Author Archives: Sarah Skerik

Timeless Storytelling Tips from Former PR Newswire Features Editor Fred Ferguson

freddieEditor’s note:  The following piece is based upon an article published years ago by our then Features Editor, Fred Ferguson.  We were saddened to hear news this week of Fred’s passing.  A PR Newswire employee for more than 16 years, Fred left an indelible mark on the organization and instilled keen news sensibility in many of his colleagues.   In today’s age of content marketing, his advice on fashioning effective news pieces is more relevant and timely than ever.

A computer programmer develops a program to keep Internet pornography from the PC his son uses.

A retired schoolteacher produces a set of cards to teach his own children math and vocabulary faster.

And a dance teacher confined to a chair because of a broken leg creates a videotape teaching chair dancing.

These are the personal, dramatic stories that once hid in routine news releases, according to Fred Ferguson, the former manager of PR Newswire’s Feature News Service who passed away on August 22, 2014.

His advice, which encouraged organizations to incorporate feature news writing into their press releases and publicity campaigns, is still instructive today, and not just for PR pros penning press releases.  Marketers who want their content to resonate with audiences should pay heed to Ferguson’s words too.

“Organizations and companies who need publicity may get more exposure by doing a feature story rather than issuing a straight news releases,” said Ferguson, who was a longtime reporter, editor and executive with United Press International before joining PR Newswire.  “Unless you’re announcing something or have breaking news, tell your story in a feature that won’t bury the heart of it.”

Ferguson’s tips for creating a compelling feature story focused rigorously on putting the audience for the story first, and the brand second.

  • Hit editors with the story in the headline, which is all they see in selecting stories.
  • Tell the same story in first paragraph, which should never be cute, soft, a quote or a question. These leads obstruct getting to the story. People, editors included, don’t read deep;
  • Support the first paragraph with a second that backs it up and provides attribution. Bury the product and service name at the end of the second paragraph so it becomes less advertorial.
  • Try to keep all paragraphs under 30 words and to three lines. This curbs fulmination, is easier for editors to cut to fit available space, holds the reader’s attention and is attractive in most page layouts;
  • Do not excessively repeat the name of a product or service. Doing so is story desecration and the feature loses print and broadcast opportunities;
  • Forget superlatives. Forget techno babble. Forget buzz words. Tell why consumers care instead;
  • Never say anything is first or the best, express an opinion or make claims unless you directly attribute it to someone. Editors avoid anything not pinned to someone;
  • Avoid the self-serving laundry list of products or services. A better way to introduce a product or service is to have a spokesperson discussing it as a trend or advising how to use it;
  • Know that putting the corporate name in all capital letters violates style and will be rejected by many as advertorial and unsightly. Also beware trademark repetition.
  • Do not use the corporate identity statement. Instead, use the information throughout the story so that it will be used. If you must use the boilerplate, put it in note to editor so it won’t interfere with text.

Storytelling is all the rage today in marketing circles.  Fred knew the power of stories, and taught scores of communicators the ins and outs of storytelling.

Our thoughts are with Fred’s family and friends, and he has our everlasting thanks for his sharing of his knowledge and enthusiasm with his cohorts, cronies, colleagues and clients.

Video

The 3 Tactical Elements That Made the “Ice Bucket Challenge” a Viral Success

Unless you live under a rock that isn’t equipped with Wi-Fi, you’ve probably seen news about the viral success of the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge.” Our social streams are full of friends, family and celebs dumping buckets of ice water on their heads and challenging others to either donate to ALS or subject themselves to an icy shower.

The results are pretty amazing. The ALS Foundation reports that donations have increased nine fold during the challenge, and the organization is unquestionably garnering new donors and supporters for its mission.

There are lots of causes out there about which people are passionate, and many charities make deft use of the social web, which begs this question: Why is ALS research getting a disproportionate share of attention (and dollars) this summer? The answers are actually pretty simple.

  1. Video is at the heart of the viral spread. Participants post videos – some elaborately staged others spur-of-the-moment – of their dousing on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other channels. Video is the most arresting visual format, and communications featuring video elements have an advantage over other message types.
  2. Personal interaction, as well as a bit of peer pressure – are built into the challenge. Participants issue challenges to others they name, and those people then follow suit. Viral spread isn’t just assured; it’s built into the fabric of the campaign.
  3. Creative license, with a shot of competition. The audience generated element rewards creativity. Case in point – a colleague and I who received the Challenge from another coworker are orchestrating plans for our own video response. We’re determined to up the ante in our response, which will probably inspire the folks we nominate to do the same. The result? An organic mix of interesting and widely varied content.

For communicators planning campaigns on social channels or at live events, keeping these three keys in mind as you structure the program will help ensure success. A strong visual core will garner more attention than plain text, and building in the right sort of interactivity that encourages viral spread and rewards creativity will result in the development of higher-quality content that is more likely to spread.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications, and is the author of  the ebook Driving Content DiscoveryFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.

