Many digital publishers are in need of a “revenue revolution.” LiveIntent, a provider of programmatic advertising within publisher email, is part of that movement. Our team helped LiveIntent lead the industry conversation by sponsoring a “Revenue Revolution” panel featuring industry experts, moderated by a leading journalist. The room was packed and the dialogue was engaging, attracting 80 prospects and press from WSJ, MediaPost and AdExchanger. Thought leadership panels like the one sponsored by LiveIntent are an excellent way to stake out a position on a key issue while creating relevant branded content for the company.
A great PR campaign will obviously build brand visibility. But can it help where it really counts — customer acquisition? Can you draw a line from a PR program to a specific number of prospects generated? What about conversions from website visits, or deals influenced by credible articles or analyst reports? Does good PR create more prospects at the top of the marketing funnel?
I’ve always maintained that public relations alone isn’t a reliable tool for demand generation. But the the key word here is “reliable.” Earned media doesn’t work as consistently as email marketing, SEM, and other forms of paid advertising. But, before you dismiss the power of PR, consider its role in the customer journey. The blurring of lines between earned, paid, shared, and owned media has greatly amplified the traditional role of PR. A well designed PR program will work along with other marketing services, from the top of the funnel to the post-purchase phase. Here’s how.
PR generates top-of-funnel awareness
Filling the funnel starts at the top, with awareness. But that awareness may be of the brand involved, or maybe just the problem it addresses. This is particularly successful in B2B PR campaigns, where the sales cycle is long and the products complex.
Tactics like content marketing, earned speaking opportunities for C-level executives, and feature articles work together to boost visibility for a brand or situation that the brand solves. Bylined articles, op-eds and blog posts offer multiple benefits because they drive SEO ranking while educating prospects, thus pushing them down the funnel. This kind of organic brand awareness is particularly valuable for new companies or challenger brands. A campaign of consistent earned and owned content, reactive commentary, and trade or business coverage can vault a little-known company into the spotlight. For a larger brand, it can support a leadership position within a business category.
PR content offers depth, credibility
The interest or engagement phase comes next. It’s that critical point where prospects start to shop more seriously and many options fall away as the path to purchase narrows. It’s also the phase where targeted marketing kicks in with brand-oriented information to nudge along the prospect. Email marketing (given lead capture from clicks on branded content), SEM, and display ads may come into play.
But even at this point, it’s hard to beat the credibility that earned media articles and features provide. PR tactics can deliver targeted educational content like expository videos, opinion pieces, or white papers — all valuable for a more serious customer. PR-generated content also has a key advantage over most paid content. It offers the depth to lend insights, mount arguments, or explain a poorly understood category or problem. This is content that unpacks a complex issue or rebuts an argument or stereotype. At this stage, smart brands will throw some paid marketing at earned media features or reviews to boost it on social platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter.
Storytelling engages, influence persuades
Storytelling starts at the initial awareness phase and can play a role through the customer journey. Think about the public debate over universal health care; the statistics are important, but individual stories families are far more persuasive. Storytelling is also important for B2B companies where the product is complicated or things change quickly. The hero here is not the brand, or even the company founder; it’s probably the customer.
A testimonial video about a business devastated by a ransomware attack can be very compelling where it counts – when targeted properly to the decision-maker for cybersecurity software. This is also the time to promote customer reviews on social media and product forums like LinkedIn groups in direct-marketing campaigns. Another key resource is analyst reports, which have enormous influence. That’s why so many tech companies invest in AR as part of a PR program, or have a paid relationship with analyst companies. For more on how to make the most of Analyst Relations for a B2B program, check out these tips.
Pulling the trigger on a purchase
What pushes buyers over the line? It happens when third-party expertise, influence, and education come together. In PR terms, it’s where top-notch analyst relations, influencer marketing, and social sharing meet. Today’s business customers are sophisticated, digitally savvy, and committed to researching their purchases. If they’re about to spend thousands on a company-wide SaaS solution, they will cover all the bases. That Forrester Wave can influence purchase of enterprise software for years.
For other products – and other types of buyer journeys — peer recommendations work. “A person like me” is more credible than a celebrity, according to Edelman’s trust barometer. The experience of strangers in the same professional community can be as persuasive as that of experts.
