A Freedom of Information request constructed out of uniform questions with measurable answers can build content that earns press coverage on a large scale, both geographically and across the various news topics it can cover.
The Freedom of Information Act enables any member of the public to uncover information that otherwise may not have been released to the public.
The law applies to more than 100,000 public bodies in the United Kingdom, meaning there are lots of stories out there to be told by using the law to access data.
In this post I’ll talk through various aspects of using the UK’s Freedom of Information Act as part of a content and outreach strategy that is built for earning links via press coverage, including:
What the FOI Act is
Where to find inspiration for stories
Tips on requesting the right information
Some pitfalls to avoid
1. What is the Freedom of Information Act?
Introduced in the UK in 2000, it is the right to know information about publicly owned organisations. The Act places two main responsibilities on those public authorities: a) to confirm whether they hold information, and b) to disclose that information to the person who asked for it.
Some bodies that you might expect to be covered by the Act are exempt. These include housing associations for the most part, security bodies such as MI5, and the royal family – so you won’t be able to find out how much of the taxpayer’s money the queen spends on her breakfast anytime soon.
Despite their public status, it’s also tricky to obtain anything especially useful from the BBC, as most of their interesting data seems to be protected internally “for the purposes of journalism, art or literature”.
The FOI Act also committed public authorities to regular publication schemes, meaning organisations now publish information much more proactively than they did before. This may not seem as valuable as asking for exclusive information yourself, but it’s surprising how much useful data these publications can already provide, without having to send a request. Take a look at the UK Police Force’s open data portal, for example, and you’ll already find crime data regularly published at a constabulary level.
2. Where to find inspiration for stories
If you send a quick general enquiry email to the first public organisation that you can think of, you might be disappointed to find that your request was rejected after waiting 20 working days for a response. Take a look at some of the below recommendations, which will provide inspiration for potential stories, and possibly be able to tell you if the information you seek is available at all.
Some organisations, such as the Office for National Statistics, will publish FOI requests that were made to them and responded to directly on their website. For those that don’t, WhatDoTheyKnow is the most useful way of accessing previous requests made to UK organisations.
Study examples that did and didn’t work by filtering your search by ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ requests. Doing so will potentially save you a lot of time with having to clarify your FOI request further down the line.
Another useful feature that was recently rolled out on this platform allows users to add any examples of their request being used in a news story as a citation. Look out for these citations, as they can help to inform your outreach strategy to a greater extent by seeing how certain FOI requests convert into news headlines.
WhatDoTheyKnow also allows you to make requests through their platform and includes a guide for beginners on how to request information. Requests can also be made through your own company email address or private email address.
Google News search: “Freedom of information”
When seeking inspiration for stories, sometimes a simple Google search can be just as useful as pouring through the specifics of WhatDoTheyKnow. Type in “freedom of information” and browse through the many ways in which UK and international journalists are utilising the law to produce public interest news stories.
Taking the time to read these articles from top to bottom will also show how many metrics journalists may report on for a particular type of story, as well as showing the kinds of spokespeople you can seek out within that sector to comment on your findings later on.
Doing this also presents the potential to scale up an interesting local story into something national that can be compared across different parts of the country. Did the Manchester Evening News publish their own FOI-led story about car parking fines? There’s a good chance that if it makes headlines in Manchester, a similar piece will make headlines elsewhere too.
The organisation’s website
If you have an organisation in mind, but you’re not sure whether they hold the information you want, take the time to browse through its website; specifically their services, publications and type of user data they retrieve. By the time you’ve read through these sections you will have a much better idea of what data you could ask for, and how this could convert into an idea for a story.
For example, OFCOM are one organisation covered by the Freedom of Information Act, and if you didn’t know what they do already, it doesn’t take long to see from their website that you can access data about public complaints related to TV, radio and other UK broadcasting services.
The BBC Shared Data Unit
The BBC Shared Data Unit is a nationwide partnership between the BBC and News Media Association that previously won ‘Editorial Innovation of the Year’ at The Drum Online Media Awards. It is dedicated to sharpening the data skills of journalists in local newsrooms around the UK and producing stories that work at scale for various regional and local titles.
Much of their data work is sourced from FOI requests, and, similar to how Digital PR campaigns aim to include angles that appeal to as many newspapers as possible, the Shared Data Unit is an excellent example of how to produce a story that resonates throughout the UK by picking out the angles from a larger dataset to make them work for local readerships. Here is one of my favourite examples of theirs:
A story that found British football matches were being heavily over-policed at a significant financial cost to the taxpayer. The journalists behind this story compared information that they requested of police constabularies around the country with match attendance data from Opta, allowing them to rank ‘number of fans per officer’. It went on to generate 18 unique pieces of coverage in different newspapers within six days – not bad, considering Digital PR isn’t their game!
Like all good data storytelling, the Shared Data Unit is transparent with its methodologies and data. I would recommend reading through these if you’re just starting out on a larger FOI project for the first time, to see how they go about their process, from research and data interpretation, right through to execution and coverage.
3. Tips on requesting information
Think like a: marketer investigative journalist curious citizen
Understanding what kind of information you can obtain doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in coming up with ideas for data-led stories. Neither does it mean that you have to be wearing a Pulitzer prize-winning cap in the hope of exposing the next great national scandal.
Some of the most effective FOI-led stories ask straightforward questions that the average citizen would be concerned with knowing and reading about, and which the person managing your request can easily interpret to collect data from their organisation.
Simplicity with this in mind is important. While it’s noble to try to expose a brand new category of information from a public organisation that hasn’t been released before, the time constraints of your campaign’s production may risk leading you to spend more time contesting complicated and unsuccessful requests with the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) instead of gathering straightforward, consistent data.
If you’ve already committed to the sign-off and kick-off of your idea without sending any test requests, then general enquiries or ‘fishing’ for information that you’re unsure is held shouldn’t be making up the crux of your FOI request at this point.
Including a speculative question alongside a set of questions that you know will be answered would at least guarantee that the majority of your request will be fruitful.
Whereas tentatively fishing for unknown types of information and expecting completely useable answers can easily end in wasted time and resources on your side and on the organisation’s side. More on this further down in the ‘potential pitfalls’.
Scale it geographically
Typically, FOI-led stories about UK organisations are less likely to appeal to non-UK journalists or publications.
You need to consider how many organisations need to be contacted in order to produce a comprehensive story, and whether the work you put in will even deliver a large enough pool of outreach prospects.
Taking your FOI requests global (i.e. contacting organisations outside of the UK) will add a new layer of complexity to your research, which I won’t cover in this post. For more information on how you can work with FOI laws in other countries, click here.
A campaign we produced for Admiral in 2019 and 2021 looked at the scale of the empty homes crisis in Britain, and provided us with perhaps the most granular list of UK-based outreach prospects that we could hope for.
The housing crisis, of which empty homes are a symptom, is engulfing the whole country. Therefore it was necessary to ask every British council for the same information in order to be able to compare the luxury districts of London and holiday home hotspots of Cornwall to other parts of Britain.
You don’t necessarily need to contact every council for every idea that considers information from them. This campaign produced by CompareMyMove looked at where in the UK registered the most noise complaints, and decided to focus on the most populated towns and cities. For an idea that ranked noise, focussing on places where a lot of people live made sense and didn’t necessarily require more rural (and typically quieter) districts to be considered.
You will find some organisations only have one central contact that stores all of its localised data, which means you would only need to ask for the same data once and specify that it should be broken down locally.
Some of the coverage from our Testing Times campaign for GoCompare leaned on an FOI response to our question on ‘multiple testers’ (i.e. those who need 5 or more attempts to pass), as well as open data from the Dept. for Transport and a survey that revealed demographic and geographic breakdowns of claims and convictions.
To reveal the hardest test centres for passing a driving test, the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) held this information centrally, meaning we obtained all of the local data we needed from a single FOI request.
Scale it with data points
A common method in campaigns built for link building and digital PR is to rank different metrics related to locations that are covered by news publishers. This presents the opportunity to outreach to those publishers and acknowledge that their locality ranks particularly high or low on certain measures.
While an FOI-led analysis that compares different locations on certain measures will still reveal the highest and lowest ranks in the same way, you can also build out a comprehensive story that works for all of the locations that you are including in your dataset by considering ‘the state of play’ in those areas.
