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In this week's episode, Jack Chambers-Ward is joined by Jo O'Reilly, a freelance digital PR specialist to discuss the state of digital PR and link building in 2023.
Jack: Hello, and welcome to Episode 81 of Season 2 of the Search With Candour podcast. I am your host, Jack Chambers-Ward, and joining me this week is a Freelance Digital PR Consultant and Specialist, Jo O'Reilly. Jo and I are going to be talking about why so many people think link building is so difficult these days, and of course, Jo will be giving us hints, tips and some advice because she is incredibly knowledgeable about all things digital PR.
Before we get to my chat with Jo, I'd like to say a huge thanks to SISTRIX who have sponsored Search With Candour all throughout 2023. Thank you for your support, SISTRIX. If you'd like to go and check out SISTRIX and all of their fantastic tools and services, go to SISTRIX.com/swc, that stands for Search with Candour. There you can check out some of their fantastic free tools and also have a free trial of their paid service as well. So like I said, go to SISTRIX.com/swc. There'll be a link for that in the show notes, and you can go and check out their free tools and free trial as well.
We have some of the latest data updates here from SISTRIX as well. I'm going to spend a couple of minutes talking about supermarket visibility in the UK in July 2023. This is provided by the data journalism team over at SISTRIX. And in particular, this article is done by the one and only Steve Payne, who you may recognize from his BrightonSEO SEO talks and his previous appearance on this show as well. So let's talk about some of the U.K. supermarkets. I know quite a few of our listeners are not based in the U.K., so some of these names might not make much sense to you, but basically supermarkets, for us, are big stores that cover everything from foods, to clothing, to household items. Some of them even branch out into finance, and banking, and even funeral services sometimes. They are really surprisingly diverse, basically. You think of them as just one big shop you go and do your food shopping, and family shopping, and all that kind of stuff. So if you are familiar with U.K. supermarkets, if you are living in the U.K., or are from the U.K., you're probably familiar with these names, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Sainsbury's. I would argue Morrisons is also in there as well. People know of Waitrose and things, but those are the big four, arguably. And Tesco have been doing a particularly interesting job, especially with their Tesco recipe stuff. So their real food subdomain, realfood.tesco.com, has done some pretty significant growth over the last 12 months, up by 33%, which I think is pretty impressive. They're going up against fellow U.K. based things like BBC Good Food and that kind of thing.
And BBC Good Good is much, much bigger, but Tesco have seen a pretty significant growth in particular in those sectors. Marks & Spencer has seen a 35% overall increase in visibility. And of course, if you know anything about Marks & Spencer, you know all about their birthday cake and Colin the Caterpillar controversy. There's some alliteration for you. It's very interesting to see how much of that kind of fake competition, I want to say, the little snipes back and forth between different companies and different supermarkets actually help to drive up search intent of people trying to understand what is going on, and actually helping them rank really, really well for things like birthday cake, which is not something I would instantly think of M&S being the driving factor behind their site, but apparently, it is. In that range, they're competing with a lot of other specific bakery shops like thecakestore.co.uk and patisserie-valerie.co.uk. It's interesting to see that M&S have done so much growth there over the last 12 months. Also, we are seeing a lot of growth through Ocado. I don't know if you "There's an Ocado just for you". And again, I'm sure if you're living in the U.K., if you've been in the UK over the last few years, you've probably heard the jingle either on a podcast, or a YouTube video, or on TV. (singing) And that drives me up the wall because I hate that jingle. It's very, very catchy and will go around in my head all day long. So you're welcome, on your Monday, if you're listening to this on Monday, just having that little jingle going around in your head.
But they are actually doing some interesting stuff as well, because Ocado used to be a ... essentially, a delivery service for Waitrose, which is another very high-end supermarket here in the U.K. But M&S have started to really focus on Ocado, and push it, and kind of ... like I said, a few years ago, essentially, Ocado was on the decline. And now it's on the up, as Marks & Spencer seem to ... is starting to invest more and really competing with Waitrose in that space. And another interesting stat here is that if you zoom out, and take a look at the big picture of the entire sector, all the supermarkets and all their visibility put together is actually a fair amount of stability. So what we're seeing from the growth of certain sites and the decline of other sites seems to be balancing out, give or take, over the last 12 months or so. So, yeah, very interesting stuff. Like I said, I'm just scratching the surface and banging through a bunch of headings and top lines here. Please do go and check out the SISTRIX blog. Go to SISTRIX.com/blog, and like I said, I'll put a link for that in the show notes. You can go and read all about the changes over the last 12 months in the U.K. supermarket sector. Of course, please do go to SISTRIX.com/swc, get that free trial, get those free tools. And a huge thank you, once again, to SISTRIX for sponsoring the show.
My guest for this week, you may recognise her from the recent Search Barcelona appearance and an appearance on the Women in Tech SEO Podcast. She's a Freelance Digital PR Specialist, the one and only Jo O'Reilly. Welcome to the show.
Jo: Hi. Hi, Jack. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. Really excited to have a chat today. Yeah, it's great to be here.
Jack: I feel like you and I have crossed paths many times across-
Jo: Virtually, right? Virtually.
Jack: ... various different Slacks, and social media and lots of virtual stuff. It's nice to actually sit down and properly have a ... I know it's for a podcast, but I feel like it is still an actual conversation as well, right?
Jo: Feels like a proper meeting as opposed to just being the same threads and the same places.