This final phase is also where marketers harness the credibility of earned media stories amplify it through other channels. This is as simple as using product reviews in ads or a prospect newsletter. It’s most powerful at the latter part of the funnel, as interest grows and moves toward action. Similarly, when an editorial review or feature is linked with a promotional offer or incentive, they work together. The earned influence, deployed with a hypertargeted approach, sweetened with an incentive, is an argument for action.
The purchase isn’t the end of the journey
The customer journey – and the marketer’s work – don’t end with the purchase. PR and social media have a role here, too. The best programs work to create brand advocates through special offers and incentives, but also by building communities of regular customers. A social community where a brand interacts with fans and customers is an obvious start. Look at Lego Ideas, a creative online group for enthusiasts that allows them to submit ideas for new Lego designs. For business examples, pay a visit to Hubspot Academy on LinkedIn.
Another customer-focused tactic involves generating PR for customers themselves. The classic business testimonial is a great example; it glorifies the user as much as the provider, strengthening the mutual commitment in the process.
Good PR works with all aspects of marketing to create prospects and move them down the customer funnel, right down to the moment of truth.
The lifeblood of any startup is new customers. Whether it’s a B2C company that needs a high volume of sales or a B2B with a slower selling cycle, every high-growth business invests heavily in customer acquisition.
Many businesses use a mix of email marketing, paid search, SEO, content marketing, and social media marketing to create prospects and turn them into customers.
Where does public relations, with its roots in media relations and events, fit into the customer acquisition picture?
The picture becomes clearer when we address some common myths about public relations for technology and other startup companies.
Myth: An innovative product will generate its own PR
Not necessarily. Now, I’ve seen new products (or, better still, new categories) that were so clearly innovative, disruptive, or well timed that they did generate media attention without outside PR help. And it’s well known in our industry that media coverage often begets more media coverage.
But most businesses aren’t marketing that kind of lightning in a bottle. Even if they are, the self-perpetuating media attention will eventually die down, or turn negative. In most cases, just because you built it doesn’t mean they will come. A smart PR strategy, backed with solid tactics and professional execution, will maximize the potential for an average product and help chart a long-term success for a great one.
Myth: Great PR can overcome a mediocre product or service
Wrong again. The credibility of earned media coverage can do wonders when well executed, but it won’t drive demand if customers just don’t want the product. We placed a segment about a wearable fitness device on the “Today” show, not once, but twice. But it never really caught on, because the market was cluttered, and there were distribution issues. Conversely, if customers are fooled by positive PR for a product that doesn’t measure up, they will feel burned. That’s a recipe for reputation disaster.
Myth: PR only works when you have news
It’s great when clients understand the importance of news, but sometimes they define it too narrowly. A big new product launch typically happens once in a couple of years at best. It’s the role of the PR agency or internal team to create relevant news in the absence of a new product announcement or tech update. There are other forms of “news” — like research results or insights, or a CEO’s strong opinions about industry trends or changes. Branded content can help a company differentiate its offering through insights and thought leadership. Social responsibility programming creates its own news. All are powerful tools for creating positive coverage and customer acquisition.
Myth: Today’s PR is just influencer marketing
As social platforms have exploded, many companies have turned to influencer or celebrity marketing, especially those in consumer product categories. But too many companies confuse popularity with influence. The two can coexist, but they’re not the same; true influence rests on credibility as well as relevance. There’s also the fraud factor. Fake followers, bots, and influence pods have become a real problem, especially on Instagram. My bottom line on influencer marketing is that it has its place, but for many companies, outsourcing the customer (or prospect) relationship to influencers doesn’t make sense.
Myth: PR is just about top-of-funnel awareness
Public relations does indeed drive the kind of awareness needed to create top-of-the-funnel prospects. But it can also do much more. A well-designed strategic PR program influences active shoppers by inspiring them through storytelling. It can also produce relevant content that further educates informed prospects as they research a high-value purchase with stories that convey specific messages about features and benefits. This is a critical phase, where “interest” gives way to “consideration.” It’s the point where customer testimonials, recommendations and reviews from “people like me” and earned media features and interviews can be very powerful.
A robust PR program doesn’t live in a vacuum. It should integrate with other components of the marketing mix to create prospects and move them down the customer funnel to the point of purchase and beyond.
