Public Relations and the Content Marketing Funnel

In this blog post, I will address two issues: what does a successful content marketing funnel look like, and what role does digital PR  play in making a content marketing funnel successful?

First, let me address what a content marketing funnel is. According to analyst firm Forrester, on average, a person consumes 11.4 pieces of content before making a purchasing decision. In many cases, these potential buyers are at the very early stages of buying. And particularly the bigger the sale item is, such as a car or a camera, the longer the time it will take for the sale and the more research a prospective buyer is likely to do.

The content marketing funnel identifies the customer journey part of the buying process from start to finish. It’s a systematic way to introduce and nurture new leads and prospects through the buying process, ultimately resulting in buying your product or service.

When it comes to identifying the core components of the content marketing funnel, I’m going to focus on three basic components. These are the Top of the Funnel, Middle of the Funnel, and Bottom of the Funnel. I’m going to spend most of the time talking about the Top of the Funnel in this blog post, but before doing that I’ll give a brief description of what each component is.

Top of the Content Marketing Funnel

The Top of the Funnel is the early-stage part of the buying process where the goal is to capture your audience’s attention. In this stage you typically want to make an impression via some type of value-added content that can answer questions or address specific problems a buyer might have, while helping position your brand or product as a leader in the category. The driving factor behind the Top of the Funnel stage is building brand awareness.

Middle of the Content Marketing Funnel

The Middle of the Funnel stage is where you convert prospects and visitors to potential sales leads. This is the stage where prospective buyers have done their initial research and are beginning to make some sort of soft commitment to your brand. Most often this is in the form of an email address or a phone number. Or some sort of communication channel that bridges the gap between the potential buyer and you.

The key point to make with regards to this stage is that the currency exchanged in the Middle of the Funnel is Trust. When a prospective buyer gives you their email address or phone number in this stage, they do so with the expectations that you – the brand or services provider – will respect their right to privacy and not begin bombarding them with calls or emails right away.

Bottom of the Content Marketing Funnel

The Bottom of the Funnel is the area where your leads are converted into actual customers. Some might say this is where you close the sale, but since that phrase smacks of hard sell techniques, I prefer to say that the Bottom of the Funnel is the place where you and a prospective buyer agree to formalize a relationship through the act of a sale.

Public Relations and the Top of the Content Marketing Funnel

So let’s segue into the discussion on what role Digital Public Relations plays in the content marketing funnel overall. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, Digital Public Relations coverage by definition is nonpaid third-party endorsement of a product or service.

Let me illustrate this further by giving you an example. Let’s say you’re in the market for a new DSLR camera. And let’s say that you are at the very early stages of the buying cycle so you really haven’t done much research or know much about the new cameras on the market.

What’s the first step you might take? If you’re like most buyers — and remember, these are people who may look at almost 12 pieces of content on average before buying — there are two actions you’ll likely take. The first is to talk to friends or friends of friends and get recommendations or insights on the new camera market. This is known as word-of-mouth and because of the trusted relationship component – friends or friends of friends – word of mouth is considered one of the most powerful predictors of eventual new product purchases.

The other action you’re likely to take is to begin doing research outside of your close circle of friends. This research could take many forms but most likely will involve starting with a search on Google for keyword associations related to your new camera purchase.

In addition to a Google search, you might visit the newsstand of your local bookstore and search for photography-related magazines that relate to the new camera purchasing process.

In either case – the Google search or the magazine – both will lead you to read nonpaid third-party editorial coverage, such as a blog with reviews targeting people who are buying a new camera, or a magazine such as a Consumer Reports new camera buyers guide.

So where does the process of Public Relations come in here? In many cases, the third-party editorial coverage that you read in a photography magazine could have been triggered by a pitch to an editor from a public relations professional.

It is this early Top of the Funnel stage where digital public relations efforts and public relations professionals can have a significant impact on what happens further down in the buying cycle. For example, if you’re like most buyers, you will more than likely be influenced by a nonpaid third-party review of a camera prior to buying it.

In the tech world, this editorial review type of coverage is what has driven the popularity of sites such as CNET. The CNET site is heavy with visitors who are doing research on what new tech products to buy, and a lot of the new user visits to CNET has to do with the editorial credibility the brand has built up after years of trustworthy, non-partisan reviews.

