James Brockbank & Olivia Smith – Viral campaigns and content “fails”

Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

About James

James Brockbank is the Managing Director of DigitaLoft, an award-winning SEO and digital PR agency. James started out as an SEO and has really grown and evolved through the various iterations of link-building, content creation and Digital PR. 

James was one of the first to notice the way the industry was going and pounced on the idea of delivering stronger campaigns using data.

He’s also quite passionate and outspoken about the fact that data-driven PR campaigns don’t always have to be big budget.

In fact, it was delivering viral campaigns on lower budgets that initially brought DigitaLoft (and their clients) lots of attention.

A few years back, they burst onto the SEO scene, winning awards and getting their content shared and talked about everywhere. And they’ve continued to do so ever since.

About Olivia

Olivia Smith is the head of PR at DigitaLoft. Olivia joined the agency around the time they were making the shift to more data-driven stories and has really helped lead that transition.

With an academic background in journalism, Olivia’s focus – first and foremost – has always been the story.

Olivia gets involved in all aspects of the creative campaigns, from ideation through to promotion – and she’s gathered lots of valuable insights along the way.

In particular, Olivia pays a lot of attention to the way in which journalists respond to content – and how that’s changed over time.

What we cover in this episode…

The evolution of DigitaLoft

As it turns out, James’ story and the evolution of DigitaLoft really mirrors the evolution of link building in general.

Here, we discuss…

  • The wake of the Penguin update
  • How James had been building links at a former agency prior to this algorithmic shake-up
  • How James then adapted his approach to link-building, post-Penguin
  • What he saw others in the industry doing at that time, and how that never felt “quite right”
  • The success of ‘top tip’ infographics back in the day
  • The shift towards “real data”
  • How a few low-budget viral campaigns, and the awards they won, really kick-started the growth of the agency

We discussed how Olivia arrived at the company around the time they were making this shift towards data-driven stories.

Olivia mentions noticing Moz and ahrefs mentioned in the job ad, which she knew a little about, and it was the inclusion of these details that encouraged her to get in touch with the agency.

We also discuss the first two campaigns Olivia promoted, which became viral hits – the Kardashian calculator and How much are your Instagram posts worth.

How they came up with You vs The Kardashians

Here we discuss…

  • Taking inspiration from the old MahiFX piece, You vs John Paulson
  • How James thought about doing You vs Bill Gates, but Ellie convinced him they should do it about the Kardashians
  • How the piece didn’t do that well initially and how the inclusion of the average national salary helped transform the story – and how this led to similar angles for regional publications and more
  • How a ‘tool’ (or a quiz or a game for that matter) can sometimes lack a story for journalists and how the team solved that on this occasion
  • How the inclusion of different currencies allowed the piece to work in various locations, and contributed to the piece going viral

I remembered speaking to the team about this idea before, and they had mentioned that a surfing publication had dropped in the salary of the top surfer to show how they compared to the Kardashians.

Spotting this, the team were able to adapt it into their own promotional efforts, when outreaching to various niche publications.

I may be misremembering our previous conversation slightly, but it vaguely rang a bell with Olivia.

I also mention a talk James gave in which he says the two aspects of production that can really increase the cost of a campaign are the data and the build.

We discuss how the Kardashian campaign is a great example of content that only uses a small amount of data and minimal interactivity.

“Sometimes simple campaigns work far better because they are so easy to understand”

James Brockbank

We go on to cover…

  • How journalists in certain markets are still excited to receive something flashy – and you can still get that ‘wow’ factor even if there isn’t an obvious story (we’re not recommending this approach – just saying it can work)
  • The wide range of sites that covered the Kardashian calculator
  • How some top tier sites caused a ‘snowball effect’
  • How the piece picked up over 1,000 links and helped drive a 300-400% impact on organic visibility and revenue

We also discuss some questions around the relevancy of the campaign by today’s standards, and how James would maybe approach things differently if he was to launch it now.

James also mentions a question that was posed to John Mueller of Google at The Digital PR Summit, a conference run by DigitaLoft.

John was asked if we should be disavowing editorial links that are in a foreign language or not topically relevant.

The short answer is ‘no’ and James goes into a bit more detail in the show.

Around this point, Olivia mentions that…

What journalists are looking for has changed

In this section, we talk about…

  • How journalists appear to be favouring stories with a positive message these days
  • How lifestyle publications want to make their audience feel good – and if you’re not making them feel good, at least offer a remedy or solution
  • How any content that’s political can be difficult to land – and Olivia discusses an example of that from her own experience (a piece on MP’s expenses in the UK which didn’t do well)
  • The challenge of targeting journalists that have a lot of hard news to contend with

We also briefly discuss promoting campaigns during COVID.

Here we discuss…

  • Being very honest about which of their clients could genuinely comment on what was happening
  • How they’ve seen a surprising return to the ‘top ten sleep tips’ type of content they were having success with 5 or more years ago (and why that might be)
  • How they’ve seen a shift towards helpful, valuable, uplifting and positive content
  • How journalists have been happy to receive things they can quickly put together and put live

“We also saw a massive shift in journalists asking for light-hearted, valuable content that’s helpful to their audience”

Olivia Smith

We briefly discuss…

A super-quick campaign that was entirely about the client’s product

The press release was for PoundToy and showed how many toys a mother had purchased for £30.

