Editor’s note: 2016 marks the 20th SupplySide West, and INSIDER is celebrating all year. We asked speakers from the first SupplySide to update the industry on the topic. In 1997, Suzanne Shelton’s presentation was on “Target Markets for Public Relations Campaigns" and covered education and marketing tactics in a pre-internet, post-DSHEA world.
Effective PR in the dietary supplements industry has always been based upon solid information rather than fluff, but today that’s particularly the case. Looking back at how the delivery of that information has changed over the last 20 years, it’s clear the vehicles to deliver information are far more targeted today.
Twenty years ago when I spoke at the first SupplySide West, the industry was in a very different place. The threat of FDA putting us all out of business, which had been looming over us all, had been mitigated by the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Forward-thinking companies with proprietary ingredients were beginning to invest in research to demonstrate ingredient safety and efficacy, with generally positive results. And the mainstream media was covering those discoveries in a positive light, even The New York Times.
How we communicated was also very different 20 years ago. Phones weren’t smart, they were landlines. Having a website was still optional, and internet shopping was in its infancy. Speaking of infants, the founders of Facebook were still in diapers—there was no social media. A few people were starting to use email, but no one was really using it for marketing. We couldn’t live without our fax machines, which were far faster than U.S. mail and saved a lot of money in Federal Express costs.
When I gave my presentation at the first SupplySide West, the topic was “Target Markets for Public Relations Campaigns." The session examined:
• Effective ways of communicating with the natural products industry to gain visibility and credibility;
• Public relations campaigns that positively impact product-buying consumers; and
• Fine-tuning efforts to convey the right message to the right groups.
Reaching consumers 20 years ago required the media, and the trick was to find the newspapers, magazines and radio and television shows that would reach a receptive audience. You mailed a press kit or faxed a news release and a pitch letter to the editor, producer or writer, then called to follow up. Calling the San Francisco Chronicle was particularly annoying because they had this newfangled voicemail system that made it impossible to reach an actual person. But with well-crafted pitch materials and relentless follow up, you could create a presence in the media to convey the benefits of clients’ products to consumers.
Then, in the late 1990s, everything changed. A study came out linking negative reactions to St. John’s wort in combination with common pharmaceuticals. As if a switch flipped, The New York Times began writing about the industry as being “unregulated" with products that were untested and could cause side effects, or worse, that do nothing but waste your money. There was a rapid cascade effect, and soon articles about dietary supplements in a variety of publications began raising questions as to the safety and efficacy of those products.
It was a confusing and difficult transition. Sorting out how to reach consumers without risking an article also describing the industry as unregulated was a challenge. One solution I found was to work closely with industry trade magazines educating retailers, who then in turn educated consumers. As the industry grew, so did the variety of trades; from three that primarily targeted retailers with little coverage on ingredients, to more than twice that number today that focus on different aspects of the industry. Using them effectively involves far more than news releases, although announcing news with a press release certainly has its place. Monitoring editorial calendars and offering experts to be a resource, as well as providing bylined articles, has worked well for many years. Then, as now, the industry trades were a valuable resource for sending product information through the pipeline to consumers. And the products the trades offer today can help you develop tools to use throughout your information pipeline.
Working with the industry’s trade publications to provide content and advocate for best practices is an effective way to position your company as an industry leader as well as convey information on your products. With the addition of newer publishing formats such as infographics, webinars, videos, white papers, ebooks and other content marketing pieces, there are abundant opportunities to convey in-depth product information in formats that offer a lot of options.
Say you’re a launching a new ingredient that has a solid base in science. Start with a whitepaper that explains it in technical detail, and then use that as the foundation from which to develop all your other content in varying degrees of complexity and technical detail. A lot of it can be used for a variety of audiences, too. An infographic can more simply explain a complicated process that you can use on your website and in social media for consumers and, by the way, is also very useful for retail buyers who may not understand what makes your product different and desirable.
Effective content marketing practices are taking hold with retailers of all types. Particularly in the health food channel, there is real value in reaching consumers through email newsletters, social media posts and even in-store education events by providing retailers with good content. Many have Facebook pages and newsletters to support their stores, yet continually generating information that will interest their customers is extremely time consuming. Providing content to retailers helps them save time and it helps you reach the most focused target audience you can find for your product: consumers who already purchase supplements and shop where your product is sold.
Another great advantage of today’s direct and rapid communications options is the ability to quickly respond to negative media coverage—and we’ve certainly had more than our share of that. Putting negative media coverage in perspective, whether it’s based upon a badly designed study or an attorney general with an agenda, makes you a valuable information resource to the companies selling your products and the consumers using them. Again, social media, your website, email blasts and newsletters allow you to reach your customers quickly and directly.
Online access to information is so easy and is now the primary way people find out about everything, offering the opportunity for information you develop to reach a much bigger and, at the same time, more focused audience than the old-school PR and marketing tactics. Taking advantage of the many content marketing formats industry trade outlets offer gives you excellent material to educate customers and promote sales.
Suzanne Shelton, founder of The Shelton Group (sheltongrouppr.com), has provided public relations services to international and domestic dietary supplement and natural products manufacturers, suppliers and associations since 1990. Her services go far beyond traditional tactics by covering regulatory concerns, market sensibilities, networking, and industry issues and practices. A founding board and executive committee member of the Natural Products Foundation, she is also the communications committee chair of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).