How I got a PR agency to the top of Google’s search results

In January 2014 I started work at the financial and corporate PR agency, Hudson Sandler, as head of digital. One of the projects I worked on there was revamping the agency’s website, which was sorely out of date and failing to generate any inbound sales enquiries because it was not appearing in search engine results for any relevant terms.

I started work on this project in autumn of 2014 and by the time I left the agency in summer 2015, the website was on the front page of Google for many relevant search terms, and right at the top of the results for key terms such as ‘financial PR agency’ and ‘corporate PR agency’. During that period the monthly traffic increased exponentially and the site began generating lucrative sales leads for the agency.

My budget for this project was £0, and there are dozens of much larger UK agencies competing for those search terms.

So how did I do it?

The first step was to move the site from static HTML pages to a content management system that would make it easy for us to add and edit content, so we migrated the old site to WordPress with a modified off-the-peg template to match the agency’s branding. I also installed an SEO plugin which automatically generated sitemaps and allowed me to manually edit page titles and meta-descriptions.

Next I overhauled the site’s static content. PR agencies tend to favour fluffy, strategic sounding language which is absolutely no use for SEO purposes – search engine algorithms aren’t good at deciphering marketing doublespeak. So I rewrote as much of the content as possible with clear, descriptive copy about the agency and the services it offered. I also made sure that the site had plenty of internal links with descriptive anchor text.

In addition to the static content I introduced a blog to the site so we could regularly post updates about the agency and thought leadership pieces, this was central to the whole approach. Over several months we wrote a lot of blog posts that were tightly focused on our key subject areas of financial and corporate PR. This doesn’t mean churning out copy stuffed with keywords, but simply that the articles were all specifically about different aspects of the topic at hand.

This meant that when Google’s algorithm looked at our site, it would find lots of content and language that is highly relevant to that topic. It was also important that the blog posts were genuinely useful and interesting for the target audience for a couple of reasons:

  1. This would increase the chances of them being shared on social media and linked to from other sites, which is good for SEO
  2. If the articles are of poor quality visitors will not spend very long on the page, and this can have a damaging effect on the site’s performance in search engines

I also made a point of writing lengthy blog posts of around 1,000 words or more where possible, because most SEO experts believe that longer articles are better than 400/500 word blogspam. Writing a lot of good quality, on-topic, long-form blog posts is hard work, but there are no shortcuts here, your site’s search engine rankings depend on great content, so you need to put the effort in. The results we achieved prove the value of that.

Having fixed the site’s structure and greatly improved the quality of content, there was one final piece of the puzzle to solve; backlinks. Your site’s SEO is highly dependent on both the number and quality of links pointing to it from third party sites. In short, you need as many links as possible from high authority sites (i.e. websites belonging to established media, big corporations, government, academia and other respected sources) and this is very hard to achieve.

This is where we relied on good old fashioned PR skills to charm and persuade people to link to our site. We asked clients to link to us from their online press centres, we created stories which gave the trade media good reasons to write about us, and we came up with a few other creative ways of getting links from authoritative third party sites. As with the content, there are no shortcuts here any more; if you want good quality links to your site, doing the legwork is the only way to make it happen.

And that’s pretty much the long and short of it. Using Google Search Console we were able to track how our site was appearing in search results and we noticed an almost immediate improvement, but it took a couple of months before we started to see our site at the top of the results for relevant search terms. Over time, as we added more content and secured more links, the results got better and we began to inch out major competitors for our most important search terms.

If you take away anything from this story it should be this – everything I did was relatively simple. Sure, it’s hard work to create a pipeline of good content and to get lots of quality backlinks but there’s no dark art to any of it, you just have to put the hours in.

Will future PR execs need to be data-scientists?

The Big Data hype is finally at an end, according to analyst firm Gartner, which recently announced that the term has been dropped from its 2015 technology hype cycle. This means that the idea is no longer considered new and shiny, but is now just another part of the general technological landscape.

What does this mean for the PR industry? We’ve been talking about Big Data for a few years now, but it seems as though we’re still not entirely sure about how it fits into what we do. Any significantly sized business will generate a huge amount of data from across its various operations, and the task of finding actionable intelligence hidden inside it all is not to be underestimated.

Some companies are leading the way in showing what value Big Data can deliver, as Sophie Warnes, a data scientist at H+K Strategies explains: “Companies like Amazon and Netflix use data science on a daily basis. They have algorithms to determine whether you’re going to want to buy something, or what films and TV shows you might want to watch next. Giving people brilliant recommendations like this will build affinity and customer loyalty. That’s the kind of insight that could only be brought into those companies by data scientists, and as brands wise up to this, it make sense for PR agencies to pre-empt that need and start offering data science and insights as an additional service for clients.”

