The Future of Digital Marketing: Lessons Learned from the 2014 Internet Summit

By Michelle Rash

Digital marketing is facing a brave new world. Not only do industry professionals have to keep up with the constantly evolving climate, but they are also working in an environment where success and failure can both occur within a matter of minutes, and in a very public fashion.

These are just two main points emphasized at the Internet Summit in Raleigh a few weeks ago. In addition to digital marketing, industry experts discussed the latest trends in social media and search engine optimization (SEO), as well as tools, techniques and tactics that are beneficial to building customer communities and driving sales.

One of the key messages for me was that success in digital marketing means taking risks. While most companies want to play it safe and stick to the “tried and true,” for digital marketing to truly resonate, businesses and marketers need to step outside of their comfort zones and experiment – see what works, what doesn’t and adjust campaigns as needed.

Speakers also emphasized that not every campaign will go viral or generate instant buzz. One common analogy I heard was that in baseball there are a lot more base hits than there are home runs – so it is with digital marketing. But, as in baseball, several base hits can still lead to a winning strategy.

Other top insights I gleaned from the Internet Summit include:

Marketing influences sales

As a communications professional, I deeply believe in the power of marketing, media relations, advertising and social media to reach potential customers and strengthen a brand’s reputation and image. The Internet Summit was a nice reinforcement of the increasingly vital role these elements play in the sales funnel – and how important it is to make sure all messages across all media are communicating the information you want to share to the right audience.

People are increasingly relying on websites, word-of-mouth and social media to research what product they want to buy or service they want to use before setting foot in a store or picking up the phone to call a sales rep, according to Jodi Wearn, product marketing director for marketing software company Silverpop. In fact, studies have found that as much as two-thirds of the buying process has been completed before businesses may be aware that an individual is a prospective customer. This means it is very important for businesses to tell a good story across all digital channels and work hard to maintain a solid brand reputation.

Quality content remains king

One of the key messages of many of the sessions at the Internet Summit was that creating content remains a key part of any marketing and public relations campaign. But what was also emphasized repeatedly is that the content has to be high quality and meet the needs of your customers – which will vary widely depending on your brand.

Chris Moody, director of content and social marketing for Oracle, said that in 2008 there were one trillion pages indexed on Google; today there are more than 30 trillion. That means there is a lot of competition for your audience’s attention – so the content you create needs to be more targeted and focused on their needs than ever before. Focus on what your customers care about, not on what you think they should know.

SMS (text message marketing) becomes crucial

The era of email marketing is coming to an end and we are now entering the era of SMS, or text message, marketing. Research has found that 95 percent of text messages are opened within three minutes, said Wearn of Silverpop. While a growing number of people will automatically hit ‘delete’ on a marketing email, research has found that 90 percent of similar text messages will be opened. Conversion rates on well-crafted text message campaigns can be as high as 40 percent, much higher than even the most successful email campaigns. While Wearn said text message marketing may not be a good fit for every company or campaign, it should remain an ever growing part of the marketing discussion.

Facebook changes gears

Several speakers talked about how changes in Facebook’s model over the years now make it harder for brands and businesses to organically reach their “fans.” For even the largest of brands, only about 2 percent of fans now see unpaid content shared on the social network, and many expect that even this percentage will decrease in the coming months and years. (Even earlier this month, Facebook said it was going to push brands toward a more advertising-focused model.)

However, many brands still focus most of their social media time and energy on Facebook. While Facebook – especially paid ads and promoted content – will likely remain a staple of the social media landscape given its large presence, many speakers encouraged brands to focus more on other social media outlets. It’s important that brands understand their customers, what social media channels they are using – whether that is Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat or one of the dozens of other sites – and find a way to engage them there. As the number of social media options grow, it will be increasingly important that brands identify the one or two key mediums for their audience and message, and find a way to create relevant, engaging content for those platforms.

As we look ahead to 2015, RLF is continuing to look at the most effective ways to tell our clients’ stories, both in the emerging technology and in some more traditional ways. We are excited about the possibilities some of these digital methods are creating to allow us to hit multiple base hits, and hopefully a few home runs, on behalf of our clients.

