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What is digital PR?
The word ‘digital’ is overused and often misunderstood in the world of PR. After all, it is impossible to separate digital PR from non-digital PR. If you get coverage in a national newspaper, it is almost certain that it will also appear on the paper’s website. So, is this digital PR? In some ways yes; in some ways no.
The fact is that digitisation is so pervasive in society that it’s hard to think of any business function that isn’t ‘digital’ in some way.
We as PR practitioners, working in-house or in agencies, need to understand the numerous changes brought about by digital technology and how to use it to the advantage of our clients and our businesses.
This blog will explore the opportunities that digital technology offers to PR practitioners and how to make the best use of it when devising your PR strategy and tactical planning.
We will cover:
How technology has disrupted the PR industry
Digital PR is an extension of ‘traditional’ PR, offering multiple online channels and a vast range of new opportunities to reach target audiences.
Disruption in PR happens with the launch of new technologies, gadgets, automation of processes, social media, or innovations in products and services. This affects how we build a PR strategy, plan, choose tactics and manage campaigns. It also has implications for measurement and evaluation, and we’ll come to that later.
PR practitioners must remember that digitisation has also changed business models and how clients, customers and consumers behave. We need to identify these changes and find out what is driving them, so that we are best placed to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time.
We need to be up-to-date with things being said about our clients and their competitors on social media. We need to stay ahead of current trends to anticipate what might happen next, rather than simply be reactive.
Understanding target audiences
When delivering digital PR services, it is vital, at the outset, to identify which customers, or stakeholders, you want to talk to at any one time. Start by looking at your (or your client’s) existing customer base and listing the characteristics of your best customers. Think about what they say about you; what they like about doing business with you; and their pain points – what they don’t like.
Sales and customer service teams are an excellent source for this kind of information. They will be interacting with customers and potential new clients all the time and will likely have reams of feedback that they could share with you.
For digital PR practitioners, several questions need to be answered to gain audience insight and help in the creation of customer personae:
- What is the demographic profile of your existing and potential customers?
- How do they like to receive news?
- What are their preferred media outlets and channels?
- What are their device usage habits?
- Who or what influences them?
- What topics interest them?
- How interested are they in your brand and what other brands are they interested in?
- Do they interact with your competitors more or less than with you?
These questions are not comprehensive, and you’ll need to tailor them to the organisation you’re advising, but they are a good starting point. It’s also important to remember that most businesses and organisations have many different stakeholders, so you need to create and target content according to their varying needs.
Once you have identified the customers you would most like to retain and the characteristics of those that you would like to attract, your PR team or agency will be well placed to craft different messages tailored to each customer personae and other stakeholders according to their interests and bearing in mind how the message will land with them.
It is essential to get the tone right for each target audience as digital channels provide a clear buyer journey that can be tracked and optimised. This will provide you with valuable data to see what is working – and what is not – so that you can stick with or adapt your PR strategy accordingly.
It is true that more data brings greater complexity, which is why data housekeeping is critical. A data audit is often a valuable early part of any strategy. What data do you have access to across your business, on and offline? What are you currently collecting? What third-party data sets help you find more customers? What do you want to know about your customers?
Having as much information about your existing and potential new customers as possible at the outset will help you devise bespoke campaigns targeted at the various customer personae. This is important as digital PR can be applied at every stage of the buyer journey.
The importance of data
Data gathering is an activity that must be carried out at the start of a digital PR campaign, throughout the process for monitoring and at the end for evaluation.
The internet has opened up opportunities to gather data for free, using tools such as Google Trends, TGI, which publishes a monthly report on macro trends in consumer behaviour, and Global Web Index which provides detailed information on a variety of issues.
If you want to find out how your audiences are searching the web, there are many paid-for and free tools available. These include Google Keyword Planner, Answer the Public and KeywordTool.
Search listening using tools such as Answer the Public will inform you about what your target audiences are searching for on the web. Search listening helps businesses to gain insight into what people think, want, need, worry about – and much more. Gathering data of this kind is invaluable as it can help with product development, reputation management and all aspects of your digital PR planning.
Then there’s good old-fashioned talking to people. Every good digital PR professional will understand the importance of stakeholder management. It’s all about communicating with stakeholders to canvas their opinions and attitudes towards your business. People buy from people, and if you proactively show and maintain interest in your stakeholders’ needs, you’re more likely to keep them engaged.
