What a year’s worth of publisher responses can teach you about digital PR

  •   November 18, 2019

Most marketers agree that if you can get your content in front of the eyes of journalists at mainstream online publishers, it has a good chance of being shared widely across the internet. Journalists hold the power of the press, but getting their attention is more competitive than ever, with a nearly 5:1 ratio of PR people to journalists.

Crafting a perfect subject line and getting the journalist to open your email pitch is the first step. It’d be great if we got a reply from every email we send, but that’s simply not the case. That’s why when a writer does respond, it’s important to pay attention to what they say. Our team at Fractl records every response we receive from journalists verbatim so we can identify trends and improve our outreach. We analyzed all the publisher feedback we received in 2018 and here’s what we learned.

Methodology: For this internal study, we analyzed all publisher feedback we recorded from 2018. Along with a language sentiment API, we aimed to determine whether or not the language journalists used in their feedback was more positive, neutral, or more negative. As you’ll learn, all of the assets show feedback on a positive scale – the closer the sentiment score is to approaching one, the more positive it is, the closer it is to approaching zero, the less positive it is.

Takeaway #1: The higher-tier the publisher, the more rigorous the  editorial standards

Our analysis found that the higher the Domain Authority of the publisher, the less positive the journalist’s feedback was likely to be. For PR pros that have even the least experience, this makes perfect sense.

What do the New York Times, CNN, TIME and The Washington Post have in common? They’re all top-tier publishers (with a Moz Domain Authority of 90 or above) that we have placed our clients’ content marketing campaigns with directly in 2018.

These top-tier publishers lead the way when it comes to media companies that have been awarded the most Pulitzer Prizes. Campaigns pitched to journalists at these extremely reputable and competitive publishers must be authoritative, methodologically sound and newsworthy even to be granted a reply by a journalist.

As a standard, we use Moz’s Domain Authority score as a way to categorize publishers as top-tier, mid-tier and low-tier. While the debate about DA is contentious among SEOs and digital marketers, we find it useful for our digital PR team because it gives a good overview of the trust and authority of publishers relative to each other.

According to our study, when journalists at these top-tier publishers do respond, they’re much more likely to ask about the methodology or the source of the content. Often, data from a campaign needs to be backed up by an expert in the field for it to meet their editorial guidelines, so they want to make sure any data-driven content is methodologically sound.

When we analyzed feedback from websites with a Domain Authority of less than 89, the top feedback we received from journalists were focused on complementing our work. We speculate that this occurs because lower-tier publishers have less stringent editorial guidelines and therefore are quicker to give praise on content they receive for their coverage.

Takeaway #2: Who you pitch matters as much as what you pitch

What is the difference between a staff writer, an editor and a contributor? If your first thought is “not much,” you may want to reconsider. Knowing the difference between these three common roles for publishers can both inform your list building process and give your digital PR team a stronger knowledge base when approaching publishers with content.

Staff writers are typically salaried employees that write around a specific beat. They can come up with their own content but have to pitch it to their editors first for approval.

Staff editors still write stories, but they publish their own work with much less frequency. Pitching a staff editor has the added benefit of reaching directly to the person that decides whether to assign a story or not.

Contributors are writers that work on a freelance model and have to pitch ideas or fully-written articles to editors for approval, typically every week. They are usually paid per word or per finished piece.

In our analysis, we found that contributors are likely to respond more positively than staff editors and staff writers. This may be true because they are not constricted to a specific beat and receive fewer pitches than members of the editorial staff do. While they respond with the most positive feedback on average than other roles, they ultimately have less deciding power when it comes to determining their publication’s editorial calendar.

When it comes to writers with a specific beat or vertical, we found that feedback from travel writers offered the most positive feedback on average, while finance writers were less favorable in their responses.

Takeaway #3: Feedback type and sentiment are related

Unsurprisingly, compliments on our work were the most positive Feedback Type, on average.

Other categories of feedback that ranked second and third most positive on the sentiment scale were “Timing/Editorial Calendar is Full” and “Wants Expert Opinion.”

For our team, this ranking makes perfect sense. Often, a journalist will provide very complimentary feedback on the campaign, only to decline because of issues with timing or their editorial calendar. We’ve heard it dozens of times: “I’d love to cover, but I’m booked for the week. I’ll keep it on file.”

In the case of wanting an expert interview, a response that requests for additional commentary basically guarantees a placement is in our future. If they’re asking for an expert quote, they’re probably already writing the article!

The least positive responses came when the journalist thought the content was not newsworthy, had questions about the source, or had just covered the same topic recently.

Katie Roof, a journalist writing for the Wall Street Journal, explains this perfectly with her tweet:

While it’s important to research your contact in advance to make sure they cover the content topic, targeting, in this case, may have been too good. To avoid getting blasted on the PR wall of shame for this offense, it’s important to offer a fresh perspective or an otherwise unexplored angle on their topic area when pitching to a journalist – otherwise, it can seem inauthentic and as if you’re just looking for a link or press mention for your client.

Tying it all together

After six years of pitching journalists from every corner of the internet, our team has developed a deep intuition for understanding the kinds of content that publishers want to cover and how to pitch those topics to earn the best response.

For example, if you find that journalists like one content type more than another, or that travel writers prefer informal pitches and finance writers prefer data-heavy pitches, adjust your strategy based on the data and you will see response rates, and placement rates, soar.

With competition for press more fierce than ever, informing your outreach strategy with your own internal data can give you an edge over other PR professionals.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.