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A fundamental truth of working in SEO is that link building has become more difficult. As more and more people have devised questionable methods of link building, Google has become much more strict about what constitutes a quality link.
Widget links? Try again.
Scholarship links? Considered “a tricky situation.”
Even the sacred guest post is now frowned upon.
So, how is a website supposed to build links?
While there are still many completely valid ways to build high-quality links, digital PR is beginning to stand out from the rest of the pack. In early 2021, John Mueller infamously praised the efforts of digital PR, which helped further propel its status as a viable form of link building.
Fortunately, our team at Go Fish Digital has a long history of running digital PR campaigns for our clients. Since we’ve developed some great internal processes over time, we wanted to share those with you today.
What is digital PR?
Digital PR is a marketing strategy that combines traditional PR media relations with digital channels such as SEO, social media, and influencer marketing. Digital PR allows brands to develop relationships with influential media outlets in order to earn editorial coverage, thus improving their website backlinks, brand exposure, SEO, and more.
As the world continues to move away from traditional print journalism, brands will need to adapt to develop relationships with influential entities that have large online followings. This is where digital PR comes into play.
The goals of digital PR can undoubtedly differ depending on your brand. Some companies might want to partner with Instagram accounts with large followings containing their target demographics to drive sales. Other companies might like to partner up to an influential entity to generate more brand awareness. However, one of the most common uses of digital PR is to build backlinks.
To obtain editorial backlinks, a lot needs to happen. You need to brainstorm different ideas that a journalist would be interested in covering. You then need to create content that’s newsworthy and warrants the journalist’s time and attention. Next, you need to research all of the potential journalists interested in covering your content and pitch them. Often, hundreds of pitches are required to place your content successfully.
While this seems like a lot, this is the reality of building backlinks in the present day. For this reason, we wanted to aggregate the various steps in this comprehensive guide to show you how to generate backlinks using digital PR tactics.
Types of digital PR campaigns
In our experience, campaigns that use data points generally work the best in terms of getting coverage. By being data-driven, we’re helping journalists create a story by uncovering fascinating, new data that their readers likely don’t know about.
In addition, taking a data-based approach is a repeatable model. While an organization could partake in some newsworthy event (charitable event, merger, company announcement) these stories are difficult to repeat month after month. However, there is a lot of untapped data out from which to create stories. This approach ensures that you can consistently generate newsworthy campaigns without relying on external, third-party events.
Of course, data campaigns aren’t the only way to generate digital PR and there are many other completely valid methods. However, we find using data tends to be the most consistent and reliable.
Existing data campaign
In an existing data campaign, you’ll want to identify some type of data source you can use to find interesting insights as the premise of your content you’ll be pitching to journalists.
For example, here’s a campaign we created for “The Best US Cities for Baby Boomers”. We gathered data on median home prices, jobs per 100,000 people, and the percentage of population that’s part of the Baby Boomer generation. This campaign ended up getting coverage from The New York Times, Yahoo!, and Reader’s Digest:
There are many instances of public data sources out there that are at your disposal. Want to do a piece of content on the best city to start a career in finance? Use data from LinkedIn Salary to find average salaries within each city. Creating a piece of content around Harry Potter houses? Use Google Trends to find what the most popular house is in every state. Need data on labor cost trends in the US? The Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census.gov have gold mines with potential data to use.
Once you find your data source, you’ll want to collect the raw data and then begin to analyze it for interesting insights that you can use in your campaign.
Creating surveys is a fantastic way to get data that you can use in your content if you don’t have data readily available. You can do this by using tools such as Google Surveys and getting around 2,500 – 3,500 responses, creating a unique dataset.
For instance, let’s say you’ve decided that you want to create a piece of content around “Cord Cutting”. However, you don’t have any specific data sources that you can find interesting insights from. You could create a survey and ask people about their cord cutting tendencies.
In this survey, you could ask questions such as “How likely are you to cancel your cable subscription in the next two years?” and “At what cable price point would you consider cutting the cord?”.
After the survey is complete, you can analyze the data to find interesting trends. For the question “How likely are you to cancel your cable subscription in the next two years?”, you could analyze the age ranges that are most likely to cut the cord. Below you can see an example of the types of insights you might find from a survey:
From here you can start to draw interesting insights. Using the dummy data, we can see that the groups surveyed in the 65+ age range were the most likely to cut the cord. This would definitely be an interesting (although pretty unlikely) data point that we could use in our content and then pitch to journalists. Of course, you could also look at other demographic data such as gender and location.
When you’re choosing your questions to ask respondents, try to think ahead and ask questions that might yield interesting results. Try to avoid asking questions where the results will be too predictable, and thus not newsworthy. The goal of the survey should be to yield interesting points of data that you didn’t previously have access to.
As the title suggests, a map campaign is a type of digital PR campaign where you overlay your data insights on a map. For example, in this campaign for “The Most Googled Pie In Every State” from Prevention.com, you can see how they overlay a pie icon over every state in the United States.