So is it reasonable to expect all PR people to add Data Science to their skillset? I don’t think so. Larger businesses and agencies are already investing in specialist resources, building teams that are focused on data science, which demonstrates a growing understanding that it really needs to be treated as a separate skillset.

PR consultants are already expected to master a broad selection of skills, and it seems unrealistic to expect everybody to become instant domain-experts every time there’s a new technological development which impacts the industry.

The good news is that Big Data is gradually becoming more and more accessible to a wider audience, not just data scientists. If you follow the tech press you might have noticed a growing number of stories about things like Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning, technologies which have quietly been making huge leaps in recent years.

The result of these developments will be that we move from tools which help us analyse past events, to those which will assist with predicting future outcomes. For example, today’s tools can track what is being said in social media right now, and to analyse historical data to understand how people reacted to previous campaigns or events.

This is currently where data scientists can be invaluable to PR, using tools such as ours to mine for hidden meaning in the oceans of social media data. But a new generation of tools will use AI to automatically make recommendations for different campaign approaches based on the data, spotting patterns and connecting the dots in ways that humans are simply incapable of.

If this sounds like pie-in-the-sky future gazing, it is not. These technologies are already here, and the marketing-tech industry is working hard to build them into its existing platforms. What this means for the PR industry is that data scientists will be able to offer far more certainty and precision when predicting campaign outcomes. It also means that where there is no access to data science skills, the software will be able to do a lot of the hard work, making it easier for all PR consultants to make sense of big data.

How I built Conway’s Game of Life in JavaScript

EDIT (MAY 2016): Since writing this post in July 2015 I noticed it’s started to get a bit of traffic from Google. If you’re just interested in the end result, here’s a JSFiddle of my final version of Conway’s Life.  That version has cleaner and more slightly more optimised code than shown here. Original post below:

I’ve recently been focusing on strengthening my JavaScript skills. I used a few JS snippets when I built Influential Blogs a couple of years ago, but it was mostly code I cut and paste from the web to solve specific challenges – the bulk of the site was built on PHP.

The best way to learn a language is to build stuff, so the first challenge I set myself was to build a version of Conway’s Game of Life. It’s a simple concept; the game consists of a grid of cells, each of which can be alive or dead. For every cycle of the game, the cells can be turned on or off based on the following rules:

  • If a dead cell has exactly three live neighbours, it comes to life
  • If a live cell has less than two live neighbours, it dies
  • If a live cell has more than three live neighbours, it dies
  • If a live cell has two or three live neighbours, it continues living

By repeating the cycle over and over, these simple rules create interesting, often unpredictable patterns. I was fascinated by the idea as a kid and wrote a few versions of it in Basic on my ZX Spectrum, so it seemed like a good place to start with JavaScript.

Step 1 – Creating the grid

The grid of cells needs to be stored somewhere, so my first job was to create a two dimensional array. This was an instant stumbling block because I learned JavaSript does not support multi-dimensional arrays. However, I learned I could solve the problem easily because each element of an array can be any type of variable, including an array so, for example, I could create an array of 100 elements, and each of those would contain another 100 element array, which would give us a 100 by 100 cell grid to work with.

function createArray(rows) { //creates a 2 dimensional array of required height

var arr = [];

for (var i = 0; i < rows; i++) {

arr[i] = [];

}

return arr;

}

This function returns an array with n elements and places an empty array in each of them using a FOR loop. We don’t need to worry about specifying the number of elements in those sub-arrays, because JavaScript lets you dynamically add new elements to an array. This means we can simply add as many variables as we need when we populate the grid.

We can now create our grid by calling this function and assigning its output to a variable:

var theGrid = createArray(gridWidth);

gridWidth is a variable defined earlier in the code simply stating how big we want our grid to be – I wanted this to be easy to change because I didn’t know at this stage how quickly the game would run with large grids.

Step 2 – Populating the grid

For the sake of simplicity I wanted the starting game state to be random. So I wrote this function to randomly populate the grid array with ones and zeros, live or dead cells. Since the theGrid is a global variable (more on this decision late), we don’t need to pass anything to this function or return anything from it, we just call it directly after we have created the array.

