Your Complete Guide to Digital PR
What is Digital PR?
Digital PR helps connect online audiences to products and services of interest. It facilitates this connection by making online content less promotional — “hype” more often than not increases bounce rates — and places messages where they are far more likely to be appreciated as a natural extension of the topic under discussion. When done right, Digital PR lies at the intersection of traditional public relations, content marketing, social media, and SEO.
Compare and Contrast: Digital PR and Traditional PR
A long time ago in a media galaxy not all that far away, the traditional practice of PR focused a lot of its attention on convincing print, radio, and television programmers to feature a product, service, or personality as worthy of audience attention.
This form of persuasion often involved a lot of client lunches, press releases, follow-up, and other forms of good-natured arm-twisting. For the publicist, the ultimate objective was to secure additional media presence that left audiences with a favorable impression.
As the internet has caused massive shifts across all forms of traditional media — print, radio, and television — it has also caused a shift in Digital PR services and how we approach the holistic practice of PR.
From “Public Relations” to “Public Relations 2.0”
Traditional PR and Digital PR share the same goal, namely presenting their client in the most favorable light. As much as the tools of the trade may have evolved, been modified, or fallen by the wayside, the interest in a positive reputation has not changed. If anything, that interest has only intensified.
What’s new for many brands is the increased need for speed that digital communications often demands. Companies that might previously take two to three months (or longer) to develop a specific campaign were suddenly called upon to be light on their feet and pivot at a moment’s notice. Positive or negative brand mentions online created a venue where thousands or perhaps even millions of eyeballs were at stake.
Organic, online brand mentions could no longer go unanswered. “Public Relations 2.0” absolutely requires that brands engage with sophisticated listening tools to find (and respond to) online mentions.
Digital PR serves as a much-needed supplement…not as a replacement.
When finding your voice in today’s online-first landscape, Digital PR does not replace traditional forms of media but rather augments and supports them. Online avenues introduce the opportunity to get your message and positioning out to the masses quickly and efficiently.
While Digital PR is still focused on creating relationships, just like traditional PR, a vibrant online presence allows you to do far more with a mention of your brand than just post favorable magazine articles on the wall behind the cash register. Using a savvy approach to Digital PR, you have before you several options for leveraging an online mention of your brand.
For example, your website landing pages might feature a collection of logos from high-visibility publications in a sidebar entitled “As Seen On…” Individual logos could even be hyperlinked to the review or source article, lending outside credibility to your product or service. Favorable reviews can also be pushed out via your social media channels, used in email marketing campaigns, and stacked up on a “Media Resources” page as the accolades pour in.
The number of possible uses for helpful mentions is only limited by your investment of time and creativity. Digital PR allows your brand mentions to reach farther, be more useful, and shore up the positive narrative your business is creating via Traditional PR channels.
What are the goals of Digital PR?
Business objectives are as manifold and diverse as the companies who seek out Digital PR as one means for achieving them. While no list will ever capture everyone’s reasons for investing in Digital PR, the goals listed below tend to show up on everyone’s radar at some point.
- Build brand awareness and credibility. Prospective customers can’t give consideration to your product or service if they’ve never heard of it. They will also be reluctant to trust your company for solutions if your online reputation is poor. Digital PR can help you highlight what’s unique and awesome about your business and help you show up in search engine queries. However, Digital PR can only do so much. It can’t serve as a substitute for providing quality products and services at fair prices. In the online world, “hype” with little basis in reality tends to get exposed at lightning speed. Digital PR professionals can help you get noticed, yes, but credibility will be built over time as other people, businesses, and publications validate your content with favorable mentions.
- Extend the reach of your brand into everyday life. To get your message in front of other people, you need to go where they are. Today? They’re on their smartphones. They’re on social media. They’re listening to podcasts. Brands that know how to reach into those worlds — without being obnoxious or intrusive — will get noticed.
- Cultivate a positive image of a brand. Traditional PR focuses on creating a favorable and memorable impression of a product or service. The hope is that when a brand name is mentioned, it is viewed in a positive light. You might also have heard this referred to as “reputation management.” Consistency in approach provides the key here. Do people think well of your brand? If yes, where might there be opportunities for improvement? If no, what is causing negative reactions? In our era of instantaneous communication, this is one area where Digital PR can perform speedy brand reputation calisthenics that remain solidly outside the reach of Traditional PR venues such as print, radio, and TV.
