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How a good PR campaign can boost the profile of your small business

All the day-to-day admin associated with running a business doesn’t leave much time to think about the benefits publicity could bring. But now that your business is ready to grow, the moment to encourage greater interest from the public might have arrived.

Whether your business is large or small, publicity can be an important part of your development as press and social media interest will help raise awareness of who you are and what you do. If, however, you haven’t ever thought about publicity it can be tough to know where to start or how to come up with something that helps you stand out from the crowd.

In this article, we’re going to look at the approach taken by Sally’s Cottages, a family-run cottage business in the Lake District. The publicity campaigns run by Sally’s Cottages are an inspirational example of how a business can make a name for itself by coming up with original campaigns – and all without having to set aside a significant sum to pay for it.

Coming up with a good idea

Sally’s Cottages is run by a team of just thirteen full- and part-time staff, so when they decided to brainstorm ways in which they could grab people’s attention, they knew anything they came up with would need to be manageable within their limited resources and budget.

“We regularly use freelance photographers to capture images of our cottages, so we had a ready-made resource on which we could already draw,” says Sally Fielding, the company’s founder. “Because of this, we settled on a photographic campaign.”

It was decided that to make a lasting impression, they needed a creative and original way to sell the ‘dream’ of staying in comfort at the Lakes – something to grab people’s attention.

What they came up with was a plan to photograph Sally relaxing in a bedroom floating on one of the area’s many lakes – and, if that went well, a series of similarly themed photo shoots to follow.

The team was confident this was a good idea, as they’d already run a similar, spur of the moment, photo shoot to great success...

Capturing a flash of inspiration

Following a late-night conversation with a photographer friend, Sally decided an off-the-wall campaign was needed. Her business regularly posts photos of local scenery on social media, so together they thought that it would be great to photograph Sally at a desk at the top of one of the region's most famous fells.

Five hours later – at 4am – a small team of people found itself heading up a hill, carrying the desk, to catch a sunrise for the photographs.

“The spur of the moment idea to drag a desk to the top of a fell and photograph it was well-suited to Sally’s Cottages, as it showed we were working hard in the fells. We were inspired in the moment, so that’s why we did it straight away,” says Sally.

The shoot was quick and required minimal planning. This moment of inspiration helped Sally learn what was possible for her business and paved the way for more complex photoshoots.

Following-up a good idea – with the other good idea

A year later, after the brainstorming, the team started planning the bed on the lake shoot.

Like the previous shoot, this one also started at dawn. A team of five – Sally, her mom, her dad, Suzanna from the office, and the photographer - backed a car down a slipway into a lake and launched the floating platform on which they’d mounted their homemade bedroom set.

Using row boats, they moved their set into calm waters and submerged the platform just below the surface so the bed appeared to float on its own. Sally then climbed aboard and the photographer composed his shots.

More ambition, more preparation

The bed on the lake photos may have taken a day to capture, but as they were more ambitious than anything else Sally tried, the preparation started a few weeks earlier.

Sally's mom, Jennifer, bought the bed for $65 while her dad, Ian, built the raft, which cost around $130. The only other cost was the photographer’s fee. At the same time, Sally’s mom also organized with a local boating company to borrow the boats - for free!

“We moved the platform through the day to capture the views and sunlight” says Sally.

“We were in a shallow section, so that meant Justin Sihera, the photographer, could conduct the shoot while standing in the lake. In a single day, after two weeks’ preparation, an idea dreamed up several months earlier was eventually turned into a reality.”

Turning original photos into actual PR

Sally’s Cottages intended to make the most of its investment by using the photos from the two shoots in as many places as possible.

“We used the photos on printed brochures and guides, then we researched newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, and emailed the pictures to their newsdesk addresses – each with a press release telling them what we did,” says Sally. “We also put the images on Facebook, and sent them out with all our other press releases too.”

Immediate success

The sheer novelty of the pictures led to them being featured in numerous local newspapers and walking magazines, and even in the Sunday Times. The story of the fell-side photo shoot was also covered by regional news and the local county radio station.

In the year that followed the two shoots, 80% of the owners who started leasing properties through Sally's Cottages had seen the Blake pictures beforehand. What’s more, in the three months following the shoot, Sally’s increased its number of rental cottages by 25%.

Even more shoots!

Realizing the formula seemed to stick in the minds of local people, Sally’s Cottages followed up these projects with a further photo shoot where Sally was enjoying tea and cake in a wood full of bluebells – and another with her relaxing on a sofa among the snow-covered fells.

“We came up with a good idea that captured people’s imaginations, so we decided to continue with that theme and approach for subsequent PR campaigns,” says Sally.

“Now, people in the Lakes know what Sally’s Cottages is,” added Sally. “People want to rent from us as we’re always talked about in relation to the various photo shoots of me relaxing in a lake setting. For a small business like ours, it’s been very effective.”

Using social media to reach more people

At the time of the Blencathra shoot, Sally’s Cottages social media presence was limited. The company had a Facebook page, but it was seen and used by relatively few people.

After they posted the Blencathra pictures, all this changed. Sally’s Cottages’ regular seven or eight ‘likes’ per post grew to 418 likes and 79 comments – an increase of almost 6,000% in activity around this new content. The bed on the lake images also brought in 141 ‘likes’ and 19 comments.

“We were just starting off with Facebook, but these pictures really helped push our presence and get us established there,” says Sally. “They got such a fantastic response, people started coming to our page to find out more.”

In the three months after the release of the photos, Sally’s fledgling Facebook presence gained around 20,000 additional followers, which equated to a 15% increase.

Following up on social media success

Sally’s Cottages’ Facebook presence has also gone from strength to strength with individual posts now regularly gaining thousands of views. Its posts have now gained a total of more than 350,000 ‘followers’ on Facebook and the business uses the network as one of the main ways it promotes its cottages to the public.

“The photos helped get property owners interested in us,” says Sally. “But the bed on a lake pictures on Facebook helped get loads of interest from people looking for a holiday and helped make Facebook one of the main ways we promote ourselves.”

Sally went about promoting her business with creativity, a little preparation, an element of hard work, but most importantly she realized how to build, and follow up on her success to create a lasting difference to her business.