Are you being ripped off for digital PR? Here’s how to find out.

By Jason Brooks

Few PR agencies set out to rip off their clients, but sometimes it feels like it. A primary reason for this is that the results of digital PR campaigns are notoriously hard to predict. That means it’s hard to set expectations or guarantees, leaving the interpretation of results open-ended.

The stage for disappointment is usually set at the start when choosing a digital PR supplier. It can help when agencies have case studies that showcase their success, but these are typically cherry-picked. There are often many failed campaigns swept under that designer office rug!

However, most agencies will convince you to part with your money based on their track record, but that does not guarantee that their processes will work for you. And that’s understandable because they often don’t have a generic system for tracking success and therefore be accountable to all types of clients.

In this article, we will look at solving the problem of how to track the value of your digital PR campaigns and eradicate that “getting ripped off” feeling. And suggest a system for holding a digital PR agency to account, which can often seem impossible. 

So where do you start?

Some aspects of digital PR campaigns are easy to track, such as ranking increases or traffic to your website. But understanding the monetary value of the coverage attained across different media is a big headache. Without that understanding, it is hard to monitor whether your digital agency provides value.

Due to the number of variables, there is no easy way to track agency performance. Still, it can be made simple with a process that clarifies how well the essential objectives are met. 

First, you have to identify those objectives. 

Digital PR objectives are more than just getting a mention or a link on a website. You should consider the effect of digital PR on enquiries and sales, brand perception, the visibility gained on relevant media, and search engine optimisation (SEO).

These objectives naturally have KPIs attached. The next step is to decide which you will track and who will be accountable for improving them. 

We suggest that a business tracks its enquiries and sales because the agency’s work may not have a direct impact. 

For example, the agency may generate more traffic to your website or social profiles, but sales may not increase. That could be due to a poor landing page or pricing, and the agency will usually not have any input on those.

The smart approach is to select KPIs that the agency can be held directly responsible for improving.

Companies’ experiences and expectations with digital PR

To find out what companies are thinking about digital PR, we ran a survey of business decision-makers, via a national polling platform, in early May. We wanted to know if they were getting tangible results and a solid return on their investment, and what, exactly, they wanted from digital PR. 

A combined 86% of 362 respondents, working in areas such as marketing, sales, PR and advertising, were not happy with digital PR services they signed up to. It worked out at 54% who said it was “nothing special” and 32% who agreed that it was a “waste of money” and their companies did not benefit from a digital PR campaign.

That may have been because those companies were either not getting results or a decent return on their digital PR spend. So we asked if they would be more inclined to use a digital PR agency that gave them some kind of guarantee of performance and results. Most (44%) said they would, a slightly lower figure (40%) said they might and only 15% said they still would not use digital PR services given such a guarantee.

Were these business executives able to properly track the performance of a digital PR agency they worked with? Most (35%) said yes, because they had been given reports, followed by 32% who didn’t know what their agency had been doing, 25% who said no, they couldn’t track performance, and 8% said attempting to find out was “impossible”.

The majority of respondents (48%) knew the difference between traditional and digital PR, with 34% saying they had a vague idea, 13% knowing little about it and 5% who had no idea at all. They equally sought brand coverage and higher website traffic when engaging a digital PR agency — both at 40% of those polled — while some (15%) wanted more social media followers and others (6%) desired links back to their websites.

Those links, which can help to increase online visibility and rankings, were “somewhat important” for most respondents (43%) and vital, to build their websites’ authority, for 22%. A total of 15% of respondents said they liked a combination of links and mentions in online media, while links were unimportant for 13% and just 7% said they were happy with brand mentions and no links at all.

What to measure when trying to assess agency performance?

A great starting point when considering KPIs for a digital PR agency to track is the concept of visibility, or reach, as it is often referred to by agencies. The marketing reach is the estimated number of potential customers you can reach with a campaign.

Reach is measured in four ways (there are more, but we’ll prioritise these):

1. Increases in web traffic

2. More social followers

3. Content engagement (likes/shares/time on page) 

4. Higher search engine rankings

The next most important aspect of digital PR is how effective campaigns are at improving your SEO. It still amazes us how few PR agencies understand how to optimise campaigns to affect search engine visibility. Ensuring that keywords are targeted through content optimisation, correct anchor text selection, and backlink placement should be the norm in 2022, but it isn’t. 

Tracking all of the above means many data points, but it is easy. However, try going to a digital PR agency and agreeing on what scores they will achieve for each and then securing a guarantee, and you may be disappointed. 

So how else can you keep tabs on agency performance? 

As a former digital PR agency customer, I want a measurement system that makes sense and that I could hold an agency accountable for – but nothing too complex. 

I tracked KPIs for traffic, sales, and keyword rankings, but there wasn’t an easy way to keep tabs on what the agency was doing for my money. 

I would get reports that said, “We acquired five DA30 links here, a few tweets, a few shares, a few likes”, but that meant nothing in monetary terms. I wanted to know what their work was worth to help me decide whether they provided tangible value compared to other suppliers. 

Again, back to that feeling of being ripped off.

So how can this be done?