To make this work, I had to learn how to do random numbers in JavaScript. Math.random() returns a floating point number between 0 and 1, so I poked around on StackExchange to learn how to convert that into the nice clean 1 or 0 that I wanted to fill each cell with.

function fillRandom() { //fill the grid randomly

for (var j = 0; j < gridHeight; j++) { //iterate through rows

for (var k = 0; k < gridWidth; k++) { //iterate through columns

var rawRandom = Math.random(); //get a raw random number

var improvedNum = (rawRandom * 2); //convert it to an int

var randomBinary = Math.floor(improvedNum);

if (randomBinary === 1) {

theGrid[j][k] = 1;

} else {

theGrid[j][k] = 0;

}

}

}

}

Step 3 – Drawing the grid on screen

At this stage I had only really learned core JavaScript and didn’t know anything about Canvas, other than I should probably use it for any kind of graphical output. I needed to write a function to draw each grid cell in the array as a pixel on a Canvas, so I asked the internet how to draw a single pixel on a Canvas, and then cannibalised that code to work with my drawGrid function. I hard-coded the Canvas size to 400 by 400, because I didn’t envisage using a grid larger than that and I could use a smaller grid without changing the Canvas dimensions.

function drawGrid() { //draw the contents of the grid onto a canvas

var c = document.getElementById(“myCanvas”);

var ctx = c.getContext(“2d”);

ctx.clearRect(0, 0, 400, 400); //this should clear the canvas ahead of each redraw

for (var j = 1; j < gridHeight; j++) { //iterate through rows

for (var k = 1; k < gridWidth; k++) { //iterate through columns

if (theGrid[j][k] === 1) {

ctx.fillStyle = “#FF0000”;

ctx.fillRect(j, k, 1, 1);

}

}

}

}

Step 4 – Update the grid

Now I’ve created a grid, randomly populated with living and dead cells, and drawn that grid to the screen. The next thing I need to do is apply the game rules to the current grid state, switching the cells on or off as required to create the subsequent state. This is the main chunk of game-logic.

It was easy enough in theory: we simply look at each element in theGrid array, count up the number of live cells around it (each cell has a total of eight neighbours which could be dead or alive) and then use that total to decide whether the current cell lives or dies.

The problem this creates is that you cannot update theGrid array as you’re doing this, because if you change the state of a cell that means the you’ve changed the state of the grid before you’ve finished updating all of the other cells.

The way I tried to get around this was by reading the current state of the grid from the Canvas, so I could update theGrid array whilst referencing the as-yet unchanged game-grid on the screen. Simple, update the entire array, redraw the Canvas, repeat.

I learned that the Canvas method, getImageData(), would allow me to get the current state of each pixel in the grid, so I used that to calculate the total number of live neighbours for each cell. I thought I was being clever and efficient by using this approach – I was wrong. It turns out that reading from and writing to the Canvas is relatively slow, and even using this approach for a small 100×100 grid was clunky, with maybe one or two updates per second.

So I switched to the obvious alternative – using two arrays: theGrid holds the current state of the game board, and a second array mirrorGrid is used in the update function to store the new state of the board. Once the board has been completely updated, the contents of mirrorGrid are copied to theGrid ahead of the screen being updated. The performance was instantly and significantly improved – even on a much larger grid the update cycle ran at least ten times faster.

Here’s the function which performs this:

function updateGrid() { //perform one iteration of grid update

for (var j = 1; j < gridHeight – 1; j++) { //iterate through rows

for (var k = 1; k < gridWidth – 1; k++) { //iterate through columns

var totalCells = 0;

//add up the total values for the surrounding cells

totalCells += theGrid[j – 1][k – 1]; //top left

totalCells += theGrid[j – 1][k]; //top center

totalCells += theGrid[j – 1][k + 1]; //top right

totalCells += theGrid[j][k – 1]; //middle left

totalCells += theGrid[j][k + 1]; //middle right

totalCells += theGrid[j + 1][k – 1]; //bottom left

totalCells += theGrid[j + 1][k]; //bottom center

totalCells += theGrid[j + 1][k + 1]; //bottom right

//apply the rules to each cell

if (theGrid[j][k] === 0) {

switch (totalCells) {

case 3:

mirrorGrid[j][k] = 1; //if cell is dead and has 3 neighbours, switch it on

break;

default:

mirrorGrid[j][k] = 0; //otherwise leave it dead

}

} else if (theGrid[j][k] === 1) { //apply rules to living cell

switch (totalCells) {

case 0:

case 1:

mirrorGrid[j][k] = 0; //die of lonelines

break;

case 2:

case 3:

mirrorGrid[j][k] = 1; //carry on living

break;

case 4:

case 5:

case 6:

case 7:

case 8:

mirrorGrid[j][k] = 0; //die of overcrowding

break;

default:

mirrorGrid[j][k] = 0; //

}

}

}

}

//copy mirrorGrid to theGrid

for (var j = 0; j < gridHeight; j++) { //iterate through rows

for (var k = 0; k < gridWidth; k++) { //iterate through columns

theGrid[j][k] = mirrorGrid[j][k];

}

}

}
Step 5 – Creating the game loop

Now I’d written all of the main components of the game: create a grid, randomly populate it, draw the current grid state on the screen, update the grid by applying the rules to each cell. What I wanted to do next is run the updateGrid() and drawGrid() functions in some kind of loop so the board would keep updating for as long as I wanted.

