I wasted $10,535 on digital PR.
Truthfully, it wasn’t a complete bust. I did earn five half-decent backlinks, which come to about $2,100 a pop (sigh).
But more importantly, I learned valuable lessons on where to better spend a marketing budget.
Let me tell you my story, what to look out for when hiring a digital PR agency, and hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes I did.
My Expensive PR Lesson
Along with the website you are on, I own a portfolio of online publications. For one of the websites, I had a budget set aside for high-quality, earned links from the media. Most of my websites are largely dependent on organic traffic, and as all of the top SEOs know, quality links are crucial to getting good rankings in search.
A friend of mine, a well-respected entrepreneur in the SEO community, had success with PR (public relations) by hiring a journalist and recommended I give it a shot. The concept was to find a journalist in my subject area, have them create compelling, newsworthy stories, and then pitch the story to the media. Ideally, one piece of creative content could attract dozens of links.
The theory was great, but my execution and vetting were poor.
I posted a job on Upwork, a popular freelancing website, and received dozens of applications from both journalists and PR agencies. I interviewed several people and was intrigued by a U.S.-based PR agency with a great sales pitch.
They promised to build engaging content and do outreach to the press to get links. They even had guaranteed monthly link placements.
But it turns out they were just saying what I wanted to hear. Their actual approach was completely different. They didn’t produce any content themselves and asked ME for ideas every month.
Instead of creative campaigns, they focused exclusively on lining up interviews. Not terrible, but also not why I hired a digital PR firm nor the expectation they set up front.
The team set up about three interviews per month with local publications, but only 25% of those actually included a link. The rest either mentioned my brand without a link or didn’t even say my brand at all.
As for their link guarantees, those were from their paid blog networks (glorified PBNs), which could do more SEO harm than good in the long run. So, I politely declined.
As it turns out, they were really a traditional PR agency masquerading as a digital PR agency (more on the difference below). I still don’t know if this was intentional or just ignorance.
Many PR agencies misbrand themselves…
After talking with other entrepreneurs and agency owners, I learned that many traditional PR agencies simply do not understand SEO or what digital PR means. It’s a buzzword, and so they’ve simply re-branded themselves as digital PR agencies without knowing what value they really provide.
Many of these firms are still selling placements and use their connections to get you in front of someone who can help you tell your story. And because virtually all of these media outlets have shifted their content to digital distribution systems, they sometimes (if you’re lucky) will include a good natural link back to your website. But it’s a total crapshoot.
With that in mind, it’s up to YOU to do your due diligence and weed out the traditional PR agencies.
But don’t fret, there are some good agencies out there and I’ll tell you how to find and vet them.
Digital PR 101
Before I cover what to look for in a digital PR agency, let’s go over some of the basics.
What is Digital PR?
Digital PR is an online marketing strategy used to earn links, build authority and brand awareness in the media. Digital PR agencies use tactics like the creation of entertaining, newsworthy, or data-driven content, and then promoting that content to journalists, bloggers, and influencers. Public Relations is a massive $16 billion industry in the U.S.
How is Digital PR different from Traditional PR?
Traditional PR uses offline methods to increase brand awareness and get featured in print publications and interviews. This can be in the form of magazines, billboards, or even radio and TV interviews. Traditional PR is usually reliant on nurturing relationships with journalists over time.
On the other hand, Digital PR is focused on the faster-moving, online world. Typically, the goal is to create a buzz that can generate many links and brand mentions at once rather than one by one.
The public relations industry is adopting more digital PR because of the growing demand to meet various Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Clients want public relations, but they also want to be able to measure the results of their campaigns. Simply saying, “Hey you’re on CNN…” isn’t enough for most businesses now.
Traditional PR is good for…
- Brand awareness
- Casting a wide net to a broad demographic
- Big budgets that don’t care about unfocused spending
- Local businesses and organizations that want to reach everyone in their area
- Those not worried about measuring success
Digital PR is good for…
- Earning links for direct traffic and organic SEO benefits
- Getting in front of your target audience
- Smaller budgets that want to reach a relevant, targeted audience
- A strong SEO impact on organic search rankings
- Measurable results
How Can Digital PR Improve Your SEO?