Here we cover…

  • How this very simple, low budget campaign got 2 or 3 pieces of top-tier coverage
  • How it contradicted the assumption that your campaign can’t be too promotional – and why it worked in this instance
  • How the team discovered the idea via a Facebook group talking about the client’s brand

We also discuss how the story addressed what was going on in the world – people being furloughed and losing jobs but kids still wanting Christmas presents.

I didn’t mention this at the time, but in retrospect, by focussing on two different trends (one social/economic and one seasonal), the story really addresses the tension created between them – and offers a practical solution.

We continue to discuss…

  • The assumptions about what you can and can’t do with campaigns

Here, I mentioned one or two content pieces for a career-focussed college that I’d worked on previously. The pieces were entirely in the brand’s colours, even though it’s commonly assumed you shouldn’t do that. And they dropped nicely into the site’s navigation as well.

James also discussed how clients often assume a piece needs more and more data to be substantial, particularly for an index. Whereas, they’ve found five pieces of data is the sweet spot, and much more than that becomes a bit too complex to wrap your head around.

On the topic of commonly held assumptions, we briefly mention…

  • The assumption that you shouldn’t approach a publication if they give nofollow links
  • The assumption that a campaign will fly overnight and pick up 80% of its links in the first few days

Having discussed some of the things they wouldn’t do any more, I asked James and Olivia which campaign was more on the money for them these days.

This led us to discussing…

How the Cosmetify Index established a new startup as a voice within their market

This campaign looks at search data, social data (engagement, following, hashtags) and some client data to determine the most popular cosmetic brands and beauty products.

We discuss…

  • How the campaign brought in over 100 links initially and still brings in around 15 links every month
  • How the launch of the campaign around Christmas was perfect timing

As a quick aside, I didn’t mention this on the show, but this is also a nice example of a piece that makes sense to promote around a seasonal event, but can live on beyond it.

We talk about…

  • The relevance of the campaign
  • How the design was visually relevant to the audience
  • How the design was inspired by the brand’s colours without being a clone of the site, which seems like a nice balance to strike
  • How Dove put out a press release in France about the study, Rude Ccosmetics featured it on their homepage, and The Body Shop shared it on their Facebook channel – and all this for AN INDEX!!!
  • How Millie Bobby Brown (my doppelganger – see below) posted about her inclusion in the index on Instagram
That’s me dressed up as Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown (I’m on the left)

We go on to discuss the fact that an index – an often over-used format – could do so well.

And how the campaign led to a significant increase in brand awareness (something we don’t always measure in SEO).

Here’s the Google Trends graph for the brand name over the past few years – can you tell when they launched the campaign?

We then go on to talk about one final campaign…

How they came up with idea for Nakations

Here we discuss…

  • How Olivia came up with the idea
  • How she’s constantly thinking of ideas
  • The importance of considering whether ideas have broad appeal
  • How ideas can be ‘controversial’ without really being controversial
  • The difference between ‘controversial’ and negative and offensive
  • How to consider whether a campaign is too risky
  • Why the team once received a cease and desist from the Hungarian government

James mentioned a campaign about where you can and can’t drink the tap water around the world, and how this was reported in the Daily Mail.

Olivia goes on to explain…

  • How she’s thinking about ideas all the time
  • How she takes inspiration from everywhere
  • What she thinks about when she sees successful campaigns

James briefly refers to the Skyscraper Technique by Brian Dean from Backlinko.

We discuss….

  • Sharing successful (and unsuccessful) campaigns online
  • How the successful campaigns that are shared online can distort reality, and the danger of benchmarking against others

“Everybody should have the opportunity to run campaigns that don’t work”

James Brockbank

While we were on the subject, we then go onto discuss…

Learning from campaign “fails”

James discusses a campaign about the increase in value of Funko pops, which was unsuccessful – and why he thinks that was (spoiler alert: who cares?!).

James mentions he’d seen a similar campaign do well for sneakers.

And we discuss how if you find a niche interest like this, it needs to also appeal to a broader audience – which clearly it does for sneakers but not so much for Funk pops (whatever they are).

Olivia mentions a campaign where you find out what distance you scroll on your phone, and the danger of making something “that’s just cool” but doesn’t quite have the story.

James cheekily mentions the team may have me to blame for this, a claim I strongly refute! I’m kidding… but for a bit of context, I think he meant the visual execution was similar to content I’d created in the past.

I didn’t ask which campaigns he was referring to, but he was only joking anyway – I hope!

We also discuss how you used to get a novelty factor for making a ‘cool thing’. But the wow factor has largely diminished…

… and it all comes back to the story!

And that seemed like an appropriate note to end on.

I hope you enjoy the show!

Share this on…

Get the newsletter Join over 9,000 marketers

Learn how to have better content ideas. Sign up to the email list and get access to insights you won’t find anywhere else.

By signing up, you’ll be the first to hear about new content, resources and training. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Get the FREE Ebook

6 agencies, 31 campaigns, 11,882 links. Find out exactly how they came up with the ideas, step by step.

By signing up, you’ll be the first to hear about new content, resources and training. You can unsubscribe at any time.