Can you remember the last time you wrote and sent out a press release?
Neither can we. It’s just not an effective public relations practice anymore.
Nowadays, audiences see the great content we produce through our link building processes. But as we all know, building links can’t be done through gaming the algorithms anymore. You can only do it by producing content that matters to the people who we want it to reach.
Does that sound hard? It shouldn’t. Public relations has always been about generating awareness about things that people want to know about.
Snagging a coveted link online is all about building trust with the people who have the power to give it you. And public relations has always been about trust.
There’s a connection in there somewhere, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it. Last Thursday, June 12th, we had a panel discussion with four local digital marketing and PR masterminds to help us connect the dots.
- Amy La Sala, director of public relations and social media at integrated agency Off Madison Ave
- Mi-Ai Parrish, Sue Clark-Johnson Chair of Media Innovation and Leadership at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications
- Arnie Kuenn, CEO of digital marketing agency Vertical Measures
What has been the biggest change with SEO and PR over the last several years, and how should marketers and businesses really address those changes?
Parrish: Within sales and marketing, you could see the lines being drawn: ‘That’s my client. This is my piece. This is my dollar.’ There was a wall. Then there was a window. And now there’s really a door. There’s a lot of collaboration and partnership because everybody wants an audience. We’re all in this, trying to figure out how to get the best stories out.
La Sala: Writing styles has changed tremendously for PR people. You’re no longer writing just to get a journalist’s attention. Sometimes you’re writing the articles that are being placed. You have to know the audience of the journalist just as well as they do. Blog content, contributor content, social content—all of that needed to change.
Wright: If you’re taking anything away from this, it’s collaboration, especially from an agency side. I remember the days when you’d be in the boardroom and fighting for dollars with the directors of each department. Those days are gone. You have to look at it as a collaboration. Also, think outside the box. We have clients who come to us consistently who just want a press release. In my opinion, the press release is dead. It’s a nice tool for chumming the waters, but it’s not strategy.
What are you seeing now as a best practice for getting the editorial content you need outside of a press release?
Parrish: The reality is, newsrooms have gotten smaller—unbelievably, catastrophically smaller in the last 15 years. When I worked for the Arizona Republic in the late 90s, there were 400 reporters in that newsroom. Now there are about 100 newsroom people, not just reporters. You need to speak the language and capture attention by really understanding the good story and good storyline—in some ways, being a journalist, which advertising and marketing people are having to be. The power of that narrative is really important.
Wright: What’s the attention grabber? We always say we have to build relationships. With everything being digital, it’s hard to build a relationship. Back in the day, I’d invite a reporter or an editor or a publisher to coffee, and they don’t have time for that anymore.
What are some digital assets that you need right off the bat if you’re pitching to a reporter?
Parrish: Great visuals. A sassy video. Social media is really helpful. They are, like all of us, attracted to shiny objects.
La Sala: We have this discussion in the office about ‘back to basics’ a lot. Because there is so much communication, so much digital—slack, email, phone, voice transcription—we’re not talking anymore. I’m a huge proponent of still picking up the phone, getting to know journalists, getting to know reporters. They are extremely strapped with resources and time. If you can meet with them and talk through 10 of your clients that make sense for them, you’re saving time and you’re becoming much more of a resource for them. We have a great relationship with the radios in town just for that reason. We provide that on a monthly basis, almost like a tip sheet.
Some of that traditional communication that is hugely beneficial. I love the visual piece, because we are highly, highly visual. You need to be clear and concise in your pitch, but you also need to have a story. You just have to be very direct about why this audience would care and how you’re going to provide that to the reporter.
Arnie, if you’re really utilizing editorial content to drive SEO, how are you making those partnerships with the media from an SEO perspective?
Arnie: Our agency doesn’t really do anything you guys talked about. We don’t pitch stories. Generally, what we’ve done is pitch a series of educational articles. We’ll write contributing content. Sometimes it’s just a mention or citation. We’ve had great success doing that. Right now, we write for Marketing Land, Search Engine Land. For a while, we were writing for Phoenix Business Journal here in town.
Can you speak about what you’ve encountered when building links as PR professionals? How do we tacitly ask for those links and get our clients noticed but also provide those media outlets with great content?
Parrish: Some have hard, fast rules about where the line is on content. Contributor content and sponsored content has been gold on that front, and the most successful. There are good partnership opportunities with bigger clients, and that’s a nice way to leverage content that is valuable to the media company and to the client. When you’re not just pitching a product but putting out something useful that’s just attached to the client, that seems to be the best way to thread the needle.
Amy, can you tell us some of the best practices you use at your agency to get those coveted links?
La Sala: Let’s say a client wants to be in the Republic, and they do have an audience there, we might then also look at publications that do link back. And then those two can be leveraged on social media.
We work with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and worked with the Wall Street Journal on a story for them, and they provided links back. It was the best day ever! If your content is of interest and value, they might not have that hard and fast rule. Diversify. Explore your options. Mixing it up and knowing who your audience is will help you find those publications.
