[Estimated read time: 15 minutes]
Is the saying “any press is good press” really true? Whether it happens as part of a carefully orchestrated PR stunt or accidentally, the potential payoffs and drawbacks when a brand dominates the news can be huge.
In our latest collaboration, Fractl and Moz explored how a surge of media coverage impacted seven companies.
By looking at brands that dominated headlines within the last year, we set out to answer the following questions:
- Does positive press coverage always bring more benefits than negative press coverage?
- Beyond the initial spikes in traffic and backlinks, what kind of long-term SEO value can be gained from massive media coverage?
- Do large brands or unknown brands stand to gain more from a frenzy of media attention?
- Are negative PR stunts worth the risk? Can the potential long-term benefits outweigh the short-term damage to the brand’s reputation?
Our goal was to analyze the impact of major media coverage on press mentions, organic traffic, and backlinks, based on seven companies that appeared in the news between February 2015 and February 2016. Here’s how we gathered the data:
- Press mentions were measured by comparing how often the brand appeared in Google News search results the month before and the month after the PR event occurred.
- A combination of Moz’s Open Site Explorer, SEMrush, and Ahrefs was used to measure traffic and backlinks. Increases and decreases in traffic and backlinks were determined by calculating the percentage change from the month before the story broke compared to the month after.
- BuzzSumo was used to measure how often brand names appeared in headlines around the time of the PR event and how many social shares those stories received.
Note: We left out a few metrics for some brands, due to incomplete or unavailable data. For example, backlink percentage growth was not measured for Airbnb or Miss Universe, since these events happened too recently before this study was published for us to provide an accurate count of new backlinks. Additionally, organic traffic and backlink percentage growth were not measured for Peeple, since it launched its site around the same time as its news appearance.
I. How media coverage affects press mentions, organic traffic, and backlinks
We looked at seven brands, both well-known and unknown, which received a mix of positive and negative media attention. Before we dive into our overall findings, let’s examine why these companies made headlines and how press coverage impacted each one. Be sure to check out our more detailed graphics around these PR events, too.
Impact of positive media coverage
During the last year, Roman Originals, Airbnb, and REI were part of feel-good stories in the press.
Roman Originals cashes in on #TheDress
Were you Team Black and Blue or Team Gold and White? It was the stuff PR teams dream of when this UK-based retail brand inadvertently received a ton of press when a photo of one of its dresses ignited a heated debate over its color.
The story was picked up by major publishers including BuzzFeed, Time, Gawker, and Wired. Some A-list celebrities chimed in with their dress-color opinions on social media as well.
I don’t understand this odd dress debate and I feel like it’s a trick somehow.
I’m confused and scared.
PS it’s OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) February 27, 2015
Roman Originals was by far the biggest winner out of the brands we analyzed, seeing a 17.5K% increase in press mentions, nearly a 420% increase in US organic traffic, and 2.3K% increase in new backlinks. By far the greatest benefit was the impact on sales — Roman Originals’ global sales increased by 560% within a day of the story hitting the news.
Beyond the short-term increases, it appears Roman Originals gained significant long-term benefits from the media frenzy. Its site has seen a lift in both UK and US organic traffic since the story broke in February 2015.
In addition to the initial spikes directly after the story broke, RomanOriginals.co.uk saw a solid lift in backlinks over time, too.
Man lists igloo on Airbnb for $200
After Blizzard Jonas had hit the Northeast, a man built an igloo in Brooklyn and listed it for $200 per night on Airbnb as a joke. Airbnb deleted the listing shortly after it was posted. Media pickups included ABC News, USA Today, Washington Post, Mashable, and The Daily Mail.
Got shut down by @Airbnb for not meeting occupancy standards. Though they were nice enough to tell us that it looked very well constructed.
— Patrick M. Horton (@patrickmhorton) January 25, 2016
Of all the PR events we analyzed, the igloo story was the most recent, having occurred at the end of January. Although we can’t yet gauge the long-term impact this media hit will have on Airbnb, the initial impact appears to be minimal. Since Airbnb is frequently in the news, it’s not very surprising that one PR event doesn’t have a significant effect.
Airbnb’s site only saw a 2% increase in organic traffic, despite an 83% increase in press mentions.
It’s also too soon to measure the story’s impact on new backlinks. However, the chart below shows the backlinks around the time of the story breaking relative to the new backlinks acquired during the rest of the year.
REI opts out of Black Friday
The retail chain announced it would be closed on Black Friday and created the #OptOutside campaign urging Americans to spend Black Friday outdoors instead of shopping. Major media outlets picked up the story, including CNN, USA Today, CBS News, and Time.