 

Using PR to Power Demand Generation

pr for demand gen

PR pros know that generating positive publicity and influencing public sentiment can have profound business benefits.  Measurement of public relations has always been a challenge, however, stymieing efforts to connect PR directly to a brand’s top line.  However, our audiences demand and consume greater quantities of digital content, the measurement problem is finding answers, and we’re developing a clear picture of the impact PR can have on specific brand initiatives.

Demand generation programs, which are designed to build specific awareness of and interest in a brand’s products or services, are at the beginning of the lead generation process.  Strongly aligned with content marketing, demand-gen programs can be significantly improved when integrated PR.  In addition to driving revenue, the PR/demand-gen integration also benefits PR: results are measurable and sustainable.

Aligning the PR & demand generation messages 

“We believe PR is vital and can help amplify the content strategy, but the content strategy also helps to achieve and amplify the PR strategy,” says Candyce Edelen, CEO of PropelGrowth, a New York area financial services content marketing firm and a strong advocate of aligning public relations with marketing efforts. “All of your marketing should be integrated. Everything should be integrated with the same message across channels, including PR. Clients and prospects will receive the same message and when they do, they’re more likely to remember it.”

Interested in learning more about how PR directly contributes sales? Register now for our free webinar “How to Drive Demand Generation with PR Tactics” 

Driving  Demand GenUsing key messages consistently across channels is crucial to using PR to drive measurable demand, Edelen says. “The talking points you want to see in press should also be included in every piece of related marketing content, in addition to press releases and executive interviews.”

The non-promotional content created for demand generation programs can also positively impact press coverage, Edelen notes. Thought leadership, research studies and  bylines can provide useful background information for busy reporters. It’s especially helpful if your demand generation content tells an interesting story.

Measuring PR’s effect on demand-gen

Driving the audience to act is one piece of the equation.  Measuring the effect PR has on demand-gen efforts is another.  According to Anthony Hardman, director of public relations for Access Advertising & PR, the information is out there, you just need to find it.

“The world has shifted and you have to understand the sales portion of it — that’s what exectives want to see,” he says.  For public relations professionals, this means building discipline around including measurable calls to action in messaging, to engage customers and prospects browsing the digital content the brand has published.

“For B2B, communicators need to use digital media convergence to drive traffic to landing pages around campaigns, and try to get a “microconversion” such as following a link, filling out a form or downloading a report,” he says. “B2Cs need to drive smart refferals.  Posting a photo without a link to your e-commerce site won’t be effective.”

Putting effective measurement tools in place is crucial for measuring PR’s effect on demand- and lead-generation.  Organizations using some form of marketing automation software, such as Marketo or Hubspot, will have an easier time with the task.

“If you’re using marketing automation, it’s easier,” Hardman notes. “You can track the referral traffic PR generates, and monitor visitor behavior.”

Web site analytics can show the subsequent behavior of the visitors your PR efforts drove to the company’s web site and landing pages, and in many cases, can enable PR teams to track visitor behavior all the way through to the purchase.  For smaller organizations, Hardman recommends that PR pros carve out time to understand Google Analytics.

Put the customer first

Edelen and Hardman both agree that ultimately, the customer’s interests have to be served by the messaging.

“We should be aligned around how the customer talks about the problem,” notes Edelyn.

“You have to create content that is useful and interesting to the people you’re trying to reach,” adds Hardman.

The awareness and visibility public relations generates can be measured today in terms of inbound web traffic, lead scores and conversion rates, as well as in the adoption and use of specific language on social channels and search behavior.   To learn more about how PR can power demand generation programs, and how to measure the results, tune into our upcoming webinar:

How to Drive Demand Generation with PR Tactics
Date: August 13, 2014
Time: 1:00 pm EST
Register: prn.to/1uiMWUr

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications, and is the author of  the ebook Driving Content DiscoveryFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.

 

The Long Click – An Important Measure for Communicators

long clickAn indicator of content quality, the “long click” reveals whether or not audiences are truly engaging with your content. lil tweet bird

Digital communications are incredibly measurable.  Marketers know which websites refer the highest quality traffic to their own sites, and they know which pages on their websites do better job of converting visitors into customers. Many details about the behavior of visitor behavior before, during and after a website visit can be captured.  But the marketing team isn’t the only group keeping an eye on how audiences interact with a website.  Search engine spiders are paying attention, too.

Keeping the measurability of digital content in mind, let’s think about the new PR reality – the public relations team as publisher and story crafters, not simply spin doctors called upon to manage crises or crank out releases.

Developing a stream of quality, useful content that your audience uses is one of the most effective ways to build search rank for a web site, improve audience engagement and fill the organization’s pipeline with prospects.

