SMX Replay: How to use data storytelling to earn top-tier media coverage

Getting your brand’s content referenced — or even linked to — by major media outlets can help to establish it as an authority within your industry and increase its visibility in searc. However, that kind of coverage is something most businesses can only dream of.

At SMX Advanced this year, Amanda Milligan, marketing agency director at Fractl, explained the techniques she used to create data-driven content that resulted in coverage for her client from the likes of CNN, the Today show, NPR and many others.

Listen to her full Insights session above, then keep on reading for her tips on how to pitch your content to publishers. The full transcript is also below.

When pitching your content to publications, Milligan recommends that you keep the following in mind:

  • Consider both the authority of the publisher and its target audience. Reader interest is ultimately what publishers will consider when making decisions about running your content. In your correspondence, include why their readers would find your information intriguing or valuable.
  • Find out how frequently a reporter or publisher posts content. If it’s monthly, for example, you have a much lower chance of getting published than if it’s daily or weekly. Also, look at the type of content they publish (text-only, infographics, interactives, videos, etc.) and make sure your content aligns with that.
  • Don’t be generic. Reporters and editors get tons of pitches every day, and many of them are still based on templates. Take the time to do research about the writer and the publication and reach out in a real, “human” way — it’s a person you’re reaching out to, after all. Think about what you’d say in real life and apply it to your online communication.

More from SMX Advanced 2019

Can’t listen right now? Read the full transcript below

Introduction by George Nguyen:
Wouldn’t you love to have your content referenced by leading publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or even Search Engine Land? Well, we can’t guarantee you that; but, we can light up a path to help get you there. Welcome to the Search Engine Land podcast, I’m your host George Nguyen and you’re about to hear from Amanda Milligan, marketing agency director for Fractl.

At SMX Advanced, she delivered an Insights session on how to use data storytelling to earn premium media coverage for your brand. We hope it sparks some ideas, and if it does, do us a favor and pass this podcast around to your team. Enough from me, here’s Amanda…

Amanda Milligan:
Hello everyone. First of all, I want to apologize. My voice is a little hoarse. Apparently, that’s what happens when you choose to go to karaoke after the Search Engine Land Awards. I don’t regret it, though, so bear with me. I’m Amanda Milligan. I work at an organic growth marketing agency agency called Fractl, and today I’m going to talk to you about how to get really high tier links and brand coverage through data storytelling.

So, before I jump in, I want you to think about that one publisher you would love your brand to be mentioned in. Okay, think about that. We’re going to come back to it. But, when I say, “high,” “top tier,” “high authority,” — when we talk about it internally, we’re thinking typically those are publishers that have a domain authority of at least 70-ish. But, really what I’m talking about is the names, you know, right?

It’s the CNNs, the Washington Posts, but it’s also in different verticals, the publishers you’ve heard of, right? You can look at this list and say, “Yeah, I’ve read an article by them. People know who they are. That’s where I would love to get coverage for my brand, for my client’s brand, etc.” And, we did a report recently — this is kind of our bread and butter at the agency where we create data-driven campaigns — and we pitch them with our digital PR team. We wanted to see, we knew it was working in the short term, but we didn’t always have data about years past. We did a report recently. We took our four best performing campaigns and we saw that 50% of the links came in in the first month, but the other 50% was in years following. So, this type of strategy might be twice as effective as we have even realized, which was pretty exciting to see.

So, I’m going to take you back to three years ago, because this is where the example I want to present started. We had a client called Travelmath, I was actually on this account, so I love talking about this because their campaigns are really fun. They’re in the travel space and we did a variety of campaigns for them that were data-driven. We did “hygiene campaigns” as we like to say. We sent people out to swab different parts of airplanes and hotels and spoiler alert: the dirtiest part of an airplane is the tray table, so keep that in the upright position when you fly home. But we did a few others too. We even took data that already existed about airports, like the TSA, how annoying TSA was, how much the delays were for different airlines and we ranked the best and worst airports; we did a bunch of campaigns like this. And we were able to get coverage like this for them. And this is just a snapshot.

These are what I would consider pretty top tier, right? I just heard our name on NPR, we didn’t even pitch that, they just were talking about it because it was covered by some of these other places. We were also able to get some more of their industry too — the top names in their industry, so Lonely Planet, Travel and Leisure, etc. So, the reason why I’m saying all of this is not, I mean it is, it’s sexy, right? You love to report like, “Oh, we were just featured in this awesome site,” everybody wants to do that. But, it’s really the impact that happens after, too.

When you get coverage like that, we continue to see, in the following two years, coverage happening because we were generating these new studies, these new reports based on data and people naturally wanted to talk about it. They saw it covered on these other publishers and they wanted to use it too. And there wasn’t really anything else for them to link to that was like it. Amazingly, and I had just looked this up a couple of months ago, this year — we have done nothing, I have not looked at any of this in years — these reports, these hygiene campaigns, they’re still being covered. And, take a look at how they’re talking about them: they say, “study,” “according to,” “conducted research,” and that type of language is building authority for the brand. And this is all happening naturally because of our initial efforts when creating these types of campaigns. So, this is the fun little graphic we like to use.

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We say, “Okay, we get this top tier coverage. It naturally syndicates.” If you get sites that big publishing your content, it will naturally syndicate to other sites and then you get all of that inherent engagement for years sometimes, but then it’s also building your backlink portfolio, which is getting you better organic traffic and it’s increasing your brand awareness naturally.