- Save money on outdated messaging practices. Digital PR requires an investment, yes, but it also allows brands to set aside some Traditional PR messaging venues that are typically more expensive and time-consuming to produce. Businesses moving from exclusive use of Traditional PR venues into the digital realm are well-advised to take a look at their marketing budgets and make necessary adjustments before diving in.
- Contribute to the conversation. Your business occupies a certain niche in the marketplace. Within that niche, there are stories to be told, innovations to be evaluated, new twists on old trends, and a conversation to be had. Today, that conversation is taking place primarily online. Once your business is established as reputable, you are in a position to offer expert advice, tips, and strategies. Previously, a business might offer a loss leader to get potential customers to cross the threshold of their front door. Today, reliable information and valuable, time-saving assistance can be thought of as the “loss leader” that brings audiences to your digital front door. If, for example, your website helps someone diagnose and repair a problem related to a refrigerator, gratitude is likely to prompt that person to recall your brand when the time comes to buy a new fridge.
- Augment and amplify other digital marketing efforts. You’ve got a great product and top-notch customer service. What you may not have is the ability to get mentioned online in popular industry publications that influence consumer decisions. The Digital PR approach you likely need is one that will assist you in gaining the attention of these publications and scoring links to your company. It’s critical that the digital footprint you create for your company is entirely consistent with the messaging that is being created in Traditional PR channels. When your Digital PR, Traditional PR, and overall customer experience all line up, sometimes all it takes is a simple link from a well-known voice validating your message to bring about exponential growth.
How Digital PR Can Benefit Your Brand
Builds brand reputation, credibility, and awareness.
Consumers have grown all too accustomed to brands saying great things about themselves and are more or less inclined toward skepticism from an early age. On the other hand, Digital PR seeks to build a consistently positive narrative over time utilizing not just what a brand says about itself but what others are saying about it.
An increased collective voice of support — especially when it includes objective, third-party sources — allows a brand to establish itself based on its own merits. Consumers can readily appreciate the sharp difference between Digital PR and “hype.”
Brands can then use these mentions to build their credibility and increase brand awareness with leads, investors, and other potential customers.
Can help position your brand as a “thought leader.”
As a brand builds its online reputation by becoming increasingly responsive to the needs and requests of its audience, it establishes itself as a reputable voice. When there is a high degree of accuracy and usefulness contained within a brand’s online communications, people begin to regard that brand as generally reliable. As audience trust climbs, willingness to accept or at least consider new or innovative thinking from that source grows.
Becoming a thought leader is much like following a recipe; you have to have all of the ingredients on hand. Quality products or services is a must. Maintaining a uniform overall “voice” across all of your media outlets is critical. Additionally, highly-placed or well-known individuals within your organization should be adding their expertise to an industry wide conversation via blogs, podcasts, media appearances and more. When the mixture is just right, your name pops up whenever someone is creating content about your niche.
Builds trust in your brand.
More than anything else, audiences are looking for information that pans out. Sick of online scams and inaccurate, over-the-top hype, customers who get a bum steer online are quick to drop that brand. They’re also quick to encourage the people they know to do likewise.
Positively, when your brand prioritizes accurate, verifiable, useful information, audiences are far more likely to share it with friends, repost to their social media feeds, and help build your brand’s reliability rating for you.
Examples of Digital PR
Brand mentions are a fundamental piece of the Digital PR puzzle. A high-quality brand mention works best whenever a third party mentions your brand, organically, in a piece of content they are publishing online. Your PR people talking about your brand is one thing, but having someone else naturally bring it up is playing in an entirely different ballpark. And the fun doesn’t end there. Once someone else has mentioned your brand in a positive light, you get to highlight that content for any other aspects of marketing you’re engaged in. Unpaid expert voices validating your brand is one of the surest ways to impress your leads and clients.
Participation in Industry and Community Panels
Don’t let the conversation take place without you. Seek out opportunities to participate in panel discussions and community events. A positive, consistent presence at trade shows, on podcasts, and in community affairs allows others to see both you and your company as relevant to shared interests. Positioning yourself in this way sends an unspoken message that your company isn’t just responding to trends but out front setting the pace.