It may sound obvious, but high-quality backlinks are a ranking signal for Google. As you get earned media links, aside from the benefit of direct click-through traffic, links can help buoy your website in search results.
While a link helps your website, most of the benefit is derived by the destination URL where the “link juice” flows. Smart digital marketers will add internal links from their campaign pages to distribute link juice and help other pages rank as well.
Secondly, there's speculation that Google is placing more emphasis on authoritative, non-link mentions (linkless SEO). While not quite as good as links, these types of inferred links are more authentic and can have a positive SEO impact as well.
What is earned media?
Earned media is any publicity or mentions of your brand by third parties that you did not directly pay for and on websites or social media channels you do not own or influence.
Examples of earned media are:
- Mentions on TV, YouTube, the radio, podcasts, or other websites
- Magazine and newspaper articles
- Customer reviews, unsolicited testimonials, and social media shares
Digital PR for Brand Awareness and Leads
Beyond SEO, digital PR can be used to build brand awareness and curate trust and a positive image. It’s also a good method to help you get your name in front of your audience in key publications while they’re consuming content before they're looking to buy.
Digital PR can also help drive people to your website to learn about your products or services. This is great even if the customer doesn’t take the action you desire immediately. By driving targeted click-through traffic to your website, you can build data sets for remarketing. These profiles are also important for building lookalike audiences. This helps you better target across other paid marketing methods, saving you on media spend while widening your total reach.
Types of Digital PR Strategy
- Entertaining or data-driven campaigns and infographics – These types of linkable assets are created with the intention of giving a journalist a reason to link to you, either as a data source or because your story is interesting enough to share. A digital PR agency will create this type of content and then pitch it to the press on your behalf.
- HARO Outreach – HARO (Help a Reporter Out) is a twice-daily email digest listing reporters and journalists looking for expert sources. Anyone can sign-up and respond to these queries via email. If approached the right way, you can get featured in a variety of news publications, even some big-name ones like American Express, Forbes, and Business Insider. Check out our picks for the best HARO link building services.
Our Favorite Provider for "Niche Edits"
Our Favorite Provider for "HARO Outreach"
- Newsjacking – is when a brand piggybacks off big news stories to draw attention and media coverage to their own content. Check out our detailed post on newsjacking for examples and tips.
- Reactive PR – is sometimes thought of as crisis management and attempting to put a positive spin on negative media. However, it really extends to monitoring the news about your subject matter and being prepared to quickly offer expert commentary or content that could feature your brand. Check out our detailed post on Reactive PR for examples and how it's different than Proactive PR.
- Niche Edits -is a popular link-building technique where you outreach to existing, aged websites and pay for a contextual link placement within content. The idea is to focus on getting links from pages that already have authority versus brand new pages, like guest posting.
- Skyscraper Linkbuilding – This is when you create an authoritative piece of content that’s superior to your competitors. You then to outreach to websites already linking to your competitors and ask if they will link to you as well. Check out our detailed post on the Skyscraper SEO link building technique.
- Parasite SEO -is a paid content placement on a popular website to take advantage of their authority in order to rank in search. These placements are typically more than just a link, but instead an entire, sponsored advertorial.
- Press releases – are official statements to the media, usually in a 1 or 2-page document that announces something newsworthy like an event or product launch. Check out our detailed guide: Do Press Releases Work & Help SEO.
- Influencer marketing – is using endorsements and product mentions from influencers to direct attention to your brand.
What to Look for in a Digital PR Agency
After a terrible experience with my first agency, I did a deep dive and learned all the things you should look for when vetting a provider.
Are they using PR tactics that have SEO value?
Make sure your agency is using the latest digital strategies and not solely relying on traditional methods like interviews, press releases, and print marketing.
Get our expert picks on the Best Digital PR Agencies.
These do have some value, but ideally, you want a team that will build creative, newsworthy campaigns (linkable assets) and do media outreach to put your creatives in front of the right people. Ask about the typical approach to a new campaign. Do they have a formal ideation, delivery, and outreach process or do they just wing it?
And be sure to ask their opinion on paid link placements. If they have guaranteed link placements on an existing network of blogs, you should be concerned.
Do they have SEO competency?
