The 8 Digital PR Tools You Need in 2021 (According to the Experts)




From pitches to landing coverage and everything in between, Digital PR can be done without a single tool. However, they can completely transform the success of your campaigns and add value to the quality of work that is being produced.

During my three years in the industry, I worked with a range of tools, some that I found extremely useful and others that I rarely touched for long periods of time.

However, while I was very used to doing things a particular way during my time as a Digital PR, one thing that I’ve realised is that there are so many great methods you can utilise to achieve positive results by learning from others.

To get more complete information, I reached out to a range of experts in the industry to gain their insights on the go-to tools for their teams or agencies. It was incredible to get a peek into how so many of the teams in the space work, so you’re in for a treat with these recommendations.

Whether you’re racking your brains for ideation inspiration, delving the depths of the internet trying to find a journalist’s contact information or putting a dazzling new campaign pitch or report together, I’ll show you the actual tools that agencies are using to get consistent real-world results.

Ideation

Finding inspiration for ideation can be incredibly tricky. There’s a fine line between drawing inspiration from competitor campaigns and stories that already exist, and producing an almost-identical piece. My ideation process often begins with getting a blank page in front of me and mindmapping all of the aspects surrounding that topic. From there, I note down actual concepts of ideas, before heading to a range of tools to see what’s popular surrounding those themes. This is where BuzzSumo often came into play.

BuzzSumo

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This tool has myriad features and uses, but I predominantly use it for both ideation and to assist with pitch-writing.

For ideation, the ‘Content’ section (found in the top bar) shines through and is an essential piece of kit for those for whom ideation forms a significant part of their role.

Once you’ve clicked on that, choose the ‘Web’ option and type in the keywords for your concept e.g. ‘home decor trends’ before clicking ‘Search;.

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You’ll then be shown all of the top-performing content for the subject area and can rank it by the total engagement by social media platform or overall. Don’t dismiss the pieces with lower engagement as they can still spark excellent ideas.

To utilise this for your ideation, look at exactly how the journalists word their headlines, and what they do and don’t include in their articles – what you may find fascinating about a topic may not even be noteworthy to a journalist, and vice versa. It’s also great for backing up why you’re picking a concept for a client as you have real data to prove why, for example, a trend-led piece on interior design has strong potential to work.

For example, while conceptualising an interiors piece, the obvious angles to target are styles (Farmhouse, Boho, Contemporary etc.), colour themes and rooms, a quick look through BuzzSumo’s Content search shows me that segregating by age demographics could be popular.

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And more timely angles such as lockdown DIY, festive and autumnal trends may be helpful to a publication’s readers.

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If you’re lacking direction, in general, take a step back and go to the ‘Discover’ tab, then click on ‘Topics’. Enter your topic keywords, which can be as simple as ‘TV’ or ‘Interior Design’. The tool will then show you a word cloud with other terms surrounding the subject, in addition to suggested insights and content ideas.

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David White, Director of Content Marketing at Connective3, has found multiple other uses for the tool. As an expert with using it, having done a step-by-step guide on it here, he explains, “For anyone running international PR, BuzzSumo is a great way of understanding what content will and won’t work in different countries. You can input the topic of the content you want to create (in the language and territory you want to target) and ask BuzzSumo to show you the most shared articles.”

Adding, “Taking this one step further you can export these results into an Excel sheet, remove any article that didn’t gain backlinks (so you are only taking learnings from those that did build links) and create a pivot table.”

“At this point you will be able to filter for ‘content type’, which, in layman’s terms, is how the content was visualised. You will then gain insights into what style of content (lists, videos etc.) gains the most links for the topic in the country you’re targeting.”

Ruth Barrett, Head of Content and Digital PR at Inspired Agency, has another use for the tool, too, utilising it as a way to fine-tune pitches and angles before outreach. She says, “BuzzSumo’s Content Explorer is great for discovering which journalists have recently covered a topic, and the traction it gained, helping to make your approach more tailored and targeted.”

Film rankings by different metrics are often quite popular campaign ideas. So searching for ‘films ranked’ allows me to get an idea of what’s working and what angles I could be missing out on. It’s also super-helpful for discovering how to tailor your subject lines by mirroring their headline styles.

