The Advanced Guide to Online Publicity Campaigns

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[Estimated read time: 55 minutes]

No one cares about your company or product.

Unless your CEO is Steve Jobs or your product is Google Glass, very few journalists and bloggers are going to write about you directly, because they’re reluctant to give free press to for-profit businesses. Few people are going to share something on social media that will only help a corporation to make more money. To gain significant media coverage and launch creative campaigns that spread through the Internet, companies usually need to insert their brands into larger stories.

In this post, I will help readers to do exactly that by detailing nine of the traditional publicity strategies that PR executives have developed over the past century. The point to remember:

Successful creative publicity campaigns can lead to countless new customers, sales, leads, social followings, and backlinks.

(Just see this recent study by Moz and Frac.tl that Kelsey Libert posted on the Moz Blog!)

By the end of this extensive post, readers will learn the answers to these questions:

  • What is Promotion as part of the Marketing Mix?
  • What specifically is publicity within the Promotion Mix?
  • When should marketers use publicity campaigns?
  • What is publicity compared to content marketing?
  • What is publicity compared to advertising?
  • What is publicity compared to public relations?
  • What are the major publicity strategies?
  • What are examples of publicity strategies in various contexts?
  • When should I use different publicity strategies?
  • How can I create a publicity plan?
  • How can I measure the results?

A full list of resources is provided at the end.


An introduction to the marcom process

First, a brief review.

“Content” and “content marketing” are not strategies. Rather, “content” plays a role in the five marketing strategies that exist because marketing is simply the creation of a message, the insertion of that message into a piece of content, and then the transmission of that content over a channel to an audience. All marketing is “content marketing” because all marketing uses content.

The creation and distribution of “content” occurs within the framework of one or more of the five strategies that comprise the Promotion Mix: direct marketing, advertising, personal selling, sales promotion, and publicity.

On Back to the Future Day in October 2015, I published a lengthy BTTF-themed Moz Blog post on the integration of traditional and digital marketing that goes into more detail. The post included a lengthy workflow process that marketers can use to develop an entire marcom strategy. Here’s a snapshot of the promotion mix that I illustrated in the article:

That prior essay gives a wide overview, but this post will take a deep dive here into the publicity part outlined in red. Here’s a quick overview of publicity before I go into the advanced part down below:

  • The Marketing Mix is comprised of the 4 Ps: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion.
  • The Promotion Mix (within the Marketing Mix) consists of direct marketing, advertising, personal selling, sales promotion, and publicity, and each one is used at different times and for different purposes.
  • The definition of “publicity” (from a newer 2012 edition of an old textbook of mine): “Gaining public visibility or awareness for a product, service, or your company via media.”
  • Publicity is specifically used to generate mass, top-of-the-funnel awareness. One SEO benefit is that websites gain natural, authoritative backlinks as byproducts of publicity campaigns simply by getting the media, bloggers, and the public in general to talk about the company or product online.
  • Publicity and creative campaigns can be executed over traditional communications channels (such as print, TV, and radio) or online ones (such as blogs, social media, and Internet publications).

PR versus publicity

One important note on terminology: “Publicity” and “public relations” are not the same thing, even though most people — and even most marketers — use them interchangeably.

  • “Public relations” refers to external communications and the management of relations with all of an organization’s “publics,” such as government agencies, influencers, local communities, and financial analysts.
  • “Publicity” refers the specific marketing strategy within the promotion mix that increases public awareness through media.

When people talk about “PR campaigns,” they are usually referring to publicity campaigns — and that is what this post will discuss.

Publicity versus advertising

Publicity and advertising campaigns — both of which focus on top-of-the-funnel awareness — each have their positives and negatives:

  • Cost – Companies pay to produce and place advertisements; they do not pay directly for coverage that results from publicity campaigns.
  • Control – Advertisers have complete control over the message that’s transmitted; publicists can only pitch journalists and bloggers, who will then write whatever they want.
  • Repetition – The same advertisement can easily be run indefinitely; every single publicity campaign usually starts from the beginning.
  • Credibility – Advertisements have less credibility because they come from an identified, paid sponsor; publicity is more subtle because it is seen as coming from the media itself.
  • Attractiveness – Advertisements need to appeal only to the end customer; publicity campaigns usually have to interest media gatekeepers first.

Another difference is philosophical. Advertising takes a product or service and pushes it out into the public domain. Publicity, as we will see, typically takes whatever is already occurring in the world and brings it to the product or service.

Earned and owned media

Following the rise of owned media in recent years, I have added the following part in bold to the traditional definition of “publicity”:

Gaining public visibility or awareness for a product, service, or your company via owned or earned media.

Why? The same principles apply whether one wants to gain mass awareness over owned or earned media because human nature does not change. The subjects of news articles that gain mass attention are often very similar to the topics of which social media posts “go viral.”

Better together: Both earned and owned media awareness can support and reinforce each other, leading to massive awareness in both traditional and digital contexts.


The 9 ways to publicize yourself

Whether you’re looking to gain mass attention over earned or owned media outlets, here are nine of the specific types of stories and framing techniques that generally pique peoples’ interest.

1. Current news and trends

Journalists always want to publish whatever will interest their readers and result in more pageviews and subscribers. The first of the nine publicity strategies that I will outline in this guide is to get yourself directly inserted into major news outlets and blogs. There are three specific ways to do that.

1a. Direct news coverage

When people think of publicity, the most common thing that they imagine is massive media coverage of a product, company, person, event, or idea. Well, this specific type of publicity is the most difficult to receive for the simple fact that journalists, influencers, and popular bloggers get dozens — if not hundreds — of e-mailed pitches every single day that ask them to write about something.

It’s very difficult to make yourself stand out — most likely, writers will glance at e-mail subject lines in the inbox and decide in a microsecond which ones to open. (Most will be ignored, marked as spam, or deleted.)

Mike Butcher, the editor-at-large of TechCrunch — full disclosure, I contribute there as well — wrote a lengthy blog post last year that argued that the press release is dead and that tech companies should attempt to get coverage instead by sending e-mails that provide answers to a set of predefined questions.

Here are a few of the questions that he lists:

  • What is happening in the news *right now* that makes you relevant *right now*?
  • What is the problem that this company is solving?
  • How much traction do you have?

When Logz.io, the predictive log management platform for DevOps engineers, system administrators, and digital marketers for which I am Director of Marketing and Communications, launched late last year, this was the pitch that I’d sent to a relevant reporter at The Wall Street Journal:

As you can see, this first pitch defines the problem that we solve and then gives a current example of that problem occurring.

Her response:

That initial contact led to communication that resulted in this coverage in VentureWire (a sister publication of the Wall Street Journal):

We had other significant coverage as well by following a similar process.

Here’s another example. At BrightonSEO in 2015, Rebecca Lee of Dynamo PR in England gave this presentation:


A Supercharged Approach To PR SEO Success from Rebecca Lee

One of the agency’s clients was a clothing store that had happened to sell that infamous dress — was it white and gold or black and blue? — so the team drove to the store, bought one of the dresses, and pitched a media package that got an exclusive in the Daily Mail (see slides 64 to 70).

In the digital marketing world, the idea of “newsjacking” has been popularized by David Meerman Scott (no relation). However, the insertion of oneself into a current story or trend has always simply been a publicity tactic since before the Internet even existed. It’s a new buzzword that refers to an existing practice. (Just please use it for good and not evil, like using David Bowie’s death as clickbait.)

Publicity vs. “content marketing” pitching

On online marketing websites and blogs, I see pitching often being discussed by “content marketers” as a way to gain shares of and links to one thing or another. They should stop. I receive e-mailed pitches from PR executives and “content marketers” all the time — and I can tell within three seconds which one I’m getting.

How? Here is the difference between the two.

“Content marketers” pitch me:

1.) To share or link to some random article, and they do so often when
2.) I have no connection to or interest in the topic at all

Publicists pitch me:

1.) To write about an idea because
2.) They already know that I have a connection to or interest in that topic

I ignore or delete the pitches from “content marketers.” Following the pitches from publishers, I may choose to include their source, study, or idea in some future piece in the publications to which I contribute. Most “link earning” methods are poor imitations of traditional publicity practices.

Pitch in a way that will genuinely interest the people who you are contacting. Do not pitch thinly-veiled attempts to get links and shares for you or your clients.

1b. Contributed articles

Direct coverage — as described above — depends on a company either doing something newsworthy or riding the wave of some newsworthy trend. But there’s not always something relevant and newsworthy occurring at any given time.

In such a context, one alternative is to contribute articles to targeted publications.

However, I am not referring to “guest posting.” The real reasons to contribute articles to publications have always been to grow one’s brand and communicate an idea — as Jen Lopez once wrote on Moz, it should never be first and foremost simply a way to “get links.”

I get e-mails all the time from people offering “guest posts” or selling “guest post services” — and I know exactly what they have in mind. Almost every time, people who use the word “guest post” end up submitting 500 words of crap with a few links that have optimized anchor text. Don’t be those people — their jobs consist of nothing but filling the Internet with spam.

Here’s just one example from LinkedIn:

Instead, use the opportunity to brand yourself — and thereby your company — as a thought leader in your industry or sector by producing something that’s relevant, insightful, and, yes, newsworthy. Here are a few examples in the context of my company:

Now, I hate to bring up links because any tactics that I present will almost certainly be abused by some people — but I’ll take my chances. Links to your website can be inserted into contributed articles, but I highly recommend that you tread carefully. Do not build links just to build links. The point of a link in any contributed article should be to cite or refer people to an authoritative resource (that may or may not live on your domain):

  • If my company mentions “DevOps” — the next generation of agile development in the software deployment cycle — in a contributed article, then we may link to our “What is DevOps?” guide for the benefit of those who have not heard of the practice.
  • If we mention the “ELK Stack” — the open-source collection of Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana that can be used in server and other types of log management — then we may link to our guide on “How to Install the ELK Stack on Amazon Web Services” for those who don’t know how to deploy the software stack.
  • Note: We usually do not place links to our home page, product page, or any other sales pages in the text of our contributed articles because more and more editors now understand the misusage of links and will remove them. Links to those pages will come as natural by-products of doing ongoing publicity campaigns in general.

Remember: Links are the least important parts of contributed articles! The point is to publish something that’s interesting, informative, newsworthy, or controversial enough that it will get attention for you or your company.

Still, the question remains: When should marketers publish articles on their blogs, and when should they contribute them to other publications? For the answer, I’ll refer you to my earlier Moz Blog post on that topic. Nutshell: Publish material on your website when its goal is to rank highly for desired keywords (SEO goals); publish material elsewhere when its goal is to build thought-leadership and brand awareness (publicity goals).

1c. Expert interviews

Once upon an analog time, publicists had to send pitch letters to journalists and media outlets to convince them to interview the “experts” who they represented. In “Public Relations for Dummies,” Eric Yaverbaum, Robert Bly, and Ilise Benun gave an example of such an inquiry:

Dear Robert:

Compact disc (CD) sales are booming. In fact, some music industry executives are projecting disc sales will surpass album sales by the end of the year.

The first “compact disc only” retail store, Compact Disc Warehouse in Huntington Beach, California, opened in November 20XX. It grossed nearly $1 million in sales in just 18 months operating out of a 1,200 square-foot store.

Now, Compact Disc Warehouse, Inc. is launching the first CD franchise offering to meet the national demand for the hottest home entertainment product in the music industry today.

Edward Dempsey, president of CD Warehouse, is an expert on why CDs are changing an industry that has been dominated by record albums for decades and how the retail world is gearing up to meet the CD demand.

If you would like to arrange an interview, please call our offices.

Sincerely,

Mitch Robinson, Account Executive
S&S Public Relations, Inc.

While publicists still pitch their colleagues or clients as experts today, it’s become increasingly common for journalists and bloggers themselves to ask for suggestions of experts. The most common platform is HARO (Help a Reporter Out). Here’s an example of a query that I recently saw in the thrice-daily email digest that I receive:

Through HARO, I’ve gotten interviews with either me or a colleague quoted in relevant publications including StackOverflow, IT World, and CIO.

