Digital PR linkbuilding: Are reactive or unicorn campaigns better?
Katelynn MarfousiKM
Katelynn Marfousi
Last Updated August 31, 2023
10 minutes read

Digital PR linkbuilding: Are reactive or unicorn campaigns better?

What is Digital PR, what's the most effective Digital PR strategy to use in 2023, and what the hell is a unicorn, anyway?

We're not talking about the rainbow horse

Search engines: A history lesson

When the internet was invented, there were, like, five websites. Nobody took the internet that seriously, and the most important site was probably Neopets.

Still is.
Still is.

In 1996, AskJeeves came along and said, "We will make those five websites searchable." And they did, but it was terrible. So Google came along in 1997 and pilfered AskJeeves' whole thing to become the mega-conglomerate that it is today.

For legal purposes, we have to mention that this is only mostly accurate
For legal purposes, we have to mention that this is only mostly accurate

As the internet grew to what it is today, so did the number of websites. As of this writing in 2022, there are literally dozens of websites. All of them are vying for the attention of you and me, the average internet consumer. Some websites sell things directly, some hold tons of information, and some simply exist to watch the world burn. But the one thing all websites have in common is that they want to be found.

With a constantly growing number of websites, Google (and the other search engines) needed to develop a more robust way of deciding what websites to show in its search results. Each website equally wants all the customers, but who deserves them?

That's how a little something called Search Engine Optimization was born.

Congratulations! It's a digital marketer.
Congratulations! It's a digital marketer.

SEO was essentially not a "PR problem" until the last few years. PR let the marketers do Internet Things while the PR did Media Things, and those two things didn't have to interact all that much.

Until the internet took over all of our lives and ruined humanity.

Now the average communications and PR person needs to understand digital marketing as part of even the most basic PR strategy.

Having a website rank on Google is make-or-break for the average business. And one of the key factors in getting higher rankings is backlinks.

Backlinks are basically links that go to your website and when Google finds these links, it thinks, "Wow, what a cool website. Everyone is linking to it, so it must be a great, fun, and very useful website." So it ranks it higher and higher until you are the King of Google and everyone invites you to their barbecues.

"Would the King of Google like every single meat at one time?"
"Would the King of Google like every single meat at one time?"

What is Digital PR?

The problem with backlinks is that people are selfish and don't want to just link to you simply because you want them to. They need a reason. Usually, you can give them a reason by doing something nice for them, like writing a guest post or baking them a Sunday ham. But, if you've ever written a guest post (or baked a Sunday ham), you will know that this has limits because guest posts and ham both take forever to bake. Or write.

A beautifully written ham.
A beautifully written ham.

Thus the invention of Digital PR. Digital PR is a tactic where you get people to link to you by providing something valuable for their audience. This means creating something that they can use to tell a story, substantiate data, or engage their audiences with your content.

Examples of Digital PR include:

  • Original research – Conducting your own research study to showcase some new information that journalists and other media can use as a source (which will cite you and link to your website)
  • Curated studies and data – If you lack the time, researchers, and field mice to conduct research, you can create studies out of the data that other people have gathered
  • An interesting product – Creating a product or service that stands out will mean it can be featured on product lists, which will link back to your site
  • Linkable assets – If you can present data or findings in a unique, beautiful, or interesting way, you can create a linkable asset that other sources will use
  • Something interesting, beautiful, controversial, or otherwise share-worthy – Even if you aren't providing value in the traditional sense, having something that people will talk about or want to cover is perfect for Digital PR
  • An authoritative take – Are you an expert in your field? Share your insights into the industry (but don't call it "thought leadership" because that sucks)

Here's an example:

Vodaphone made this fun, engaging graphic that is based on research about takeaway in the UK. It's interesting, starts a dialogue, has sharability, and ultimately links back to the thing they want to advertise. It's great for links and generally increasing interest in the company. You can check out more examples at Digital PR Examples on Twitter.

What Digital PR is not

The phrase "Digital PR" can be confusing for those who are actually in public relations. Can't anything that a publicist does with a computer be considered Digital PR? Sure, but that's not what we're referring to. "Digital PR" refers to a very specific backlinking technique. It's thinking strategically and being data-informed. It's not putting a wig on a Roomba and referring to it as your publicist, Sharon.

