04 November 2012

Press releases work perfectly well, thank you very much

Every now and then I come across articles helpfully pointing out that press releases have stopped working, and it's time to switch to a digital content strategy. Sometimes I don't know if marketers in the digital space are just ignorant, or if they are being dishonest in order to push their brand of marketing.

Press releases are nothing to switch “away from”. A media strategy and a digital content strategy are different things, and if anything they are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Just because you’ve stopped issuing press releases doesn’t mean you’re on the way to SEO and content marketing success.

More likely, if you didn’t know what you were doing with your press releases, you probably don’t know what you’ll be doing with your content strategy.

Press releases are not content

A press release is not meant for your audience. A press release is a proxy document—a document designed to capture the interest of journalists, not that of actual readers.

A press release does not have “content” in the intuitive sense (Kristina Halvorson’s popular definition of “content strategy” is relevant here.) Reduced to its essence, what a press release is is a message. This “message” is not an airy-fairy thing. It is simply a claim: “Our new product is superior to our competitors.” “Our business will do well in the next year, thanks to prudent management.” Or, “The multiple suicides at our supplier’s plant is not our fault—we have been thorough with our audits.”

All "content" aspects of a press release—data, quotations, photographs—are subordinate to the message. Content, when included in a press release, is simply evidence to back up the message. (Yes, it's possible to have a press release without substantial information. It's usually what happens when you've in a crisis, when the media is pressing you for an answer you can't give.)

Press releases work by persuading editors that their readers (not yours) will be interested to know more about your news, or your angle on one. A press release must satisfy the criteria of newsworthiness.

Publishing press releases does not make you a content marketer. To be a content marketer is to become a publisher, and to be a publisher, you develop or acquire content to be published on your own website or blog. With a press release, your goal is to have media outlets and bloggers publish news (i.e. content) about you on their platform, using information you've make public in your press release. (Of course they are free to use other sources, such as interviews, independent studies, your competitors, etc. But that's another story.)

SEO has never worked for the press release

"Press releases lack the ability to engage and create momentum. Unless the press release gets picked up organically by reporters who write original stories about it, the press release itself can actually be viewed by Google as duplicate content and lead to dings."

No kidding. If the only content that gets updated on your website is press releases, it's not your press releases that are pulling your ranking down. It's your lack of content.

It’s been at least 10 years since we’ve had advice telling people "How to SEO your press releases”, and it’s still as ridiculous as ever. SEO is geared towards the long-tail content—informative pieces that people keep coming back for. SEO is not for one-page documents you write specifically to pique bloggers and reporters' interest. SEO not for answering existing, burning questions, such as whether you've been affected by the fire that burned down your neighbour's warehouses.

How about optimising press releases for the general audience and not just journalists? Ignoring the fact that this document is no longer a press release, consider this: Does your audience come to your website for news, or do they go to a news website? And: Most journalists and bloggers only use search engines to corroborate news, and almost all of them have established and preferred sources for breaking news. Unless you're big fish in a narrow vertical, or an enormous brand, most journalists do not passively monitor changes on your website, much less search for news about your business on a regular basis.

If you believe your press releases have been working very well for your SEO, perhaps it's time to consider you've never been issuing press releases correctly in the first place. You've just been very good at optimizing for Google News, which is a very specialised (and hard to do) type of SEO. But you should still be congratulated, since inadvertent success is still success.

Just don’t go telling other people they should SEO their press releases.

Press releases are for pitching

No business worth its salt will hire a public relations person whose only skill is to write good press releases. To get mentioned in the media, a public relations person needs to know how to pitch the news story, how to find data to back up their claims, how to identify subjects for media interview requests. They also need to know and maintain good relations with beat and trade reporters.

It has never been possible to simply upload a press release and expect reporters to flood your phone with queries or republishing requests. Reporters (news agency, blogosphere or otherwise) are not search engines--they do not pick up your press “organically”. You have to go to them.

Come to think of it, it's the same (though to a lesser extent) for content marketing--it's not enough to upload search engine-optimised content. Post-Panda, you need to know how to engage your readers--by sharing content on your social network, by engaging readers by replying to their questions. It's not enough to ask them pass your article on. (How sociable.) Or to rate your article between 1 to 5. (How exciting.) Even for content publishers with subscribers, i.e. with readers who pay read their content, they still need ways to sell their content by advertising or syndication. How much more a press release, which is nothing more than a hook for curious journalists and writers?

There has never been a fire-and-forget marketing or communications strategy.

Is content really king for you?

Like all buzzwords, "content is king" easily loses its meaning. Content is king only if it is written and distributed to meet the need of readers. Considered that way, a press release fails if it is not written to meet the needs of the media—it doesn't matter if it has been optimised for Google or Microsoft Bing.

Likewise, a content strategy fails if consideration for the content itself comes only after that of "getting endorsements" and "obtaining mentions".