Expert-Insight PR and Thought Leadership
When knowledgeable people provide tips and insight that consistently pans out, word gets around. Over time, trustworthy industry leaders will find that journalists, editors, media personalities, and writers arrive in increasing numbers looking for commentary, validation of research, or responses to innovation. While these points of contact result in more appointments on the calendar, this is a great problem to have.
You’ll know you’ve made it when people come to you as an expert in your industry. Make sure you’re the one people go to when looking for a quote or insight about your industry. You’re more likely to accomplish this by seeking first to help and make a meaningful contribution. An increase in sales and market growth will tend to take care of themselves.
Guest Posts/Executive Bylines
Having other people mention your brand demonstrates that other people are watching. However, if you want to showcase your brand’s unique propositions, guest posting and bylines are necessary. When you make semi-regular contributions to other publications, you highlight your unique viewpoints and thoughts on trends within your industry.
Obviously, you won’t wake up one day and suddenly make brilliant, significant, brand-enhancing contributions in all four of the venues listed above, so plan to start small and build. As you progress and slowly increase effort toward making a meaningful impact, you’re one step closer to owning all aspects of your industry.
How does Digital PR fit into a digital marketing campaign?
As we’ve mentioned, Digital PR is just one piece of your marketing puzzle. But how exactly do you make it fit with the rest of your pieces?
Digital PR is essential for helping to build brand credibility. More often than not, it lands at the top of your sales funnel. It also helps get your name out to potential customers to help them feel comfortable with you. Struggling with people saying they’ve never heard of you…so they don’t trust your brand? That’s a surefire sign that you could likely benefit from Digital PR. However, Digital PR doesn’t work well in a vacuum.
Combine your search engine optimization (SEO), PR, and digital content marketing strategy for maximum impact.
An all-too-common rookie mistake when diving into Digital PR is to neglect to keep all of your communications team working toward a cohesive result. “The print team” is telling one story using a specific voice, “the website folks” are doing their thing, and the social media manager is siloed. This sort of thing happens all the time, but it is a surefire method for killing growth.
It bears repetition and memorization: You need to ensure that any Digital PR efforts are working in tandem with all other aspects of your marketing tactics.
How do Digital PR and SEO work together?
Digital PR and SEO can work hand-in-hand at a few different levels. For example, you could have all the brand credibility in the world but if people aren’t finding your website, it doesn’t matter if they know your brand or not. You’re not going to show up on their radar.
But making sure people find you is only one of Digital PR’s many priorities.
When you contribute valuable resources to any conversation, journalists and contributors will begin sourcing your website and data along with mentioning your brand. The practical outcome is that you’re getting a link to your site from that citation. Backlinks help build the overall SEO health of your website when they originate from a high-authority publication. These will boost your domain authority, a key signal for search engines to prioritize your brand over others.
While links to your site won’t show up with every brand mention, that shouldn’t be the main goal of Digital PR. Instead, they’re a nice bonus that helps boost your SEO efforts.
How does Digital PR fit into a content marketing strategy?
We’ve already mentioned that Digital PR tends to land at the top of your sales funnel work. But it also should be helping drive prospective customers through the rest of your funnel as well. This is how Digital PR is best connected to your overall content strategy.
When you provide helpful, informative content and data linked to mentions, make sure that this content links to additional blogs and authoritative website content that can drive leads further down your funnel. The consistent quality of your content web is one vital aspect for ensuring your Digital PR doesn’t fall flat or otherwise be regarded as useless or irrelevant.
How to Create a Digital PR Strategy
Step 1: Set your goal.
Carefully think through — and then write down — what you want to accomplish with your Digital PR efforts. No single tactic can accomplish every goal you have in your marketing plan, so be specific about the results you hope to achieve. Use numbers wherever possible.
Step 2: Review your target audience.
Digital PR can often be employed as a broad tactic to improve brand credibility. Even though it may be broad, you should still think through who you hope will see your brand mentions. You’ll want to put together a plan for how to reach them with those mentions after they’ve been published. Do you need to plan for a drip campaign? Prepare social posts? Write it down.
Step 3: Conduct research and begin the process of content ideation.