If your goal for digital PR is SEO, then it’s critical for your PR agency to understand the basics. Here are a few simple questions to ask to help you vet an agency.
- Do you have any SEO experts on your team?
- What type of competitor analysis do you perform?
- What tools do you use to monitor campaign performance and new links?
- What constitutes a good backlink? Or a bad one?
- Do you use press releases and what, if any, is their value?
Awards and speaking engagements
There are lots of PR conferences, industry events, and award programs. While not a requirement, these can be good signals to show that an agency is recognized by their peers for their creativity and thought leadership.
Do they have KPIs and reporting?
The better agencies will provide weekly or monthly reports on which publications have mentioned you. They get extra credit if they provide reporting on the quality of those backlinks. On the flip side, if they don’t understand the concept of link quality, that’s a red flag.They should also be interested in a campaign’s impact on conversions and leads. If they ask for Google Analytics access that’s a good sign.
Do they have guarantees?
The guarantees I’ve seen are always a certain number of links per campaign or per month. Usually, a missed guarantee means they will run an extra campaign on their own dime until they hit the guarantee.
However, as I’ve experienced firsthand, make sure that link guarantees are for earned media, not paid placements. My previous agency tried to hit their guarantee by using low-quality, “pay to play” sites that could have easily had a negative SEO impact had I not known better and declined.
Who pays for content creation?
Be sure to ask if the provider includes the delivery of creative campaigns as part of their retainer. Sourcing data, writing, and graphics can get very expensive very quickly. Some agencies include this, some rely on you to generate the content, and some will charge you extra.
How long is the contract?
Be wary of an agency that wants to lock you in for a long period of time. To get off the ground, you should plan to give an agency a bare minimum of 3 months. There’s always some preparation and ramp up time to create new campaigns and then the outreach process begins. However, after a few months you should have a good idea if they can deliver as promised. Quarterly renewals are the sweet spot in my mind.
How much does digital PR cost?
Agency prices vary wildly based on location, scope and quality of service, and the amount of time applied to your account.
Typical retainers with a digital PR agency range between $2,000-$5,000 per month on the low-end, $5,000-$10,000 in the middle, and for high-end firms or Enterprise customers, prices can go all the way up to $20,000-$50,000 or more per month.
It’s typically better to look for an agency that provides pricing per campaign or number of campaigns per month, rather than a generic retainer without any deliverables tied to it.
Note: Prices are generally lower in the UK than the U.S. More on that below.
Digital PR Red Flags: What to Avoid
Here are some things to avoid.
- Link placements on pay-to-play websites
The whole point of upgrading your marketing spend towards digital PR is for earned media, not low-quality paid links. Paying for spammy links can quickly get your website penalized by Google and hurt your search rankings. However, many traditional PR firms simply don’t realize that not all links have value. They often have subscriptions to get their clients featured on paid blog networks (essentially PBNs).
How to identify low-quality websites and links
Here are 4 tell-tale signs to recognize a crappy website in just a couple minutes.
- Look for “pay for placement” advertisements on the website. Look at the header, footer, contact us, or advertise page of a website. Within seconds, you should be able to see if they say things like “write for us”, “become a contributor“ or blatantly “sponsored links”. Google also looks for these types of keywords and will not discredit the link or worse, penalize your website.
- Look for spammy links on a high percent of posts. There’s a whole business model of sites that exist solely to sell links. Spot check 5 or 6 blog posts and scan for links. If you notice a post has 1-3 unnatural looking links going to the same commercial website, your spidey-sense should start tingling. If you see multiple posts linking to personal injury lawyers, supplements, or casinos, head for the hills.
- Poor organic traffic – Put the website into an SEO tool like AHREF’s Site Explorer and look at the organic traffic. If you see a high DR site with very few visitors per month (in the example below, DR 65 and only 166 visits) that means Google likely considers the website a bad neighborhood.
- Most pages are people profiles. In AHREFs, are the organic keywords all people or company names? These are likely sponsored pages devoted to linking to each entity.
- No ideation process – Ask how they go about generating campaign ideas. Lack of a process could mean they’ll be asking you for ideas. It’s great to collaborate and share your expertise, but you want to hire creative thinkers. I experienced a PR agency firsthand who never brought me ideas and asked me for pitches every month. I’ll admit, I don’t know what appeals to the press, which is why I hired a PR firm in the first place!
