Digital PR

Great Expectations: The Truth About Digital PR Campaigns 

3 years ago

We’ve got a problem. 

Here’s what Digital PR and SEO Twitter has to say about our campaigns and posts…

“Digital PR is getting f***king ridiculous”


That’s not the only thing content marketers, digital PRs and SEOs are saying; others have called people in our community attention seeking and discussed the pressures of posting our best work all the time in lengthy threads on a Saturday morning when we could all be snoozing or having a cup of tea. 

But, you know what? I’m guilty. 

I’ve used Twitter as a platform for congratulating my team and sharing how proud of them I am. I’ve used Twitter to shout about campaign wins and link numbers for clients. I’ve used Twitter as a marketing tool to communicate with brands and potential sales leads. And I didn’t stop there… 

moz con 2019

I stood on the MozCon 2019 stage and walked you through how to create campaigns that go viral and generate hundreds of top tier links using the Digital PR Newsroom strategy, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with what I did on that stage or what I was saying on Twitter, the challenge we have is that I wasn’t showing you the full picture and what the reality of digital PR and link building can be like.

Showing you the full picture

A year on from MozCon 2019, and whilst on the virtual stage of MozCon 2020, I want to show you the full picture and this starts with breaking down our creative campaigns into three pillars, including:

1. Huge wins - campaigns that go above and beyond link targets

2. Huge fails - campaigns that generate little to no links

3. Steady performers - our everyday campaigns that secure a good amount of links

This second visual shows how we talk about the three creative campaign types, with a big focus on (over)sharing the wins:

The final visual below shows what our day to days look like as content marketers, digital PRs and link builders. You can see that the majority of the campaigns we’re working on fall into the ‘steady performers’ category, which generate a good amount of high quality, relevant links, which in turn have a positive impact on traffic and rankings. 

We’re going to face a number of challenges as an industry if we don’t celebrate those steady performers and talk about our learnings from campaign failures. If we focus on our wins and only our wins, we are at risk of: 

  • Giving the impression that we don’t have campaign fails 
  • Putting too much pressure on ourselves that every campaign must go viral 
  • Normalising the idea every campaign needs to get 100+ links to be good 
  • Setting unrealistic expectations and KPIs with stakeholders and clients 
  • Making others feel like getting 5, 10 or 20 links isn’t good 

We know steady performing campaigns can drive real successes for clients and ultimately impact important SEO KPIs, such as traffic and rankings. Can you think of one you’ve worked on? Of course you can.

It’s also very important to acknowledge as a community that we are used to focusing on the wins because link building and digital PR are hard, and we know that there is an element of risk as you plough budgets and resourcing into creating assets that may not generate the results you want. 

We’ve seen trends emerge for the kinds of formats and creative that do well and generate links in this space, from static infographics in 2009 through to Instagrammable maps in 2017 and ‘the best job ever’ stunts in 2019. This is likely to continue into 2021 as video takes over, and beyond into 2022 where we could be seeing virtual reality become a tactic used in digital PR campaigns.

With good reason, we are guilty of rinsing and repeating and we can do better. 

Step 1 - The truth about digital PR lies in accepting failures 

The first step in showing you the full picture is talking about campaign failures, accepting them and learning from them, so there’s no better time than right now to walk you through one of Aira’s most memorable ones. 

Going back to our rinse and repeat point; who remembers these maps? 

Let’s rewind to circa 2017 when we launched this campaign for a leading car parking brand in the UK. The map details the top selling car model in almost every country around the world, and the format of not being able to read things easily on the map tied into the fun nature of the campaign. 

But, these really do pose a few challenges from a QA process perspective, especially with really busy sections like this: 

Can anyone see what the mistake was? I’ll make it a little easier to spot:

What’s more was that we launched this campaign and even managed to secure coverage with ‘Honk Kong’ in full view. Luckily, we had an understanding client who helped us fix things quickly and the campaign went on to secure more than 80 links, which made everything worth it. I’ll still have sleepless nights over Honk Kong though. 

The more we talk about our learnings or ‘huge fails’, the better we will be at our discipline and we shouldn’t be worried about talking openly about them to clients or prospective clients too. 

