What is digital PR (aka online PR) and why is it so damn important?

If you’ve just used Google to search for “What is digital PR?” or “What is online PR?”, then you’re probably looking for more than just a simple definition. How can I possibly know your real intent? Well, scroll down the search engine results page (SERP) for these queries and you’ll probably see Google’s “People-also-ask” boxes, which include questions like “Why digital PR is important?” (sic) and “What is online PR in digital marketing?” or “What is online PR in digital marketing?” and “What is digital PR?

So, using machine learning, Google knows that one short question often leads to several longer ones. Leveraging this insight, I’m going do more than give you a quick answer to the initial question that brought you here. I’m also going to share the backstory of how online PR has evolved. And I’m going to share a new case study that illustrates why digital PR is so damn important.

What is digital PR?

So, let start by defining our terms.

  • Digital PR is a digital marketing discipline that uses press release SEO as well as digital media relations, blogger outreach, and influencer marketing to generate measurable results that are important to the success of a campaign or an organization.
  • Online PR is an online marketing discipline that uses press release SEO as well as online media relations, blogger outreach, and influencer marketing to generate measurable results that are important to the success of a campaign or an organization.

In other words, these terms are synonyms. According to Google Trends, there’s been significantly more web search interest in online PR than digital PR since 2004, but the gap has been narrowing over the past 5 years. Why? Well, interest in digital marketing surged past online marketing in May 2014 and “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed.

Now, some people may mistakenly think that digital PR or online PR is just the early 21st Century version of traditional public relations, which was developed back in the early 20th Century. But, whichever term you use, I’d argue that “PR” is experiencing a paradigm shift.

For more than 100 years, traditional public relations sent news releases to “the press” and engaged in media relations to generate publicity. But, a funny thing happened in September 2002, when Google launched the beta version of Google News. When you did a news search, you could find press releases in the results along with articles from traditional news sources. This meant that “the public” as well as “the press” could find and read news releases that had been well optimized for relevant search terms.

This fundamentally shifted the focus of public relations. It also drastically disintermediated the media.

In early 2003, SEO-PR was founded to seize this opportunity and we pioneered several techniques, including adding campaign parameters to URLs so we could track Custom Campaigns in Google Analytics. We called our innovation “press release SEO.” But, in 2006, Tad Clarke, the Editorial Director of MarketingSherpa, called our innovative approach to getting optimized press releases (that included tracking links) found in news search engine results “the tactic known as SEO PR.”

But, whatever it is called, this innovation was a game changer because it generated website traffic, business-to-business (B2B) leads, and business-to-consumer (B2C) sales as well as publicity.

For example, Southwest Airlines and SEO-PR won the Golden Ruler Award for Excellence in Public Relations Measurement in 2005 for tracking $2.5 million in ticket sales in 2004 back to four optimized press releases. If you want more details, you can read our case study, which is entitled, “You are now free to link PR and sales,” which is posted on the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) website.

But, press release SEO is just one of the key tactics used in digital PR. The other is digital media relations, blogger outreach, and influencer marketing. Together, they enable you to use a push/pull strategy to contact key people you know ahead of time and get contacted by key people you don’t know after a newsworthy announcement.

Now, back in 2003, the only key people worth knowing were journalists. But, they were soon joined by influential bloggers. As I explained in a December 2007 post in Search Engine Watch, which was entitled, “Blogs Are the New Trade Press,” the advent of news search engines was rapidly followed by “another significant trend that some media relations veterans may not be ready to acknowledge: In many industries, the trade press has imploded.”

However, even after magazines such as PC/Computing and print publications like PC Week were shuttered, consumers and business buyers were still interested in product reviews and industry news. So, they turned to online publications and industry blogs as well as optimized press releases for that type of information. And, fortunately for online PR pioneers, the editors, reporters, bloggers, and correspondents for “the new trade press” didn’t violate any Google webmaster guidelines if they decided to add natural links in their stories and posts to help people find interesting, related content.

This led to the development of an innovative online PR strategy that put some newfangled “linkbait” on an old-fashioned “news hook.” And, yes, Google considered this to be an ethical or “white-hat” practice. In fact, Google’s quality guidelines said, “The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

In addition, Matt Cutts, the former head of the web spam team at Google, wrote a post in January 2006, which was entitled “SEO Advice: linkbait and Link baiting.” He said, “On a meta-level, I think of ‘linkbait’ as something interesting enough to catch people’s attention, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are a lot of ways to do that, including putting in sweat-of-the-brow work to generate data or insights, or it can be as simple as being creative.”