At first I tried simply setting up a FOR loop and calling the two functions within it for a hundred or so iterations, but this didn’t work. The code would either hang completely or take a really long time to draw just one frame before hanging. I didn’t understand why the drawGrid() function wasn’t working every time I called it in the loop.

The internet rescued be again and I learned about requestAnimationFrame(), which is ideal for this kind of problem because it makes the browser update the screen whenever it’s called. So, the function to run the game loop infinitely is like so:

function tick() { //main loop

drawGrid();

updateGrid();

requestAnimationFrame(tick);

}

When function tick() is called, it first draws the current state of the grid, then updates the grid, then tells the browser to update the screen and calls itself again to repeat the loop. So the flow of the code goes like this:

  1. Create an array to store the grid
  2. Create a mirror array to use when updating the grid
  3. Fill the grid with random cells
  4. Draw the current grid state to the screen
  5. Apply the rules to each cell and update the grid
  6. Keep repeating the last two steps

You can see the complete code in action here: http://jsfiddle.net/xcs1y127/10/

Obviously there are lots of refinements that could be added, such as allowing the user to pause the game, reset the grid, draw their own patterns on the grid, etc, but at this stage all I really wanted to do is get a functioning version of Life up and running. I’ll add in all the window dressing as my next project.

Performance improvements

The first thing I was keen to do is find out if there were any ways in which I could make the code run faster, so I could use larger grids without sacrificing update speed. Switching to the two-array update approach I mentioned in step 4 really made a huge difference to performance, but I thought I could learn a few things about code optimisation by trying to squeeze any additional performance from my code.

The first thing I learned was that you can use console.time() and console.timeEnd() to find out how much time different parts of your code take to execute, so I tried using it on my functions while I experimented with potential optimisations.

I read that using locally scoped variables in functions is faster than global variables, so I tried making local copies of theGrid array in both the updateGrid() and drawGrid() functions, but this didn’t seem to make any discernible difference to the execution time of either.

I’ve also read an article about pre-rendering to an off-screen Canvas before writing to the on-screen one, as this apparently improves performance, although I haven’t yet tried it as my Canvas knowledge is still shaky.

I was hoping that there would be some easy performance tweaks I could make to the updateGrid() function, as this is clearly where most of the work is taking place, but I’ve not learned anything yet that will help with that.

(EDIT MAY 2016: I tried this off screen rendering method eventually, but it made almost no different to performance. At this stage, the only way I can think of to make a JS version of this game to show significant performance is to use a better algorithm for updating the grid. I recently read about the “List Life” approach, which speeds things up by only updating the parts of the grid which feature live cells, instead of checking every single cell on each iteration. It sounds interesting, but i haven’t had time to give it a try yet. Please let me know if you produce a JS version of this, I’d love to see it. )

The real difference between working in PR and journalism

I’ve been in PR for nearly ten years and was lucky enough to join the industry just as it started to become entangled with digital and social media, which enabled me to carve out a little niche for myself as a digital specialist since I happen to have a bit of experience in the online world.

Before PR I was a tech journalist for 13 years and, to be honest, it still sometimes feels strange not turning up to an editorial office every day.

When people ask me why I made the leap, I usually tell them that it seemed like the most logical progression, but the truth is that PR is a very different world to the kind of tech-magazine journalism I spent much of my life doing. I don’t feel like I made any sort of logical, smooth progression, I feel like I jumped right into the deep end of a completely new career.

The most noticeable change in your day to day life is that people stop treating you like you’re important, but I think all but the most deluded of journos would expect that, so it’s not worth dwelling on. There are other changes that I was less prepared for.

When I was a hack I lived in a little bubble that was protected from any kind of commercial reality, all I had to worry about was producing great articles and meeting deadlines (or at least, not missing them by too much). Most of the tech magazines I worked on had an atmosphere that was somewhere between a playground and a laboratory – lots of smart people in a room together, having fun and challenging each other. The suits always took care of the business side of things for us.

In a PR agency, you’re acutely aware from day one that you need to earn your keep: all that really matters is getting good results for the client and winning new business for the agency. This may seem perfectly obvious, but it can be a serious culture shock for somebody who’s only ever been judged on something as subjective as how well they can write.

When I was a journalist I was largely free to manage my own time as I pleased, so long as I showed up to the office occasionally and the work got done on time. PR agencies require their staff to fill in timesheets to account for every minute of their day because their staff’s time is, essentially, their chief commodity and they need to keep track of it closely. In all honesty, this is the one part of the PR industry I have always struggled to adjust to. I completely understand the need for it, I just hate having to do it.