Some of the best pitch processes we’ve taken part in have been where stakeholders have said ‘Talk me through a campaign struggle or fail and how you bounced back’, and that’s music to our ears. It shows the brand has an understanding of what we do and promotes honesty in the partnership from day one. 

We even won a recent pitch off the back of being open and transparent with our campaign struggles and previous experiences! 

Step 2 - The truth about digital PR; what is normal?

Earlier this year Aira launched the State of Link Building Report 2020  which details the findings of a survey launched out to more than 350 professionals across the SEO industry. We wanted to get their views on where we’re at right now when it comes to building links. We then received insights on the results from over 15 industry experts.

One of the main questions that gave us insight to what normal looks like when it comes to link building results following a campaign launch was ‘Have you ever had a campaign that received the following number of links?”. Here are the results:

You can see the majority of digital PR campaigns launched secure between 1-19 links and there’s nothing viral about those numbers. 

It’s a similar story for Aira’s results. In 12 months, we launched 138 content driven marketing campaigns securing more than 5000 pieces of coverage featuring 2,381 followed links. That’s an average of 17 links per campaign (shout out to the steady performers here!) and whilst some campaigns did secure 100+s, others didn’t. Instead we may have only got a handful of high quality, relevant links but that’s okay because we knew they’d make a difference. 

Ultimately, the link numbers mean nothing if they’re not tied back to real traffic and keyword rankings though, so it’s really important to make that connection and show value. Here’s an example... 

We built 47 links across 5 campaigns with technical SEO and keyword research in a 12 month period and doubled sessions which no doubt has impacted revenue. 

No doubt, this has had a positive impact on revenue and the client even confirmed it by saying lovely things like:

“[Aira have] consistently provided great guidance on setting targets, communicating their progress and helping us grow as a company”.

Again, these results have come from 'steady-performing’ digital PR campaigns. 

Step 3 - The truth about digital PR; learning from steady performers

The team and I were in a session with Creative Content Consultant, Mark Johnstone, when he helped us create the ‘Content Evaluation Matrix’ to analyse the success of our work. Mark headed up the team at Distilled so has a lot of experience in our field and you can follow his new project Content Hubble here

We used this matrix to plot our campaigns and reveal trends to make us better at content-driven link building. One of the first trends we spotted was that in the top right hand corner in the ‘successful’ and ‘not complex’ box was that maps were really great at delivering results. Guess how many we launchd that year for one client? A huge 12 out of a total of 18 campaigns.

These trends allowed us to uncover secrets and continue to build on successes, but we were focusing on the wins, and only the wins at first which brings us back to this visual: 

What we should have spent time looking back over was the ‘not successful’ and ‘complex’ box to establish running themes that we needed to avoid in our strategies moving forward. If we had done that, we’d have saved ourselves from overcomplicating things - we got far too experimental with design and it cost us links. 

We also overlooked the central part of the matrix, which would have uncovered the recipe for success for our ‘steady-performing’ campaigns and would have allowed us to celebrate these more. 

When we eventually got round to taking our eyes off the huge wins and focused on the other sections of the matrix, we uncovered valuable trends such as that evergreen campaigns with multiple data points work well for consistent results. 

We took this forward into our strategy for one particular client, TravelSim, and you can see in this case study where we built around 40-50 links from two campaigns, that it paid off looking at the ‘steady performers' in the middle of this matrix. It helped us get a 95% increase in organic traffic and 63% increase in organic revenue. Did someone say you need a ‘viral’ number of links for these kind of results? 

You can find a template of the Content Evaluation Matrix’ here. 


Digital PR is hard. 

You’ll experience huge wins with campaigns that fly, huge fails with creative that doesn’t get any traction at all, and you may forget to celebrate the steady performers as part of your day-to-day work. 

It’s important to keep consistency and quality in mind over virality and when times get challenging with your campaigns, or you're stuck in a rut, it’s important to remember the following: 

1. Take the ‘viral’ pressure off, start talking more about ‘steady performers’ and fails; 

2. Realise that ‘steady performers’ can consistently impact weighty SEO KPIs;

3. Use the Success Matrix to review campaigns and catch trends early.

Today, I hope I’ve shown you the full picture. 

You can find my MozCon 2020 deck here. 


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