For example, the TV Tribulations campaign that we created for Buzz Bingo analysed complaints made to OFCOM and revealed which parts of the UK complain about television shows the most.
Even newspapers based in locations that didn’t rank highly on a national level were able to cover the campaign as we were able to provide data on their 10 most complained-about TV shows, plus how many complaints were made by that area over a given time period. It didn’t matter whether or not they were the highest ranking in the UK.
And in terms of outreach prospects, the data points were able to be split in a way that appealed to different sectors as well as different regions. Digging into the raw data of our TV complaints allowed us to reveal ‘the most complained-about radio show’ as well as ‘the most complained-about sports teams’.
Once you’re confident that your data is available, you can ask a number of related questions that will make for a more comprehensive dataset, and which may include outliers that wouldn’t have been discovered by only asking one broad question.
For example, depending on how sensitive the information is, you may be able to ask for more specific street-level figures rather than just a figure for an entire local authority, as we did in this GoCompare campaign called Speed Offences. This told us which roads record the most speeding offences per year (locally and nationally). Again, doing this creates an interesting story to be told for every locality, not just the outliers.
Other angles we built into this campaign included: the highest speeding offences recorded and the worst months for speeding, simply by asking for specific breakdowns.
4. Potential pitfalls
Check for ambiguity
Accurate language is essential when crafting an FOI request.
If your request isn’t clear, it can be the difference between receiving the information you need in 40 working days rather than 20 days (after you’ve had to provide a clarification), or never.
If your request is misinterpreted and you receive the wrong kind of data, it may well be unusable and require a second request anyway.
Word the request exactly how you want the information to be delivered to you.
Describe how it should be measured, what period of time you would like it to be for, and how that time period should be split (daily, monthly, yearly?).
Oh, and specify the format. The last thing you need when compiling your responses are more than 400 councils replying with PDFs and Word Docs of data.
Consider the cost and limitations
This might seem slightly contradictory to what I mentioned about scaling up the number of angles you want to include, but you should consider the limitations of the FOI Act.
The cost limit of a request is £600 (equivalent to 24 hours of work) from a central government department, and £450 from local authorities (equivalent to 18 hours of work).
If your request is estimated by the organisation to exceed what is known as the “appropriate limit”, certain sections of the request will be refused. If your request consists of one or two questions that demand substantial work, the request may be refused outright.
If you know the data you are asking for is recorded by them, or better yet, you have done your research and seen evidence of it being published already, then the work involved in retrieving the data should fall within the cost limit.
There are more exemptions that apply to the Act, which you can read about here.
Plan ahead by sending a tester email
An FOI-led campaign can be quite a time commitment. Planning further ahead by sending an email to an organisation that asks if they have the information available is a useful step for if you want to uncover a more unique story that hasn’t been published before, but which you suspect is available from them.
Taking a longer term approach to this method of research will also give you an idea of how reliable certain organisations are in responding on time. Regardless of how much you do test in advance, a 100% response rate is unlikely to arrive within the 20-working day period that it’s supposed to.
The example below from the ICO shows that between October 2018 and September 2020, Northamptonshire Police only managed to answer a maximum of 66% of their requests on time in a single calendar month.
Sending testers further ahead would also help for you to gauge whether the information you seek is consistently measured by similar organisations. An email to a handful of universities, for example, should tell you if they record certain data on their students in the same way, before you embark on a full investigation.
Be proactive in monitoring your responses
You’re probably blessed with more research time than the average online journalist, who is busy producing upwards of eight or more articles per day. This means that your FOI-led story could be something they wouldn’t have had the capacity to produce themselves.
Equally, you’re almost certainly not blessed with as much time and autonomy as an investigative journalist, who can press the ICO for months until they receive their satisfactory response, and it’s important to remember this during the process.
Say you’ve embarked on a round-robin FOI request, and contacted all 130 UK Universities in the UK. There’s a reasonably high chance that at least a handful of them will misinterpret your request, seek clarification, or respond beyond the 20-working day timeframe — in this case, you’d be relying on at least 130 different people to get back to you with the same information in the same format.
In the interests of deadlines, sometimes you have to cut your losses on the information that didn’t arrive. At the same time, you need to closely monitor the story that is accumulating in front of you, and decide whether there is a story there at all.
Generally speaking, a two-thirds rule of responses with consistent data would be adequate for producing an analysis of UK Universities, with clarification of how many didn’t respond, but it really does depend on what you’re comparing and what the sample size of organisations is. The data that is missing could well be more valuable in constructing a story than the data that you did receive.
Seek comments and anticipate a PR response
By its very definition, the data that you’re dealing with is authoritative and within the public interest, so don”t be surprised when organisations and public figures acknowledge it and often respond to it when it concerns them. Below is one notable recent example…
But responses are often concerned with more serious topics of public interest, such as when our empty homes valuation was quoted by a local property agent when commenting on Aberdeen’s local housing issues.
Since releasing FOI-led stories and following the news coverage they receive, we’ve dealt with phone calls from a number of press offices, including NHS Trusts, councils and cultural institutions, all of whom have wanted to find out more about the data they originally sent to us.
If the main headlines that emerge from your data can be attributed to an individual or a small number of organisations, then it’s worth reaching out to them to comment. Even though a journalist will typically contact the public organisations to comment before publishing their story, doing this yourself adds valuable context and commentary to your research.
Why is your brand doing this?
This is a question that should be asked of any potential idea that is going to be published and outreached for your clients.
In the case of FOI requests, as soon as you produce content that is built on information from public bodies and take those stories to the press, the brand you’re outreaching for is influencing the reputation of other people and organisations.
Some topics may seem relevant enough to approach from a storytelling perspective in order to earn coverage for a client, but public data is sensitive and often gets politicised.
The client that you work with should be made aware of potential backlashes to an FOI-led story before an idea is deemed appropriate for them.
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
5 of my favourite data viz talks from Outlier 2021
I was given the opportunity to attend the inaugural Outlier 2021 conference hosted by the Data Visualization Society. It featured 41 inspirational talks given by people who work across different industries, each with unique and varying levels of experience in their data visualisation specialisms.
There were so many talks to choose from, but I’ve narrowed down five that will help to reframe how you think about the process of creating impactful data visuals.
1. How do we translate cultural experiences into data stories?
The talented team at Kontinentalist create engaging data stories that unpack cultural experiences to gain a better understanding of cultural trends.
In their talk, I learnt the following tips to create a compelling data story that translates other cultures:
Find an angle that is proudly niche
If you are translating your own cultural experience, do it with pride and communicate it with an urgency that suggests if you don’t tell your story about your experiences then other people won’t be able to either.
Explore a particular angle of interest in-depth, rather than being too wide-ranging in exploring a number of angles at surface level.
This can be something as simple as introducing one lesser-known artefact or phenomenon from your culture and communicating it in a way that educates and informs a wider audience from outside of your culture.
Unpack diversity within your angles to explain how certain phenomena are experienced within that culture.
In this example, chillis provided an excellent window for exploring Asian cuisines and the influence that chillis have upon many dishes.
The author began his analysis by asking ‘was spicy food popular in Asia?’. But the yes-no nature of the question provided added complications to finding a definitive answer to something not comprehensively documented, so he refined his analysis to explore ‘what ways spiciness – in particular, chillis – were experienced in Asia’, which was more open-ended and allowed for unpacking the answers in a less binary fashion.
It’s a common myth that the Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong mostly wears pink shirts. After collecting data on all the shirt colours he’d worn during PM speeches it was revealed that his most commonly worn colour was actually white.
Quantify the intangible
Some cultural phenomena might have a concept that is quantifiable (e.g. the popularity of different noodle brands).
But even if there isn’t an obvious quantifiable metric, you can translate the qualitative stuff by providing a rich visual experience via maps, audio or illustrations to convey the theme, atmosphere and cultural significance of your story’s topic.
In the below example, colours were used to convey the different dimensions of flavour used in Asian cuisine. Additionally a packed circle chart was used to visualise common ingredients in chilli dishes with chords connecting circled ingredients that go well together.
Balance accuracy and understanding to ensure that the data is well presented and easy to understand.
The above visualisation of ‘ingredients that go with chilli’ is actually a condensed version of more than 100 different bubbles that had to be indexed on a scale of between 1 to 9 flavours (such as ‘sweet and sour’).
While this is a less accurate representation of the very distinct flavours that exist within these many ingredient combinations, the authors felt this struck the right balance between beauty and simplicity. They were able to provide more detail through the illustrations and text boxes that more curious readers could explore.