The good part: The writers will almost always include a link to a website (if your pitch is accepted), and they will often mention a company or personal Twitter account as well.

The bad part: You’ll be competing with dozens — perhaps hundreds — of pitches. The moment that a HARO e-mail lands in your inbox, stop whatever you’re doing and respond within minutes. The closer that your e-mail is near the top of the reporter’s pile, the more likely it is that he or she will open and consider it in the first place.

Direct coverage, contributed articles, and expert interviews are three of the most common methods to get in the major media and popular blogs. Still, there are eight other strategies to increase mass awareness of you or your brand over earned and owned media outlets. The rest of this guide will go through them.


2. Tie-ins with TV shows & movies

Speaking of Back to the Future Day, countless big brands capitalized on the arrival of October 21, 2015:


Not only did the publicity campaign go viral on social media, Wired and many other major outlets noticed as well:

THIS WEEK, LEXUS introduced a short teaser video for SLIDE, a hoverboard that appears to not just live up to our Back to the Future II dreams but, at least stylistically, improve on them. Better yet, it’s more science than science fiction. Here’s how it works — and why you won’t find one at Toys’R’Us any time soon.

Why did it become so popular? People have emotional connections to their favorite TV shows and movies, and they’ll naturally be interested in anything that incorporates those programs and films. After all, a lot of marketing is based on appeals to emotion. Logical, factual arguments are boring.

In January 2016, Tom McLoughlin published a great case study on Moz that showed how he and SEO Travel gained more than one hundred links — many of which were on major media sites — by doing what he called “content marketing.” Their creative campaign tied travel destinations to filming locations in “Game of Thrones.”

In the extensive comment thread on that post, I argued that what he actually did was “publicity” because he followed the exact, traditional process that I have outlined in this post. I’ll let readers decide for themselves.

Here’s a personal confession: I love “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” (Should I say that I was a fan of Joss Whedon before it was cool?) Almost twenty years after the premiere of the cult TV show in 1997, there are still many business, non-cultural articles written about the program today:

I still read every article that mentions “Buffy.” Every. Single. One. How many people out there will also read and share anything that mentions their favorite TV shows and movies? Here some other examples of corporate tie-ins with popular programs: “Scrubs” and “Scandal.” And don’t forget Google’s huge tie-in with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as well as Spotify’s tie in.

Here’s how Lego is publicizing itself among fans of “Doctor Who” partly through this Facebook post by the official “Doctor Who” page:


Nutshell: Movie and TV show tie-ins are often cheaper than direct product placements (see the next tactic below) but the benefits, when successful, also tend to be less. Product placements cost a lot of money, but that price also pays for some of the best professional media creators and distributors in the world (the producers of “Friends,” the writers of “Seinfeld,” and the special effects team at Marvel). Tie-ins are usually not officially associated with a film or television show, so brands that want to create something for the fans need to do it themselves.

Questions to ask

  • What movies and TV shows are enjoyed by your target audience?
  • If you’re a mass consumer brand, then you might want to target a show such as “Friends” (see below for an example of a related publicity tactic). If you target people in the tech or startup worlds, you might want to target the new seasons of “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Silicon Valley” this year.

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • This will depend on your targeted channels and ability to create content for those channels.
  • For example, you could create blog posts, contribute articles to relevant publications, or create videos that include references to the programs and movies.

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • Most likely, you’ll want to give relevant media outlets and bloggers a “heads up” that the movie or TV-show tie-in will occur soon and that they might find it interesting enough to write about.
  • Social media posts that feature and articles that discuss the tie-in content can be “liked,” shared, repinned, and retweeted.

3. Product placements


On January 6, 2000, the sixth-season episode of “Friends” entitled “The One with the Apothecary Table” aired on NBC (see the clip above). I hope I’m not spoiling any fan’s love of the esteemed show, but it was purely a product placement episode by Pottery Barn. (According to Entertainment Weekly, it was also only one of several product placements over the run of the program.)

Sure, the plot might have been a little far-fetched. But it worked. Here’s what a Williams-Sonoma executive once told a trade conference in Chicago (the article is archived here):

Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s Patrick Connolly told attendees of the Catalog Conference in Chicago not to think of themselves as a catalog, but rather as a brand…

The catalog’s name is mentioned repeatedly, as Rachel furnishes her apartment with numerous Pottery Barn items, telling her roommate Phoebe the goods came from a really cool flea market instead of a mass market retailer.

The episode, which is shown numerous times annually in syndication, is “the gift that keeps on giving. The phones light up with catalog requests every time it airs.”

Of course, not every product placement works. After seeing Pottery Barn and “Friends,” watch these clips of Bing in “Hawaii Five-0” (the new one) and Toyota’s self-parking Yaris model in “Bones”.


You cringed, right? If you ask five marketers to describe the elements of a successful product placement, you will get six answers because the issue is very subjective and not quantifiable. A lot of marketing is art, not science. Still, I’ll offer my opinions here on the differences between these three examples.

“Friends”

  • The incorporation of Pottery Barn was done in a way that was within the realm of possibility in the world of our six friends — Phoebe is certainly a weird enough person who could randomly have had an aversion to mass-market furniture.
  • The product played a central role in advancing the plot of the story and was not inserted out of nowhere.
  • As a result, viewers’ suspensions of disbelief were not interrupted (for the most part).

“Hawaii Five-0” and “Bones”

  • No one has ever said “Bing it!” — and, most likely, no one ever will. Imitating your competitor in such an obvious way only shows that you have nothing interesting or funny to add, and product placements need to be interesting or funny to be memorable.
  • Taking thirty seconds out of a one-hour crime drama to have a forensic anthropologist show her FBI-agent partner a self-parking car does nothing to advance the plot.
  • The insertions were completely artificial, so they did little except to ruin viewers’ suspensions of disbelief and their entertainment experiences.


