He just started writing reporters one day. It was a time before status updates, tweets and blog comments; he sent his thoughts by email.
It wasn’t a pitch. It wasn’t a proposition. It wasn’t a call to action. It was a note. He treated them like people, instead of some object of influence or prism to an alternative universe of mass audience.
It was just a conversation – a comment on an article he read. He offered perspective – his own – but it was all done without an ask. He made a deposit without asking for a withdrawal.
It took a while, but then he started to get a lot of media coverage. Instead of leading with his credentials, or his story, his emails offered the viewpoint of a person engaged in the daily activities of his industry. He became a source. And reporters started asking him for his opinions, because he added value to the conversation.
This story is my recollection of one chapter in The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book I often reference in my work. One of the authors, Doc Searls, is still quite active on the web from his vantage point at Harvard.
Adding value to a market dialogue builds rapport and breeds trust – essential elements to closing a deal.
Markets are conversations
The rise of content marketing is an evolution of this concept introduced long ago: markets are conversations. It’s the difference between someone that leads with a well-reasoned viewpoint, and someone that leads with a title, or credentials, or an ask or a sales pitch. This is often the difference between holding a great conversation with someone, or talking at someone we find to be more interested in their watch.
Content marketing is a conversation. It is a chance to shape, frame and lead discussions. It’s not a chance to shill wares, and though it might seem counter-intuitive, brands stand to sell more by sticking to the conversation.
Adding value to a market dialogue builds rapport and breeds trust – essential elements to closing a deal. To that end, content marketing is a useful tool in so many ways for PR to cut through the clutter with unusual clarity, by doing things differently.
Sell them on your ideas and they’ll gravitate to our product; sell them on your product and they’ll dismiss our ideas without considering them. Sell them, but without selling.
Content: the minimum barrier to entry
Content is the common denominator to effective media relations, because it is a conversation. The inbox is overloaded. It is cluttered. Social proof counts in journalism too.
Registration wall? They bounce. Content is freely available; WordPress alone hosts 75.3 million blogs. How much time do people spent with content? A minute? 90 seconds? It’s precious time — an infinity on the web — to collect an email address, which even if we are successful, inherently stops the potential spread of our content.
A sales pitch? People are adept at avoiding the interruption on the web; sell them on your ideas and they’ll gravitate to our product. Sell them on your product and they’ll dismiss our ideas without considering them. Sell them, but without selling.
It’s hard for the traditional marketer or PR pro to wrap their mind around this concept. It turns their world upside down. Content is the minimum cost to entry for earning attention; content is currency bartered in exchange for attention.
Specifically for PR, it cannot be competitive, it cannot help clients or employers, and it cannot be successful, in a highly competitive environment, unless PR embraces content marketing.
I’ve reached a point in my career where my best PR efforts aren’t made with a telephone or email, but rather with useful content that’s made freely available. It is a subtle pitch. It is soft.
PR is a different profession when its your own byline on the hook.
Seven underlying reasons why content marketing is better PR
1. The backlink. Trackbacks, pingbacks and the link economy may seem like ancient words to the savvy digitrati, but it is the effective notification that one site thought so highly of the content on another, that it linked-back to that content. The hype over Google’s crack down on guest posts and press releases, are at the core of this value. Among many ways Google ranks sites, one of the most important is based on the backlinks a site has earned. A link is inherently valuable. PR pros that want to earn the attention of influencers should invoke backlinks, though we need to do it when the content truly merits a link.
2. Surrounding conversations. A backlink may not always have the desired effect. Perhaps they didn’t see it, or perhaps they are not interested, but the conversation that is earned around a post will force such interest. A reporter, or blogger, or influencer cannot afford to miss or ignore content in which their audience has expressed interest, or do so that their own loss. Surrounding conversations don’t come easily – they are earned. The way to earn these, the most valuable component of content marketing, is consistency. We get better with time, and practice and experimentation. We internalize and make ideas our own with a habit of writing content.
3. Thresholds. A threshold is by definition, “the place or point of beginning; the outset.” There is saying that a single grain of rice can tip a scale. Content marketing, which I believe in many ways is the marketing of content, the marketing of an idea, is the way to cross thresholds and earn third-party validation. Content marketing fosters a community that naturally gravitates toward good ideas and demonstrates that our ideas; it is “social proof” the ideas we represent matter.
4. Credibility. Credibility comes in two forms in content marketing. First, it’s in the “social proof” as previously noted. But it also comes in our own form. What I mean is people, including the influential, look at us as individuals when they weigh a pitch. Is this person engaged? Have they a track record of success? There have been so many occasions in the last few years, where PR opportunities evolved because of my personal efforts here on these pages, even when my own work has little to do with my day job.
5. Taking our own risks. Like social media, corporations avoid content marketing over fear. There’s a risk involved in expressing an opinion…someone might disagree. For those PR pros seeking to earn the attention of third-party content producers, this point could not be more important: reporters want to know a company has skin in the game and I’ve found some are more likely to pay attention to a post they can cite, and link back to, than an email on background a PR pro would rather not see published.
6. Search. What makes search engines so successful? It’s the ability to search for answers. People search for answers – searching is an explicit expression of need – which is why Marcus Sheridan advocates for answering questions in content marketing. Ryan Hanley took to YouTube to answer questions about insurance and put his employer on the map. Search enables PR to reach their customers directly, but reporters are also inclined to search for background when they get a new assignment. Search is a component of media relations as well.
7. Transparency. There’s an enormous difference between pitching a story and publishing one yourself. Any PR pro that blogs understands this from the volume of PR pitches, which ironically, they now receive. If we publish our own work, we assume the reputation risk — reporting is a link back to the source. Content marketing makes PR pros triple check the veracity of content; it’s a different profession when its your own byline on the hook.
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Much of what is content marketing should come naturally to PR pros because of their background in working with editorial contacts. The difference is, even as the traditional media outlets have discovered, there’s much to be learned by doing and practicing. A better method for PR is to start taking part in the market of conversations and relying less on the straight pitch. Of course, as a competitive PR professional, I won’t mind if PR pros choose otherwise.