Take a peek at what others in your space are doing in terms of Digital PR. What publications are they targeting? What kind of mentions are they getting? Once you have an idea, you can start thinking through topic ideas and positioning statements. Your next two steps are:
- Take a deep dive into data-driven research studies. Data is a key method for getting your brand mentioned. This is especially true when targeting higher-tier publications. Look at the types of data other companies in your niche are putting out to get an idea of where you can provide unique, data-driven value.
- Leverage research to construct creative original campaigns. Once you have an idea of the type of data you hope to aggregate, think through innovative ways to position your brand in your Digital PR outreach and campaigns.
Step 4: Identify target publications.
Think through which publications would help you move toward your goals. A few mentions in larger publications with impressive names can definitely help if you’re going for brand credibility. If you’re looking for a longer-term strategy, mix some larger names with more niche publications that are business-related or in your specific industry.
Step 5: Design your strategy.
This is where you’ll bring it all together to piece together a concrete plan of action. Take all of your gathered information and research, compile it, and plan out which kinds of content should be targeted at various publications.
Step 6: Create your campaign content.
Next comes the fun part of creating content and pursuing your brand mentions. If you don’t have at least one solid writer on your team, outsourcing may be needed. Work on content for your mentions. After that, plan content for how to promote your mentions once they’re published. It’s vital that you create high-quality content that is original, unique, and not a retread of something that’s already gotten plenty of play in the digital sphere. Try to think like a journalist or industry insider. What kind of data would help you write a story covering the industry you serve? This is where providing hard data, survey results, and verifiable research will be your best friends.
Step 7: Begin your outreach efforts.
Once your content is ready to deliver at the click of a mouse, start reaching out to journalists, editors, bloggers, and anyone else you can think of who may help you in your Digital PR journey. This is the step where many businesses reach out to agencies to take advantage of their network of contacts. By now, most people know that sending out content to random, unknown publishers rarely works, and can even work against you.
It might help your outreach efforts to think of them primarily as relationship-building and only secondarily as link-getting. If you focus on providing valuable content to journalists and editors, you’re far more likely to build a relationship that’s mutually beneficial. You’re not just trying to talk someone into giving you a link. You’re playing the long game of consistently providing your contacts with valuable information that proves reliable time and time again.
No matter the route you decide to take, go into your outreach efforts knowing that you may have to rack up quite a few “No” responses before getting your first, golden “Yes.” Don’t give up!
Step 8: Get the most out of every published brand mention.
Congratulations! Hopefully, you’ve scored a few published brand mentions and can now leverage them to their full potential. Place some publication badges on your website. Add media coverage/mentions to your email signature. Show potential leads where you’ve been mentioned in an email drip campaign. Push them out on social media. Just be sure to maximize successes to help you better own your industry and stand out in the crowd.
A Partial List of Digital PR Tools
The Digital Tool Box
Everyone can use a good jolt every now and then when sitting down to develop fresh, original content. If your in-house Digital PR people are hitting a dry spell or you want to poke around for new ideas to share with your agency rep, these resources can often help prime the pump.
- Answer the Public
- Search Tools
- Yahoo Search
Designed primarily for agency types, content creation tools help Digital PR pros track marketing and make adjustments to campaigns as trends become evident. Tools such as these have integrated reporting tools and combine social analytics with website visitor statistics.
Creating the best content the internet has ever seen means little unless someone with an established voice helps you get noticed. Unless you just happen to run in a crowd awash with high-visibility journalists, editors, and publishers, you’ll want to use these tools to uncover leads.
- Muck Rack
- Business Wire (Press Releases)
The internet never sleeps, but you still need to every so often. Your business content be published around the clock to land well in different time zones. Using apps like the ones listed below will allow you to boost social engagement by optimizing publication times, scheduling posts, and allowing you to get back to other tasks.
Much like individuals have a credit score, websites have a “credibility score” known as domain authority. You’ll want to use tools to track not only how many people pay you a visit, but whether or not other respected entities are linking to you and view you as a credible source.
- Google Analytics
- Search Console
Measuring the Success/Return on Investment (ROI) of Digital PR
A long-standing criticism of Traditional PR vehicles is their relative inability to establish a data-driven, one-to-one relationship between effort and effect.
For example, an increase in book sales probably had something to do with the author’s appearance on a TV show…but the author’s agent can never be 100% certain. Print layouts in newspapers can be valued based on circulation numbers and perhaps specialized coupon codes, but overall effectiveness will always remain somewhat ambiguous. In short, a primary problem with traditional forms of PR is tied to the granularity of its audience metrics.
