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The digital expert explains how the Internet is best used as an advertising platform.

Question: How does the public relations industry use the Internet?

Steve Rubel: The PR industry should’ve embraced the Internet and given it a giant hug and a slobbery kiss and I don’t think we did as an industry as fast as the advertising industry did.  I think that certain companies including Edelman did. But others I think the industry was slow to adapt and I think there’s still slow to adapt to it. 

So the history, you know, PR as an industry is over a hundred years old and Edelman is over I think 1952 so we’re 57 years old and, you know, I think the history was at first was pay attention to it but I think that there was, you know, we did a lot of work to generate media results online and that was effective for our clients but I think the clients always seem to, and even to this day, seem to value more the tangible results--the plays on the Today Show, the article in the New York Times. They seem to value that and over time I think the PR industry kind of have, kind of kept locked in step with the use of patterns in terms of its adoption. I think that the advertising industry that was fast to embrace things like search, we stay all over on it and I think the PR industry in this search I think we can get it back but I do think we were slow to embrace it.

Question: How should a company leverage social media?

Steve Rubel: Media reforestation is a democratizer I mean, anybody can get involved at any level that they want and be effective. You could get involved as an individual, you know, as many of us have shown and become, you know…use it as a very effective vehicle for your company, your cause, your need. 

In terms of the way to get started, I think you have to first and foremost figure out where people are talking about the topics that you have a passion for, that you can contribute to and can be relevant in. Now, anybody can be relevant in any discussion, but I mean relevant in a way where people are going to want to hear what you’re saying. And so I think that you could need to begin and do that.

If you have resources, one way to do that is to research and you can use a big research company to kind of figure out where your, where your audience is and what they’re talking about and begin to figure out how you get to that conversation. If you’re an individual, I think you just dabble and you begin to explore and you see what’s happening in different communities wether it be Facebook or Twitter or MySpace or YouTube et cetera.  And then once you’ve kind of, but I think as the first step is just research and then after that you kind of know where the conversation is but I think we have to keep in mind that these sites come and go. 

No single site, community site, has ever had staying power of more than five years. They just seem to come and go and especially in the consumer space. So, you know, while today I can’t go to a meeting without talking about Twitter and Facebook, I think we need to keep in mind that you know, three years ago, it was actually more like two years ago, I couldn’t go to a meeting without talking about Second Life and I know kind of a quite Second Life as being digital marketing’s Vietnam. So, we need to just kind of remember that things change, but I think for first step is research always.

Question: How is the Internet affecting TV advertising money?

Steve Rubel: You have to look at the money that’s in TV. It’s huge. And even now in the recession, it’s huge. I mean, it’s billions and that’s like, I look at that almost like a giant ice shelf that is just slowly melting and, maybe this is not the right analogy but that’s like in Antarctica melting and, or Greenland melting, and all that water is going to look for a home.

So they have all these billions of dollars in money and marketers are not necessarily going to know where to spend it and they’re going to look for what works. Well, the problem is that as TV advertising erodes, obviously the options in digital are multi, you know, there’s a multitude of options there. 

The cost of engaging in those options compared to TV is, you know, a fraction of the cost but the measurement and the ways of quantifying success in digital vary depending on the tactic and who you talk to. whereas TV we kind of know what success is. We can measure it in gross ratings points or we can measure it in Nielsen ratings. 

We can’t as easily with digital, because there’s different ways of engaging and those numbers are actually getting smaller so TV is a mass rich vehicle even with the number of stations that we have, and there are thousands of stations at least nationally. But when you get down into, you know, to digital, it’s you know, we’re taking a pie and we’re slicing, it’s like eating a pizza that comes with 32,000 slices I mean it’s like. So, how do you, you know,  I think the metrics if we think about that are going to be a challenge for marketers as the money shifts at the same time I think the money shifting is going to force TV to innovate faster.

Question: Is advertising that interrupts people effective?

Steve Rubel: This is a kind of what Seth Gordon has been talking about for years with permission marketing, you know, "pull." You want to be there when people open the door and it’s going to be harder to push things through that door when people don’t want them. 

So, I mean, I agree although I think that it’s not quite so black and white. Advertising still does a wonderful job of, you know, of creating demand and then, but, you know, the question is, you know, people, what’s noticed is people don’t want to be interrupted and I don’t care if they’re on the social networks, they don’t want to be interrupted there. When they’re watching TV, they don’t want to be interrupted and obviously you know, TiVo is showing there's a market for that, you know, iTunes is showing there's a market for that and so the whole notion of interrupted marketing is being challenged right now and I think that it’s all, it’s about relevance. It’s about being relevant to the right people in the right place at the right time and then I think it would be wanted if it’s informative. 

That’s why I’m bullish on the prospects of the public relations industry because I think that what we do is we either create content or we generate content that is relevant toward people who are interested in it because we know the public and their wants, their needs and we’re either doing this directly increasingly or we’re doing it through media partners who also are going to act as a BS detector and be able to really, you know, wade through all this stuff in a credible way. I don’t care if it’s a blogger or if it’s a journalist and so, but I think that you know, the way of doing things is definitely changing.

Question: What is the next step for the public relations industry?

Steve Rubel: I think that one thing that the PR industry is now focused on right now that we got to get focus on in a hurry is the intersection between search and PR. Google isn’t just a search engine. Google is media. Every single day the, you know, people are making decisions--talk about permission marketing and pull--based on what they find in Google, based on long tail of searches they put into the search engine, mostly around problems not around solutions. What I like to say is people Google, if they have a headache not that they need aspirin, you know, that’s… They Google that have roaches not that they need Raid.

Increasingly the search engines, all of them, I mean, Microsoft is going to come out with a new search engine this week, it sounds like, or you know, are favoring quality content and that content can come from brands, media or individuals and less so, and they’ve done a good job of eliminating spam out of the search engines. They’ve done a good job of making sure the black hat SEO folks don’t do, don’t work and they’re favoring quality content that has generated a lot of social connectivity and links from other like sources. And so, as a result, I think that PR professionals need to start to think about search engines as a media platform and that means that the work that the content that we create and the content that we generate needs to take search into account and apply it and I also think it’s a very good way for us to measure out our value to clients. I don’t think that people are talking about that because search is an old technology and people kind of like to chase the hot new stuff but, you know, search to me is pivotal and as a Semantic Web comes in it’s going to get even bigger.

Recorded on: May 27. 2009