Digital PR is a discipline which is, in my opinion, still in the early stages of its evolution.
Ever since the inception of SEO way back when, we’ve been fully aware of the necessity of links in building the credibility, authority and therefore rankings of our site. The old three pillars model clearly communicates the requirement for technical excellence alongside optimised content and a strong backlink profile – which means, since day one, we’ve needed links, so we’ve done what we need to build them.
The early days of link building
In the early days of link building, link acquisition meant doing whatever was needed to get those all important links pointing to your site. The methods we used included techniques which might not today be considered the most ethical (and some which were downright black hat!) – things like directory submissions remain a valid technique, while link farming, forum comments and article spinning are not.
Of course, in a world where links are votes for our website’s credibility, underhand techniques could never remain a valid technique. In 2012, Google released its Penguin Update, an algorithm update which told digital marketers, in no uncertain terms, that any underhand tactic to build links would be penalised and the website devalued as a result.
A focus on content quality
It was then that most SEOs moved to a focus more on content quality. We recognised that having great content would be the key to earning new links – and that meant investing in better understanding our audience, both in terms of who we wanted to speak to and the sites we wanted to get links from.
There was a lot of resource based link building at that time; we’d look for websites we wanted to feature on, explore the articles and posts they had and then identify topics where we could add additional value for them, be that via a long form guide or a visual asset like an infographic.
One example of this technique can be found in this post I wrote about dwell time in SEO; this was a topic a lot of SEO websites were talking about but few were delving deep into, so I created this post and pitched it to a few places as an asset to which they could link. To this day, this content continues to earn new links as it gets found and used around the web.
Infographics in particular were super popular around this time. They were easy for us digital marketers to create because more often than not, SEOs sat amongst teams of developers and designers and all we needed was a simple idea or piece of data and those designers could create something fabulous for us. Meanwhile, journalists or other web publishers lacked that resource but knew visual content would appeal, so essentially any time we created an infographic, we could be pretty sure it would gain links. Here’s an example of an infographic I created in my earlier career; it’s an infographic of infographics. To show just how saturated the technique had become…
A move toward traditional PR thinking
Meanwhile, in the world of traditional PR, PR professionals were gaining coverage with the potential of building links left, right and centre. But more than that, they were doing so in a way which not only had the potential SEO benefit, but which genuinely promoted the brands on behalf of which they spoke – through creative, complex campaigns that communicated key messages and gained valuable placements in front of the target audience.
Being the magpies we are, we SEOs wanted some of that! We knew that, by tapping into those skill sets and combining them with our own, we had the potential to build incredibly valuable links. So SEOs started to think much more like PRs.
That meant we started thinking more about creating news stories and the hooks which would gain attention, as well as tapping in more to the values and aspirations of our clients. Here’s a framework called Circles of Focus which will help you to identify the topics that matter to your client and their audience.
That led to campaigns more like these, which each utilised newsworthy hooks to gain widespread coverage and new links:
In this campaign, national renewable energy company Tonik achieved over 300 new links by analysing data relating to electric vehicle charging points and number of drivers in each city. The campaign tied in perfectly to the company’s aspirations of growing their EV offering and achieved national press coverage as well as niche to industry links, all of which have contributed to impressive ranking improvements.
This was a simple campaign which used Google image results to showcase how genders are represented across the world. By searching for the term ‘CEO’ and then counting the number of males and females shown in each country, a comparison was then possible between what Google showed and what the real statistics were – highlighting a newsworthy discrepancy between Google and reality:
This survey has achieved press coverage from parenting and technology publications as it taps into the milestone ages parents expect their children to reach while showing the range of ages at which parents expect to see those things. Parents are often faced with decisions which can be tough to make and by showing the range of decisions made, this graphic helped parents to see that, in many cases, there was no right or wrong answer.
So SEOs are making more use of news hooks in creating compelling content which will gain them links.
I’d argue that this technique – the bread and butter of today’s digital PR – is really just the start. As the press becomes increasingly savvy to our techniques of link building, and to the value of such links, the achievement of new links is getting more and more difficult – so we need to be more and more creative as a result.
Something we’re seeing a lot of these days is the use of traditional PR stunts in gaining links. Stunts were traditionally something reserved for traditional PRs, but these examples show that they’ve been helping digital PRs to build links too:
In this stunt, a bathroom suite was created from sweets to gain press attention (and it was all just Photoshop!). Kudos to Lexi Mills for this one.