Within all of these considerations is a golden opportunity for PR to produce a measurable and meaningful business impact from the content the organization is already publishing.

The “long click” – a golden opportunity for PR
Generally speaking, two things happen when a person visits a webpage: they either take a quick look and then immediately leave, or they stay for a good long time consuming the content on the page and possibly even clicking on some of the links on the page and further interacting with the website.

In web parlance, the former is a bounce, and it’s bad.  What’s the use in attracting visitors to your content, only to have them immediately leave? In reality, this kind of traffic can be damaging to a website’s overall rankings, because search engines consider bounces as a strong indicator of the presence of poor quality content on the site.

The opposite scenario is called a “long click.” If the content you publish is attracting people to your website stay on the page and read the press releases and watch the videos and click on the links, that’s good for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, people who are spending that much time on your website are obviously consuming your messaging.  They are more likely to actually turn into customers, and along the way, they may take additional steps such as bookmarking or sharing content on your website or interacting with the brand successful media presences, developing further traction.

All of these behaviors are also positive signals that search engines notice indicating that the website is serving up high quality content that site visitors value.

Outcomes PR can measure 

Web analytics programs such as Site Catalyst and Google Analytics measure the time visitors spend on a page.  Additionally, it’s entirely possible to measure the traffic coming for specific sources (such as press releases, your online media room, etc.) and make some assumptions about the quality of those visitors by looking at their time on page data.  If it’s going up, generally, that’s a pretty good sign.

Digital PR teams that are publishing distributed content can embed short URLs within press releases, blog posts, articles and other content to measure traffic back to the destination page on your company website, providing a good measure of the traffic referred directly from the PR message. However, you can take it a step further by then asking the web team to analyze the time on page data for visitors to that page. In some cases, your analytics team may be able to even isolate visitors driven to the page by specific pieces of your content, and compare the time the PR-referred visitors spend on the page, compared to that spent by visitors from other sources.

This enables the PR team to establish a benchmark that they can use to measure this success in future campaigns, and also for setting overall objectives for the department.  Moving the needle on long clicks is actually reasonable PR outcome but more organizations should be adopting and measure.

Want more ideas for new ways to measure the business impact of your public relations campaigns?   This on-demand webinar archive offers first-hand examples on connecting  (and measuring!) PR to business outcomes.  Here’s the link: http://prn.to/1o4qblS 

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications, and is the author of  the ebook Driving Content DiscoveryFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.

Copy Quality: New Imperatives for Communicators

New copy quality guidelines from PR Newswire to help improve press release content quality.

New copy quality guidelines from PR Newswire to help improve press release content quality.

How does one determine whether or not a piece of content is low quality?

Since we added copy quality to the guidelines against which we assess press releases and other content prior to distribution, we’ve counseled a number of clients on steps they can take to improve the value of their content for their audiences.

Understanding how to build/create quality content is a mandate for all communicators creating digital content.  Google started raising the bar on web content quality in early 2011, when the first Panda algorithm update was deployed.  Taking aim at link farms and websites created to propagate links and manipulate search rank but which offer little to no real use to human beings, the goal of the Panda update is to improve the relevance of the search results Google returned to internet searchers.

The new rules of content quality

Google has kept the pedal to the metal, rolling out changes and updates to its algorithms in an ongoing effort to improve the utility of its search engine by returning better and better results to users, and it’s safe to assume that this won’t change in the future.  Communicators of all stripes publishing digital content and seeking visibility in search engines will have to play by the rules.

So let’s look at those rules.  In a blog post on their Webmaster Central blog, Google offered insights into how, when building the Panda algorithm, they determined whether or not content was quality.

“Below are some questions that one could use to assess the “quality” of a page or an article. These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we write algorithms that attempt to assess site quality. Think of it as our take at encoding what we think our users want.  

Would you trust the information presented in this article?

Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?

Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?

Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?

Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?

 Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?

Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?

How much quality control is done on content?

Does the article describe both sides of a story?

Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?

Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?

Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?

For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?

Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?

Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?

Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?

 Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?

Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?

Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?

Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?

Would users complain when they see pages from this site?”

- Google Webmaster Central, More guidance on building high-quality sites

Evaluating the content your brand produces through the lens of these questions will reveal with stark clarity whether or not the content makes the cut in Google’s eyes.   And even if the press releases you submit to PR Newswire adhere to the copy quality guidelines we’ve published, you can tighten the screws on your content by keeping this larger set of quality indicators from Google firmly in mind.

Messages that are useful and interesting to audiences generate results beyond search engine visibility.  They garner mentions, earn media and inspire social sharing – activities which drive brand messaging into new audiences and powering improved campaign results.    Some organizations will be challenged by this new reality but ultimately, overall marketing and communications objectives are well served by more engaging content.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications, and is the author of  the ebook Driving Content DiscoveryFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.