The results showed me that ranking actors’ best films could be something I could cover, and potentially without additional research if my film seed list is broad enough. It’s also interesting to gauge the number of films articles often feature in a ranking if you want to make your research even more granular.

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Answer the Public

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Another excellent and free tool that can help guide your ideation, and even aid with discovering what data to target for a campaign, is Answer the Public.

It takes search data for keywords and transforms the results into visualisations of the most commonly asked questions, the most searched for terms surrounding the topic and the comparisons, that are often searched for, surrounding that topic.

When you visit the website, enter in your keyword(s) and click search. You’ll be shown a visualisation like the one below, but you can also toggle to a data view.

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You can harness the data for ideation pitches to show how you got to an idea or for proving why that topic is being explored. And they’ve thought of everything because by clicking ‘image’ next to one of the question boxes, you’re taken to that specific section of the visualisation that you can neatly place in your pitch deck.

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Prospecting

It’s one of the most crucial and time-consuming parts of the pitching process, but a necessary evil nonetheless. In an ideal world, every journalist would have their email address on their author page but, thanks to spammers and a high turnover in the industry, this is becoming increasingly rare. And even if, in the dream scenario, you could discover a journalist’s email on their author page every time, this is not ideal for PRs who mass-send releases and need to pull in media lists.

While we’re yet to have a tool or database that gathers every journalist’s up-to-date contact information, these are some of the industry’s (and my) favourite tools for prospecting.

Gorkana/Cision

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From day one, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had access to Gorkana. While it can also be used to mass-send releases, I’ve only ever chosen to use it for prospecting.

It’s one of the industry’s most popular prospecting tools, though other databases such as Vuelio and Roxhill have since grown in popularity, too. Stephen Baker, Head of PR at Propellernet, agrees and says, “We still use Gorkana. It’s obviously not the only way of finding journalist contact details, but it’s an excellent starting point for media lists.”

I’ve also found it to be one of the most reliable tools for discovering journalist contact details, as well as pulling lists of journalists in various sectors that I am targeting (such as lifestyle, automotive, entertainment etc.).

When asked about her team’s preferences Sophie Nightingale, Senior PR at Boutique, explains that she finds Gorkana invaluable, “In terms of tools, the most essential to our day-to-day is Cision, which we use for contacts and tracking coverage.”

While it’s far from cheap, I rarely needed to go elsewhere to find a journalist’s email address. The tool also allows journalists to add notes to their profiles about their beats (what they cover), their preferred pitching methods e.g. “no phone calls/follow-ups”, the hours that they’re on shift, where else they freelance and what they look for from pitches such as, “Leanne does not want product press releases or studies”.

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The notes section can be extremely helpful when doing highly-targeted prospecting. For example, when I worked on an Artificial Intelligence campaign, I wasn’t seeing much success when I sent my releases out to technology and computing editors.

However, when I filtered down to writers with ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘AI’ in their notes using the ‘Keyword search’ function, I was able to really streamline my selection of writers to pitch to and started seeing increased coverage. To do this yourself, follow these easy steps:

  1. Log into your Gorkana account, click on the ‘Media Database’ dropdown and select ‘Database search’

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  1. On the left panel, you’ll see ‘Keyword’ under ‘Type of Journalist’ as well as ‘Media Outlet’ – I tend to opt for the journalist option. Once you’ve clicked on that you’ll see the search box appear, along with a range of filters to narrow this down after entering your keyword, such as ‘photography’ or ‘film’, depending on the topic you’re outreaching
  2. Select ‘Gorkana short note’ and ‘Job title’ to and you’ll be met with a list of potential coverage prospects

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Of course, alternatively you can do broader searches by selecting an option from the ‘Sectors’ section.

A crucial tip that I learnt from a former Verve Search colleague, James Barnes, was sorting by ‘Outlet Popularity’ when sorting through prospect lists from searches. You can do this by clicking the dropdown on the top left corner of the results. This allows you to (usually) have the top-tier publications show up on the first pages, with lower-tier publications and blogs closer to the back.

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The other area where Gorkana excels in comparison to its competitors, from my experience and what I’ve been told by colleagues and others in the industry, is its quality and volume of contacts for international outreach.

