Tom Foremski asked in Silicon Valley Watcher:
PR’s challenge is that it is an artisanal, hand-crafted service operating within a brave new digital media world that rewards scale. Ad agencies, SEO services, Facebook, Google, Twitter, know how to scale their promotional work through technology.
Where are PR’s scalable technologies of persuasion?
This is an interesting question because Tom’s right. Other forms of marketing communications have been automated and scale very well. Why not PR?
PR is structurally identical to the process of selling, and the best selling is done through building and maintaining relationships. You can attempt to automate certain parts of relationship building (as Tinder and other services have tried), but there’s no substitute for human interaction.
Humans do not scale.
When you compare PR to advertising, SEO, Facebook, etc., you are comparing humans to machines. Programmatic advertising is machine-to-machine communication. SEO is machine-to-machine communication as well. Even though there’s a human being typing in a search query, the actual brokering of information is done through machines talking to machines. The same is true of Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Where do machines talk to machines in PR? That’s where we’ll find opportunities for automation.
If we look at the Earned Media Hub Strategy, where could we automate and scale? The red portions of the strategy below have automation potential:
We can scale a good portion of the research we do. Software from companies like Sysomos, Moz, and Zignal Labs can do plenty of heavy lifting up front, and enterprising firms can even start to use Big Data tools in pursuit of new answers.
The creative process can’t be automated or scaled well – again, a function of dealing with humans. Neither can messaging right now; messaging is a fuzzy activity that organic brains do very well and machines do very poorly.
Some portions of content creation can be automated and scaled, particularly if curation is a part of your marketing communications strategy.
Earned media – defined as the process of reaching out to distribution platforms old and new – is still largely a manual, human process. Can you automate the pitching process? Only to the same degree that you can automate the sales process. Sales has benefitted from predictive analytics and CRM software to handle many of the administrative functions of selling. Sales has not replaced sales professionals with robots, and likely won’t for quite some time to come.
Can you automate owned media? You can automate and scale parts of it. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, 99 Designs, and Fiverr demonstrate that you can scale interfaces to other humans with some degree of efficiency. You can certainly automate and scale social media and social publishing with tools like Hootsuite, Buffer, and many others.
Paid media of course can be automated, in some cases heavily, with the advent of digital advertising and programmatic buying. Advertising Data Management Platforms (DMPs) and Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) talk to each other, often without human intervention once business rules and pricing have been established during setup.
Finally, marketing analytics, measurement, and down-funnel marketing operations can be automated and scaled very well. Marketing automation in particular scales to the largest companies when implemented well.
Can PR be automated? Is the profession endangered by the ubiquity of automation in other forms of marketing communications? The answer depends on influencers and distribution networks.
In advertising, when you put a dollar into the machine, you get a result. Put more dollars into the machine, get more results in a roughly linear relationship. The more you spend, the more you can get. Public relations, when done well, behaves in a more exponential fashion. Get in front of the right influencer in the right channel and you can see massive returns.
In a recent project, one of our consumer teams scored a beautiful hit in Buzzfeed on behalf of an eCommerce client and delivered tens of thousands of dollars in real revenue, with ROI significantly higher than an ad campaign run on the same content. That’s the power of PR.
If distribution channels ever become so fragmented that influencers and publications fail to reach more than a few people at a time, then the multiplicative value of public relations will fade. Given how human beings prefer to congregate and have cultural water coolers, this seems fairly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Thus, public relations – when done well – can and should continue to deliver competitive results compared to automated marketing channels.
Will there come a day when PR can be automated entirely? Only when no humans are involved in the process of publishing content and speaking to their audiences. I wouldn’t bet on that day coming any time soon.
Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology