Optimizing Press Releases for Marketing Higher Education
Date posted: February 13, 2014
As more aspects of society move exclusively online, many organizations are discovering that instead of buying media coverage, they can become media. This is a fundamental shift away from traditional public relations, which formerly relied largely on press releases to plant stories in newspapers and other media outlets. Breaking news would be distributed to your intermediary audience (journalists) so they could spread the message to your primary audience. The rise of content marketing means that you can now bypass those editorial gatekeepers to potentially share your own story instantly via your website, blogging platforms and social media.
Press releases seemed doomed in the wake of the internet’s revolutionary impact but rebounded through online publishing platforms, initially because of their search engine optimization (SEO) value. But a few months ago, Google announced that keyword links in press releases have no value for SEO, and excessive or “unnatural” links could actually harm your SEO efforts. Does this mean that the press release is officially dead? Far from it, but institutions utilizing this resource must understand the purpose and methodology behind it, recognizing when and how to create them. While it is true that content marketing is replacing press releases for many companies, it’s also true that press releases remain a valuable component of any well-rounded content strategy for schools.
Why Make Press Releases?
Legitimate announcements that are actually newsworthy can be effectively delivered to your target audiences directly through well written press releases, drawing attention to your other initiatives when properly optimized. Consistent public relations efforts generate awareness of your college or university to complement other marketing initiatives, perhaps even earning the coveted media spotlight that leads to substantial web traffic and conversions. Online news is a primary resource for today’s journalists besides being an effective tool for marketing directly to consumers.
- Tailored pitches with clearly laid out information have better odds of being featured in influential media outlets
- Although links from press release syndication are now somewhat discounted as a type of “paid advertorial”, optimized releases still gain significant visibility in search engines for both journalists and your primary audience
- Digital press releases can be widely distributed rapidly and remain accessible for a longer time by embedding social media links and optimally linked keywords that continue to be crawled by search engines
- While ROI is difficult to measure, press releases are generally more cost effective than traditional advertising
Schools too often ignore or underuse this marketing channel because they assume that they have nothing newsworthy to share. But you don’t need the queen to visit before considering a press release – any of the following events can merit one:
- Offering new programs or innovative learning resources
- Launching a redesigned website
- Opening a new campus or important building
- Upcoming open house, guest speaker, conference, free events, etc.
- Publishing of new studies, research initiatives
- Awards or other prestigious recognition
- Changes in branding and web development, such as a new logo
- High level personnel changes, significant new partners
- New funding
- Milestones (years in operation, students enrolled)
- Volunteer work, philanthropy, community involvement, etc.
Example: The University of Leicester offers a wealth of helpful resources to inspire the creation of new press releases, including motivations and advice for working with the media, a checklist of what should be included, and several tips and templates for writing effective copy. They include examples of releases that garnered substantial media coverage (mostly discoveries from research studies), links to the published articles, and insights into why these were so popular.
Press Releases still need to succinctly persuade journalists that the subject matter is worthy of their time, attention and coverage. Stories with an intriguing human interest angle are always popular, particularly when they coincide with topical related events. Slightly controversial or humourous research discoveries that challenge existing preconceptions tend to attract more media coverage. It is encouraged to integrate data-driven industry trends and high quality images or multimedia video content. The trend of increasing visual content extends to press releases while quotations lend additional credibility and can fulfill the interview quota for journalists that aren’t able to follow up with additional questions.
Use the inverted pyramid structure, placing the most important information prominently at the top and “boiler plate” blurbs about the organizations involved at the end. Communicate for a general audience, spelling out acronyms and avoiding jargon or superlatives, keeping it to a concise 300-450 words. Compared to other content marketing, it is particularly important that press releases are accurate, grammatically correct, to-the-point and written with an objective tone. Most publication services will require any parties involved to be verified, granting their approval, and providing contact details for further media enquiries.
Choosing the Right Title
Journalists spend an average of three seconds deciding whether a press release is worth reading, so including the right amount of detail in the title can make all the difference. It’s essential to understand the two or three relevant keywords that your target audience will be searching for and incorporate these into the headline and opening paragraph. “Link schemes” will backfire under Google’s new algorithm but optimizing naturally integrated keywords, linking back to the applicable pages of your website, is certainly recommended – generally one per 100 words.
Catchy and interesting titles are important for all types of content marketing, and for press releases, clear and descriptive headlines featuring a keyword will find a much larger audience. However, titles that are too long will disengage viewers and may be cut off in a recipient’s inbox. In 2010, Rutgers University experimented with unoptimized (“Rutgers to Put iPad to the Test in New Digital Marketing Program”) versus optimized (“Apple iPad Tablet to Be Tested in New Rutgers Mini-MBA Digital Marketing Executive Education Courses”) headlines for a press release. While the first one had virtually no pick-up, the optimized version with additional search terms received 22,027 headline impressions, 819 release views, and 35 link clicks (according to Business Wire’s NewsTrak Access Report), resulting in the program’s first registrations. Despite being not necessarily aimed at the press, it was a very successful release.
Example: Carnegie Mellon University is in the news nearly daily, featuring ground-breaking research, award-winning faculty and special events, such as their international film festival. Branding and search visibility is enhanced with the descriptive headline and the post is optimized for layout, images, social sharing and hyperlinks for additional information. News archives are available via their website.
An effective press release in today’s environment is promoted with all the tools available, including sharing it across social media marketing and other channels. One of the most popular and affordable online news distribution services is PRWeb, which has tightened up its verification procedures after a few embarrassing incidents, including the widespread publication of a fake Google acquisition story in 2012. It remains a fairly straight-forward submission process on this and other similar wire services, such as Business Wire, PR Newswire and Canada Newswire.
Archive published releases on your own website’s news section as a resource for stakeholders researching your school. If your release is picked up by non-paid news sites, show and link the most impressive one on your website to gain in prestige and credibility. While it may not be applicable for many higher education institutions, it is interesting to note that including the ticker symbol of a publicly traded company for financial news and posting it on a wire service syndicating to news agencies, such as Wall Street Journal, CNN or Yahoo Finance, will automatically make it appear on those sites. You will need a justifiable reason and written authorization to include the ticker symbol of a company other than your own.
To get your news out to as many people as possible, research by Dan Zarrella of HubSpot shows that time of day and week can make a difference – apparently near the weekend is best. Always measure, review and share your results.
Press releases are not the most cost-effective approach for promoting all types of content but they do have the potential to get your story to thousands of news services and ultimately reposted throughout the web. While some organizations are choosing to send their news articles directly to selected journalists through tailored emails and post on their own sites, officially distributed press releases hold value for the visibility and legitimacy they provide. They remain an effective inbound marketing channel for leading people back to your site – after all, everyone likes a newsmaker.
Has your school found press releases to be effective?