The data for map campaigns can really be generated from either existing data or surveys. However, the reason we’re giving them their own special category is that they tend to perform really well. With map campaigns, the results are inherently localized to every state. For example, here’s data from a map campaign that we executed that resulted in backlinks from 112 referring domains (81 followed links):
We’ve found that there are many journalists that absolutely love to cover articles that apply to their specific area. This means that map campaigns give you data points where you can pivot the pitch angle for all 50 states (“Texas’s favorite type of pie is pecan”, “Tennessee’s favorite type is chess pie”).
The digital PR process
1. Ideation phase
Now that you know the general types of campaigns, it’s time to start thinking about which one you’ll want to create. This starts with the ideation process.
Ideally, you’ll want to ideate anywhere from 3-5 different campaign options. By ideating multiple campaigns, you can then compare them against each other to determine which one will most likely generate the most coverage and backlinks for your brand. To give you more insights on how to ideate multiple topics, you can use the following rules:
Rule #1: Choose a topic tangentially related to your business
It’s important that the topic of your campaign is somehow related to your core business. For instance, it wouldn’t make sense for a gardening retailer to create a piece of content that talks about the most fashionable cities in America and pitch the story to Vogue. A digital PR campaign that covers the cities with the most urban gardeners and pitching to Apartment Therapy will result in much more targeted coverage.
Please note how we used the phrase “tangentially related”. The topic you choose doesn’t have to exactly match your core business. In the flower retailer example above, you might also consider other digital PR campaigns around other outdoor topics, as gardening generally ties into this concept. By not limiting yourself to only campaigns about your products, you’ll open up a large number of campaign possibilities and increase your chances of getting coverage.
Rule #2: Choose a newsworthy topic
Another key point is that in order for your digital PR campaign to be successful, you’ll need to ensure that whatever you create is going to be newsworthy in some way. If it’s not, journalists will have no incentive to cover it, as it won’t help their articles earn clicks and shares.
Choosing a topic that’s newsworthy can be difficult. However, there are strategies that you can employ to come up with campaign that will stand out in the news cycle:
Identify your “dream publications”. What types of topics do they tend to cover? For instance, if you identify Cosmopolitan as a dream publication, regularly check in with the site and make a note of the topics and types of content they publish.
Choose a campaign that will be topical by the time you’re pitching to journalists. For instance, if you’ll be pitching in March, doing a campaign around March Madness would make sense.
Use tools like BuzzSumo and search for keywords related to your industry. Review what types of content tend to get a lot of social shares and interaction.
Browse Reddit to find relevant subreddits related to your industry and see what types of content get the most upvotes.
If you have a team, brainstorm about potential topic ideas.
Rule #3: Check to see if similar campaigns have been done recently
Before moving ahead with a campaign, you’ll want to make sure that it hasn’t been done too recently. Nothing is worse than going through all of the steps to create and pitch a campaign just to find that journalists have already covered it.
When you come up with your idea, quickly perform a search to see if other similar content like yours exists. If it exists, research how recently it was done. If it was just in the past year and you plan on pitching the same journalists, you might want to choose another idea. It’s unlikely that the journalist will want to cover it again.
Rule #4: Rank your campaigns
Once you’ve brainstormed multiple ideas for digital PR campaigns that you want to move forward with, it can also be helpful to rank them. Not all campaigns will be created equal, and some might be naturally stronger than others. We find it helpful to give each campaign a 1-5 rating across five different criteria:
Backlink potential: How likely is this to produce backlinks?
Outreach diversity: How many different publications would be interested in covering this?
Outreach angles: How likely is it that we can find multiple different angles to pitch this from?
Subject topicality: How relevant is this campaign in today’s news cycle?
Audience size: How large is the size of the audience for our target publications
You can see an example of how we rate each content campaign below:
2. Publish the campaign: design & blog phase
Now comes the exciting part! You get to transform your campaign from a bunch of raw data in a spreadsheet to beautifully designed graphics that live on a page of your site.
The campaign should be added as a blog post to your site and consist of two components:
Custom graphics that highlight your data insights
Copy that provides more detail about the research and findings
We generally recommend creating 4-6 unique graphics for your most interesting data points. As an example, we did a digital PR campaign for “How Much For A Case Of Beer By State?”. You can see the graphic that we created for it here:
This graphic clearly illustrates the data in a way that’s easy for users to understand, and gives journalists an asset they can very easily use in their own coverage of the article.
For this part, you’ll likely need to work with a graphic designer. When working with graphic designers, we find it’s best to be as specific as possible when it comes to what the graphic should look like. That way, they don’t have to do any of the analysis themselves and can more quickly create what you’re looking for. If you don’t have a graphic designer on staff, you might consider trying to find a reliable freelancer on sites such as Upwork.
Next, you’ll need to create copy. This copy should explain the research method, how the data was collected, and provide further explanations of each graphic included on the page. This doesn’t need to be a huge long-form blog post, but an introduction, 1-2 paragraphs of copy for each graphic, and a conclusion should suffice.
After the graphics are created and the copy is written, you’ll need to find a place for your campaign to live. We generally recommend adding this to your site’s blog as it’s the most natural place for informational content.
3. Build an outreach list
After publishing your campaign, you’re then ready to start the pitching process by finding relevant journalists to pitch to.
