Word of the Week: Search

28 September 2018

Ever since a train crash stunt was arranged by William George Crush of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad to sell tickets in Texas in 1896*, our industry has been about making people, brands and businesses famous for cash (theirs and therefore ours).

* apparently this marks the spot where PR was born, although fans of Edward de Bernays would say it was his Torches of Freedom work 32 years later

And we’ve done a pretty good job of it, despite all the hoops we’ve had to jump through. We’ve relied on the tools of our trade – our instinct for news, our ability to build strong relationships, our creativity and our healthy cynicism – to earn fame for our clients. But these skills are no longer enough.

As we all know, though, the world has changed dramatically in the 130 years since some chancer staged a train crash to make money. Our job is now decreasingly about analogue footfall (getting people to the shops) and increasingly about digital eyeballs (and getting people to swipe up). Predictions show that ecommerce will account for ¼ of all UK retail sales by 2021 (it’s currently about 20%, up from 10% 4 years ago) – so, pushing people down the purchase funnel online is only going to get more and more critical.

This presents a whole new opportunity for us. Whereas, in the past, we have struggled to quantify the value of the fame we create for our clients – despite chasing the Unicorn that is the PR effect for what seems like an eternity – we now have a new tool at our disposal. A tool which has the potential to future proof our entire industry: organic search.

To be clear, whilst organic search is just one of many ways to drive purchase online (shoppable social is the cause du jour), research shows that over 70% of consumers use search when buying a product / service so being high up the rankings is commercially critical. And paying for key words will only get you so far so organic search is hugely important. More than this, if you strip away all the bullshit and jargon (and there’s a LOT of it), organic search is essentially the upgrade that PR needs to secure its future.

Firstly, it has the power to link our work indelibly to actual, tangible commercial success. Until recently, PR has been a little hit and hope. We know it’s been effective commercially, but we have been at pains to prove it. The fame we have delivered has been both immeasurable and unmeasurable. Mondelez Global Head of Strategy said a while back at PR Week 360 that ‘if PR sorts out its ability to demonstrate ROI, it will win the marketing battle against advertising’. Organic search can help us do just that.

The art of PR for SEO (grafting for backlinks, optimising them, aligning content and messaging, securing High Domain Authority, etc) gives us the opportunity to both make what we do more commercially effective and (critically) track this commercial impact back to the activity itself. And if done well, it has the ‘double-whammy’ effect of driving down paid search bills for clients. This, combined with an ability to attach a genuine financial (sales) value to individual articles and campaigns can put us on the fast track to client Boardrooms (via an increasingly data-savvy generation of CMOs).

Secondly, embedding SEO more effectively in our agency businesses will give us all a data literacy which is still lacking. The language of search is the language of modern-day commerce – by better understanding the science of driving people to destination sites and ecommerce portals, we will be able once and for all to ditch the parochial language of PR and speak in the same tongue as the new generation of data-savvy CMOs (and CEOs).

So SEO is the wedge in the door agencies need to bring commercially-viable data to how we approach client briefs. Explore SEO data and pretty soon you’re getting deeper into web analytics, attribution modelling and all manner of data geekery. SEO is a pragmatic and pedagogical way in to bigger data.

Finally, SEO can be the glue that binds together all the varied components of an integrated campaign. Samuel Scott, Drum journalist and former journalist (read this): describes SEO as “actually just a slang term for a collection of best practices — it is doing web development well, content creation well, social media well, PR well”. In other words it is integration in action – the data and techniques behind it can bring together social media, PR and owned content in a way nothing else can (and allow us too grow into other disciplines).

In short, organic search gives the fame we have always created for our clients real, commercial purpose and it forces us to look at the bigger, integrated picture.

What better blueprint for the future of PR can there be than that?