The End of the Social PR Revolution

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In building the program for xPotomac (February 25th), I sought to address a sea change in media evolution. That change spells the end for the social PR revolution, a marketing movement embodied by brand-led conversations over the past seven years.

We are currently experiencing a throttling of branded, online grassroots power. Specifically, it’s becoming harder and harder for marketers to be seen with branded earned media and social updates.

This evolution is best evidenced by the increasing role of owned and paid content placement (as discussed, content marketing is the 21st century nice description of advertising), and social or native advertising.

Other signs evidence this change, too. Social search and stronger policing of black hat SEO by Google has put a premium on paid search again. Facebook’s use of Edgerank to force companies and individuals alike to pay for attention is another harbinger of this fate.

The rise of big data and the forthcoming wearable computing revolution — themes that run throughout xPotomac — will cause a further throttling of online grassroots pipes.

When voice search matters more in the immediate future, social updates won’t be seen. They’ll be factored into a larger algorithm that offers listings read orally by technologies like Siri. Voice search will be required by people wearing Google Glass or other forms of visual and audible computing. In addition, voice search matters because people don’t want or can’t type in a search while gaming or enjoying a social TV experience.

The rise of algorithms weighs on everything. A Google Plus One means something, but 20 pluses mean more. Add in a traditional news hit, and organic content backlinks, and suddenly a web page becomes sourced more — not just in traditional search, but in social network streams that factor in social validation to feature “top content.”

This equates to decreasing value for PR professionals who hustle for brand-driven earned mentions in both traditional media and blogs, as well as social networks. Social and traditional PR is increasingly cornered into a game of the aggregate.

When the wearable computing revolution is completed, social PR will sit in the middle of the bus, robbed of its front seat privilege in the online game.

Customer Experience Takes the Fore

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The other corners of the marketing house — lead nurturing email and customer service programs, product marketing, traditional advertising, events, in-store physical media and other designed experiences — all gain weight. They, too, are part of the holistic customer experience, and have as much of a role in triggering word of mouth as PR does.

Customer experience design and permission marketing in the mobile area become paramount to PR. Why? Because the customer rejects PR in mobile environments, preferring to be communicated with on a strict permission basis as compelled by their experience.

Permission includes walking into a storefront and seeing signage. It means being prepared with content when search happens in the immediate now, and a live person when queries are launched. It means having responsive design and apps to meet sudden demands for information, wherever and however they occur.

Customer experience also means providing access to third party earned media in the aggregate to see product and service reviews. One review matters some, 49 reviews with an average rating of 4.2 out of 5 matter more.

Of course, social PR types will scream that every review matters. But we see big companies like Amazon proving to us that in actuality, we need the aggregate. The top and bottom 5% don’t matter in the big picture.

Does that mean investment in social will decrease? No, it’s expected to increase, but the focus will turn to the aggregate, and engaging customers to drive leads and word of mouth. Further, social becomes part of the entire enterprise, not the domain of a public relations professional/department.

ROI Determines Who Gets Funded

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CMOs will inevitably turn to the marketing players that can best sway customers directly, particularly as technology continues to devalue PR. As PR loses its ability to sway stakeholders directly, it will fall into the general category of branding, a top of the funnel activity owned traditionally by advertising.

It’s not that the different disciplines shouldn’t work together, or one should own the other. On the contrary, they have to integrate and work together to be heard over the 3000 messages the average stakeholder hears or sees every day.

But what was a primary voice over the past decade will be forced to become a role player. You can see PR leaders grappling with this as they become a part of the content and advertising conversation.

When you can’t write snappy copy, produce great video, design fantastic interactive experiences, or adapt to untethered media environments, shouting loudest means little. Corporate mouth pieces don’t deliver ROI. And that Achilles Heel of Social PR will rise up to cripple it over the next five years.

Social will increasingly mean investing in direct customer interaction, and while there will be community managers, that’s not a lead role in marketing. At best, it’s an informative one.

Customer service, events, content production, social advertising, and other forms of engagement will also hold weight, just as much as this traditional approach to conversational media. In fact, they will be better funded because of their ability to trigger cascades of transactions.

Tough Mudder Typifies Modern Social Marketing

One of the best brands at empowering its customers via social media is Tough Mudder. I saw their CEO Will Dean speak at the Ivy League Sports Marketing Symposium, and he credited social as their primary form of marketing.

When you analyze why Tough Mudder social works, it’s the customer experience driven by savvy creative, visual media, strong ad copy, and true earned media from its customers, not social PR waging a conversation.

As a Tough Mudder, I can tell you the post experience keeps you engaged. I always open my Tough Mudder emails. When I walk into the gym with my Tough Mudder bag, inevitably someone asks me about the race. When another Mudder is there, we share our experiences and which obstacles were hardest.

It’s the same online. The Mudder updates are often witty and deserve a like and even a share. But the real conversation occurs between those of us who ran, and those who want to in the near future. We have shared a life changing experience.

Alone, I’m sure individually we mean little to the brand. En masse, we are an unstoppable grassroots machine that’s building the fastest growing brand in sports. Tough Mudder is smart enough to know what fans the flames, and it’s not an ongoing conversation with the brand itself. Instead it empowers its customers as brand ambassadors.

The lesson: Social marketing means producing loyal brand advocates, not shouting loudest on Facebook.


Increasingly, marketing communications seeks to get people to opt in to direct marketing so professionals can close, create and nurture advocates.