This award-winning campaign tapped into the business’ political values alongside a charitable donation to name a new species of worm after the US President and to raise awareness of the climate crisis. It also gained over 900 global press features, with more than half of those including valuable links to boost the websites’ rankings and subsequent traffic for core product terms.
Another stunt by Lexi Mills, this campaign invited people to apply for the job of ‘bath tester’ and gained widespread coverage and acclaim.
This was a stunt no doubt inspired by the Bath Tester role, and invited people to apply to be a spa tester as a job – gaining loads of press coverage and loads of links.
So how do we measure all of this?
OK, so by this point, I’ve told you about the evolution of digital PR and hopefully it’s clear that digital PR sits between SEO and traditional PR.
Which means, in order to judge the value of digital PR fairly, we must call on the success metrics of both SEO and PR.
Judging digital PR on SEO metrics
In order to judge PR on SEO metrics, we need incredibly clear briefs and an integrated approach created in partnership with our SEO colleagues.
I like to split these goals into two distinct areas:
The owned goals of digital PR are the goals we as PRs can viably be responsible for, namely:
- Number of links
- Quality of links (measured by DR/DA)
- Relevance of links (measured by Topic Flow)
- Positioning of links (we use R to review pagerank and internal link equity flow)
So these are the metrics we should be judging our PR efforts on in the ‘owned’ column. We should also measure on…
These are the goals which should guide our work and be shared with our SEO colleagues. They are:
- Ranking improvements
- Traffic improvements
- Revenue improvements
These sit under the ‘shared goals’ heading because they must be created in conjunction with our SEO colleagues and they therefore require a brief much more clear than simply ‘please build us some links’.
In order to capitalise on these shared goals, we need clarity on which pages we need to link build to, what target keywords we’re trying to improve and the potential revenue impact of a 1, 2, 3 etc ranking position improvement.
We call these ‘shared goals’ because they require some work on the SEO’s part too; they need to ensure the on page and technical elements have also been considered and are excellent in order for the links we build to have the maximum impact.
Judging digital PR on PR metrics
The challenge of measuring digital PR on PR metrics is that, in many cases, the traditional PR industry has yet to, in my opinion, really articulate the value of what they do.
There are plenty of metrics out there that they try to use. For example, AVE (advertising value equivalent) is one way to judge the value of coverage by comparing it to the cost of paying to advertise in the same publication. However, this doesn’t make sense in a digital world because we no longer operate in column inches and it’s also not a metric which shows the end value – even if we acknowledge how much the placement would have cost, we still don’t know how much of a return that placement would have given us.
Other metrics like circulation also have clear shortcomings when it comes to digital.
What we must do, therefore, is allow ourselves to be judged on more traditional PR metrics (because digital PR gives us far broader benefits than just links), but we must make those metrics SMART. The true value of digital lies in its tangible measurability so we must be able to tangibly measure everything.
A metric like ‘awareness’, which is used across traditional PR websites as a common goal of their work, is very intangible. Unless, of course, we make it tangible by measuring it as something like ‘traffic’.
A metric like ‘visibility’ becomes ‘ranking improvements’ or ‘share of voice’ or even ‘branded search’ via Google Search Console.
PRs also regularly talk about sentiment as a measure; we’re currently doing some experiments with Google’s Natural Language Processing Tool on this, so we’ll share the results as soon as we can.
Judging digital PR on digital PR metrics
Digital PR is the middle ground between SEO and traditional PR. But it’s also a discipline in its own right and we have an opportunity to evolve the way that discipline is judged beyond the metrics that already exist for other channels.
For example, I believe there is a huge opportunity to expand the benefits of digital PR by taking a more integrated approach, especially in conjunction with PPC. I shared a post on this topic on State of Digital earlier this year; have a read here.
In conclusion, digital PR has grown out of an SEO need and has called heavily on the techniques of traditional PR. Which means, logically, that if we only just digital PR on SEO metrics (namely, links), we’re missing a huge chunk of the value therein.
So in order to judge digital PR fairly, you must be willing to recognise the value of the broader, more traditional metrics, as well as considering techniques like funnel campaigns to drive even more cross-funnel value.