Providing a clear and transparent methodology and documenting every step of the process behind how you arrived at your visualisations will help balance accuracy with understanding for your audience even more.
Find a common ground
It can be easy to over-explain when trying to tell a story about one culture to an audience outside of that culture.
Here, they recommend anchoring the angle of the cultural experience that you’re trying to analyse to a more universal sentiment.
In the talk, they used an example of relating the cultural tradition of new year fortune telling to people’s universal anxiety about the future and our well wishes for loved ones, or of the popularity of instant noodles in Asia to every culture’s respective love for certain comfort foods.
2. 3D Geo DataViz: From Insight to Data-Art
Hosted by Craig Taylor (Senior Data Visualisation Design Manager, Ito World)
Craig and his team at Ito World create narrative-driven and cinematic-looking 3D visualisations.
Craig’s talk focused on how he and his team create insight-driven visualisations that reveal how the systems we interact with impact our lives. In his talk, he explained that producing this type of visualisation requires that you:
Include granular data, since it yields more interesting results. For example, for Ito World’s project Transit In Motion, the dataset for New York City included 14.8 million locations recorded per day, 4,488 unique bus trips, and 2GB of CSV files.
Focus on the patterns that your data is creating over time. For Transit in Emotion, this involved analysing the volume of transit usage over the period of one month.
Make your visualisation’s designabstract to highlight the rhythm of your data over time. In the past, Craig has used a variety of spheres, cuboids, and meshes to portray what city-wide transit in motion looks like.
If you’re interested in making 3D data art, Houdini and Blender (which is free) are recommended.
3. DataViz, the Unempathetic Art
Hosted by Mushon Zer Aviv
Mushon is a Tel Aviv based designer, researcher, educator, and media activist. His talk highlighted how data viz can lack empathy, and takes inspiration from the following quote:
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
— Mother Teresa
To ensure that your work is empathetic, Mushin says you must be aware of:
Dark data viz, which risks tone-deafness and minimising important topics.
In 2015, Mathew Lucas produced a series of infographics showing the impact of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Although the graphics were visually pleasing, this data viz also sparked debate, with some questioning how design should be used to aestheticise a horrific event.
How an appeal to empathy can be misleading
Mushon cites Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom who says empathy often shines a spotlight on the individual and can be biased towards those who look like us. We find it easier to empathise with individuals, not with the masses.
He also references a study from Paul Slovic in the talk, which further illustrates this idea with what he calls ‘statistical numbing’ whereby audiences seem to empathise more with individuals than with larger groups.
In Slovic’s research he found that charity donations in response to descriptions about identifiable individuals earned more than double the donation value in response to descriptions about statistical lives (i.e. groups of individuals that weren’t personally identifiable). Sadly, the value of donations even decreased when statistics were presented alongside individual descriptions in the story.
Affectiveempathy vs cognitive empathy
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, affective empathy, which is rooted in emotion, means that you’re able to feel the same emotion or feel your own distress in response to another’s pain.
Cognitive empathy, which is more rational, means that you’re able to understand someone’s perspective or imagine what it’s like in another person’s shoes.
Muson relates these two types of empathy to Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between two ways of thinking:
Tier 1thinking: thinking automatically, quickly, with little or no effort and sense of voluntary control. Tier 2thinking: allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. These type of operations are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.
It is said that Tier 2 often contextualises the thinking of Tier 1 to inform a person’s decision-making. In visualisation, the pre-attentive attributes (below) are how we use vision to communicate between Tier 1 and Tier 2. So here Mushon asks ‘can we think of empathy as an additional pre-attentive attribute for visualisations?’ because we do not get to control or rationalise it, but it can inform our more deliberate decisions.
How to scale compassion by appealing to both types of empathy
The above image is a powerful visualisation of gun deaths in America during a single year. It begins by illustrating the life arc of one person being cut in the middle vs how many more years they could have lived for.
Focussing on a single individual’s life being cut short appeals to the viewer’s affective empathy or tier 1 thinking, aka the more emotional response, before the impact of another 11,422 deaths are visualised in the same manner as below.
Raising awareness is not enough
Data visualisations have the power to explore and explain important stories about the world.
However, it’s not enough to just say something is wrong with the world. If we have built that message well, then we should also direct that message towards the path of change and actionable insights.
4. Data points are people too
Hosted by Bronwen Robertson, Joachim Mangilima, Saja Othman, Zdeněk Hynek
Data4Change is a non-profit organisation based in London that connects social change organisations with designers, journalists, and technologists to collaboratively create data-driven solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems. This talk focused on many of their projects which have helped to deliver change in countries around the world.
An example of this is ‘A Bride With A Doll‘, which focused on the issue of child marriage. The team designed a workshop kit and a storybook that could be read from both directions, reflecting emotional experiences, based on data insights from the community.
5. Mind Games: The psychology behind designing beautiful, effective, and impactful data viz
Hosted by Amy Alberts (Senior Director, User Research, Tableau)
This talk outlined practical guidelines which can help you predict where people look at certain parts of data viz – for example, jagged lines and bar graphs are effective at drawing the user’s attention.
Amy’s team at Tableau have previously employed eye-trackingsoftware to discover where people were focusing, gaze plots to qualitatively and quantitatively show where the eye is fixated, heatmaps to show areas of high visual tension, and gaze opacity maps to highlight areas that people give less attention.
According to their findings, the biggest attention grabbers in data visualisation are:
BANS (Big Ass Numbers) – Our eyes are drawn to large visual elements such as big text. Below is a gaze opacity map of a dashboard with big numbers.
Colour – Visual contrast relative to other areas generates attention.
Humans and maps – Our brains are hardwired to notice other humans, so when we see human-like figures in visualisations, we are automatically drawn to them. If maps and humans are relevant to your data, it is worth capitalising on this to draw attention.
Design with intent and be mindful of the context that you control. Use clear titles and high contrast elements, ethically making use of the psychological phenomenon known as the priming effect. This will help to ensure that your audience clearly understand the story that you are trying to tell with your data.
The Outlier conference was incredibly informative and packed with so much knowledge about how to create culturally relevant, socially aware content that’s also visually impressive and effective in communicating concepts.
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
8 reasons you should be sending follow-up outreach emails
To follow up or not to follow up? That is the question. But it’s an easy one to answer – yes, absolutely. And here’s why.
I am a firm believer in the efficiency of follow-up emails and will use this blog post to convince you to become a fellow believer – a foleiver if you will. I’ll give you eight reasons why I think sending chaser emails is worth your time. These are entirely empirical and based on my (and some of my teammates’) personal experience.
Why someone might try to convince you not to follow up (and why you should ignore them)
First, let’s tackle arguments against follow-ups that you might stumble across, which could lead you to believe they are a waste of time.
The simplest argument to accept is that follow-ups are annoying and pushy. To a certain extent, they are.
As PRs, we’re constantly reminded of how inundated a journalist’s inbox is with press releases and pitches from nagging PRs and as a former journalist, I can definitely relate. But sending pitches and press releases is literally the job of a PR, and follow-ups are not annoying for the grateful journalist who ends up using the story.
However, there are a select few who don’t like follow-ups, and these journalists will normally not be shy about letting you know. If you do come across someone expressing they don’t want to receive follow-ups, take note of it and do as they ask. Simples. It’s not worth risking your relationship with them.
Other anti-follow-uppers might suggest that follow-ups are pointless, arguing that if your email didn’t pique the journalist’s interest the first time around, it won’t the second time either. That’s not necessarily true, and you can refer to reasons one to eight (yes, that’s all of them) below for clarification.
Another reason could be that if the journalist is interested, they will write it up or get back to you regardless. In some cases, you could be lucky enough to hit a home run straight away if your headline and pitch is strong or you targeted a journalist who would be more likely to cover the topic, but by not following up to all those other journalists, you are massively missing out on untapped potential.
So, as promised, here are all the reasons why you should bother following up on your original pitch.
Why follow-up emails are worth it
Follow-ups lead to more responses
Fact. In my experience, journalists are much more likely to respond to me in my follow-up email than in my initial one. In a sample of 600 emails I sent recently, I received a response for 20 of them when following up. Now, this might not sound like a lot, but it’s 20 responses I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t chase.