Journos going into PR at a junior level are probably better equipped for the move, because they are most likely to be focusing on getting coverage and if they’ve got good contacts in their industry they’ll probably do quite well. At the more senior levels, it’s a different game entirely.

Firstly, you have to deal with clients, who can sometimes be difficult and demanding – they’ve invested significant budget in your agency, and they’re depending on you to do a good job, so they’re understandably going to want to make sure you’re doing your best to deliver on your promises, so that they can deliver on the promises they’ve made to their boss.

Secondly, you need to learn a lot more about budgeting and project management. Putting a magazine together has its own challenges, but running PR activities for major corporations requires a completely new skill set.

Finally, you have to learn to pitch and win new business – it’s a steep learning curve, and often requires the same kind of all-hands-to-the-pump attitude that magazines go through on deadline week. It’s good fun though, and the buzz you get from working on a winning pitch is one of my favourite things about the job.

One of the most interesting differences between journalism and PR is the attitude to creativity. All PR agencies strive for creativity, they hold brainstorms and run training sessions and hire consultants to help their teams be more creative, while on all of the magazines I’ve worked for, creativity just happens by itself.

I think the reasons for this are pretty much everything I’ve outlined above – it’s easier to be creative when there’s a distinct lack of pressure in your working environment. Obviously, PR agencies need that pressure, they need to get results for clients, win new business, track their staff’s time and all the rest of it, but ultimately that makes it so much harder for people to be as creative as they could be in a more relaxed atmosphere.

(Image credit: Ritesh Nayak)

Who is Britain’s greatest tech hero?

I recently ran a survey for a client to find out who people think Britain’s greatest technology pioneer is – and since the idea never got used, I thought I’d share the results here. We used Google Consumer Surveys to ask 1,000 UK internet users who Britain’s greatest tech hero is and gave them a list of some of the most obvious contenders, as well as leaving an open option for them to suggest other pioneers.

It’s completely unscientific and just for fun, but I don’t think people would disagree with the findings too much.

Greatest Tech Hero - Overall

It’s hard to argue with Alan Turing taking the top spot, although some might wonder whether Clive Sinclair deserves more votes than Tim Berners-Lee. That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the ZX Spectrum had on an entire generation of techies, inspiring millions to experiment with their first computers and learn about coding.

What surprised me was that there was such a slim margin between the top four – even today it still seems that people value the early contributions to computing made by Charles Babbage and, to a lesser extent, Ada Lovelace.

The results become a little more interesting when we look at the difference between male and female votes. First, if we focus on the results from the 320 women who participated in the poll we see very different rankings – women really seem to rate Sir Clive.

UK Tech Hero - Women

Male voters, on the other hand, were more likely to rate Alan Turing as our greatest technology hero.

UK Tech Hero - Men

Why Periscope is here to stay

Over recent months a couple of live video streaming apps have shot to stardom; Meerkat and Periscope. Initially a lot of the buzz was focused on Meerkat but, out of the blue, Twitter restricted the app’s access to its platform and announced it had bought rival, Periscope, so the shortest format-war in history was over before it had even begun.

Early reactions from the social media echo chamber have been mixed. With any new app that catches the digerati’s attention a certain amount of hype is always to be expected, but plenty of pundits have wondered aloud whether it’s just another flash in the pan. Are consumers really that interested in streaming live video?

I’m on the fence about how consumers will use Periscope, but I think the app has already won over the all-important business audience, and that’s why it’s here to stay.

The way businesses use video content has changed significantly over the past ten years. Cheaper video cameras and editing software have made production more accessible, and sites like YouTube and Vimeo have simplified online streaming. A lot of businesses have embraced this new capability with gusto, using video content for a wide range of marketing activity, as well as other functions such as customer service.

But live streaming video has remained problematic. The technology required to send out a video stream in real-time has been clunky and expensive for a long time and, critically, there’s been no easy way to ensure that you can get your video in front of the right audience.

Periscope solves both of those problems. Creating a live video stream requires only a mobile device and an internet connection, and the integration with Twitter means that reaching an audience of people who are interested in your business is easy. Whether they’re using a mobile device or desktop PC, they can instantly tune into your stream.

Who’s already using Periscope?

I recently spoke about Periscope with Kevin Reed, who edits trade publications Accountancy Age and Financial Director at Incisive Publications. He told me that while a lot of trade media like his would like to make better use of video, tight budgets and lack of in-house video skills makes it difficult. But recently he’s been experimenting with Periscope for a weekly live discussion from his office’s local pub. This informal Friday afternoon chat provides a nice way of recapping the week’s big news, and the video is captured and hosted on YouTube for future playback.