Jack: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So as I introed you that you are a digital PR specialist, something I'm very much not. I am very much a SEO person and not a digital PR person. And that is the topic you brought to the table for us to talk about, because there was a thread on Twitter that happened a little while ago, and I love the way you waded it in. It says, "Well, there is a reason that every time ... And everybody ask the question of, "What's the hardest part in SEO?" And you see that question on LinkedIn and Twitter all the time, basically. It's almost always link building. I think people think of link building as this very difficult, very unique thing that is sometimes ethereal, sometimes impossible, sometimes unachievable. And I guess we want to have a discussion about that. Me picking your brains as the person who has lived and breathed digital PR for so long and built so many links over the years, and me, who I think I've built 6, maybe 10, ever.
Jo: That's good. That's good. That's a great start, right?
Jack: It's better than nothing, right?
Jo: Definitely. And I think that's it. I think that's part of this conversation, is that there are things that you can do, that I couldn't do. There are words that you guys use in tech SEO that to me are ethereal. They're like incantations, like hreflangs, and meta descriptions and things are sort of ... in digital PR we look at it and it's just, "Ooh, the alchemy, the tech SEO alchemy is happening again." And that's fine, that's okay. We're not all meant to know the same things and do the same things in the industry. It would be boring if we did, but it's also just ... they're just completely different skill sets, and like you said, I think it popped up again. I think it was Freddy, an SEO who does loads of great stuff for SEO. He did an SEO summer course over the summer, and he's putting together another SEO course, essentially. And he was trying to really find out what are the bits of SEO that people struggle with. And as you said, whenever I see these polls, and it's a really popular poll, link building is far and wide, the thing people are like, "Well, I don't understand it. I don't know how to do it. I can't make it work."
Jack: Yeah. To put it into perspective for the folks who haven't seen the ... I'll put a screenshot of the poll and the link to the Twitter thread in the show notes, so do go and check them out. But just in case you hadn't got the stats here, 17.4% said, "Technical SEO." Fair enough. 2.3% said, "On page." 7% said, "Content." And you think, "Well, those numbers don't add up very much." Yeah, 'cause 73.3% said, "Link-building." It's more than the rest of them put together times 3, almost three quarters of everyone just said, "Link building." It's like a pretty standout stat. It's not just a little bit, it is very clearly the one.
Jo: And this is always the case whenever I see this, however it's done, whenever it's done, it is always the case. And it's the thing that if you talk to people in the industry on different Slack groups, or freelancers, the women in tech SEO chat as well, I spend a lot of time there. Link building is a thing that really ... people feel pressured to perform that service or that role as part of their SEO role. But it's a completely different skillset.
I think that poll caught me on a bad day, and I was like, "Right, I've had enough of this. I'm just going to explain why this is." Because what made me quite sad about it is this idea that there are all these really talented tech SEOs, or really talented content SEOs that they're smashing all these different aspects of their job, all these different components of what it takes to be in the industry, and to do a good job for clients whether they're agency or in-house, and then that feeling that, "Well, actually I'm not that good, because I can't do this one part of the role." And to me, well, should it be part of their role?
Jack: Yeah, this was something I experienced in my previous agency, where it was just like everybody is a digital marketing person. You cover paid ads, you cover paid social, you cover link building, you cover SEO, technical SEO, content, absolutely everything in one big lump sum. I'm like, "I don't do paid stuff. I've never done PPC in my life. Why am I suddenly doing this client's social ads and I didn't get a choice about it?" And it was really refreshing coming to Candour, not to ... I know this podcast is done by Candour, but I'm not being biased. It's one of the reasons I came to work here in the first place, is that my job title was SEO Specialist, and I wasn't expected to ... as you were saying there, expected to suddenly meet all these extra KPIs for stuff I'd not trained in and don't know how to do. "Oh, Jack, you've got to go and build 30 links this week." I'll be like, "Oh, God, what do I do?" And same, spinning it around to you, Jo. It'd be like, "Oh, yeah, you've got to go and fix all these hreflangs, and implement all this stuff, and do all this developer, work and technical SEO stuff." That's not how people's skillset sets work. Granted, some people are across the board, and are able to do it, but they're like unicorns in the industry. That's a pretty special person who can really cover ... and I consider myself a bit of a generalist. I'm not particularly technical, I'm not particularly content-led, not particularly anything. But each of these things is a whole skillset in and of itself. And I think you are totally right, having that approach where we often expect so much, maybe not even from our managers and our bosses, but even of ourselves, right? You're setting those unrealistic expectations of ourselves as well. I think that's a huge part of growing in your career and hopefully learning and stuff like that. Fingers crossed.
Jo: Yeah. And I think that's why this stood out to me, 'cause I think there's a bit of a trope in social media, for example, where you get young people come into the digital marketing industry, they often start in social media doing ... like you said, doing the odd paid ad here and there. And I think these days when you see the work that someone who is a social media manager has to do where ... I mean, we're just talking before the podcast about Threads, and how we're all having to now tack that onto our own personal social media strategy. If you are doing Twitter, or Threads, and LinkedIn, and then suddenly you're expected to go and record videos for TikTok or YouTube, these are different skillsets, and they're valuable skillsets, but they're different skillsets. And expecting people to not just have that breadth of skillset, but also to be able to do 15 different opposing things at once, and do them well, it sets people up to fail. And it's not a nice thing. And I think this is what really stood out to me about seeing these polls again and again, was, "Are we just expecting people who are really good at a set type of work to understand the nuance of something like digital?" Digital PR isn't the link building of old, it isn't the outreach of old. It requires a lot of understanding of a media industry that's forever changing and quite intense to keep on top of. I don't know how you would even keep on top of what was going on in the media, and how that was working as well, as keeping on top of your algorithm updates, and all the things that you've got going on these days just in tech SEO, where things are changing so quickly. We've only got so many hours in the day, right? We've only got so much time that we can spend not doing our job, but just keeping up with the industry just to do those two things alone. You'd be working 24 hours a day to do that.
