Do Press Releases Work in Digital?

Communications Article
13 mins

Digital press releases must be one of the most controversial tactics in online PR. Should they differ greatly from press releases aimed at traditional media? Does the digital context require a different distribution strategy? And more fundamentally, has this 112-year-old PR tactic finally had its day?

In the article, we’re going to set out why and how digital press releases can still play an influential role in securing publicity for your brand.

What’s the argument against using press releases in digital campaigns?

A principal argument against using press releases for digital publicity is that in most cases, they don’t secure enough coverage to justify the cost of their production.

The American PR firm SHIFT Communications did some research into the efficacy of digital press releases last year. In a study of 1,092 digital press releases, they found the following average metrics:

  • Median clicks: 0
  • Median social media shares: 2
  • Median number of inbound links to releases: 1
  • Median MozTrust score (how trusted a URL is, 0-10 scale): 0
  • Median MozRank score (how well ranked a URL is, 0-10 scale): 0

You can read more about SHIFT Communications’ study here.

SHIFT’s findings are damning, particularly when considered against the costs of press release production and distribution. Not only did the press releases studied tend not to drive engagement; they also seem unlikely to have provided an SEO benefit, given their low MozTrust and MozRank scores.

The poor performance of the average digital press release makes sense when you consider the fact that PR professionals are starting to outnumber journalists. This point is illustrated by employment figures from the UK, where there were 83,000 registered PR workers in 2016, vs 64,000 who described themselves as journalists or editors in 2015. Of course, the average press release doesn’t attract coverage – there are simply too many of them and not enough journalists.

There is, however, another side to the story…

The case for digital press releases

SHIFT Communications presented their findings as proof that digital press releases don’t work. We would argue that what their research really shows is that digital press releases of average quality don’t work.

This distinction is important because the quality of the average digital press release is relatively low. Every day, hundreds of ineffective press releases are sent out to digital editors, bringing the median performance of digital press releases down to the low figures discovered by SHIFT.

We would argue that the fact digital press releases are still widely distributed is sufficient proof they still add value to their more effective exponents.

Here’s an example of a successful digital press release from General Electric:

Example of a successful Press release from GE

You can view a PDF of the full press release here.

Read the full press release case study here.

This multimedia-rich press release generated a traditional reach of 17.5 million, with 3,500 mentions on social media.

And giants like General Electric aren’t the only ones finding success through digital press releases. Here’s an example of a press release that racked up over 10,000 media mentions for a social marketing startup called WordStream in 2012:

Example of a successful press release from Wordstream

Read the full press release here.

Read the full press release case study here.

These examples show how digital press release can reap dividends for organisations great and small.

General Electric got results by presenting their complex quarterly financials in an attractive, accessible format.

With far less brand recognition to rely upon, WordStream had to play it a little smarter, by newsjacking Facebook’s IPO. They released accessible, incisive information on a breaking story, just at the point when journalists would have been seeking new angles to enrich their coverage. Other SMEs would do well to follow their example.

Whatever the nature of your organisation, digital press releases have the potential to get eyes on your brand. We’re now going to move on to discuss some the core techniques and best practices that will help you achieve better results if you decide to go ahead with a digital press release campaign of your own.

The importance of rich media in digital press releases

The most effective digital press releases tend not to be ready-written articles intended for direct republication. Like the case studies discussed previously, they include multiple media types.

Rich media can improve a press release on multiple levels. It can make the content more digestible for your media contacts; and for those who decide to run the story, it provides easy options to produce engaging multimedia coverage for readers.

Depending on the content/subject matter of your campaign and the media production resources at your disposal, your digital press release might include:

  • Header and sub-header
  • Press release copy (full version)
  • Press release copy (short version)
  • Image thumbnails with download links
  • Social Buttons
  • Links to further reading and supplementary media
  • Video/audio
  • Infographics

You don’t need to include all these elements in every press release – but you should consider all the options you can to decide on a suitable mix for whichever publications you would like to get covered by. For example, if most of the publications you are targeting have a heavy focus on video content, it would make sense to build your press release around a video.