We’re also seeing mainstream consumer media adopting the platform. Absolute Radio’s Christian O’Connell has begun using Periscope to provide video streams of segments from his popular breakfast show. It’s these kind of endorsements that will help a wider consumer audience understand the value of the app – even if they don’t want to share video themselves, people will begin to see it as a channel for receiving good quality free content.

Outside of the media, businesses are already making use of Periscope. The British Museum recently set up a live video tour with historian, Dan Snow, presenting from its Greek art exhibit, and the BBC recently reported on an estate agent using the technology to provide remote property viewings.

In terms of big-brand adoption, it’s still early days, but we’ve already seen Heineken South Africa making use of Periscope as part of its EUFA Champions League sponsorship activity. The opportunities for both consumer and B2B marketing are practically limitless, with the ability to extend the value of all kinds of activity by adding in a low-cost live-video stream to reach a much wider audience.

As a digital specialist who’s been around the block a few times, I tend to be sceptical when people start trumpeting the next big thing in social media because most of the time, it isn’t. I think Periscope is different. There’s a real opportunity here for Twitter to significantly change the way people, and brands, use live video and, with tighter integration, to potentially transform the future of Twitter itself.

(Image credit: Steve Hanna)

 

How to win more new business pitches

For the decade that I’ve worked in PR, I can say with all honesty that my absolute favourite part of the job is, by far, working on new business pitches. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide variety of pitches, for huge global brands, exciting young start-ups and everything in between, but the challenge is always the same. You need to understand what the client wants, convince them that you’re the team to deliver results and, most of all, you absolutely have to show them that you’re going to be great people to work with.

It’s hard to say why I like working on new business pitches so much. I think it appeals to my slightly bipolar personality; there’s a lot of head-down research, creative thinking, focusing on the problem and creating a great looking presentation, which appeals to my largely introverted nature. But on the day of the pitch it’s all about putting on a brilliant performance, having the confidence to walk into a board-room, look them straight in the eye and tell them why they need to hire you.

You might not win them all, but as long as you walk out of the room knowing did the best job you could, a knock-back won’t feel too bad.

It’s an art and a science, no two pitches are the same and if you do a half-arsed job of your preparation then you’ll lose most of the time. I put together a simple template to follow when I’m working on a new business pitch, to make sure I do a thorough job – I use the acronym BRISTOL:

  • Brief – read through the client’s brief as a team, make sure you understand it, ask the client to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense. When you’ve created your pitch, work through the brief again to make sure you’ve addressed everything they asked for.
  • Research – research the client’s business and market, what are they doing, what are their competitors doing, what are the big trends and future challenges. Read the relevant press, find out whatever you can, share it all with the team.
  • Insight – what have you learned from all that research? Try to avoid obvious stuff that they’ll already know – look for patterns, connections and ideas that they might not have thought about.
  • Strategy – how does the insight guide an overarching strategy that you will use to address the client’s challenges?
  • Tactics – what are the brilliant tactical ideas that you will use to deliver on the strategy. Creativity is obviously important, but don’t ignore tried and tested tactics that you can execute brilliantly.
  • OMG – what’s the Oh My God moment in your pitch that will make the client say “Wow! Why didn’t we think of this?” If your pitch doesn’t have at least one moment of blinding inspiration, think harder and try again.
  • Logistics – boring but essential, demonstrate you’ve clearly thought through the nuts and bolts of how you’ll deliver everything and work with the client on a day to day basis.

Once you’ve created your pitch, it pays to rehearse a few times and test it out on some colleagues who are not involved in the process to get feedback. Don’t over-rehearse, you don’t want to sound like you’re reading a script, but make sure everybody knows which parts of the pitch they’ll be delivering and that they are comfortable talking about the topic. Be prepared to step in for colleagues if they get stage fright and forget what they’re supposed to be saying, but try not to talk over other people’s sections – let them have their moment to shine. At the same, chipping in a little on each other’s slides can really help demonstrate a positive team dynamic, showing that each of you understands the whole proposal and that you’ve worked together on it.

I tell junior colleagues not to be nervous of big pitches because at the end of the day, it’s just a conversation with some other business people. They’ve asked us to talk about some ideas, and they’re going to be genuinely interested in what you have to say. The performance element of a pitch is a lot of fun, but you’re not being judged and nobody’s going to give you a hard time if you trip over your words – showing a human side and making a connection with the client is just as important as giving them strong ideas.

Leaders should try to create a ‘no pressure’ environment for their team – it’s hard to do great work if you’re terrified of screwing up, so make everybody feel relaxed and comfortable about the pitch. They’ll do a much better job that way. You win or lose a pitch as a team.

