OutSpeech: Darren Kingman on Digital PR Skills and the Future of the Discipline | Impression

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Reading Time: 39 minutes


Darren Kingman has been working in the SEO industry for many years and delivers a wide array of high quality, high results digital PR campaigns alongside his team at Root Digital (including Impression alumni George Driscoll!).

We’ve got a huge amount of respect for Root and the work they do so I was delighted when Darren agreed to join me on OutSpeech to talk about our discipline, how it’s changed and where it’s going.

As well as contributing to our podcast, Darren has created a fantastically comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Digital PR which we recommend to anyone starting out or refreshing their skills. You can find Darren at https://rootdigital.co.uk/.

Who is Darren Kingman?

I’ve been kind of in the SEO space for over 10 years. Most notably, I spent about five years at Built Visible, in the leadership team there and ended up on the largest teams and responsible for some of the largest clients across the US. And about two years ago, went freelance at two and a half years ago, then set up Root Digital.

Beginner’s Guide to Digital PR: Why Now?

Laura
Let’s start with a beginner’s guide, then to digital PR, which you’ve presumably been writing over the past few months, and which I believe is a workout something like 17,000 words. So for anyone who’s who’s looking for information about digital PR, this is definitely the place to go. But what what was it at this stage in your career at this point, and where we are as an industry that made you want to write that guide?

Darren
So I think it was largely around the conversations we were having with clients. And the kind of missed understanding or misunderstanding, but not having a bit of awareness around what digital PR is, and why it’s not guaranteed. You know, you kind of have that conversations with clients a lot as well, where it’s you’re trying to explain what it is and why it’s, it should be for about a slightly different to SEO and and historical link building, right?

It’s like, Well, why can’t we just guarantee stuff on Forbes or something like that. And if I could then start digital PR. So I wanted to do a bit of an explanation place in order to help manage client expectations.

So yeah, so I ran through a lot of what the process is the creative side of things, the ideation, what goes into that production, as well. So it’s hopefully given a bit of a sense of how big these projects can be, and the creativity that goes into them, as well. And hopefully, that starts to bridge the gap on why it’s not as certain as you know, a tech a tech audit, or something which is more scientific.

It’s very algorithmic, and this is very much in terms of we, our job is obviously to try and maximize the successes with it. But there’s going to be a degree of failure. And that’s the kind of the organic balance that we have with digital PR. So hopefully that helps explain to clients or educate them a little bit before we get into the conversations about what it is and why it can. They can be so big in terms of a project plan.

The other side of it was largely trying to think about who ruble we want to be as an agency. And it’s very much around kind of adding value. And I think that’s what I tried to do when I build the Riddler we only have free resources on our website as partly because it was just me for quite a long chunk of time as well. Hannah Rampton Roshi was part of the agency for a bit before going freelance but you know, if we build some for if we start shouting about something, I want it to be adding value. I want that to be how people see route. And the things that we do that way that we think about is either adding value or creating a conversation that can that can add value to something as well. So hopefully, it does.

Laura
Definitely, I think it’s an interesting point that you make about setting client expectations and, and certainly the comparison that you make to something like a tech audit, which is very scientific. And, you know, arguably, there are much clearer steps to attack audit and unclear outcomes that it can be difficult within our industry is that something that you have found has increased in complexity over time to the expectations of clients have they Have they got more complicated? Have they changed? How’s it been for you?

Setting Client Expectations

Darren
For a lot of newer clients have had some sort of exposure to SEO and digital marketing. So I think that starts to paint a picture of kind of their, their footing in understanding what impacts we’re going to have. And what’s the kind of what they expect, as a result, and there’s there’s widely different SEOs and agencies that people have used, that they’re coming to our agencies like, like ours and yours, with, which can be very different to the ways that we work. So I, I don’t think it’s massively changed, I think I’ve got a bit of an understanding or a little knowledge can be quite dangerous, right. And I think that is very true in what we do. So they have a bit of an understanding of what SEO is and what they’re expecting as an outcome.

