Digital PR is the use of online trusted, independent, unbiased, third parties to positively influence a brand’s target audience.

Now I’m going to explain why that’s the answer to the question: What is digital PR?

Contents:

School of thought #1 – social and online

Like so many marketing terms ‘digital PR’ is born from marketing tactics evolving and agencies trying to keep up.

In particular, old school PR agencies realising the print media landscape is getting smaller all the time and launching ‘digital PR’ pages on their websites in response.

Typically these summarise:

1) Their ability to generate coverage on websites instead of in print publications – sounds basic right? But a lot of companies we speak to still differentiate between the two – they ask, “Can you secure print coverage for us too?” Some agencies realised this and hooked their digital PR service to it.

2) Their social media expertise. Social media = digital PR. Box ticked. But it’s so much more than that, as any good B2B PR agency will tell you.

3) Their search engine optimisation smarts – more on that below.

School of thought #2 – search engine optimisation

The second school of thought has been seized upon by SEO agencies. They consider 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.

This approach to ‘outreach’ has landed ahrefs’ SEO software rival, SEMrush, in hot water. It 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. All the client had to do was supply the anchor text and destination URL and an SEMrush partner would write the content. Voila! Sixteen days later you have a lovely new link.

A picture of step 1, 2 and 3 of digital PR

Unsurprisingly Google was all over this and SEMrush instantly shut the service down. What differentiates this type of ‘digital PR’ from traditional PR pitching?

  • 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).
  • The 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).

However, 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.

Expertise, authority and trust

In August 2019 Google set the SEO world alight with a blog on expertise, authority and trust (EAT for short).

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.

He referenced the search quality raters, the human  beings Google uses to manually review search results according to the Google search quality rating guidelines. Illyes suggested that the quality raters would know a brand was ‘quality’ if it’d been featured in an authoritative media publication.

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

Online PR or specific activities?

The answer is debatable, but I would argue it’s a series of specific activities – question is, which ones? If PR is the act of managing relations with a public then there’s not much it doesn’t include; agencies tend to base the answer to this question on what they’re good at and what they can sell.

For the sake of this blog let’s say the desired result of traditional PR is increased brand awareness. So if we look at digital PR in the same light, as an online discipline designed to raise awareness of a brand, then I’d suggest it includes:

  • Social media influencer relations
  • Social media advertising
  • SEO
  • Online article placement
  • Blogging
  • PPC
  • Video production
  • Inbound marketing
  • Review generation
  • Email marketing

However, in order to avoid the broad definition I’ve applied swallowing all marketing disciplines, I’m going to apply the following caveat:

All PR, online and offline, has to involve the use of a trusted, independent, unbiased, third party.

Therefore I’m dropping PPC, email marketing, social media advertising, inbound marketing, video and blogging from the list. All definite awareness-raising activities, but controlled by the brand and the brand alone. This leaves us with the following:

  • Social media influencer relations
  • SEO
  • Online article placement (including reviews)

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 London 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 key performance indicators (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 increasing traffic from your social channels to your website? (outcome)
  • Have you created new brand advocates? (outcome)
  • Are your posts being shared by relevant social communities/influencers? (outcome)

SEO:

  • How many links have you built? (output)
  • Are your keyword rankings improving? (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 lines (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?

To answer this you need to ask another question: what is your digital strategy?

If your audience is millennials and your strategy is ‘Be where they are’ then social media will be an important channel, 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?

If you’d like more information on digital PR, or advice specific to your business, drop the author of this blog post Luke a line. He’d be happy to help!

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