PR Triumph vs. Boring Analytics

If you’re a small online player trying to punch above your weight with traditional PR, 2011 is the year to start questioning that particular route to market. Firstly it’s been an interesting and revealing few months for the meeja as we’ve come to know it. As its once-mighty institutions are revealed to be hollow shells, even the perceived value of ‘news’ coverage has to be in decline.

Secondly, for web-based businesses who are in a position to directly measure the impact on their site (rather than just nod their way through a collection of press-cuttings) the impact of dead tree coverage of web businesses is shown to be pretty poor.

An 8 page colour pull-out in the Sunday Times might set phones ringing, but will deliver next to no impact on site traffic without amazing optimisation. And this isn’t speculation: I have seen it with my own eyes. Beyond a vague and contentious blip in daily direct visits and type in traffic for the brand there was zero effect on the site overall. No lasting uplift in traffic or conversions through the site. And, of course, until technology improves a little, there’s no way to capture SEO juice from dead tree coverage.

An isolated example? Here’s some screenshots of what a 2 page spread in a Sun pullout (daily readership: 7,5920,000!) did for traffic on the day it was published.

Brand Searches

The branding was featured extensively in the Sun coverage – but there was no discernible activity in brand search activity.

Domain Type-in Searches

OK. Clearly a discernible uptick here – the brand was mentioned primarily as the domain name in the coverage. But look at the scale. Type-ins went from a normal daily average of 10 per day to a whopping 20 on the day of publication.

Direct Traffic

Perhaps a small increase in people coming directly to the site – but the number is at best equal with other random spikes during the preceding few weeks.

SEO

Coverage was strictly analogue. The story didn’t even reach the digital version of the Sun, so there was neither traffic nor linkjuice to be had. Perhaps had the story reached that level of penetration into the paper’s coverage this blog post would have a different tone.

And in the meantime…

I set up an AdWords campaign to tackle the same theme. This was for two reasons:

  1. To pick up residual traffic from people who’d seen the story on the train and gone to research it on their PC at work/wherever.
  2. To widen the coverage to tangential subjects and themes that didn’t appear in the press story.

It was a very limited affair – 13 keywords and 2 ads and a daily budget of just £50. Despite that, it is now clearly outperforming the Sun in terms of response.

The brand has been seen by far fewer people (the hundreds, rather than the millions) but of those hundreds, there has been a much more immediate and direct involvement with the brand.

Measuring a couple of events in Analytics has demonstrated beyond doubt that people are interacting with the site in a highly targeted fashion through this channel in a way that seems highly unlikely that The Sun delivered.

A small note

If any PR companies are reading this, I’d just like to make it clear that it was a great PR scoop for us – a new, small business – to get that kind of coverage. There’s certainly no doubting the effort and skill that went into getting us there, nor the positive tone of the coverage.

There is no criticism implicit in this post of the PR activity itself, just an airing of doubts about whether the trad PR model is the best fit for a companies who operate mainly in the SEM/SEO spaces.

Conclusions?

PR works on the principle of brand exposure. See the brand a few times in reasonable context and you have a brand presence which you can then exploit to sell your wares more easily.

Once you are a brand, PR becomes a natural part of everything you do: your every move is reportable and interesting to the press and public and you’ve probably got budget to finesse the coverage to suit your needs.

But, as a cost, PR is a long term activity. Monthly retainers are part of a picture that then expands to include junkets, offline stunts and the inevitable costs of managing things, brainstorming ideas and so on.

But for a lot of web businesses – particularly start-ups – that model just doesn’t wash when you look at cold hard figures.

If money is tight, don’t necessarily become entranced by your picture in the paper and consider spending the money on PPC.

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