Everyone thinks that with a bit of SEO knowledge, some Neil Patel blog posts and a couple of successes getting into your local street newspaper - you can do pretty much anything digital. How hard can it be to create a viral campaign or get a journo to publish your shitty made up research in The Guardian?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not as simple as making a pretty infographic for the media and getting a million pound conversions from it. To get how it all works, we need to start at the very beginning. What is Digital PR? Where did it come from? How does Digital PR differ from traditional PR and how tightly is it tied to SEO? What does the average link building campaign look like?
Our "Intro into Digital PR" should help answer some of these questions.
This is a beginners guide - aimed at recent graduates and new starters, or anyone who wants a brief overview of our industry about how we, Dark Horse - a Digital PR agency approach Digital PR. We'll give a bit of backstory on what Digital PR actually is, how it came about, what the average campaign looks like and the process we follow to put link building campaigns together.
1. What is Digital PR?
Simply put, Digital PR is a way of building links (backlinks) to your website. There are other factors - brand awareness, driving traffic, domain authority etc. - but for the sake of simplicity we'll stick to the basics.
Digital PR is about finding a relevancy spot between what your client sells and what journalists are writing about, then creating assets which target this space. Assets can take many forms, with a few examples listed below:
- a data-driven survey
- a how-to guide
- commentary on a trending topic
But at their core, they're a means of offering journalists a unique story. A client will then pick up links as the journalist points their readers back to the asset, or at the least credits the client for the story.
Journalists have almost no interest in what most clients sell - unless the client is huge, doing something really unique or fits a particular niche - and generally push back against anything which feels "too salesy". So we, as a Digital PR agency, use Digital PR campaigns as a way to get journalists to care about you and your brand.
2. Where did Digital PR come from?
Digital PR is the evolutionary step in what was once called link building or content marketing. Back in the early 2010s, a client would give link builders a monthly budget, which would be used to buy placements on directories. This soon morphed into working with bloggers - either sending them to events, sending them products, or directly paying them to include links to a client's website. Think something like "if you love going to the beach, you'll love Swimwear Client's new bikini" on the bottom of a blog post about a recent trip to Greece.
Google shifted its mindset and paying for links became spammy overnight. Being unable to pay for links meant that link builders then had to figure out ways to earn them instead.
This led to two things happening. Firstly, a greater emphasis on the quality of content. Known as content marketing, this is essentially about creating pieces that are so interesting, or so relevant, that readers engage with them naturally. Alongside this push for better content, link builders - now often called content marketers themselves - began to hunt for ways to make the content more appealing to a wider audience. This meant taking a look at what had been happening in traditional PR for years.
Traditional PRs were creating stories and pitching these stories to journalists in order to gain coverage for their clients. Link builders began to mimic these approaches - learning how to prospect journalists not bloggers, learning how to pitch to journalists and when was the best time to do so, learning how to create stories that journalists would want to write about.
This was the birth of digital PR, which became widely adopted as a term around 2017.
3. Why is Digital PR part of SEO strategies?
Digital PR is the natural evolution of link building, heavily influenced by traditional PR. PR also works with online publications, but has different KPIs and concerns to the Digital PR branch - often focusing on the wider perception of the client, alongside things like demographic targets and publication reach.
The two branches have similar approaches, but different goals, with Digital PR looking at the value of links generated and the impact of these from an SEO perspective. It does get more complicated than that, with conflicting debate in the industry about whether Digital PR is a fancier name for link building or its own beast entirely, but regardless, the search-slant means Digital PR remains more on the SEO side of the industry than the PR side.
Digital PR is about creating news and working with journalists - as a PR person would do - but doing so with the goal of getting work featured online, to build brand awareness and links - as an SEO expert would want.
Simplifying things - a good link can be measured on the quality of the linking page's domain authority or rating. These are scores, given by independent and industry recognised tools like Moz or AhRefs, which mimic how Google's own internal website scoring systems work. The more respectable the site the link is from, the higher the score. The BBC for example has a Moz domain authority score of 95.
Journalists write for publications that either have very high domain authority or are very relevant in a specific industry, so turning attention towards them makes sense from a link building point of view. Digital PR is the preferred method for achieving top-quality links. A good Digital PR specialist needs to know what makes a good quality link and what makes a spammy one, as well as roughly how search engines work.
4. What does a Digital PR asset look like?
There are usually two approaches we use - asset or outreach work. Campaigns usually focus on assets as they're more "lucrative". Roughly, an asset - or campaign - will take the form of something like this:
- Expert quotes or reactive commentary on a breaking news story, i.e. your EV client discussing government legislation to install chargers in new build homes and whether this is good or bad, or tips on how to keep cool WFH during a heatwave.
- Index campaigns which pull together and score different data sets, often with a regional angle, i.e. the most cultured UK city, based on the number of museums and galleries.
- Surveys, these are less common now but effective when they work, i.e. "73% of home workers have experienced Zoom Anxiety."