But how we get there is very much dependent on where they are as a company, what condition are they in? What kind of applications do we need to be getting in order to have the right search, increasing search performance for them? So there’s always going to be a degree of education that needs to happen wherever Oh, that’s a broader as an industry and what we do or whether or not it’s all kind of grounded in who they are, and where they are, as a company as well.

Laura
Definitely, and, and in terms of what you’ve therefore surface through the beginner’s guide, I guess, from thinking about it from the clients perspective, what would you say are the key aspects of a digital PR campaign that you’ve laid out to set those expectations? And from the other side, from a practitioners point of view? What would you say are the key kind of skills that you’ve you’ve laid out as being imperative to digital PR?

Key Skills in Digital PR

Darren
People who are kind of becoming digital prs or realising what it is? I think, for me, I think about and I’ve thought about this for a while, I think it comes down to communication, SEO, understanding link equity, how that’s managed, relevant, static compensation, stuff you can you can engage with, and learn it, but I think I can learn creation.

But I think I feel like that’s the kind of foundational in a digital PR is understanding what people are looking for. So but both by projecting your message and the message you create, and also how they will receive it. So it’s the you create the engagement, quickly, people engage with the stories and that kind of thing. So and that’s very much down to this. In a way listening. What mystery writing and producing themselves. So what’s, what’s out there, what’s working, what’s being engaged with talking now, I think, kind of storytelling your site, as I kind of was like the final foundational skill in digital VR.

So we’re a bit of an advantage in digital PR in 21. No, compared to historical PR, we’ve got more data that we can learn from we can send what people want about the topics that have been engaged with. You can decide things you can use those platforms and tools that help you get out onto a little bit quicker. But it fundamentally comes down to communication and storytelling as an extension of some stories that people want to be writing about and how you kind of you come to resistance or read as well, when it comes down to communication.

Laura
Have you found that that’s been something that’s changed at all over the course of the last 12 months. So I guess at the time that we’re recording this, we’re still in lockdown, because of the COVID pandemic, things have been kind of changing a lot in the news. There’s been a lot of talk about maybe being more reactive. Is that something that you’ve seen yourself?

Darren
In terms of how we portray it as a skill?

Laura
Yeah. And also just in terms of what you’re saying about kind of talking to journalists about the things that they’re already writing about? Have you found that there’s been more of an onus on kind of daily check ins and seeing what’s in the media or have you been able to be a little bit more planned in advance as to what campaigns are going to be going out with

Darren
So initially, we had changed quite a few things. You know, March last year, a lot of stories that we had plans, creative campaigns, hooks, that kind of stuff. It didn’t all go out the window, but it needed to change quite dramatically, because the new cycle was obviously much gifting. I think when we have a pattern, where it’s it’s a mixture of reactive and proactive, storytelling, so we are those successes that we’ve had, I don’t know, just as an agency or work and all that.

That’s why our industry, but things like PR requests, so our war hacked on. relevant. we’ve, we’ve, we’ve worked with a lot, and we’ve had a lot coverage from a lack of those of tactics, in terms of the proactive stop creating, I don’t think so, I mean, obviously, it was very pandemic related to you, we’re looking at stories that kind of that tie into that how people are going to be affected. So for clients in the US, that we work, looking at sending those English checks or how consumer spending habits changed and things like that, it was a bit of a weave into COVID COVID, whilst also obviously trying to tie it back to the relevance of the client. And that just kind of carried on, I suppose, is that we are thinking to some degree about the pandemic and whether or not we still fit into that new cycle.

And when things are outside of the pandemic, people still obviously care about the world and don’t just want to be the kind of avalanche of negativity.

Laura
It’s really good point, isn’t it? And I like I like the wording that you use there around storytelling, which I think for me just brings to mind two sides of the digital PR coin, one being that we need to tell stories that are compelling to the press and that are going to earn that news coverage and those links, but the other side being that we really need to be sympathetic to what is appropriate to our clients and the stories that they want to tell to their audiences as well. Would you agree?