Do you just ask what their link policy is? Is it taboo?
Parrish: I think it depends on the content and the value. Stuff like sports, National Hot Tub Day, a link to your recipe—they’ll be more amenable to it.
La Sala: If we have that relationship, we’ll casually ask. It doesn’t hurt if you have a relationship with that person already to ask for that subject.
Parrish: And if you have the quality content, like you’re saying. They want content. There’s an understanding that this is content that has value.
If you are in it to win it, and you implement a great link building strategy, what are some of the best practices from a PR perspective?
Kuenn: There are lots of methods and opportunities to get links that are similar. It’s still pitching. It’s finding the opportunities where links can be built.
I literally started Vertical Measures doing link building. When we were looking to hire people, I always said this is more like a sales position than anything else. It’s loaded with rejection; there’s tons of outreach. You eventually build tools and a database that allows you to target prospects. That’s what we’ve done over the years. We have a link development team.
When we work with clients, it always starts with content. If they don’t have content, we’ll create it for them for their site. When we have an idea of who might want to link for that, we’ll start the outreach process. There are other tricks. We’ll look for brand mentions. If a client is mentioned somewhere and it’s not linked to them, we’ll reach out to them and ask for a link.
Let’s talk a little about SEO misconceptions and what you’re seeing from clients on a pretty regular basis.
Kuenn: I think a big misconception is, “If you build it, they will come.” That just doesn’t happen. Getting consistent, growing organic traffic to your website ultimately boils down to, you have to be bringing in revenue. To do that, you have to start with really good content. There’s no shortcuts. Yesterday, I was in a workshop in Seattle teaching this to about 100 different companies, and I kept getting the question, “What’s the secret?” The secret is, you just have to outwork your competition. You have to create really good content.
Ideally, it naturally attracts the links. We all know that’s pretty tough, too. You have to have your system architecturally sound as well. You have to have a secure site.
Another misconception is building a page around a keyword phrase. We still do that because sometimes it’s easier to just say “okay” and build it. Most people do not understand that the majority of traffic to a single page on your website is not coming from the keyword. You have to build really strong content that keeps your audience in mind. The Google algorithm is so smart today that it understands semantics and intent. If you create great content, you’ll rank for more search queries than you ever anticipated.
La Sala: I just read an article on Business.com that talked about how everybody says content is king, but the user experience is queen. You can have great content, but you also need to think about that side.
Parrish: You could have fantastic content and a terrible user experience, which has plagued many a media company. I won’t name names.
Wright: We have content for days and days and days. How do we cut through the clutter? As a marketer, I find it to be a challenge. We did a huge survey with the American Marketing Association. The biggest challenge was how to track and calculate digital marketing ROI. So my agency wrote a blog post, “How to Calculate and Track Digital Marketing ROI,” and we literally had formulas in there. We put it out there and put money behind it, but, “Womp womp.”
Is there a secret sauce? Is there a magic number for how much content you need to really break through?
Kuenn: There’s no secret sauce. And I think you can never predict which content is going to take off. Going viral is always an accident. I think if you’re not as successful as you want to be online, you have to be thinking about creating content that someone’s actually searching for. There are ways to figure that out.
As for the right amount of content, it’s different for everyone in the room. CNN is producing a new piece of content every minute. We produce a new piece of content two or three times a week. We generally tell clients that aren’t producing really good, educational content on a regular basis to at least start with doing it once a week. Maybe you can eventually do it every day, if you have the resources. You’ll figure out your rhythm. You’ve got to do it consistently.
La Sala: I agree, going viral is not something that will happen to every client. “I want to be on Oprah!” We never aim for something to go viral. We do a lot of research at Off Madison Ave. I’ve never worked at a place that does so much research into who we’re trying to target. We look at audience personas and try to understand a day in the life: What are they watching? What are they reading? What are they listening to? When are they on social? Are they on mobile? That also helps inform where your content is going to go.
We do a lot of social media and content on their own website. We might do some industry trade media. It’s great if we get some mainstream media coverage in the mix, but it’s not a goal. Research is key if it’s not working.
Let’s assume you don’t have this great persona resource. What are some tools that can help us find out what we want to know? What tools would you recommend if we want to get into the content creation game?
La Sala: This is the first you should always have: Google Analytics access. If you have clients’ websites, get access to their Google Analytics before you ever start with them. That is a treasure trove of of information that will help you understand how people are browsing websites and reading content. It’ll maybe show you what types of content you need to attract people to the website. We look at it as a PR team to see ROI.
Wright: I would add to that: Google Search Console. You need that implemented to do that deep dive.
Kuenn: We have a whole research strategy that we do for clients. If you or any of your clients have a search box on your website that people use to search for content on your website, you might be sitting on a treasure trove of data right there. If people are going to your search box to find whatever, you might come up with a bunch of new content ideas.
