I recently spoke with an analyst who had asked me how content marketing is different from traditional PR (public relations). I think this is a question that all marketers and SEOs are having to grapple with as SEO evolves. On the one hand, it’s getting harder and harder to rank in the SERPs with low-quality content and spammy links, making real content marketing much more important; on the other hand, the value of the link as we know it is slowly being devalued relative to social currency and co-citation, which owe a lot to word of mouth and good PR.
So what’s the difference between PR and content marketing? Is there any? The short answer is yes. Here are some thoughts on how these marketing strategies differ.
Content Marketing & PR Evolved from Different Tactics
I see content marketing as an extension of an SEO more than an extension of PR. In the past, links were a huge part of SEO, and SEOs sometimes went to extreme, shady lengths to get them (buying them, spamming forums, etc.). Google has cracked down on thin content and link spam with its ongoing Panda and Penguin updates, forcing SEOs to brush up on their content marketing skills.
(More: 50 Things Every Content Marketer Needs to Know )
Of course, Google maintains that nothing has changed – links were always supposed to be earned, not bought or faked. And they’re getting better at discouraging marketers from trying to game the system. It’s like Matt Cutts said: Don’t try to fake being awesome, just be awesome ! Content marketing is about creating awesomeness that people will want to read and share, leading naturally to traffic, links, social signals and media mentions. It’s a legitimate, white-hat  link building tactic.
Those natural (AKA organic) signals of awesomeness and mass approval are what Google has always tried to measure with its ranking algorithm and the link graph – based on the insight that the best, most popular sites will, over time, accrue the most links (and likes, tweets, etc.). Public relations is more like advertising – rather than seeking attention indirectly by creating stuff that people will want to read and link to, you pay for attention in a more direct way. With advertising, you’re buying media placements to raise awareness. With PR, you’re (generally) paying a firm to talk to the media about your company and offerings, again to raise awareness. But the goals aren’t exactly the same, which brings us to the next point.
Content Marketing & PR Have Different Success Metrics
Because the goals aren’t exactly the same, content marketing and PR have different success metrics. Generally, PR success is measured in terms of “media placements,” “press mentions” or “impressions.” Some impressions are better than no impressions, but these metrics are less valuable than the KPIs you get with content marketing: page views, referrals, and actual leads driven. With content marketing, you’re generally approaching the end game in one of two ways (and probably both):
- Placing contributed articles – When placing articles on other sites and blogs, content marketers know it’s key to get some backlinks – not just for their SEO value (links aren’t dead yet!) but for the referral traffic, which is easily measured in analytics. This way, content marketers can know which publishers offer the most value and most relevant readership.
- Hosting your own awesome content – “Not provided” notwithstanding, the content on your own site is easily measured in terms of all kinds of rich engagement metrics (time on site, social shares, comments, etc.) as well as conversions – you can use tracking codes on any offers within your content to track which blog posts, guides, etc. are driving demos or sales.
In the pre-digital world, impressions were a valid measure of reach – think Superbowl ads or billboard placement. But in the digital world, we have the ability to measure much more effectively. A mention is good, but a mention with a link is better. And a mention with a link that leads back to your site and converts is the real goal.
It’s also worth noting that advertisements and PR differ in their content and angle compared to content marketing. The former is more about directly talking up your own products or services. The latter is more about thought leadership – sharing knowledge and skills or just providing entertainment in such a way that people will want to buy your stuff, because they’re already on your side.
(More: 3 SEO Tactics We're Easing Up On in 2013 )
Content Marketing Is Harder Than PR – But Worth It
Good content marketing is hard to execute. It requires specialized skills, a great deal of creativity, huge amounts of effort, and to top it all off, luck. It also has really unpredictable ROI. Sometimes you hit a home run, but more often, your efforts fall flat. And there’s nothing to do but get back on the horse.
All that said, content marketing is worth it. When you do hit a home run, the results are remarkable: spikes in traffic, leads, and sales as well as a lasting life in organic traffic, all directly attributable to amazing content. In my view, if content marketing and PR were in a race, content marketing would be winning.
A Note on Consolidation
I’m seeing a lot of consolidation between SEO, content marketing, content promotion  and PR. It’s all turning into just plain “marketing,” similar to how “web marketing” used to be differentiated in the ‘90s, whereas marketing now includes web marketing by default.
The trend is to bring content marketing and PR back in house, since a lot of the old SEO tricks no longer work and what is required for results is just marketing creativity and solid execution. After many years of having a separate SEO meeting at WordStream, we’re now rolling that stuff into our regular weekly marketing meetings, largely because of the increasing overlap between the two. We want everyone on our team to do a little of everything, or at least understand how integrated these roles really are.
What do you think? How different are content marketing and PR really?
Hit me up on Twitter:
Follow @larrykim