Jack: Yeah, definitely. We're going to launch into my first question. You led me very nicely. Nice little segue there. I appreciate that.
Jo: No worries.
Jack: It's what you like to see in a podcast guest, is how much do you think link building has changed over the last, say 2, 3, and then going back even further, 5, 10 years? You hinted it there, right? It is not what it was a few years ago, but from your perspective coming in as a former journalist and having that experience as well, and now obviously working in agency and going freelance, how much has it changed for you, and your experience, and the entire outreach digital PR space over the last few years?
Jo: Oh, it's changed massively. I think the obvious thing, and I think everyone's getting sick of hearing how the new normal, and how the pandemic changed the world of work. There's no getting away from it really, is there? I think when I came into digital PR, obviously before the pandemic, and we were doing these big hero campaigns and these big data studies, and I was already going down a more reactive route. It's what I'm best at, it's what I enjoy. I think it's the best way to do digital PR, particularly for small e-commerce sites or smaller companies that don't have a Barbie-level marketing budget. Reactive PR is one of the smartest things you can do with your marketing budget if you don't have all that resource and all that budget to play with. But the Pandemic really did move things away from these big hero campaigns, because the news cycle suddenly changed in a way that in my lifetime, I don't think we'd seen. I don't think the news cycle had had that kind of a dramatic change. Probably since the second World War, where suddenly everything was always going to be related to this one topic, everything from lifestyle, to news, to finance to health, every sector of journalism was changing and filtered through this lens of, "Well, we're going through this crazy thing in the world." I was working in tech at the time, and not to be ghoulish about it, because it was horrendous for so many people, oBviously. Not just the actual impact of the pandemic itself, but the mental health aspect of lockdowns. But it changed the world of work, so working in tech, it suddenly gave us all these new things to talk about. We were talking about Zoom, suddenly. Shares for Zoom peaked. We all suddenly had to be doing things remotely. I was working for a VPN affiliate site in-house, doing digital PR at the time, so you can imagine suddenly all these companies needed to be talking about VPNs because their staff were working from home. And it changed, and reactive PR just got really embedded in how we approach it. It was not really shaken that often, and I think that's a good thing. I think it's a good way to do PR. But I think it's a skill, and a lot of that skill is having the understanding of how the news works, and how trends work, and how news isn't really always different. We have this idea as casual news consumers that there's not a calendar for it. There really is. A lot of news works on a kind of calendar basis, a bit like your social media content calendars effectively. And understanding that is a skill in itself, and having the time to keep up with that and stay on top of that is a real ... it's labor-intensive in terms of the time it takes, and I wouldn't expect anyone to be able to tack that onto a tech role in SEO or even a content role in SEO.
Jack: Yeah, I think especially with content, you see a lot of crossover with the trying to build natural links approach where if you ... in the words of Google, "Just make good content." And they make it sound so, so simple, and so obvious, and, "Yeah, we'll just naturally build you links, and everything's fine. And rainbows and kittens will come and celebrate with you," and all this kind of stuff. That is not how that works, and I think you're totally right, having an active approach to it, and being switched on and aware of the processes ... Like I mentioned, your background in journalism there as well. I have a little bit of that myself way back in the day doing pop culture kind of stuff and coverage many, many years ago. And thinking about what actually goes into somebody writing an article on how writers are pitching to editors, or the editorial process of a particular publication, or whatever it is, it's not just about having that contact, but it's understanding their cycle.
Like you're saying, "Oh, this kind of company always covers this kind of thing at this time of year, so now is a good time to pitch it." Being aware of that kind of stuff, keeping track of that stuff, and being aware of trends and all that kind of stuff is so time-consuming. I'm conscious I do this in SEO now because of the podcast, 'cause I need to be talking about things that are relevant, and topical, and things like that, especially when Mark and I do our monthly news recap episodes, essentially. It's a whole effort and conscious effort of me to go through and check social media, check newsletters, check different websites, and publications, and all this kind of stuff. And you're totally right, expecting somebody to do that on top of another full-time job as well, and then also action all of that stuff, and make sure you're trying to get results from all of that thing is just a whole other ball game. That is a whole other thing. I guess my question is do you think it's actually harder now to build links in a general sense, or is it a little bit easier because of how technology has changed?
Jo: No, I think it's harder. Not to be a pessimist about it. I love what I do. It's great fun. But, yeah, it's harder. There are more digital PRs now. Every week, it seems like there are more digital PRs and less journalists. We're all going after the same crumbs of ... we're all chasing the same journalists, we're filling up the same inboxes, we're chasing the same trends. I mean, I can't imagine if you worked in lifestyle, or any kind of lifestyle journalism at the moment, how many Barbie press releases you've had this week, right?
Jack: Oh, my God, yeah, absolutely.
Jo: You would just be sick of it. I mean, you've got the stuff that the actual marketing team's involved in the film are doing themselves, and I think I've seen ... was it Burger King have released a Barbie burger with pink stuff. We're all chasing the same story. Whether it's newsjacking, or reactive PR outreaches, we're all chasing the same trends, and it's always about being first, which in itself is incredibly difficult to do. You can't do that alongside another role, really. You've got to be ready to go, "Right, I'm dropping everything so I can jump on this story and newsjack it within the hour." And trying to find different angles constantly to get your client, get your website in that press and attract that journalist's attention, that's not something I would expect any ... particularly, more junior members of staff to be able to tack on to a role that's already quite involved and already requires a lot of different skills, and time, and resource.