Black-Belt Tips for PR Professionals

By Michelle Rash

Last August my daughter, now seven, began taking tae kwon do lessons. She quickly demonstrated a passion and a talent for it, and when her dojang offered parents free trial lessons in May, she persuaded me to give it a try. I will admit, I initially thought I would do free classes and then stop, but I quickly saw why she enjoyed it so much and began taking classes regularly, earning my yellow belt last week (my daughter is now a blue belt).

As I work my way toward a black belt, it has occurred to me that there are several lessons I am learning at tae kwon do that I can apply to my professional life.

Stop and breathe

At the start of every class, we take a moment to meditate. It gives us the opportunity to clear our heads from distractions and focus our minds in preparation for class. And often, during the class, the masters encourage us to take a moment to pause and catch our breath as we prepare for the next task.

In PR, it’s also important that we pause every now and then to refocus our energies. So often we get caught up in dealing with the situation at hand, the “fire drills” of immediate client needs that come with the territory, that we forget to take the time to pause, take a step back, and make sure that we are spending our time and energy on the most important things for our clients and their businesses.

Start with the basics and work your way up

While the ultimate goal of tae kwon do is to achieve a black belt, you have to first learn the basic kicks, blocks and punches.

So it is with PR. It is important that we work with our clients to have the basic “moves” down – such as defining their audiences and determining their key messages – before any advertising or media relations campaign can begin. While we always want to achieve “black belt” results for all of our clients, we first need to guarantee that all of the basic pieces are in place to make the most of our time and energy.

And even once you have mastered some of the more challenging skills, it is important to spend some time back in the basics. Just as a black belt may spend some time focusing on a basic kick or simple punch to make sure it is perfect, we need to remember that, even in this age of businesses looking for the next big thing, sometimes the basic, tried-and-true communications techniques are the best.

Strive for consistency

Tae kwon do takes a lot of practice and preparation. As with other sports, if you miss too many practices, your skills can get rusty and the more you miss, the harder it is to get back into shape. You can’t just attend class once or twice a month, or even once a week, and expect to improve.

Similarly with PR, it’s important to be in front of your audiences consistently and regularly. It takes a constant stream of advertising to be noticed, and more importantly, stay at the top of a potential customer’s mind. And it often takes a steady stream of media relations outreach to be known as the go-to source for a reporter. While not every pitch will hit the mark with every reporter – and not every punch will hit the target with full force – the effort is still key to achieving the results you want.

Set goals and build upon success

The natural goal of tae kwon do is to get a black belt, but there are several milestones along the way – every new skill mastered or belt obtained. Each of these is celebrated, whether by a high-five from a fellow student or at a belt ceremony. Recognizing these achievements and building upon them helps to keep our focus on the larger goal, but also allows us to rejoice in the progress we are making.

So often in PR, our attention is so focused on the long-range goal of our campaigns and our clients, that we fail to recognize the small accomplishments along the way – a great media placement, a response from a key reporter, reaching a milestone in developing a new website, or even some anecdotal evidence that the work we are doing is paying off. We need to take time to rejoice in the little victories, at least for a few minutes, to help keep us energized and motivated for our bigger goals.

Pay attention to the competition and think about your next move

A key piece of tae kwon do is sparring with a competitor – going back and forth looking for an opportunity or a weakness to score a point. While I still have just a little experience with sparring, I know that it’s crucial not just to pay attention to what your opponent is doing, but also to think ahead to your next move and determine the best strategy to win the match.

While the fights are not as clear cut and obvious as a sparring match, in PR it is critical that we keep an eye on our clients’ competition and industry trends. This helps us look for opportunities to differentiate our clients from others in their field and play up their strengths. We also need to always be thinking ahead to our next move and figuring out the best way to give our clients an edge or finding the next opportunity to get them in front of their target audience.

Whether it’s the thrill of landing a hard-to-get interview with a key publication, seeing a new website go live after months of work, or the stress relief that comes from a great workout at the end of a hectic day, I get the same adrenalin rush and sense of accomplishment from both my professional life and new-found hobby. And that thrill, that joy, is what makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Five Tips for Effective Communication in a Crisis

By Michelle Rash

At RLF, one of our core strengths is crisis communications. We have several professionals skilled at advising clients on what – and what not – to say in the event of a crisis to help communicate to key audiences, and address any issues and concerns in the most effective way possible.

