How long is your attention span? It probably depends on what you’re doing. Some activities, such as driving and video gaming, are easier to concentrate on for prolonged periods than others. In contrast, a Microsoft study found checking social media accounts or jumping between experiences on multiple screens will strain someone’s attention —but only if these tasks start to seem dull and repetitive.
For today’s public relations professionals, there is plenty at stake in preventing such deteriorations in focus:
• There’s a famous stat out there about how humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish; yet that Microsoft report actually documented improvements in the mental processing of large amounts of digital information among its subjects.
• More specifically, individuals conditioned by social media and modern tech are adept at consuming content that holds their interest, prompting them to search for more of it and avoid the fear of missing out (colloquially, “FOMO”) on something key.
• More than half of social media users now admit to FOMO, and their behavior has spurred a renaissance in PR/marketing, in the form of appeals to limited-time opportunities. Content strategy has evolved to catch the eye with a title and sustain it with quality.
The overarching challenge here is in promoting and distributing such engaging work via viable PR channels. There is constant competition for attention, with breakthroughs in public awareness arguably tougher than ever to realize.
The main challenges in PR content promotion and distribution today
Gaining PR exposure has always required initiative and follow-through, but it used to be more straightforward. You could often send a press release to a journalist at a well-staffed and widely read publication and, if successful, have your message propagated to a targeted audience. Today, journalism is not nearly as central to PR campaign amplification, and the press release has taken a backseat to alternatives such as content marketing.
The decline of newspapers and magazines has coincided with the rise of new gatekeepers such as Facebook and Google, along with the complications of keeping up with their ever-changing algorithms. Recipients of PR pitches also have different expectations – not to mention an abundance of options – for the materials they receive. Notable challenges include:
1. More PR professionals chasing fewer journalists
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), PR and journalism are two fields heading in opposite directions. While the broad BLS category of “PR specialists” is expected to see a 9 percent increase in employment from 2016 to 2026 “reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts” are projected to see a double-digit decline. The trend is fueled by a substantial compensation gap between these workers: PR professionals currently earn much higher median salaries.
With fewer journalists available to evaluate PR pitches, there is less bandwidth for stories to get picked up. The remaining reporters are frequently overwhelmed with inquiries, receiving hundreds weekly in some instances. Even well-crafted, personalized submissions inevitably become lost in the shuffle. The bar for an effective pitch has also been raised, with some media employees expecting materials such as infographics instead of just text.
2. Rising pace and volume of content production
From the heyday of print through the era now sometimes called Web 1.0 (i.e., the early days of the mainstream internet), content production, promotion and distribution was a simpler process than they are now. Relatively few channels were available to PR – e.g., newspapers, TV channels, official company websites – and the required approvals limited how much could be published and by whom. Audience attention was monopolized by predictable parties.
The emergence of Web 2.0 in the mid 2000s changed the landscape for PR, forcing agencies and teams to reconsider where to publish (Twitter? the third-party blogging network Medium? the company site?) their materials for maximum visibility. With dramatically broadened access to content creation tools among individuals and organizations, it also became more difficult to gain traction in social feeds populated with a seemingly endless supply of articles and ads:
• A report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism revealed that CNN alone published over 2,800 stories in just one week in February 2017.
• IBM estimated in 2016 that more than 90 percent of all digital data in existence, from slide decks to videos, had been created in the past two years.
• In this sea of content, organic reach has steadily declined on platforms like Facebook, on which SocialFlow charted a 42 percent drop from January to May 2016.
Standing out within this deluge requires a combination of paid promotion, earned coverage and social media prominence. Getting the right mix is complicated by the opacity of many algorithms in search and social, as well as the biases of distribution networks, including the public internet itself.
3. Shifting algorithms and networks
Any update to how Google indexes search results has the potential to reshape PR, if only because of its impact on the increasingly important practice of content marketing. Likewise, changes in Facebook and smaller platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn can quickly reshape what types of content capture and hold viewers’ attention.
There is also the vast web advertising economy — which Google and Facebook dominate — to consider. How much attention a reader can devote to a piece might not strictly be a factor of the actual words or images, but also of what native and/or banner ads accompany it on the page.
Finally, the basic structure of the web itself is changing. Regulation of the complex issue of net neutrality could result in different economics for publishing and distributing content; accordingly, paying more to an ISP might enable prioritization of content, roughly similar to how promoted posts already work on Facebook and Twitter.
What does an optimal PR content distribution strategy now look like?
Given the volatility of attention spans and the significant competition for them across all media channels, PR professionals should pursue a multifaceted approach. The Paid Earned Shared Owned (PESO) model is a good framework to start with.
The four categories of PESO collectively encompass all major tasks and types of media PR professionals will regularly work with, from blogger relations (earned) to webinars, videos and podcasts (usually owned). The 2017 Global Communications Report projected a decline in the earned category for the rest of the 2010s, alongside increases in the other four, which is what we should expect from an environment with fewer journalists and greater power in the hands of social media giants.
How each PR firm or in-house team approaches distribution in the coming years will be unique. Here are a few considerations for optimizing your use of PESO en-route to a better strategy:
Who am I reaching out to?
Sometimes there is a disconnect between a PR message and its recipients. For example, a press release might resonate with someone who is only vaguely aware of the cause or organization in question, yet barely register with anyone seeking more in-depth information. In that case, a form of owned media like a webinar would likely be more useful.
Whether a specific form is useful will depend on the characteristics of the desired audience. Connecting with it might require enlisting the help of influencers (particularly useful for earned media), mastering specific technical tools (such as social media management apps) or occasionally paying for placement.
Is my content easily shareable?
Even the best-written and produced content might never reach its potential if it’s not sufficiently shareable. While there isn’t any magic formula for making a specific post go viral, some helpful attributes include visual appeal (i.e., formatting, images, fonts, etc.) and concision, both of which help with online materials in particular.
Readers who can scroll through content instead of moving sequentially through its pages or slides are more likely to skim than read every last word, according to The New Yorker. Internet assets can also be mentally taxing to get through due to distractions and eye strain. Highly shared content often overcomes these obstacles by taking advantage of options such as Google AMP for faster load times and clearer formatting, using pleasing color schemes to encourage focus and telling a clear story to sustain interest.
What’s my budget look like?
PR budgets are complex. They include money for printed materials, software, press conferences, memberships in organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America and much more. In recent years, content marketing has also become a bigger – and relatively expensive – line item.
Budgetary constraints will determine how much you can invest in pricier forms such as videos. and whether you can spend enough on paid social media promotions for sufficient return on investment. The good news is that even with a small budget, it’s possible to catch and hold your audience’s attention with techniques such as content optimization, media relationships and iterative approaches.
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