That’s right, if you’re regularly doing outreach in other countries such as Europe, Asia and Australasia, you could be missing a trick. While a license for these regions does cost you a little extra, it’s been touted as one of the most up-to-date and reliable hubs of writers in places outside of the UK. This is something that its competitors haven’t quite caught up with yet.

If you’ve got yourself a subscription but haven’t explored this aspect, it’s straightforward and easy to start utilising.

An electric car campaign I worked on had an appealing Australia angle and I wasn’t familiar with the country’s top-tier publications initially.

When prospecting, I tend to start with making a big list of the publications to target, before narrowing it down to the prospects themselves. It can get quite out of hand otherwise and you could be prospecting all day with no real end goal in sight.

Similar Sites Chrome extension

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This is an excellent tool that Stephen Barker recommended, which I wished I’d known of years ago, for building broad prospect lists within sectors you’re less familiar with. Simple and easy to use, you merely sign up, head to a website and click on the blue and purple extension icon. You’ll instantly get a list of the titles, ranked by readership, which cover the same subject area.

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It’s particularly helpful for when you’re looking to prospect for smaller niches, where example publications may not immediately spring to mind.

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BuzzStream Research Tools

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One of the first things I do when prospecting, is to look through all of the recent coverage surrounding the topic I am outreaching. This is mostly to see which publications, sectors and writers are covering the subject, but also to see the headlines and angles they opt for.

I previously did this by opening every single article in a new tab on Google News, which usually resulted in 40+ tabs. However, BuzzStream’s Research Lists feature pulls it all into your campaign and allows you to:

  • Pull in Google News search results for one or multiple search terms collectively
  • Browse just a handful of articles at a time, rather than cluttering up your browser with endless tabs
  • Approve or reject the pieces for your research list
  • Add new contacts and publications to your prospect list or BuzzStream, directly, using the Buzzmarker Chrome add-on – Buzzmarker is an extremely helpful prospecting tool so discover it’s benefits here
  • Outreach with ‘Templates’ or ‘Sequences’ as you go along (see more about this under the ‘Prospecting’ section of this article

Here’s how to use the feature:

  1. Head to the ‘Research List’ section on the top bar. Then click on ‘Create a Research List’
  1. You’ll have three options to choose from; Search the Web, Search News and Import Existing. I’d advise just using the news function for prospecting
  1. Once you’ve clicked ‘Search News’, this screen will come up allowing you to enter your search terms. This will force you to get creative with the sorts of terms you think your coverage will fall under. There are also step-by-step tutorials in the form of the video on the right, or the ‘Prospecting Tutorial’ button in the bottom left corner

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  1. Once you click save, BuzzStream will start pulling your results in. You’ll be met with a screen filled with the news results. These can now be arranged by Domain Authority (DA) and Linked Domains (LD), but you can add plenty more criteria options by clicking the ‘Configure Columns’ option

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Side note: typically, if you/your agency is a long-time user of BuzzStream, you’ll already have thousands of contacts in your projects, which the tool will pull in to this search.

  1. Now, select all the articles by clicking the checkbox next to ‘Name’ and click ‘Research’, followed by ‘Review on the web’.
  2. Amazingly, you can outreach as you go along by clicking the envelope icon at the top. Clicking this will bring the email screen up, where you can get a project template or sequence up and alter it before sending. I, personally, find this saves time and is far more efficient for smaller rounds of outreach

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Hunter

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A free alternative for finding journalist contact details, the tool allows you to search domains for contacts and it has quite an extensive list for top-tier publications. While I have never used the paid version, it includes more searches, bulk exports of prospects, the ability to add team members, additional opportunities to request the verification of prospects and more.

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It also tries to verify the quality of the search result, green shields mean you’re likely to have the most up-to-date details for a prospect, while grey ones mean you’re taking a stab in the dark. It’s also helpful for finding the typical email format structure for publications.

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However, I found this far more time consuming as the tool also doesn’t allow for pulling media lists for broader pitches in the free version. I also found that I had a lot of bounces when relying on this for contacts while undertaking freelance outreach work.

I’d label the tool as a nice-to-have and a bonus layer alongside a media database. Stephen Barker has also found another great use for it with his team, saying: “Hunter is a firm favourite because it helps us to find email addresses of journalists who write for more niche websites that aren’t listed on Gorkana.”