Crisis communications takes skill – say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, and you can make a situation worse. You also need to be able to reach your audience quickly, yet calmly, under pressure.

While we have experience in drafting crisis communications plans and on coaching clients through tricky situations, it’s always good to have a refresher on the dos and don’ts of good crisis communications. Such a reminder was provided earlier this week at the PRSA Tar Heel Chapter monthly meeting where Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools, spoke on the subject. Carr has a deep background in communications and has worked with several school districts in times of crises, including Columbine, Colo., after the 1999 shootings and Moore, Okla., after a 2013 tornado destroyed an elementary school.

Among Carr’s tips for good crisis communications:

  • Most people are not prepared for the crisis that actually comes. While companies plan for natural disasters and physical tragedies, the vast majority of crises (82 percent according to the Institute for Crisis Management) are the result of bad employee or management decisions.
  • Expect the unexpected. While having a crisis plan is important, and one that is reviewed and discussed regularly, a crisis will not unfold in real life the way it does on paper. However, planning and preparing are still important because it will help you more instinctively make the best decisions under pressure.
  • Communicate clearly, quickly and frequently. Carr says whoever gets the message out first will shape the agenda, and in the age of social media, getting the message out first can mean sharing information in a matter of seconds. She advises that facts are shared early and often, updating key audiences regularly as needed. If misinformation is shared, by you or someone else, be sure to correct and clarify as quickly as possible.
  • Know your key audiences and how to reach them in advance. During a time of crisis is not the best time to create a media list or find the mayor’s phone number. Compile all the key contact information you need and keep it in a safe place. Update it regularly so it will be current if you need it in a crisis.
  • Communicate internally first. Carr says that so often in a crisis, organizations are worried about talking to reporters or external audiences that they often forget to keep their employees and other key internal audiences informed about what is happening. These individuals can be key advocates for you, and have a vested interest in helping you through a bad situation, so make sure they know everything they need to know.

Good communication is key and can make a significant difference in how a crisis is handled internally and how it is perceived externally. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, having a good plan in place and trusted partners in advance of a situation can make all the difference.

Content marketing to be key in 2014

By Michelle Rash

There is growing buzz in the PR and advertising world about “content marketing,” or the use of company-created materials to educate, inform and potentially grow your customer base. At a time when many people simply fast forward through commercials on their favorite TV shows or have a growing distrust in the traditional news media, content marketing is viewed as an increasingly vital way to get your core message out to potential customers.

Content marketing is not advertising, in the traditional sense. Its emphasis is not, and should not be, simply on selling a product. Content marketing focuses on adding value to a product, on telling the story of the company and its customers or educating consumers on a topic that your company is an expert on.

RLF has used content marketing as part of our overall PR strategy with clients for many years and in a variety of ways – from writing blog posts and producing YouTube videos to developing microsites and creating downloadable guides. We see the value that such content has for building trust and awareness among potential customers and for establishing loyalty among existing customers.

Earlier this week, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Tar Heel chapter hosted Dan Dooley (pictured right), senior vice president of digital solutions for Pace Communications, which has been recognized nationally for its content creation work for a variety of national brands. Dooley spoke about content marketing and why it matters for companies and brands. As I listened to him speak, I found that many of his key points were good reminders of some of the best practices of content marketing.

Among Dooley’s key points:

  • Quality is key: With the surge of content being created, quality matters more than ever. Google uses the quality of a piece of content as one component of its search-ranking algorithm, as does Facebook. If you want your content to rank high on these sites – a necessity to help reach your target audience – you need to create content that is well written, liked and trusted and shared by others.
  • Expect failure: One of the most interesting things Dooley said was they expect about 20 percent of the content they create to fail – to generate little to no interest. But, he stressed, failure can be a good thing. It means they are being innovative and experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t, which will help them to create better, more effective content over time.
  • Make changes as you go: A side effect of expecting failure is that you need to be willing to make changes. While most people think of content as being static – once it’s done, it’s done – Dooley said it should be much more dynamic. Pace monitors the response to their client content in real time (for example, how many page views something is getting online). If something is underperforming, they are not afraid to change it, whether that means putting a new headline on it or repackaging the content in a different way.

