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3 Major Differences Between PR and Advertising

By Rudi Davis 1 July, 2016

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“Advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for,” or so says the popular business proverb.

Somewhat surprisingly, considering the importance of both strategies, 59 percent of executives in a New Jersey study said that they “do not fully understand the role and capabilities of PR.”  

Put simply, public relations is a way for businesses to communicate with the public and the media in order to craft a positive image. This could be through contacting journalists and editors with launch announcements, crafting thought leadership articles for popular publications, or even featuring on a radio or TV interview, podcast, or product review. This content is not paid for by companies, instead publications feature it in order to provide value to their audiences.

On the other side of the coin, we have advertising–a way of directly encouraging the public to buy your products through paid ads. The industry has advanced a lot since the bygone ‘Mad Men’ era of the sixties, and no longer only means billboard ads, with corny lines and come hither pin-ups. New forms of paid native ads (also known as sponsored content) aim to promote a product or brand through an article, using the same editorial style as regular guest contributions. This often makes it difficult to differentiate from regular PR.  

Nevertheless, as a business leader you need to know the ins and outs PR versus advertising strategy in order to get the most benefit from both.

1. Journalist coverage provides an independent voice

When it comes to promoting your product or announcement, advertising lets you tell people what you are doing and PR means someone else is doing it for you. They are not doing this because you paid them, instead they have recognized something newsworthy in your product or announcement; perhaps it ties into an emerging trend, or you already have recognized experiences or a strong online presence and a powerful mission.

A nod from the media – or even a social influencer, product review site or industry expert – can carry great weight. Not only do you benefit from an expert write-up from a professional journalist, but you also have an independent opinion from a third party.

A 2014 Nielsen study revealed that when it comes to making purchase decisions, “articles from credible journalists” evoke greater trust in consumers than branded content. In other words, you’re far more likely to follow the advice of an independent voice than a pushy salesman with a vested interest.

If you want to get your business announcement covered by the media, you’ll need to create a press release and pitch. Your press release should be no longer than 500 words, and must clearly explain your product or service, how it works, and why it is important, with accompanying quotes that explain your vision.

Give context and facts, not opinion, and avoid any ambiguity or superlatives, it is the journalist’s job to create the narrative. You sell your story on the strength of your product and announcement, not by telling people how great you think it is.

Want to gain more exposure and press coverage for your startup or business and don’t know where to start? Visit our email contact list of the top tech reporters around, or download our free eBook and get The Ultimate Email Database Of Tech Reporters & Newspaper Journalists.

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2. Guest contributions must be meaningful, not promotional

We have seen the recent and rapid growth of a $30 billion a year sponsored content market.  These articles are very different from a normal editorial contribution and, though they are often informative and entertaining, they always lead the reader to the same conclusion; your product breaks the mold, solves the problem, and should be purchased right away.

A company taking this route must be willing to invest a lot of money. Three months on Forbes’ Brand Voice platform, for example, can cost between $50,000 – $75,000. Of course, the ultimate goal is to promote your business, but remember: any content that is featured will be labeled as ‘Sponsored.’

When you consider that just 24% of readers consume native ad content, compared to “normal” editorial, which is read by 71% of the audience (Chartbeat), you can understand why this is not always so desirable to advertisers.

Thought leadership articles, on the other hand, won’t cost you a cent, and won’t have any off-putting disclaimers. However, they have an entirely different purpose.

Contributed guest blogs need to be non-promotional: unlike sponsored content, they do not provide an opportunity for you to advertise your product. Instead, thought leadership articles provide a chance for business leaders to talk on an industry topic and offer insight and expertise.

In order to take advantage of this economical source of PR, your article must be of true value to the readerships, or commissioning editors will roundly reject your submission.

Guest contributions often take the form of useful How to articles, tips and tricks, industry insight pieces that add to debates, or articles that identify or solve common business problems. Remember, the media owes you nothing and is not there to help you peddle your business; rather it must offer interesting content that excites its readership, so dig deep.

3. Effective PR builds credible social proof, not just strong backlinks.

So, we’ve identified that PR creates trust and engages audiences, but if you aren’t getting typical ad direct response metrics, what is the point?

Of course, there are the views, clicks, landing page hits and even sales that demonstrate direct ROI from PR. Furthermore, a powerful backlink from a high tier site will do wonders for your SEO ranking. But much more than this, effective PR carries great weight on a qualitative level. One of the greatest benefits of successful PR is the power of brand association. You got your name on a high tier publication and, without that ‘Sponsored’ label, you are starting to build real, credible social proof for yourself as a professional and the company you represent.

Googling your company or business will now no longer pull up your website, your social media accounts, or indeed your content marketing or native ad spots.

Instead you have an independent review from the NYT, a local TV interview, or your recent insights on the state of the startup world on Techcrunch.

Understanding the differences between advertising and PR means you can use them both in the most effective ways. Tailor your PR assets – this could be your press release, your pitch, your guest article, or even your approach to interviews – remembering your end goal and the value you will bring to a readership by getting coverage.

Advertising is designed to drive those direct response metrics, typically with a very clear call to action. PR may be harder to quantify, it is brand focused after all, but its effects are longer lasting.

As Richard Branson–PR pro, stuntman and CEO of Virgin Group–famously said, “A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.”

While you might not be planning to fling yourself off a 407-foot casino any time soon, those that can figure out PR, can reap the rewards by building lasting relationships with the media and by creating strong social proof. You can also read our guide to PR in 2019 for an in depth analysis of PR versus marketing.


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