Pitching

BuzzStream Pitching Workflow

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The very first day that I sat down at a desk to send press releases out, I was presented with BuzzStream. Initially daunted by the array of options and functions on the tool, I had no idea how helpful it would be to my day-to-day. Three years on and I now know how invaluable it is for multiple facets of Digital PR.

Ruth Barrett says, “Buzzstream is an essential tool that every marketer should have in their arsenal. Whether you’re looking to A/B test subject lines or increase open rate, Buzzstream is a seamless solution.”

From gathering prospective publications and writers to target for an upcoming campaign, to putting the perfect pitch together from start to finish, BuzzStream has everything I needed to conduct outreach.

So, let’s start with the basics of preparing your pitch. The tool makes it super-easy to cover all bases for your email including:

  • Providing a wide range of dynamic fields

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  • Text editing, allowing you to alter fonts, text sizes, colours and more

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  • The ability to create tables

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  • The option to attach pictures

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You can create multiple projects for all of your clients and their campaigns, which allows you to easily compartmentalise all of your press releases. Do this by clicking the dropdown next to the project at the top of your screen.

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Once you’ve got your folders organised, it’s time to get started on your pitch. Head to ‘Sequences’ in the top bar. You’ll have two options here, between ‘Sequences’ and ‘Templates’.

I, as a bit of a control freak, opt for going down the template path so that I can control when I follow up and if I want to tweak anything last-minute. However, many of my colleagues would utilise the automated sequences option. There’s an in-depth guide to BuzzStream’s sequences here, complete with a video tutorial, but I’ll talk you through the basics.

If you’re working on multiple campaigns, or your PR role comprises multiple facets, (such as ideation and account management) it can be so easy to forget to follow-up on your initial emails. As I’ve said many times, follow-ups are often where the magic happens, so do make sure you’re not missing this step of outreach.

I do my follow-ups manually on Gmail with the Streak extension, which lets me know if the contact has opened it. However, there have been a few embarrassing instances where this would catch me out as I’d get into the rhythm of sending each email out and follow-up with a journalist who had already covered or turned down (ouch) a pitch.

Thankfully, Sequences takes care of both auto-sending out your follow-ups for you and avoiding contacts that have replied.

Once you’re on the Sequences page, click ‘Create New Sequence’ and you’ll be taken to this screen.

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You can now begin writing out a brand new pitch template, we’ve got some pitching suggestions for you here, or you can take an existing template of yours/your team’s. Click the ‘Copy from a template’ button and select your template of choice.

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If you want to be extra safe, it’s well worth utilising Google Docs for your writing the body of your pitches and then formatting the piece in BuzzStream, which currently doesn’t autosave. I remember the heartbreak of losing templates so, at Verve,we all quickly learnt that regularly copying and pasting over to a Google doc, while working on a pitch was advisable.

Paddy Moogan, Co-founder of Aira, also recommends utilising Google Drive, as a whole, for Digital PR due to the collaborative nature of the suite. He says, “Essentially, we work best when we have lots of opinions and views being added to the work we deliver. Being able to do this in real-time and effectively is really important, so I’d say that Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides are essential tools that make the life of a Digital PR team easier.”

Once your pitch is good to go, click add follow-up. Again, you can import the original template that you can just tweak to suit a follow-up or write an entirely new email from scratch. It’s important to note that you can’t edit under the ‘original message’ line, which is why I sometimes choose to send via Gmail.

BuzzStream also gives you the option to have your follow-up sent automatically or for the tool to just remind you to send it out. You are able to choose how many days you follow-up in and whether you want to send it out to every journalist or just the ones who didn’t reply to your initial pitch (we’d recommend the latter).

An important point to highlight is avoiding attaching high-resolution imagery with pitches. This can either cause your email to bounce as many publishers have set limits on journalist inbox sizes, or it can completely clog up their inbox. Instead, use Google Photos (free) or Dropbox by simply setting up accounts with either service and including a link to the folder, containing any high-res images or video and audio files, within your pitch.

Measuring success

Once your pitch has been sent out to journalists, you’re hopefully going to start seeing links come in. Now, it’s time to see the ‘value’ of these links from an SEO perspective.

At Verve Search, the agency has its LinkScore tool, which takes a number of metrics into account to create a ‘score’ proving the worth of each link. However, each agency measures success and reports links and coverage in different ways, which makes this section rather tricky.

