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?
Traditionally there have been two main schools of thought regarding digital PR and what it actually is. But now there’s a third one too.
School of thought #1
Like so many marketing terms it’s born from marketing tactics evolving and agencies trying to keep up.
In particular, old school PR agencies realising the print media landscape is much smaller and launching ‘digital PR’ pages on their websites in response. Typically these summarise 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.
School of thought #2
The second school of thought is promoted 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.
These outreach activities are 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. 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.”
School of thought #3
The third school of thought is influenced, like so many things, by the big G and is linked to brand awareness. It’s also less about what digital PR is and more about why it’s important.
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.
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 important for organic search engine rankings. We also suspect simple brand mentions (even ones excluding links) are now becoming more important and acting as ‘mini votes’.
Is digital PR any form of PR that can be done online or is it a series of specific activities?
The answer is debateable, 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
- Online article placement
- 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
- 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.
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 – more retweets do not matter. Ranking well for keywords that don’t drive traffic and leads. Here are example digital PR KPIs:
Social media influencer relations:
- Have you increased your client’s target audience community size?
- Are you driving traffic from social channels to your client’s website?
- Have you created new brand advocates?
- Are posts about your client being shared by relevant social communities/influencers?
- How many links have you built?
- How are you ranking for keywords?
- Have you managed to increase traffic from search engines to your client’s website?
- Is increased organic traffic resulting in more leads?
Online article placement (including reviews):
- Have you got your client more positive coverage that their competitors?
- Have you secured your client coverage in tier one online media targets?
- Have their key messages been pulled through into media coverage?
- Have you secured good reviews on sites that rank highly for keywords the target audience will be searching for?
- Have you seen an increase in referral traffic from online article placement
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 they’ll continue to pay 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 the business is performing. If business performace is good then the PR campaign has been successful, 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. 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 Open Site 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 and limited Facebook access. 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 ‘independent source’ 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 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.
I’m not the law and their answers don’t need to be identical to mine, just logical. 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? TIP: if you’re not 100% clear on what they’re proposing then ask them again or drop them then and there; it’ll save you explaining to the board what you’ve spent the marketing budget on at a later date!
If you’d like some 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.
Editors note: This blog post was originally posted on 6 September 2016. It has been rewritten to ensure accuracy and relevance.