Admittedly, a few of them were to tell me they are not interested in the story or asked me to please take them off my email list (always a joy) but at least they responded. This gave me an opportunity to evolve the conversation, ask why they weren’t interested, if a different angle might work better, or if someone else in the team would give me better luck.
But crucially, some of these responses, and ultimately some of these follow-ups, lead to coverage – which brings me onto my next point.
Follow-ups lead to more coverage
You might strike gold with your first email and land linked coverage straight away, but that’s no excuse not to send follow-ups and maximise the potential for more linked articles.
Below are six examples of coverage I secured in the past 12 months that came about as a result of me chasing the journalist.
In the above example, the client’s name and research was mentioned in the weekly New York Times DealBook newsletter and associated article. The journalist claimed to have not seen my first email and thanked me for following up.
This was another classic example of the journalist missing my initial email, but a gentle reminder led to the first open, resulting in an excellent piece of coverage that is highly relevant for the client.
Here we have the example of one of the journalists I chased not being interested in the story, but then forwarding it onto someone else in his team who he thought might find it worth covering. That journalist then got back in touch asking for more information, resulting in this juicy piece of coverage.
Getting links for a travel client in the peak of the pandemic in the UK was a struggle to say the least, so this coverage actually took two follow-ups to get through. Proof that being ‘pushy and annoying’ (or simply being persistent) can pay off.
The final example is to demonstrate how contacting a journalist on the wrong day can have a huge impact on the potential for coverage. I initially reached out to the writer on a Friday – yes, I know this isn’t the ideal day to pitch – and my email slipped through the cracks. But when I followed up the following Tuesday, he was thankful that I had reminded him about it and he ended up covering it.
Largely what the above examples demonstrate is that without following up, a journalist can easily forget about you and your story from the first round of pitching…
Follow-ups remind journalists that you (and the story) exist
Because journalists receive such an overwhelming amount of email pitches on a daily basis, standing out with your subject line just one time isn’t enough. The journalist might not bother reading it, miss it as they skim read hundreds of headlines, forget about it, or – worst of all – delete it.
A gentle nudge will not only put the email to the top of their inbox, but maximise the subject line’s exposure, potentially igniting something in the journalist’s subconscious that can result in coverage.
Follow-ups offer an opportunity to be more casual and friendly
A follow-up email can prove to the journalist that you’re an actual human being with resources. To emphasise this point, follow-ups are a great opportunity to be more friendly and casual than you were in your initial, formal pitch.
There’s no need to overdo it as you can still be approachable and precise at the same time. A simple ‘in case you missed this before the weekend, I’m reminding you of…’ will do the job. Or, if you’re following up with someone who has been out of the office, a simple nod to that such as ‘in case you missed this while catching up with emails after your time off’ will demonstrate that you’re paying attention.
Follow-ups offer an opportunity to learn about what the journalist covers, to receive feedback, or a lead for someone else to contact
In line with my first point of follow-ups leading to more responses, not all responses will be “thanks, I will be covering this”. A lot of the time, it will be “thank you, but I don’t cover this topic”, which at first might seem like a rejection, but is actually a prime opportunity to learn more about what the journalist actually covers. This will be invaluable information to have on hand for future outreach to this journalist.
While rejecting your pitch, the journalist might offer up a better person within their team to contact instead. This is an example of the journalist doing the prospecting for you, handing you an alternative contact on a silver plate – and it would be silly not to take it.
Some journalists also offer feedback on the topic or on your pitching style, both positive and negative. This can be insightful and help you hone your pitching skills and ability to reach your target audience.
Follow-ups offer an opportunity to give the journalist more information
Crucially, a follow-up email offers the opportunity to provide the journalist with additional information, which might sway whether they decide to cover it or not.
All those extra bits of information you chose to leave out in your initial pitch in order to keep it neat and succinct? Now’s the time to pull those out of the bag. This will make your follow-up email different to the original pitch, offering something new to the journalist.
Follow-ups can bypass spam folders
We’re now moving onto more of the ‘tips and tricks’ section of this post. In the Outreach team at Verve, we use an email scheduling programme called BuzzStream, which we find highly efficient and effective. Among many other functions, it allows us to send out a high volume of emails separated into the different publications we’re trying to contact. Crucially, it allows us to track the number of opens the emails we send out gets.
Recently, we’ve recognised a pattern when it comes to opens of automated emails with bigger publications; they’re all opened at the same time. This has led us to believe that the mail operators of the bigger newspapers have spam filters, meaning our emails never end up in the journalist’s inbox, or at the very least ends up in a dedicated spam or junk folder.
Doing manual follow-ups directly from your own mail operator can bypass this. I have examples of journalists from the likes of The Guardian, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, who claim to never have seen my initial email, and I believe them. Tracking the amount of opens the emails have in BuzzStream shows how there is a significant increase in opens after my first follow-up.
Note that it is the manual follow-up that takes the credit here – automated and bulk follow-ups might have the same results in terms of your email being considered spam.
Follow-ups can make journalists believe you’re already having a conversation
Another benefit of doing manual follow-ups directly from your email service is that it ‘tricks’ the journalist into thinking you’re having an ongoing conversation. When journalists see that there is an email trail, they might absentmindedly think you’re replying to an email they sent.
It’s borderline sneaky, and if they’re not interested in covering the topic, it might not lead to anything more. It will, however, likely lead to more exposure for your headline and pitch, which might lead to more coverage.
Hopefully my reasons for following up your pitches have convinced you that it’s worth your while. If you’ve taken the leap, below is a quick guide on how to send a good follow-up email.
Tips on how to follow up
Here are four tips on how to sharpen up your follow-ups.
Follow up manually and don’t bulk send
I’ve already touched on this in point seven and eight above, but I’m reiterating it here as I firmly believe doing follow-ups manually is hugely beneficial. Admittedly, it will take you longer, but I personally feel it is worth it.
Although I use BuzzStream to schedule emails for my initial pitches, I usually never do bulk sends. This is a personal preference as manually sending emails allows me to tweak the headline and intro to fit the journalist and publication better and to ensure I absolutely have the journalist’s name right.
The same principle applies to my approach to manually sending follow-ups; it allows me to be more personal, ensures I’m not following up while someone is out of the office (see more on this in tip four), and ultimately makes me feel more in control of what I’m sending out.
Avoid the word ‘just’
The word ‘just’ is frequently used in conversation, so it’s quick to think that adding it to your follow-up will instantly make it feel more casual. But using ‘just’ actually has the opposite effect as it lessens the importance of your request and undermines your importance as a spokesperson.
It’s as simple as leaving it out at the start of your message. So write “I’m following up to see if this was of interest or if you had any more questions” instead of “I’m just following up to see…”. Although it’s easier said than done as it requires some discipline and getting used to.
But to sum up, just don’t use it. See what I did there?
Stick to a maximum of two follow-ups
As I mentioned right at the beginning, follow-ups can be seen as pushy and annoying and that is just a fact that we as PRs need to come to terms with. But there are ways of minimising this annoyance and one is to limit the amount of follow-ups you send.
As a rule of thumb I usually stick to only one follow-up, but in cases where I strongly believe in the strength of a story, I might feel inclined to do a second one. This was the case when I was outreaching a coronavirus myth-busting asset for our client Babylon Health.
I knew stories about coronavirus were oversaturated during the first wave of the pandemic back in April 2020, so standing out was harder than normal. But I also knew our story of a doctor debunking a range of far-fetched statements about covid would appeal to journalists, so I powered through. My second round of follow-ups led to a linked article in The Mirror.
I also tend to do a second follow-up to journalists who have expressed an interest in the story either by responding to my initial email or who I can see have opened my email a substantial number of times.
To avoid being viewed as exceedingly pushy and annoying, specify in your final follow-up how this is your final one, so they know they won’t be ‘harassed’ any longer.
Keep abreast of OOOs
If you think follow-ups are annoying, imagine how annoying it must be to get a follow-up while you’re still out of the office. Keep track of when journalists you contact are out of the office so you can wait until a couple of days after they get back to follow up with them. Their inbox will be fuller than normal upon their return (making it even harder for your headline to stand out), so allow them to get to grips with all their messages before you bump yours to the top of their inbox.
