This post was originally posted on AdAge on December 04, 2019.
In my previous article on marketing ventriloquism, I made the case for marketers talking through voices other than their own and explained that most marketers tend to rely on advertising because of a need for perceived control.
Content marketing is a positive step toward truly effective marketing communications in that it starts to drift away from advertising toward useful information provision, which is what your audience wants. It is also comfortable for most marketing professionals because they can still control it completely. But it is still you sharing information with your audience, and they know it.
One of my key takeaways from Mathew Dixon’s book The Challenger Sale was that the best salespeople show up with credible, new information for their prospects. They deeply understand their prospects’ needs and wants. Then, they challenge and expand their prospects’ thinking about those needs and wants, often in a way that aligns with what they are selling. A good piece of earned media content can do the same thing. It can also be more persuasive because it is not you or your salesperson shill talking to your prospective customer.
So, now we get back to this issue of control and the central paradox of public relations: How do you control a process that is inherently valuable because you can’t control it?
Think about it. Earned media content — sometimes the result of your PR efforts — is so valuable and persuasive precisely because it is not you communicating with your audience, and they realize that. Instead, the message is coming from an independent third party, preferably a discriminating, informed and credible one. In fact, the less you are perceived to have been able to control the message, the more credible and persuasive it will be.
Below, I’ll explain how you can emulate the most sophisticated marketers who are mastering the art and science of marketing ventriloquism (i.e., speaking through voices other than their own).
First, focus on what you can control. This is the basic blocking and tackling of public relations — delivering the right information to the right thought leaders at the right time. The same is true for related functions, such as investor relations and government affairs.
Second, install control systems, also known as media monitoring systems, that keep you informed about the media environment and what messages are working. This is currently done with massively varying degrees of analytical rigor, but that is another story.
The goal of these systems is to convert the messy world of media, mindshare and ideas into metrics and measures that executives understand. The most advanced systems quantify PR impact in terms that non-marketers understand, such as revenue, pipeline, leads, conversions, downloads and, especially, dollars.
Third — and here is where the ventriloquism comes into play — amplify your best earned media. Many companies already do this as part of their content marketing, but they often leave behind their best content: their earned media.
Beyond PR’s Achilles’ heel (and also its biggest benefit) that you can’t control it, PR’s other central weakness is that most earned media has a half-life that would make a fruit fly look like Rip Van Winkle. The good news, however, is that half-lives never theoretically get to zero. That means that, for the most part, earned media lives on in perpetuity, unlike an advertisement, which shuts off the millisecond you stop paying someone to distribute it for you.
Some marketers and communications professionals are bridging the gap between digital media ad tech and corporate communications to increase the shelf life and ROI of their earned media efforts. The PRSA is beginning to spread the word, and various agencies, such as Raven and Hunt Adkins, are starting to address this opportunity. As Matt Van Hoven from Raven put it, “From a business growth perspective, press is worth nothing to agencies if the right people don’t see it — brands, procurement, journalists and talent.”
Interestingly, it seems as though the people who are really making hay amplifying earned media are marketing or digital media folks — not PR professionals. Yet, PR teams have the most to gain from amplifying the content they produce and communicating the results they generate. After all, they’re doing the hard part by managing the uncontrollable.
I suspect that this mismatch related to who is doing the amplification of earned media is driven by the fact that it tends to be the marketing departments that control the media budgets and the ad tech systems via which the amplification happens. In my experience, even when marketing and communications report to the same person, they typically operate in adjacent silos.
Many companies are already doing everything required to amplify earned media in isolation. They’re just not connecting the people and processes internally. As a result, the digital marketing teams are not using the most persuasive content available to them, and the efforts of the communications team fade away overnight without generating the credit the team deserves or the business impact that they could.
It’s time for digital media and corporate communications teams to reach across the water cooler and really cooperate. Doing so would be as close to a free lunch in marketing as there is.