Jack: Yeah, I think that's a huge part of that. Again, that kind of newsjacking thing. Being able to turn stuff around quickly can be the difference between getting a link and not getting a link. Like you said, if you are first in there, there is a pretty good chance that something's going to happen. And that can be a matter of hours, it can be a matter of minutes sometimes, literally. "Oh, sorry, somebody else emailed me two minutes before you did." Tough shit, you're not getting that link.
Jo: Yeah, that's right. And this is the thing people often ask me about relationships with journalists, and it's not like the old days. I don't get to go out to nice, long, boozy lunches with journalists.
Jack: I've heard about these things. I've read about one where everyone went on a retreat to some nice hotel, and they all had Sunday roasts and stuff. I'm like, "What? Where is this?" Like you said, yeah, it's not really much of a thing anymore.
Jo: I mean, don't get me wrong, we used to get PR send nice gifts to the newsroom and stuff like that, but no one ever took me on a nice, long boozy ... I didn't have time. I was writing six, seven stories a day by the time I left journalism. Again, the pandemic changed how journalism worked. People aren't in newsrooms five days a week now. Most of them are working from home. There's a hybrid work model, a bit like most agencies, most digital marketing roles. People aren't going to wait for you because they like you. If you are not first when a story breaks to get your comment in, to get your data in, they're not going to think, "Oh, yeah, I'm going to wait around and see if that PR that I like ... They're busy, and they've got KPIs, right? They've got targets to hit as well. So, yeah, speed is of the essence. If you're in a agency ... and I've dealt with this myself, dealing with sign-off processes can absolutely derail the best intentions in PR. So, yeah, speed. Again, a really hard thing to juggle that as an add-on or a bolt-on to an SEO role that's more traditional content or tech-based SEO.
Jack: Yeah, I think Google have really been leaning towards the trying to ... I can't remember the exact wording they used, but trying to give credit to the first resource, the first source of information, and making sure they're ... obviously, as a big wider part of their battle against misinformation and fake news. Speaking of the pandemic, that was a big kick in the teeth for them happening. That was kind of a, "Oh, we need to actually do something about this, 'cause people are taking weird medications, or horse tranquilisers, or de-worming tablets," or whatever it was. I don't often say this, but credit to Google in their active pursuit of trying to give credit where credit is due, for want of a better phrase, of, "The first person to cover this piece of information should be, for want of a better phrase, ranking higher should be featured in SERPs and featured in the new SERP features.
We've been talking about Perspectives a lot recently on the show. We've been talking a lot about the search generative experience or the AI-generated SERP features we've been talking about recently. There seems to be a conscious effort from Google to make sure that they are highlighting the original source for that kind of stuff. And we were even talking about syndicated content a little while ago and what are the benefits of that kind of thing. So I guess thinking about that quick turnaround being so key for them ... once you get a good placement in a particular publication, there's then chances to get that kind of chain reaction and that cascade of like, "Oh, this other person saw this larger publication cover it, so they're going to cover it in a local equivalent, or a partner site, or whatever." That can be the difference between an entire successful link campaign and absolutely no links whatsoever.
Jo: Oh yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, the syndication thing's fascinating. There is a lot of debate in the digital PR and SEO community about the value of syndicated links. Like you said, Google's looking into what it's doing now with syndication. And that could change the game. So keeping quite a close eye on that at the moment, because that could really change how we approach it and what we are trying to achieve. But, yeah, the main thing is that you're not going to get there in the first place if you're not quick. And even when we're not talking newsjacking, we're talking about trends and stuff, you've still got to be quick because ... and there are only so many ideas. We're all trying to come up with the same ideas and the same ways to create stories around things.
And every digital PR will have had this experience, and it is absolutely gutting when you come up with what you think is a brilliant idea, you're in the shower, or you're doing your morning walk, and you have this brilliant idea, and you're like, "Right, this is going to work for this client. It's really topical. People are talking about it." And then you get in, you log on, and you look, someone did it last week. They've built the links of it. You can't do it now. So there is an economy of ideas, and there's only so many of them as well. And again, trying to do that, and balance that with different parts of other SEO roles, really difficult. It's a big ask, and I'm not sure with doing ... and I think what you said earlier, that I really liked, is this idea that it's not even necessarily that our bosses are putting pressure on us, it's, "Are we putting too much pressure on ourselves to be able to do everything?"
I know that if I judge myself by my tech SEO ability, well, I'd leave the industry, 'cause I don't know enough. I don't know anything. My experience of SEO ... I mean, I started doing SEO as a journalist when we started having to put our own meta descriptions into news stories on CMSs and things. And hated it.
Jack: That's a SEO, that counts, mate. That counts.
Jo: I know. Absolutely hated it. It was a waste of time. Didn't know what SEO was, so I was just trying to write my really engaging news stories for the reader, which is what Google tells us they want to keep doing anyway. We're writing for the reader. But, yeah, I just hate this idea that there are particularly young, particularly newly industry SEOs out there judging themselves by their ability to go out there and build links, particularly with digital PR. It's really hard. I've been doing it for years. I have the privilege of having a media background, which gave me a great launch pad into digital PR because I had that insight. If I was coming at it from a tech background, and being expected to do it as like a bolt-on, or as an extra part of my job, I would be massively disadvantaged by that, and, yeah, we really are. And I know what I'm like. I probably would judge myself for it, I think was the thing that everyone else was saying they could do it, and they were doing it. I'd be like, "Well, why can't I do this?" I think it's something ... yeah, perhaps we should all be talking about more, but it is a real distinct skillset. You need very different skills in a lot of cases to tech skills or to on-page content skills, and I think a bit more clarity around that in the industry could be really important.
