How PR Helps Turn Prospects Into Customers

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.

Five Myths About PR And Customer Acquisition

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.

Next up: How PR Can Turn Prospects Into Customers