While REI received great publicity by saying “no” to Black Friday, the media coverage appeared to have little impact on organic traffic to REI.com. In fact, traffic decreased by 5% the month after the story broke compared to the previous month.
REI.com did see a 51% increase in new backlinks after the story broke. Additionally, the subdomain created as part of the #OptOutside campaign has received nearly 8,000 backlinks since its launch.
When good press turns bad (and vice versa)
In addition to both positive and negative spins being put on a story, the sentiment around the story can change as more details emerge. Sometimes a positive story turns negative or a bad story turns positive. Such is the case with Gravity Payments and Miss Universe, respectively.
CEO of Gravity Payments announces $70K minimum wage
The CEO of this credit card-processing company announced he was cutting his salary to provide a minimum staff salary of $70K. It was hard to miss this story, which was covered by nearly every major US media outlet (and some global), and included a handful of TV appearances by the CEO. The brand later received backlash when it was discovered that the CEO, Dan Price, may have increased employee wages in response to a lawsuit from his brother.
Initial spikes after the story broke included a 90% increase in press mentions, 139% increase in organic traffic, and 146% increase in new backlinks. But it didn’t end there for Gravity Payments.
What’s been most incredible about this story is its longevity in the press. Six months after the story broke, publishers were doing follow-up stories about the CEO signing a book deal and how business was booming. In December 2015, Bloomberg wrote a piece revealing that there was more to the story and suggested the wage increase was motivated by a lawsuit.
So far it looks like the benefits from the good press have outweighed any negative stories. In addition to the initial spike, to date GravityPayments.com has seen a 1,888% increase in organic traffic from the month before the story broke (March 2015).
The site has also received a substantial lift in new backlinks since the story broke.
Steve Harvey crowns the wrong Miss Universe winner
Host Steve Harvey accidentally announced the wrong winner during the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. Some speculated the slip up was an elaborate PR stunt organized to combat the pageant’s falling ratings.
While there was initial backlash over the mistake, after several public apologies from Harvey, the incident may end up being best remembered for the memes it inspired.
It appears the negative sentiment around this story has not hurt the brand. With a 199% increase in press mentions compared to the previous year’s pageant, this year’s Miss Universe stayed top of mind long after the pageant was over.
After the incident, there was nearly a 123% increase in monthly organic traffic to MissUniverse.com compared to the month following the 2014 Miss Universe pageant. However, organic traffic had steadily increased throughout 2015. For this reason, it’s difficult to give Steve Harvey’s flub all the credit for any increases in organic traffic. It’s also too early to measure the long-term impact on traffic.
It’s also difficult to gauge how much of an effect it had on backlinks to MissUniverse.com. Judging from the chart below, so far there has been a minimal impact on new backlinks, but this may change as more articles related to this story are indexed.
For a brand that relies on TV viewership, perhaps the greatest payoff from this incident has yet to come. You can bet the world will tune in when Steve Harvey hosts next year’s Miss Universe pageant (he signed a multi-year hosting contract).
Is there any value to bad publicity?
Crafting controversial stories around a brand can have a huge payoff. After all, the press loves conflict. But too much negative press coverage can lead to a company’s downfall, as is the case with Turing Pharmaceuticals and Peeple.
Turing Pharmaceuticals raises drug price by 5,000%
You may not recognize the company name, but you’ve most likely heard of its former CEO Martin Shkreli. This pharmaceutical company bought a prescription drug and raised the price by 5,000%. The story made global headlines, including coverage by the New York Times, BBC, NBC News, and NPR, and the CEO had multiple TV interviews.
Shkreli defended the price hike, saying the profits would be funneled back into new treatment research, but his assertions that the pricing was a sound business decision wasn’t enough to save face. He later stepped down as Turing’s CEO after being arrested by the FBI on fraud charges.
Like Gravity Payments, the Turing Pharma story has had a long lifespan in the news cycle. After the story broke on September 20, press mentions of Turing Pharmaceuticals increased by 821% over the previous month.
During the month after the story first broke, turingpharma.com saw a 318% increase in organic traffic. Traffic also spiked in December and February, which is when Shkreli’s arrest, resignation as Turing CEO, and congressional hearing were making headlines.
Turingpharma.com also saw a significant increase in backlinks after the story broke. Within a month after the story broke, the site had a 382% increase in new backlinks.
While Turing Pharmaceuticals gained SEO value and brand recognition from the media frenzy, the benefits don’t make up for the negative sentiment toward the brand; the company posted a $14.6 million loss during the third quarter of 2015.
Peeple promotes new app as “Yelp for people”
A new site announcing a soon-to-be-launched “Yelp for people” app caused a huge social media and press backlash. The creepy nature of the app, which allowed people to review one another like businesses, sparked criticism as well as concerns that it would devolve into a virtual “burn book.”