The easiest way to do this is to use some type of media database. For journalist research, we rely heavily on Cision. Their powerful search functionality allows you to search for journalists and outlets across a lot of different categories such as name, subject, location, keyword and many more.
For instance, let’s say I’ve determined that I want something to be covered on Forbes.com. Using Cision, I can select “Outlet Name” and then search for Forbes.com. From there, I’ll get a big list of journalists that write for Forbes.
When clicking on each one, you can find contact information for each journalist along with a biography that can be useful in determining if they would be a good fit to cover your campaign:
You’ll want to send your campaign to as many qualified journalists as possible, so build an outreach list of hundreds of contacts that you can reach out to during the next phase of the campaign.
If you don’t have the budget for a media database, there are other (but slightly more difficult) options that can help you find journalist contact information. For example, if we wanted to find authors who write for Forbes, we could take to Twitter and perform a search for “contributor @Forbes”:
You can then use tools such as Hunter.io’s Bulk Email Finder to find the email information for some of the authors.
With Hunter.io, you’ll only pay based on the number of entries you run through the tool. This can be significantly cheaper than paying for a subscription to a media database. Of course, this process will be much more manual and time-consuming.
4. Pitching phase
The final part of any good digital PR campaign is the pitching process, where we take all of the journalist’s contact information we just collected and begin to reach out to them.
The golden rule of the pitch
One key thing to remember when pitching is that the average journalist receives many, many different pitches every day. Part of their job is to wade through all of them and make decisions about which ones will be the most successful. Because journalists are constantly bombarded with potential stories, you’ll want to follow the golden rule of pitching:
Do as much upfront work for the journalist as possible.
This means that your outreach needs to be short, direct, and easy to read. We’ve found that it’s really helpful to use bullet points to keep things succinct.
For instance, here’s what a pitch email could look like for a data study about dogs in apartments:
Email Subject Line: The Most Popular Dog Breeds In Every State
Hello [Contact Name],
My name is Chris Long and I’m with Go Fish Digital. Recently we performed a study on every state’s favorite breed of dog. Our study found some really interesting insights including:
The Golden Retriever was the most popular dog breed and was chosen as the favorite by 42% of respondents
People in Southern states were 38% more likely to choose larger dog breeds than those in Northern states.
Pugs were one of the least popular breeds and were only chosen as the favorite from 6% of respondents.
You can find our full study at the link here; [insert link].
We would love to see this covered on [outlet name]. Please let us know if you think this is something you would be interested in writing about.
This email is short, to the point, and quickly demonstrates our key findings.
For more great tips, check out Amanda Milligan’s Whiteboard Friday on the topic:
Using outreach software
While it’s completely fine to work out of a Gmail inbox for your pitching, outreach software can help you take things to the next level. Our team uses Yesware. Pitchbox is another widely-used option. Both help you organize your outreach, perform A/B tests, and get analytics on your outreach efforts.
For example, Yesware allows us to compare open rates of one email compared to another when pitching the same campaign. This way, we gain greater insights as to what subject lines are more likely to get traction with journalists.
Building relationships with journalists
This is where digital marketers need to truly think like someone in PR. One of the benefits of a traditional PR firm is the media relationships they’ve built over time. These relationships make it much easier for them to get media attention and coverage for their clients. Thus, you need to be making long-term efforts to build relationships with journalists.
As mentioned above, journalists are constantly bombarded with pitches and have many different options when choosing what stories they want to cover. Therefore, if they see an inbox full of pitches, they’re much more likely to cover one from a person that they’ve worked with before — and trust.
Relationships aren’t built overnight and you’ll need to build trust with the journalists by ensuring that your content is accurate, high-quality, and likely to be successful for them. While there is no single “hack” for developing genuine human relationships, here are some things that can help you along the way:
Try pitching the same journalists for multiple campaigns. This continued contact can help you establish a relationship with them. Just be sure to space them out.
Ensure you’re quick to respond. Journalists are often highly dependent on deadlines, and you need to be sure you’re helping them meet theirs.
Always be pleasant and cordial, even if they turn down your campaign. You never know if they’ll be interested in the next one.
Ensure that your data is accurate. If a journalist discovers that you provided inaccurate information, this will certainly hurt your chances of an ongoing partnership.
Research who you’re pitching to first. You should know what types of content they’re likely to cover.
We’ve been performing digital PR for the better part of a decade now, and we’ve found that it’s one of the most consistent ways to build links in today’s digital ecosystem. While there’s definitely a lot that goes into creating a campaign, they often result in high- quality content that’s actually newsworthy and deserving of coverage. Using these techniques, we consistently get coverage from some of the most trusted publications on the Web:
Digital PR campaigns can help drive immense results over time. For example, below, you can find a client that has been implementing digital PR initiatives since 2015. They have received links from 3,400+ referring domains, including The Washington Post, Inc.com, Fast Company, Entrepreneur.com, and more:
The world of link building is getting more and more challenging. In order to continue to build links and authority, brands may want to consider pivoting to more traditional PR strategies. While digital PR isn’t the only way to build links, we find that it’s one of the most effective and scalable ways to do so.