Without A Call To Action Your Content Is Not Marketing

There’s a lot written about content marketing these days.  If you believe the gurus, ninjas, PR pros and ‘experts’ content is the solution to all business ills.

Want to find more customers? Content marketing is the answer.  Want people to believe your company is the Uber of X, Y or Z? Content marketing will help you convince them.  Want to attract millions of dollars in funding? Content marketing is a sure fire way to achieve it.

There are many problems with these assertions but one in particular you should know about.  Content used for marketing purposes – a true piece of marketing communications content – MUST have a call to action.  What’s a call to action?  In its simplest form it is a clear request to the reader to take a defined action.

“Visit your local dealer and book a test drive today”

“Call 1 888 123 1234 to buy the 2016 Chevrolet X’

Sign up today to receive your free gift”

If there’s no call to action then a piece of content is not a piece of marketing communication, it’s promotion. Awareness. Publicity.  Why does this matter?  Simple: because marketing is about getting people to take actions to support your business.  Awareness is simply that.  There’s no attempt to get people to take action and, as as result, can’t be marketing.

Without a call to action, your content isn’t marketing, it’s just content.

Why EVERYTHING is not marketing

Is everything marketing?, how is everything marketing


In a conversation on Twitter last night a good friend Stefan Lubinski suggested that everything these days is marketing.  I disagree – and here’s why.

There are more platforms than ever before on which to communicate to large groups of people – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, Blogger, Pinterest, Foursquare, Instagram, Snapchat, Meerkat, Periscope, Google Plus, Google Hangouts, Email, SMS, WhatsApp… to name but a few.  There are more online publications than ever before – on any topic you can think of.  There are more people using them to publicize products, services, opinions, content – you name it.  But that’s NOT marketing.

At best, the majority of it is publicity; at worst it is just noise.  Like somebody with a megaphone stood shouting at people in the digital street.

Some are shouting orders: ‘Do this!’, ‘Click here!’, ‘Buy this!’, ‘Read that!’.

Very little of it could be described as marketing!

Marketing is about getting people to take a specific action – because they want to.  This requires them to understand what they are being asked to do and do it willingly in order to support you or  your organization.  The action needs to be specific and clearly defined.  It should, also, have a defined commercial value.

No matter how much you urge somebody to do something; no matter how loud you shout or how often, if they don’t want to do it all you do is lose your voice.

I wrote a few months ago that most PR and marketing is publicity that explains more.


Public Relations Is A Business Strategy – Not A Department

National Post Entrepreneur Rick Spence

“I thought I was sitting down with a PR specialist – but you didn’t mention it once in the last two hours!”.

Earlier today I spent two hours with a journalist that writes for one of the three main newspapers in Canada.  He’d was interested in one of the innovations that is part of my business – PR Office Hours – where startup and small business entrepreneurs can sit down with me for 15 minutes and get advice on how to use public relations to tackle a current business challenge for just $50.  They can either book in advance via my website or drop in and hope there’s a spare slot.  It’s a model I’ve borrowed from Apple with its Genius bar.

I had filled the afternoon with people that I had worked with before to ensure that the afternoon wasn’t wasted for the journalist if nobody turned up and because I didn’t want to publicize the fact that this particular session was being shadowed.  None of the participants had been promised coverage as a result, and had agreed to be there to help me demonstrate how it works. You can read his account of our afternoon together here  I explained, while I hadn’t used the words public relations everything I had talked about was absolutely public relations.  It had focused on building and maintaining relationships in order to achieve a specific outcome.  I rarely use the phrase PR because it muddied the water: PR is associated by most, including the majority of people charging customers thousands of dollars every month for the privilege when they provide publicity and promotion services.

It’s the second time this topic had been raised in the last few days.  A friend, Alan Kay, summed it up best when he said, “so what you’re saying is that public relations should be a business strategy NOT a department”.  That’s exactly what I was saying.  Building and maintaining relationships is an integral part of every business and not something that should be outsourced to a third party.  Certainly not a third party whose main purpose is to pitch journalists in the hope of securing media coverage [think about it, do you consider direct email an attempt to build a relationship with you or an irritant that usually guarantees you’ll never do business with the company sending it?!

Back to the three hours spent with my journalist shadow and, I explained, everything I had done was designed to help the entrepreneurs build the relationships they needed to achieve a specific outcome ,if none existed, or strengthen the relevant ones that did.  A failure to do this is one of the most common reasons that marketing [the art of getting somebody to take a desired action] fails.  Without strong relationships in place ‘marketing’ is effectively asking strangers to do something that  benefits your.  Often, the request is also without explaining clearly what the benefit is for them.

I’ve been told, by my peers, that my definition of public relations  – everything a business does to build and maintain relationships with the people that are most important to its success – is too literal; too old-fashioned; too specific. I’ve been told that my explanation of marketing – everything a company does to get people to take an action on your behalf… because they want to – is plain wrong.  I repeatedly have the discussion – usually with my supposed peers – that my assertion that publicity – the communication of information from an organization to as many people as possible – isn’t public relations.