Nutshell: Product placement is an expensive, high risk, and high reward tactic. Whether you’re successful like Pottery Barn or a failure like Bing and Toyota, people will be talking about you the next day. In addition to the thousands or millions who directly saw your brand in the placement, others will be writing and blogging about the placement and sharing it on social media as well. (But maybe that was the point all along!)

Of course, you can always take a self-deprecating approach to the whole thing. Just remember: prime-time TV product placements cost thousands of dollars per second!

Questions to ask

  • What movies, TV shows, YouTube personalities, podcasts, web comics, or other entertainment outlets are enjoyed by your target audience?
  • How can that program include mentions of your brand in a way that naturally fits into the narrative structure and is not an obvious, out-of-place advertisement?

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • Luckily, the TV production company/podcast host/whoever will create most of the “content” (the TV show or podcast or web comic, etc.) — however, you’ll likely need to consult on the script, direction, and any other aspects of the placement.

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • Most likely, you won’t need to pitch reporters and bloggers because the product placement should inspire people to discuss it on their own.
  • However, social media posts that feature and articles that discuss the placement can be “liked,” shared, repinned, and retweeted.
  • In certain cases, you might want to give targeted media outlets and bloggers a “heads up” that the placement will occur and that they might find it interesting enough to write about.

4. Staging a contest

Every time that IKEA opens a new branch, the store runs a massive contest that results in huge publicity and sales successes. The first batch of people in line receive free merchandise. Here are some of the results:

Want to see more? Just look the first few pages of the SERPs here.

Why would newspapers do something that’s little more than helping a for-profit company? Because their readers would be interested. That’s the cardinal rule of publicity campaigns: Media outlets care first and foremost about covering whatever will interest their audiences (and therefore result in more readers, pageviews, links, and social media shares) — and people love free stuff. Whether the coverage will help the business is a secondary concern.

Now, why do I think IKEA’s overall publicity is worthy to include in this guide? Simple. It promoted both the company and its products. Not only were people amassing to be the first customers of a new branch, they were also gathering to get the company’s free products. The publicity also branded the products as very desirable.

Here is one additional article that was an unbelievable gift to IKEA:

It’s one thing to get a news story about your company opening a local branch and giving things away. It’s quite another to get a major publication to write a feature article that first presents the opening day as a massive festival and second includes tweets about IKEA that readers can retweet and essentially spread the word about the business themselves. A tip of the publicity hat.

When I was a child growing up in the United States, I loved the McDonalds Monopoly game in the late 1980s:

The game, which is still going on today, has been a perfect way to build the brands of both McDonalds and Monopoly and get more people to buy McDonalds food for a chance to win. Here is a sample from Google News of the global news coverage that the game has received.

Nutshell: Contests can be a great way to get attention, but it needs good strategizing. It’s not enough just to give your product away to a select few who can answer a quiz correctly.

Questions to ask

  • How can you introduce the element of competition in a way that is relevant to your industry, product, and target audience?
  • What would your target audience like to receive if they would win your contest?
  • How can you create your contest and prize in a way that will feature and promote your product?

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • Every company and product will be different. A local pizza restaurant that introduces a scavenger-hunt competition via its delivery staff will need to place contest material into its pizza boxes. A B2B SaaS product will need to create a branded website for the contest.
  • Companies may need to create items, including physical game boards or online graphics and interactive content.

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • As long as the contest is indeed original and interesting and will offer prizes that are truly newsworthy and valuable, then well-crafted pitches should pique the curiosity of relevant media outlets and bloggers.
  • Today, however, any contest will almost always need to integrate social media. People could share their entries or prizes on social media — and news about the contest could certainly be spread on relevant online communities.


5. Working for a cause

Very few companies will work with a charity only for the sake of helping a cause. There’s almost always a benefit to the business as well.

Women in tech

As Moz’s Erica McGillivray noted in this comment on a Moz post on diversity in the online marketing industry, women played major roles in the birth of the tech industry in the 1980s. But for reasons that are best left for another time, that changed.

Now, organizations such as Girls Who Code and Women in Technology are trying to get more women into the industry today and in the future. For companies whose target audiences include the tech industry in general and among women in the tech industry specifically, partnering with such organizations can be a good way to increase brand awareness and help a good cause at the same time.

Companies can partner with Girls Who Code and offer internships to graduates of the program. Partners are featured in press releases and on social media. Organizations can sponsor Women in Technology events, and what seems to be the largest sponsor (Microsoft) is featured with a banner and link at the bottom of the website.

(Note: Non-profit sponsorships have always been discussed as a way to build links from .org websites, but sponsorships have simply always been a publicity tactic. This is another reason that good links are just by-products of good publicity campaigns.)

“Torches of Freedom”

Marketing, of course, can be used for positive or negative ends. Here’s a questionable example — I’ll let readers decide the morality for themselves.

In the United States in the 1920s, it was taboo for women to smoke cigarettes (or anything else). The American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays, the “Father of Spin,” to increase the number of women smokers.

Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the publicity stunt:

Bernays decided to attempt to eliminate the social taboo of women smoking in public. He gained advice from psychoanalyst A. A. Brill stating that it was normal for women to smoke because of oral fixation and said, “Today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

In 1929 Bernays decided to pay women to smoke their “torches of freedom” as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. This was a shock because until that time, women were only permitted to smoke in certain places such as in the privacy of their own homes. He was very careful when picking women to march because “while they should be good looking, they should not look too model-y” and he hired his own photographers to make sure that good pictures were taken and then published around the world. Feminist Ruth Hale also called for women to join in the march saying, “Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!”

Once the footage was released, the campaign was being talked about everywhere, The women’s walk was seen as a protest for equality and sparked discussion throughout the nation and is still known today. The targeting of women in tobacco advertising led to higher rates of smoking among women.

“Social media marketing” and “content marketing” do not actually exist as separate functions unto themselves. The reason is that the Internet is merely a new set of communications channels over which existing marketing functions — such as publicity — are executed. “Torches of Freedom” is a perfect example.

After all, how would such a publicity plan play out today? In addition to taking photos for newspapers, Barnays would likely shoot video of the women who were smoking in the Easter Sunday Parade. Then, the photos and videos would also be spread throughout Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram (the networks that are predominantly used by women). Ruth Hale, the feminist who took part in the march, could contribute articles to Salon and Jezebel about the cause and discuss why women were smoking cigarettes in the parade.

And it would all just be doing “publicity.” How many “likes,” comments, pins, and shares would the photos, videos, and articles have received if those blogs and social networks had existed at the time?

Rosa’s Fresh Pizza


Stop Thinking About Links – Think About Publicity! from Samuel Scott

Also at BrightonSEO in 2015, I presented this specific example of a small, local business gaining hundreds of natural, authoritative backlinks and thousands of local Facebook fans as a result (intentionally or not) of a media coverage of its charitable work. The full story that goes into more depth is here on my website.

Nutshell: Aligning one’s company with a cause can be risky, depending on the level of controversy that the issue generates. While a successful campaign can generate a lot of media coverage, it might not be worth alienating potential customers, employees, and partners. (But in the inverse, such campaigns can inspire supporters to join you.) It’s also imperative to disclose any connections to the issue and not to appear too self-promotional.

Questions to ask

  • What causes does your target audience tend to support in their personal or professional lives?
  • How can you align your product or brand with those causes in a way that will increase natural mentions of you whenever that cause is mentioned?

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • Formal non-profit organizations typically have tiers of sponsorship that may include website banner ads, logos on the walls at events, short talks by the CEOs of sponsoring organizations, and so on. Content teams will need to create any needed items.
  • Whenever companies want to become direct advocates of a particular cause, they will need to create by-lined articles for major publications, speeches to give at press conferences, informational e-books or videos that discuss the issue at hand, and more.

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • Depending on the amount of public awareness of a given issue, your PR department may need to draft media pitches to get the press to cover the cause or event — if no major media outlet is interested, offer an exclusive.
  • Any blog posts, videos, and other content that shows the severity of the issue can be spread over social media and relevant online communities.

6. Tie-Ins with holidays or events

Holiday and event tie-ins can be good ways to insert your brand into a special, relevant time that is celebrated or held by your target audience. Here are several examples that the techies among Moz’s readership will like.

System Administrator Appreciation Day

SysAdmin Day is celebrated every year on the last Friday in July. Here are some of the creative campaigns that companies and individuals did for the holiday to publicize themselves:

Happy SysAdmin Appreciation Day! Enjoy our video tribute honoring your multiple talents, your patience at your job, and your ability to overcome communication challenges every day. We <3 you! #SysAdminDay

Posted by SysAid-IT on Thursday, July 30, 2015

Here’s one example that shows how the publicity over owned and earned media can intersect. IT companies received direct attention on their social media accounts on SysAdminDay 2015, and major tech outlets such as this one then wrote about what some did on social media.

An example of pandering

Here’s another publicity stunt for SysAdmin Day that I chose not to embed in this post because I did not want it to gain “likes” and shares very easily:

Sure, this post by Avast Software received a lot of engagement. But I would personally cite it as an example of going too far because it’s insulting to both system administrators and women.

If I were a system administrator, I would be insulted at the reinforcement of the negative stereotype that I must be a geek who can only get attention from women during an annual holiday. If I were a woman, I would be insulted at the insinuation that I am a reward to be given to someone for doing a good job. And if you look closely at the top comment in the bottom right-hand corner, you will see that a female system administrator was not happy at the presumption that everyone in the profession is a man.

Nutshell: Holiday tie-ins are typically a safe way to get some attention — but while the risk is low, so usually is the reward. Many companies will do some publicity stunt for almost any given event, so it will take something very creative to stand out.

Questions to ask

  • What official or unofficial holidays and events will my target audience celebrate?
  • What specific feelings will they have about the ideas behind the holidays and events?

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • Your marketing collateral and creative campaigns should reinforce whatever the audience feels about the holiday or event. As you will see in the examples above, system administrators often feel — rightly or wrongly — that they are overworked and unappreciated in tedious jobs in which they have to deal with people who are ignorant of technology. If you review the examples above, you will see that those creatives tap into these repressed feelings.

Getting earned and owned media coverage


7. Conduct a survey or do a study

When I was a journalism student at university, my roommate — who was not a journalism major — would always see some news article about a random study and chide me with a cynical roll of his eyes: “The media always loves a study.”

He was right — it was funny because it was true. Journalists love to write about anything new, and any study that sheds new light on anything is, well, news. While I was writing this post, I did a random search for “study” in Google News in the United States:

Two more examples:

  • Moz, for example, releases studies on what brands won and lost in Google over the prior year, local search-ranking factors, overall search-ranking factors, and the entire online marketing industry. In my objective opinion — I am just a contributor and do not work for Moz — these studies effectively and rightly brand Moz as a thought leader in our industry and get a lot of attention from Moz’s readers and community, as well as from digital marketers in general.
  • When I was working at a now-defunct marketing and PR agency, we had a client that had a web application that people could use to ask why someone broke up with them. We had the client compile anonymous data from their database, and then we created an infographic that listed the top reasons for “wotwentwrong.” That study received coverage in The Huffington Post and in several other major media outlets, and the company as a whole gained hits on ABC News, NBC News (via the Associated Press), Reuters, Ad Week, and Entrepreneur.

(Note: I have archived the full, lengthy infographic here on my personal site.)

However, it’s important to remember that “Let’s make an infographic!” is not a marketing strategy.

Jaws in Space (Resurrection) – BrightonSEO from Hannah Smith

Also at BrightonSEO in 2015, Hannah Smith of Distilled gave this wonderful presentation that can be summarized by this point: You need an idea, not a format. An infographic is a format, not an idea. A publicity strategy and then the tactic of releasing a study can both be good ideas — and only then should one decide in what format to communicate the ideas based on over what channels the promotion will occur.

Nutshell: Surveys and studies are low-risk plays that can get some attention. However, it’s important to get quality data. Don’t take a poll on Facebook that gets fifty responses and then proclaim that you have some new insight into your audience or industry. You need relevant information from a sample of people that numbers highly enough to be statistically significant and newsworthy.