Clear, compelling copy, carefully ordered to give precedence to the most important details, should always be at the heart of your press releases. Supplementing that copy with production quality rich media is also vital.

Tracking press release performance

One of the great advantages of digital marketing is the possibility of tracking and measuring almost every process, with a view to iteratively improving how it is done. This is certainly true of digital press releases.

The easiest way to track press release performance is to do your press release distribution via an email marketing platform that comes equipped with email analytics reporting, such as Campaign Monitor.

You can use email analytics reporting to find out metrics including:

  • Click-through rate (CTR) – the percentage of recipients who opened the email. This can provide indications of the quality of your contact list and the effectiveness of your email’s subject line.
  • Conversion rate – the percentage of recipients who followed a link (or completed a different conversion goal) in your email. Can be used as a measure of how engaging your press release is.
  • Which recipients opened and engaged with the email. You can use this information to decide which contacts you will target with a follow-up email.

If you prefer to direct media contacts to a web browser version of your press release (i.e. on your website), you can use unique, shortened URLs for each contact to enable you to track who has visited the page. Here’s a how-to-guide on URL tracking with Bitly. Just be aware that the period the link is tracked has a 30-day limit if you have a free account and you will need to be a paid subscriber to get a longer view on your bitl.y analytics.

A/B testing press release components

A/B testing is an iterative, trial-and-error method that can be used to tighten up every detail of your press releases. By tracking the performance of two marginally different press releases on random audience samples from your media mailing list, you can draw conclusions on what works best.

Any component of your press release email can be A/B tested – for example, your:

  • Subject line
  • Sentence order
  • Rich media type(s)
  • News angle

Let’s say you’re A/B testing the subject line of your press release email. Here’s how you might go about it:

  1. Create two random samples of contacts from your media contact list (try to use only a small proportion of your contacts – just enough to secure reliable insights).
  2. Create your press release email with two different subject line options
  3. Send the email to your audience samples, using a different subject line for each group
  4. Compare the open rate for each sample to get an indication of which subject line was more effective
  5. Consider using the most effective subject line for the rest of your contact list
  6. Use your findings to influence future strategy

Carrying out this relatively straightforward progress at the outset of your press release email campaign could significantly increase its open-rate – and therefore, its overall success.

If you’re new to A/B testing, we recommend starting with the “easy win” of testing your email subject lines – it’s a simple test that tends to produce reliable results. As you get more comfortable with the process, move on to testing other aspects of your press releases, with the eventual goal of making every aspect of your press releases testable and insight-informed.

Optimise your content for search engines

Whilst SEO isn’t a top priority when creating a digital press release, it’s good practice to bear a few key points in mind:

  • Backlinks – including links to several relevant pages of your website encourages extensive, varied backlinking.
  • Searchable topics – you may wish to tweak the subject matter of your press release content according to search trends.
  • Avoid keyword stuffing – make a concerted effort not to overuse SEO keywords in your press releases, as this will put off media contacts and may harm search performance.
  • Optimise rich media – use searchable titles in your image alt tags.
  • Request citations linking to your site whenever your rich media is used.

Mobile friendliness

According to Ofcom, 29% of UK news consumers in 2016 used their mobiles to access news content on a regular basis, up from 14% in 2013.

The editors you contact will be aware mobile media consumption is growing fast, and as such, they will be looking for mobile-friendly content.

Therefore, when creating an online press release, it’s good practice to ask yourself: would an editor be able to use this content in an online article optimised for mobile users?

Here are some points to bear in mind when writing for a mobile audience:

  • Use short paragraphs. For mobile users, paragraphs of a traditional length might appear off-puttingly long. Keep to two or three sentences per paragraph.
  • Use short headlines. A short headline plus a sub-header of 2-3 sentences usually just about fits on a mobile display, before the reader has to scroll down. Using longer headlines risks pushing the sub-header out of view, which may increase bounce rate (the percentage of web visitors who very quickly navigate away from a page).
  • Images optimised for mobile. Make sure your images convey the necessary details/information without mobile users having to zoom in. Choose simple, powerful images, and break down any infographics you wish to include into sections.