Parrish: You have to know your audience. Be funny. Connect them with things that matter to them. Emotional connections might not go viral, but they’re the ones that are sticky.
Do anyone follow BarkBox on Instagram? I don’t even have a dog, and I love their Instagram because it’s freaking hilarious. The dogs are the personalities, so I’m just following these dogs on Instagram because they’re funny.
If you look at PetSmart, somebody needs to help them. There’s a difference. For some reason, it’s a swing and a miss, even though they’re helping puppies. You have to do well. Look at PetSmart and BarkBox, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Newsrooms use predictive analytics tools to see what is going to trend and what is about to go viral.
La Sala: Use your social platforms, too. Facebook Insights are free. If you use Sprout Social, you’ll learn a lot about what your audience values.
What are the best practices you would recommend for online reviews, and what are some of the best practices to combat negative online reviews?
La Sala: One of the biggest challenges we struggle with is getting our clients to understand that they can’t ignore reviews. It’s scary for a business to see negative content about an experience someone had with their company, so they ignore it… or they respond it. Having a plan in place is one of the best practices.
We had a client come on board with some internal turmoil. We looked at some experiences online and could tell they were having a challenge. They weren’t dealing with negative reviews because they didn’t know how to. So having a plan in place about how to respond and getting the interaction offline gives people more confidence that they can take control of their brand reputation and handle it in a positive way. Look at it as an opportunity.
We do scripts, but they need to be customized. Identify one person who can manage it, whether it be an agency contact or someone in-house with not as much emotional connection to the brand who can have a respectful talk with someone.
Kuenn: Getting reviews is the hard part. There are a lot of different ways you can ask. Jay Baer just posted a picture of his vacation in the Caribbean. They gave him two bottles of rum with a card attached to them asking if he would give them a review. He thought it was so memorable that he posted it on his Facebook page and linked to them. It’s clever and simple. Theoretically, you’re not supposed to beg for reviews, but I think that would be acceptable.
For Vertical Measures, sometimes we just reach out to clients and ask them for a review. If you ask, they’ll generally do it. Reviews are pretty important for a local search. For local businesses with multiple locations, reviews really matter. You want a plan in place to get those.
Wright: What happens when you have a situation where you’ve got a business with craptastic reviews that gets sold? The media’s covered them in a variety of ways. Now they’re under new management with this history of negativity online, but those people no longer own the business.
How can you go back to a reporter and tell them you have new owners and you’re changing the business model?
Parrish: Typically, it’s somebody trying to undo something that is true. If there is something corrective in it, like new ownership or they were exonerated, that’s different. But it’s impossible to get completely undone.
La Sala: We had a client that was confused with another company with a similar name. There had been some content on review sites where there was a lot of slander and defamatory content. He needed help pushing it down, and we told him it would take a lot of time. We considered the paid, shared, earned and owned model and decided what platforms we had access to. How can we start to be more proactive on channels to make them show up on the first page of Google?
He said he had great testimonials and reviews. We encouraged him to talk to some of his best customers to review his business on the sites Google is crawling. We also executed a social strategy for him in which we asked for reviews on social. Within about 6 months, the negativity got pushed to page 5. Typically, people don’t go past page 1. We told different stories through industry publications and did some paid advertising and social. We also implemented a blog strategy. It was a phased approach. It didn’t come out instantly.
What does the C-Suite need to see? What do we need to prove to them so that they keep paying those monthly marketing bills?
La Sala: We have to make a lot of connections for our clients to show how things are impacting them. We look at referral traffic in Google analytics. We’ve had clients who have been featured in local magazines.
We’ve also learned to dive deeper into the storytelling piece of social media platforms. We measure social metrics when we post stories. We do measure click-through rates and how far they go into your website. We sometimes do media impressions, based on the outlet. I would say Google Analytics is one of the biggest tools we use to identify if a piece of coverage we secured is driving traffic to your website. We often focus nowadays on the digital space. There’s som cache to having a big print spread in a magazine, but we look to see if something happened on the website.
Kuenn: My answer would be that the only thing the C-suite cares about is revenue. I think it matters who you’re sending the reports to. SEOs will want a much deeper dive. But if it’s the C-suite and revenue is increasing quarter over quarter, month over month, then they’re usually happy.
If the revenue isn’t increasing, that’s when your clients want a deeper dive.
Parrish: I think it’s important to set expectations. This is what we anticipate will happen. It’s going to take this amount of time. It’s going to take this amount of money. It’s going to take this amount of effort. There is no magic bullet.
If the metrics don’t tell the story you said they will tell, your clients will ask. Be willing to have the hard conversation about what you did and why you did it. Here’s a great outcome. Or, here’s a not great outcome and what we’ll do to fix it.
Wright: I always like to tell clients and potential clients that marketing and PR is convincing a horse to come to the watering hole. Sales is convincing the horse they need a drink of water. And customer service is convincing the horse to come back.
Want more digital marketing insight? You won’t want to miss User Experience 101: How It Supports Your Marketing.