The Public Relations Long Tail


Lots of folks ask me if I think social media will replace traditional media. No one knows the future, but I doubt it. We’re likely looking at an integrated environment where both traditional and new media have value. Taking a play off of Chris Andersen’s Long Tail, this chart plots the effectiveness or the weight of various earned media tactics in the current environment.

Red hits have the most impact, while the long tail (yellow) still makes up half the marketplace. We’ll define the marketplace as word of mouth power.

Needless to say, this is subjective and various earned media forms have disparate degrees of weight. General classification is the best we can do without the correct measurement tools using a real world full on case-study with all types of earned media opportunities. Further, this assumes PR owns social media within a company. As we know, social media is often divided amongst the larger marketing department.

Ping Pong

Another issue with this chart is that it seeks to isolate individual tools and their weight. In reality — given today’s fractured media environment — one hit in any of these areas can trigger successive hits in others. When a word of mouth campaign has actual substance it usually cascades. Smart PR and social media practitioners understand this.

For example, my client FortiusOne received significant blog hits in the magic middle last fall (both Solis and Huyse introduced me to this theory). When pointed to this significant traction, the Washington Post took notice and wrote them up. Then ABC, Information Week and a new host of bloggers saw the Washington Post story and covered FortiusOne. And then speaking engagements and secondary trade press coverage ensued.

In Chapter Four of Now Is Gone, we talk about this “ping pong match” between traditional and new media outlets. From the draft material last June:

One great way to promote your new media initiative remains traditional media, who often use well-respected blogs as sources or even the subject of stories… [Social media attention] drives information into the spotlight forcing traditional media to pay attention – or look like they’ve missed the news, and most importantly the conversation. Blogs [can be] a more effective way of reaching and inspiring traditional media to react than most PR professionals and wire services combined.

1410036236_a2f2d35a5d Ping pong matches demonstrate that weighting one tool by its actual total community and eyeball impact fails. As Seth Godin says in Meatball Sundae (see Buzz Bin review), it doesn’t matter if the socially generated earned media only gets one percent of the hoped for attention if it’s the right one percent (Image credit: Ping Pong Persi by Mas-Luka)

Order Classification

Brief definitions on the order classification from top to bottom:

  • Top tier media: Think WSJ, NY Times, BusinessWeek, Good Morning America. This should be obvious.
  • Major awards, speeches: Keynotes at major conferences, shows, significant awards (Forbes 50 best places to work), etc.
  • Top trades, national radio, regional newspapers: Should be self evident.
  • Top tier blogs: Have essentially become as powerful as the trade press, and in some cases more so.
  • Trade press: The singles for any blue chip PR program. You need some of the extra base hits to get power, but these hits are essential.
  • Local speaking opps, awards, etc.: Can also include industry wide panels at conferences in this classification
  • Magic Middle: At the base of power and the beginning of the long tail, this is where a lot of tremendous work can be done.
  • Organic Social Media: Corporate social media and blogging initiatives (if executed well).
  • Analyst relations: Forrester, Gartner et al.
  • Social Network Referrals: Can be humongous but more often than not,just an event. Usually fueled by the Magic Middle.
  • SEO enabled press releases, lower blog hits: The heart of the PR long tail. Note how little value press releases are given in my weighting.
  • Email spamming reporters and bloggers: Why is this here as a tool? Because people are still doing it in spite of the high risk and low reward! They can’t give up the 1% return. See Eric Eggertson on the topic.

Some practitioners will want to adjust my placement or add tools to the basic Livingston set. To make your own chart, download the long tail at Entrepreneurs Journey and Photoshop away. ;)

17 Replies to “The Public Relations Long Tail”

  1. Geoff, thank you, that is a great illustration and a good broadening of the argument of new vs traditional tools. They are, after all, just tools and they work best in the hands of a craftsman.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. So true… And without a decent value proposition that’s clearly messaged and a good outreach strategy these tools — all of them — will fail. Also it should be noted that with more technologically-oriented service/solution/products and younger communities, social media holds more weight.