(Image credit: Dennis Skley)

How I learned the importance of backup, the hard way

When I left school my first job in 1991 was a Production Runner for a TV gameshow being filmed in northwest England. This role is TV’s equivalent of an office gopher, and you’re expected to help with whatever jobs the production team needs a spare pair of hands with.

Part of the job was to keep a file of all of the hundreds of people who’d applied to be contestants on the show, and my boss made me painstakingly fill in a paper form for each person and store it in a lever-arch file. This was far too laborious and old school for my 17 year old tastes, so I convinced the grizzled old producer that we should create a database on the office’s solitary PC, which would streamline the entire process.

He agreed, but insisted that I continue with filing the paper forms, which left me tearing my hair out. The stupid old duffer clearly didn’t understand the point of technology was to reduce work, and now I’d ended up adding extra work to an already painful job.

Nevertheless I pushed forward and created the database to demonstrate that it would be more efficient and useful than the paper system, and pretty soon we had a database of hundreds of applicants. The team were impressed to find that it was suddenly much easier to search through the applicants to find the ones with the attributes they were looking for – I took this as a small victory but was still pissed off that I had to keep doing the hand-written forms.

I sulked and complained and repeatedly told my boss it was a complete waste of time writing out the forms by hand when I was already entering them into the database much more quickly. But he was from a different generation and while he admitted that the database was useful, he’d feel more comfortable if we had paper copies of everything.

And then, one day, disaster struck. The team wanted me to help them search for some new contestants through the database of applicants, but somehow the 5.25inch floppy disk which stored the data had got corrupted and everything was lost. I was 17 and this was my first job, I’d never suffered a catastrophic loss of data before, so it had never occurred to me to create a backup. The disk worked and I had no reason to believe it would ever stop working. Nobody had taught me about the importance of backup, so I’d had to learn the hard way.

I felt utterly humiliated. I spent a whole week working late to re-enter the data, and sulkily admitted that my boss had been proved right all along – without the paper copies we would have been screwed. Could have saved myself a lot of trouble by spending ten minutes making a couple of copies of the database.

[Image credit: Got Credit]

Cargo-cult brands in social media marketing

During WWI, islanders living in undeveloped communities in the Pacific were plunged into the middle of a conflict between advanced, industrialised nations they had never previously encountered. They saw troops arriving on their islands and, as the newcomers established their military bases, supplies were brought by air and sea.

When the war was over and the troops left, the supplies stopped, so the islanders, believing the goods were gifts from the gods, tried to emulate what they saw as the rituals the soldiers had used to win the god’s favours. They dressed in mock military uniforms, made fake rifles, marched around, built replicas of air-base control towers and airplanes, waved landing signals, all in the futile hope that this would encourage the gods to start sending supplies again.

These “cargo cults” have mostly faded away (although one still exists that worships Prince Philip as a living god) but we see a lot of the same thinking in the way some brands approach social media.

People read social media case studies, or blog posts in the digital marketing press, or they just look at what other brands are doing, and assume that if they just blindly copy what others are doing they will enjoy the same success. Some examples of this kind of thinking are:

  • “I read an article that says 3pm is the best time to post tweets for maximum engagement”
  • “All of our blog posts should be listicles, it works really well for [BRAND THAT IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT TO OURS]”
  • “We need lots of infographics and visual content – I read that’s what people share the most”

Of course, all of these ideas completely ignore context. 3pm might well be the best time to post tweets for the brand that wrote the case study, but that’s likely to be very specific to that brand’s audience and market. There’s absolutely no reason to think that the same thing will work for your brand, you need to experiment and find out what works best for your own audience.

Equally, because a specific type of content has performed well for one company, you simply cannot assume that you’ll benefit from doing the same thing.

The problem is that social and digital media is complex – much more complex than a lot of marketers are used to dealing with. To get it right, you need to invest time and resources into research and experimentation, and you need to have the stomach for a lot of trial and error, which in turn means having to get your head around tricky stuff like analytics. When you’re looking at a bunch of platforms, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, blogs and whatever else, there’s a lot of different stuff to learn, and you need to work out how it all fits together.

It’s no surprise that a lot of businesses take the easy way out. Instead of treating case studies as sources of inspiration, they misinterpret them as best-practice bibles to be copied precisely in order to ensure digital success. Obviously, this path leads to failure for a lot of businesses. Like the Pacific island cargo cults, they’re left scratching their heads and wondering why, when they did all the right things, they didn’t get the results they expected.

