The Ins-and-Outs of Digital PR with Rand Fishkin: Why PR Might Trump SEO for Software Businesses

If you’ve just launched your WordPress product or recently started thinking about monetization, how can you reach and connect with people who may be interested in your product and do so on a budget?

Does SEO first come to mind? You may want to reconsider this strategy.

According to Rand Fishkin, founder of marketing juggernauts Moz and SparkToro, it might not always be the best and fastest way to reach your audience. The SEO and educational marketing thought leader, speaker, and author of Lost and Founder shares his vast experience from leading two successful SEO and marketing businesses and communities valuable for search marketers around the world.

In the first episode of season 2, Rand zoned in on another marketing channel that can yield potentially better results in a shorter time: digital PR.

What Is Digital PR?

When someone mentions PR, you probably picture TV, newspapers, radio, or magazines. Well, digital PR covers all these publications, but online: brands’ and industry influencers’ social media accounts, podcasts, blogs, industry events, YouTube channels, and more.

For example, MIT Review, Product Hunt, freeCodeCamp’s YouTube channel, or Danny Thompson’s social media would be great publications for software developers.

So, digital PR refers to getting your personal or business name mentioned in these publications. According to Rand Fishkin, it’s one of the most underrated and underinvested marketing branches.

Many people confuse digital PR with writing and distributing press releases to online publications. In reality, it’s so much more.

Digital PR:

  • Helps you create a positive brand perception around your business.
  • Provides you with direct access to an already established audience that trusts the publication you’re mentioned in.

Instead of building an audience from scratch, you’ll be leveraging the credibility this online publication has to reach your ideal customers directly because they “already own the audience whose attention you’re trying to earn”, Rand explains. 

This is why it’s effective for brand/product amplification and can generate ROI faster than SEO tactics. 

SEO vs. Digital PR: Which Gets Your Content in Front of Your Target Audience Faster?

SEO can deliver great results in the long run, but some fast-paced sectors need results much sooner. For example, a SaaS business may take more than five years to start seeing any ROI from it. This is because SEO results often depend on Google’s algorithm updates and other external factors out of your hands, such as industry trends or competitor activities.

“SEO is not the default decision it was in the past,” Rand says. 

Google has a preference for long-standing, 10+ year brands. Those brands’ investments in nearly every keyword in nearly every space are so complete that the SEO opportunity is extremely limited in most sectors and niches.

Rand’s key takeaway: when you focus on SEO, your approach is more or less “I don’t know who’s searching for this keyword, but I hope it’s the right audience”.

You’re going to try and rank against competitors, move from position 100 to 19, and still get no clicks — despite investing heavily in SEO to optimize your content.

This happens, for example, when your content isn’t perfectly aligned with the search intent or because people are more likely to click on familiar brands. After all, the majority of clicks typically goes to the top three best ranking results.

With digital PR, however, campaigns may be more successful.

First of all, you’re reaching out to an already-built audience. You don’t have to create credibility from scratch — if the audience trusts the influencer or the publication, they’re also more likely to trust their recommendations.

One mention by the right source of influence can be game-changing.

That means that building relationships plays a key role in marketing your product. A great review from a respected blogger in your industry can instantly direct more target customers to your website, bringing you a faster and potentially higher ROI. This is exactly why almost 90% of businesses are planning to re-invest in working with influencers throughout 2024.

Moreover, building relationships through digital PR gives you a chance to reach a broader audience that’s potentially interested in your product, but isn’t actively looking up the specific keywords you’re aiming to rank for.

As mentioned above, SEO may take years to generate ROI, whereas digital PR campaigns can pay off faster — and bring in higher-quality customers than other channels, according to almost 84% of marketing experts.

But doing digital PR and pitching your product or service may not come naturally to everyone. Rand Fishkin identified several reasons that we’ll explain below.

The Challenges of Digital PR: Why Developers Avoid Pitching Their Products

If digital PR can bring in faster results than SEO and if it provides a more direct approach to a target audience, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Rand believes that developers, for one, may not feel comfortable with reaching out to “gatekeepers”: journalists, owners of publications, and influencers. And it’s undoubtedly challenging to get their attention: over 30% of journalists confirm they won’t consider a product pitch unless it clearly offers a solution for their readers’ problems.

For some people, it’s ‘who do I actually pitch to? Who has access to my audience?’ For others, it’s the pitch process itself that’s so uncomfortable

But take a look at, for example, HR and payroll platform Remote. The company’s new product features got covered in HR Brew, one of the most successful HR newsletters today.

