Before digital, there was just PR. And PR was all about negotiating with journalists to generate media coverage in newspapers, magazines, on radio and on television. And then the internet came and disrupted all of that: people started spending less time reading newspapers and magazines or watching TV and more time online, so it became harder to reach them through traditional PR methods. =
So digital PR was born. For most traditional PR agencies, digital PR simply meant:
They could generate coverage on websites instead of in print publications
They could promote any stories on social media.
But digital PR is about so much more than that, as any good B2B PR agency will tell you.
Digital PR as search engine optimisation
While PR agencies were increasingly targeting online and social media, search engine optimisation companies also laid their claim to the term ‘digital PR’. An SEO agency considers digital PR to involve everything from citation building (posting instances of a business’s name address and phone number around the internet), to generating back links from press release distribution (not recommended!), to ‘outreach’ activities (traditionally known as media pitching) – see this blog on outreach from leading SEO software company ahrefs, as an example of how SEO agencies approach media pitching.
But quite a few SEO agencies broke Google’s rules with their approach to ‘outreach’. SEMRush, for example launched a new service (see Twitter conversation) offering ‘guest blog posts’ (or byliners/op-eds as they’re more commonly known in the PR world).This was a manual outreach service delivering guaranteed links.
Google was all over this and SEMrush instantly shut the service down. But why was this not allowed?
SEMrush asked for the target URL and anchor text – if you can stipulate this then it indicates a degree of control over the coverage – this screams spam. If you’re from the world of PR you know you have to work very hard to get basic messaging included in coverage when dealing with journalists, let alone getting links to certain landing pages included (almost impossible unless you’ve got great content on your domain the journo is referencing).
They refer to the service as ‘guest post outreach’ – Google isn’t a fan of ‘guest posting’: “Lately we’ve seen an increase in spammy links contained in articles referred to as contributor posts, guest posts, partner posts, or syndicated posts.” Check out the related blog post for more detail.
It promises post publication in 16 days or less. Once again, if you’re from the world of PR you know you may have to wait weeks or minutes for coverage depending on the editorial/opportunity you’re dealing with. If you can control publication time then you control the opportunity. If you control the opportunity then you’re essentially paying for an advert. Google does not permit followed links in adverts (obvs – you’re gaming the PageRank system).
So what is the right way to do digital PR?
Outreach is essential to generate back links the right way – from digital PR: linked mentions of your brand name in opinion pieces and news associated with your company. This is not the aforementioned ‘guest blogging’ – this is traditional PR with the happy by-product of authoritative links from editorial sites. After all, links from contextually relevant third party sites to your website are crucial for great keyword rankings. And how do we know this? Because Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, told us what the top two organic keyword ranking factors are:
“I can tell you what they are. It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site.”
Other than link building there are two other areas that marry SEO to digital PR.
Click through rate
Google’s former chief of search quality Udi Manber testified: “The ranking itself is affected by the click data. If we discover that, for a particular query, hypothetically, 80 percent of people click on Result No. 2 and only 10 percent click on Result No. 1, after a while we figure out, well, probably Result 2 is the one people want. So we’ll switch it.”
So if everyone performing a search has been subject to brand B’s digital PR efforts (i.e. have read about brand B in horizontal and vertical online titles) and associates the brand with a particular search term/topic, then even though brand B ranks below brand A in the organic search results, it picks up the majority of the clicks because searchers recognise it. Before long, it moves into position one.
Suddenly every SEO in the land was touting EAT as the new ranking signal you just had to get right. Google was asked so many times about EAT that it went back and added an addendum to the original blog post in March 2020 explain that EAT was about overall web presence rather than a specific thing (e.g. like adding author profiles to your website).
It’s about the quality of content on your site and various other on and offsite signals. One of which we suspect is brand mentions in authoritative editorial publications (not linked mentions necessarily, just brand mentions, otherwise knows as implied links). And why do we suspect implied links are important? Because at Pubcon 2017 in Las Vegas, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes was subjected to a detailed interview on developments in SEO.
Interviewer: “If ‘The Wall Street Journal’ writes an article about you, then that’s probably a good thing?”
Illyes: “Yeah. Basically, that’s how the ranking algorithm works as well.”
He went on to confirm: “…the context in which you engage online, and how people talk about you online, actually can impact what you rank for.”
So what conclusion do we draw from this? Being featured in contextually relevant publications is key to EAT and important for organic search engine rankings. We also suspect simple brand mentions are now becoming more important and acting as ‘mini votes’ – and how do you get these brand mentions? Answer, digital PR.
To conclude this section, digital PR positively impacts:
Trusted inbound links
Click through rate
Expertise, authority and trust
What activities are included in digital PR?
Well, if digital PR is all about building your brand’s reputation online, and all PR, online and offline, has to involve the use of a trusted, independent, unbiased, third party, then digital PR would usually cover:
Social media influencer relations
Social media advertising
Online article placement
I think most marketers would agree social media influencer relations and online article placement sit squarely in the digital PR camp. The argument I would anticipate is: ‘But how can you include SEO if all PR, online and offline, has to involve the use of a trusted, independent, unbiased, third party?’
