Within Digital PR there are different types of tactics and formats used for creating content, each designed to achieve links and brand mentions. These different digital PR tactics range from surveys, commentary and quick pieces of data analysis through to large scale interactive campaigns.
However, if you want to reach the absolute top – we’re talking Wall Street Journal, BBC, Washington Post, etc. – and have a piece that’s able to create the most buzz or real waves online, regardless of how big or small the campaign is, it is absolutely vital that the methodology you’ve used to research and present your campaign is as solid as a rock.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to create a variety of campaigns that were picked-up by these top tier publications, and one of the things they always have in common is a great idea executed in a way that a good journalist would be proud of. In fact, one of the ways we consider our Digital PR work at Root Digital is akin to investigative journalism.
Half of the battle is having a killer idea at the right time, but how you actually execute it cannot be overlooked and can absolutely make or break the campaign.
A great idea gets your foot in the door. The execution is what lands you the link.
To build your campaign and leave a journalist in no doubt that your headline is a true reflection of the topic or the best take on a subject, you’ve got to show your workings out and use sound logic. Without it, you can lose a journalist’s confidence real quick, and time is a hot commodity you can’t afford to lose.
Two types of methodologies
At its core, a methodology is the structure you have in place for why anyone should believe you. How did you find out the answer you’re giving people or what is it that makes you qualified to comment?
This can be a methodology you openly feature on your campaign landing page but it can also be (to the same effect) the background knowledge and trust the company or spokesperson has that you are attempting to get featured. Essentially, both are achieving the same end result – trust.
Your background or the background of the person/company you’re working with is an asset. If used correctly, it can create the sense of trust we really need when discussing topics with journalists as it’s the very thing they’ll use (and should use) to determine how much value your words have to offer.
From time to time there are other factors at play (journalists may reference someone because of their following or brand association) but in 99% of cases, it’s not only what you have to say but who has to say it that is the determining factor. Getting this across is a key part of the job for someone using reactive PR tactics in particular.
When pitching comments to journalists or any tactic where an expert is involved in what you’re doing, you can build on this background methodology with a strong company or author bio. It’s the opportunity to scream what you/they have done, their qualifications, what their title is, key relevant achievements, where they’ve been featured before, etc.
Here’s what a really good one looks like:
As a Digital PR, part of your job is to not only construct and tailor a bio to suit the topic you’re discussing but to also find the people worth mentioning within your organisation. Who do you have that you can work with? What sort of topics would they best lend comments to and be acknowledged as an expert on? Do you have an image you can use and know where their social profiles are? Do their social profiles currently scream their achievements if a journalist were to check them out?
A featured methodology is no different. It’s the trust signal you display to build up the confidence in the hook or takeaway that you have to offer from your research.
This is the more traditional view of a methodology and it typically includes everything from the sources you’ve used to find your data, what the breakdown of the target audience was like if you did your own survey, how you configured your weighting system and who (and their expertise) was involved in making that decision, etc. More on that in the next section.
When presenting an in-depth piece of research or even just a quick snapshot headline from a survey, having your methodology front and centre is a must, and in some cases – when you have a real value adding methodology – is critical.
Here’s an example for a piece called The Science of Scare. I don’t know who’s behind it (agency or in-house team) and I/Root are in no way affiliated with whoever did it but the screenshot below is the very first part of the graphic you see.
Notice how it doesn’t dive straight into a visualised data-point, or a hero image, like nearly all campaigns do. Instead, they’ve chosen to use a quite lengthy section of copy. For a Digital PR campaign, that’s a bold move when we’re contending with short attention spans, but once you read it or start looking at the piece itself, the reason why makes a lot of sense.
The methodology here is the most important part. The list that follows could have been anything – it doesn’t matter what film is number 1 or even if you agree with it.
The fact they’ve used heart rate monitors across a decent sample size in a controlled format gives anyone reading it confidence in the experiment, and the methodology itself provides a unique value because it’s not something a journalist is able to easily do themselves, or I’m guessing, anyone else has ever done (and at least published the findings from).
580+ linking root domains for that one. Of course it does.
What makes a strong methodology?
So what are some of the things you can consider that can help make your methodology one worth putting front and centre, and that top tier journalists are going to find hard to ignore?
As you can imagine, it varies based on the type of content you’re producing. If you’re working out which city is the best for a wellness weekend, that’s going to be different to how you work out which TV streaming service is offering the best bang for your buck. (Confession, both of those are ours but illustrate the point well).
However, here’s a great starting point to consider across a wide range of possible campaign formats, experiments and intended outcomes that journalists are going to be asking themselves:
- Were all factors considered?
- Does bias exist?
- Were credible sources used?
- What credibility does the company/person have?
- How is the weighting system configured?
- Who was part of creating the methodology and what are their expertise in this area?
The methodology is something you do at the beginning – not at the end
When we’re looking at a traditional creative campaign (like surveys or a piece of data analysis) as opposed to utilising expertise, there are some key questions to ask at the point you’re doing your ideation:
- Is this even possible?
- Can I add value to the topic through the methodology?
- Are we the correct company to talk about this topic?
Is it possible?
Firstly, we want to know if the idea is something you can execute, and this might be due to budget/time restraints or it could be the data just doesn’t exist.
However, there are a few things we can do to guide feasibility:
- Consider the most critical data-points you’d need to power your methodology
- Search the topic and see if anyone (especially governmental sources) have supplied the data previously
- Do you have or can you get access to the best target audience for your own proprietary research on THIS particular topic (aiming for unbiased and balanced)
- Is the data accessible?
- What sorts of sources currently exist? Are they reputable or questionable blogs or studies?