Surveys are also helpful, especially if you’re looking to seek out the opinions of a large number of people. You can devise a survey and send it out to your database or use tools such as Google Forms and SurveyMonkey to help streamline the process.
Another area for data gathering involves quantitative research. Gathering statistics and taking a numerical, scientific approach to digital PR helps practitioners optimise their network resources, improve service and reduce customer churn – by gaining greater insight into subscriber requirements.
As part of the data gathering process, you may find it useful to seek out academic expertise. Sometimes you can contact academics directly, but if this isn’t possible Google Scholar is a search engine for academic research and ResearchGate can connect you with academics.
You can keep tabs on consumer behaviour for free on many social networks. Facebook Audience Insights, for instance, provides insight into the 1.6 billion people that use the platform each month.
You can also obtain data around your owned media. If you or your client has an app or website, ask for access to its analytics. This will provide insight into how people get to the site and what they do when they get there.
Social media, across multiple platforms, has only been around for the past 15 years or so. Facebook was set up in 2004, with Twitter following a few years later. Now there are many different social media channels, with billions of users worldwide, every business needs to have a presence.
On which channel, at what time and targeted at whom are the questions that any digital PR strategist must ask at the beginning of any social media campaign.
Social brings many benefits for a business, from top of the funnel awareness to delivering conversion at the other end. So, clarity on how it is used is crucial.
When crafting a strategy around social media, it’s critical to think about the type of content you want to share, your social image or identity, and tone of voice. There must be a clear understanding of the role of social for your business – and whatever you put out there, it must be in line with top-level goals and objectives.
The work you do in defining your target audiences and their media consumption, discussed above, will help you make clear and informed decisions about which channels are right for you or your client.
The role of dark posting, where the content doesn’t appear on the social feed but is instead shared only with carefully selected people at the right time is also worth knowing about.
Tom Edwards, the CDO of Epsilon, has a great definition: “They’re for when you don’t want to mess with the character of your core timeline because it’s content for a specific audience.”
Neil Schaffer has some excellent tips on how to create dark posts.
PR practitioners must not drop the ball when it comes to media relations in the digital age for the likes of news reporting, opinion pieces and commentary. While it’s tempting to think sending out mass-emailed press releases does the job if there are a handful of hits, this would be a disservice to clients.
PR has a growing role in explaining and interpreting an increasingly fragmented and complicated media world to those who want to have a voice in it.
This means picking up the phone, meeting up with relevant journalists or analysts, and building relationships with the influencers that matter.
Often, people with a background in journalism are best placed to forge these connections. They understand when a journalist’s threat to run a story is real and when it would be better to say nothing – as long as you’ve not done anything wrong.
They also understand how the day-to-day life of journalists has changed. The move from regular print deadlines to a 24-hour news cycle coupled with dwindling resources at major and minor publications has placed unprecedented pressure on journalists to deliver more stories, more quickly, every day. Add in the focus on journalists becoming a media brand in their own right, having to manage their digital profiles as part of the day job, and you’ll see how critical it is to develop skills that enable you to cut through the noise. It has never been more vital to understand what a particular journalist is interested in, what they write about and how they want to be pitched to.
To win influence and positive third-party endorsement from the influencers that matter requires experience and ability on the part of the PR practitioner to understand what journalists need and to communicate with them in a targeted way.
Creating engaging content such as blogs, podcasts, webinars, and guides, is vital as part of an overall digital PR strategy to drive inbound traffic to your website and build your reputation.
All content must be informative and helpful to potential customers or clients. There must be some added value or beneficial purpose, or why would anyone bother to read it?
Also, every piece of content must align to company goals and objectives and be produced in line with a carefully defined tone of voice. In this way, it will be possible to ensure that creative output retains a narrative, storytelling approach that is more likely to resonate with your target audience.
Here’s what great content can do for you:
- Attract and engage. The first goal is to lure strangers using blogs, keywords, and social publishing. Content creation accomplishes all of this. If you are writing on relevant topics that visitors are searching for, and those pages are optimised for search, you will start to rank higher in the search results and generate clicks through to your site.
- Optimising your content to include keywords and high ranking search terms will help with your organic search rankings. As part of this, it is crucial to keep on top of Google’s latest algorithm changes and properly understand how SEO can boost your business during and after the Covid-19 crisis.
- Thought leadership. Excellent content should be educational, offering a unique perspective on a topic, an issue or anything else that may be relevant to your business and stakeholders. Being considered a thought leader creates a sense of trust from current and prospective customers and helps build your brand’s reputation.