Questions to ask

  • What information would your target audience like to know in their personal or professional lives?
  • How can you research the topic and present the answer in an authoritative way that presents yourself as a thought leader in the industry in general and on that topic specifically?

Marketing creatives and collateral

Once you have the survey or study results, you may want to create all or any of the following:

  • A white paper that details every scientific aspect of the study
  • A blog post on the study and results
  • Contributed articles in which you can announce the survey in desired media outlets or blogs
  • Press releases and pitches that aim to get coverage of the study by journalists and bloggers that write about the topic or industry
  • Infographics or other material that communicates the results quickly and visually

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • Your blog post can be seeded in relevant online communities and then spread organically and with paid support over your social media outlets
  • The same can be done for any contributed articles that you publish
  • The same can be done for any articles that journalists or bloggers write about you

8. Host or appear at events

Disclosure: I have little experience in hosting conferences or launching a product at conferences, so I will just provide some of the theoretical things to consider from my PR education some years ago. Anyone who has any significant experience in these first two parts, feel free to offer tips in the comments!

Roger the Mozbot at Mozcon 2012 with Aleyda Solis (left)

Hosting a conference

One of the best ways to brand your company as an expert in your field is to host a conference, but there are many complicated things to organize. Here’s a partial checklist:

  • What location, date, and time are best to ensure maximum attendance from your target audience?
  • What number can you expect to attend, and what venue will be best?
  • For what will the venue be responsible and what will you need to provide as far as podiums, name tags, lighting, registration tables, audio and visual needs, and more?
  • Finalize speakers at a minimum of two months in advance (will you invite people to submit pitches or will you select all of speakers?)
  • Reserve restaurants and nightlife events as needed and decide upon any catered menu.
  • Decide whether you will have a single-track or multi-track speaker schedule. (Bonus: What do you think are the pros and cons of each?)
  • Develop any sponsorship and advertiser plans in light of revenue goals.
  • What percentage of your marketing and PR activity will you devote to the conference as compared to the other needs of your company?
  • Earned media: How can you get the major media to cover the conference? Industry bloggers can be invited to blog about the speakers, but companies that sponsor conferences will at least need to release something big and newsworthy to generate mass media coverage.
  • Owned media: How will you publicize the conference, the events, and the speakers over social media? How can you sell promoted premium content from the conference (such as videos of the speakers) to those who cannot attend?

Product launches

Companies will often release a new product at trade shows for the exposure, but there are many factors to consider here as well:

  • There are many potential conferences. — Which exact one will be attended by your exact target market?
  • What level of sponsorship is best? — The more you pay, the better placement and exposure your booth will receive.
  • What should your booth contain? — Do you need a large video screen for demonstrations, a table and chairs to sit with visitors, a large space to hold a press conference?
  • Should you pay a professional booth-design company to create a visually appealing booth, or should you save on costs and create it yourself?
  • How many people should you bring? — Each person is an added travel and hotel cost, but additional staff make it easier to network.
  • Earned media: If you want media coverage, then you need to plan months in advance — every single major reporter and blogger who will attend a given conference will be bombarded with meeting requests, so you need to pitch them far in advance.
  • Owned media: How will you publicize your conference participation over social media and any other owned channels?

Speaking at conferences

Monique Pouget, now with SEER Interactive (photo used with permission)

In 2014, I spoke on an SMX West panel with Monique Pouget and Kaila Strong on earning links (my advice, as readers probably know by now, was to use publicity campaigns that will obtain links as by-products). We had seemed to impress the audience so much that we had a lengthy queue of people coming to speak with the three of us after the session had ended. Personally, I had worked for the aforementioned marketing and PR agency at the time, and several startup founders became business leads.

At BrightonSEO the following year, an attendee once asked me how he could convince his agency to pay to have him speak at events (if his pitches would be accepted). “Simple,” I told him. “If you’re good, you’ll get qualified business leads from the exposure. People will walk up to you, give you their cards, and say that they are interested in learning more about how you can help them.”

A few thoughts on what works and what does not:

  • At one conference, the CEO of a new SERP-analysis software company gave a presentation during which he mainly demonstrated his product and offered few other insights. The speaker was also a sponsor and had likely gained the speaking slot as part of the sponsorship package — and the attendees negatively talked about the presentation at the conference party afterwards.
  • Most conferences reserve thought leadership keynote addresses for recognized leaders — and they are the ones who usually talk about big-picture marketing theory.
  • Other speakers at track-level sessions should give shorter talks that focus on actionable advice — these potential speakers should pitch sessions on tactics that attendees can use the following day

For more information for Moz’s audience, here are three resources on speaking at marketing conferences:

Nutshell: Conferences are a “go all out or do not even bother” tactic simply because they are expensive. If you are hosting a conference, what will people learn that they cannot already learn for free online? If you are releasing a product, how can you make your release memorable in a way that people will not forget you tomorrow? If you’re speaking at a conference, how can you make an impression so that people will remember you and your company when they return home?

Questions to ask

  • Hosting a conference: What value will the conference provide that is truly unique compared to other conferences in your industry?
  • Launching a product at a conference: What can I do to maximize exposure and separate me from everyone else at the conference?
  • Speaking at a conference: What can I say that is new, unique, newsworthy, or controversial that will get people to remember me?

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • Hosting a conference: Take photos and videos of the speakers, the fun after-conference events, and capture anything else that will communicate the value of the conference — remember, it’s usually less about the information and more about the emotional experience that attendees will have.
  • Launching a product at a conference: This can include anything: from physical demonstrations, to white papers handed out to media kits, to photos live from the booth.
  • Speaking at a conference: Before you go on stage, give your smartphone to someone in the audience and ask him or her to take photos and/or video of your talk. Interact with people who are commenting on Twitter. Publish your deck on Slideshare and put it on Twitter with the conference hashtag right after you speak.