Jack: Yeah. So what would you say are those key skills that you need to ... Say if somebody is listening to this right now, and they're thinking, yeah, "I'm working in a ... as I did, as I said previously my previous agency, working in a broader digital marketing thing. And they've done a little bit of link building, I think, "Oh, actually I quite enjoy this. Maybe I should go off and specialise into this." What are the kind of skills they should be focusing on? And then I guess the follow-up question to that is, where are the resources to learn this kind of stuff, I guess?
Jo: OK, so, this is what I say when I do training with people, I do training courses sometimes with in-house teams. And news sense can be taught, right? Everyone always thinks it's like an ethereal skill to know what -
Jack: Like a spidey sense kind of thing?
Jo: Yeah, like a spidey sense. It is a little bit, and I do have a bit of that, and lots of other hangovers from the days of a journalist. I sometimes still think in tabloid headlines, which is things happen instantly. I'm thinking of what the headline for that would be. But honestly, it's just about consuming content. If you know where you've got a client that's got a list of target publications, the only way you're going to be successful getting in those target publications is by reading their content, looking for what it is they want from an expert, from a thought leader. Do they want commentary? Do they want data? Do they publish stories? There's a lot of talk about the difference, I think, between how it's done in America versus how it's done in the U.K. And you look at a lot of the successful campaigns you've seen done in America, it's really about pitting states against each other, what is the best state for the worst-
Jack: I see that all the time. They're obsessed with that campaign.
Jo: They love it out there. They love it. Very competitive.
Jack: Most search for blank, in the states, and then it's all 50 states. And then each one is labeled with the word, or the phrase, or the color, or whatever it is. They’re absolutely obsessed with that kind of stuff.
Jo: It seems to do really well, and it's quite a different approach to how I would do things perhaps in the U.K. Although again, we've got Reach plc with all their regional titles, so it does work. Having that regional angle means you're not just chasing the national press all the time. You can go after ... I think up here in the North West, I think the big ones, obviously the The Manchester Evening News, and the Liverpool Echo and they've got their own quite big distribution networks from getting links and coverage there. So regional angles, understanding what the press are looking for by just reading it, really, consuming content. Another thing, and there's no shame in doing this, go and look at what other people are doing. There's a really good newsletter called the Grapevine.
Jack: You beat me to it. I was going to mention Iona’s the newsletter. Yeah, yeah.
Jo: It was doing a great service to the industry with that, I think. If you have anyone from digital PR on the podcast, talking about where you can learn stuff, they'll mention that. I think there's a few newsletters just kind of really looking at what the competitors are doing, how are they building links, what kind of campaigns are they doing, and then trying to think, "Well, actually, how can I do something similar, or something slightly different, or bigger, or smaller," or definitely just by consuming as much content as possible, which is great fun. Can be exhausting, right? You need to-
Jo: ... have boundaries of it.
Jack: I've heard that a lot similar to professional writers. I used to work in the comic book industry, and friends of mine going and being full-time writers being like, "In order to write, you need to read." And I think that is the perfect distillation of that skillset. You don't know what you're doing unless you know what other people have done in the past. And as much as you obviously can take credit for your own stuff, so much of us, we are standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before us and all that kind of thing. And understanding what's working now and what has worked in the past can get you an idea of ... like you said, what may work in the future. You can get ahead of that trend. You can see that, "Oh, I think a lot of people seem to be interested in this thing, and that was 10 years ago." And the thing after that was subject B, so maybe next year subject B will be a big thing. And you get ahead of that curve, understanding historical trends, and data, and reading what's out there, what kind of things, publications cover. I don't know how many times I've heard the stories of people like, "Oh, I pitched to this publication, and they didn't pick up on anything." And I'm like, "Have they ever written about that thing before? Did you do a site operator search and check like, 'Oh, yeah, this person has talked about the Barbie movie before?' Do they have anything to do with Barbie on their thing at all? Why are you pitching a Barbie movie story to them then?" Understanding that. It's little simple things like that that can really make a big difference, right?
Jo: Yeah, and I mean, that's a thing that you see when journalists get wound up and share snippets of press releases and drag us all on Twitter. It's where you've got ... I know someone that works in ... covered hard news, and politics, and they've been sent a listicle about the Barbie movie or the influencer Instagram earnings of the latest Love Island star. And they'll be like, "But I cover tech and health, or, "I cover ... "Why are you sending this?" And that's something that, again, moving from the old days of outreach to the more digital PR approach that is sometimes lost in translation a bit. You can't just spam ... well, you can, but you'll look like an idiot, and you will be shamed on Twitter, and it's really awkward. And no one wants that, right? You can't just spam thousands of journalists.
Journalists, and I was one myself, they're not feigned always to be in the nice people. They have a sharp tongue sometimes, and they're busy, and if you keep winding them up, at some point, they'll bite back. So try not to do that, try and be quite detailed about how you look into a journalist, what they write about, what their beat is, what they cover. But again, talking about this, that takes time to do that. It takes time to start understanding the different roles in your media, and the different beats that journalists cover, and where your story or your client can fit into that. You can't just send a quote from your tech business client to a lifestyle journalists that write about sex, or relationships, or ... they're not interested.
Jack: Yeah. I think that was a huge thing. I helped out with a digital PR campaign at Candour for one of our clients the other week. 'Cause I'm a big nerd, and you can tell behind me, Jo. There's a dragon and bits and pieces going on. There's a Wonder Woman poster up here. I'm a big nerd.
Jo: I did clock that, yeah.
Jack: I'm a big nerd. And we were doing this thing that's focused around how trends in board gaming have shifted post-pandemic, more people are going out and being more social, essentially. So more people are going to things like board game cafes and things like that. And what's the statistics behind that? A fewer people also are subscribing to Netflix and all that kind of stuff. So is there any correlation there and understanding that? And the thing I was able to do was reach out to owners of board gang cafes, and have conversations with them, and say, "Have you experienced this?" Or, "Do you think there has been a post-pandemic shift in your footfall, in your cafe, or in your shop, or whatever it was?" And then they also got links from those publications of like "Blah, blah, blah, from this board game cafe said this thing. And not only did our client get links, but the people who we had quoted also got links."