- Promotion and sharing. When you go to the trouble and time of creating great content, it’s vital to share it via social media and targeted content marketing. Encourage others to share it to generate more inbound links to your site, ultimately driving up your site authority with Google.
In the ever-changing digital world, content creation has become more useful than ever to boost SEO, establish thought leadership and trust, attract visitors, generate leads, and promote and share. Remember that it stretches beyond the written word, with digital PR being ideal for distributing different content formats such as video, webinars and podcasts to increase engagement.
The PR business has always been about influence, which remains of critical importance in digitisation. This is because gaining third-party endorsement from a respected commentator holds more weight with your audience than you simply shouting about how great you are.
You need to identify the key influencers in your industry, whether this is journalists, bloggers, investors or consumers – indeed anyone who comes into contact with your business at any stage of the customer journey.
Influencer marketing is a relatively new discipline that every digital PR specialist should familiarise themselves with. It’s all about utilising well-known, trusted individuals – not necessarily celebrities – who can act as ambassadors for your brand.
There are nine things you should be aware of before embarking on an influencer marketing campaign – with authenticity and transparency being among the most important.
Measurement and evaluation
The advent of digital PR has ushered in a new call for the PR industry to provide mathematical evidence of its value.
Much strategic PR activity involves providing wise counsel, advising about public opinion and predicting changes in consumer behaviour. It is mainly about building reputation and trust so that external influencers say good things about you.
Add in digital and it’s about your brand’s online reputation, ensuring that people are saying good things and when they are not, that you are able to respond quickly on the relevant channels. One of the main drivers will be to increase your website’s authority by acquiring high-quality backlinks that will boost your domain authority. The quality of backlinks is still a vital ranking factor that Google looks out for.
There have been some important moves to change how PR activity is measured. The first is the creation of the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles. This is a set of seven principles of measurement including goal setting, measuring outcomes rather than outputs and the importance of transparency. The full list, together with advice about PR measurement can be found in our guide, that explains in detail how to measure PR performance and ROI.
More recently, the CIPR published a policy review paper to provide thought leadership around current approaches and developments.
To address the issues around reputation, social listening and search listening are invaluable tools for finding out about what people think about you, so that you can gauge brand reputation and sentiment and adjust your digital PR accordingly.
Google Analytics is another important tool.
The conclusion is that PR activity is and should be measurable, and while the profession is yet to come up with hard and fast guidance in this respect, every effort should be made to track coverage and measure engagement.
Building a future-proofed PR team
It is a given that PR practitioners must be exemplary communicators. But with the rise of digital, many different skills need to be covered off in any effective, forward-looking PR team.
While PR people are adept at being generalists, there is now a need to bring in specialist skill sets that work together to produce best-in-show results.
In an ideal world, a future-proofed PR team would include a specialist in each of the following fields, some of which can be grouped together more easily than others.
- Data analyst. Here you need someone who loves statistics and can interpret them in an insightful way.
- People who can see the bigger picture in terms of corporate goals and objectives, reputation and crisis management form a vital component of any PR team.
- Content production. You need to think about the type of content that’s required and hire accordingly. The written word remains at the heart of corporate communications, so bringing in top-level writers is a must.
- Account management. We all need someone who loves to organise, perhaps nowhere more in the complicated world of digital PR.
- Stakeholder management. An essential skill for any forward-looking PR team is the ability to sit with one foot inside the organisation and the other outside, keeping stakeholders in the loop and ensuring their needs are met.
- Media relations. This remains a crucial skill and this person needs to understand the media industry inside out and keep abreast of what journalists – and other external influencers – are talking about. You’ll need a confident communicator here as journalists don’t take prisoners.
- Social media expert. This is someone who is a specialist in social media marketing and knows how to achieve marketing goals through social media channels.
- SEO specialist. PR generalists are getting better in this area, but if you can, bring in someone who thrives on immersing themselves in all things social and keeping up with Google’s ever-changing requirements.
- Paid media. This is a growing area that throws up enormous opportunities, so hiring a paid media specialist, who understands paid media in an in-depth way, may well be worth considering.
Increasingly, due to the increased pressure on agencies and in-house teams to keep down prices, it is often not possible to bring in the specialists that are needed in an ideal world.
This places a huge onus on practitioners to learn new skills, often with no training. Other specialisms that are needed these days include those with a flare for influencer marketing, video production or crisis management. Spending time considering your requirements amid the fast-changing digital environment is a must.