- Data-driven campaigns, i.e. Freedom of Information requests or r/dataisbeautiful, to create something that uses data to figure out something like which James Bond has killed the most people.
- Infographics, less popular than they were, but think something like a water company explaining how water reaches your tap in a visual guide.
- Quizzes and games like Where's Wally style, "spot the dog in a crowd" or visual brain teasers are increasingly popular with tabloid press.
- Product reviews, sometimes things stay simple. This tends to work better with lifestyle clients, i.e. "best houseplants for your pets" or "latest black wallpaper trends."
- Maps, very popular way to visualise data, think something like "the most popular Disney movie in each state."
- Tips and tricks such as "how to make a small space feel bigger" for an interiors client.
- Tools like calculators, for example ones working out how much a celebrity earns in a minute.
There's a lot more than that, but these should give you a rough overview!
5. What does the typical Digital PR process look like?
First things first, budgets and timeframes will impact what different PR agencies can do and what you are able to offer to your client. You don't want to overpromise but you also want to make sure that you are producing quality results. Whilst this part is different for every client, the actual Digital PR campaign process is always the same.
The process of coming up with potentially journalist friendly stories. This involves solid working knowledge of the press or your client's sector, combined with insight into what journalists are looking for. Often done individually at first using various techniques (we'll go over some of these in future blog posts) and then in a group during brainstorming sessions. Ideation will usually have a secondary and tertiary step with a vetting process until you have a solid set of ideas.
Trawling Instagram and counting hashtags, sending FOI requests to local councils, pulling together the number of museums on Tripadvisor - research takes many forms and can take a lot of time to do well. Sometimes the research won't exist - sending you back to the ideas board. It's really helpful to have a good data analyst - just having the data isn't enough, you have to say something with it.
Turning your idea and data into an asset. Depending on the idea or the budget this can be fairly simple - a blog post on site - or increasingly complex - an infographic or chart which visualises the data in an engaging way, or a full-on operational web-page requiring build time. You'll likely be briefing and working with content, design or web dev teams here.
This is an old link building term we still use which basically means creating a list of relevant sites and journalists we can approach with the campaign. This can take a long time, and a lot of effort - generally you're going to be looking for journalists who cover stories like the one you're sending them. There will likely be different lists for different angles of the campaign. There are various tools to make this easier.
At its simplest, this will involve putting together a press release. This typically contains all the information a journalist would need to cover the story and things like quotes from the client's spokesperson. It also means creating different kinds of pitches - headlines and angles. A big data asset might have several different angles which target different kinds of journalists.
Contacting the journalists, working with them and following up where needed. Often a lot of link reclamation to chase non-linking coverage. The most exciting and most stressful part of a campaign - as you never know how a campaign will go until journalists start replying. A campaign's angles might have to be reworked until it lands.
It's exactly what it sounds like, did the campaign do what it was supposed to? Generally - and this is a big generally - the average Digital PR campaign will be KPI'd on the quality or quantity of links generated
6. Is Digital PR easy?
Now that you know how it all looks - how hard can it be to get it out there? Well, if we're pitching journalists and success hinges on the quality of the assets we offer, then the assets have to be really, really good. You need to get the journalists attention whilst standing out from every other Digital PR agency doing the same thing. This is hard.
A Buzzsumo article from January 2021 asked journalists how many pitches they receive a day - with answers ranging from 25 up to 100, and in one case, "several hundred." A November 2020 report on LinkedIn put the figure at 95. A lifestyle journalist at a British tabloid may be looking at 1000s a day.
There's also an issue of oversaturation. If one approach works, Digital PRs will generally run it into the ground. This doesn't always mean that the approach stops working entirely - "Most Instagrammed" campaigns, one of the biggest culprits of this, can still generate great results - but it does make it much harder for everyone to stand out.
Because of reasons like this and others, Digital PR is constantly evolving. It's a rapidly changing industry - what was working before, or during, the 2020 lockdown, may not be working today. What was working in January of this year might not be working today. It's tough - but there are some great Digital PR agencies and industry leaders trying new approaches and pushing things forward.
Simply put, it's hard but it's worthwhile! The Dark Horse Digital PR team has a motto that we try to emulate in every campaign - quality over quantity. We know how valuable those backlinks are, the higher the domain rating (DR) the bigger the impact on your authority and visibility.
In need of a Digital PR magician?
There are two types of people out there - those that think ANYONE can do Digital PR and those that realise you need a specialist who devotes their time to creating quality campaigns. I hope you're in that second, smarter group. We don't bullshit around here, Digital PR is not for every business and every sector, our work is very much dependent on media demand, user searches and how open you are to get creative and into the trenches of data-led work.
Whatever the case may be, we will tell you where you stand and whether Digital PR is what you need to increase your online visibility and authority... and ultimately the bottom line. If you're not sure just shoot us an email or have a look at our SEO Audit page, no obligations, no strings attached we can let you know where you are and where you could be with Digital PR from Dark Horse.