Most PR pros know that throwing facts and figures at a business audience won’t necessarily win them over. A great story, on the other hand, is more persuasive and more memorable.
At a time when we have more data than we can possibly use and people connect on social platforms, storytelling is an ideal tool for PR and marketing.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Entertainment options are everywhere, and crafting a business story designed to promote a product or service doesn’t always measure up. People are busy, overwhelmed, and even cynical.
On the PR agency side, we serve many masters. Sometimes we communicate through journalists who have their own story priorities. Clients, on the other hand, may have different ideas about what makes a great story. When considerations collide, storytelling suffers. Here are some ways to overcome common roadblocks along the way.
Forget the chronology
There’s a natural impulse to start at the beginning and tell a chronological narrative, especially if it’s about a new company or product. But that can be complicated, lengthy, and boring. When speaking or writing to promote a business, pretend you’re making a 30-second video. Start with a pivotal time in the business. It might be the point where a founder set out to solve a common problem, like how to be well-dressed without spending a fortune (Rent The Runway), or the “new” idea that software should be available 24/7 (Salesforce.com). Everything revolves around those high-impact moments that are usually obvious only in retrospect. Start in the middle, then fill in the blanks.
Leave the rough edges
There’s a real tendency to sugarcoat anything negative or embarrassing when it comes to business storytelling. One reason I love working with high-growth tech entrepreneurs is that they tend to be more open about setbacks than larger companies. Reluctance to open the kimono is understandable; most businesses aren’t wild about revealing weakness, miscalculations, or mistakes. Yet these are the very developments that make a narrative more compelling and real. There’s power in admitting you’re not perfect, in part because it’s not expected, and everyone can identify.
Remember, it’s not always about you
Mediocre stories are about businesses; great stories are about people. Every story needs a hero. The most interesting and authentic heroes could be a low-level employee in an organization, or the customer. Intuit and Hubspot are two brands that do a great job celebrating their core customer, small businesses, in their storytelling. Slack’s Variety Pack podcast does something similar, by championing the end users of its product — workers themselves.
Don’t confuse emotion with hyped language
I see this in written content all the time. Maybe the story isn’t so exciting, so the writer throws in lots of empty adjectives to try to spice it up. It usually has the perverse effect of making things even less interesting because there’s no substance. It’s far better to be straightforward with the language. Mark Twain famously wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” When it comes to adjectives and “action verbs,” less is definitely more, and a more precise word will beat a vague one anytime.
Break the cliché habit
A great story will focus on high-stakes moments, like early failures, internal or external conflicts, or business threats. But what if those moments are already well known? What if they just don’t exist? Change the point of view, or try an analogy. Take software testing as an example. It’s a commodity, but like everything else, there’s an art to it. As one engineer put it, “Writing (software) tests is like sex: the more you do it, the better you get at it and the better it feels.” Now, there’s an interesting opener.
An open call for trained performers — Have I got a career for you!
Performing has an irresistible allure for an aspiring actor. The bug bites deep and won’t let go. Yet according to a recent survey, only 2% of actors make a living from it. That stat is enough to make you reach for a drink – if you can afford one. Unemployment may be a lifestyle, but it’s not sustainable. So what’s an actor to do?
Did somebody say… PR? As a successful actor myself, I’ve met many fellow performers who have found their skills are highly transferable to much of the work of a typical public relations agency. If you’re interested, please speak up. We know you can project. In fact, we bet you already have the talent that could give you a brand new career, and make you a PR star.
You learned a lot doing eight shows a week, repeating the same dialogue over and over and keeping it fresh. Now you can take your pitch and make each follow-up sound new, as if you’re discovering the idea yourself for the very first time. Or, take those skills and put them to use in agency marketing, or in helping to close the sale at the next big account meeting.
You know those robocalls with the deadpan voice so ho-hum flat that you have to hang up? Thankfully, your voice and diction training has paid off. You engage people in a meeting because you can really sell your message, and you even leave inviting voicemails. In fact, you have them at hello.
Inside your script were hundreds of notes about blocking, props, objectives and run of show, in addition to learning all your lines. You won’t have any trouble keeping up with the hundreds of details when your PR firm puts together a fantastic client event.
Okay, ‘fess up. It can get tedious having to get worked up over selling the product when the product was you. Isn’t it fun to sell something outside yourself? As an actor you know how to put the passion into whatever you do.
