It’s a sweeping and provocative statement, I know, but it’s true. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, PR has been ringing its death knell for the last decade. Ultimately, this should not be a surprise. A minority of the UK public now claims to trust mass media, 55% claim to have ‘little to no trust’ in the mainstream media. The system on which PR relies is deemed untrustworthy by the audience it claims to access.
Over the past decade and a half, every CEO, Founder and Sales Director I’ve worked with has asked — ‘what are we doing about PR?’, ‘how much budget is being put towards PR?’ as if this is the silver bullet that gets us to our target number. There is a misconception, maybe even a lazy assumption, that PR is free advertising. But, if the audience you are seeking to influence doesn’t trust the medium through which you are communicating, then surely it goes without saying that they won’t trust you.
The same goes for salespeople. Today’s B2B customers don’t trust salespeople. A recent study found that a majority (59%) of buyers will do their own research online to avoid interacting with a salesperson. Trust is the single biggest influence on whether a customer chooses to buy from you or from someone else. Trust should be at the centre of everything sales and marketing teams do.
If customers are looking for someone to trust, and salespeople and PR are failing to hit the mark, what should you do? How does a business get access to an audience if they can’t pursue publicity in the way it's always been done? In other words, how do you get your audience to trust you?
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There is a simple answer to this question. Earn it.
Okay, simple platitudes aside. By earning trust, rather than trying to garner credibility from a trusted medium, you will find the route to truly connecting with your audience. In turn, you’ll turn that audience into customers. In this article, we’ll outline effective strategies you can deploy to earn trust as alternatives to PR.
Before we go anywhere, let's get something out on the table. If you want to earn trust, you have to stop talking about yourself. Let me be even more direct — nobody cares about your product, your business, your killer feature, how many customers you have, your revenue growth or how many people you employ.
Forget, for a minute, that this is a business conversation. Let’s, for a minute, talk about real life — let’s take the example of dating. Dating is an exercise in trust. If you both trust each other, you get the outcome you both went into the evening looking for. No trust, no positive outcome.
So, let's stretch the analogy further. Your date arrives, you’ve never met before. You spend the opening sixty minutes of the date talking about yourself, in detail. Your mood, how many partners you’ve had, how much your car cost, how much your home cost, how many friends you have, how incredible you are at your job, what your salary is. You talk endlessly about the things that interest you. Do you think that you will get a second date? The simple answer is ‘unlikely.’
If, however, you turn the conversation around, ask lots of questions, find things that are mutually interesting and talk endlessly back and forth (demonstrating you’re a good listener and valuable conversationalist), then, I think, you shift ‘unlikely’ to ‘more than likely’.
So, coming back to the question in hand, how do you earn trust in ways that are visible, effective and likely to put your business front of mind?
You work selflessly.
Today, too many companies, a majority, focus on themselves. I don’t have any research to back up this number, but I’d estimate (based on the companies we speak with on a monthly basis) that more than 90% of businesses focus their outreach on themselves, their product, their sales, their pitch. Nobody likes it — everyone hates it. This is what PR delivers, this is why PR doesn’t work and why PR doesn’t resonate. This piece by Nicolas Cole, really underpins the fundamental problem with PR.
Let’s dig into the strategies that your business can use to replace your PR spend with more effective and more trustworthy methods of communicating.
Content is the new...yawn. Yes, we know content wins.
But, there is a good reason why the word content has become pervasive. Content provides the opportunity for you to deliver real value to your target audience. However, not all content is equal.
Before you take the first step, you need to consider what good, high-quality content looks like. Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this case, that is your target audience. You need to know your target audience better than anyone. You need to know their wants and desires, fears and pain. If you’ve got that, you’ve got most of what you need to at least plan good quality content.
The best way to demonstrate to your audience that you’re trustworthy is to deliver value. There are three key ways to do that:
If you want to create content that people will care about, it needs to be original. It needs to be different from anything they’ve read before and it needs to feel like it’s been written specifically for them. Instead of a rehash of old standards and platitudes, write something new. If you feel you must touch topics that have already been covered extensively, then you need to provide a unique point of view from which you can frame the message. At the very least, you need to get across your brand and personality in the piece, that will go a long way to engaging your audience and differentiating what you are delivering.
Interesting content alone won’t allow you to fully engage an audience. You need to appeal to the practical. People want answers to critical questions, sometimes these are questions they’ve been wrestling with for some time. Equally, someone could need a rapid solution to a problem they face immediately.
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If you’re not thinking about how you can create valuable insights based on actionable content then, in all likelihood, your content is doomed to failure. Start by thinking about being selfless and sharing critical information that can help your audience on their journey to the right answer. Equally, if you’re seen as a practical resource, you’ll no doubt get return visits when another difficult question rears its head.
There is a cultural shift required to create high-quality content. The Journal of Interactive Marketing recently proposed that to win in today's modern business and media landscape, your business must “have a culture that supports open access to relevant knowledge and expertise.” In other words, if you fail to be open and honest, sharing your knowledge and expertise, you’ll fail to win the trust of your audience.
Let’s face it, B2B content offers a pretty low bar. Software and tech businesses, in particular, are self-serving, technical and product-centric when it comes to content. Essentially, they find new and innovative ways of rehashing and serving up the same old product sheet. But, your audience is resourceful. They will filter through the bullshit, dismissing anything they believe to be sales and marketing spin. They can spot an agenda better than you think — take that onboard. By becoming customer-centric in your online profile, you will stand out and succeed.
Content used to be a word that you only really heard in media circles. Then the lines between what is ‘the media’ and the wider world began to blur.
