Friday ramble - How valuable is paid-for editorial
I was contacted earlier this week by a Scottish national newspaper that was looking for advice on paid-for online content.
The man said that, as they are a paper that is based in the north, they don’t really have a good scope on what is going on with PR agencies ‘down south’. He said they’d been contacted by numerous PR agencies from the south (that’s every agency from Scotch Corner downwards) who wanted to pay for their press releases to go onto this particular paper’s website. So basically: ‘paid-for editorial’.
He wanted to know whether this was common practice for PR agencies ‘down south’. My response… ‘Um, NO, well not for those that really understand their craft anyway’.
He said that one particular PR agency – London-based as you would have it – never send editorial for the consideration of editorial sections of the paper or website. He said that they only ever sent content which they knew they had to pay for. And he said that this was common practice from a lot of agencies ‘down south’.
Now I smell something fishy here. My reckoning is that said London agency has guaranteed their client coverage in this Scottish newspaper and – as the stories they are creating aren’t strong or relevant enough – they have to pay for them to appear. Is the client aware of this, or is the agency passing the coverage off as true editorial? If so, where is the money coming from to pay for the coverage?
It is true that there is a time and a place for paid-for content, advertorials, sponsored columns etc. And we all know that some trade magazines operate on a colour separation model. But when it comes to national newspapers, their value is in their editorial integrity. Surely allowing people to pay for their news stories to appear undermines this. And PR agencies that pay to secure coverage – rather than finding ways to create truly newsworthy stories – are undermining themselves and their clients’ brands.
So, I asked my caller whether the commercial editorial section he was referring to on their website had a particularly high ‘unique user’ figure and what the conversion rates for stories that appeared on the page were like. How much traffic was being sent to specific links in the stories and, from a PR point of view, what the agencies were reporting from the client end? In essence, how many of his readers were actually engaging with the content – or even reading it… he didn’t have the answers.
What he did say was: ‘wouldn’t the fact that we had their story on our site mean that they would immediately climb the pages of Google and therefore improve their SEO?’
I spoke to Paul Locke from Epicado Web Marketing – a company we work with a lot – about this, and he said:
“A truly genuine link from a national newspaper would undoubtedly be regarded by Google as a good thing. Google gives higher value to links from well-known and trusted brands. The question is whether Google would regard this type of link as truly genuine or a ‘paid for’ link – it usually penalises sites that sell links but there’s some evidence that it’s less than even-handed in the way that it applies this policy. If you’re a big brand, it seems that Google is more forgiving. Google has recently made some very significant changes to the way that it evaluates websites for ranking in its search results. In the past, if you acquired lots of links from low value blogs, forums and directories, hey presto, you could rank very well. Google now places more emphasis on good quality links and on the extent to which your website’s content is shared by real people via their social media accounts.
“In other words, if Google sees that a national newspaper that it trusts is sending a link to your website from a genuine piece of editorial, it’s likely to give that more value than 100 links from a blog that nobody reads. Similarly, if it detects lots of ‘buzz’ around your website content, it will reward you. There are more than 200 ranking factors in the Google algorithm so it’s not quite as simple as that – but the main point is that businesses which can generate genuine interest in their content will do well.”
And so, we come full circle… for paid-for content to really have any impact or value, it needs to be of genuine interest to readers. And if it is of interest to readers, it will be of interest to journalists, which means it should be able to stand up as pure-play editorial, rather than paid-for content.
I feel very strongly that PR agencies have to be honest with both potential and existing clients. Whether pitching for new work or providing advice to retained clients on a day-to-day basis, we need to be clear about which angles and topics will truly interest readers and journalists.
When the route to media coverage relies solely upon paid-for editorial, something is seriously wrong. As consultants, it’s our job to consult rather than just churn out press releases – paid-for or otherwise.
Tell me what you think? I’d be really keen to hear your thoughts on this.
Over and out…
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