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What is the future of digital marketing? What skills will be required for the successful digital marketer? Mike Moran asked a similar question on this blog two weeks ago: Are you turning your marketing into PR? Back in the early days (circa 2004), my colleagues and I debated which function should “own” social media. As the head of global public relations, I thought it was crystal clear: the public relations function was best suited, because our strengths were in creating two-way conversations and managing risk. Not surprisingly, my marketing colleagues thought differently. Our CMO, perhaps a bit diplomatically but maybe also a bit prophetically, viewed the two disciplines as “merging.” As we look into our crystal ball, what do we see for digital marketing and PR?

It’s a great question. We’ve had eight years – centuries in Internet time – to figure it out, but I’m not sure we’re much closer to agreement. That’s largely because we’re moving at such a rapid pace. Since 2004, digital marketing has evolved to include not just Web sites and SEO, but social media, content marketing, newsjacking, online PR, customer service, video, audio, blogs, microblogs, Tumblr, Pinterest and the list goes on. Digital pervades everything, including traditional marketing, which it is threatening to subsume.

A couple of years ago, I was speaking to the head of marketing for a major brand. She blithely told me: “Social media is just another bow in our marketing quiver.”

This was shortly after I met Dick Martin, former executive vice president of public relations, employee communications, and brand management for AT&T. At a roundtable discussion promoting his latest book, Secrets of the Marketing Masters, Dick noted that the future leaders of marketing organizations could be tapped from the PR function. He cited three CMOs of global corporations who had backgrounds in PR: Beth Comstock at GE, Jon Iwata at IBM, and Mich Mathews at Microsoft (who has since retired).

In his book, Martin asks: “Is combining PR and marketing a trend or is this just a coincidence?”

“None of the three [CMOs] think it’s a coincidence. Mich Mathews says the skills she developed in a twenty-year career in PR prepared her well to take on a broadened marketing role.”

Likewise, Mary Lee Sachs, author of “The New MO of the CMO,” has argued that the silo busting has begun. “PR professionals are in the strongest position ever to take on an even more important role in their organizations given our comfort in engaging with a wide variety of audiences, encouraging dialogue, navigating unknown territories and managing through issues.”

The bulk of my career has been spent as a journalist and a PR pro, with a few marketing stints interspersed. I believe that PR and journalism skills will be required skills for future marketers. The impact of social on marketing is similar to the impact that the Web had on marketing. Fundamental change is underway; the buying cycle has changed and marketers need to think not outside the box, but outside the organization. They need to be inside the heads of customers, prospects, employees, advocacy groups, investors and myriad other stakeholders. They need to see the bigger picture.

In short, they need to think like PR people.

Here are three public relations skills that digital marketers need to master.

  • Relationship building. Digital marketing is no longer about short-term, one to many campaigns. It’s about building a long-term relationship through dialogue with your stakeholders: customers, prospects, media, shareholders, etc. We can no longer look at a single ad and say, it’s not working – pull it. Developing influence takes time – and many conversations.
  • Storytelling. Cute and clever slogans aren’t enough. Listing features and functionality no longer cuts it. Substance is king. Whether it’s a video that helps a customer solve a problem or a blog post that puts perspective on larger trends, creating content that is credible, backed by facts and offers novel insights – while still being subtly influential – is the new advertising. And this is the PR pro’s special domain.
  • Risk management. This is not simply about a random assault on your brand, it’s also about putting safeguards in place to make sure you aren’t your own worst enemy. Will that viral campaign you’re putting together violate someone else’s copyright? Their privacy? How do you respond to comments online? What’s the best tone, the best line to walk?

New skills are also required for PR pros to succeed in this new world. As Sachs says, “We are less-versed in traditional marketing disciplines and terminology.”

So, here are three marketing skills that PR pros need to master.

  • SEO. If a piece of great content is published on a Web site, and it doesn’t show up in search results, does it still make a sound? Perhaps the most jolting comment I heard in the last year is that PR pros should ditch the much-revered Stylebook. Since then, I’ve noticed how often my search terms violate the rules.
  • Data and Analytics. Very few PR pros like math, but using metrics to drive marketing strategy is a core skill and growing ever more important. Big data will add a new layer of complexity as we increasingly market in context to a party of one.
  • The Marketing Funnel. A deep understanding of the stages that a potential customer travels through during the journey to a buying decision defines the type of content that needs to be produced at each stage. This is beyond understanding the target audience. It’s understanding them at a specific point in time.

The future of digital marketing means that PR and marketing need to embrace each other.

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Diane Thieke

About Diane Thieke

Diane S. Thieke is a professional communicator with a gigantic passion for language and the ways in which human beings use it to connect with and understand each other. She firmly believes that the Internet is the greatest disruptive event in communication since the invention of the printing press, which explains her obsession with brand journalism and the current revolution in news.

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