From the industry pros I spoke to for this piece, when it comes to discovering backlinks for your latest campaign and measuring the value of the coverage, ahrefs comes out on top. Additionally, a study conducted by Aira, which looked into link building techniques, found that ahrefs is the most popular tool in the industry with 70% of respondents utilising it for their role. Majestic is also useful for backlink analysis and just uses different metrics,Trust Flow (TF) and Citation Flow (CF), but just 35% of respondents said that they use it.

ahrefs

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While it has a range of functions you can utilise for Digital PR, including allowing you to gather search volume data for ‘most searched for’-style campaigns, in terms of measuring the success of campaigns, its Backlink checker is particularly helpful.

You can see all of the backlinks the tool has discovered for a domain by following these steps:

  1. Head to ‘Site Explorer’ in the top bar, which will take you to this page that allows you to type in the website/campaign domain
  1. Type in your domain of choice and you can choose from the exact URL or the domain and all of its subdomains (this is helpful when your site has multiple sections that alter the end of a URL). Next, click the search icon

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  1. You’ll get this rather busy-looking page up with the search results and can rank them depending on how recent the link is, by Domain Rating (DR – defined by the tool as ‘the strength of a referring website’s backlink profile compared to the others in our database on a 100-point scale’), traffic and more

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  1. You can export the full selection or just note down the statistics of the most recent/highest ones for your Account Manager or client.

Sophie Nightingale uses ahrefs for “both coverage and pulling data on search volumes”, but adds that “Majestic is also great for finding coverage”.

David White says of the tool, “ahrefs is an all rounder SEO tool that can help you with backlink data, keyword research and ranking reports. My PR team uses this daily to see which sites have linked to us/our competitors.”

Stephen Baker echoes this, “We use ahrefs a lot to search for links to our campaigns and client sites, and for competitor research.”

Again, reinforcing just how helpful it is holistically for people in the industry, Paddy Moogan says, “I think that it’s important for a Digital PR team to have the ability to dive into a given industry to see what is being searched for, what competitors are doing right and to generally see what they’re up against. I’ve found myself leaning towards ahrefs a lot over the last 18 months and now use it a lot when carrying out research for clients and their campaigns.

And they raise an excellent point. My ex colleague and ideation extraordinaire, Hannah Smith, often pointed out how none of our ideas are truly original – as much as we’d like to believe they are – so it is rarely hard to find a similar campaign to the one you may have just launched or even in the same sector.

Utilise ahrefs or Majestic to search for the backlinks of competitor campaigns and you’ll probably be surprised at just how many prospects you may be missing out on.

While we all often remember to cover the top-tiers in our outreach prospecting, niche publications can sometimes have surprisingly high metrics and can often take a more unique take on a campaign that you might not have ever thought of, so try not to neglect them.

You may also discover an angle for a sector that you may previously never have thought of had you not stumbled upon the article or website in your campaign backlink audit.

Follow the same process as I outlined above, export all of the data into a spreadsheet and start prospecting the contacts for your outreach list. You could land yourself double the links you may have done previously.

To add to the aforementioned point, David also explains, “ahrefs also has a really cool feature called link intersect. This tool allows you to see which sites your competitors have links from but you don’t (so you can target them with your PR content).”

My example below (I’ve been lamp shopping so I’ve got interiors stores on the brain, OK) shows how it works. All you need to do is enter your competitor campaign domain(s) and in the ‘doesn’t link to’ bar, enter your campaign’s domain.

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You’ll be taken to a list full of the domains, which you can set your eyes on for your next pieces of coverage and links!

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However, to show the success of your campaign to your current or potential client in terms of competitor comparison, you could potentially flip this on its head and show the links you’ve acquired in comparison to theirs.

Catching missed coverage

In the best circumstances, a digital PR campaign will go viral (for all the right reasons), which is exciting but can also lead to a few days being spent gathering and discovering coverage.

There are multiple ways to do this and none of them are wrong or right, I personally utilised a range of them when I worked on hunting down coverage. Traditionally, when I was at Verve Search, we’d include Google Analytics Tracking ID within our campaign so it would often come up when we looked through Analytics.