Nurturing non-textual experiences, permission marketing, playing to the aggregate: Technology evolution forces these approaches upon us. That’s why the social PR revolution is coming to an end. Produce leads or perish.

I might be wrong, but I’ve seen harbingers like this before, and gambled successfully. Further, working with CMOS and integrated departments to produce marketing strategy has really awoken me to social PR’s ability to deliver and produce certain outcomes, and fail at others. Those strengths will be diminished by evolving technology.

That’s why I organized xPotomac to share with you the confluence of these new technologies, and for the 100 of us to discuss what they mean to our collective future.

I hope you’ll come and join us on February 25th to be part of that discussion. If you register with the discount code “GeoffBlog” you can get a 15% discount.

Now it’s your turn to weigh in. Cheers.


  • Great post, Geoff!

    As communicators: marketers, PR professionals, social media experts, we need to get better at setting clear business objectives, tracking and showcasing our impact on the bottom line. The numbers we track don’t always need to be dollars, but we need to show how the numbers connect to drive to numbers.

    I’d also like to suggest that numbers don’t need to be short term… Focusing on long-term brand value: true loyalty metrics, ambassadors who drive sales or leads, goodwill on the balance sheet, and reduces customer service costs all contribute to the bottom line – not just for today, but in the long run.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • I wonder whether we will even use these labels in 20 years. I hope not , LOL. I think we’re all becoming hybrids. 

    • Great points, Judi. As communicators, we need a short-term and long-term approach. And we need to know how we can drive the bottom line (ROI) as well as achieve our preset objectives (impact). The tripping over ourselves on this measurement topic does not help us as communicators no mater bucket we are talking about.

  • I just wrote a post last week that got lots of play, Geoff – talk about the same topic and opining that PR doesn’t “own” social — and that social intelligence does and will continue to drive everything, across the enterprise or across the SMB. Great job here – love the thinking.

    • LOL, I saw that. I should have linked to it in that section about middle of the bus (will add after work today), but I linked to your other super fly post last week on what social spend will look like. You’re kicking butt, buddy.

      • Thanks … I wasn’t concerned about the linking. But you shoulda SEEN all the flack I took from that from PR folks. Holy moly, sometimes people can’t see the forest for the trees. And so many of them think that managing a brand’s page is “owning social media” on behalf of the brand. Seriously?????????

        Sigh. Again, great post – loved it!

        • Both are great posts and it is a shame that we are still in this ____ measuring contest in terms of ownership as it sets us all back in the industry.

          • Thanks Espo. I feel the same way. Which, of course, we’ve discussed. We should talk about this more. Like, over beers or something. Soon.

        • I’m sure it’s coming here, too. I really thought twice about publishing this for that very reason. But I refuse not to say something that is moderated in tone, but still provokes hard responses. Such is the position of saying what needs to be said. Good on you for posting it.

          • Even in disagreement, there are parts I buy into. Been thinking about Shelly’s post too – saw it on her blog, on the Breakfast Club and on PRDaily. Quite a stir. I have a post in mind, but hesitate for the flack I’ll surely get.

  • Terrific post Geoff. It amazes me that we continue to grapple over who owns what silo in the social space. Clearly, brand advocates are the ones who will forge the path into the future.

    • Thanks, Liz. The customer doesn’t care about who crafted their “message.” They usually hate it regardless of silo.

      I was afraid to press publish, which is usually the sure sign of a post worth publishing! LOL. Hope you are doing well.

  • I generally agree with with you. Social is becoming advertising. But maybe two exceptions. In the Tough Mudder case, you experience true affection for the brand. As long as they remain entertaining, informative and consistent with your expectations any “PR” they throw your way will connect. Algorithms don’t matter. Paid media will not drown them out because you choose to connect.
    The second exception is hyper-local. We are also entering a point where people will see (through their Google glasses) individual points of data in the moment, at the point of need, relevant in context to the place and person and social network. Firms that can serve up that kind of information will rise above the algorithms as well.
    Superb post Geoff.

    • True. Though I had a hard time with the Tough Mudder Facebook badge, LOL. I think this is the value of loyal brand advocates, which in a sense is the true PR, the one that’s not about command and control communications, rather the old school ombudsman that serves stakeholders interests as well as the company. And I totally agree on the hyperlocal bit, that context is a critical part of the customer experience. Thanks so much for a thoughtful comment, Mark.

  • The only thing I disagree with is the idea that PR will sit in the middle of the bus and be relegated to only top of the funnel tactics. I think PR is already there. The industry, as a whole, hasn’t figured out how to integrate (which is why I’m hot on native advertising right now – it’s an opportunity to work closely with the other disciplines), how to use data to its benefit, or how to measure its efforts. By nature, PR pros are not business people so an understanding of how an organization makes money – and how the PR efforts affect that – is weak.

    I also don’t think PR *ever* owned the social conversation. I think it wanted to, but we (the industry) never got there…and now it’s too late. Now it belongs to everyone.

  • I feel for the novice reading this article. ;-) Great points. I don’t necessarily feel that content marketing is a nice way of saying advertising. I think it can have a much more connective purpose. I do agree that the role of community manager will be more of an informative role. At some point, small businesses and even CMOs will need to wake up to this fact and figure out ways to get the whole team involved (including themselves).

    • I have to differ with you on that. Great advertising connects in the manner you refer to, but at least we agree on the community manager role.


    • If we’re doing it right, isn’t the content we create as a result of a content marketing strategy ideally able to be used across paid, earned and owned channels? It’s less about what bucket it fits into and more about if it generates a connection with, action from the consumer, no?

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