Darren
Exactly. Yeah. So I mean, that’s that’s kind of in communication, listening. What is happening? What’s the kind of sentiment out there are people that have had enough of that, as well? That’s kind of the overriding reports. And journalists are essentially going to react to that as well. And then we need to react to that actually happens, we need to plan forward in terms of sweet stories that relate versus that on at fault, or what’s coming up in a world like the election? Was there anything that your client or your company you work for, has been working towards that? And kind of looking at six months out? Sleep is is tough next week? So how do we work into that? I’m sure. There’ll be a list of other things going on in in May, June, etc, which we’ll think about.

Laura
Yeah, for sure. And in terms of the communication side of things, have you got any tips that you found through? Obviously, you’ve got your own agency now, unless you mentioned you worked at built visible prior, and you’ve got loads of experience in this industry? From that experience? Are there any tips that you can share with listeners around how best to achieve good communication? So it’s a great question. It’s a big question. If I guess I’m thinking kind of small things I do you kind of just have really regular telephone calls with your clients, or do you try and set an agenda?

Darren
For clients, because we’re an agency journalists being a digital PR. Yeah, con, kind of feels mostly common sense columns. So my follow ups, making sure that like, communication is transparent. And the point is always important, regardless of if a client or whether or not that’s journalist that you’re trying to engage with. So hooked on the other journalists hooks, a key and that’s something that we’re always thinking about when we’re doing our campaigns.

What is the overriding thing that we want to be able to communicate that tell the story, the narrative of is that we’re not? That’s not I certainly recommend thinking about even as early as ideation is when the concept what is the kind of hook that you’re hoping For kind of, theoretically, for the campaign, and when it comes the clients as well. Yeah, it’s making sure that you’re clear making sure that you’re communicating the value of what it is that you’re doing, as well.

And I’m being honest, I mean, transparency is something that we take pride in, and we’re going through without a rebrand. And thankfully, we asked, and that’s that he so we don’t dress something up, if we, if something is not working, we’re being very honest and saying, cool, we’re gonna go in this direction, maybe we’re gonna try this, this will have been they read and understand why. And if a failure does happen, at least your transparency allowed your to come through. And I think that that key word, you know, if it’s feel like you don’t care, you’re not doing enough projects that they’ve got on with you, then then that’s going to lead to but ultimately, if you if you’re being transparent, and you really do give a shit, and then the hopefully that that come?

Laura
Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you completely. And I think that that sentiment around failure in particular is one that is pertinent to our industry, because as you say, it’s far, it’s far more fragile, I suppose, than some other disciplines within digital marketing, and that we can have campaigns that absolutely smash it, and you do a fantastic job, well, it almost sets the expectation of the client that that things are going to be that way all the time. But equally, you can have campaigns that maybe don’t achieve the level of success that you would hope for. And I think it’s really important, especially because our industry is growing so much. And there are so many new people coming to work in this industry, that we make it clear that success isn’t just about achieving hundreds of links for every single campaign every day.

But it’s actually about having roadmaps, which take into account the fact that sometimes campaigns don’t work. But make sure that you’re kind of your your lead, leading a road map that that journeys towards success on the whole, I think is the real key thing. And that’s something that we try and do is to have, you know, some campaigns might work. But as long as you’ve got lots of other things going on, and you’re adding value overall, I think that’s the key thing.

Darren
Yeah, fantastic. Thank you, everyone or not, we should share more failure from kind of social channels. And you kind of shout about them a bit more obviously, as people do. And that’s, that’s a great conversation to have. But yeah, you know, kind of putting something out. This didn’t work. anyone see some kind of collectively as a community in a way? Looking at me, like, what, how could that have worked? Where did it go wrong? type stuff? Yeah. It is. Nature being a digital PR, right? If things were guaranteed, and we were always going to have success, then it’s not quite what Google in search engines. So yeah, is more important with small declines as well.

