Mar 24, 2011

Writing more effective press releases: lessons from search and social media

The content we produce – press releases, blog posts, articles, fodder for press kits, web site copy, landing page text – is grist for the online information mills, which are powered by search engines and social networks.   The chaff – lightweight, self-serving, overly-sales-y content – is separated from the wheat, namely, the substantial and robust information offering true value to audiences.  These information mills also gin up attention from our audiences around the clock, and continually serve up information linked to each individual’s interests at that moment.  This all happens in real time.

When we understand this, we can optimize content accordingly to drive conversions – namely, the outcomes by which they’re measured, such as leads generated, traffic driven, or sales tallied.  This is highly tactical, supremely strategic, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road stuff.  We’re talking about that tipping point when a potential customer acts in your brand’s favor … or doesn’t.  These decisions are also made in real time.

“Marketers constantly leverage the data their campaigns are producing to make them more effective,” notes Matt Kropp, VP of domestic client strategies & solutions at Covario, a leading search marketing agency.   “They are analyzing the behavior the keywords trigger to determine whether or not that word actually drives a conversion, and are organizing keyword and strategies by expected outcomes, and you do that by using real time data.”

Easy to find sources of real time data that can help you write better press releases:

  • Mine your social media monitoring accounts daily to see what your audiences are talking about.
  • Check your press release reports to see which releases generated the most interest.
  • Look at your company’s web site analytics to get a handle on what areas of your site are most popular and which keywords people used in searches that led them to your web site.
  • Talk to product teams, and develop an understanding of what questions customers most frequently ask.  Recurring questions are, in my mind, a red flag indicating an information gap in need of filling – providing you one more story idea and messaging opportunity.

Use specific language that will drive a particular outcome:

The idea of using language that triggers specific outcomes is one public relations pros – and anyone, for that matter, who is writing online content – should consider.   Words and phrases with a broader focus may drive brand exposure and increase awareness, but may not deliver an increase in web site traffic.  Thinking about the intention behind the keywords a person plugs into a search engine can be useful when writing a message for which one is seeking a specific outcome.

A good example comes from the mortgage industry, because people shopping for good rates on mortgages often turn to the internet.  The keyword “mortgage calculator” has been found to attract people at the beginning of the process, who are starting to consider purchasing a home.  However, phrases like “30 year fixed rate” are used by people who are very close to making a purchase.  Understanding the intent behind language used is a proven way to attract the people who are close to making the decision you want to support in your communications.

How to do this? Work with the teams doing the SEM and SEO for your organization, and understand what keywords they’re using to build awareness, and what terms they use to encourage specific outcomes, and use those terms accordingly.  This doesn’t mean packing a press release with all the keywords on the list – another mistake I see fairly often.  Focusing a message on a specific term, and your audiences’ specific intent, will produce a more interesting message.

What’s in it for PR?

This is all very interesting, but what’s in it for public relations and other content-intensive professions?  Actually, a lot is at stake.  I’ve also seen – first hand – how the PR side of the house can get too complacent when drafting copy, and not focus on creating messages that will drive outcomes. Tired pitches directed to writers who don’t come close to covering the suggested topic, press releases pounded out using a template and shopworn jargon, online content bereft of keywords and links, an absence of visuals and failing to engage in social channels – these are some of the myriad sins against PR effectiveness I’ve witnessed recently. While the old “this is the way it’s always been done,” argument may comfort some, in reality, tactics not producing results need to go by the wayside.

A good place to start is to look at tactics the outcomes-obsessed and metrics-driven marketing automation and SEO crowds are using today.   I think looking at how these two segments operate can be pretty informative for PR – because they are looking not just at the outcomes of activities that drive awareness and interaction, they are looking at conversion rates.

Pretty much anyone in the marketing or SEO game will agree that content marketing, (as defined by SearchEngineLand: creating genuinely useful or entertaining content for many specific niches of your target audience—not to overtly promote your business, but to build rapport and brand equity—and give it away for free) is the engine for any digital strategy. Audiences require more robust information.  The brands that provide it are rewarded richly when their audiences eagerly share, reference and link to the content.  Search engines reward good content, too, and notice the signals generated when real people get excited over and interact with a piece of information.

So, what are some other rules for crafting a more effective press release?

  • Be deliberate when you craft your message, and be sure it supports the outcome you want to encourage.   Your headline should convey exactly what the message is about.  The links in the story should provide easy access to more relevant information (not just to you home page!) The story itself should be interesting and tell a story. The next step(s) should be clear to your readers.
  • Be relentlessly, authentically human in your messages and interactions. Not what you expected is it?   The SearchEngineLand blog post titled “4 Principles of Conversion Content Marketing” I read yesterday that was the catalyst for this post said it well — human interaction remains the killer app in all of digital media. Let’s face it.  Content that isn’t useful doesn’t generate results.  Provide information that is useful and interesting, and your audience will respond by eagerly sharing the information, distributing it for you, and adding an additional layer of credibility generated by personal recommendations.
  • Avoid jargon like the plague.  You’ll force yourself to write a refreshingly original piece of content, and will probably end up using more human sounding language.
  • Offer more than just text.  Adding multimedia to press releases – including photos, videos, animations, slide decks – provides additional opportunities to attract attention, encourage engagement, and invite interaction.

This is a long post, but I think I’ve just scraped the surface of this issue.  What other tactics do you recommend for writing more effective press releases and other online copy?

Author Sarah Skerik geeks on content, context and search. She’s vice president of social media for PR Newswire.

Good related reads

Search + Social =Authority + Influence by David Armano of Edelman

4 Principles of Content Conversion Marketing by Scott Brinker, SearchEngineLand

3 Content Strategies to Target Decision Makers by Intent by Derek Edmond, SearchEngineLand

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