Rewriting The Rules of Content-Driven PR

Ragini Bhalla on Storytelling and Content Marketing.What is it about a book that hooks you in to turn the page and read for hours? Why do news publications like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have such high circulation figures? What makes a movie a hit at the box office? Content that’s riveting, witty, smart, compelling and personal entices people to come back for more and even persuades others (be they friends or just casual acquaintances) to check it out. To put it in another way, the process of creating good content is a lot like creating a hit TV series or film. You’ve got dozens of actors, designers masterfully making everything look “beautiful” and “relevant” to the audience, producers behind the scenes and of course, a director managing the direction, tone and execution.

While I won’t profess to work in the TV/film industry, the value of exceptional content (and the way it’s marketed) can be just as valuable to the bottom line for B2B brands. Perhaps that’s why it was such a hot buzz topic at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. Between the big Facebook, Twitter and Spotify parties, there were real discussions taking place around the work that’s still left to be done for brands to innovate, differentiate and make an impact.

One such innovator, Sean O’Neal, CMO of MailOnline, also took the stage to discuss what differentiates the publisher’s content strategy, advertising and monetization. “We are journalists and storytellers by trade. But by leveraging real-time data, analytics, and marketing technology, we are able to get instantaneous feedback from our users, process that feedback, and optimize our product based on what is truly resonating with our audience. I think these two factors help explain why we are the most popular English-language newspaper site in the world.” For someone like me who works in the middle ground between content marketing and public relations, O’Neal’s advice rings all too true. Here are three lessons PR professionals should learn from content marketing.

No one likes a braggart. Be humble and authentic.

Whether I’m in a business meeting or at a birthday party, there is nothing worse than talking to someone who believes they are the best thing to be invented since bread. If you’re so unbelievably smart and capable, why do you need to remind me and tell me over and over again? Contrary to what some of my fellow PR professionals might say, public relations isn’t about bragging or shouting how great your client is. It’s about letting the unique value of a brand shine through and being authentic in how you communicate that.

The more you have to overtly say, “I’m great,” “I’m the best,” or “I can sell you my product,” the further away you’ll push the very people who make the decisions to spend their money with your company. Instead, be authentic and humble. Whether you’re a B2C or B2B brand, focus on giving your customers the type of content that they already care about and make it personal, relevant, authentic and meaningful. That’s when you’ll get the right people to listen to what you have to say, as well as earn their respect and trust.

Stop trying so hard to sell yourself.

One of the biggest benefits of content marketing is the ability to position a brand and the teams of people who make up that brand as thought leaders. And thought leadership is something that can’t be sold to an audience. Take for instance a senior executive who has been slotted to speak at a major industry conference like Advertising Week or Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. People don’t fly thousands of miles across country and spend several nights away from their families to sit through a painfully obnoxious sales pitch. They come to listen to industry experts. They want to learn tips and tricks from masters of their trade – who are often people they respect tremendously. They want to contribute to the larger industry dialogue. They want to share best practices and find inspiration in what others are saying (and doing). So when a senior executive has the opportunity to speak at these types of conferences, the focus needs to be on educating, informing, guiding and helping those in the audience be better and do better in every area of their business.

If it’s broken, fix it.

It’s so easy for marketing teams and their PR agencies (or consultants) to get bogged down by the minute inertia of executing tactics. But that often results in a quantity over quality approach, and worse yet, content that’s stale and unappealing. With stale content comes little to no press coverage. And yet, a lot of marketers and their PR agencies will continue doling out thousands after thousands of their marketing dollars, countless resources and too many hours to produce average content that does nothing to raise the brand’s reputation as a thought leader. This is one of my biggest frustrations as a hybrid content marketer-PR professional. We need to hold ourselves and the people we hire – whether it’s a PR agency, a writer, a designer or anyone else – to higher content standards. As my mother often says, “If you don’t expect and do better for yourself, no one else will.”

What that says to me, and should say to other content-driven PR professionals, is that every single piece of marketing and communications content we create needs to have a purpose. We need to identify why we are creating each piece of content, who is our core audience for each (audiences will always vary), what is the real story we’re telling (and why), what is the best way to dress that story (is it a white paper, blog, newsletter, research study or byline) and where is the best place to share the content so that it’s relevant, useful and compelling to the right people. Even more than that, it means we have to be honest with ourselves (and with our teams, counterparts and senior executive teams) when a piece of content is broken. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars to create an infographic and then even more money, time and resources to launch it externally, you better be sure it’s the kind of content that will be opened, read, downloaded, shared and talked about in the right places. If it’s not, then stop creating any more like-minded content until you have done a thorough analysis of what works and doesn’t work, a competitive analysis of infographics that are successful, and most importantly, identify new best practices and guidelines to repair and elevate the quality of your content.

Ragini is contributor to The Makegood and Director of Content and Communications for Maxymiser, the leading expert in online testing, personalization and cross-channel optimization for some of the world’s largest brands.