PR’s Top Pros Talk… Generating Traffic Through Earned Media
Mark LoCastro, Director of Public Relations, SmartAsset
How can earned media be converted into measurable results? Mark LoCastro, Director of Public Relations, SmartAsset, offers insights into utilizing a backlink strategy to generate traffic. Mark also emphasizes the importance of leveraging an internal spokesperson and shares his experience of transitioning from being a PR Manager into a national company spokesperson.
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About the Host:
GUEST: MARK LOCASTRO
HOST: DOUG SIMON
DOUG: Mark, you had real interesting transition in your previous work at Deal News, where you went from PR manager to a spokesperson role for the company. And that’s going to really illuminate a lot of what we’re talking about the importance of earned media. Could you share a couple of details of what happened?
MARK: Sure, it was a really interesting journey. And just first, Deal News is a retail shopping site. They show you the best deals on the web and where you can buy those deals. So, I was with the company for 5 years. I started as a PR manager and the whole process was getting our unique content the best and worst things to buy, things to avoid buying, getting that content into the hands of relevant media, and having the media talk and write and broadcast this content. So, for two years, I was behind the scenes, getting my CEO on TV, doing interviews, phone interviews, and also our managing editor. So, I was two years behind the scenes doing briefing documents, talking points, coordinating the interviews. For one of the interviews, I was with WABC7 Eyewitness News with Nina Pineda, and the interview was going to be with Nina Pineda and the CEO and founder of Deal News Dan de Grandpre. Dan was heading to the to the studios via Dumbo and I was heading there via the East Village in two separate cabs. So, he called me halfway through and he was like, hey, I have a stomach bug and I can’t do the interview. So, I said, all right, Dan, no problem, let’s cancel it. And he actually said, hold on, why don’t you try it? He encouraged me to do the interview, in no way in my head was I did I think I was ready, willing, and prepared to do so. I did the interview, it was one of those men on the street interviews. I think we even walked into a Best Buy to show the best, the best tech deals. And little did I know that I did a really good job apparently. After that, my CEO said, all right, Mark, you’re now the company’s spokesperson. And from that point forward, I did, I would say, hundreds of interviews from Live National with CNBC and Fox and Friends and Fox Business to a lot of local with, you know, CBS2 New York and ABC7 and then tons of Skype and video interviews. So, I became this retail and shopping expert just by being this PR manager who recorded interviews that I transitioned to this national spokesperson and little did I know for the two years that I was behind the scenes, that was my training period.
DOUG: You’ve actually brought that similar approach to SmartAsset, where you’re really leveraging the internal spokespeople at the organization to try and get the maximum benefit from these interviews. How important is it to be working with internal spokespeople for authenticity and to really drive value in results?
MARK: That’s certainly a great question. I think whether you’re a PR pro at an agency, if you’re in-house, regardless of the situation, I think it’s your job to be as efficient as possible as a PR pro to deliver information, to coordinate interviews to give the media the insights. So, essentially give the media what they need at the fastest, most efficient manner and I think that will result in better media placements and media coverage, which will help increase your brand awareness, executive visibility, and all those other good metrics. I think coming from agency life and also working in-house as a PR pro, and also as a spokesperson, I think the media sphere is has been very impacted, especially from the pandemic. I saw stats that since 2004, 1,800 local newspapers have closed and as a result of the pandemic, about 100 newspapers have closed. A lot of our media coverage comes from local media. So, now that the media sphere is getting smaller, so there’s less media to reach out to, but then there’s more sources of information, I think the PR pros who can bridge the gap faster to the media make the news more relevant to them to their community and have a turnkey approach. So, not only are you delivering them an insightful picture of a newsworthy piece of data that really appeals and impacts their local community. If you can say, hey, I have someone readily available today, tomorrow for an interview, if you’re making their lives easier and better, I think that’s what the media are looking for, especially as consolidation continues across the media sphere.
DOUG: You’re particularly data-driven. How do you try and convert this earned media into measurable results? What are some of the keys to doing that well?
