‘Red tape’ is a commonly used metaphor for barriers that are put in place in legal and business dealings. For people in the SEO and content marketing word, red tape can be used to refer to barriers and restrictions put in place by the clients you are creating content or implementing technical SEO recommendations for. These barriers may not come directly from your direct client contact but their other agencies or in-house teams.
This article aims to guide you through what red tape you can expect to face and how to effectively navigate it. It is written from a digital PR/content point of view, but many of the recommendations will hopefully be valuable for those working in technical SEO or broader marketing roles in agencies, or even in-house if working in a company with many stakeholders.
Recognising Red Tape
Red tape restrictions usually – but not always – appear with larger clients. A household name brand is likely to have reached that size and stature through a lot of teams working together in a hierarchical structure, that you, as a third party, have to find your place in. Sometimes smaller brands may also have a lot of limitations in place if they are particularly conscious of brand image or offer a sensitive product.
Content and outreach limitations generally occur in 3 places;
- Topics – Which topics content is allowed to be created around, how those topics align with the brand/product and how they may be received in the media.
- Design – Whether a piece of content has to be designed in the company branding or must use their colours/fonts etc.
- PR – Which outlets can be contacted, which journalists can be contacted and the exact wording in the press release
Below I will discuss how to manage red tape in each of these circumstances specifically as well as managing process obstructions more generally.
Topical Red Tape
The first barrier for most content agencies to overcome is getting an idea approved! Creating concepts that tick multiple boxes is a nuanced process, often the same idea will have to jump through multiple hoops, including;
- Being newsworthy
- Being ‘linkable’
- Aligning with brand
- Aligning with product
- Aligning with wider marketing messages
- Fitting legal & compliance requirements
- Low risk of controversy/backlash or manipulation of message
The first thing to do when dealing with a client that has a lot of internal bureaucracy is to manage expectations up front. Clients will want you to create pieces on ‘5 things you didn’t know about car insurance’ or ‘Why you need a new credit card’ and expect these pieces to target keywords, generate leads/conversions and gain 50 tier 1 links.
This is not going to happen.
For a piece to gain coverage in news publications it has to be newsworthy (obvs!) and generally this will mean moving away from the product and focusing on a topic that holds more general interest. Instead of car insurance, think traffic jams, or instead of credit cards, think personal spending. It is hugely important to have this conversation up front when the brand are even considering this kind of digital PR to avoid an endless cycle of “…but how does it relate to the product?”.
The below can be a useful tool to help with this and something we often use when pitching to clients who haven’t branched into content marketing before. Naturally, the closer to the product the articles containing links are, the more valuable they may be, but depending on the product, this may not always be achievable, especially at a large scale and with top tier publications. Generally, my rule of thumb on if there is enough relevancy is if a journalist can clearly see why your brand would have produced that piece of content.
There may also be concerns that a piece will be too controversial or that, for example, a ranking of cities/countries/companies will invoke the ire of those at the bottom and result in negative press for the brand. Again, managing expectations is key here. The internet is a living thing and once a story or dataset is out there it is very difficult to control how it is published or manipulated.
One way to protect against this as much as possible is to focus on the positive, build your story around a positive angle and position your assets and press releases in this way. For example, if you are doing a city ranking, you can choose to only publish the top 20 even if you analysed 80 cities, that way even those at the bottom of the list are still considered amongst the ‘best cities’ and you may avoid negative press by not publishing the worst ranking cities.
The next major hurdle you may face when creating branded content is what the content should look like. There are 2 main obstacles to prepare for in the design phase;
- Whether the design should match in entirely with the company’s branding
- The personal preferences of in-house brand, design and content teams
How much of an issue is content being fully branded in design? Well, this really depends on the company’s branding! If they have a nice, subtle colour palette, branded content can look lovely and not detract from the story the content is trying to tell. If the branding is garish and does not fit with the theme of the content it can become too obvious and detract from the story.