Our answer to that as a leading B2B SEO outfit is: from the target audience’s viewpoint, organic search results and online media coverage share one thing in common, they are both published on independent, unbiased portals. No, Google isn’t independent and unbiased, but neither is a newspaper. Personally I don’t see the difference between being featured on the front page of a newspaper versus the first page of Google’s search engine results pages for a particular keyword. Both are ways to publicise your brand to a target audience, only difference being, we can measure the impact of the page one ranking whereas it’s much harder to measure the impact of the print coverage.
What are good digital PR KPIs?
A good digital PR result is therefore anything that positively influences a brand’s social media or organic search profiles, or any positive online media coverage. They can be split into outputs and outcomes – this is important – after all outcomes are what will positively impact your bottom line and what your FD cares about. Here are example digital PR KPIs:
Social media influencer relations:
Have you increased your target audience community size? (output)
Are you increasing traffic from your social channels to your website? (outcome)
Have you created new brand advocates? (outcome)
Has social engagement increased? (outcome)
Are your posts being shared by relevant social communities/influencers? (outcome)
Have you managed to increase traffic from search engines to your website? (outcome)
Is increased organic traffic resulting in more leads? (outcome)
Online article placement (including reviews):
Have you got more positive coverage that your competitors? (output)
Have you increase implied links (brand mentions)? (output)
Have you secured coverage in tier one online media targets? (output)
Have their key messages been pulled through into media coverage? (output)
Have you secured good reviews on sites that rank highly for keywords the target audience will be searching for? (output)
Have you seen an increase in referral traffic from online article placement? (outcome)
How do you measure the success of digital PR?
Now we can answer the ‘What is digital PR?’ question, we can begin to think about how to measure success.
Public relations has typically struggled because it’s hard to measure its contribution to a business’s bottom line. Interestingly digital PR doesn’t suffer the same problem. Anything that’s directly responsible for increasing website traffic and conversions is very valuable to a business and something worth paying for.
That’s not to say traditional PR doesn’t contribute to sales, but it does so in an indirect way (e.g. makes it easier for telesales teams to get through to prospects, increases a company’s credibility etc. – very valuable, but hard to put a number on).
Traditional PR agencies that are confident enough to leave outdated PR metrics in the past where they belong, will often suggest PR success measurement is based on how well their clients’ businesses are performing. If business performance is good, business objectives have been met, and PR has visibly supported the process, then the PR campaign has been successful (this is the fundamental logic of the Barcelona Principles pulled together by AMEC, designed to help the PR industry prove its worth), but by that logic, if revenue and profit is down, then PR has failed.
However, this isn’t always the case. The PR campaign may have been excellent at raising awareness with a target demographic but that demographic may have not been the right target audience for the brand, or it was the right target audience, but that audience wasn’t ready to buy, or were put off by something else. Point being there are a million variables that may obscure the effectiveness of a traditional PR campaign.
By contrast, measuring the effectiveness of digital PR is relatively straightforward, especially if you have access to the following tools:
Google Analytics (GA) – the staple software you’ll need to measure digital PR success. Using GA enables you to measure (amongst other things):
Organic traffic levels
Referral traffic from media websites
Referral traffic from social networks
Source and medium of client website goal completions
Type of user your client’s website is attracting
Keyword tracking software – at the high end of the SEO spectrum you have tools like Moz which will help you track your keywords and give you access to a wide range of SEO tools, like Link Explorer, that come in very handy when running SEO campaigns. On the other hand, if you are primarily interested in plain old keyword tracking then you won’t go far wrong with a product like Authority Labs.
Social software – while social tracking tools like SharedCount have been used in the past to track all social sharing from major social platforms, their effectiveness is now limited as it has no access to Twitter and LinkedIn. Truth is, the best way to do this is to set up social tracking in Google Analytics – Hootsuite’s guide is perfect for beginners.
What is the difference between traditional and digital PR?
Going back to our definition of what digital PR is:
Digital PR is the use of online trusted, independent, unbiased, third parties to positively influence a brand’s target audience.
Therefore there is no fundamental difference between offline and online PR, simply the channels through which they’re delivered. Whether online or offline a good story is still a good story and if it’s carried by an ‘trusted independent third-party outlet’ then traditional and digital PR are similar. The difference is in the channels used to promote the brand and the way the online and offline versions of the discipline are measured.
How does digital PR fit into a marketing strategy?
If your audience is millennials and your strategy is ‘Be where they are’ then social media will be important channels, and brand ambassadors promoting products a great tactic.
If, however your strategy is ‘Get them when they’re ready to spend’ then SEO will be key, along with PPC and other point of purchase marketing disciplines.
How do you pick a good digital PR agency?
Now the tricky bit; how to pick a digital PR agency. Questions you can ask any prospective digital PR partners include the ones I’ve detailed as subheadings above. And if you’re leaning toward hiring a PR-led SEO agency for digital PR support (and you should!) then watch Google’s video on hiring SEO support – a lot of the lessons apply (after all, it’s all very well a digital PR agency generating the best links for your organic search campaign, but if they can’t do the technical onsite piece then you’re pouring a lot of fuel into a broken engine).
Armed with the knowledge from this blog you should be able to have a fairly informed conversation with any ‘digital PR’ agency and confidently ask the question: what is digital PR?