And that was how we're kind of trying to get them on board of like, "We would really appreciate your input. We will try and also get you links as well." And you're helping everyone do that thing at the same time, and not just asking people for favors the whole time. It's all about that back and forth. Like you said, the relationship with the journalist as well. It can also be the relationship with the subject expert, or whatever, or the person that the client who you need to get on the phone right now, 'cause I need to do this thing in the next 10 minutes. And, "Who is the person I need to speak to?" And it's not the usual marketing contact person you have through your agency contact, or your freelance contact, or whatever it is. But, yeah, having those relationships, having those ready to go, knowing that you can slide into someone's DMs, or pick up the phone, or whatever it is a skill in and of itself as well. And having the ... for want of a better phrase, not to gender the whole thing, to have the balls, to have the courage, the bravery to just be like, "I'm going to shoot my shot and see what happens, fingers crossed," kind of thing.
Jo: Yeah. You have to be tenacious, right? And you have to be quite forward-facing, and it's quite hard. And talking a minute ago about journalists dragging you on Twitter, you have to have a really thick skin to be a digital PR. I'm going to send out a load of emails, they’re either going to get ignored or I'm going to get an email back telling me fuck to off. That happens occasionally. It doesn't matter how well you target things, how great your media list is, you're always occasionally going to catch a journalist on a bad day, and be told where to shove your listicle about whatever trending thing is happening on TikTok. That will happen to you. And you need to really be able to bounce back from that and understand that it's not personal, it's just the way the industry works sometimes.
And I love what you're saying though, about the board game shops, and that's something I try and do, and again, because it's what journalists tend to want. They want case studies. And one of the things that we could sometimes offer journalists to leverage that link is the fact that we have a bit more time and resource often than the journalists themselves these days. By the time I left journalism, I think I said I was writing seven stories a day, and having to ... not just that we had to get them up on the site, get them uploaded ourselves, find the image, do the meta kind of thing.
Jack: Get your meta descriptions. Yeah.
Jo: Yeah. Get the meta descriptions done. And I didn't know what I was doing, that was all ... And often, the paste for the social app as well for the stories, and get that over to the social team. 'Cause journalists are busy. If you've got the time to go and speak to the subject matter experts, and compile those quotes alongside the quote from your client, or the data from your client ... yeah, and you can help out small businesses as well, you can help out other people. But that is how you leverage that. That is how you offer something that that journalist can no longer perhaps go and get themselves. And again, you are doing them a favor, they're doing you a favor. It's earned media. We're all earning it by helping each other out.
Jack: Yeah. I think the phrase, "Earned media." I'm so glad you said that, 'cause that is such a common phrase I think we see coming back to the original talking point of this whole discussion, is why people feel it is so difficult, it's 'cause you've got to earn it. For want of a better phrase, paid social stuff and paid search can be pretty easy. You can pretty much pay to win, and chuck a bunch of money at a particular set of keywords, and at least be in the conversation there. But with so much digital PR stuff, the topics and the examples we've given so far, so many of them could just fall completely flat, and you get absolutely no responses, no links, no whatever. And tough. There's nothing else. You can't maybe bribe a journalist or something, but don't do that. We officially don't endorse that on Search With Candour. But, yeah, that phrase of earning it, I think, is so key to this whole conversation.
You've got to do something ... Either you got to be first or you've got to be new. And with the example where I was just talking about the campaign we did, it was like we looked at statistics for lots of different options. And like I said, Netflix subscribers, and cinema tickets, and all this kind of stuff. And all of it was public information. I'm like, "Okay, cool. You can only go so far with that, 'cause anyone can get that from the ONS, or a statistic, or whatever it is." They're like, "Yeah, cool," but how do we get a unique perspective on this? How do you get that twist that actually is, like you said, a case study of, "Okay, these are people who know what they're talking about, and this is what they think about this trend, or this industry, are whatever it is." And I think that ... if you can't be first, have something new and unique, and have people of authority sharing their experiences. I've reached out personally to half a dozen board game cafes, some local here in Norwich, some further away, some I've visited in other cities and stuff like that. And that was a conscious decision to be like, "Contact everybody you've ever spoken to at a board game cafe and see what happens," kind of thing, and try and get them. And you might get some responses, you might not, but, yeah, it's all about that, putting that effort in and putting the time in. And I think earning that is such a powerful phrase that I think a lot of people underestimate when it comes to building links in digital PR.
Jo: Absolutely. A everything you've just said is great, but it's graft, right? It's hard graft, it's time-consuming. I think sometimes you do get that thing where sometimes people in the SEO space that don't build links, or don't do digital PR can look at you. They think you press a little button, and send a little email, and magic up these links. And it's like they haven't seen the preamble to that, and the graft that's gone into that, the looking for the angles, the reaching out to subject matter experts. I did a campaign a couple of years ago around Married at First Sight about the places where people in first sight got married. I had to effectively be a bit of a journalist again, and be a .... Finding these wedding venues up as if I was a bride-to-be, and getting the information from them, and getting the information about the wedding venue. And it was great, and it worked, because journalists couldn't go and do that themselves. They didn't have time, particularly for what was to them, quite a kind of throwaway piece of content about a show that was going to be on for a week, and it'd be popular for a week. They couldn't dedicate that time, but I could, because I wanted to be in these publications. I knew what they needed. I knew how to get it. Yeah, it was grafted. I think I was screenshotting, with my phone, the pictures of the wedding venues on the first night the show aired, and then doing a Google reverse image search to find-
Jack: Now that is grafting, mate.