Cutts added, “Linkbaiting sounds like a bad thing, but especially if it’s interesting information or fun, it doesn’t have to have negative connotations. I hereby claim that content can be both white-hat and yet still be wonderful ‘bait’ for links…. And generating information or ideas that people talk about is a surefire way to generate links.”

That’s why SEO-PR added blog outreach to our online PR services during this timeframe. And we combined blogger outreach with press release SEO to generate publicity and build links for a variety of clients. For example, we used some of the survey findings in the Harlequin Romance Report as linkbait for a campaign in 2007. Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., one of the world’s leading publishers of women’s fiction, has polled more than 3,000 men and women across Canada and the U.S. and discovered that 55% of American men and 41% of American women had said “I love you” in hopes it would lead to sex.

We offered influential journalists and bloggers a draft of our optimized press release in advance under a “news embargo.” This is another newfangled version of an old tactic that’s been used for decades by traditional public relations professionals, who would ask journalists to hold a news story until a certain date in exchange for providing them with crucial information ahead of time. This updated tactic enabled us to generate 11 news stories, 190 blog posts, and a mention in Jay Leno’s monologue on the “Tonight Show” as well as 202 natural links to the Harlequin Romance Report.

Recently, journalists and bloggers have been joined by social media influencers. Now, many influencers, although not all of them, can do more than help you to generate publicity. To identify them, you need to look beyond an influencer’s “reach” and also consider his or her “relevance” and “resonance” (e.g. engagement rates) to determine if a person has the ability to influence a conversation in a given topic area, which has proven to be an indicator of someone’s ability to drive action. If you want more details, check out the Influencer Marketing Strategy course that is offered by Rutgers Business School Executive Education on Coursera. (Disclosure: I’m the instructor.)

Why digital PR is important in digital marketing

Now that you’ve learned the backstory of how online PR has evolved, I’m going to explain why digital PR is so damn important today. Spoiler alert: It’s not the tactics; it’s the measurable results.

So, let me share another story that illustrates why digital PR should be a key part of your digital marketing mix. Now, I shared this case study on Sept. 19, 2019, at “Telling Y/Our Story,” Intrado’s second annual digital media client summit in New York City. And I’ll be sharing a slightly longer version of this case study on Oct. 8, 2019, at Pubcon Pro Las Vegas.

Why am I planning to tell professional digital marketers the same story that I told PR, IR, marketing, and internal communications practitioners? Because our latest case study teaches several valuable lessons that many people in both audiences should be interested in learning.

Our latest case study features the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR). In January 2019, SEO-PR helped Rutgers SMLR to launch an Online Professional Master’s in Human Resource Management (MHRM) program. Our objective was to generate 30 applications by Aug. 1, 2019. Students can complete the 12-course online MHRM program in as few as 18 months and as long as 5 years. And tuition is $3,174 per 3-credit course, or $38,016 for 12 courses.

Now, we used keyword research to find out what people were searching for, but we also used Google Surveys to find out why. Google Surveys give you a quick, cost-effective way to get valuable insights into the mind of your target audience. You can ask up to 10 questions and select from a variety of question formats, like multiple-choice and star-rating. And you can run your survey on Google’s network of publishers or mobile app, then filter participants based on demographics or set up screening questions.

Now, Rutgers SMLR planned to target human resource (HR) professionals, managers, and supervisors with 4 or more years of experience who wanted to advance their careers to senior HR or management positions. But, Google Surveys found that we should also target professionals in personnel, staffing & recruiting, and talent acquisition. This insight more than doubled the total size of our target audiences.

Respondents with 4 or more years of HR experience also said the following factors were important when selecting a university that offers an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management:

  • “No GRE/GMAT required”,
  • “Top-ranked university”,
  • “Fully 100% online program”.

So, we emphasized these key factors in the subhead of our optimized multimedia release, which also included a video and photo of William G. Castellano, the Chair of the Department of Human Resource Management at Rutgers SMLR. No, the video didn’t “go viral.” But, as you will see shortly, it helped us to generate measurable results that were important to the success of our campaign and for Rutgers.

We also used Google’s free Campaign URL Builder tool to add campaign parameters to URLs in the release to track our Custom Campaign in Google Analytics. This enabled us to track the number of users, new users, sessions, bounce rate, pages/session, average session duration, conversion rate, conversions, and goal value generated by our optimized press release.