So there’s just a lot of benefits to this and now you’re like, “Okay, I get it, it’s great, but how do we do it?” Fair enough. This is what I would say — if we’re going to take anything away today, it should be this — this is our mental checklist whenever we’re coming up with content. If it meets these three criteria, you’re much more likely to be successful.

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We’re talking about data-driven stuff, it’s already going to be original — if it’s your internal data, even better. But, if you’re coming up with new reports or you’re taking data out there and you’re distilling it and presenting it in ways that people haven’t seen, that’s still new, even though the information is out there. I mean, how many people just lookup databases and check out spreadsheets about things? We’re not doing that. People want you to take it and make it make sense to them.

Widely appealing: I’m going to talk about this in a second, but if you’re really on brand all the time, you might have kind of reached your threshold about the types of publishers you’re able to get on, right? Because you’re not appealing to a wide enough audience. A lot of these publishers want you to give them content that is going to be relevant to most of the people who read their publication. And then, we did a study several years ago about the emotions that are most associated with viral content. Surprisingly, positive emotions actually were more impactful than negative, which I was not expecting, but more specifically, surprise — surprise was key. If you’re surprised by something, you’re more likely to be interested in it, and more likely to share it. It performs really well. And, we saw that with the hygiene campaigns because people are like, “Oh my God, these parts of the hotel, or you know…” they were freaked out. They shared with everybody; it was really effective. So, whenever you’re creating a piece of content, make sure it meets these three criteria.

But then, you have to ask yourself three questions because you can know that those three things work, but you still have to come up with the initial ideas, right? They don’t just come out of nowhere. So, three things I say you should think about: the first one — and this goes back to not wanting to be too on-brand all the time — if you want to get a little more tangential about it, which means it’s still relevant to your target audience, but it might not be directly what your product or service is about. And this is how we recommend doing that. So, take home repair an example: broaden it out to the home, because that’s still around the same type of topic you’re discussing. And then our team would say, “Okay, well what other topics are relevant to the home?” Your family, the living arrangements, the relationships in the house, cooking is often associated with the home and the outdoors, right? But then you can go even further for family. There’s traditions in your family, there’s parenting, right? So, make this map about your niche. Think about all these other subtopics maybe you haven’t ever approached or talked about and start here. This is a really good first list of how to broaden the scope of what you’re doing.

Then, once you have all the subtopics you’re thinking, “Well, what do people care about in these subtopics?” Especially if you’ve never even considered these subtopics before, you have to do the research to see what are people asking about it, what are they interested in?

These are some of my favorite tools to use that are either free or very low cost. Keywords Everywhere lets you do keyword research right in Google, I highly recommend it, it’s a plugin for Chrome and Firefox. Buzzsumo and Answer the Public both have questioned analyzer tools. You type in the subject and it just gives you all the questions people are asking all around the internet. These are great places to start.

And then finally, once you have these subtopics and all the questions people have within those subtopics, you have to figure out how am I going to find the data to answer those questions. And this is the fun part and the part where a lot of people have not done this work, so when you do this work, it will pay off. And there’s a lot of different ways to do that.

If you have internal data, that’s probably one of the best scenarios because you’re having the authority of being able to use your own internal data. But, if you don’t, don’t stop there. There are many other ways. We’ve done all kinds of methodologies and think outside the box. You know, we’ve scraped social media, we’ve looked at government sources that are already out there. There are all kinds of opportunities like that.

And then I asked one of our best creative people on the team, “How do you find data sets when you have nowhere to start?” He said, “It sounds obvious: literally just type in your subject and the word ‘data’ in Google and it literally will reveal databases that you didn’t even know existed.” If you haven’t done this yet, check it out. It’s useful. It takes literally two seconds.

So, I know you’re going to get the deck after. I provided some starter resources. I pulled those from our actual ongoing list of places that we have store to look for data and then also some data visualization tools, which I’m not talking about too much today, but once you have all that information and you’ve analyzed it and distilled it down, you have to present it in a way that makes sense; in a visually appealing way that publishers actually want to talk about, right? We use Tableau and Flourish a lot. There’s some great tools in here. Even if you’re a beginner like me, I’ve no idea what I’m doing in terms of design. Check these things out.

So, from my insights, these are the three things I would say: Think about tangential content here — so, not something that’s specifically related to your brand and know that if you’re able to do that, you’re going to break that threshold of where you’ve been able to get coverage in the past. Just ask yourself, if a publisher read this, if I pitched it to them, would they say, “Yeah, that makes sense that they did that study?” That’s where you want to operate and you don’t want to get to irrelevant. Then it’s like nobody’s going to really understand why you did the study in the first place and it’s not going to come across as authentic.

Then, like I said, the keys to content that performs well are these three things: widely appealing, new — which, if you’re using data, tends to be — and surprising. Make sure your content has all three of those things. And then finally ask yourself these questions: the subtopics, what people want to know on those subtopics and how can you — especially your brand’s unique voice — answer those questions.

Like I said, my name is Amanda. I love talking about this and I talk really fast, but if you want to chat after, I would love to talk about either the content creation part of the process, but also the promotions, which I didn’t talk about at all — that’s a whole separate probably hour long presentation. But, yeah, please feel free to find me after. Thank you.


About The Author

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George Nguyen is an Associate Editor at Third Door Media. His background is in content marketing agency, journalism, and storytelling.

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