Understanding Digital PR vs. Traditional PR
Digital PR is basically ethical link building, right? Well I’d argue that’s an over-simplification, though securing backlinks is undoubtedly a key objective. Digital PR aims to positively represent and raise the visibility of a brand online, within its target audience. Good campaigns deliver backlinks and build topic authority that helps sites rank for non-branded search terms.
As an essential component of a comprehensive optimisation plan, Digital PR works best when fully integrated with SEO activity. For a site to perform at its best it needs to be technically optimised, have great content and a great backlink profile. SEO aims to understand what factors affect the performance of a site and how they can be addressed. Where a brand lacks authority, Digital PR’s objective is to gain as much coverage as possible to support the site, whether that means creating meaningful stories, or promoting particular products or locations.
The more a brands’ ‘muscle’ can be flexed within their industry, the more customers and Google will see them as trustworthy. With results that are visible (coverage) and quantifiable (backlinks, change in ranking for non-branded terms, greater conversions etc…), Digital PR can help to get buy-in for optimisation from the wider business, as results are easily grasped.
When done really well, Digital PR becomes just, great PR. Great PR that creates press coverage (both on and offline), positive brand sentiment, and delivers on SEO metrics.
How does Digital PR differ from traditional PR?
PR traditionally focuses on how a brand represents itself in the public eye and how it connects with its consumers through offline media, and these days, through digital press. Its measures of success are broad, such as advertising value equivalent (AVE), which assigns a monetary value to PR activity, based on the equivalent cost of advertising space.
In contrast, Digital PR’s focus is specifically on online media, with the intention of building a robust brand and backlink profile. Optimisation metrics mean its impact can be clearly measured and ROI attributed, for example through: backlinks acquired, page or domain authority and keyword ranking positions.
The two disciplines used to be very separate, but as news and media outlets have migrated online, and the speed of the news cycle has increased, the gap has started to close. The focus is now rarely, online or offline in isolation, and to win the attention of customers (and Google), topic authority and relevance is crucial whatever branch of PR you specialise in.
Do traditional PR agencies have a future?
Traditional PR still has a value. Print media still exists and there remains a need for brand activation events for customers, influencers and journalists, but to avoid becoming outdated, traditional agencies do need to evolve.
Digital PRs are really good at understanding where customers can be found online and building stories around that, and it’s here that traditional agencies can sometimes miss the mark – relying on peer-to-peer coverage that markets to the industry, rather than the consumer. Agencies that fail to acknowledge and adapt to the changing online news landscape risk being left behind by frustrated clients, seeking to reach potential customers in more holistic ways.
With additional training it’s easy enough for traditional PR practitioners to pivot into Digital PR, but the transition for agencies is more difficult. Digital PR and SEO are interlinked, so for agencies serious about tackling Digital PR, introducing an in-house SEO department is a must, which is a very different sort of business to operate.
I believe there’s still room, and need, for a range of approaches to PR – we don’t all have to be SEO aficionados. Traditional agencies that embrace and seek to work with the shifting digital media landscape, rather than impose old PR tactics upon it, are those that will prevail.
How did we get here? A snapshot of Digital PR history
I started my career in traditional PR, and remember a distinct industry shift in 2008 when brands began holding events for bloggers. Traditional press had already begun to migrate online, but when bloggers began to wield as much, if not more, influence than journalists, the news landscape really began to change.
With increasing volumes of online content it wasn’t long before Google took note, and backlinks became an indicator of site authority. 2012’s Penguin update sought to clean up low quality ‘manipulative’ link building practices and cemented the importance of high quality (over quantity), natural editorial citations as part of a holistic optimisation strategy. Digital PR as a service in its own right was born .
In the years that followed SEOs, always partial to a formula, tried to develop templates for creating newsworthy stories that gained hits and links. Cheap PR campaigns proliferated, sometimes achieving coverage in high authority news sites like the The Sun, or The Daily Mirror, but often with little or no brand relevance.
When Covid arrived in 2019-2020 the news cycle underwent another massive transformation. Against the savage landscape of a pandemic, lockdown and political upheaval there was no room left for lacklustre campaigns – Digital PR was forced to up its game.
Google in 2021 officially validated Digital PR for the first time and even said it was ‘just as critical as tech SEO, probably more so in many cases”.
PR is now very news driven. Content stays topical for much shorter periods of time, and PRs have to be incredibly quick on the ball whilst ensuring material is meaningful, topical and relevant for a busy journalist to take note of. For me, not being able to get away with low quality content is no bad thing. Focusing on your audience and positioning a brand as an authority within its niche, aligns with Google emphasises on E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) and steers you away from riskier link building ‘shortcuts’. If you approach each Google update thinking, “how can I get around this”, you’re doing it wrong.
What does a great campaign look like?
Good PR content is audience focused – it should be helpful, centred within the brand’s niche and demonstrate their authority on the subject. Google rewards sites that hold authority within their topic, so if the brand is in finance, then content should focus around financial topics. This may seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon for campaigns to be built around topics tenuously related to a brand. These campaigns can be superficially successful – perhaps securing coverage on high authority sites and gaining backlinks. However, if the topic lacks brand relevance, this does nothing to improve the brand’s authority within their industry, and nothing to help them rank for industry keywords. If our fictional finance brand runs a brilliant Digital PR campaign on the topic of biscuits, this builds authority in biscuits, which is unhelpful if they actually want to sell more mortgages.
There’s little point in PR that lacks relevance. For all the titles secured and links gained, if the coverage doesn’t build authority around a brand’s key offering it won’t connect with customers and it won’t help site performance.
Client Success Story: Penfold
This year Blue Array ran a Digital PR campaign for client Penfold that illustrates how effective a well thought out campaign can be. Penfold’s mission is to raise awareness of financial wellness among young people and encourage them to pay into pensions earlier in life. We put together a series of cost of living pieces predicting how much essentials such as milk, coffee and bread would cost in the future, if prices continue to increase at the current rates.
The campaign was picked up by over 120 news outlets (online and offline) including LBC Radio, The BBC and The Sun, and gained over 40 backlinks. Highly brand relevant, topical and newsworthy content, supported by robust data, cut-through to secure the broad range of coverage, which reinforced and built up Penfold’s authority within the pensions space. Around 90% of the coverage mentioned Penfold as a pension provider, which launched the brand onto the third page for the hugely competitive term ‘pensions’. An impressive achievement for an 18 month old brand breaking into an established niche.
Powering up your Digital PR
Digital PR is no longer just a process to build cheap links, it’s part of a brand’s online experience. Clarity on marketing focus, target audience and alignment with SEO, combined with a comprehensive marketing calendar is a great starting point to get the best out of a Digital PR team.
When you truly get under the skin of a brand, relevant PR ideas should come naturally – if a topic feels forced, don’t do it. Campaigns that lack relevance won’t deliver, so don’t waste your time here. With SEO and Digital PR working in alignment, focused on the audience and great brand building, you’ll be rewarded with quality campaigns that connect with customers, showcase the brand and deliver site boosting results.