The word trustworthy is worth noting here. I define public relations as nonpaid third-party endorsement coverage and it’s the nonpaid component that makes a site like CNET so reliable. CNET editors (and other reputable sites like it) do not take money in exchange for Point Of View reviews or articles.

The editors typically have built up a solid reputation as a source of knowledge for that industry sector or product category, and the fact that they don’t take money for the review gives their editorial a significant amount of weight and relevance. It’s important to note here that, while editorial departments (for the most part) don’t take money as a way to influence reviews or coverage, a traditional practice has been for these sites to sell advertising to fund the editorial direction and content.

And while advertising also falls in the Top of the Funnel category as an influence and awareness-building tactic, I will not be covering advertising as a Top of the Funnel awareness approach in this blog post.

So back to the preliminary research stage for new product purchases in the Top of the Funnel sector. Public-relations coverage, whether it be something like an editorial Roundup story, a press release or other PR generated piece of content, has a powerful impact in the initial awareness building stage. This is because of its third-party endorsement component, which is essentially based around a third-party outlet such as a magazine or blog publishing the content rather than your brand publishing the content itself on its own website or online property.

So from a tactical perspective here’s how you would go about integrating public relations to help influence top of the funnel activity. And there are a number of ways to do this, but I’m only going to cover two for the sake of brevity.

The first is via a press release distribution, and as I’ve discussed in past blog posts this could be one of two forms – a new product announcement release or a positioning release. Both are very different in their purpose but are similar in their style and distribution methods. If you like more information on what a positioning release is, see my past blog post at this link. For simplicity sake, I’m going to assume that most of us know what a new product announcement press release is.

The second tactic that’s effective in building top of the funnel awareness has the potential to be even more powerful than a press release distribution. And that’s what’s called in the PR discipline media relations outreach.

In a nutshell, media relations outreach is identifying the influencers in the third-party outlets – these would be editors or bloggers that are covering your sector or industry – and influencing them to write about a particular topic or subject that has relevance to your product or service. I call it influencing the influencers.

Now, there’s a fine line with regards on how to do this, and it’s not recommended that you start picking up the phone or sending emails to editors or bloggers at will. There are best practice guidelines for pitching the media directly, and if you haven’t had experience doing this it’s best left to a PR professional or someone who has experience. Otherwise, editors – because of the enormous amount of pitches and email they get – will quickly blacklist you if they determine that you are pitching them on a topic or subject without following best practice guidelines.

That said, a good pitch at the right time can have an enormous and powerful impact. For example, let’s say you’ve discovered that at about this time last year and influential editor in your sector wrote a story about a topic that is relevant to your business sector. And note that using digital PR tools like BuzzSumo or CustomScoop can help you do this type of research. After finding the relevant article from a year ago, a savvy PR person would locate the writer who wrote the story and reach out to them in a neutral pitch style to suggest that they consider a follow-up story from the year before.

Assuming the editor still has interest in the subject, and it’s likely a good bet to guess that this is the case, the PR pitch has just opened the door for your brand to be part of the new coverage. So, this is an example of how media relations can be used generate third-party editorial without sending press release or other information to an editor.

So to wrap up let me sum up what I’ve said. In a three-stage marketing communications funnel, the Top of the Content Marketing Funnel section is where awareness building and brand building happens. This is the stage where new prospective customers are doing research and starting the buying process. In this awareness stage, Public Relations can have a huge impact on initiating potential customer down a particular path – one that puts your brand or product top of mind during the research phase.

As a nonpaid third-party endorsement practice, Public Relations has the ability to get the buyer started on the right journey towards buying your product. And this hopefully can end up in a long-standing relationship between you and that buyer as your brand continues to deliver on the promises you offer once a customer has put trust in you.

In a future blog post, I’ll go into more detail about how an optimized Top of the Funnel effort can still result in failure or less than optimal results in terms of sales. But for now, suffice to say that assuming that the Middle of the Funnel and Bottom of the Funnel sectors are equally optimized, you will see your marketing communications and PR efforts producing great results.

Bill Threlkeld is president of Threlkeld Communications, a content digital marketing and public relations advisory based in Santa Monica, California. Threlkeld Communications specializes in content ecosystem campaigns, also known as the Content Distribution Ecosystem, a unique content approach that synchronizes and integrates PR, Social Media, Blogs, Audio, Video, Email Marketing and other content marketing components for systematic distribution and measurable results.

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