As mentioned before, referencing how you’ve noticed they’ve been out of the office can be that personal element that convinces them that you’re paying attention. Just be careful not to assume that they’ve been off for strictly positive reasons such as a relaxing holiday, so keep it neutral with something along the lines of “In case this got lost in all your emails when you returned to the office, I’m resending this…”
To sum up, incorporating routine follow-ups into your outreach strategy has plenty of potentially positive outcomes. They lead to more responses, which can also ignite friendly and informative conversations about your topic, and they act as a reminder for the journalist. All of this can ultimately lead to more coverage, begging the question of why you wouldn’t do it. So tell me: are you a foleiver now?
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Why your content needs expert collaborators (and where to find them)
Producing newsworthy content for our clients means communicating a level of authority between industries that we (quite often) have no first-hand experience of working in and journalists who have years of experience covering sectors that our clients sit within.
Often, we can rely on client spokespeople to provide comments for the press and which analyse the work we produce. But content that is built to earn links can also cover topics and conversations that stretch beyond a client’s product while still remaining relevant for them to talk about, which means we often look further afield to find people who can offer valuable perspectives on our stories, or help us construct our content from the very beginning.
In my time at Verve Search, I’ve been lucky enough to work with world-renowned scientists and academics, artists, authors, photographers, gamers, and experts on more subjects than you can shake a stick at. All of these individuals and organisations have taken our stories from being a collection of interesting statistics or attractive pieces of content to something more newsworthy, which is brought to life by the authority behind their words.
How we work with collaborators depends largely on which gaps of authority exist within the production and PR strategy of each piece of content. Here are just some examples of how we’ve worked with expert collaborators in the past:
We’ve tapped into the unique resources of subject specialists to create in-depth campaigns with data that is normally unavailable to the public. We worked with Ian Shirley (editor of Record Collector magazine’s ‘Rare Record Price Guide‘) to put together reams of imagery and information not found elsewhere about hugely valuable vinyl records
We’ve received valuable commentary from industry experts on our survey results and independent research. For Influencer Investors, our Paxful campaign about stock market guidance on TikTok, we asked financial planner and psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz for his expert analysis of our findings and created a valuable Q&A asset
The Outreach case for finding collaborators
One key indicator to any campaign’s success is how many high-quality and authoritative links it generates, and it should almost go without saying that journalists will appreciate a story being sent their way that is supported by reliable and authoritative experts within a relevant field. I spoke to Tonje, one of Verve Search’s super-talented Outreach Specialists, to ask about why the team finds it useful to lean on the expertise of external sources…
Q&A with Tonje Odegard, Outreach Specialist
Why is outreaching more successful when there’s an externally-sourced expert attached to the story?
First of all, in addition to a credible data source, journalists always need quotes in order to complete a classic news story or feature. If we can provide these from a relevant and credible expert or collaborator, it will save the journalist having to source these from elsewhere, increasing our chances of them using our content (and ultimately linking). Alongside having graphs and illustrations from the campaign, we’re essentially providing a one-stop shop for the journalist.
Secondly, having expert commentary or quotes adds substance, credibility and gravity to the pitch, which again increases the chances of it being covered. For instance, when working with Babylon Health, we used expert commentary from the doctors there on several occasions in our campaigns and outreach. Overall, we secured links in high-punching publications such as The Telegraph, City AM, Time Out, Metro, New York Post, Houston Chronicle, Forbes, and Cosmopolitan as a result.
What kind of things do you think journalists are interested in when it comes to experts and collaborators?
The clue is in the name; the purpose of experts and collaborators for journalists is exactly that – to provide their expertise on the subject the journalist is covering. They are an essential part of any news story or feature as it helps break up the article into a more digestible format for the reader as well as offer credibility. In essence, experts help explain the topic covered in a story.
Are expert Q&As useful to have on hand?
Q&As are a formidable way to convey information in a conversational tone that is easy for the journalist to turn into quotes – if they’re feeling really lazy, they can even copy and paste it entirely. But having the expert ready at hand to answer any additional follow-up questions is also key as many journalists want something unique or more specific to use in their article.
Do you think journalists find campaigns more reliable when they are backed up with an externalexpert’s data and imagery rather than completely in-houseassets?
Yes, I definitely believe so. Having an expert involved who is willing to endorse the campaign’s message demonstrates to the journalist that this is a legitimate and reliable source of information. If the expert comes from the client we are representing, there is a danger that the pitch can appear too commercial, but this will usually not be the case if the expert is relevant and credible – so always make sure they are. Using an external expert can often add more credibility.
How important is it to journalists that a field expert provides commentary and context on independent research findings?
As mentioned above, it helps cement the credibility of the data and message of the campaign. Any good journalist would seek to back up claims made in their article and as such, they would try to hunt down a relevant person to comment on the findings. If we can present this person at the same time as pitching them the research, both us and the journalist have killed two birds in one stone.
So, where should you begin?
Identify your needs
There are different ways you can incorporate an outside expert in your campaign. At what point they enter the production process depends on how best you think they’ll be able to contribute to the project. In my time at Verve, our collaborator partnerships have usually fallen into one of the following categories:
They comment on our in-house study. This means we’ve sourced our own data and broken it down into key findings. We may have run a study and come to some interesting conclusions, or collected a huge variety of new information via freedom of information requests. Either way, we’re looking for an authority on whatever the subject may be to give us some all-important context to what we’ve found out. We want them to answer some burning questions that have arisen because of surprising or even predictable discoveries we’ve made – answers that journalists love to feature and readers instantly trust. Ask yourself whether you need someone to answer your burning questions.
They advise us on a methodology and provide commentary where necessary. Sometimes we need collaborators to help shape the building blocks of our campaign. It means we have the story in our mind, but we need specialist guidance on how to execute something that needs an expert eye. We ran a campaign called Understanding Dementia and knew that the subject needed an official figure on dementia to ensure our campaign handled the subject with the sensitivity and authority it deserved. We worked with a leading dementia expert to give us her vision for how our planned games and puzzles could successfully emulate the confusion and frustration associated with the condition. We’ve also worked in this capacity with world-renowned academics and specialists who’ve advised on our campaigns at early junctions, like planning survey questions, helping shape extra angles to our research. Ask yourself whether you need expert guidance to build your project.
They lend us resources that are otherwise not openly accessible. Some campaigns rely on the knowledge and resources of industry professionals. We’ve worked with all sorts of individuals and companies over the years that have given us their time and expertise to help create a more valuable piece of content for the news landscape. For example, Wheeler Dealer for GoCompare saw us partner up with an expert on vintage toy cars who gave us lots of specialist data and imagery…
…and we tasked the talented 3D-modelling artists at 3DLines with creating fantastic photorealistic mock-ups of familiar TV and movie rooms remade for the modern-day. Ask yourself whether your campaign needs the unique resources of an interesting individual or company.
But where can you find the right expert?
Where to find an expert
Use free find-an-expert search engines
Some of the best universities in the world have find-an-expert indices that list the academics and experts open to helping out the media. Here are some key ones:
You can usually search by field of study to help you track down the best person for your needs. If you’re going down the academic route, you should also try googling scientific studies and research institutions relevant to your subject to discover their authors. Why not try reaching out to them? We went to Professor Daniel Russell, a leading loneliness expert who developed the globally recognised UCLA Loneliness Scale, for guidance on our loneliness project with former client Echo.
Use social media
One of the best resources for widening your network is Twitter. Search out highly followed and influential people on the subject you’re working on. We contacted Matt Huxley, an esports lecturer at Staffordshire University, through Twitter, and he agreed to help us out with our project Esports Elites for Casumo. Matt had a large social media following and was used to being featured in the media, so we knew he was a fantastic authority to comment on our findings.
Find a book
Don’t worry, you won’t need a library card for this one! We’ve found expert collaborators by searching for books around our subject of interest. If you can track down and contact the authors or researchers (perhaps through their personal websites, social media, or publishers), you might just find that they’ll be really enthusiastic about your project.
In the past, Amazon has proved to be a useful resource for finding the right books. We used this method to find an expert to help us answer some questions for our project Crep Check for Farfetch. Crep Check is a database of the most valuable trainers in the world, and we included rankings for the shoes that have appreciated the most in value from their original retail price. We knew that finding a top sneaker expert and having them answer some questions would give journalists an extra angle to feature, so we searched online for experts and found one in the form of Mathieu le Maux, author of ‘1000 Sneakers: A Guide to the World’s Greatest Kicks, from Sport to Street’.
