Public relations vs. digital marketing…

It’s a common question and a dilemma that many startup founders face. In a competitive environment, where are marketing investments best made? How can you achieve the best ROI in the short-term and the long-term life of your business?

Whilst funded startups have the benefit of budget to spend, it’s in no way infinite. Money must be spent wisely in the right areas. There’s a balance between fast dynamic growth and long-term sustainable market positioning. Different investments reap different rewards, and it very much depends on the goals of your business.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between PR (online and offline) and digital marketing. The two worlds have somewhat collided over the past few years, leading to a grey area and some competition between the camps.


Public relations (PR)

Reputation is paramount, and always will be. A startup must develop its reputation carefully, and maintain a positive relationship with its target audience. At its heart, PR is reputation building and reputation maintenance. PR professionals will work to align their brand with particular causes, themes, and trends that resonate with the target audience.

Modern PR extends deep into brand awareness and exposure to local, national, and international media. PR professionals seek out opportunities for a brand to be featured in newspapers and magazines, industry rags, and on influential blogs and websites.

Sometimes, the subject matter of this content is newsworthy updates from the organisation’s projects, contracts, or products and services. Often, the content is gleaned from studies and surveys, highlighting remarkable trends that provide a backbone to a journalist’s story.

In other cases, PR professionals link spokespeople from a business (often the founder or director) to comment on topical news items, providing their expertise in return for exposure.

This is with particular reference to business PR. Public relations for government organisations and authority bodies is a different undertaking, and leans more heavily on reputation management and official communications; often with the help of a legal team.

Online PR has emerged during the digital revolution, and has muddied the waters. Whilst incorporating many elements of traditional public relations, online PR uses many of the same technologies as digital marketing, centred around the emphasis on content.


How to measure the ROI of PR

In 2014, Forbes published an article on measuring return on investment for PR. In this piece, Ilya Pozin lists five things to keep tabs on when measuring PR.


By keeping the competition out of the limelight, you’re enhancing brand awareness and ensuring you’re one step ahead.



It’s not just about selling the brand, it’s about assisting those in the media with their work. By building long-term and mutually beneficial relationships with influencers and the media, PRs can achieve this and ensure your business is represented.


Brand building

PRs need to develop a “fully formed brand story” to help their audience differentiate. This must be communicated consistently through different media, digital and otherwise.


Target market

It’s important to measure whether the publications that’s being targeted is in alignment with the target market of the business.



, Should your Startup Invest in PR or Digital Marketing?Influencers and celebrities endorsing your product or service can have a huge impact. Your PR rep should be targeting the right people, attempting to harness their following naturally and organically. This might involve sending out freebies, or an outside-the-box attention-grabbing idea.


Granted, the tips above don’t get into the nitty gritty of measuring return on investment. Some more technical analysis by Cyber Alert advises that you must first find the value of an audience member, and then you can measure true ROI on PR activities.

The article’s writer, William Comcowich, contests that PR (online PR in this case) cannot be measured on sales, as it’s PR’s job to build and maintain audiences, whilst it’s marketing and sales that should be converting those audiences into leads and sales. Therefore, PR must be measured on the successful generation of audiences.


His formula is as follows:

In order to find the value of an audience member (to measure “earned”), you must find the worth of a lead. If a product is worth £100, and one in ten proceed to checkout, leads are worth £10. Then, compare the number of leads with the number of impressions. For example, if there’s one visitor to a website for every ten impressions, a hundred impressions acquire one lead. This means that the value of an audience member is £1.

It’s essential from the start to set out attribution models, including unique URLs, campaign-specific phone numbers, and more. This, in tandem with clearly defined goals will enable you to measure the impact of PR on the bottom line.


Digital marketing

Now, we need to understand what’s different about digital marketing. How do the granular activities differ, and how can you measure return on investment? Does digital marketing overlap with PR or can it be considered entirely separate?

Here’s a brief overview of the commonly agreed elements of digital marketing practice, accurate at the time of writing.



, Should your Startup Invest in PR or Digital Marketing?This term took on a life of its own in recent years, and “guaranteed number one spot on Google” was being promised left right and centre. Primarily, this happened because there was a formula for doing so, based on number links, keyword density, and other tricks.

The search engines have been punishing people that game the system for some time, and this combined with regular comment spamming has given SEO a dirty name. These days, marketers tend to associate SEO with the more technical side of online marketing and website management. Technical SEOs are the people that understand how the back-end website code and metadata impacts search performance, and can optimise site structure to tick the right boxes.

That said, some experts see activities such as content marketing and social media as perched under the SEO umbrella, acting as means to an end; the end being better search rankings.


Content marketing

This is one of the most sought-after elements of digital marketing recently, but in essence, content marketing is nothing new. However, content was brought into sharp focus when Google’s algorithm updates of 2011 punished websites with thin and poorly-constructed content. This made unique, well-researched, and valuable online content a hot commodity.

The term “content marketing” encapsulates a wide variety of elements, but narrowed down, it’s defined as the creation and distribution of high-quality content at a targeted audience, with the purpose of extracting a valuable action.

This could be a purchase, a newsletter sign-up, their engagement on a social media update, or anything else that a startup might consider a conversion. Content in this context can be written, visual, or audio. Every year, there’s an increased emphasis on visual media within content marketing.  

Also read: What is a journalistic approach to content marketing?