Again being upfront is key here and having discussions with the branding team on how you can bring in elements, such as fonts and selected colours, to nod to the brand without going all out. One of the best ways to push back on a team that is trying to force their branding onto your project is to explain that content that is too heavily branded can be seen as advertorial. This raises the risk of journalists not wanting to feature it or expecting payment as an advertised placement instead of naturally reporting on the story.
Dealing with personal preferences is a bit tougher and is more of a people management skill. It’s definitely important to pick your battles here. If a client wants to change a colour or isn’t a fan of a font, often it’s easier just to change them if you don’t think it will damage the piece. However, there is definitely a line and spending too much time re-designing content to the client’s whim can cause that client to become unprofitable for you.
Three tips can really help here;
- The first is that you should always send over a header and initial section of a graphic, animation, interactive tool, whatever your piece is to get sign off on before completing the whole thing. At this point all of the important features such as colours, illustration style, fonts and layouts will be visible and clients can feedback on this, which can then be incorporated into the full design.
- Secondly, it’s important that clients know in advance how many rounds of feedback they are entitled to. How many aren’t important, that’s up to you to decide but knowing in advance will ensure clients gather all of their feedback into set rounds instead of asking for 1 change at a time, which can severely slow down progress.
- Finally, discuss in advance which stakeholders will have a say on the design and make sure the client sticks to this! Whoever it’s decided has the most important opinion, whether that’s the design team, brand team, PR or content team should have the final say and that way you are not stuck between warring brand and PR teams who have different personal preferences.
When it comes to outreaching your content, if you are working with a big client, they are likely to have their own in-house PR team or even an external PR agency. Often it can feel like digital PR and traditional PR teams are doomed to be in constant battle – but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, the internal PR team can be your greatest allies and it truly can be a mutually beneficial relationship.
Start with a meeting. Face to face connections are valued in the world of traditional PR and it’s important to meet the team as early as you can to discuss how you are going to work together.
One of the first issues you may come up against is that they do not want you contacting certain journalists on behalf of the brand as they have an existing relationship with them. In this case, you can ask if when the content produced is relevant for that journalist if they would mind sending it across to them. This way their relationship is maintained and your content is still hitting the right desks.
In worse cases, they may be reluctant to let you contact journalists on behalf of the brand at all. This may be because some people in the SEO world have given outreach a bad name with their awful attempts. Reassure the PR team of your competency with examples of previous coverage, press releases and emails for them to see how you communicate with journalists.
Finally, you should discuss upfront how your teams can help each other out. We’ve already mentioned that they can send your content to tier 1 journalists that they have good relationships with but on the flip side of that, most PR campaigns only focus on these tier 1s, or even just print publications. Explain how your team can amplify their content across the online world and make it much more valuable.
Outside of these 3 key areas, the main obstacle you may face with a corporate client is the general end-to-end process of getting a project from concept sign off to outreach. The bigger the client the more teams your content is likely to need to pass through, from editors, to product owners, to PR, to legal & compliance, the list goes on.
At the start of your relationship it is important to define the stakeholders and who has ownership over what parts of the project. For example, whilst all teams may have some say in the general concept of the piece, not all teams should have to sign off on the design or individual press releases. Establishing this at the start will lessen delays and roadblocks down the line. If certain teams do begin giving feedback on areas outside of their remit, a gentle reminder of what teams have sign off on what aspects of the project may be needed.
It is also important to define timescales at the start of the journey. Ask how long it will take to get sign off from each team at each stage and build your project plan around this. Ensure that teams know how much time they have to offer feedback and that if this is not stuck to it will either delay the next stage of the project or the project will have to move on without their input.
Big brands offer big opportunities (and often big budgets!) but they also come with their own unique set of challenges. Getting around layers of red tape can be frustrating but always remember that they are just looking out for their brand image and harmonious relationships are achievable if you work together. Identifying all of the potential obstacles and the ways around them at the start of the partnership is key as red tape is a lot easier to navigate if you know that it’s there.