We sent Mathieu a message over Twitter and it didn’t take long for him to get back to us. The result? GQ magazine and the Daily Mail featured some of his comments prominently:
We used this method again to search for a reputable source of data, high-quality imagery, and expert commentary for Record Value, our project with Australian life insurance company NobleOak. Our answer came in the form of Ian Shirley, editor of ‘The Rare Record Price Guide’. Ian was the perfect fit for our campaign and gave us plenty of resources to work with as well as giving us valuable information about each of the 75 records in the final campaign.
Find a charity
We’ve partnered with lots of charities over the years and the benefits of attaching the campaign to the name of a reputable and established charity are numerous.
With Understanding Dementia, our Babylon Health campaign that attempted to reflect the effects of dementia with a series of frustrating games and puzzles, we partnered with Professor June Andrews, a renowned dementia expert to help us out.
June provided guidance on what effects we could attempt to reflect with our games, plus commentary on our games to help the user understand what aspects of dementia they were experiencing.
We partnered with two mental health charities for another project with Babylon Health called Student Stress. Both charities appealed in person and on their Twitter and social media accounts for students to tell us what stress felt like in their own words. We received lots of evocative descriptions of mental health from students all around the world, and our talented designers went to work illustrating them.
Keep up with the news
We’ve secured collaborators in the past by reaching out to them as a result of seeing their work in the news. It’s a surefire way to find names that are trusted by journalists as an authority on a subject.
When should you budget for expert collaborators?
It’s always worth keeping a budget in mind if you expect to ask a collaborator to do a large amount of work for you.
Before you reach out to someone, ask yourself:
How much of their time are we asking them to take up?
Are they just doing their day job, but for us? If so, they’ll expect to be paid.
Is this specific expert absolutely vital to the story earning coverage? If they require a fee, it’s worth thinking about putting aside some of your budget to cover it.
Sometimes, budgets will be tight. In many cases, you’ll be able to get a collaborator on board for free just by outlining the (credited) coverage they themselves will receive by taking part in your project. For a lot of people, this is sometimes compensation enough for being involved, especially if we know we’re presenting them with fascinating new insights around their specialist topic.
Keep your communication respectful of your collaborator’s energy and time and you’ll be able to build a creative partnership that will always be useful to have on hand.
How to enhance your Digital PR outreach with expert quotes 
20 examples of great quotes for your press release 
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
6 UI design principles you need to know
For a designer, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of UI principles. UI principles are high-level concepts that serve as guidance when designing a user interface, which is the point at which human-computer interaction occurs. The hierarchy in the UI design is fundamental in determining what the user will take away from their experience when using the interface.
The goal of a UI designer is to anticipate what a user might need to do by producing an interface that naturally encourages exploration and avoids confusion.
For this post, I’ve designed a simple landing page for a fictional learning platform. This landing page design – that in its current state follows all of the UI principles correctly – will be used as a point of reference to demonstrate six key design principles.
I’ve accompanied each section in this blog with a version of the above page that demonstrates how a bad design decision could affect the overall image and the usability of your design.
So, let’s get started…
Typography is one of the most important principles in user interface design. It’s the technique of arranging text to make it readable and visually appealing. The arrangement of the text includes selecting typefaces, font sizes, line lengths, line-spacing, and letter-spacing, and adjusting the space between pairs of letters.
Good design doesn’t need to feature lots of different typefaces. Unless the typography is a core design element, you simply don’t need to use lots of typefaces to convey a message.
More often than not, simplicity is key, and a strong design might only feature one or two typefaces. The typography principle is there to lead the reader’s eye to the right place at the right moment. It sets the tone of your page and helps to establish a visual hierarchy in your design.
For example, a larger font size and bolder font-weight have a higher chance of being seen by the user, but if we were to compare…
this lightweight text in a bigger font
this bolder text in a smaller font
…the chances are the first example would stand out more.
One way to improve a website’s readability is to increase leading (or line-height, in other words). This spacing between the two lines of text has a key impact on legibility; correct line-height helps the reader’s eyes travel from one line to another.
Although the standard leading is 120% the point size of the font, the leading can be set to automatic adjustment and can be modified according to the typeface needs. The body text in the example below illustrates poor use of leading.
The text is clustered which makes it difficult to read. Overall, this page does not give its viewers a sense of flow when reading the material from start to finish. The various alignments and improper use of fonts does not convey a story, nor does it urge users to take an action.
Select typeface for the headers only after you are confident with a typeface for the body text.
Scale in design refers to the sizing and the proportion of the elements on a page. Every element, whether a piece of text, a shape, or a line, has a weight.
The weight is created from the size, colour, or texture of an object. A symmetrical, well-balanced design is formed by aligning equally weighted elements on either side of the centre line. With the scale principle in mind, the designer needs to make sure that the page doesn’t look either overcrowded or empty.
One way to achieve this is with the use of padding and white space, or by simply adjusting the scale of an element. Scale can be used to direct viewers’ attention from the most to least important elements.
Objects of a bigger scale tend to attract viewers’ attention more, so the scale principle can be used as a way to rank design elements and influence the order in which users view them.
Below is an example of badly scaled design. The scale principle should help in guiding the users through their experience, but on the page below, the viewer can’t focus on any of the elements. The header is too big, the action buttons are too small, and the social media links (already highlighted enough with colour) are unnecessarily large.
It’s good practice to apply the golden ratio in your design. The golden ratio can be applied to spacing, composition, and layout; try using a golden ratio template. Plugins such as Font Scale can help establish a typography foundation.
Alignment is the arrangement of elements in a straight line or correct relative order and is recognised as one of the core UI principles. Any two connected points are referred to as a line.
When executed correctly, alignment creates a hierarchy within a design and helps direct the user’s attention towards specific information. Arranged content is easier for the user to scan through which increases readability and the viewer’s engagement.
Alignment can be achieved with a clearly defined boundary or a division. A defined boundary can be perceived in a group of elements that share a common area. When the elements are close or proximate to each other they tend to be visually grouped.
In the example below, an excess of misaligned elements strips the viewer of a clear visual path. It’s now unclear where the viewer should start and finish navigating the page.
As the human eye naturally seeks perfection, an intentional misalignment of an object could sometimes be used as a way to attract a user’s attention. One way to do so could be by increasing the y-axis of a navigation bar link of a selected page as a way to highlight the user’s current location on a site.
Enable a predefined grid or customise one to make sure elements are aligned and visually organised.
For a design to work, it needs to have an adequate amount of space between its objects. In our example below, the area around each object is white space, which also happens to be the negative space and another key UI principle.
Unlike positive space, which is the area of interest on a page, negative space is the background area around the subject of interest. The right amount of white space can simplify and break a design into chunks of information that are easier to comprehend.
A larger white space around the text helps improve readability. A design that has a very minimal use of white space could overwhelm the reader’s eye.
In the example above, it’s obvious that the design lacks white space, making it heavy on the eyes.
Here are a few reasons why this is happening. First, although the CTA buttons are emphasised with boxes, the text inside of them lacks padding and subsequently looks too big. The visuals on the right side of the page are too large and too close to the top navigation bar and the text on the left side of the page.
Elements on the left-hand side don’t have enough space to breathe and are overwhelmed by the size of the visual element. Header one and header two seem to be too far apart – despite them being part of the same group, they seem isolated from one another. The same issue can be seen with the CTA buttons, which once again are too far apart.
Button borders usually work well when the padding ratio is 1:3 for the top and bottom, and 3:3 for the right and left.
Users often perceive an aesthetically pleasing design as a more usable design, and they’re technically not wrong. More and more brutalist-inspired websites are receiving recognition among younger users. Their ruggedness and complete lack of usability is what makes them unique and memorable.
Sometimes the simplest, most intuitive, and most accessible user interface is not as popular as a modern design that has scarce consideration for usability. By and large though, if a website lacks aesthetics, it will most likely drive away visitors too.
Colour is another hugely important UI principle. Colour can establish the right tone, whether it acts as the main standalone component or is used as an oomph in other design elements. Colour can set boundaries, define shapes, and give emphasis to an area of a page.
In the example above, the colour selected for the design doesn’t reflect the brand nor enhances usability. The colour combination looks tacky and lacks contrast, creating difficulty when reading the page and identifying the navigation elements.
Apply the 60-30-10 rule. That’s 60% to the dominant colour, 30% to the secondary colour, and 10% to the accent colour. Consider using colour palette plugins, as these are predefined colour sets that can speed up the process of choosing the right colours for a design project.
