“Direct response” is a form of advertising that prompts the customer to take immediate action. Examples include text messaging, email blasts, display advertising, direct mail and catalogue distribution, classifieds, and some kinds of outdoor advertising.

Direct response can be alternatively grouped with or related to database marketing, performance marketing, and outbound marketing, although subtleties differentiate each. Marketers love to argue about this stuff; for non-marketers however, don’t sweat the difference. Think: stuff that makes you do something, not think something.

The old adage is that “PR is about credibility, whereas advertising is about visibility.” That is, PR is indirect marketing.  One of the biggest mistakes any founder or marketer can make is to confuse one with the other.  

PR is about making people think something first, and do something second.

Old school PR people work perhaps too hard to protect PR from any notion of measurable external effects, arguing that the discipline’s value can never be properly represented by a spreadsheet, or a dollar sign. That mentality has done us more modern folk a disservice.

It is pretty easy to measure PR these days, for the record. With a sufficiently sophisticated team, you can (and should) tie PR directly to upstream KPIs, within an acceptable margin of error.

However, it is still true that PR’s greatest strengths include introducing new concepts, validating pre-existing opinions, operating against bias, creating confidence in a given purchasing decision, and more.

PR absolutely, positively throws off a by-product of “direct response”. A well-placed article with the right messages will prompt readers to visit your website, download your app, sign up for your webinar, and more.  But it’s still byproduct.

Direct response sits one or two levels of abstraction beyond PR’s primary goal. I sign up for the webinar or I download the app because of the endorsement of a particular publisher and my long standing trust in them – PR in this case de-risked your product, making it easier to advocate for it internally. Similarly, I join a webinar because my colleagues and I have made a given technology a budgetary priority based on rhetoric first shepherded by PR.

Here’s another example of indirect benefits. PR exerts a lot of influence in “dark social” media. A bold, insightful thought piece in the Economist from a subject matter expert gets emailed around by CEOs and their staffs, printed out (yes, printed) and discussed in meetings in a way that no share button can ever accommodate.

Great PR messages in this sense are designed for reproducibility, and all the better if the consumer of that messaging plagiarizes it later. If I think something emphatically enough, I may cease to realize that there was a point in time when I didn’t think it, or think of it.

Today’s emphasis on acquisition metrics risks the mistake that PR’s success can be a leading indicator, or a direct cause of top-line growth.

If you need visibility (eyeballs, at scale), PR is disproportionately expensive and time-consuming on a per-click or per-action basis, and it always will be. It’s impossible in contrast to put a price on an inbound acquisition offer from Apple or an enthusiastic introduction to a new customer.

When you try to make PR direct response, or expect to judge PR based on direct response, you miss the opportunity altogether.

It’s the stuff that goes on between my ears that marketers aspire to influence most. That’s the most expensive real estate on planet Earth.

Our current thinking at JDI that PR is “bring your own audience” to turn a phrase. This position is we hope soothing to the tension marketers feel between the accountability of “direct” methods (dilutive, cheap, infinite, with no middleman involved) and the transformative potential of “indirect” methods (additive, expensive, finite, via a powerful middleman).

If you assume an incredible PR result, the platonic form of an article about your company (for example this NPR piece about our client Cerego) replicating that same article time and time again is a near-impossible assignment. 

Rather, after its organic gifts cease arriving, the marketer’s goal becomes to shepherd multiples of that audience to the same article with subsequent (usually paid) campaigning.

Quality trumps all; one amazing PR result beats dozens of mediocre ones because you can “just add quantity” later. You can amplify the effects of PR with growth-oriented “direct response” techniques post-facto.

In fact, that’s precisely the “hybrid” strategy we marketers advocate when we get together at meetups and conferences – the best of both worlds. There are dozens of imaginative ways to take such an approach.

Another very easy example is placing the logos of “hero” publishers who have written about your company (with links to the source articles) on your homepage, which we have observed to meaningfully increase time on site and conversion percentages. PR can be a gift that keeps on giving if you’re clever enough to manifest its effects throughout your efforts, cross-departmentally.

The lesson?

At the outset, let PR do what PR is best at doing. Let PR play to its strengths. Otherwise you overexert and overpay, and you miss a huge opportunity in the process. Give PR the mandate to create and exert influence, and it will.

Don’t ask PR to create direct responses. Rather, repurpose PR results for and in direct response campaigns after the fact, as a way to gather more fruit from the same tree. That 1-2 punch is powerful.