Every business needs to communicate with its target audience in order to build trust, stimulate engagement and generate sales. There are basically two methods available to any business, regardless of their size, type and chosen market, and these methods can be classified as advertising or PR.

It is easy to get confused by the plethora of platforms and techniques available to the modern marketer, from social media platforms and interactive campaigns to the traditional print or TV advertising blitz, but everything falls into the category of PR or advertising.

The principal difference between the two approaches is usually summed up in the phrase ‘PR is earned media and advertising is paid media’. For some businesses, the chosen approach will be a combination of both PR and advertising, but others may find themselves having to choose one or the other, driven perhaps by budgetary constraints.

Making the right choice between paying for promotional coverage and pitching to the media in the hope of securing coverage will depend upon a range of factors, including the target audience, the long and short term objectives of the business and the degree of control they wish to have over the content being created on their behalf.

Who is your target?

Get to know your target audience as well as you possibly can, placing emphasis on their attitude toward a range of marketing techniques.

There is a wealth of research that can be tapped into. For example, the click through rate on marketing emails jumped from 0.9% to 2.4% in 2019, indicating that businesses are becoming more adept at targeting their marketing emails.

This a useful marketing statistic chosen at random, but the most valuable insights of all will be driven by conversations with your own customers and the prospective customers you are seeking to bring on board.

What kind of media do they enjoy consuming and what is it that they are looking for in a brand or business? For example, B2B clients might seek to demonstrate their expertise and knowledge of a specific industry via thought leadership pieces, articles and white papers, rather than simply commissioning an advert which outlines their selling points.

It should also be remembered that a specific advert placed within a particular magazine or newspaper is only going to reach a restricted readership, rather than the broader impact offered by a PR campaign targeting a range of publications with a constantly tweaked and evolving message.

A powerful example of the occasional limitations of a traditional advertising campaign was provided by recent research which centered on so-called ‘millennials’ - people born in the 80’s or early 90’s who have grown up taking things like digital connectivity and mobile access to data for granted.

According to research published in Forbes, a massive 84% of millennials say that they simply don’t trust traditional advertising, while another study showed that 89% of millennials trust recommendations from friends and family rather than claims made directly by a brand.

Great word of mouth developed through a combination of delivery and PR is clearly the way to reach this particular target market, although it will only happen if the story being told is compelling enough, and the PR content is honed and focused.

What are your objectives?

One of the key advantages of PR over advertising is that it enables a business to take a strategic approach to building a relationship with customers, and work over the long term to establish both general brand awareness and a reputation for expertise and excellence.

A steady stream of articles published in a range of publications will help to create a virtuous circle, one within which it’s easier to get the next article published because of the foundation laid by previous articles, and each subsequent article only enhances the reputation further.

A slow and steady PR approach of this kind is ideal for any business seeking to position itself as one of the ‘go to’ voices within an industry.

A short, sharp promotion, on the other hand, linked to something like a specific product or temporary offer, is likely to be better served by the high impact cut-through of advertising, which is one of the reasons why it is often preferred by business to consumer (B2C) clients.

What control do you have?

Another reason why businesses sometimes prefer to turn to advertising is the degree of message control it offers. Every detail from when and where the advert is placed to the design and actual content is developed in close collaboration with an agency, with the degree of exposure often being dependent on the available budget.

This degree of control, allied to the analytic potential of the data which almost any business is now able to gather, means that the adverts in question can be precisely targeted, something which should increase their effectiveness at the same time as lowering the cost when compared to the more random approach of aiming for maximum untargeted coverage.

Engaging on a PR campaign, on the other hand, means that some control is ceded to the third party actually producing the content, something which enhances the authenticity of the message and makes it more likely the audience reading that message will take it on board.

At the same time, it means that certain aspects of the story you’re telling may be cut by independent editorial forces, with the loss of control having to be balanced against the additional credibility.

A good PR company will specialise in building a network of relationships with a range of publications and platforms, putting it in the position of being able to build a long term, multi-faceted campaigns across a range of sectors and industries.

What response can you expect?

The intended response to an effective piece of PR placement is that the reader coming across it will take the time to read and absorb the information contained without feeling as though they are being given a sales pitch. This is more likely to happen if the article has a good reason to exist – in other words if it can be linked to high profile developments within the wider industry.

Finding the right path…

There’s no such thing as the ‘right’ choice between PR and advertising, as it depends upon the priorities of your business, the size of the marketing budget and whether you’re looking for an immediate short term impact or a longer term reputational shift.

It should be remembered that the best approach will sometimes involve PR and advertising working in tandem, such as when targeted twitter ads are placed to drive users toward specific publications and articles.

With the difference between a PR and advertising campaign made clear, it’s up to each business to analyse their audience in depth in order to target the right publications with content which will cut through the surrounding noise, eliciting the help of a specialist PR agency in order to facilitate both content creation and media relations.

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