From here, you can start to get a picture about the hurdles you could be jumping through once you really get going.
Now is the time to be looking at the concept you have and deciding if your methodology is unique and/or more respectable than anything that already exists that you’re competing with.
Like the Science of Scare example above or the Life of Tax example below, your methodology can be everything in determining why journalists will decide to feature your insight or not. Obviously, you still need a good idea, but your methodology can be the reason they feature your piece or decide to revisit the topic again if you’ve demonstrated an undeniable and interesting talking point(s) beyond anything else in the same area.
Whatever direction it is you’re taking and whatever the concept is, you need to make sure your methodology is going to marry up. There’s no point discussing how dementia can impact the brain if you don’t have the expertise to back those claims up or if you can’t find the sources that make the claims viable.
Your methodology is like a skeleton – it holds the whole thing together
Constructing the basis of your methodology before you start allows you to consider what else is already out there and importantly how you might be able to add real value to the topic.
This part of the equation is a little self-explanatory but the answer isn’t always that clear.
Most people will know not to do a ‘best budget foods around the world’ concept for a luxury travel brand, but there’s often a grey area that can become a little questionable.
The way you can help decide isn’t actually based on the journalists or external perceptions but by looking more inward. If you were to do this campaign and get coverage, would the topical relevance help your organic ranking potential, or to put another way, is the coverage you’d get in any way synonymous with the goods or service you provide?
Admittedly, my core focus with Digital PR has always been the organic impact of our work. SEO is the career path I set upon before honing more directly on the creative side of this industry and therefore, I’m always keeping tabs on the bottom-line.
However, others may consider slightly different outcomes such as brand awareness, brand sentiment, or their own traditional PR values and metrics. For the most part, this all still plays a role in the organic outcomes because of the way search engines are connecting the dots and are actually looking for the same signal we’re trying to offer journalists through our campaigns – trust.
For anyone interesting, I’ve written extensively about the role of Digital PR in SEO in my Guide to Digital PR.
Here’s a great example
A lot of the concepts we come up with for clients are focused on how we add value to something topical for them. The more interesting the question, the further we look to find a workable solution.
In this case, and working for a personal finance brand in the US, we posed the question ‘how much tax will people pay in their lifetime?’. It’s a scary thought and one that affects all of us, whilst being a question people had only really ball-parked numbers towards in the past. Therefore, we knew there was an opportunity to add value through a robust methodology.
As you can imagine, for any journalist worth their salt, our methodology for uncovering this answer (answers actually) had to be as in-depth as possible, providing an irrefutable process for obtaining our figure. Otherwise, we risk the whole project falling short of the links we aim for.
Importantly, we researched and knew the core data we needed was going to be there, there was no solid answer out in the wild and our reputable client was perfectly placed to discuss the topic. This ticked the boxes for our ideal kick-off.
Creating the methodology
Let’s look at the initial list of questions we had to consider in tackling this question:
- What do people pay taxes on?
- Are these things that affect the majority of people or just some?
- Is it possible to get all the data-points we might need or will some be missing?
- Do we have to take into account inflation across a lifetime?
- How drastically would this vary by state?
Going through this process is all part of making sure what we do is going to make sense. Are we going to end up with a piece that’s got a huge list of disclaimers and caveats, or are we genuinely going to be able to provide an answer?
Journalists at top tier publications aren’t concerned with ball-park estimates or incomplete stories. So working out your feasibility, where the hiccups may be and how complete your methodology can be is vital.
Once we had that, and we were happy, we had to start creating our formula. Just what is the total amount of tax someone will pay?
To do that, we worked out we needed the following data-points:
- Average earnings
- How long someone will work in their lifetime
- State taxes on income
- Federal taxes on income
- How much people spend
- How tax varies per state and what they tax
- How many years of their lives will they be spending these amounts
- The average cost of property
- State property taxes
- How many years does someone typically own a property
- Car sales taxes per state
- The value of the average car
- How many cars will people own in a lifetime
We thought about and collected data on every area of most people’s lives where tax is paid. This includes income, homes, car ownership and even where we spend our money and on what. And the sources we used? Mostly The Bureau of Labor Statistics. For some more arbitrary figures, like the details we needed on car ownership, we could be a little less official, but still use reputable domains like Doughroller.net.
The worrying answer is that, for the average American, they will spend $525,037 in tax throughout their life. That’s just shy of 35% of all the money someone will ever earn. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in New Jersey, that number rises to $931,698, or 49.5% of your lifetime earnings.
That answer, and a core part of our pitch, is now rolled up and packaged together using credible sources, a logical formula, presented by a respected personal finance brand, and uses a more robust set of data-points than any other has out there.
A methodology can be as important a part of your digital PR tactics as the idea itself. It’s a hot topic within the digital PR community and one I wanted to write about because it’s important not only for the work and outcomes we all strive for but also the trust and integrity the profession has.
Like Jasmine Granton mentioned in her BrightonSEO talk – the responsibility is largely on us as an industry to make sure not only our personal and company reputations remain intact, but also the industry as a whole. We don’t want things heading in the same direction that ‘link building’ did in the past (I’m sure I’m not the only one who spends a regrettable amount of time per day just blocking guest post reseller pitches). Having sound methodologies is one of the ways to do that.
If you can, try to treat a methodology like you are producing a dissertation at Uni. Back everything up and explore the topic in more depth than anyone else has whilst trying to find something unique that adds value to a conversation.
Best of luck with it and please do leave comments or get in touch with me on LinkedIn or Twitter (mostly LinkedIn tbh) if you’ve got any questions!