The Washington Post broke the story, and from there it was picked up by the New York Times, BBC, Wired, and Mashable.
Peeple is an exceptional case since the app’s site launched right before the brand received the flurry of media coverage. Because of that, it’s possible that forthepeeple.com had not been indexed by Google yet at the time of the press coverage. Unlike the other brands we looked at in this study, we don’t have traffic and backlink benchmarks to compare from before press attention. But still, the Peeple story serves as a cautionary tale for brands hoping to attract attention to a new product with negative press.
Peeple received a 343% increase in press mentions during the month after the story broke. But since it was a new site, it’s difficult to accurately gauge how much of an impact media attention had on organic traffic and backlinks. Despite all of the attention, to date, the site only receives an estimated 1,000 visitors per month.
Since the story broke, the site has received around 3,800 backlinks.
An abundance of negative media coverage buried Peeple before its product even launched. By the time the founders backtracked and repositioned Peeple in a more positive light, it was too late to turn the brand’s image around. The app still hasn’t launched.
II. What marketers can learn from these 7 PR wins and fails
A substantial increase in press mentions, rather than volume, can yield significant benefits.
Overall, the stories about large brands (Airbnb, REI, Miss Universe) received more exposure than the unknown brands (Turing Pharmaceuticals, Roman Originals, Peeple, Gravity Payments). The well-known brands were mentioned in 148% more headlines than the unknown brands, and those stories received on average 190% more social shares than stories about the lesser-known brands.
Although stories about smaller brands received less press coverage than large brands, the relatively unknown companies saw a greater impact from being in the news than large brands. Roman Originals, Gravity Payments, and Turing Pharmaceuticals saw the greatest increases in organic traffic and backlinks. Comparatively, a surge of press coverage did not have as dramatic of an impact on the large companies. Of the well-known brands, Miss Universe saw the greatest impact, with a 199% increase in press mentions and 123% increase in site traffic compared to the previous year’s pageant.
Negative stories attracted more coverage and social shares than positive stories.
On average, the brands with negative stories (Miss Universe, Turing Pharma, and Peeple) appeared in 172% more headlines which received 176% more social shares than positive stories.
Have you noticed that the news feels predominantly negative? This is for good reason, since conflict is a pillar of good storytelling. Just as a novel or movie needs conflict, so do news stories.
That being said, there is such a thing as too much conflict. As we saw with Turing Pharmaceuticals and Peeple, company reputations can be irreversibly damaged when the brand itself is the source of conflict.
An element of unexpectedness is a key ingredient for massive press coverage.
There’s an old saying in journalism: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
From a CEO paying all employees $70,000 salaries to a major retailer closing on the busiest shopping day of the year to a seasoned TV host announcing the wrong beauty pageant winner, all of the stories we analyzed were surprising in some way.
Surprising stories attract initial attention and then ignite others to share it. This crucial element of newsworthiness also plays a role in making content go viral.
A quick, positive reaction when the brand isn’t controlling the story may help boost the beneficial impact of media coverage.
A carefully orchestrated PR stunt allows a company to plan for the potential press reaction, but what’s a brand to do when it unexpectedly ends up in the news?
While this may sound like a bureaucratic company’s worst nightmare, nimble brands can cash in on the attention with a quick, good-spirited reaction. Roman Originals masterfully news-jacked a story about itself by doing just that.
First, it put out a tweet that settled the debate over the dress’ color and updated its homepage to showcase #TheDress.
Soon after, a white and gold version of the dress was put up for auction, with the proceeds donated to charity. Had Roman Originals spent too much time planning a response, it may have missed out while the story was still relevant in the news cycle.
While most brands will never achieve this level of media coverage, the instances above teach pertinent lessons about what makes a story catch fire in the media:
- A PR win for a little-known brand doesn’t necessarily require thousands of press mentions. For this reason, unknown companies stand to benefit more from riskier tactics like PR stunts. On the flipside, it may be more difficult for a large brand to initiate a PR stunt that makes a significant impact.
- An element of unexpectedness may be a primary driver for what makes a news story go viral. When possible, include an unexpected angle into your PR pitches by focusing on what’s unique, bizarre, or novel about your brand.
- Plan for the unexpected by having processes in place that empower marketing and PR teams to act fast with a public response to sudden media attention.
- As we saw in our study, controversial stories are a big hit with journalists, but make sure your brand is the hero, not the villain. Look for opportunities to weave the “bad guys” your company is fighting into your pitches. Your company’s villain could be as obvious as a competitor or more subtle adversaries like the establishment (Uber vs. taxi industry).