Combining the Powers of Search, Content, and Digital PR

When I was 7, Captain Planet taught me a lot about marketing.  If you’ve never seen Captain Planet, it was a cartoon about a small group of international teenagers who each had a ring that gave them a relatively uninteresting power. (One guy could light things on fire, one woman could make it windy, Levar Burton’s character Kwame could make sinkholes, things like that.)

But when they put their rings together, and their ‘powers combine’, they made Captain Planet:

captain planet

Captain Planet had great super powers (unlike those kids with their rings), and regularly vanished all sorts of polluters, lobbyists, and other evil doers.  (Intriguingly, he also spoke English with a Californian accent and had a mullet. This was not explained.)

Increasingly, marketing is seeming like Captain Planet: while individual marketing experts who know their channel (SEO, PR, content, PPC, analytics, etc.) can do helpful things, when they combine their powers, they can create Captain Planet –  a customer acquisition flywheel.

SEO, PR, and Content: Long Lost Cousins with Complementary Powers

Individually, each of these disciplines can do cool things.  But by playing well together, they can build a growth machine.  Specifically, they can create a growth machine that scales non-linearly with investments of time and money – the best kind of growth machine. Allow me to explain:

SEO has long been excellent at attracting high-intent (and thus high-conversion rate) traffic to pages, consistently, at an affordable cost.  However, increasingly pure-play SEO strategies are coming under fire – from a mix of increased SEO competency and competition, an addition of more ads, answers, knowledge graph boxes, and things that seem to combine all of those things, increased risk and cost of certain link building techniques, and an increased focus on user-level metrics.

While none of the changes fundamentally dilute the value of traffic coming from search engines, they do make it more difficult to get than it’s been before.  Good links – the sort that won’t be penalized in a future update – are a constantly moving target, and the adversariality of SEO combined with the tendency of Google to take a harder and harder look at links certainly make the search game more challenging than it’s ever been.

PR, as a discipline, has the opposite problem. It’s easier than ever to get media mentions as bloggers are pushed to write multiple posts a day, in some mad hope of capturing ad revenue.  However, as attention and reach gets diluted, it fundamentally means any given PR activity has less reach than it  did before.  These days, even a great clip in the New York Times business section can only send a few hundred visitors to your site – same with TechCrunch, Mashable, and other big tech blogs.

While PR have user trust – and can send some traffic, in the short term – they can’t typically send enough traffic to really move the needle for a business.  PR placements can build brand, trust and great links, but they can’t deliver traffic and sales at the scale businesses need to be successful.

And now Content has become the new hotness in marketing.  Content can do amazing things – we’ve seen that ourselves at BuzzStream – especially when it comes to retention, education, and engaging people who’ve already heard of you.  

But content marketing by itself isn’t without its problems.  The internet is not nearly as undeveloped as it used to be.  Today’s content increasingly struggles to get attention and act as an acqusition channel in itself.  While it can help customers deeper in the funnel engage with a brand, and get attention, it’s hard for content-driven strategies to stand by themselves without heavy promotion and organic funnels to help visitors discover and engage with it.  

Content can engage visitors – but it has neither scale, nor trust, nor can it (in this day and age) drive its own traffic without heavy marketing and promotion (either paid or from existing permission marketing assets like email lists.)

You Can Look At It Like:

– SEO Can Drive Traffic at Scale.  But It Is Risky and Hard, as More Signals Get Folded into Rankings, and the Environment Becomes More Competitive, It Can’t Be Done By Itself.  As Peter Davanzo said on the SEObook blog (which can hardly be accused of a ‘rainbows and unicorns’ point of view), “SEO, as a concept, is now an integral part of digital marketing. To do SEO in 2014 – Google-compliant, whitehat SEO – digital marketers must seamlessly integrate search strategy into other aspects of digital marketing.”

– PR can build trust and brand, but doesn’t scale, and it’s hard to get consistent PR to the point where it can be a major part of your funnel.  (By contrast, if you can figure how to get PR month over month, that is tremendous.)  Additionally, all but the largest web launches won’t generate meaningful website traffic and conversions. (PR can be brilliant for branding and many, many other things, but it doesn’t drive traffic and conversions at scale.)

– Content can engage customers, but by itself isn’t enough to attract traffic without a meaningful marketing push, and can only gain ongoing traffic (and thus form an important part of a funnel rather than being a ‘once and over’ effort) if it can get found through search engines and referring links.  (And of course, PR can generate that interest that draws people to sites, and consumes content, and creates those signals that tell search engines that sites are important, and thus ranks them higher.)

The Virtuous Cycle: Building the Flywheel

 If you’re reading closely, you might be asking yourself, “Gee Matt, it sounds like I could use a combination of search engine optimization, digital PR, and content to drive traffic, build trust, and engage potential customers? And if I did them together, it sounds like they’d build on each other, and eventually would generate increased returns over time as they naturally amplify each other?”

That is exactly what I am suggesting.

