Digital PR is an evolving discipline. Over the years, we’ve developed from link builders to more rounded PRs and broader marketers. Yet more often than not, the way we see digital PR being judged revolves around links and the traditionally SEO based metrics from which our discipline was born.

You’ll find my slides from my talk on this subject at Brighton SEO below, plus a handy write up for those who couldn’t attend (or are too hungover to remember!):

Digital PR was born from an SEO need

It’s no secret that link building is an integral part of any search campaign. In order to outrank our competitors, we must prove the credibility of our knowledge and of our brand – and the most tangible way Google has to do this right now is through links.

That’s why, way back in the early days of SEO, link building was big business. We knew that more links meant better rankings and – as we often do – we took advantage of that fact and found sneaky ways to get more links, like link farms, article spinning and forum comments.

It made sense, then, that Google caught onto this and told us, in no uncertain terms (and via a super cute animal) that this was not cool. The penguin update penalised those who invested in poor quality link building techniques and as such, gave the industry a metaphorical kick up the backside to do better.

An investment in content

It was here that link builders / SEOs saw the need to invest more in content. The idea was that good quality content would merit links in their own right – which was something made far easier by the fact that webmasters had not yet grown tired of backlink requests or got wise to the fact that links are essentially currency (leading to many today asking us to pay for them, thus rendering the whole process pointless, but I digress…).

So we did just that; we invested in content, anything from really useful guides through to interactive campaigns.

The biggest surge in popularity as I experienced it was in infographics. Because infographics were not so easy for journalists themselves to make,  but they did appeal to visual audiences, all it took was an OK designer and an OK idea to create an infographic that would gain links. I even made an infographic of infographics. I thought I was a genius.

Meanwhile, in PR…

Meanwhile in the world of traditional PR, PR pros were delivering fantastic campaigns which promised to build their clients’ brands and raise awareness of their causes. It was an exciting profession because it was both intangible and integral – something everyone wanted, no one could really measure why but the bottom line was that without it, businesses felt they were missing out. And that made for some really creative campaigns and different ways of thinking.

As SEOs, we saw that and, like the magpies we are, we wanted it.

The link builders amongst us recognised that PR was a tactic that would gain coverage and therefore links, that was total valid in Google’s eyes because it’s been happening for years without penalty. PR was, in many ways, the golden bullet for link builders.

So we started to learn more about it. We invested in campaigns that were newsworthy. We created news hooks. We learned about the press landscape. We even started doing PR stunts.

A new choice for clients/stakeholders

At this point, we’d become a bit of a middle-man, not quite SEOs and not quite PRs but with the potential to develop our own very clear specialism. That’s what I love most about digital PR – it’s not quite done, it’s like the cake batter ready to be baked, but it’s really tasty nonetheless!

For our clients and stakeholders looking to invest in our services, there was a shift. A few years ago, if my PR team was pitching for business, it was either against other digital PRs or, more likely, against SEO agencies.

Today, though, we find ourselves pitching much more against traditional PR agencies too, with our clients making decisions between investing with us and investing with them.

As a brief tangent, the way I see it is that this is a huge opportunity for traditional PR agencies to really hone their craft and own it – they need to stop trying to become digital and instead stand up for those things they do that digital PRs can’t to continue to develop their niche – like crisis comms, product launches, events and so on.

This shift means that we are now being judged against SEOs and against traditional PRs. So it makes logical sense that we need not only to report on SEO-centric goals, but also on PR-centric goals.

SEO goals for digital PRs

The SEO goals we focus on as digital PRs have got to be link-based. Our job is to build links because links are votes and votes improve rankings. I can’t see a time when I’ll ever not advocate this.

Here at Impression, we typically split out goals/KPIs into:

Owned goals

These are the goals we as digital PRs should own, specifically number of links, quality of links (DR), topical relevance of links (TF) and positioning of links (PR).

Shared goals

These are the goals we as digital PRs share with SEOs, specifically ranking improvements, traffic improvements and eventual revenue improvements. In order to capitalise on these shared goals, we need to be much more integrated with our SEO teams, and ask not only where we are building links to, but why we are building them and fully understand the SERPs landscape around our target terms and topics.

PR goals for digital PRs

When we look at how the top PR agencies position themselves, it’s all about storytelling, thought leadership and audience mobilisation.

The thing that makes PR difficult to measure is that traditional PRs haven’t yet nailed it themselves, in my opinion. All this talk of advertising value equivalents (AVE), circulation figures and ‘outtakes’ is yet to really nail the intrinsic benefits of PR to the business’ bottom line – even if you have managed to gain coverage which would have cost £X to pay for, what was the value of paying for it anyway?

We do, I believe, need to measure ourselves against PR’s goals. But we can’t just replicate what traditional PRs use because, frankly, it’s not good enough. More than anything, we need to focus on making our PR goals SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time based.

That means taking the intangible and making it tangible. Awareness as a goal is very noble, but if you can’t measure your campaign’s contribution to awareness, what’s the point and how do you quantify the value? So I’d consider utilising traffic or ranking or even branded search metrics to make it measurable.

Sentiment is something that’s often referenced by PRs and, in digital PR, I’ve seen agencies use social media listening tools to measure sentiment, though my concern is that not every campaign has a social element and therefore this isn’t necessarily a reliable metric across the board.

Instead, we at Impression are currently experimenting with Google’s natural language processing API to see if we can utilise that to quantify sentiment – we’ll share the results when we have them.

Broader marketing considerations for digital PRs

As well as measuring ourselves against SEO and PR goals, we also need, I believe, to work on our own niche and on the creation of goals which are specific to digital PR. We are not simply a combination of two existing disciplines; we are a discipline in our own right and there are benefits to be derived from an investment in digital PR that you won’t get through SEO link building or traditional PR.

I shared some of these in my presentation, and have spoken about the idea of funnel campaigns over on State of Digital previously, so I won’t reiterate here, but suffice to say, I’d like to see digital PRs contributing more to the evolution of our discipline by exploring new ways in which we can use our content to build audiences and drive revenue.

How to get more from digital PR

To summarise, my tips to get more from digital PR are:

  1. Be better SEOs; report on owned goals as well as shared goals – integration
  2. Be better PRs; report on the benefits beyond links, but make it measurable
  3. Be better marketers; think multi-channel, think integrated, think user first

Our discipline is still evolving. We get to choose how.

If you’d like to talk more about your digital PR needs, please get in touch, or I’d love to hear your comments on all of the above, either in the comments below or over on Twitter – I’m @lauralhampton.

Laura Hampton

Head of Digital PR

Head of Digital PR at @impressiontalk specialising in user-centred SEO, digital PR, content marketing and digital strategy. My team won the Best Use of PR in an SEO Campaign award at the European Search Awards 2019. In my spare time, I jump out of planes.

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