Contrast is the state of something being different from something else. For elements to contrast, there should be an evident difference between the two. Colour, scale, or a combination of both can be used to contrast two or more elements and create space.
RGB, hexadecimal, and HSL all have an impact on whether a colour will have enough contrast. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2 – the international standard for designing for accessibility – is a good way you can learn more about the specifics. WCAG 2 expresses the brightness differences between colours in a form of a ratio, which ranges from 1:1 (e.g. white on white) to 21:1 (e.g. black on white). If we were to check the contrast of RGB values on white background, the ratios would look like this:
Red = 4:1
Green = 1.4:1
Blue = 8.6:1
(*the ration value will remain the same even if the text colour is reversed with background colour)
According to WCAG 2, the minimal requirement of the AA level of contrast ratio is 4.5:1, though this ratio requirement drops to 3:1 if a large-scale text is used. This requirement can be avoided altogether when referring to the contrast in decorative text and text in logos, as these do not affect the accessibility of an interface.
It is important to note that there are many colour hues and shades out there and the ratios cannot be rounded. If the colour contrast is 4.2:1, it automatically does not meet the minimal contrast requirement.
Below is an instance of how contrast should not be used:
The above design is an example of ineffective contrast use because the elements are difficult to read and identify. Lack of contrast strains the viewer’s eyes and can result in users experiencing frustration.
Using images as backgrounds can reduce text visibility. To make sure the text is adequately readable and meets WCAG 2 contrast requirements, use a coloured overlay on the image before placing the text on top.
The different elements of a design should all work together as a team to tell a story and guide viewers through their user journey.
To all budding designers, I would strongly recommend familiarising yourself with UI principles before taking on a design project. The proper use of these principles will contribute to the flow and the outcome of your design, and significantly enhance the accessibility of the page.
Take a look at some of our previous campaigns to see how the design team at Verve Search have used design principles in their award-winning work.
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
SEO in journalism: how can we use it in outreach?
After five years working as a journalist and more than a year working in digital PR and outreach, I have seen SEO in operation from both sides – here’s how they can be used in combination to secure coverage.
When I first started doing my degree in Journalism at Kingston University in 2012, SEO was a mere afterthought in my Multimedia News Writing course. Yes, we were told to hyperlink or to include keywords in our copy, but we were never fully educated on its purpose or importance, nor did it ever dictate what we were writing about.
Eight years later, I was working for a publication where the content we produced was almost entirely driven by SEO strategies. It was prioritised on the same level as editorial integrity and quality, which I found surprising and intriguing. As much as I love writing, I felt myself being drawn to this ‘behind the scenes’ world of SEO more and more, to the point where I decided to pursue a career in it.
I started working at Verve Search nearly 18 months ago, where I was introduced to a whole new and more technical side of SEO. This, in combination with my journalistic experience and my knowledge of how SEO is applied in journalism, has really strengthened my ability in outreach. I want to share this knowledge so you can too.
So, how can we learn from the way journalists and publications use and are motivated by SEO as part of their day-to-day runnings and editorial planning and apply it to outreach and ideation?
What motivates journalists in terms of SEO?
Traditionally, the way journalists and newspapers measured their success was purely down to how many newspapers they sold or how many quantifiable readers they had. For some publications, these metrics still come into play, but it’s not farfetched to say that today, SEO metrics have replaced the way we measure a publication’s success.
But what are SEO metrics? Metrics such as ranking, search traffic and engagement are what motivate publications the most in terms of SEO. What these metrics have in common is that they focus heavily on keywords.
Ultimately, publications want to rank as high as possible on search engines for the topics (AKA keywords) they cover, whether niche or broad. If you type “news uk” in your Google search bar, the BBC ranks in first and second place in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages). This is where every publication would love to be. Additionally, publications want to rank for specific keywords relevant to the topics they cover. For instance, the BBC would also want to rank high for keywords such as “TV”, “weather” and “sport”.
How do journalists use SEO?
So now you know what motivates publications in terms of SEO, it’s time to see how journalists and writers apply this in their day-to-day roles, and crucially, how this can benefit us in outreach.
“It’s about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they are seeking, the words they’re using, and the type of content they wish to consume. Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to connect to the people who are searching online for the solutions you offer.”
For a publication and for a journalist, it’s all about understanding what content your readers want, how they would like to consume that content, and what kind of readers you want to attract. And this is exactly what journalists do to plan their content and the style of that content. This brings me back to keywords.
What are keywords and why are they important?
Keywords are the words and phrases in a website’s content that make it possible for people to find the site via search engines. So, as you can imagine, keywords are a huge part of a digital journalist’s day to day.
The days of cramming keywords into copy (also known as keyword density) might be over, but if a journalist wants their article to rank well in search engines, keywords need to be incorporated into their article’s structure (headlines, meta descriptions and URLs). Out of these, it is particularly important to include keywords in the headline.
Revisiting the earlier quote, it says that it’s about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they are seeking and the words they’re using. In other words, journalists are keen to discover the target keywords that are driving their readers to their site – or indeed, the target keywords that are taking their desired readers to competing publications instead.
How do journalists choose the keywords to focus on?
Publications are focused on ranking for keywords that are relevant to the topics that their publication covers. For niche publications, such as Boat International, the keywords will be narrower and more specific, whereas for bigger news outlets such as The Guardian, it will be much wider and far-reaching.
For instance, TimeOut London aims to rank for keywords such as ‘best restaurants in London’, ‘things to do in London’ and ‘best West End shows’.
These are all evergreen keywords or evergreen content. As the name suggests, evergreen content is content that readers will be interested in and might be searching for all year round – they were interested in searching for it last year and they will be next year too. This is the bread and butter for any news website as it is the biggest source of consistent traffic.
But TimeOut also wants to rank for ‘most romantic restaurants’ around Valentine’s Day or ‘best rooftop bars in London’ before a hot summer bank holiday. These are seasonal keywords and refer to keywords that generate most of their search traffic during a specific time of the year.
Then there are trending keywords, which, as you can imagine, is all about ranking for keywords that are trending at a particular time. At the time of writing, everyone is covering the story about how a bunch of Reddit users made the GameStop share price skyrocket, leaving established Wall Street traders with pie on their faces. Newspapers would want to get in on these trends and rank for it.
So journalists use all these keyword categories to determine what to write about. But how do they decide on which keywords to focus on?
They use these tools to determine the popularity and search volume of keywords in order to figure out which new topic areas to explore, which articles to update and optimise to improve their ranking, as well as to guide them on which keywords to include in their headlines.
How to apply journalistic SEO in outreach and ideation
Now that you know what motivates journalists and how they use it in their day to day, it’s time to investigate how we can apply the same methods and strategies in the various stages of outreach.
The most obvious place to start is to look at the target publications of the client you’re working for.
What publications does the client wish to secure coverage in and what do these publications cover? Use the SEO tools mentioned above to explore the evergreen, seasonal and trending keywords these publications will be aiming to rank for to anticipate what its journalists will cover.
Incorporate evergreen keywords into your ideation
‘Evergreen’ for a journalist means a story that is not time-sensitive and which has relevance throughout the year. ‘Evergreen’ in content marketing can differ in its definition, so I will adopt the journalist’s version here for our ideation and outreach strategy.
We always prefer to create and outreach a story that doesn’t rely on a smaller window of time to achieve coverage, while potentially including additional seasonal news angles where possible.
One way in which you can ensure the topic and subjects of your story will produce keywords that stand out to journalists at any time of year and which appeal to the correct journalists, is to carefully consider what sample of subjects you consider in your method.
When creating a data-driven story, as we often do, you may find that your sample of subjects varies in size or popularity. This presents two potential problems – one is that you may not be comparing like-for-like subjects, and the second being that you might lose the most popular subjects from your story because a smaller, lesser-known subject has taken its place.
Assuming that the data you are working with is trivial and unlikely to mislead people or cause harm by not including larger samples, you should aim to work with a sample of data that will appeal to your target journalists, and, if necessary, set an appropriate threshold.
In our campaign called Cuisine Hotspots, where we analysed which cities ranked highest for specialising in certain cuisine styles, we were keen to make our story appeal internationally where our client Hayes and Jarvis would wish to see their name mentioned.