Steve Flamisch, the press officer at Rutgers SMLR, shared the release with Emily Bader of ROI-NJ and David Hutter of NJBIZ under embargo the day before it was distributed. Both Bader’s story, which was entitled, “Rutgers launches online master’s in HR management,” and Hutter’s story, which was entitled, “Rutgers launches online MHRM graduate program,” included natural links to SMLR’s landing page.

Debbie Vogel, the Director of Marketing and Communications for Rutgers SMLR, created an optimized landing page about the new Online Professional Master’s in Human Resource Management program. She also posted a copy of the optimized release without multimedia to the news section of SMLR’s site.

Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Ed, wrote a roundup story on Feb. 20, 2019, entitled “New Online Academic Programs.” It included a high-quality, relevant link to the copy of the release that had been posted in the news section of the Rutgers site.

Although the optimized multimedia release was distributed to 271 news sites, Google only shows the one without multimedia on the Rutgers site in its SERP, not the “duplicate content” on the 271 other sites. So, Google does good job of choosing which version of duplicate content to show in its SERPs.

In late June, we used Google Surveys a second time to measure the impact of our campaign. We found that the percentage of respondents who said they were “familiar with” Rutgers University had increased from 13.8% pre-launch to 18.5% post-launch. And we found that the percentage of respondents who said they were “very likely” to recommend Rutgers to a friend or colleague who was interested in getting an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management had increased from 16.7% pre-launch to 19.0% post-launch. So, the campaign had increased familiarity with and the likelihood to recommend Rutgers.

Looking at Google Analytics, we saw the campaign had driven 8,337 new users to the Rutgers Online Professional Master’s in Human Resource Management landing page.

  • 361 new users (4.3%) had come from New Jersey.
  • 3,215 new users (38.6%) had come from the rest of the United States.
  • 4,761 new users (57.1%) had come from the rest of the world (113 countries).

Taking a closer look at Google Analytics, we also saw that our landing page generated 694 leads (people either clicked on the Apply Now button on the page or the Apply tab in navigation).

  • 200 leads (28.8%) had come from New Jersey.
  • 228 leads (32.9%) had come from the rest of the United States.
  • 266 leads (38.3%) had come from the rest of the world (45 countries).

We also evaluated the source/medium of the new users and leads in Google Analytics:

  • Tracking links in our press release had generated 1% of the new users, but 8% of the leads.
  • Google organic search had generated 3% of the new users, but 19% of the leads.
  • Google Ads had generated 11% of the new users, but 18% of the leads.
  • LinkedIn ads had generated 81% of the new users, but 37% of the leads.

More importantly, the campaign had generated 38 completed applications, worth up to $1,444,608 in tuition over the next 18 months to 5 years:

  • 33 graduate students were starting in the Fall 2019 semester.
  • 4 graduate students were starting in the Spring 2020 semester.
  • 1 graduate student was starting in the Fall 2020 semester.

So, why is digital PR so damn important” Well, as this case study illustrates, without our optimized press release and the duplicate version of it that was posted in the news section of SMLR’s site, we would have generated about 28 applications, not 38. This not only means that we would have fallen short of our goal for the campaign, it also means that Rutgers SMLR would have missed out on up to $380,000 in tuition over the next 18 months to 5 years.

This explains why our case study has been shortlisted for the 2019 US Search Awards in two different categories. The 2019 awards will be presented at a gala dinner and awards ceremony on Oct. 9 at the SAHARA (previously known as the SLS) Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

In the Best Integrated Campaign category, our case study demonstrates that PR, SEO, display advertising, and PPC advertising can increase brand awareness and generate leads at the same time. So, the distinction between above- and below-the-line marketing is obsolete.

And in the Best Use of PR in a Search Campaign category, our case study demonstrates that the combination of digital PR and SEO generated 4% of the traffic, but 27% of the leads. And measuring digital PR and SEO using the same set of metrics and KPIs used for Digital Advertising – including pay-per-click (PPC) advertising – is a game changer. It means that we no longer need to treat digital PR or SEO as “faith-based initiatives.”

In other words, digital PR’s ability to generate measurable results that are important to the success of a campaign or an organization makes it a vitally important part of the digital marketing mix. And that’s a lesson that a lot of people should be interested in learning.

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