Jo: Find the venue, right?
Jack: That is grafting!
Jo: Then track them down, then phone them, and the same with the caterers, and trying to zoom into the caterers badging the show. And it's silly, and it's fun, and it worked, but everyone just saw the end result. The agency, the client sees the end results, and their links rolling in, and they're really happy, but they've got no idea that you're stuck there at 9:00 on a Monday night trying to reverse image search a screenshot you've taken from your TV.
Jack: I think that grafting element is so important. And another thing you just touched on there, I think it's ... again, from my experience being on the other side of it, from doing a bit of journalism back in the day. But really making the journalist's job as easy as possible, and giving them the thing that they need. Don't like, "Oh, here's a case study, and click here to get more information or whatever." If you're making that journalist's job more hard than it needs to be, they're probably not interested in working with you. If you can give them that new interesting data, or whatever it is as quickly as possible, and as easily as possible, they're more likely to work with you again. You're making their job that little bit easier. Like you said, they don't have time to go off and reverse Google image search stuff, so you doing that job for them, it's like, "Oh, yeah, I would never even thought of that." They don't even know the hours you poured into that. But the final result is there. It's like, "Oh, yeah, that totally makes sense."
Jo: Yeah, spoon-feed, right? I always say, "Spoon-feeding." When I was a journalist, you could have sent me the greatest scoop in my patch, but if you'd attached it to an email, and I had to download a zip file, and-
Jack: Oh God.
Jo: It’s not getting published, right? I need you to get everything in the body of the email, the first couple ... Same with writing a piece of journalism. Those first couple of lines have got to tell me, "Right, what am I going to get from this? What am my readers going to get from this? Why is this relevant? Why is it relevant now?" And I need that in the first couple of lines, or I'm probably not going to read the rest of the email. No matter how great your data is, or how great the case studies are, you've got to hook me in really quickly, because ... I mean, I speak to journalists these days, and they're getting 2, 300 emails a day on a good day.
Jack: I don't envy those poor journalists.
Jo: Yeah, no, it's overwhelming to think about.
Jack: I think I get maybe a dozen emails a day, and that's me being generous. It's probably less than that on average, 'cause I'm not a very email-heavy role here at Candour. Most of the stuff I do is like DMs, setting up podcast guests and all that kind of stuff. I can't imagine 200 emails on a good day. That would just melt my poor little ADHD brain. I'm the kind of person who has to clear every notification I have as soon as possible.
Jo: Inbox zero.
Jack: Yeah, I'm a diehard inbox zero kind of person. I could not handle that. Whenever I see someone else's phone, and it's like, Yeah, 1,400 unread messages," I'm like, "Oh, God-
Jo: I'm just going to check my phone. I think I'm going to upset you here.
Jack: Are you the opposite, Jo?
Jo: I have got, on the dot 15,000 already.
Jack: 15,000? I don’t know if I've got 15,000 emails, full stop.
Jo: Yeah. I mean, to be fair, that's all my email accounts into one app. I still get emails-
Jack: I have about eight across four different email addresses. I have about eight unread, and that's because I'm at work, and I haven't checked my inbox.
Jo: No, I still get it. And this will give you a story about targeting. Towards the end of my journalism career, I worked for the Irish Post in London, and I used to get emails from PRs if anything was happening in the Irish area in the U.K. And I still get emails from half a dozen Irish centers around the country, 'cause no matter how many times I unsubscribe from their emails, or tell them I'm no longer a journalist, and I'm a digital PR, I don't know why I'm telling them that. Yeah, I can't get them to stop sending me these emails. I’ve not been a journalist for what, a decade?. Imagine what people that are actively working in journalists and their inboxes are chaotic.
I mean, you get it sometimes where I will email a journalist that I know is still at a publication, and the email will bounce back. And my sister will be, "Ooh, the email's bounced back." And I might leave it a bit, and then I might email them again, and it might go through, or I might reach out another way and say, "Hey, are you still at the Metro?" And they'd be like, "Oh, yeah, sorry. I went on holiday, and my inbox just collapsed, essentially." It was full. My emails couldn't get through.
Jack: I have an exact similar story where the journalist in question was on maternity leave, and-
Jo: Oh, God.
Jack: The exact same thing. I assume they were gone for six, nine months, a year, whatever it was. And, yeah, the inbox just collapsed. So I spoke to them just before they left, like, "Hey, by the way, I'm not going to be around to cover this. You're probably best reaching out to my colleague, but when I'm back, let me know." And I ended up Twitter DM'ing them and being like, "Hey, I sent you an email a little while ago. I saw your back from mat leave and stuff." How's things going? It's like, "Oh, that email address is just dead now. It got to 50,000 or something unread." The number of digits was too long for the unread section on Gmail, so it just broke, and it exceeded the storage limits." I didn't know that was a thing. "Okay-
Jo: It is!
Jack: ... what's the best email to get you on there, please?" It was a whole, "Oh, wow," the limits of technology slamming you back in the face where you're like, "Yeah, you can't just leave 100,000 thousand unread emails," it turns out.
Jo: Yeah, no. I mean, that gives you a kind of scale of the issue, and I think we talked earlier about, "Is it getting hard?" Well, of course it is, because-
Jack: The sheer numbers of it, right?
Jo: You are competing for air time in an inbox. And it doesn't matter if everything else is irrelevant and yours is relevant, you've still got to cut through that. And like I said, if you were doing anything around Barbie this week, how many Barbie subject lines are people seeing now? I did some work with a sports client during the World Cup last year, and sending out World Cup things, what's the point? Unless they get, I don't know, Lionel Messi, to hand-deliver this email to a journalist, they won’t pay attention at this point, right? Because everyone in PR digital or otherwise is sending World Cup emails. It's big out there.