  3. This is a topic that is very near and dear as I’ve been writing about this behind the scenes for a long, long time.

    Basically this post demonstrates where PR will eventually need to focus once it understands that it is no longer a broadcast machine. Metrics are evolving and with it, the entire PR industry. Success changes from coverage to tangible things such as sales, visits, registrations, etc.

    The problem with the Long Tail example is that it inherently moves left to right, when, as you called it in the post, can also move right to left. This is very important point and a very big flip for PR, as much of the success in blogger, influencer, and media relations can truly take place in the magic middle and within niche and vertical communities (the long tail).

    So in a sense, what you’re saying is right, but it in my opinion, the long tail (philosophy) should be spotlighted and promoted now, while the (graphic and examples) should be evolved as a visual demonstration for PR to show, not just the tools that they can use and where they come into play, but also how PR applies to real world business and customer adoption. You can take the same approach to the traditional marketing bell curve as well.

    I think that in the process “impact” also gets redefined as we need to examine which part of the tail actually leads to users versus traditional branding. I would argue that while popularity gets the most visibility, the less is more approach might actually have more impact on the bottom line.

    Stay tuned for more…

  4. Is that wiggly line at the top of the red media bar a profile of Oprah, Jon Stewart and Rupert Murdoch waltzing to the bank?

    Nice analysis. It’s all mixed together, with TiVo, the Internets and radio/newspapers all jostling for our attention. Not quite a meatball sundae ;-). More like the news chopped up in a blender.

  5. This is one situation in which external comms can learn from their internal cousins. Leaders make repeated attempts to replace face to face comms with technology and gimmicks:
    1. Because they’re afraid of the former
    2. Few are as skilled at it as they make out
    3. They claim it’s time consuming and expensive

    I’ve never seen a single example where employees demand a third-party solution over and above a direct interaction with a key stakeholder e.g. leader/manager. As we all know the answer, like with a great cocktail, is in the mix and in having a thick recipe book to cater for many tastes.

    If this is an aspect of the debate which interests you have a look at Brand Engagement on:


  6. Ian: Great input. Fear is the great barrier, isn’t it. I’ll be sure to check out this link.

    Eric: It’s always good to get a little validation from Common Sense. Thanks for coming by.

  7. Now I know what I want to talk about on Tues. when you are in town Geoff.

    The graph is great, and there obvious value here. So what happens when the magic middle is the public relations person? It changes the dynamic, even with disclosures, which sometimes seem like it’s own advertisement.

  8. Rich: Looking forward to the chat!

    Shama: No, just spamming bloggers and journalists… Sorry for the confusion.

  9. Geoff – Best use of this graph? Convince all those looking for the silver bullet to stop, It doesn’t exist, no viral, no email blast, no single appearance, no blog, we’re as fragmented as ever and it takes much coordination.

    Lastly, do you believe it’s about the relationship? Cause if it is about relationships, they take time and that’s the rub, some companies really, truly don’t want relationships.

    I remember when a Good Morning America, CBS Evening News and USA Today trifecta would last weeks, now you’re lucky if you get 24 hours of buzz out of that combination.

    All the best and good luck with the book

  10. Geoff,

    Very well articulated. I was just discussing this with a client today. It’s hard to explain. I actually talked about long tail in terms of SEO presence (the traditional meaning), but looking at it in terms of all social media traffic (and relative value) is very interesting…


  11. Geoff,

    Excellent way to illustrate what to me is the results of a good integrated plan, launch and execution. Ian is correct. Internal Communications has been depending on the long tail for as long as I have been around–about 35 years. It is disappointing that external communications has been slow to adopt the principles behind integration planning and the impact of that planning over a substantial time period.

    Too many measure success by media hits over a few weeks. Too many depend on the press release to do all the work. In applying an integrated strategy, as you exhibit through your graph’s presentation, the press release is useful but it is not the beginning, middle and end.

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