PR/Advertising Dogfight: Why PR is Poised to Own Content Marketing

By Rebecca Lieb, Industry analyst, The Altimeter Group

"We’re in a dogfight with the ad agencies."

That was the response from a senior executive at a major global PR firm when I asked him about his competitive landscape. He was referring to the source of most of the firm’s new business: content marketing.

Not that content marketing is new, of course. It’s been around for ages. Think company brochures. Infomercials. DVDs that explain the benefits of a new mattress or a vacation destination. Company newsletters. Even that little comic strip in a packet of Bazooka bubble gum is content marketing.

None of it is advertising. Advertising is when you buy media in squares and rectangles in print, or in minutes or seconds in broadcast, to spread a message. Content is publishing. It’s rolling your own media. It’s telling stories in a way that encourages action and sharing. It’s continual, rather than episodic and campaign-based.

In short, content marketing is something PRs have been doing for years. The era of the spray-and-pray press release is over, but digital content marketing has the potential to be the cornerstone of PR in the digital era. Publicity, media relations, storytelling, communications, reputation management; public relations professionals are great at this stuff. It’s time to translate these skills to where the content is going: into digital channels.

Content is king

Anyone who’s ever worked in publishing or broadcast media has heard this familiar mantra ad infinitum. In media, content is the bait. It’s what captures eyeballs, ears, attention and engagement. It’s part of a time-honored contract with consumers: we’ll give you content, you give us attention – but you’ll have to agree to get ads or commercials as part of the bargain. The traditional media model is interruptive marketing.

That model still holds true, of course, and will continue to do so. But these days, traditional media is on a continual decline. Newspapers, television, radio, and magazines, while hardly on the verge of extinction, are nevertheless experiencing catastrophic disruption. Circulation and tune-in are sinking. Journalists are losing their jobs in record numbers.

Meanwhile the rise of the internet and other forms of digital media has created meaningful shifts and changes not only in the way media are consumed, but also in the way various channels are created, found and disseminated. What powers that fundamental shift is, very simply, content and technology platforms that make creating and disseminating it within everyone’s grasp.

You may not be able to afford to buy a television network, but nothing’s stopping you from creating your own YouTube channel. The cost of launching a newspaper or magazine is prohibitive, not to mention risky. Want to set up a blog? Go for it.

One primary change came with search. Some 90 percent or more (depending on your sources) of buying decisions begin with a web search. And on the internet, practically no one’s searching for an ad. Depending on where they are in the purchase cycle, they’re searching for information, recommendations, research, reviews, authority and credibility. And once they find the information they seek, they’re sharing it with others involved in the purchase decision: a friend, a spouse, a colleague, or their boss, or perhaps they’re throwing that information out to a trusted network to vet it, or to validate their position in the decision-making process.

That’s not something you do with an ad, either.

Content can also create a virtuous circle in tandem with search engine optimization (SEO) efforts. More content helps a brand, product, service or company to rank higher in search engine results – provided that content is useful, helpful, relevant, or engaging. People talking about that content in social media channels create links to the content, which in turn further elevates it, search-wise. It’s a win-win situation that will be discussed in detail in another chapter.

Content marketing is also coming to the fore as marketers realize the importance of focusing not only on the buying cycle, but equally on the sales cycle – and then flipping the funnel over entirely as they quickly learn that customer service, reputation management, branding, positioning and PR are all occurring in digital channels as well as positioning and lead generation and nurturing.

Businesses of all kinds are adapting, and learning how to create great content. A 2010 study surveyed 1,100 marketers in North America and found nine out of 10 businesses – across all industries and companies large and small – are incorporating content into the marketing mix. On average, they’re spending a quarter of their marketing budgets on content, and over half said they plan to up that investment in the coming year.

These marketers know content can provide the solutions prospective buyers are seeking when they use search. They know prospects need to be educated before making buying decisions. They know that when credible, trustworthy information is found, it can easily be shared with others involved in the buying process.

They know they can become publishers. Rather than invest time, money and resources buying or influencing media with advertising or public relations campaigns, they can redirect the flow of that money to become the media.

Case in point: For many years, I was editor-in-chief of the top online publication covering the digital marketing industry. Our bread and butter was selling ads to marketing technology companies and publishing those ads in our email newsletters and on the website.

HubSpot is a marketing technology company, one that would have been a hot prospect to the ad sales team. No longer. A serious, long-term commitment to content marketing means the company features over 50 digital marketing case studies on its website – all with videos. The site attracts roughly one million unique visitors per month. They send email newsletters to over 700,000 subscribers who have opted in to receive them. Over 100,000 people follow the company on Twitter, another 50,000 track their LinkedIn updates. As a result, the company is spending very little on other sales and marketing efforts.

These numbers seriously compete with the subscriber, following, and web site traffic statistics of a major online editorial property I led just a few short years ago.

Consumers have come to expect content from brands, and the companies they do business with. More and more, marketing is structured to supply content, and to enable their customers to use it, interact with it and share it.

In order to sell, engage, educate and inform in a highly competitive online environment, the time for marketers to embrace content marketing is now.

Particularly public relations professionals. They’re is on the brink of owning something bigger than they have in the past. It comes down to their core competency: the ability to tell, and spread, stories. The challenge? Having the knowledge – and the chops – to do so in a digital world.

Ad agencies, you better watch out!

Rebecca Lieb is an industry analyst with The Altimeter Group. Her most recent book, "Content Marketing" was published in September.

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