I don't care about your ego or what your textbooks told you: Content and story are the nucleus of all communications. It's true whether you're looking at it as a brand manager, an SEO specialist, a PR manager, a content writer, or any number of other roles found in the modern marketing organization. Before you create a website, contact a journalist, or engage a prospect, you need to know what story you're telling, to whom, and why.
Does that mean all content is the same? Not exactly. There are some nuances in how we approach content depending on both its objectives and its eventual home. And even though objectives and distribution methods still differ across marketing functions, we're now seeing a merging of disciplines, finding ways to use the same content to suit multiple purposes.
Let me demonstrate this through a story of my own: When looking for people to speak with to gather insights for this article, I turned to social media. Quickly, I was inundated with SEO experts wanting to chat because they saw the chance to link back to their sites, thus earning authority and trust. I met PR managers by using the #journorequest hashtag, which is monitored for press opportunities. And, of course, the very fact that I'm creating this story for Skyword's digital publication means that I interacted with content marketers to craft this story as well.
At the end of the day, we all may hold different job titles, degrees, and skill sets, but our end purpose is what unites us. Here's what every expert should understand about how to combine efforts to build remarkable content.
It's All About the Story
"A strong news angle is important; however, for us it's about finding the heart of the story," says Charlotte Nichols, managing director of PR agency Harvey & Hugo. "We believe the future belongs to ESPs (Emotional Selling Propositions) rather than USPs. Stories these days need to be clicked, shared, liked, heard, but most of all felt by the target audience.
Image attribution: Anthony Delanoix
"While many think that traditional PR is dying, we believe it is simply evolving. PR will always have that added credibility that social media and SEO content don't always achieve. Brands live and die by their reputation, so whatever the PR channel used, it is invaluable."
Nichols says their typical process for storytelling is a "careful blend" of satisfying three audiences: the client, the target audience, and the journalists they're selling to.
"It comes down to a battle between visibility and validity," she says. "Balance is key, and I feel that agencies that swing too far to either side (PR or SEO) are the ones that do more brand damage. In today's digital economy it's important to get the right mix of traditional PR and digital PR. For example, every press release we write for a client is repurposed into a 30-second video, online content, infographics, and social media content."
"Slicing and dicing" the story, as one former manager would call it, helps gain traction across the board. Whereas once upon a time optimizing for search was all about stuffing your keyword as many times as possible onto a page, search engines have evolved to understand what a piece has to offer beyond a bunch of optimized keywords.
"Now it's all about natural storytelling," says digital marketer Gill Hinds. "All the updates search engines are bringing out are trying to reward content that is natural and that people really like. Generally if you're trying to rank organically you'll need longer form so you're getting long-tail keyword phrases in-to do that naturally, content has to be longer."
Start with Your Audience
Regardless of your content's structure though, your first concern should be your audience, says Hinds: "Always start with the audience, don't start with a topic. Think of who they are, what their problems are, what task this content is solving, where that audience is coming from. Then look at what you're wanting to put across."
That's right-good content marketing revolves around customer challenges and how your solution can help overcome them. "The angle of your content is always going to lead back to your audience; they're the people you want to hook in," says Hinds.
Doesn't that sound awfully familiar to the techniques used by the PR crowd? That's because they're truly not so different.
"I don't think we should think about disciplines-we should think about customers. That's where it begins and ends," says Tom Pratt, director of Albert Road Consulting and operations director at Manyminds. "Where people get themselves in a tangle is they try to write 'SEO content' or 'PR content.' I think if they've got something interesting to say-and if you dig deep enough there is an interesting angle for everything-they can write and deliver content."
Pratt says any content-regardless of its objective-must be of interest to the audience; it must serve a particular need they have. Take that something interesting to say and develop the hooks for a PR story, then take that opinion and spin it into content marketing that also hits SEO objectives. Good content backs up and boosts PR work, and vice versa. There is content, and then there are the methods with which it is distributed.
Break Down the Wall: Collaboration Is Key to Greater Success
Image attribution: Jan Triad
We've heard this lesson repeated over and over since childhood, yet it still rings true: Cooperation is the key to success.
Says Pratt, "It's important to remember you can get a lot more out of an activity by collaborating and realizing that a similar piece of content can serve everybody-you've just got different objectives depending on what frame you're looking at it from." But how do we get everyone playing nicely? Pratt says you just have to "be generous and go first."
"It's hard because everyone is suspicious. People work hard and they're scared you're coming to steal their lunch, but you just need to trust other people. I know that sounds naive. Develop working relationships and show you're going to make this thing and they can use it. Talk about objectives beforehand so you understand what everyone needs to achieve. As long as you show appreciation for what everyone else is doing and what's required to do that, and have some clear boundaries, then it should work better. People should stop thinking about different labels and just start thinking about what it is they can do to really crack on and help the organizations that they're working for."
His advice also plays into the evolution of search. As search engines continue to change their algorithms, we must be more aware of the signals that go towards determining that what is "good content." More often than not, if you think audience and story first, you'll find those SEO signals that look for quality, authoritative, shareable, and engaging content will all be taken care of, regardless of which team is creating the content in the first place.
"It's unfortunate that a majority of companies I've worked with still have very siloed understandings and views on the roles of each marketing team," says SEO specialist Darren Kingman. "There have been some clients who have started merging the teams' approaches and KPIs-because that's how we all demonstrate our value-but the values and metrics that matter actually all rely on each other to have a true impact on a business."
Kingman feels that sharing a KPI ensures the team comes together and encourages the disciplines to make the most of each others' skills: "It's a massive mistake if PR teams are off producing a story on topic X, but an SEO could turn around and say the biggest opportunity for the company organically is actually topic Y. Or if content marketing teams produce tons of pages genuinely teaching their audience about their niche, but then leave the PR team out who have established relationships with third-party journalists who could amplify that content. Each team could be extremely successful, but it's a wasted opportunity that way. It could be avoided by sharing goals and sharing skills.