The role of content marketing will continue to grow in an overall public relations strategy as companies continue to look for new ways to engage with customers. When it comes to educating and engaging customers, content really is king. As a PR tactic, it is starting to supplant advertising in terms of importance and investment. If done well, content marketing builds trust, conversation, engagement, advocacy and emotional connection with customers; those are important for any product or service wanting to avoid becoming a commodity.

Public Relations – It’s More Than Issuing Press Releases

By Michelle Rash

While traveling a few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet some old friends for dinner. While they knew I had made the career switch from journalism to public relations, I could tell they didn’t understand exactly what I do. This is a situation I have been in several times since making the transition to public relations – there seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what public relations professionals actually do and, perhaps more importantly, about the strategic value we provide.

On some level, I understand this. Public relations professionals, and firms such as RLF, often provide a broad range of services. For my clients, on any given day I may be creating social media content, drafting a news release, working on a strategic plan and coordinating the placement of a paid advertisement.

So what is “public relations”? There are several definitions, including one recently updated by the Public Relations Society of America. But even with these definitions, explaining what it is we do, and more importantly the role we can and should serve for companies, can be difficult.

Public relations professionals are most known for the tactical things we do — securing media coverage, managing social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, creating compelling collateral pieces, planning special events. While these things all play a role in our jobs, they downplay the most important and valuable position we can fill – that of trusted counselor.

So how can a business utilize its communications team in the most proactive, strategic way?

public relations strategy

1. Invite them to the table. Nearly every decision a business makes has a potential communications impact. When making significant decisions, invite your public relations team to be a part of the process. Get their input up front. The more information they have, and the earlier they have it, the better they can manage communications to convey those decisions and key messages to important audiences, including customers, employees, government officials and the media.

2. Share your business goals and objectives. Every business establishes goals and priorities. Make sure your public relations team know and understands those goals. When they understand the business from the top down, including all of the goals and objectives, we can better craft the right communications strategy. This will also allow your public relations team to better prioritize their work and only focus on the core things that will have the greatest impact on your bottom line. As one of my clients explained to one of his colleagues recently: “We need people we can trust to help us achieve our goals. These are those people.”

3. Integrate them into your team. Most public relations firms have one or two primary contacts at all of their clients. However, it is crucial that that this is not the only point of contact. To have the most insight into a company, and thus to provide the most valuable advice, your public relations team should not just know the marketing person, but also key executives. If possible, they should have the chance to meet and interact with people all across the company to gain the broadest insight and perspective into the business. If you utilize multiple agencies for different communications needs, it can also be beneficial to set up regular meetings for them to make sure everyone is on the same page and moving towards the same goals.

As companies begin to plan for 2013, they should re-examine the role their public relations firms play. Are they being used just to carry out tactical executions after the strategies have been finalized? If so, it may be time to consider whether there are ways to better utilize your PR professionals. While this may involve a little more time, energy and cost on the front end, the rewards will be reflected on the bottom line.

Photo courtesy of Fotosearch Stock Photography.

5 Ways Parenting Prepared Me For PR

By Michelle Rash

I had been a mom for a little more than three years when I made the career switch from reporting to PR. Now, 18 months later, I realize that many of the skills I need to fill my role as “Mommy” to a very precocious and adorable daughter are also beneficial in my job.

While I am sure that many of my parenting skills help me at work (and vice versa), here are five of the most significant:

Juggling many tasks

One of the first things any new mom learns is how to do multiple things at the same time. Feeding a baby while brushing your teeth, sorting the laundry and checking email  – no problem! Now that my daughter is older, juggling often involves keeping her entertained while cooking dinner and making sure her soccer uniform is ready for that evening’s game (and checking email of course).

In PR, we often have that same need to balance various tasks while doing them all well. Our clients often have different needs and priorities and it is essential that we can move seamlessly from pitching the media about one client to monitoring social media for another, while responding to urgent emails from a third.

Reacting quickly in a crisis

As a parent, I often need to respond quickly to the crisis du jour, either real or imagined. That means finding the right solution for the problem – from healing a scrape with a band-aid and a kiss, or hiding invisible monster traps at night to help my daughter fall asleep.

While the challenges are quite different, working in PR requires that same ability. Whether it’s bad publicity, potential legal problems or a tough legislative environment, my job is to think quickly and creatively to generate the best possible outcome for my client.