Quick! You’re on the phone pitching a TV segment to a news producer. They ask a question you don’t expect. You’re uncertain. What would your character do? True, you can’t invent facts (contrary to the belief of some) but you’ll be able to improvise your way to an answer – believe me.
All the world’s a stage, and the stage is a world of entertainment. Nowadays, so is the news. In the end people like to talk to people who are entertaining, and actors know how to grab attention. Dig inside your emotional toolbox to match the person’s voice pattern you’re pitching and create an instant simpatico.
Some days it might still feel like you’re auditioning, but these skills will give you a head start. Don’t underestimate the value of having a place to go, working with people who appreciate your talents. Not to mention the paycheck. It will afford you that drink when you want to go out after performing at your theater company by night. In the audience will be all your new colleagues, cheering you on.
In business as in life, reputation is everything.
Few corporate CEOs will deny that a company’s reputation colors every aspect of business, including marketing, talent recruitment, employee relations, shareholder relations, and even customer experience.
In fact, the 2017 U.S. Reputation Dividend Report calls reputation a “cornerstone of corporate value” and quantifies the dividend that corporations with a five-star rep enjoy. The report calculates that in 2017, $1 out every $5 in market capitalization came from “confidence underpinned by company’s reputation” among those in the S&P 500. And reputation’s value seems to grow as a company scales.
Reputation accounts for 20% of the average company’s value, yet the highest-ranked corporations derive far more value from reputation. Those in the top spots, like the Walt Disney Corporation and Johnson & Johnson, can claim that over 50% of their market cap comes from reputation. That’s real money.
How PR and reputation intersect
Reputation’s soaring value is good news for PR and corporate communications professionals. Yet, even though reputation management is prized, it’s not always well understood. It’s often confused with crisis management, but while the two overlap, they are distinct.
Crisis management involves responding to a simmering or sudden event that negatively impacts reputation. Case in point: the 2017 United Airlines fiasco in which a passenger was violently removed from his seat. According to research by B2B research platform Clutch.co, the PR storm actually made some fliers feel less safe. Even seven months later, some 30% of consumers said they would not fly on United. The airline’s slow response and initially poor crisis management compounded the damage, though its share price did rebound.
What’s in the CCO’s purview?
Reputation management, on the other hand, is more proactive than the firefighting that characterizes crisis management. It can help an organization weather a crisis situation because a well-earned reputation is like money in the bank. This should mean that the internal stewardship of reputation falls to the chief communications officer. Yet reputation management isn’t always in the CCO’s purview, at least not solely. Risk management, compliance, legal counsel, brand marketing – all may have some ownership when it comes to corporate reputation. But in most organizations PR and reputation management work together, or at least they should. For that collaboration to succeed, the role of PR and the skills involved may need to evolve.
Understanding of audiences is key
The connection between communications and reputation management means that PR officers need to adopt new skills and even functions. One is a greater grasp of research. Not all PR people have a sophisticated understanding of market research. Some think of it as a tool for measuring ROI, but it can uncover valuable insights about stakeholder and public perception. It’s impossible to monitor and measure reputation without that baseline intelligence.
Reputation management is risk management
We deal in perception, which is an intangible asset. PR people tend to be comfortable with intangible and hard-to-measure attributes. Yet those trained in communications may lack the grasp of organizational risk and compliance issues faced by many companies. More importantly, a CCO rarely has oversight responsibility in that area.
C-level access is critical
Access to senior management is all-important here. The good news for corporate communicators is that the function has been elevated in the past few years. According to a study by the Arthur Page Society, as the communications role has become more crucial and more complex, CEOs place greater value on the CCO role. The Page report, which is based on data from interviews with 31 CEOs at companies earning more than $2 billion in revenue, suggests that CEOs have expanded expectations the role of the chief communications executive. Yet only 39% of CCOs report in to the CEO.
Can the CCO speak truth to power – and make it stick?
For chief communications officers to grow into the reputation management role, they need the attention and respect of the CEO. Most importantly, an effective reputation management officer must have the authority and the courage to tell senior officers what they may not want to hear. They must be perceptive in flagging risks and persuasive in offering advice and urging change. Not every communications officer has that blend of skill, influence, and authority. But those who do will be an invaluable asset to any organization.