But, think about it.  When we need help in our personal lives – whether to lend us a few dollars for a transit fare because we’ve left our wallets at home, or as entrepreneurs when we need help overcoming a challenge in growing our business – our first call is to somebody we have a relationship with.  Whether a friend, a parter, family member or mentor/advisor – we go to people that are the most likely to help us because we have a long-standing relationship with them.  We don’t stand on the corner of the street with a megaphone imploring strangers to help us because we know it’s an inefficient way to solve a problem.  The chances are slim and we have no way of knowing whether people have the capacity or desire to help.

And yet when it comes to our businesses we do the exact opposite. My industry tells its customers that the best way to achieve a business outcome is to stand on the street corner with a megaphone – physical or digital – shouting at everybody that passes.  Imploring them to do what we want them to do.  Worse, my peers tell entrepreneurs that they’re not equipped to do it themselves and should pay a third-party to do the shouting to implore an intermediary to pass on your message.

Public relations is about building and maintaining relationships with the people that matter most to your organization – and you need to own them.  It needs to be a business strategy that is part of the fabric of your business, not a bolt on department that you pay a third-party to do for you – especially when all you’re getting is somebody with a megaphone!

Is Public Relations Dead?

Public Relations, PR Strategy, PR is Dead

A few weeks ago I read a piece in PR week by former Edelman EMEA CEO Robert Phillips pronouncing that public relations is dead.  It’s something I’ve long said and Robert made some very valid points:

“PR is dead.  Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise, is broken. Its philosophy – rooted in selling stuff to consumers, rather than addressing societal needs – is exhausted. A transparent world exposes the tired deceits of message management and spin. “

I couldn’t agree more.  The industry’s business model – pay us a large amount of money on the promise of something we can’t measure – is done.  Sure, companies still line up to purchase, but retainer fees are falling – they have been for the last 15 years – and scepticism about the value is at an all time high.  The ‘PR’ process – [it’s actually publicity, but…] of press releases, media pitching, interviews and coverage [if you’re lucky] doesn’t work in the real-time internet world. As for transparency… who knows what their PR company actually does?

Had he stopped here, I’d have agreed wholeheartedly with Robert.  But he didn’t.  He goes on to talk about public leadership; a new, Robert claims, democratic form of communications strategy where everybody has a voice.  He is also co-founder consultancy that offers advisory  and transformation programmes around this new approach.  And, you’ve guessed it, a book that will be published later in the year.  I’m not sold on the new public leadership model and his argument starts to sound more a veiled attempt to disguise old PR tactics in new [Emperor’s?] clothes.

Then, over the weekend, I read a piece by Robert White, principal and founder of PR Matters that details 10 things that PR is NOT.  Dead is not one of them.  I also read Robert’s response to the other Robert’s PR Week article, entitled Why claims that PR is dead are dead wrong.  White makes some interesting points but I found myself disagreeing with many of the points he makes.

He starts by stating that, “In PR, we believe good communication (content) and a great reputation are built upon integrity, transparency, and evidence-based results – and that spin is bad PR, because it has no values or ethics.”

I’m not sure that communication good or bad is synonymous with content.  Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not.  But this view does reflect the shift by many agencies away from media pitching and towards content.  The number of agencies now offering content marketing has grown significantly in the last year.  If you don’t understand the difference between PR and marketing, which many PR ‘professionals’ don’t, check out my definitions of PR, marketing and publicity for clarity.

Spin is next up for Robert White, offering three reasons why Phillips’ assertion that the industry needs to escape the association with the image of PR as helping to bend the truth is incorrect.  I’m not convinced that any of them stand up to scrutiny.  White states that, “PR professionals hate spin and what it stands for. Any self-respecting PR person, agency, or group will do everything we can to convince management of the dangers and tremendous risks to an organization’s reputation if they do try to spin.” 

Which sounds a bit too much like spin to me. While there are some like White [and Robert Phillips and me] that may consider it bad form, you only have to read the website of a PR company to see how common it is.  Pick any agency’s site that come up in Google organic search results and tell me I’m wrong!

I could go on, but I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow commentary of the two articles. You can read them yourselves and draw your own conclusions.  To use Robert White’s conclusion, quoting Launcelot [Gobbo] in The Merchant of Venice, “the truth will out”.  I agree.  And it may come as a shock to many PR ‘professionals!

White concludes by saying that, “public relations is and always will be an effective channel of communication to make sure this happens.” Of that I’m not convinced. I’m not sure many of the traditional industry’s customers are either – most of the people I talk with think that traditional PR is over-priced, a combination of smoke and mirrors, un-transparent and delivers little tangible value.

To apply one of the frequently-used adages of our industry, ‘perception is reality’ what we think is irrelevant.  If our customers believe it to be true then it is time the industry woke up to it.