Working 24/7

It’s no secret among parents that once the baby is born, the good night’s sleep is gone. It may be staying up all night with a crying infant, taking care of a sick preschooler or worrying about a teenager, but parenting is a 24-hour a day job. And while you may not always like the hours, you accept them as the nature of the job.

The same can be said of PR. I have needed to catch pre-dawn flights for early client meetings, stayed up late to meet a deadline, and dealt with a client crisis on a Friday night.  When you take on the job, you accept that it will not always be strictly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Being flexible

While never knowing exactly what the day will hold is one of my favorite things about both being a mom and working in PR, it also requires some flexibility in scheduling and an acceptance that everything on the day’s to-do list may not get done.

Before becoming a mom, I was definitely a planner. While I still have that tendency, I am now more comfortable with going with the flow. Otherwise, I might risk missing a last-minute opportunity to secure some great media coverage for my client or a special moment of blowing dandelion fluff and making wishes with my daughter.

Answering tough questions

Like many preschoolers, my daughter is very inquisitive and we have definitely hit the stage of the “Why” question, which on any given day can run the gamut from “Why do some people have brown hair and some people have blonde hair?” to “Why is ice cream cold?” I have to be prepared with an honest, easy to understand answer, no matter what the question.

Similarly, in PR, I am often asked tough questions – from clients seeking more information before making a decision to journalists weighing whether to use a client as a source. I must respond as openly and honestly as possible, providing them with the information they need in a timely manner.

As my daughter gets older, and her needs, wants and interests change (I anticipate that the teenage years will bring on a whole new set of challenges), I expect to gain even more skills and insight that will help me to both grow as a mom and succeed professionally. But for now, I am prepared to keep juggling multiple tasks, reacting to crises and answering tough questions – at home and at work. Are you prepared?

Having Trouble Generating Coverage? Try Social Media

By Michelle Rash

There is a growing body of evidence that reporters are not only turning to social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for recreation, but also for sourcing and research. For example, one survey found that nearly 45 percent of reporters read a corporate blog when conducting research on a specific company and that a quarter of all journalists visit a company’s Facebook page to gather information.

This ultimately raises the question – are companies doing enough on social media to generate the positive press coverage they want? While many companies are still shy about tapping into the power of social media to engage with reporters, one of our clients has recognized the value it can hold.

A Case Study

More than a year ago, RLF began managing a Twitter account for one of our clients targeted specifically at the media covering that industry.

Since taking over the account, it has grown from roughly 500 followers to more than 1,300 followers, including reporters at some of the nation’s largest newspapers, industry bloggers and government regulators. Through this account, RLF has been able to reach out to followers to promote research and press releases issued by our client, share the company’s point of view on important industry issues, and have conversations and engage with key reporters.

This interaction has led to some positive media coverage. In the most notable example, after seeing a tweet by the Associated Press promoting upcoming coverage on a variety of topics related to this client’s industry, RLF responded via tweet asking if sources were still needed for the stories. Less than 48 hours later, a spokesperson for our client was being interviewed by an AP writer for a story that earned national coverage.

Powerful Tools

While not every company needs to create a unique Twitter account for the media, companies should remember that Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites can be powerful tools for media outreach. Many news organizations and journalists have their own Facebook and Twitter accounts (this study found that four out of five business journalists use Twitter daily). Find which ones matter to your business and your industry, and connect with them through these channels. Praise a story, provide feedback on a topic they are covering, or find other ways to engage to help boost their awareness and increase your credibility.

On the flip side, as a growing number of reporters are using social media for work purposes, it’s important for companies and their spokespeople to understand that news is now more instantaneous than ever. I have seen reporters live tweet from events and press conferences, and tease out the details of interviews as soon as the discussion is complete. Things that were once considered too minor or irrelevant for a print or broadcast story may now get mentioned in a blog or on a Twitter feed. This makes it even more important for those being interviewed to be aware that once something has been said or done, it cannot be taken back. This should not dissuade you from interviews, but just as social media creates more opportunity for positive exposure, there is more opportunity for error.

Our experience with Twitter has found the benefits of social media, whether for customer engagement or media outreach, far outweigh any risks. As media keeps evolving, successful businesses must partner with companies such as ours to make sure both the message, and the medium in which it is delivered, are correct.