MARK: Another great question. I think, determining the ROI of a PR campaign is always tough, that’s always been a challenge across our industry ever since the inception of a public relations, and I think that it’s all about managing expectations with your client. So, if you’re at a PR agency, obviously, you have clients and you need to manage expectations accordingly. If you’re internal, you have to treat your boss as the client or the CEO as the client, because I think if you’re on the same page in terms of setting the right goals, determining how to reach those goals, and then actually reporting on those goals, in terms of KPIs and whatever those KPIs are, as long as you’re aligned with your client, I think that’s where you can really add value as a public relations professional. Now, coming from a PR agency life, a lot of those goals are quantitative. You have to deliver one press release or one trade placement or one consumer placement or one byline, which is which is great as long as you’re aligned with the client and that’s what you strive for in terms of your goals, that’s great. When I was at Deal News, all that coverage was amazing, but my goals were based on how much referral traffic can come to the website based on the media placements they secured that had a hyperlink.
DOUG: And that’s what I wanted to talk about. Ask you about this whole link back strategy that you’ve developed for your earned media. So, it’s really generating traffic and generating results even beyond the people who just happened to see the broadcast, experience the event. Can you talk a little bit about that first and then next question, want to jump in how you make that happen? So first, how does that strategy even work?
MARK: Sure. So, I think it’s a SmartAsset. I just want to quickly call out that we operate a marketplace. So, on one side of the marketplace, we reach about 75 million consumers, and the content that we produce for this side of the marketplace is all personal finance related content. Now, for those consumers that we reach that come into our site or interact with our own owned and operated channels, if they show any interest in connecting with a financial advisor, we then facilitate that connection to the financial advisor. So, it’s just marketplace that we operate on the consumer side. We’re supporting the consumer team in terms of, yes, media, media placements, media relations. We want the media to talk favorably about the company, about our executives, but what we’re really doing is supporting the company’s SEO strategy. So, we have tons of content, we have tons of information out there. And our KPIs as a public relations team is the number of media placements that we can secure in a given timeframe that include backlinks to that piece of content or to our homepage. Now, this is just a portion of our whole marketing strategy and consumer relations strategy as a company. But the PR team, we secure thousands, a couple of thousands of unique media placements that contain a hyperlink and that plays into organic revenue, organic traffic. And while you’re all doing that, that’s our main KPI, but also, you’re increasing the brand’s visibility. So, your brand building, if your executives are quoted in the media and there’s a link there. So not only are getting, the search value, the search value of that, you’re increasing the executive visibility of that person.
DOUG: So, how do you convince media to put backlinks in there to get back to you because that’s tough. Please do my story and or you’re coming up with all these creative ideas. But so, what’s the strategy? Is it important that you have content that they can link to that’s relevant that further illuminates the story to get them to put those links in there?
MARK: It’s commonly said that content is king, but what is not also said is that distribution is queen. So, you can have the best content in the world but if you have no distribution mechanism to get the media to write about or people to write about it, then then your kind of you’re missing something there. So, what we do as a strategy is create really unique content that appeals to people across the nation using publicly available data like the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And we produce data that’s interesting to everyone in the entire country, and we do this over and over and over again. And what that does is allow us to reach out to media topically. So, national media, hey, here are the best cities for women in technology, right? And this overarching big topical national story, but then we also have rankings here the top 10 cities for the best cities for women in tech. And what that allows us to do is reach out to the media in the top 10 cities, which just gives us additional pitching ammunition. But also, if you’re the number 1 ranking city for the best city for women in tech, you’re likely going to write about it. So, we make the content, or the content is compelling where the media are almost forced to link to it because there is so much amazing data out there that I feel like their readers would be interested in.
DOUG: Any advice for other organizations trying to put this search strategy, this SEO strategy, this link strategy together off earned media. If you can have them, just give them like two or three sentences about, this is how you need to think about it, and this can be how you can make it happen. What would you tell people?
MARK: I would say that invest in content, invest in content in a way that’s compelling and interesting. So, if people start to share it, that’s a very good indicator that the media would want to share it with their readers. And if you can determine that and understand what that need is in terms of the insight, storytelling, data or trends, insights, that is exactly what the media are looking for. So, if you can provide them with quality content, high-quality spokespersons, and unique insight, I think that that compels the media not only to write about the topic or the person, but to link to that source for more information. I think that’s really important thing to do.
DOUG: Thanks so much for sharing your great ideas with us.
MARK: Well, thanks for having me on.