The truth is that in social media you simply can’t rely on anybody else to show you how it’s done. You can take inspiration from what others have achieved and certainly try out their ideas, but the only way to make it work for your business is to keep experimenting and learning until you figure out the best approach for your own unique situation.

How to write brilliant long-form blog posts

Image credit: JM3/Flickr
Image credit: JM3/Flickr

If you work in PR or any kind of social media marketing, you probably need to write a lot of blog posts and I’ll bet that most of them are no longer than about 400-500 words. Conventional wisdom is that people don’t read long articles online and this kind of length is ideal for SEO purposes.

That’s not really true anymore. SEO experts largely agree that long-form articles perform better in search engines and, while there are no hard and fast rules, broadly speaking you should be writing at least 1,000 words per blog post to get better results. For more serious, in depth reports, you should be thinking about word counts closer to the order of 3,000.

The idea that people don’t read long-form articles online is also outdated. This thinking harks back to a time long before smartphones and tablets, when people only accessed the web on their PCs. It made sense that nobody wanted to read long articles on their PC screen, but these days people are much more likely to read a long article on a tablet or phone, away from their desk.

The truth is that any idiot can churn out 400 words on almost any topic (although plenty of people still do a terrible job of it). That’s why the internet is full of low-value, spammy content, and the public relations industry is especially guilty of this. We charge by the hour, and good quality content takes time. We give junior execs tight deadlines to write about complex topics which they don’t understand in order to meet targets, and the end results are flimsy blog posts that nobody wants to read.

Writing good quality articles of any reasonable length is a lot harder, you’ll need to go into a lot more detail about the topic and any gaps in your knowledge will become painfully obvious. And that’s really the point here; long form articles tend to be higher quality, not just because they have more words, but by virtue of the fact that in order to write those extra words the author has probably had to do a lot more research, has a better knowledge of the topic, and is most likely simply a better writer.

How PR people get long form articles wrong

Most public relations people approach blog posts in the same way as press releases, which follow the time honoured ‘news pyramid’ format. This starts with a concise, pithy headline, then all of the most important facts about the story in the first paragraph or two, followed by an increasing amount of supporting information, quotes and extra context as we get further into the article.

The problem with this style of writing is that while it works well for news stories, it’s not so good for long form articles. When you get most of the ‘story’ across in the first few lines, it’s easy to run out of things to say and you’ll find yourself padding out the article with pointless filler, desperately trying to hit the wordcount.

A good way to approach long form articles is to turn the news pyramid on its head. Start by outlining the topic, what are the major issues, what’s the background, who does it impact, how is it likely to be relevant to the reader? Flesh out your main points with plenty of context – is there any independent research with statistics and facts you can cite to support your arguments? What have other people said about the same issue? Add in relevant quotes from prominent commentators, experts, and journalists, and consider how their viewpoints could be used to add additional detail to your article. Alternative, conflicting opinions are great sources of additional material and will add balance to your article.

The important point about all of this is that nothing you add to your article needs to be padding – you can always find something else to add value, a little extra information that helps paint a picture or make a point without resorting to unnecessary verbiage. But think again about that inverted news pyramid. As you construct your article you should be moving down from the broad scene-setting and context-adding towards the fundamental point that you want to make.

Planning is essential

When you’re writing longer articles it’s not enough to simply brain dump your thoughts onto the page and then tidy the copy up afterwards, you need to plan the piece out. People in the PR industry talk a lot about ‘storytelling’ and this is where you really need to put that skill into practice.

To start with write down bullet point versions of all the areas you want to cover, then try to arrange them into a logical structure. Does each point flow naturally onto the next, towards the articles ultimate conclusion? Are there any glaring gaps in the flow? If there are any areas where one part of the discussion does not seem to move seamlessly from one point to the next, this is a good sign that there are some missing pieces in your story which need to be filled in, and this will help you add more to it.

Next take a look at all those bullet points and flesh them out with supporting notes. Think about what you’ll need to cover in each of those sections to tell the full story and explain each point clearly. Again, during this process you’re likely to notice things that are missing or don’t entirely make sense, and this will help you to not only get your word count up, but also write a better blog post.

Now that you’ve done the hard work of thinking out the structure and overall content of your post, actually writing the copy should be relatively straight forward. It’s always harder to start with a blank page, after all.

Once the first draft is complete, hopefully you’ll find that you’ve got both a well written article that flows well, and also a high enough word count without the need for any pointless filler material. Read it through, check again if anything’s missing, fill in the gaps. But it’s equally important to remove any fluff that doesn’t need to be there – you might not want to reduce the word count, but let’s not lose sight of the aim, to produce a great article. A higher word count might help with SEO, but consistent writing great articles that are a pleasure to read will help even more. If you have to choose between quality and quantity, the former should win every time.