Jack: Yeah. That sounds like a skill in and of itself. We mentioned keeping track of trends and being aware of who covers, what and all that kind of thing. But knowing not what to cover is a whole other skill in and of itself. Like you said, if you're focusing on like, "Oh, this is going to be the big thing." Yeah, everyone can tell. That's the big thing. Barbie and Oppenheimer are what everyone is talking about right now. So if you really want to do a, "Here's an AI-generated Barbie Dreamhouse, but we're a real estate client or whatever," it's like, "Yeah, every real estate client in the world has done that." Again, if you're not the first, then tough. There's a million of them behind you that have already covered it. So, I guess, how do you go about that? Do you try and dodge those really, really, really big trends, or is there a particular way of picking that out? Or is that just your years of experience and also experience in journalism that you've got that keen eye for it?
Jo: It's hard. It's a hard one to call. There are some things that are so saturated that you think, "Unless it's really relevant, unless we can really add to this story, let's just sit it out. Let's go and do something else." If everyone's sending an email about Barbie or the World Cup, let's go and send an email about something else, 'cause it can't always be a one-story week for journalism, so you can just go and do something completely different. If it's really relevant, and you've really got something to add, then you have to fight for your space in that conversation. And it's brutal out there.
Jack: Good luck.
Jo: Yeah, good luck. May the best man win kind of thing. But, yeah, if you're a real estate agent trying to newsjack Barbie, and like you said, everyone's done an AI Barbie Dreamhouse. I think Airbnb, was it, did they build the Barbie-
Jack: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Jo: Yeah. You can't compete with that. I mean, what can you do?
Jack: We talk about that a lot in SEO, with trying to compete in the SERPs with those big names. I think it is one of those ways where if you can be the newest, the freshest, the fastest, whatever it is, there is actual opportunity there in certain circumstances where you can get that coverage ahead of the big name, ahead of the conglomerate, the national company, the international company, get your tiny little client that coverage. And I think it's something, like I said, we battle so much within in SEO, trying to outrank, and fight that perpetual top three, top five in your industry or whoever it is. Is there a way of identifying that, do you think. 'cause there are those little sneaky opportunities? Do you think they're still relevant and worth it, or do you need to cover a bit of everything across the board?
Jo: I think this is where with reactive PR, it allows you to do that without putting all your eggs in one basket. So if you were going to do a big hero campaign around something really oversaturated, I'd be really cautious about doing that to, be honest. Like I said, unless you could really add something to the story, unless it was really relevant to your niche and to your brand. But with reactive PR, you can afford to take a few more risks, because you can do a few smaller campaigns a month or a week. So you can try and hop on something really big. And if it doesn't work, well, okay, that's fine, we've learned from that, and let's go and do something that no one else is talking about this week that's still relevant or still topical. So I think my answer to that would be, don't put all your eggs in that Barbie-Oppenheimer basket. Go and try-
Jack: The half pink, half gray basket that is Barbie and Oppenheimer.
Jo: Yeah. Go and try and diversify a bit and look elsewhere.
Jack: Awesome, awesome. Well, that is pretty much the state of digital PR in 2023, I think, as a nice little round trip about what people can expect.
Jo: Thank you.
Jack: Where can people follow you, Jo? Where can people keep up with your digital PR exploits and expert tips across social media and all that kind of stuff? Are you going to recommend Threads, is the big question? Should we follow your Threads?
Jo: Oh. Oh, no. What's the etiquette these days? I need to know what everyone else is doing.
Jack: You would be the first guest to recommend to follow them on Threads.
Jo: Well, in that case, I love being first. Yeah, follow me on Threads. My handle on Threads is my handle everywhere else, because, well, it pulled you through from Instagram, didn't it? So it's just Jo Marie O'Reilly, which quite unimaginatively is my name @jomarieoreilly. I used to be a journalist, so that's why my handles are all my name. Same on LinkedIn, same on Twitter. I probably talk more about digital PR on LinkedIn. I just moan about things, trains and things on Twitter, and I don't know what I'm going to do with Threads yet, time will tell. Follow me and find out, I guess.
Jack: There's only one way to find out, right? Awesome. Well, thank you so much Jo. It's been an absolute pleasure to finally sit down with you, finally have a conversation.
Jo: It's been great fun. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Jack: And that about wraps us up for this week's episode of Search with Candour. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jo O'Reilly as much as I did. I learned a lot about digital PR, and why it's naturally as hard as most people think. Even between recording this and releasing this, I saw two more polls on LinkedIn talking about this very subject of what do you find hardest in SEO? Is it link building? And link building won by 70 or 80% again. So it's still a very common thing I'm seeing across social media. And hopefully this episode will be a nice little way to alleviate a lot of issues people are finding, and why people are struggling with digital PR so much, and why so many companies are struggling with digital PR so much in 2023. Please do share this around if you haven't already.
Please do subscribe to the show so you don't miss an episode, which comes out every single week at 5:00 AM U.K. time on Monday. Ready for you to start your week with the latest SEO, and in this case, digital PR news and updates every single Monday. I will, of course, be back next week. I'll be talking with Alizee Baudez, talking all about how to be an international freelance SEO consultant. Is that different to being a local freelance? How does being freelance, and also working with clients around the world, and in multiple languages, how do you balance all of that? If you are looking for a change in your career path, and you're looking to do something like this, Alizee is full of really interesting tips, tricks, and advice. And I highly recommend you tuning in next week for that conversation. Until then, thank you so much for listening. And have a lovely week.