Other useful digital press release tips

Never manually send the same email to multiple recipients

Send your emails via an email marketing tool like Campaign Monitor or MailChimp; or failing that, individually. Don’t rely on BCCing or adding multiple recipients in the “To” field. Journalists generally wouldn’t appreciate having their email address shared with all your other media contacts.

Write customer releases, not press releases

That is to say, the content of your press releases needs to be accessible and appealing to customers, as well as journalists. Marketing strategist David Meerman Scott writes about this in his book, New Rules of PR.

Using press releases for link building

We recommend keeping your expectations relatively low if you intend to use press releases for link-building, for the simple reason that Google representatives say they don’t consider links from republished press releases in their PageRank calculations.

If you want to go down this route, focus on distributing press releases to publications/editors who tend to use press release info as the bare bones of their content, rather than republishing large sections. This approach will produce a higher probability of unique coverage and healthy backlinks.

Another link-building consideration when distributing press releases is which links to include. Linking to a variety of your web content in your press releases could help you to build a varied backlink profile which improves the search performance of other landing pages of your site, besides the homepage.

Better still, try personalising the links you include in your press releases to the journalists you’re contacting, so:

  • If Journalist X has shown a particular interest in e-learning, we would include a link to our e-learning landing page.
  • If Journalist Y writes a column about podcasts, we would link to our podcasts section.
  • If we can’t determine any particular interests of journalist Z, we would link simply to our homepage.

Use your knowledge of each contact to present them with your brand’s most interesting angles, from their perspective.

When not to use a digital press release

From the digital editors of broadsheet newspapers to independent bloggers, podcast hosts to YouTube vloggers, online publishers are incredibly diverse.

The most successful PRs will use a tailored approach for everyone they contact – and in some cases, that will mean using different ways of getting your message across. For example, you may encounter social media influencers who would not expect a press release from you as a matter of course but would instead expect a personalised pitch via email.

All this it to say that in some cases, attaching a press release will not be the best way to sell your story to a media contact. Your challenge is to draw on your experience with similar contacts to decide on the ideal personalised approach for each relationship.

Bonus tip: use #journorequest to build a media list.

Even if you’ve created the best press release on the web, your PR campaign won’t fulfil its potential until you can put it in front of just the right media contacts. To that end, you need to build a media list that’s up-to-date, accurate, and highly relevant to your brand.

An effective (and relatively little-known) way of doing this is keeping track of the Twitter hashtag: #journorequest. It’s used by journalists to find sources to comment on their stories, and to a lesser extent by PRs looking to promote their clients.

Go to #journorequest and scroll through the posts. Can you see any requests with topical or broader thematic relevance to your brand? Start noting down journalists writing about related topics, look up or request their contact details, and add them to your list.

Be newsworthy and relevant

We’ve covered a lot of ground by this point. Remember the multimedia components that help catch editors’ eyes? Mobile-friendliness? The importance of measurement and A/B testing?

All these elements can help you achieve greater success with your digital press releases – but they all count for nothing if your press release isn’t newsworthy and relevant to your target publications.

The best way to test this is to compare your press release draft against other content recently published by the sources you are targeting. Putting aside all personal pride and attachment to your organisation, ask yourself whether your story is equally interesting and engaging. Another important point: is it thematically similar?

Your press release may well fall down on one of these points. If so, don’t be discouraged; instead, take this as your cue to:

A. Seek more appropriate media contacts to pitch your story to; OR
B. Edit the press release to promote the most relevant and compelling aspects of the story.

With a newsworthy, relevant press release that’s thoroughly optimised for digital publishers, you’ll have a great chance of gaining publicity with this time-honoured PR method.

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