To help achieve this, we chose to analyse a large sample of cities that were specifically known for being ‘the most traveled to destinations in the world’. This resulted in cities such as Dublin being widely reported at home and abroad for ranking as one of the world’s vegan food capitals.
Analysing larger and smaller-sized sample subjects as part of the same method can provide surprising (and newsworthy) insights. For example, it might be much more interesting for a smaller UK city to beat London on a particular economic measure. Other times it’s best to analyse like-for-like subjects as part of your method for your story to have wider appeal – London and New York have much wider outreach potential than a small local authority or town in the US.
When we designed a methodology for Lucrative Leaders – discovering which tech CEOs oversaw the greatest increase in their company’s market value – we chose to only consider tech leaders at companies worth $100 billion or more. This ensured that our story considered the Jeff Bezos’s and Steve Jobs of the tech world who are much more headline-worthy than the lesser-known Joe Blogs.
Incorporate evergreen keywords into your outreach
Verve’s very successful Profanity on Film campaign revealed which actors have sworn the most across their filmographies. It demonstrates, in an evergreen sense, the value of including a big name in a story that appeals to journalists regardless of other events that take place in the real world.
We first started outreaching this campaign in March 2020 with no timely news hook and only aiming to demonstrate how Jonah Hill had overtaken Samuel L. Jackson as Hollywood’s most profane actor.
In the end, the campaign achieved more than 800 pieces of coverage in the likes of The Guardian, The Independent, NME and The Wrap – entertainment publications that will report on A-list celebrity actions and events wherever possible. However, a decent proportion of that coverage came from the outreach team reacting to events that involved Jonah Hill, other famous actors who are known for swearing, and the announcement of a Netflix documentary.
Due to an Instagram post by Jonah Hill himself, the campaign gave us a chance to react and achieve more coverage in May. Later, in September, when Samuel L. Jackson decided to launch swearing lessons as an incentive to get people to vote in the 2020 US election, we saw another opportunity to jump on the trend and achieved an additional 20 pieces of linked coverage. By January 2021, Netflix had released a documentary called the History of Swearing, its original announcement led to our third wave of coverage, including a second link for the campaign in The Guardian.
The keywords for Profanity On Film were the actors’ names. There was no threshold set or carefully chosen sample of data here. We analysed more than 5,000 publicly available scripts from movies that had a cinematic release, and the data provided us with an excellent selection of names who are popular for entertainment and showbiz journalists to write about at any time of year.
Evergreen keywords work well for campaigns that you intend to outreach for several months, and they help to eliminate the risk of irrelevance for your target journalists. With that said, implementing more seasonal or trending keywords definitely has its place as part of a wider outreach strategy.
Using seasonal keywords in your outreach strategy
If you have a specific time frame for the outreach of your campaign, seasonal keywords provide an excellent asset both as a starting point for a campaign idea and for your angles.
A great example of this is when we knew we had a campaign lined up for a client around the time of Halloween. The Scariest Horror campaign discovered what the scariest film of all time was by asking volunteers to wear heart monitors while they watched 10 films known for having the biggest jump scares.
While horror movies have wide enough appeal at any time of year for entertainment journalists to discuss, the campaign naturally appealed even more to publications such as the LadBible as the 31st October approached.
It may hamper your outreach efforts if a campaign relied purely on a seasonal event to achieve coverage, but it is worth exploring seasonal keywords related to your client and your client’s target publications to incorporate these keywords into your pitch to journalists.
Again, I would recommend incorporating seasonal angles as part of a wider ideation and outreach strategy that is more evergreen to journalists. For every Halloween-related story you conjure up, make sure there are plenty more stories available that appeal throughout the year.
How to incorporate trending keywords into your outreach strategy
I also find trending keywords too fleeting to base campaign ideas on, but they are perfect to use as a news hook for your pitch or as a tool to breathe fresh air into an old campaign.
An example of this is when we capitalised on the PS5 release hype before Christmas with our campaign Global Cost of Gaming, where we looked at and compared the different costs of the new PS5 in different countries. Including the keyword ‘PS5’ in the headline was instrumental to the high volume of coverage this campaign received.
Again, make sure you maximise the keyword by including it in your headline.
How to incorporate long-tail keywords in your outreach strategy
Long-tail keywords are longer and more specific keyword phrases, which don’t necessarily have a very high search volume.
It’s worth noting that there is bigger competition between publications to rank for high search volume keywords. Therefore, going more granular and finding keywords that are more specific and which have a smaller search volume, might make it easier to rank and appeal more to journalists.
Additionally, if you have a client that is interested in coverage in certain regions or countries, exploring the various keywords in these markets will be time well spent. This is all about understanding the target audience and the language they use when searching for content.
For instance, if you’re planning on outreaching to both the UK and the US for your client, even though the language used will be the same, taking the differences between British and American English (Brits go on ‘holiday’ whereas Americans go on ‘vacation’) into consideration in your keyword search can be a game changer. Localising keywords is a worthwhile strategy.
How do we use this for outreach? Going for headlines that aid a high-volume keyword such as ‘the best brunch in London’ might actually be counterproductive if journalists want to cover something more targeted. High-volume keywords may also see more articles being published around that specific keyword already, so the subject line in your email may not stand out so much in a journalist’s inbox.
However, if you opted for a keyword that considered something even more long-tail and granular, such as ‘the best vegan brunch places in Peckham’, the competition may be lower and the originality of the story may be greater.
So to sum up, spending time familiarising yourself with the client and its target publications, and the various keywords they would want to rank for will be beneficial for you from ideation right through to outreach. This involves all keywords, from evergreen and trending, to long-tail and localised. By using the same SEO tools and strategies as journalists do to find your keywords and incorporating them into your approach, you will find your outreach efforts piquing the interest of journalists much more frequently.
Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.
Campaign Spotlight – A Contact Lens Company Visual Content
My latest campaign spotlight focuses on three similar campaigns we produced for a contact lens company, all of which have been consistently covered by national and international lifestyle journalists.
The Stroop Effect was the first to launch in May this year. It is a colour perception game based on the Stroop test, a psychological phenomenon where the brain struggles to read the word of a colour when formatted with a different colour, for example Red written in green.
Based on this, we devised a test which measures how quickly you can identify five matching colours (e.g. Red, Pink, Green) against ten mismatching colours (e.g. Red, Pink, Green). We then tested the game on a survey with 2000 UK adults to give us various headlines about how well the nation performed.
To date, The Stroop Effect has been picked up 28 times with a total of 2,068 Link Score (Verve’s own tool using a combination of metrics to measure the value of links). The test also has over 100,000 views, thanks to features in the Mirror, Daily Mail, Mental Floss and Business Insider.
In July, we launched Photographic Memory, a game which tests the audience’s ability to spot details in ten images. They are given seven seconds to look at an image, then respond to a question about a detail in the photo.
We wanted to create a campaign which tests whether the user has a visual memory, as well as producing something with strong visuals that journalists could embed in an article. To add further credibility for journalists, we tested the game on 2000 UK adults to see how they performed. Just 1.2% of the respondents were able to get a perfect 10/10 score.
So far, Photographic Memory has 21 links from high authority news sites. It performed especially well with the UK tabloids, with the Sun, Daily Mail, Mirror, and Metro all covering the campaign within a few days of each other.
Our most recent campaign for a contact lens company launched on the 23rd August and has been the most successful of the three mentioned in this blog. Moving Perspectives takes optical illusions to a new level by showcasing seven mind-bending optical illusions made into moving GIF images.
We previously had success with In Perspective, a similar optical illusions piece with 11 illustrations of illusions which show the user how it tricks the brain into seeing something different. With Moving Perspectives, we explored this concept further by using dynamic illusions, which move to reveal how it works.
So far, Moving Perspectives has 41 links with a total of 2,103 Link Score. Again, this campaign proved popular with the UK tabloids including the Sun, Mirror and Daily Star all covering it. The campaign also received international coverage in Russia and Japan.
All three campaigns benefitted from quality designs which maximised the visual appeal of the campaigns and made them fun to interact with. The journalists we contacted appreciated the strong aesthetics in the three campaigns.
They also benefited from being embeddable on an article so readers can view them without having to leave the page. Moving Perspectives worked well in particular as the white background matched seamlessly with the page of an article.
As a result, the execution of these three campaigns has made it possible for us to build consistent links by appealing to lifestyle and pop-science journalists with similar content themes but a fresh idea which continues to attract coverage each time.