One of the major reasons for the death of PR is the proliferation of new media sources. We used to live in a narrow-band media world — a broadcast world, funded by advertisers. In exchange for cold hard cash you could, if you could afford it, get access to a direct and captive audience. But, that no longer applies. Anyone (and I do mean anyone) can create a media outlet larger than any national TV or radio corporation. This not only creates opportunities, it damages the value of legacy options.
For example, who is the most influential talk show host in history? Feasibly, Walter Cronkite, maybe, Sir David Frost, more realistically, Joe Rogan. If you haven’t heard of Joe Rogan, he hosts an online show and podcast called ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’. He talks to intellectuals, celebrities, comedians, business people and politicians in long-form, 3-hour-plus marathon interviews. Given the likelihood that you have never heard of Joe Rogan, how could he possibly be the most influential talk show host of all time? That is very simple:
As of June 2019, The Joe Rogan Experience has an audience of 70 million (according to Rogan). Factoring in Rogan’s YouTube clips, and website views, Joe gets approximately 400 million views a month. To put that in perspective, CNN gets approximately 800 million, Fox 1.2 billion and NBC 700 million. While he’s not bigger than a network, he’s certainly bigger than any other show in history. He has half the audience of CNN and NBC, and a third the audience of Fox.
There is something significant to note here — the media landscape has fragmented. Consumers of media have become empowered to direct their own media diets. Gaining trust and relevancy is about speaking to your audience’s wants. Media, in general, has become far less about reaching everyone and more about being relevant to the right people.
You don’t need traditional media to reach your audience. Of course, not everyone is Joe Rogan, but there is no denying that the tools to build an audience are available right off the shelf. These are tools that allow you to reach huge audiences, and even more importantly for your business, they allow you to reach the ‘right’ audience — your target market audience.
If you’re a small business painstakingly budgeting your spend, PR is only going to swallow valuable resources. While social media can’t claim to have completely clean hands, it is certainly a more direct and unfiltered route than traditional media outlets in the eyes of your audience — that makes it more trustworthy.
Social media gives you the distribution you need to speak directly to your audience. You can cut out the middleman. If you bring high-quality content armed with solid social media outreach, you’ll start to build traction and grow your audience. If you bring relevant information about your audience’s world and industry, and deliver practical advice on how to solve real-world problems, you’ll access pockets of your audience which were unreachable with traditional PR.
If you’re a B2B salesperson or marketer who isn’t actively engaged on social media networks, then you seriously need to question why. If you’re not demonstrating your relevance, understanding and value on social networks, then you need to question; ‘why be on there at all?’
Social media is where your buyers go to get information. It’s where they go to ask questions and get answers. It’s where they go to make and start buying decisions.
We mentioned this earlier, but it is worth stating again — to create valuable content, you will need to undergo a cultural shift. You need an external focus, not an internal one. This is the problem with PR, it’s not even good at being journalist-centric, let alone customer-centric.
The harder question you need to ask yourself is if your content marketing is designed to bring value to your customer — because normally this isn’t the case. It is far easier to make the shift to calling your outreach strategies ‘content’ than it is to really embrace a customer-centric model of communication.
Most businesses use content to capture traffic. Spending huge amounts of time focused on search engine optimisation or disproving the objections of their customers, they create revenue-centric content and forget about delivering value. Becoming customer-centric is critical to effectively ditching traditional PR and make the move to a content strategy led approach.
I think it’s safe to say that nobody has ever referred to product marketing or sales content as customer-centric. There is a good reason — it is about you and not about them. It’s fine to include calls to action within your content, but you should never pitch or use your content as an opportunity to sell your product. There is a time and a place for that, and it's not here.
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Your audience will be able to pick up on what is promotion and what is useful. You should be the one to call it out. Remember, you’re trying to build trust and credibility. Your customers know what is promotion. Converting a visitor into a lead comes after you’ve delivered value.
The only way to ensure your content is hitting the right notes is to get quality customer feedback. More common than not, the content pieces you deliver will miss the mark. That means looking at metrics (impressions, click-rates, ranking, bounce-rates, conversions, etc.), it also means proactively asking for feedback. Open yourself up to criticism and take it on board. This way, you can adapt your approach and better serve the needs of your audience with the content you deliver.
So, it’s admission time. I don’t work for a PR agency, and I never have. I’ve employed PR agencies in the past when I was an in-house CMO. And, an admission, I did it for all the same reasons you did it. Not once did I ever renew a contract with a PR agency I’ve worked with.
Usually, the agency gave me negative feedback — “why isn’t your business doing anything newsworthy”, they’d say. My frustration levels would grow and I’d get bored of the whole charade. My peers would argue that ‘we need PR’, ‘we need to be in the press’ — all comments from another age, one where print was relevant and audiences were growing.
I come to this piece having sat in your seat. Thinking to myself, why the f*ck am I spending money on something I know doesn’t work. If you don’t realise now that you’re wasting your budget on PR, then you will soon enough. When you realise exactly what your PR agency is doing for your retainer, and the demographics of the writers at the publications, you’ll see that your money is being wasted hand over fist. Leonard Kim’s article demonstrates exactly this, and I’d encourage you to read it. In my experience, and in my humble opinion, there are much better ways for you to spend your budget and get the results you want and deserve.
Before we go into the plan, it's worth mentioning that there are many people in the world of PR that I respect and value. I equally know that there are many people out there that are playing their trade effectively. But there is no doubt that the market is in decline, and even traditional PR agencies are looking for alternatives to PR. So, if you’re tired of traditional PR, the pushback from PRs and the lack of results — why not try going PR-free? To put things into practice, you’ll need a plan. That plan requires you to focus on a few critical steps to get yourself on the right path.
Let’s not pretend for a second that this is an easy journey. There are plenty of potential hazards and failures along the way. Reach out to people who’ve been through the process for themselves and can share insights, successes and failures. Learn from those experiences and grow.