David White says, “This tool allows you to see traffic to your website whilst also tracking conversions, drop off points and customer behaviour. My team uses this daily to track referral traffic whilst also seeing what demographics are engaging with our content.”

However, this sometimes takes several days for the referral traffic to register, and there are often some pieces of coverage missed due to them linking to a particular page in the campaign microsite or to the client’s homepage.

Now, as a journalist, I can safely tell you that if we alerted a PR every single time we covered a product, story or quote, we’d be spending a lot of time doing so and having less time to actually look at pitches or do our actual jobs. So, sadly it’s down to PRs to trawl through SERPs and use other cunning tactics to discover coverage.

Here are some ways to do it:

  • Ruth Barrett’s savvy method is using Google’s reverse image search function. She says, “If your campaign includes images then it’s a really quick way to see if your piece has gained coverage.”
  • David White refers back to BuzzSumo and its backlink discovery tool, which he believes as “the best in the market for finding new linking domains to your site or campaign page.”
  • I tend to search for: “Client name” + “topic term” or “campaign keywords” in google news and on Twitter to try and spot anything. Filtering down by date range is essential, so search from the date your pitch went out to the current day. Have a real playaround with the search terms you use to make sure you’ve covered every potential combination, too
  • Searching for the topic alone can also help e.g. “home decor trends” or “most instagrammed parks”. This is because, sometimes, journalists will link without mentioning the client name in the article

Conclusion

I’ve highlighted eight of the tools that I, personally, would recommend to Digital PRs, which can be utilised daily to help with your workflow, campaign conceptualisation and success. Yet, I’ve used a range of tools throughout my career in the industry, and have loved some that others don’t, and loathed others that my colleagues couldn’t live without. So, take this article as a guide rather than a list to live and die by.

To recap, for ideation your best bet is to use BuzzSumo, a tool that lets you explore all of the best-performing content surrounding topics that your campaign may be about, while also guiding you with angles and facets to explore. Meanwhile, for broader research that can be filtered down and may lead to a few eureka moments, there’s Answer the Public, providing you with all of the most searched questions and prepositions for keywords related to your topic.

When it comes to prospecting, a media database is extremely helpful. Gorkana’s my personal go-to, but don’t be afraid to shop around and see what competitor tools offer in terms of functionality, contact accuracy and pricing. Similar Sites is also helpful for building out your publication list, particularly for niche topics. And Hunter is useful for finding prospect email addresses at those niche publications. If you’re just starting out or conducting minimal international outreach it offers 50 free searches a month.

For all of your pitching needs, I’ve always recommended BuzzStream long before I began writing content for the team, and there’s video evidence of this from my webinars! It’s got everything you need to put your pitch together, from pitches to follow-ups and ways to organise all of your templates by client, plus it also has prospecting functionality in terms of discovering publications that are covering your subject area. I can wholeheartedly say that there is plenty of time saved by utilising the tool and doing everything from inside it, rather than reverting back and forth from your inbox to the tool.

Finally, when it comes to discovering all of the coverage for your campaigns and showing off your lovely new links to clients, there’s a vast selection of tools that can be utilised. However, from my personal experience and recommendations of industry peers, ahrefs is highly recommended. You can sort your coverage by Domain Rating or using a range of other methods, and can export this to a spreadsheet where it can be collated with any other metrics from tools you may use.

Tools are constantly being developed and updated so things are always changing. Regardless of whether you’re starting out in the industry or a Digital PR pro, it’s important to keep an eye on SEO-focused publications such as Search Engine Journal and the Moz blog in order to stay up-to-date with other recommendations and tools that may come in handy.

If you’re looking for more recommendations or aren’t sure if a particular task could be carried out more easily with the help of a tool, don’t be afraid to ask other members of the industry for recommendations privately or on Twitter. Despite being in the industry for three years, I constantly learnt from others in my teams and on Twitter. While researching for this piece, I also learnt some excellent additional tips when speaking to the experts for tool suggestions.

This leads me on to saying a big thank you to David White, Director of Content Marketing at Connective3, Sophie Nightingale, Senior PR at Boutique, Stephen Baker, Head of PR at Propellernet, Ruth Barrett, Head of Content and Digital PR at Inspired Agency, and Paddy Moogan, Co-founder of Aira, for all of your kind help and for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights with me.

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