For what it’s worth, I think ‘PR’, at least the way that the majority of companies sell it; charge for it; talk about it; define it; and deliver it IS DEAD.  Public Relations professionals that don’t see that remain blissfully unaware of this fact are, I’d argue the walking dead.

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Photo from Flickr User MonsieurCaron                                                      Creative Commons

Arianna Huffington Says The Press Release Is Over…

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

… but she hasn’t a clue what she is talking about.

I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago for MarketingProfs where I explained that the reason the PR industry is dying… because too few of its so-called professionals don’t understand what they are talking about. As a result, there are too many commentators that don’t know their PR from their marketing and publicity.  Comments Arianna’s in an Inc magazine interview are the perfect example of what I’m talking about.  That, and my assertion that self-titled ‘experts’ creating content that misleads the, often uninformed, reader.

Arianna says that she thinks that content marketing, ‘or whatever the buzzword of the day…” is a better strategy for small businesses than public relations.  Sorry Arianna, the two are very different things and marketing – content or otherwise – can’t replace public relations.  Public relations is about building mutually beneficial relationships, based on trust and credibility.  Marketing is everything an organization does to get an audience to take action on your behalf.  Marketing is easier if you have the relationships in place.

Whether the press release is dead… it is if it’s done badly – as is the case with the majority that are written and distributed.  If the purpose is clear, the release is carefully written, is delivered to the right audience and using the most appropriate delivery mechanism then it is still a valuable PR and publicity tool.  Whether it is PR or publicity depends on the desired outcome: are you trying to inform [publicity] or build relationships [PR].

The other issue I have with Arianna’s ‘advice’ is that it’s based on her business.  It’s like me telling you that in order to get to a destination – say a Starbucks – you need to turn right outside of your front door, turn left after 50m and then left again.  Walk 500m and you’ll arrive at your destination.  While this works for me, it is unlikely the same ‘strategy’ will work for you.

Content works best for Arianna because her business is in online publishing.  She is able to sell advertising based on the amount of traffic to the site.  For many startups and small businesses page impressions have little or no value.  Content shared is only valuable if it is shared with the right audience – people that are likely and able to become customers, investors, beta-testers or champions.  If they fall outside of the target audience for an early-stage business then content sharing has no commercial value at all.

And, so the final words of caution when listening to advice from somebody that doesn’t understand your business in detail… context is everything.  Beware of generic, broad-brush proclamations – it may not be good advice for your business and is not likely to deliver the results you hope for.

You can get the PR, marketing and publicity advice your business needs today, starting with just a 15-minute introductory session.  After that, you can tailor a program that is customized to your business’s specific PR needs

Public Relations IS NOT “Marketing That Builds Credibility”

As if it isn’t bad enough that the majority of the PR industry doesn’t understand what public relations really is now Forbes magazine is getting in on it. When I read a piece on their website last week I figured it would focus on media relations and publicity, but I wasn’t prepared for what this piece said. The author, Kate Harrison, sums up my industry with the explanation, “In other words, PR is marketing that builds credibility.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but this sentence was immediately after the PRSA definition, which describes PR as, “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” I mean, how hard is it to understand? Public relations is about relationships; marketing is about getting them to take action; and publicity is about communicating information to an audience without the intent to either build a relationship with them or get them to take action.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The PR industry predominantly sells publicity – essentially media pitching – which I’m trying to address by educating entrepreneurs about how PR should really work and why what they have been told constitutes public relations isn’t.  The irony of an industry that an industry that is supposed to be about effective communication is unable to communicate accurately what it is, or explain the value of what it does is not lost on me.  But when a supposed authority like Forbes can’t get it right, what hope is there?

My industry is slowly and painfully committing suicide and it’s being helped by every article that misrepresents it.  So, come on Forbes – how about setting an example and making sure that when your writers talk about my industry they get their facts right?  I’ll be only too happy to help them – public relations for entrepreneurs is about building mutually beneficial relationships with key audiences.  Not maketing. Or Publicity.

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What Is Engagement

Engagement comes up in almost every conversation about PR, marketing and publicity, yet very few people are able to define it, how you measure it, or the value it delivers to an organization. What it’s not is an exchange on twitter or Facebook or shared content because you have asked them to. Engagement is the new ‘awareness’ that traditional PR agencies have sold for decades.

True engagement is where a defined audience is taking a distinct action because THEY want to. In the next edition of the THINK PR Espresso we’ll be talking about how best to engage an audience.

What Is Positioning?

Positioning is a challenge for every small business. It is especially difficult when both the competition and prospective customer are large organizations.

Effective positioning in these situations is about focusing on the value you can offer that a larger organization cannot.  Small businesses also have the advantage of being flexible, in terms of approach, model and pricing.

What is Buzz?

It is the, erm, buzz word for entrepreneurs and small business owners, but why?  Does your business or product launch really need buzz and what long-term impact will buzz have to your chances of successfully communicating with your audiences over a longer period of time?

That’s all in the latest edition of the THINK PR Espresso.