"My work frequently blurs the boundaries of PR and content marketing-in fact, they are critical aspects of my ability to generate coverage and links, which in turn helps my clients' abilities to rank higher organically. I need to know how journalists usually receive content and why they feature it, as well as knowing how to produce content that can engage users and encourage them to take action, often when links aren't part of the picture. All of this is essential if a company wants to build a brand and establish themselves organically, ultimately impacting the bottom line.
"In competitive industries, one cannot exist without the other. Critically for businesses, it's a change in mindset that would enable further mergers between the teams, followed by then giving the teams the same shared hard metrics, such as revenue, instead of siloed, softer metrics, such as links, social reach, or newsletter sign-ups."
A PR Legend on How to Move the Needle
But at the end of the day, does any of this talk of shedding labels and crossing functional boundaries really make an impact?
Mark Borkowski-the man who literally wrote the book on PR, an industry commentator who represents international celebrities and corporate heavyweights-says the "power of the story" still rules, but nothing matters unless it truly "moves the needle."
"All the great publicists have understood one thing: the power of the herd, the power of the crowd," says Borkowski. "Whether you're Stalin, Goebbels, or P.T. Barnham; whether you're Trump or Farage. You understand that people latch onto stories."
He says there are two crises here: what the shape of the media will look like in the next five years, and what the shape of the media is right now. If you're looking at PR and content purely as a means to sell stuff and get links to things that people want to buy, the world can be bought and gamed.
"Social media does not push the needle. It carries forward the means, it carries forward the conversations, but the real spikes of interest that get used and get fed into Facebook, into forums, into wherever, are by the influencers [and] people that trust," says Borkowski, noting that trust and influence are the key players in today's digital world. "You focus on stories that matter and try to find ways of actually maximizing those stories, capturing interest in those stories from influencers and people that trust, and then spreading those stories and moving the needle.
"Many of these things we see judged by these publicity stunts-that used to be part and parcel of my business back in the '90s-they mean nothing. They're just contributing to the noise, contributing to links, contributing to page listings, but they don't move the needle."
Image attribution: NeONBRAND
Borkowski, a PR veteran of more than 30 years, believes "we're being blinded by science" and not focusing on what matters: the story, the people.
"No one has a solution yet because no one is really thinking about the audience and the primal things that move the audience and how we link those things together, because that does not change," he says. "We are at our base still driven by primeval desires of nesting and feeding, which turned into consumerism. We're confused by a world that is more dangerous, that is complex, and yet we still want to buy ridiculous PR campaigns and advertising messages.
"People are not looking at the emotion of the customer, but are trying to sell systems and conglomerate around advertising and media companies. It's just a male ego play at the end of the day, because while people are asking questions and while people are winning business on providing something that's interesting and different, they're actually not moving the needle. And that's why the world is getting more confused and intense."
Borkowski believes things will only change when clients do-and he says there are some smart clients and smart campaigns out there.
"Clients have to operate differently in this world. At the moment it's all about money, it's not about purpose. Ultimately, how do we crush greed?
"My obsession is getting on with the now. There are lots of really interesting things you can meld and mold into every campaign. Always, always what lets you change things is brilliant clients. I think we will begin to see a lot more purpose, a lot more people thinking about not just how they produce but clearly the effectiveness-it's going to be a massive change in everything. We can't get lost in the bullshit."
He talks about a campaign he's currently working on with a Germany company, looking at migration. This company is investing six months in working with the agency to develop the campaign to its fullest.
"I think more and more clients want to work with the agency to come up with a set of solutions and working relationships, and I think that's where PR is changing at the moment. It has the ability to take the lead as long as it gets away from selling stupid ideas that culminate in some ridiculous stunt that does nothing but create more noise. There's a lot more people investing in strategy and actually not looking for a quick win. They're looking at where they will be in three years' time, and I think the most interesting thing is what we will see from those companies from investing in that. The best-case scenarios will be coming down the pipe in five to six years' time.
"There's less budget, less money, and people are expecting agencies to work a lot smarter, which is attracting clever people. When parents say, 'My child wants to get into PR; what should they do?', I say get an anthropology degree to understand behavior. Behavior and strategy and long-term programming will be the things that we will see change the industry."
What Does It All Mean?
At risk of over-simplifying things, the different disciplines in summary:
- SEO content feeds the optimization beast. Its process focuses on choosing keywords and structuring your content around search-friendly parameters. Lots of subheads and bullet lists; may require the writer to also create meta descriptions, page titles, and so on. Distribution of this content will focus on optimizing content for those keywords and may include outreach-sometimes called "digital PR"-to get backlinks from reputable sources.
- PR content is created to get media attention, while the role of PR is managing relationships and reputations. Ideating for PR content focuses on hooks and angles, and stories are then "sold in" to media outlets to generate content from multiple sources. As the CIPR states: "Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behavior. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its public."
- Content marketing is all of this and more. Good content strategists map the customer journey with the organization, from awareness through consideration and purchase, and finally advocacy, creating content that moves the audience member through the journey. Content marketing consists of "assets" such as blogs and articles, social media, reports and downloads, videos and podcasts, all optimized to the sales funnel and the customer journey.
But we could talk until the cows come home about the differences in metrics and objectives, and how technical SEO and traditional PR skills will always be unique, and how writers are brilliant, adaptable people who can do anything (just me?), but really it's all redundant. Think about your audience first, find your story, and engage. Everything else is just process and KPIs, and we can all work together to get the best possible results for brands.
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Feature image attribution: Ramiro Mendes