While Digital PR offers up the possibility of more reliable metrics — someone either clicked your link or they did not — the truth is the situation has a significant amount of nuance. While organic mentions and high-quality backlinks can drive referral traffic to your site, in reality that outcome is often the exception, not the rule. Relevance advisor John Hall says it best in his Forbes article: “People want to know: Does content actually generate leads? Can it boost my search rankings? What about attracting talent? Thoughtful PR can help with all those things. But it’s a long game, and it requires reasonable expectations. Unless you manage to score a shoutout from Oprah, don’t expect any one asset to flood your site with traffic.”
As the published brand mentions begin to roll in, a little bit of celebration is certainly in order, as long as every player on the PR field is clear that the game is far from over. Pushing the mention out to a wider audience, using the published link as a passport to securing mentions in other venues, building a web of interrelated content…all of this and more remains to be done.
Why hire an agency?
You hire a Digital PR agency for the same reason you hire any other specialist, namely to take advantage of the most current, most thorough knowledge available.
Even if your business has a digital publicist on staff, one person can only stay abreast of so much. Given the number of innovations in nearly every communications channel, it just makes sense to leverage the latest information spread across multiple specialists.
But perhaps the primary reason for hiring a Digital PR agency is to take advantage of the media relationships they’ve managed to form over the years. Agencies know who to pitch and when. It’s also important to keep in mind that agencies are equally adept at knowing who not to pitch…and why.
Not only that, but those long-standing relationships have yielded experiences pitching content ideas to various publications and measuring how often they succeed. Any established Digital PR firm should be able to guide you in terms of seeking brand mentions in venues that are most likely to make a positive impact on your bottom line.
How do you pick the right agency for your business?
If you’ve decided to take the plunge and hire a Digital PR agency, take your time assessing your needs and comparing them to what the agency offers. This is a decision you do not want to rush as finding the right fit for your company is so critical. Ask to see a roster of current, satisfied clients. Is the agency willing to share data on performance improvements or offer testimonials? What metrics can the agency produce to demonstrate verifiable results?
There are a lot of agencies out there, and there are plenty of agencies willing to cash your check without making a dent in your SEO. What you want is an agency that is able to be responsive, alert to current trends in your industry, and willing to go the extra mile to help your company rise above the noise. Keep in mind the seven categories listed below as you make your choice.
- Do your research. Spend some time looking around for other brand mention success stories in your niche or what your competitors are doing. Is it possible to find out who did their PR work for them? Are you aware of other Digital PR campaigns that you personally found impressive? Do a little digging to find out who else rose above the clatter and make a list of success stories you’d like to emulate.
- Set a budget and share it upfront. Are you planning to buy a subcompact or a limousine? Of course, it all depends on where you want to go and how you’d like to arrive. You should be aware that Digital PR agencies charge anywhere between $1,000 and $25,000 per month and, of course, you can always spend more. As you decide on your budget, though, keep in mind that you might — might — be able to roll back expenses in other PR venues and add those dollars to your digital efforts. Be clear about your budget before you agree to take your first meeting with any agency. You will save yourself and agency staff a lot of time and effort by being abundantly clear.
- Develop a criteria checklist. Assume that you will be speaking with at least a few agencies before you make your decision. To help ensure that you are able to compare apples to apples after the fact, make a list of the criteria that matter most to you. In many cases, you might look to work with an agency that is fully remote. Some issues you might wish to address with each vendor, in addition to cost, could include:
- Responsiveness: How quick are your people to respond via phone, email, etc.?
- Local Footprint: Is it important to have someone local or am I comfortable working with a national agency?
- Time Zone: How easy is it going to be to schedule a call at a time that works for both of you?
- Vertical Marketing: Are there any niche partnerships to be pursued?
- Communication: Which channels work best? Do they work best for me?
- Contract Structure: Are we working month-to-month, by year, or what?
- Pin down the expertise you truly need. Does your company need a generalist or a specialist? Depending on the type of business you do, the answer might not be as simple as you think. For example, a highly technical product or service might hit all the right notes with people intimately familiar with that specific industry but draw blank stares from prospective customers. A company that positions itself as a luxury consumer product might not do well with a digital pr team that specializes in B2B customers.
