3 Things We Learned from Last Year’s Biggest PR Stunts


Last year, #TheDress divided the Internet: the blue-black team and the white-gold team (or rather, those who were right and those who were wrong). Although humanity nearly unraveled itself during #Dressgate 2015, most agreed that The Dress was worth talking about.

PR stunts Taylor Swift The Dress tweet

This viral hubbub not only fueled social media fires, but was also good for business. British brand Roman Originals, the makers of the dress, saw a 560% spike in sales within one day of media coverage; their website had a 420% increase in organic U.S. traffic the month after the story hit the headlines. In fact, more than a full year after The Dress almost broke the Internet, the retailer’s site is still receiving increased backlinks and traffic.

Inspired by the contagious power of The Dress, Fractl and Moz took a look at the SEO impact of seven of the biggest PR moments in 2015. We analyzed how major media coverage affected a brand’s press mentions, organic traffic, and backlinks. Unless you spent the past year living under a Wi-Fi-repelling rock, you probably heard about (and even tweeted) most of these stunts and stories:

  • Gravity Payments: The company announced it was raising all of its employees’ salaries to at least $70,000. It was later revealed that Dan Price, the company’s CEO, may have been motivated by a lawsuit from his brother.
  • Miss Universe: Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner for Miss Universe 2015. Some speculate that Steve Harvey's mix-up was an elaborate hoax to boost falling ratings.
  • Turing Pharmaceuticals: The company raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000%. Martin Shkreli, the company’s CEO, was lovingly dubbed “Pharma Bro.”
  • Roman Originals: Caitlin McNeill posted a picture of a Roman Originals dress, which sent the Internet into an uproar over whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold.
  • Airbnb: Patrick Horton listed an igloo on Airbnb. The company took down the listing, but not before the story hit the news.
  • REI: The company opted out of Black Friday (#OptOutside) and paid employees for the day off.
  • Peeple: An app designed to be a Yelp for people stirred controversy when it was revealed that an early version of the app would not permit people “reviewed” negatively to opt out, and lacked any safeguards to prevent stalking and harassment.

Unsurprisingly, we learned that trending headlines – whether unintentional or highly orchestrated PR stunts – had a huge influence on a company’s site traffic, press mentions, and backlinks.

PR stunts brands that dominated the news 2015 Moz Fractl research

We also learned a few things about marketing along the way. Here are some of the key insights we got from these big PR stunts.

1. If You’re Small, PR Stunts Can Build Awareness

Even though large brands (Airbnb, REI, and Miss Universe) received 148% more headlines and 190% more social shares than smaller brands, the little guys gained more from their news coverage. Gravity Payments, Roman Originals, and Turing Pharmaceuticals saw the greatest increases in organic traffic and backlinks.

PR stunts help build brand awareness; they are less effective at stirring up interest for familiar brand names. For example, we can compare The Dress to Airbnb’s igloo. Both events received significant press coverage, but only Roman Originals saw a large increase in organic traffic or backlinks. Although Airbnb received an 83% increase in press mentions, they only saw a 2% increase in site traffic.

2. If You’re Big, Know Your Customers

Big brands don’t benefit as much from PR stunts – they don’t need headlines to let people know that they exist, but they can still benefit. From an SEO standpoint, REI’s Black Friday stunt was a bust. However, as Logan Ray pointed out to us in our Moz post, REI is a membership-based company which had customers that valued REI’s actions. In 2015, REI’s membership grew by a record 1 million people, and it posted a record revenue of $2.4 billion. REI stayed true to its brand, and it paid off.

3. Court Controversy, but Don’t Sink in the Mud

Negative stories received 172% more headlines and 176% more social shares than positive stories. Obviously, overly negative stories can sink a company – see Turing Pharmaceuticals and Peeple. (Turing posted a $14.6 million loss in the third quarter of 2015, and Peeple’s organic traffic hovers around 1,000 people per month.)

However, if you are able to paint your brand as a hero, then you can tap into people’s natural love of drama without getting burned. (See more on the value of controversial content here.)

Check out the full stats for each of these seven brands below (click on the thumbnails below the main infographic to load the full image).

About the Author:

Lillian Podlog is a Marketing Associate at Fractl, a content marketing agency that specializes in the science behind viral content. She is also the proud (and protective) mother of two guinea pigs. Continue the conversation on Twitter @LillianPodlog or @FractlAgency.


Mar 28, 2016

Very well said and closely observed points. The black and blue dress controversy was way confusing and bogus though, clearly a PR stunt. Also in tech world, its not about right or wrong, its about PR ONLY !

Lillian Podlog
Apr 12, 2016

Glad you enjoyed the article.
Whether it was a stunt or not, the dress was definitely good for business!

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