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Public relations: The difference between editorial, sponsored content & advertising in your SME marketing strategy

As a small to medium sized business considering buying public relations services, it’s important to understand the difference between merit-based editorial, sponsored content and advertising and how all these can fit in your marketing strategy. The public relations industry has done a poor job of articulating its value and how it works. 

Public relations specialists help you achieve merit-based editorial. They use relationships they have built with journalists and encourage them to write a story about your business. This means that the journalist and the news outlet deems your story as newsworthy, relevant and of importance to their readers. This type of coverage cannot be bought – it is earned on merit

When a journalist writes a story about your business. they control the story and how it is told. A PR specialist will help you work out if you have a story, what journalist to pitch it to and how to position in the best way to help you achieve success. It may require you to be available for an interview. As a spokesperson you will be pivotal to achieving coverage and delivering your message. 

With advertising you control the message and the design – a journalist isn’t part of the equation. A full-page advertisement in a major Australian daily newspaper may cost more than $15,000 that runs just one time. The PR approach is much more affordable and may result in editorial coverage beyond just one publication. 

Sponsored content is similar to an advertisement, in that you write and control the story. It can be heavily promotional, and you can pay upwards of $10,000 for one major daily newspaper to feature it for one day on their website. 

Advertisements and sponsored content disappear after a campaign ends. But articles that are earned on merit live forever – or at least as long as the publisher operates. It’s content that can be amplified by sharing on your social media channels. The benefits are far more long-lived and often far more cost effective than advertisements or sponsored content.

Many businesses look for shortcuts through all this instead of doing the work to find great stories and then learning how to tell them in an engaging way that resonates with journalists and their readers. They consider routes such as sponsored content and advertisements. But, when a reader sees the words “sponsored content” or “this is an advertiser paid article”, their radar shifts from curiosity to cynicism. The conversation shifts from asking what’s in it for them to what’s in it for the ‘advertiser’.

Merit-based editorial is exceptionally powerful. It provides independent validation of your claims – it is newsworthy and an opinion that matters. When a journalist writes about you and your business, they are putting their reputation on the line with you. If your claims are found to be false or exaggerated, they are tainted and may even lose their job. It’s why a journalist will ask you to substantiate claims of being the biggest, best or newest. Unlike an advertisement, there’s no asterisk pointing to a disclaimer.

Public relations is about creating trust in the market. When Bill Gates said “if I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations,” he was telling the world that building reputation and trust is far more important than just selling a product. 

You cannot buy trust; you have to earn it on merit. When you see or hear an advertisement the entire point of that advertising spend is to entice you into buying a product. Marketing and advertising scream “look at me” and “buy me”. Whereas PR says, “I’m trustworthy, credible and an authority.” 

When businesses are considering their budgets, advertising and marketing often dominate the discussion. But when you weigh up the cost of advertising and sponsored content placement, PR can be a far stronger strategic investment. 

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