- Understand approach and discuss expectations. Digital PR agencies vary widely in the way they approach establishing brand credibility. A smaller boutique agency, for example, is likely to be more flexible and able to pivot quickly as SEO results come in and needs evolve. Larger agencies, of course, will have access to more resources. The approach that works for you will largely be determined by the work that you have done articulating what it is you hope to accomplish. At this stage, an influx of new insights from agency reps may convince you to shift your approach a bit, and that might be just fine. As you work with agency people, however, look for them to focus primarily on listening as opposed to attempting to sell you something. It’s absolutely critical that you and the agency have written guidelines in terms of expectations and limitations. SEO results are subject to many third-party variables. Be wary of extravagant promises.
- Agree in advance on performance/tracking metrics. Take a deep breath here. This one is critical for avoiding misunderstandings. Any Digital PR firm worth its salt will make sure you clearly understand the various measurements they plan to monitor as well as the improvements you can realistically expect. Before you sign, you’ll want to make sure that you fully understand what the agency can and cannot deliver. Take pains to make sure goals are clear. No one likes it when you “move the goalposts” after your Digital PR tactics are put in play. If this is your first foray into the field, it might be best to start small and build as you and your agency find a rhythm that seems to work well.
What is the future of Digital PR?
Anyone who claims to have a lock on the future of Digital PR should be regarded with an elevated level of suspicion. The truth is that so many players are already on the field and many of them are both unpredictable and successful. It gets confusing pretty quickly.
As just one example, the folks at Google are known to regularly tweak how they deliver data to their search engine results pages (SERPs). They are also highly secretive about their proprietary algorithms. The result? What worked well yesterday might drop off the cliff two weeks from now. And Google is just one player to contend with in the SEO/brand credibility game.
You get the idea. Digital PR is evolving at a rapid pace. Keeping up with all of the changes has itself become a fulltime job…but you already have a fulltime job, right? You’re working in a specific niche, doing your best to deliver quality products or services, and that’s definitely where you should maintain your focus. Digital PR works best when you are able to focus on doing what you do best and enter into a partnership with an agency willing to help you pick up SEO and brand credibility knowledge along the way.
As of 2021, here are a few trends in the Digital PR space you’ve likely already encountered. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll limit ourselves to The Top Three.
- Freemiums. The dominant shift in today’s marketing landscape is toward providing real, tangible value to audiences while trusting that they’re clever enough to realize where that value came from. In other words, freely offering people something of value — without making them run a grueling online gauntlet of providing a lot of detailed personal information — instills gratitude. Helping people by providing actionable information and useful life hacks more naturally leads to trust. Trust, in turn, can lead to conversions and ongoing brand loyalty. One popular method for establishing a relationship on a positive note is the practice of offering digital publications — buyer’s guides, white papers, research, statistical data, etc. — in exchange for an email address. (Of course, this practice assumes that harvested email accounts will not be sold to third parties or in any other way abused.) Whether your company offers digital publications, software downloads, or ships out free samples, the point is to establish a relationship, provide value, engender trust, and build a foundation for future (paid) transactions.
- Filtered/Targeted Newsletters. Company newsletters have been around since the Early Bronze Age, but we all know that most of them end up being tossed — unread — into the recycling bin or get promptly deleted. Digital PR, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to provide information and insight to people who actually want it. One example to check out would be the career website LinkedIn, which has mastered the art of allowing individuals to opt in to information sources consistent with their profiles. Another prominent trend is to invest in customer relationship management (CRM) software that allows companies to segment audiences based on demographics, buying patterns, and other relevant criteria. Armed with a more granular dataset, businesses can do a better job of sending those customers information they are interested in and (perhaps more importantly) not sending them generic materials about which they couldn’t care less. The key nowadays is not being able to serve up thousands of newsletters or marvel at how many email addresses you’ve managed to collect, but rather targeting very specific users with four or five items that they might actually bother to read.
- The Rise of the Micro-Influencers. While there will likely always be a place in PR campaigns for paid celebrity endorsements, consumers these days tend to be on the hunt for authenticity. They might pause briefly to consider a favorite movie star’s choice of automobiles, but they’re far more likely to study and engage with a firsthand account of someone in their niche who can relay in great detail their success — or lack thereof — with a specific product or service.