Social media

Digital marketing and online PR both utilise social media, and this is perhaps where some of the conflict emerges between the two disciplines. Whilst social media is primarily considered as a brand awareness tool, it can also be used to drive qualified leads and generate sales.

Social media signals are also being considered in higher regard by Google, which pricked up the ears of SEOs. But primarily, organic social media remains a communication tool with which to promote content, engage with followers, and assist with queries and concerns.

Paid social media advertising enables brands to reach new audiences, and provides an easily-measurable return on investment. We’ll cover PPC in the next section.



Pay-per-click has emerged as one of the most essential channels for digital marketers. As social channels strangle pages’ organic reach, and Google dedicates more results space to advertisements, PPC has gained a more prominent role.

One of the most widely-used PPC platforms is Google Adwords, which enables immediate route to market, without relying on organic search rankings. Adwords accounts must be managed with great care, as inefficient keyword targeting will lead to huge budget wastage.

Startups also benefit from using social advertising, with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn offering incredible targeting capabilities. The benefit of PPC is that it can be scaled up depending on revenue growth and budget, with easy attribution of leads and sales.


Influencer marketing

, Should your Startup Invest in PR or Digital Marketing?Influencer marketing is arguably the closest to traditional and online PR. In order to amplify communications, startups use existing influencer groups to extend their reach. Influencer marketing is about leveraging the audiences of others, either by paid endorsements or by organic means. Influencer marketing involves the identification of industry influencers, and targeting them with content that they’ll love and share.

It’s somewhat related to advocate marketing (or advocacy marketing), although this is defined as using your existing loyal customers to spread the brand message, often by incentivising their action.


Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and its feasibility as an avenue for growth very much depends on the nature of your business. There are two sides to affiliate marketing; you could use affiliates to drive sales of a product, or you could be the affiliate that receives commission for selling or referring customers to another supplier.


Email marketing

Email marketing is a staple digital activity for every brand in the modern age, and its popularity has not waned over the years, since the first mass mail-out in 1978 generated $13 million worth of business for Gary Thuerk. It’s proven to be a conversion machine, but an email campaign should combined with compelling offers and great content.

According to Campaign Monitor, email marketing generates the highest ROI of any channel, with brands able to expect $38 for every $1 invested, on average. To get an idea of your email marketing return on investment, try this handy little online tool.


Video marketing

Again, this can be considered an element of content marketing and stands firmly under the digital umbrella. Online video is exploding at the moment, with brands large and small investing considerable budget into these visuals. Unbounce reports that landing pages with video can increase conversion by up to 80%, and according to Dr. James McQuivey of Forrester Research, a minute of video is worth 1.8 million words!


Additional notes

You could also consider the design and implementation of a website to be part of the digital marketing spectrum. Depending on the nature of your business, a website should either be a fully-functional ecommerce channel, or shop window that encourages further action. Both online PR and digital marketing have a role in guiding audiences there, one way or another.


How to measure the ROI of digital marketing

Typically, every tool in the digital toolkit will have its own ROI expectations. For PPC, the ROI is absolutely clear in black and white. For something like content marketing, it’s more of a grey area and takes more detailed long-term analysis to pick out.

Published a few years ago, this brilliant article by Steve Kerho on Fast Company sets out a step-by-step of figuring out your digital marketing return on investment. Whilst new measurable channels have emerged since, this model is useful as a starting point.

Essentially, every digital marketing channel should have its measurable goals, agreed at the start of a campaign. Google Analytics should be used to plot the path of visitors from entry to exit, enabling you to attribute leads and sales to different channels.

There are many different tools that you can use (and integrate with one another) to help measure ROI on digital marketing efforts. Docurated has listed the top 50, which you can read here.


Integrated marketing

I recently wrote on the Kurve blog about the benefits of adopting an integrated approach. This approach generates a seamless brand experience for every audience member, across a wide range of different media. Integrated marketing is a mindset, and one that helps startups to build a loyal following who know what to expect.

Integrated marketing ensures that all marketing communications, online and offline, are all contributing to an agreed set of goals, providing consistency in approach. It ensures that your startup speaks with one voice as it grows.

When investing in PR, digital marketing, or both combined, it’s essential to adopt an integrated approach. For more information about integrated marketing and how to achieve it, read this article.



On balance, it could be argued that digital marketing offers more rounded benefits than PR does – at least as we traditionally understand it. That said, digital marketers benefit from embracing PR-like activities such as outreach, guest blogging, and influencer marketing.

There’s a lot of crossover, both ways. As just one example, a PR rep having secured exposure in an established publication will directly impact performance of the brand’s website in the search results, due to the effect of a strong and reliable backlink.

Digital marketing has also crossed into the realm of advertising more than ever, with the increasing popularity of Google Adwords and social advertising platforms on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others. Advertising principles are being applied in the digital context, and it’s forced ad agencies to adapt to new competition in their sphere.

For a fast-growth startup, there are benefits to be had from mass exposure at heavy one-off investment. A sustained PR push around the time of a product or business launch can indeed yield incredible results, but I’d argue that PR alone cannot generate as much value as digital marketing in the long-term.

For those seeking fast-growth, digital marketing can be weighted in favour of explosive growth and immediate results, by leaning more heavily on impactful PPC campaigns and top-heavy budgeting for conversion-led content.

Digital marketing budget can be split smartly between the channels that disrupt and reap fast growth, and those that ensure long-term sustainable success and a positive reputation among your audience.