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How Is Information Passed Around the Web?

  |  October 3, 2005   |  Comments

If you understand how online information travels, you have a better chance of getting noticed.

A recent experiment by the data geeks at MarketingExperiments.com may just challenge everything you think you know about online advertising. It also might say an awful lot about how people learn about new stuff on the Web.

What the data geeks did was pretty striking. First, they sent a series of press releases on different topics through various wire services. Then, they measured the traffic and links back to their site generated by the press releases. Next, they purchased a series of Google PPC (define) ads using keywords that correlated to the press releases' content. Once the ads were in the hopper, they sat back and tracked the traffic generated by those ads.

What they found was startling. The press releases' ROI (define) was significantly better than the ads' ROI. In some cases, the press releases' actual CPC (define) was zero (not accounting for the time spent writing the releases), while the ads' CPC for a first-place Google position was as high as $12.25! Looking at all the data, the bottom line is generating traffic with PR was 21.4 to 56.3 percent cheaper than PPC advertising.

It's possible to quibble with some of the methodology, and it may be possible to argue comparing the cost of a top Google spot with a press release isn't really fair. Moreover, not counting the cost of creating a press release in the ROI equation seems a bit skewed, though the report does assert "these costs are similar to those involved with the labor of setting up and optimizing a PPC campaign." A valid point.

These findings could spark a major food fight between PR and marketing departments everywhere. But it's more important to look at them in the context of what they say about how information gets passed around the Web and how people gather news and information about new stuff. Understanding those patterns can help ensure your stuff gets noticed.

One of the most important things about news (which most advertising can't match) is it gets passed around. I've written before about viral marketing in the context of actual ads that are passed around(as have plenty of other people). There's no doubt creating buzz through viral objects works when done correctly. But the thing many often forget (and the MarketingExperiments study touches on) is news is itself a virus and can be created for far less money than high production value viral ads.

In the past, no one but PR professionals and journalists had access to newswires. That's changed. Anyone with an RSS (define) reader can tap into hundreds of newswire releases straight from the source. In addition, many news aggregator and industry information sites "feed" press releases directly to the public, often intermingled with news written by reporters. Bloggers, ever eager to get the next scoop on their competition, obsessively troll the wires looking for new things to write about. A story pops up that interests them and -- boom! It's blogged. Other bloggers see the new post, pick up on it, and the chain continues. If you doubt this works, track a few hot topics on BlogPulse.

Perhaps it's not fair to compare PR and advertising. But both are about capturing attention. Ads capture attention by appealing to our emotions and inserting themselves into the stream of other media we consume. This attention capture is (usually) ephemeral, however, generating a response in the viewer in the immediate term and perhaps building a store of connection between a need and a brand in the long term.

PR is really about creating something far more long lasting: a meme that lives far beyond immediate ad exposure. In many ways, viral marketing takes advantage of both PR's and advertising's benefits, functioning as an ad for the brand that creates it and a newsworthy object itself, outside the context of what it's advertising.

Unless an ad reaches viral status, it's doomed to stay put, limiting its effectiveness in an age where media are networked and information flows freely between millions of Internet users. PR's power is allowing you to cross barriers between commercial publications and the ever-growing blogosphere (not to mention other word-of-mouth channels). It allows your brand to extend virally through ever-growing "word of mouse."

There's no doubt people like sharing information and ideas with others online through blogs and other means. And there's no doubt the number of people who get their news online is growing. Tapping into these trends can be a powerful, and arguably cheaper and better, alternative to traditional ad techniques.

MarketingExperiments' experiment may not be the definitive word on whether PR's better than advertising, but next time you need to get more bang for your buck in an online campaign, you certainly have something to think about.

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Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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