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Digital PR vs Paid Advertising — How They Differentiate


In this new age of digital marketing, there is an ample supply of unfamiliar terminology that is continuously being thrown around, from SEO and SEM to backlinks and landing pages. If you want to invest in digital marketing for your business, these terms can be intimidating, to say the least. However, daunting new terminology has always come hand-in-hand with whatever latest generational concept has integrated itself into the marketing industry – such as the one we’re seeing now with “digital marketing.” That being said, two terms that have often been used interchangeably by clients are “public relations” and “advertising.” 

As straightforward as both may seem compared to some of the terms just mentioned, the difference between the two forms of communication can be tricky to identify. Beyond simple definitions, you must identify which communication method is the best fit for your business, or if you should employ both. Is it even possible to use both methods? The truth is, some clients think they are employing a “PR” strategy when they are only running ads, and others think they want ads but really need PR. 

On top of all of that, the terms have also evolved over time, as both have developed a valuable presence online, shifting away from their traditional methods. With all that said, it’s time to properly distinguish these two undeniably perplexing terms that are both now vital in our new digital marketing age.

Let’s Start From the Beginning – What Are the Differences?

Public relations are meant to maintain and improve your public image. It’s not about trying to sell a specific product or service but about proving your business is one that should be liked and supported. It’s sending a strategic message to the public that forms a relationship between you and your target audience, which can be achieved through a variety of tactics such as fundraisers, special features, or press releases. These tactics are typically meant to increase awareness of your brand’s values or to offer and share your expertise on the subject matter at hand. However, public relations is an investment, as its goal is long-term brand awareness and is not meant to have an immediate or tangible impact. 

Advertising, on the other hand, is meant to result in a direct purchase of your specific product or service. Ads typically have limited shelf-life, as advertising is segmented by campaigns. Companies will either release new advertisements to spice up their current assets if they’re not seeing the results they had hoped for, because of a special holiday (Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas), or to promote whichever new item they’re eager to sell. 

However, the most significant difference between the two is their costs. Spending money on advertising is non-negotiable and if you spend enough of it in a smart way, you will get the brand recognition and sales you’re desiring. While you can spend a healthy budget in public relations, you could not spend a penny and still have a positive reputation based on your customer experience and values.

How Have the Two Evolved?

PR Gone Digital

If you’re starting to believe you understand the difference between the two terms, you’re not far from it. 

Over the past decade or so, both PR and advertising have evolved and transitioned into critical components of the acclaimed “digital marketing” industry. To start, “link building” has shifted from simply an SEO tactic to a valuable and digital PR strategy. For those who don’t know, link building is essentially getting your company mentioned on other websites, accompanied by a hyperlink that redirects readers to your website. Before this became a PR strategy, links could be bought or even illegally placed onto different websites in the hopes to increase your own site’s metrics. However, if done organically, this is a terrific method to get publicity and a way to generate traffic to your website. With that being said, receiving a “backlink” from that website will still pass on to you what is called “link juice,” which helps boost your website’s credibility.

The more prestigious and credible the website you’re being mentioned on, the better metrics it will have, ultimately resulting in more authority to be given and providing a more effective boost. The more trustworthy and authoritative your website is, the higher your Google ranking will be, allowing users to find you faster online under specific keywords. Now, what defines a prestigious and credible website? Typically the age of the website will be a big factor, as websites that have just been launched won’t have that credibility just yet, or the proper content which Google wants to serve its users. An example of a prestigious website would be sites such as Forbes or Reader’s Digest, who have both been around seemingly forever, have a terrific following, and publish great content.  

Now that we know what websites we’re aiming for, how do you get these websites to mention your brand? 

Well, in exchange for your expertise, journalists writing stories in need of your knowledge can use you as a source and attribute your site with a backlink. When these journalists mention you and your business, they’re referencing you as a credible specialist in your field, increasing your brand’s awareness, as well as your link metrics. This can be seen in the Forbes article below where our co-founder, Brock Murray, was featured as an expert in the field.

There are other link building methods such as competitive analysis, guest blogging, unlinked mentions, and internal linking. But the details of those methods are a blog for another day. 

Pay Per What? Click. 

Before we get into the details of paid advertising, it’s important to note that there are plenty of advertising platforms out there — Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, Reddit, YouTube —  you name it. Depending on what you’re advertising, and what your intent is, one platform may work better than another. As with all areas of business, it’s important to identify where your potential customers are most likely to engage.  

Regardless of which platform best suits your business, advertising can be profitable if the best practices are implemented, including proper keyword research. On the flip side, advertising can be extremely costly if corners are cut. However, in today’s digital world, instead of paying a flat rate to have the advertisement released and shared, businesses now typically pay for every click their ad generates. What’s so effective about the pay-per-click (PPC) method is that it enables competitiveness — advertisers are empowered to research unique tactics to gain the upper hand, such as targeting lesser searched keywords for a lower cost per click. 

If you’re wondering how much businesses pay per user click, that’s up to them to decide as all advertisers can set a maximum price they are willing to pay per click. However, it should really depend on the market you’re in and how much revenue you can generate with a single click. For instance, if you’re a lawyer or in real estate, you’ll most likely generate more revenue per click than someone trying to sell a more common or domestic product. 

Now you may be thinking… What’s stopping a business from simply outbidding every competitor to be the top-ranked ad for the keyword their targeting? The answer to that question would be simple — nothing. 

This happens daily, and it shows. But just because they’re the #1 ad, doesn’t mean they’ll get the clicks. Some consumers automatically skip over the first ad for that exact reason, while others simply look at the middle of the page first, before the top. There are some that might take time to read all the ads and will click on one that resonates with them the most. The point is, while you can pay to boost your ad to the top of rankings, it doesn’t mean it’ll be the most effective. Just like any other advertising method, past or present, the true power of online advertising lies within the strategy and implementation. In the screenshot below, you can see that the first three search results are ads.

So Which One is Better to Invest in to Ultimately Reach Your Business Goals?

In today’s day and age, there’s so much competition between businesses, so ensuring your company is thriving in all dimensions of digital marketing is necessary. If you’re having trouble deciding if your business should invest in either public relations or advertising, your goal should be to invest in both. Investing in either will do your business wonders but limiting yourself to one will put you behind the eight-ball.

If you want your business to find success, people need to buy your product, but more often than not, your product will be facing stiff competition. Being a credible and well-reputed brand, gained through effective public relations should make consumers choose your brand over your competitors. With all that being said, both public relations and advertising have their notable advantages that will result in the brand exposure and sales you’re desiring — making your task to integrate them both into your business plan critical for overall success.

Not sure how to do so? We got you covered. At seoplus+, our wide set of digital marketing skills include providing our clients with both impactful link building strategies and efficient paid advertising methods, ensuring our clients are reaching their full online marketing potential.

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