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • Hosting a conference: Invite industry bloggers and influencers to attend, perhaps giving them free tickets in exchange for the coverage. Give the major media a heads-up on whatever newsworthy will occur.
  • Launching a product at a conference: Reporters will be booking meetings and interviews weeks or a few months in advance of the conference. Use the pitching strategies that I discussed earlier in this post to convince them that you’re newsworthy enough to take some of their time.
  • Speaking at a conference: Highlight your talk on your own blog and social outlets, see how you can partner with the host conference, and pitch contributed articles to targeted publications that go into more depth on your speaking topic.

9. Create a character and tell a story

Who remembers the debut of The Burger King in the mid-2000s and the resulting media frenzy?

To see the ripples of publicity that resulted from advertising campaign, just take a look at the first page of the SERPs for [burger king’s creepy king]:

We human beings are programmed to love good stories — and what are the most important parts of any good story? Good characters. A good plot usually cannot compensate for wooden, one-dimensional characters. The best plots in movies, TV shows, and books are driven by character development and not events.

Here are a few examples:

  • The rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker
  • Frodo Baggins’ growing burden in The Lord of the Rings
  • The descent of Walter White

We are fascinated by good characters because they reflect parts of ourselves and the societies in which we live. The creation and publicizing of a good character — even in an advertisement — will provoke thousands of journalists, writers, and bloggers to write about him or her on their own. If the character is associated with a brand, then that brand will also get the attention.

Why did The Creepy King get so much attention? Personally, I think the character perfectly straddled the Uncanny Valley — it was not completely artificial, but it was not completely human, either. However, I have not studied this specific Burger King campaign, so I invite discussion on this topic in the comments below.

Google India’s story involves the reunification of two long-lost friends who were separated during a turbulent political time. I dare you to watch this without shedding a tear.

So, how can one create a good character as part of an overall brand story? Here are a few resources:

Nutshell: The creation of characters and stories — especially so that the production quality is believable — can be very expensive and a strategy that can be out of reach of small businesses and people in boring industries. But someone who is very creative just might be able to pull it off.

Questions to ask

  • What type of archetypical story should your brand tell?
  • What archetypical characters — protagonists and antagonists — should be in your brand’s story?
  • What emotions should the story evoke?

Marketing creatives and collateral

  • In what format and type of marketing collateral should the story be told (e-book, blog post, graphic, or video, or advertisement) based on your overall strategy and channel-target selection (Facebook, television, a web comic)?

Getting earned and owned media coverage

  • If your story is original, interesting, moving, or provocative enough, then the major media and bloggers will likely write about it without you having to do anything — still, if you are a small businesses, you might want to give relevant outlets a heads-up.
  • The creative content can also be seeded on social media in the hopes that it will spread from there.

How to create a publicity plan

This section provides one example of a step-by-step approach to publicity strategy.

Executive summary

This is a summary of everything that will be below. This section is typically written last after everything else below is completed.

Marketing objectives

Every marketing strategy aims to achieve something. Do you want more top-of-the-funnel brand awareness? More leads? More sales? Greater branding in a specific way? To position the company or its executives in a certain way? List all of your overall objectives here.

Audiences

Who is your target market? Senior citizens? Middle-aged mothers? Teenage boys? Children? Yuppies? Hipsters? DINKs (dual-income, no-kid couples)? Digital marketers? Computer programmers? Military veterans? Feminists? College students?

List everything that you can find out about your target audience. The more information, the better: Average salary, entertainment preferences, geographic locations, religious beliefs, personal status, preferred brands, and so on.

Of course, this might sound like stereotyping — because it is, in fact, stereotyping. It’s impossible to divide a demographic of 500,000 people into 500,000 individual segments that would each have its own marketing strategy. The alternative is to use averages within a given population such as this: “The majority (or a plurality) of audience X tends to have A salary, B entertainment preferences, and C, D, and E as preferred brands.”

Responses to generate

  • What specifically do you want your target audience to do during the publicity campaign?

Go to a local store? Visit a website? Share something on social media? Search for something in Google?

  • What specifically do you want your target audience to feel about you or your brand as a result of the publicity campaign?

That you’re geeky and cool (see Lego and “Doctor Who”)? That you’re where urban middle-class people shop (see Pottery Barn and “Friends”?) That you are a smart company that’s a thought leader in a serious industry (in the articles that you contribute to publications)? That you’re revolutionizing and disrupting your industry (in the news coverage in top publications)? That you’re hip and funny (see the funny videos for System Administrator Day)?

Key messages to communicate

What messages should your publicity campaigns transmit in order to get the desired responses from the targeted audience? The goal is for every earned and owned media placement to communicate certain messaging.

Take these three example points in my old PR textbook (see below in the resources) from an example non-profit campaign that aimed to spread awareness of heart disease among women:

1. “Heart disease is the number-one killer of women.”

2. “Take the Go Red Heart Checkup to find out your personal risk for heart disease.”

3. “Spread the national rallying cry to ‘Share the Untold Story of Your Heart.'”

Earned and owned media list

The next step is to determine where you will aim to communicate your messages.

Earned media

What major media outlets and large blogs does your target audience consume?

For example, I once compiled a simple spreadsheet like this one:

  • Tier 1 – the first third of my media list that consists of the most-important outlets (Tier 2 consists of the second-most important outlets, and Tier 3 is everything else)
  • Monthly Visitors – The outlets are listed in descending order based on the data from my PR software of choice
  • Potential Angles – Every outlet — even those in the same industry — will cover different specific topics
  • Policy on Contributed Articles – Do they accept them? If so, where is more information about becoming a contributor?
  • Best Contact – This might be someone who I already know, a reporter who has already written about us, or the best person to contact based on recommendations from certain PR software
  • Prior Results – Links and more to prior coverage in that publication

Note: Don’t forget to research whether any large, independent, online communities exist in your industry too!

Owned media

It is also a good idea to list all owned media outlets that are available. Possibilities can include:

  • Company (and individual) social media accounts
  • Columns in publications
  • A company’s online and offline forums and communities
  • A company’s newsletter, magazine, or any other outlets

What will you create?

