bold statement to the competitive field?
Will this award win or opportunity give your brand credibility through the eyes of your audiences? (E.g. Who cares?)
Will this accolade or opportunity give your brand exposure that you wouldn't or couldn't get from other paid channels? If so, how?
Does this opportunity give you credibility? Does it foster trust with your customers or potential buyers? Does it validate your offering?
Does this accolade recognize employee contributions or help your hiring efforts? Will it support your community brand?
Stakeholders & Investors
Does this accolade appeal to investors (generate interest) or demonstrate momentum?
Balance P4P opportunities with genuine accolades - because they do exist
Believe it or not, there are still super reputable lists and accolades out there that are free. They're usually the ones that are backed by credible research institutions or big-name catalysts or have a lengthy submission process and named judges, versus those that have three multiple choice questions and a transaction fee.
Navigating the field is complicated. The trick is to make choices that match your company's brand, audiences and growth goals. Here are a few tips to help you wade the P4P minefield:
Be wary of inbound invitations. If you're an early-stage company, odds are a publisher, producer or awards outfit is contacting you because you landed on their purchased call list, not their radar. These outfits are relentless and are almost always P4P.
Do your homework. Look at who the organizers are. Look at previous winners lists. Try to find out who the judges are. A little digging can uncover P4P opportunities pretty quickly.
Benchmark the opportunity against your marketing strategy. Does the opportunity give you exposure to large, quality audiences that you can't reach through other channels? Does it help your SEO strategy? Is it credible to your audiences — and if so, how can you use it in marketing campaigns in a meaningful way?
Look at the shelf life. Is the accolade something meaningful that will endure over time? For example, landing on the SINET16 list at early-stage is credibility that validates the quality of your solution and can live with your brand's legacy, rather than simply the year it was issued.
Ask yourself who cares. Does it matter to your leadership team? Your employees? Potential investors? Your customers or buyers? Be strategic on the opportunities you pursue based on the value potential across your audiences. If you (as the CEO) are the only person who cares, don't do the opp.
At the end of the day, the activities you choose HAVE to move the needle in some form or fashion.
Peer reviews and customer testimonials always win when it comes to credibility and building authority. Your company earns those reviews through trust; apply the same energy to your awards pursuit and you'll be on your way to building brand credibility. 💫