Updated Tactics for Issuing Press Releases Across Multiple Markets

It’s not unusual for an organization to issue similar announcements across a variety of markets. Whether announcing award recipients, regional services or a multi-city tour, developing localized press releases with similar themes for multiple markets is a common and necessary PR tactic, and using a template for the messages has long been standard practice.

However, PR Newswire’s new copy quality guidelines caution against using templates, and for good reason.  Google’s recent Panda update targeted low quality content, and multiple redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations were specifically cited as indicators of low quality content.

So what’s a PR pro to do when faced with the task of creating similar announcements for multiple markets?  Here are some tips for developing messages that won’t be flagged as low quality content and (bonus!) are more likely to garner the attention of journalists, bloggers and local audiences:

  • Create unique messages.  Each headline, subhead and lead paragraph need to be significantly different – merely changing names of cities or people in each isn’t enough.
  • Emphasize different story angles.  For example, if you’re announcing special events at a variety of hotel locations across the nation, emphasize different aspects of each location – e.g. shopping on the Mag Mile in Chicago, touring historic neighborhoods in Boston, waterfront attractions in San Francisco, etc.
  • Localize and further differentiate content by including real quotes from people on the ground in each market.
  • Include market-specific visuals, such as pictures of a local storefronts, individual award recipients, etc.
  • As much as possible, encourage social sharing of the content by local contacts.
  • Stagger distribution.  Don’t unleash a spate of similar messages all at once.
  • Rethink your approach entirely. Instead distributing press releases over the newswire for each market, build more public awareness by creating a rich, compelling and highly visual multimedia press release that tells the whole story.  Then use your media database to identify relevant media and bloggers in the region, and send them market-specific details directly via email.  (Here’s a great example from Honda, announcing the Honda Stage Festival.)

There’s no doubt that creating unique, quality content is more time consuming that simply using a template to crank out messages, but audiences value rich content, causing Google (and PR Newswire) to raise the bar on content quality.  To deliver the best results for the organization, creating unique and useful content is imperative.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications, and is the author of  the ebook Driving Content DiscoveryFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.

Safeguarding Brand Visibility on Social Networks

brand hub

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are all public companies, and as such, their primary objectives are to return profits to their shareholders, not drive visibility for the brands that have developed presences on their platforms.  It’s no secret that social networks strive to make their sites useful and attractive to users, employing algorithms to serve up content that will engage their audiences and keep them on the site longer (thus exposing them to more advertising.)  The recent news of Facebook’s experiment in manipulating user emotions by managing what they see in their newsfeeds is surprising to some, but the reality is this:  the brands we represent are not in control of social presences, and while there’s no doubt social media is a powerful communications medium, communicators are at the mercy of the social network companies and their fiduciary duties to their respective shareholders.

Changes in organic reach of Facebook posts since September 2012. Via Moz.com

The social network companies can make (and have made) significant changes to their platforms, increasing and decreasing visibility for brands seemingly at the drop of a hat.   As a result, except for brands willing to spend heavily on advertising, visibility via social networks can be unpredictable.

Here are four ways brands can safeguard their online visibility and social network traction.

Make your web site or blog the center of your content universe. Instead of using social platforms as the primary repositories for the content your brand produces, concentrate key assets on channels the brand controls.

Use social channels to build awareness and engagement, but don’t invest in creating communities on sites you don’t own.  Social networks are great places to find and interact with like-minded people. However, building communities and groups on sites your brand doesn’t own, for example, creates an asset for the social networking company, not your own brand.   If you’re going to invest in building a community, do so using a channel the brand owns.

Build a multichannel strategy for distributing content and messaging.   Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Building a multichannel approach to distributing content is crucial for building new audiences and maintaining engagement with people who are already connected with a brand.  Social media, commercial newswire services, online communities and a brand’s own digital channels reach different audiences.  Employ a mix, and fine tune messages to fit each, to maximize relevant exposure for your messages. You’ll also be creating a hedge against significant changes in the social media or search engine landscapes.

Let your audience do the talking.  Encourage social sharing (but point people back to your brand’s hub.)  As you develop content and plan strategies, make “social sharing” a goal.  Building content and crafting strategies with social sharing outcomes in mind will not only help amplify brand messages – you’ll build credibility through social proof, as well.   When possible, link shared elements back to your brand’s owned channels.

Using social channels to amplify brand messages while at the same time directing audiences towards digital assets the brand owns and controls enables organizations to capitalize upon the important benefits social media delivers, building visibility and interaction with key audiences  while protecting the brand’s investment in content development and outreach.  In addition to limiting downside risk to the organization in the face of changes in how social networks present brand content, smart communicators can develop traction with audiences on their brands’ own channels, developing increasing the return the organization realizes on the content it develops.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications, and is the author of  the ebook Driving Content DiscoveryFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.