The next step is to get your messages spread throughout your owned and earned media. But which of the above nine strategies are best for you? First, a confession: I do not know.

There is no single approach to publicity strategy. In contrast to SEO audits, PPC best practices, and other online marketing functions that have defined, quantitative best practices, publicity campaigns are almost always creative, subjective, and qualitative. Every company, product, and targeted demographic will respond to different tactics and ideas.

Whichever approaches you may use may depend on any of the following and more:

  • What do the targeted reporters in your desired publications tend to cover? Some might write only serious articles about new product releases. Others might take a light-hearted approach and will be more open to tie-ins with recent news events and upcoming holidays. Some publications may accept contributed articles; others may not. Every context will be different.
  • How much relevant news is actually happening? In the online marketing world, there is news every single day. If you sell vacuums, not so much.
  • What is your overall branding? Serious companies, for example, might not want to “lower themselves” to be associated with popular culture. Light-hearted companies will love it.
  • What is your realistic budget? It’s all well and good to say, “Let’s do a product placement on ‘The Big Bang Theory!'” or “Let’s do an extensive study [on some complicated topic] and get it spread all over the news and social media!” Only then will you find out how much such publicity tactics cost. Much of the time, smaller companies will only be able to focus on creating something in text or graphical form and then putting it on their blogs. That will drastically reduce the number of available tactics that one will be able to use.
  • How creative are you? Not everyone is a creative type, and that is not a bad thing — the world needs left brains and right ones. Some of the tactics I have outlined necessitate that people think of something completely mind-blowing — others are more logical and straight-forward.
  • Can you think in a long-term context? Some publicity campaigns flop, some go viral, and most fall somewhere in the middle. But the point is that publicity efforts tend to grow and feed off of themselves over time. Good marketing takes time.

Whatever you decide to try, it is often best to try different options to see what works. One strategy is to create a yearlong publicity calendar and try one tactic each month. For example:

  • January – Q1 new product launch –> news coverage + creative campaign
  • February – Conduct a study on some trend in your industry –> news coverage + social promotion
  • March – Product placement in a video by a relevant YouTube personality –> social promotion
  • April – Q2 new product launch –> news coverage + introduce a new character into your company’s narrative
  • May – Partner with a relevant cause –> news coverage + creative campaign
  • June – Movie tie-in with the summer blockbuster premiere of a film that your audience watches
  • July – Q3 new product launch –> news coverage + creative campaign
  • August – Back to school tie-in for your teenage and college student demographics
  • September -–TV tie-in with the fall premiere of a new show that your audience watches
  • October – Q4 new product launch –> news coverage + trade show or conference speaking gig
  • November – Sponsor a charity & volunteer for the holidays –> news coverage + social promotion
  • December – Holiday tie-in with whatever is celebrated by your audience


Measuring the results

In the Digital Age, everyone wants to measure everything — and rightly so. But one of the admitted negatives of publicity campaigns is that the analytics are not always precise (or even always available in the first place). Here are some traditional and modern workarounds.

Advertising equivalency

One method of judging the ROI is to equate publicity mentions with advertising space. If a quarter-page ad in a newspaper costs $5,000, then a mention in a paragraph in an article that takes up a quarter of a page has a value of $5,000 based on the assumption that consumers trust mentions in articles more than advertisements. In television, a segment on a daytime talk show would be equivalent to running an advertisement on that program.

The obvious problem is that such comparisons cannot be done in digital publications that use online advertising networks.

Media impressions

Another method in the print world is to list the number of readers of each publication in which a placement appeared and then multiplying by a pass-along factor (such as 2.5x). In the digital world, it’s very common to use software such as Cision, Meltwater, or SimilarWeb to find PR contacts and estimate a website’s amount of traffic. (Note: Those solutions are often expensive and used by enterprises. The smaller businesses and startups in Moz’s audience might want to look at Publicize, a new PR software startup founded by veteran entrepreneur Conrad Egusa.)

However, the problem with showing the total readerships of publications is that it’s really only useful when creating media lists and comparing the results of various publicity strategies and tactics. It does not provide much insight into direct ROI.

Digital analytics

While we still do not have the ability to track all of the results of publicity campaigns (especially for results coming from non-digital channels), online analytics platforms can now greatly improve the measurement of ROI. Depending on which of the above tactics you use, here are some things to watch:

  • If you have gained media hits in publications and blogs (in any context), track the referral traffic, conversions, and sales.
  • In the context of media hits, track overall conversion rates and bounce rates from each outlet to see which ones seem to be more relevant to your goals and future campaigns.
  • Also for media hits, track the numbers of gained links as well as the Page Authority and Domain Authority of each referrer.
  • Following any publicity campaigns, track the increase (or not) in branded searches in Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools).
  • During any creative campaigns on social media, track video views, referred social traffic, conversions, and sales as well as any growth in followings, “likes,” and shares.
  • Use tools such as Mention to track brand mentions (this is the modern version of creating a what had been called a clip file).
  • Use any of the numerous tools out there to track the sentiments involved in mentions of your brand.
  • In the context of publicity campaigns that aim to release information (such as surveys or studies), see how your resulting reports, blog posts, or e-books are ranking in organic search results for those informational queries.
  • For events, speaking opportunities, or any other local publicity effort, track mentions, traffic, conversions, sales, and anything else relevant in analytics specifically from that country, city, or locality (credit to Rand Fishkin for once telling me this idea over Twitter).


Resource list

Devote part of your marketing mix to ongoing publicity efforts, and you will eventually grow a brand and one day be able to get media coverage for almost anything and everything that you do — just like Steve Jobs and Google Glass.

To learn more about what I have discussed, I would start with these resources:

As I hope readers will learn from these resources, the same traditional marketing principles still apply today — we should just use those principles when we market over a new set of communications channels that is collectively called the Internet:

Want to learn more? SEMrush alumna Alexandra Tachalova will be hosting a webinar with me on the Kerboo-launched Calq platform on March 10 on earning natural links with publicity campaigns. Click here to register — I hope to see you there!

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