Just like there are vicious cycles (where things get worse and worse – we’ve all been in one at least once, be it a project, relationship, work or home situation, bad experience at Red Lobster, or anything), there are victorious cycles, where things get better and better.

As you employ these strategies, you’ll find it’s easier to get coverage, you get more traffic, your permission marketing assets (social media accounts, email, retargeting cookie pools, etc) grow, leading to more distribution, which in turn lead to more searches, links, coverage, and on and on and on.

These victorious cycles are how new brands can break through the noise, and are one important way that new companies can become established brands – often without millions of dollars.  

Historically Separate, and Not Particularly Equal

The key thing to understand with this modern view is that it’s historically different from what marketers have traditionally done, which looked more like:

– the SEO was (invariably) a guy in a black t-shirt that drank a lot of mountain dew, and he usually did technical work, and acted very bothered, and maybe got links from sites no rational human would ever visit

– there was a PR person who took reporters to lunch, and occasionally wrote a press release or emailed journalists, but was unconcerned with metrics or acquisition paths

– there was a content person, who wrote ebooks, and emailed them out to their house list (or hid them behind a lead form), without thought as to newsworthiness, promotion, or search demand.

While these will work independently – you can still do offline PR, you can still do old-school SEO, and you can still do content marketing without a thought as to how to gain visibility beyond people who already know your company – when you combine these activities, they amplify their effect. And if you further mix in social, email marketing, appropriate paid media, and other online marketing techniques like conversion optimization, you can build a virtuous cycle of exposure, coverage, search traffic, customer engagement, and more.

Break Down the Silos

I’m hardly the first blogger to urge marketers to break down the silos between different marketing sub-disciplines and collaborate. But it still remains a far-away goal for all but the most sophisticated digital marketers.

Getting PR, search, content, paid media, email, and other groups to work in lockstep with themselves – in addition to all of the other stakeholders they need to work with, like product marketing, executive functions, sales/sales ops, legal, and more – is an incredible challenge.  But there’s incredible rewards for marketers who can make all of these pieces work together.

Some simple steps might be having clinics to help other marketers understand how your channel works – and how you can work together to get even better.

For example, if you’re a search person, can you teach the PR folks in your group how to find placement opportunities with advanced search operators? Maybe how to use a tool like Open Site Explorer to find who’s referenced news stories in the past, and build their media database out beyond what database vendors provide?  Or how stories with key phrases in their title can continue to get traffic and build company visibility after the initial ‘hit’?  

Start small – and teach someone else in your marketing department about how to use your discipline’s body of knowledge to help what they do.  You might find this leads to more and more collaboration down the road.

But What of the Agency in This New World?

Marketing agencies (including advertising, digital, PR, and other flavors) are at an interesting place: while they’re proclaimed as dead by some, (joining, you know, everything) they’re more helpful than ever before.  Digital marketing is far more integrated and more complex, and with the rise of social channels, ‘always on’ content marketing, visual content, and more, more great execution combined with great creative and planning has the chance to move the needle more for businesses than before.

But, as we’ve seen before, this requires some different behaviors than the agency world has typically exhibited:

– Learn to Collaborate with Other Agencies with Complementary Capabilities –  Agencies are famously poor at collaborating with other agencies, due to ego, trying to get the business, stubbornness, amongst other reasons.  In the future, PR, digital marketing, advertising, social, and other agencies will need to learn to play nicely together.

– Develop & Hire for Complementary Competencies –  This is a stellar time to develop competencies related to your core in a real way.  If you run an agency with a specialty, consider hiring a professional from a related discipline to work with you.  If you can’t hire a new FTE in a new discipline, you can build out the service offering and the pipeline by using contractors and then move that into your company as your ability to sell engagements incorporating that increases.

– Think Paid, Earned, & Owned  – Consumers are continuing to get better at ignoring and avoiding marketing messages. (I expect this will continue as it always has.) Marketers today need to adopt a paid, earned, and owned strategy to communicate messages with scale, control, and trust.  If you focus on one of these areas, it is a good time to build competency in another one, if not both. 

– Become Skilled in Metrics – Many professional services providers (especially those that don’t come from direct marketing) can’t show the impact their work makes on revenue and traffic.  While things like branding and thought leadership are difficult to measure, it’s usually possible to show something in analytics about the impact of your work – be it an increase in brand searches, conversions, etc.  Building this competence to show the impact of your work quantiatively is highly worthwhile and often the key to success in the measurable, modern world of marketing.

Conclusion: Do One Thing Today That Helps Integrate Marketing Channels

 While historically many organic web marketing (PR, social, content, search, etc.) have stuck to one specialization, increasingly that’s either deeply difficult, or  represents a great deal of money left on the table.  By joining these channels together – even in small ways – they can be dramatically more effective.  I urge you to go over to someone else’s desk, read a different blog than the ones you usually do, and learn how the other side thinks, in order to continue growing as a marketer. And just like Captain Planet would tell you, always remember, ‘The Power is Yours.’

(image credit: Captain Planet)