Given that HR Brew has tens of thousands of loyal readers (and among them, HR professionals looking for US-based talent), this coverage immediately put Remote in front of some new eyeballs that would undoubtedly be interested in its product, geared toward employers hiring in the US.

Many SaaS business owners or software developers may feel it’s not their “job” to pitch their product, but, according to Rand, it is. He’s being honest: “I’m a CEO, I can’t be pitching people my thing. But what do you think a CEO does?”

If you take a look at the news coverage example above, you’ll see that the HR Brew team spoke to Remote’s CEO & co-founder directly to hear about the expanded offering.

Another challenge lies in the fact that digital PR isn’t as formulaic as SEO.

“‘I make this content that solves the searcher problem, and then I target these keywords, and then I optimize it in these ways, and I make it accessible in these ways, and I distribute it in these ways.’ And PR is not like that,” concludes Rand and adds that PR is about asking yourself who your audience is and what they pay attention to: which social media accounts, which YouTube channels, which websites or newsletters.

Then, you pitch to the owners of these outlets. But how? We’ll cover some ways below.

How to Do Digital PR? 4 Proven Tactics to Start With

Rand mentions several activities to develop your digital PR strategy:

Appear on Podcasts

Invited to be a guest on a podcast? That’s an excellent way to get in front of your target audience.

Podcasts are increasingly popular — the number of monthly podcast listeners globally is set to almost double in 2024 compared with 2019, exceeding 500 million monthly listeners, although the year-over-year growth is now slower.

Podcast Listeners Worldwide from 2019-2024 graph

Rand confirms the power of appearing on the right podcast that’s relevant to your industry:

I will go on 10 podcasts, and one will absolutely pop. I can see in our analytics data that we’re suddenly generating 20% more branded search traffic than usual and getting 15% more signups than usual. Then, over the next six or nine months, people will find that podcast and lift it up again.

Over and above immediate effect, this proves that digital PR can also create a long-term source for your target audience to find you.

Engage in Co-Marketing Partnerships

Rand underlines co-marketing partnerships as a win-win because both brands can benefit by unlocking new audiences for each other. Rand provides an example:

“I’m doing a project with Typeform right now — I’m building audience research survey templates for B2B and B2C. Then, we’ll be doing a webinar series to promote the templates. This project benefits both of us: it gets people aware of Typeform and it’s great for us, too. Typeform’s audience is probably a hundred times bigger than SparkToro’s, so we’ll get in front of the right people and get them thinking about audience research generally.”

Create Relevant and Practical Content

The best type of content you can pitch to journalists or influencers is your unique experience, opinion, and original data you’ve collected through your app or software. In fact, journalists are very open about preferring original research and reports as pitches from PR experts.

“You can do PR by producing interesting research relevant to the publications your audience reads. Then, you can form connections with journalists who write for these publications or own them,” says Rand.

Quality content that truly helps your potential customers resolve a problem will always be appealing to any publication because it helps them maintain credibility and relevant in front of their audience.

For example, say you’ve developed a WordPress plugin that helps users create beautiful and engaging landing pages. A web design blog may want to publish your opinion piece if you offer to share insights and unique data on landing page conversion rates collected through your plugin.

Hire a Consultant or an Agency

Rand is a big fan of working with external experts such as independent consultants or agencies. Although it may not be within budget for many solopreneurs, outsourcing outreach and PR activities to an expert can have a surprisingly high ROI.

If you pay an SEO agency to get you 50 high-quality links for $5,000, and refuse to pay a digital PR agency to get 10 mentions in relevant publications for the same price, I’d argue you’re making a very unwise tradeoff.

For few hundred or thousand dollars, digital PR professionals can get you excellent coverage with their media connections and content know-how. Given that recent data shows that journalists respond to less than 4% of all the pitches they receive (sometimes even over 100 weekly), investing in digital PR professionals can certainly be worth a shot.

Rand also states that you could get a 10x ROI on what you’ve paid if the agency reaches the goals you’ve set: to drive more traffic or convert more users. And if not, you can simply end your collaboration more easily than if you’d hired someone full-time.

Final Thoughts

While SEO is a powerful tool for driving organic traffic to your website, it’s a long-term game. For faster results, consider prioritizing digital PR. By getting featured in relevant publications, podcasts, and social media accounts, you can leverage the existing audiences and credibility of these outlets to reach your target customers directly.

As Rand puts it, digital PR is incredibly powerful, but it requires strategy and needs to be intentional. It’s wondering who your audience is and thinking about what you can do with or for those whom this audience already trusts. And then, you “go through the actual process of reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, let’s do it’.” 

If you’ve tried implementing digital PR before, how did it go? What made the most impact on your business? Share in the comments below!

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