- A heavy focus on press releases – When you interview the PR firm, how much do they emphasize the use of press releases? Once in a while, a press release is ok, but it shouldn’t be a foundation to your PR strategy. Overall, press releases are an outdated tactic with minimal SEO value.
- No measurable KPIs – If you don’t measure results of your campaigns, how do you know if they are working? Any half-decent PR company will measure and report on results on a regular basis.
- “Interview-only” traditional PR services – Occasional interviews are good, but if you want to earn links at scale, campaign driven PR where you can organically attract many links at once is the way to go. Interviews are labor-intensive and typically result in one link at a time.
- Long contracts – When you bring on a new agency, you’ll definitely want to give them at least 3-6 months upfront to get your campaign rolling. But after that, you should be able to cancel at least every quarter (before each new campaign cycle is started). Beware of agencies that try to lock you in for long periods of time. If they perform well, you’ll want to stay on.
How to Measure Success of Digital PR Campaigns
It’s difficult to measure the results of traditional PR that focuses on brand awareness. On the other hand, digital PR has measurable data points that can be tracked and reported upon, like links and conversions. A good agency will provide regular reports on these things, but you can also measure them yourself.
Agencies can track links and online mentions through tools like AHREFs, SEMRush, and Moz Link Explorer. My personal favorite is AHREFs which has a link metric called DR (domain rating).
In general, a higher DR means a more authoritative, high-quality backlink. DR is measured on a scale of 0-100. 30-50 is considered good while >50 is really good.
However, DR alone does not mean you have a good backlink. For optimal SEO impact, it’s important for the story to have relevance to your website and to not be from what Google might consider a “bad neighborhood” like I mentioned above. To put it simply, you want a natural link. A link back to your website should never feel “forced”.
Some of the best PR agencies will not only report on earned links, but also score those links for you based on DR and quality.
You can use AHREFs yourself to find out when new links appear in the media. But I also suggest setting up a Google Alert for both your brand and your own name so you can find out when you appear across the web.
You should measure the monetary ROI of a digital campaign. If you sell products or services on your website, you can track incremental sales through your shopping cart software or Google Analytics goals. If you are running a campaign on a specific page of your site, an easy way to accomplish this is to set up UTM tracking codes from that page to attribute it as the source of conversions.
Aside from direct sales, conversions can also be email sign-ups, lead forms, or visits to a certain page.
Social Media Engagement
Tweets, Facebook likes, and shares are all measurable. And success on social media platforms is a good indicator that a campaign is well received. Social media analytics tools like Sprout Social are great ways to track your social presence. Digital PR agencies leverage these tools to report on their efforts and help you understand how it all relates to ROI.
UK versus US Digital PR agencies
The past few weeks, I’ve been evaluating a bunch of the top agencies. To my surprise, I’ve gotten many recommendations for companies in the UK (I’m in the U.S. in case you didn’t know).
Based on those I’ve interviewed, it seems like the UK has their PR game on point while the U.S. is lagging behind. Anecdotally, I’ve been asking why, and the consensus is…
- UK salaries on average are lower than the U.S. and so agencies can charge less.
- Agencies in the UK tend to be more supportive of others in the industry and less territorial than the US. There is more of a collaborative community that shares ideas and strategies.
- The PR field in the US tends more towards the traditional PR side and is slower to adapt new tactics.
That’s not to say that you can’t find a good digital PR company in the U.S. as I’m sure they are plenty. But the good ones tend to be much more expensive, so don’t rule out going overseas.
Who are the Best Digital PR agencies?
After many hours of research, and many wasted dollars coming from our own failed digital PR efforts, my business partner and I have compiled our own list of the best digital PR agencies. We've personally vetted these companies and only include those we are comfortable will provide a good ROI.
Don't have time to read the full list? Check out Shout Bravo.
We're currently using Shout Bravo ourselves and thus far have found them to be both talented and a great value. They're a small team from outside of London that focuses on creative PR campaigns and media outreach to attract high-end, earned links.
If you have any questions feel free to drop me a line (geoff at grantspark.org).