Laura
Yeah, definitely. I guess it’s, it’s a balance, isn’t it, of kind of recognizing that sometimes things don’t go particularly well. But also, I guess your to your point about social media and about shouting about successes, it’s something that we do very well as an industry, which makes sense, because we’re all PR, so we’re PR in ourselves, but equally kind of framing the content that we see on social media and our own minds. And just remembering that it is a sales tool, it is it is a positive tool. And it should be used as a place to gather inspiration. But it shouldn’t necessarily be something that you compare yourself to all the time. And that we recognize that our own journeys might be quite different to other people’s

Darren
very much. Obviously, we want to try and optimize this success, right. And that’s kind of our job. But the last thing is, if it happens for a smaller client that have a smaller budget, then you have the you have to try and find other ways that you’re writing value a lot of the time that is just a way that you can communicate what you’ve been doing, making sure that is essentially as transparent and clear. And it made sense as possible. And I think you you gain a lot of trust. From the clients that you’re working with, obviously, they do want results in their businesses, small businesses, so they rely on the success of a project to a degree, but if you can try and either split out tactics or something like that, that’s typically what we what we might try and do in those kinds of situations. So it’s not kind of all relying on one big creative campaign, but we might have a small campaign or comments that we go out with in order to try and minimize productive minimize product. Or more on the reactive side of things as well, which gives you kind of more chances to convert into insert brand mentions and links. So, yeah, is it’s about planning. I think transparency is key there, for sure.

Laura
Absolutely. Love that. Thank you so much for sharing that insight. And, and in terms of kind of looking ahead that I guess we’ve mentioned a couple of times now, how you’ve been in the industry for a while, and you’ve seen it evolve to this point? Where do you see digital PR going in the future?

The Future of Digital PR

Darren
Now, yeah, for me, the fundamentals of what this is, you know, if what you didn’t used to be called Digital PR, there’s quite, I mean, you’ll know as well, but it felt like a digital PR became kind of an overriding description about the discipline in the last couple of years. Whereas historically, it was, you know, just called SEO, and then it was kind of SEO and content marketing. And now we’ve kind of got these free, these free silos, SEO, content marketing and digital PR, I feel like that’s just a separation of the foundations of your kind of what SEO, what improving organic performance is.

So although it started to peel away as a separate thing, I don’t feel like it’s going to really change in terms of what you’re trying to do. And that is create stories that get a brand, increase brand recognition, create a rhetoric around a brand search engine can see on trustworthy and read publications. So really, it’s just how you go about doing that. And there are there are various ways that you can change processes, those various ways that people do ideation or do that production and things like that. I think it’s been over the last couple of years a bit of a shift away from, like, infographics and to just get back to doing things in more creative ways. So using photography, and you know, sliders and things like that, that we’ve used in the past that cut a give a bit, they change the engagement of a piece, quicker to one standard proof and to get the hook across.

So I think it’ll just be a bit more of a transition towards those those sorts of campaigns. But fundamentally, we’re all pretty much trying to do the same thing to get our clients and our brands out there.

Laura
Yeah, for sure. It’s It’s funny how it’s changed over the years, isn’t it and like you say, originally was just called SEO. And I definitely remember the days where all you really had to do was create an infographic and you’d get all the links in the world because so few people were doing it, and then it almost became like it was saturated. Everyone just knew if I make an infographic, then this will work. And I think we’ve definitely evolved to a point where we’re much more creative and much more diverse in the campaigns that we put out there. And I guess much more. The point that you make around rhetorics, and around kind of storytelling, I think is really pertinent as well, because for me, the way that I see the future evolving is that we’ll be doing more to help spread important messages, maybe even to mobilize behaviors amongst audiences. But it’s definitely a growing industry. And one that’s really exciting to be a part of.

Darren
Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I mean, obviously, lockdown has been that loads of companies are focusing on how now today, they focus on their kind of digital presence, right? People can’t walk in the door as much they’re at home, they’re ordering things, and to what degree that’s going to change over the next 1224 months. Who knows, it’s not going to be 100% a shift back to what it was. Yeah, even if it’s 50% that’s, that’s, that’s a massive shift for the law and towards digital. So people get they’re very much trying to get their, their their stuff together. Yeah, and push themselves in into being competitive where from all sppc where for a lot less search for less social, etc, etc. So, our industry, I think it’s gonna, gonna continue to grow.

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