Circling back, let’s remind ourselves of the critical objectives for digital PR campaigns:

1. Extent of reach across different media and the value of that reach. 

2. Search engine optimisation success (yes, integrating good SEO is crucial for digital PR campaigns). 

So a metric or two that tracks performance and monetary ROI against these objectives is the solution.

Objective 1. How to measure the extent and value of reach across different media

Mentions on social media and website content constitute “coverage” and “reach”. Mentions come in many flavours, so the trick is to assess them based on what they might cost to acquire. And then give them each a *points score related to their potential for “coverage” and “reach”. 

Providing a score for reach makes it quick and easy for everyone to see how a campaign is doing. We came up with a method, and in the spirit of marketers giving metrics funky names, we’ve called it ‘ReachScore‘.

Here are some examples of ReachScores:

National publication – Value c£2000 (can be £6000 or more) = ReachScore 10 points

Big local publication – Value c £1200 = ReachScore 6 points 

Big twitter/FB/instagram 50000+ – Value c£1000 = ReachScore 5 points

Blogger (DA50) – Value c£500 = 2.5 ReachScore points

Blogger (DA40) – Value c£300 = ReachScore 1.5 points

*(£200 a point)

Organising mentions into simple categories like the above makes it easy for agencies to standardise reports and track them consistently. It also prevents PR agencies from overvaluing coverage – another bugbear of many marketers.  

Now you might be wondering how this approach is helpful. 

For example, suppose you spend £2500 on a campaign. In that case, you want at least the same value in return for what you might reasonably buy elsewhere; an example might be a full-page advertorial or some sponsored guest posts. So if a campaign scores 15 ReachScore points, you’ve got £3000 of value, which exceeds your spend – happy days. 

Additionally, we can offer clients a guarantee by agreeing to a ReachScore number to exceed and not stop work until we do. 

Objective 2. How to measure the SEO effectiveness of digital PR campaigns

Digital PR can have a powerful effect on SEO, and backlinks acquired through campaigns play a big part in increasing search engine rankings.

We think that monitoring the quality of the links acquired by agencies is a reliable method of quantifying performance – good backlinks are difficult to obtain. 

For many marketers, digital PR is another means to acquire high-quality backlinks without getting Google’s back up. John Mueller of Google has publically acknowledged this. So it’s no surprise that businesses are flocking to digital PR agencies to acquire high-end backlinks. 

The problem again is measuring the value of the backlinks secured. So many marketers have relied on one metric like Moz DA or Ahrefs DR to measure backlink quality. 

This flawed approach was why in 2018, we launched M-Flux (Metrics-Fluidity) at our sister agency UK Linkology

It measures backlinks using multiple SEO-related metrics to give a balanced score and is extremely popular with our clients.

Metrics that contribute to an M-Flux score:

– Moz Domain Authority (DA)

– Ahrefs Domain Rating (DR)

– MajesticSEO Trust Flow(TF)

– SEMrush organic traffic score

– SEMrush keyword visibility

We could have used M-Flux again, but we recognised that measuring the quality of backlinks in a digital PR campaign needs a slightly different approach. 

That’s why we developed Q-Flux, which is short for ‘Quality-Fluidity’ and the mix of metrics we use is perfect for PR professionals. 

Metrics that contribute to a Q-Flux score:

– Relevance (from domain through to paragraph level)

– Moz Domain Authority (DA)

– SEMrush organic traffic score

– Google’s Core Web Vitals score

– SEMrush keyword visibility

We used the successful M-Fux formula as a basis but added new metrics and altered the weightings. For Q-Flux, we’ve focused the weight more on relevance and traffic than metrics like DA, DR or TrustFlow, which are SEO focused. 

We measure relevance from the domain level down to paragraphs, and we assess quality with Google’s Core Web Vitals score (CWV). Google has already verified that using CWV to measure page quality is prudent. CWV includes page speed scoring and other factors that indicate a good user experience.

This mix of metrics provides a clearer picture of how valuable a site is to a digital PR campaign because the links will improve rankings and brand perception. The more relevant a site is, the more likely the target audience will see the content and brand, increasing engagement. 

So how does Q-Flux help you?

Q-Flux is a method that gives marketers a more balanced view of the quality and value of a site and its potential to help SEO. Yes, we all know a DA40 backlink can cost £200, but will it affect rankings? 

The metrics used to assess sites in Q-Flux (relevance, CWV, traffic) are supposed to have a more substantial impact on Google, so it makes sense to include them. 

Many PR companies send lists of newly acquired links that make no sense to the customer. At best, you get a DA or DR score and have to interpret that as success or not. 

When you get a list of sites measured by Q-Flux, you can see exactly how much SEO value your campaign potentially provides. 

And again, we work to minimum average Q-Flux scores so that you get value for every bit of budget you spend. 

The takeaway

Good digital PR will improve reach and engagement with your brand, which helps improve SEO.

Two simple metrics, ‘ReachScore’, to measure reach/coverage, and ‘Q-Flux’, to measure backlink quality, makes it super-simple to keep tabs on digital PR agency performance. 

These metrics also allow us to offer you a rock-solid performance guarantee, which very few digital PR agencies can match.

Want to know more, or to launch a killer digital PR strategy and campaign with our solid guarantee? Book a free initial consultation now.

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