Working from home might be taking its toll on some more than others.
Working from home might be taking its toll on some more than others.

Just because Digital PR is a confusingly-worded phrase for a link-building technique doesn't mean that traditional PR shouldn't be mindful of how it works. Many PR people are now wearing multiple hats (or wigs) as the field of PR is constantly shifting and adapting to the fact that most people spend 85% of their day online.

Why Digital PR matters

Digital PR is only becoming more important. It's a harder tactic than other backlink methods because it requires high-quality content. High-quality content can't be easily reproduced and takes significant investment to really stand out. But Digital PR versus traditional backlinking is important because of scale.

If you have to earn each link individually (by things like guest posts or ill-advised link schemes), you will get one link at a time. Maybe, by the time you're ready to retire and move to Florida, the website will have 250, maybe 300 if you really get the lead out.

USA Today, for context, has 454,000,000 backlinks.

Nobody is expecting you to be the next USA Today, but you're going to get carpal tunnel before you even come close if your backlink strategy doesn't scale. And scaling means that your content has to be attractive enough that a bunch of people want to link to it, not just two (your mom and grandmother).

Reactive Digital PR versus Unicorn PR

Because humans are endlessly fickle and complicated, we always have to create niches within concepts. Digital PR is no exception, which brings us to Reactive Digital PR and Unicorn Digital PR.

Reactive Digital PR

Reactive Digital PR (often called newsjacking) is basically watching for what's trending to jump on it as quickly as possible, ideally before your competitors get a chance to. If you anticipate that something is going to be big news, getting your quote or (shudder) thought leadership post out there is a great way to establish yourself as an industry leader and get those sweet, sweet backlinks through fast preparation.

Pros of Reactive Digital PR:

  • Doesn't require massively in-depth investment in content and original research
  • Quick, easy links

Cons of Reactive Digital PR:

  • Requires authority to work. Journalists want to quote industry leaders and professionals in their news stories, not Joe Everyday with his normie opinion
  • The team has to be quick on their feet to capitalize on "breaking news"
  • It can blow up in your face if done poorly. Comms people have to read the room, being mindful that public opinion can change extremely fast and pull the rug out from beneath your feet. If your newsjacking approach requires public opinion to not shift to be effective, tread carefully

Unicorn Digital PR

Larry Kim coined the phrase "unicorn marketing", which is essentially a strategy that mines social media and online forums to develop curated content based on what people actually want to see (unicorns) versus creating a ton of content that nobody cares about (donkeys). The approach is also about repurposing your content when it performs well and targeting your focus strategically. It's a unicorn-based metaphor, and we're here for it.

You can dance, you can jiiiive, having the time of your life 🎶

Pros of Unicorn Digital PR

  • It's a "work smarter, not harder" approach to Digital PR
  • It requires listening to what real-life actual people want and not what some algorithm thinks they want
  • It requires creative and strategic long-term thinking
  • You can professionally declare yourself the office unicorn, and nobody is allowed to argue 🦄

Cons of Unicorn Digital PR

  • It takes a decent amount of time and investment to find and research an audience
  • You simply cannot reliably predict what will "work" and what won't

Which is better?

So, which is a better approach to Digital PR strategy? Let's stick with the most annoying possible answer and say: why not both?

Sure, if you're relying on old-school content research methods like constantly refreshing Twitter for inspiration, this may seem like a huge undertaking. But thankfully, there are tools available at our disposal to automate some of the more cumbersome elements of both approaches. Let me give you an example.

We spoke with Carrie Rose, CEO and co-founder of the SEO agency Rise at Seven, and this was her perspective:

Reactive PR is the most effective way to put a brand at the centre of a trending topic and land links at speed in high traffic and high engagement articles in national press. Technically this is hugely powerful for SEO to be landing links like this but also powerful for the user and brand in ensuring they are putting out content and stories that make the brand relevant. This is proven at Rise at Seven to deliver 5X ROI Unicorns for Rise at Seven means something a little different. We actually label our big brand awareness and content marketing campaigns as unicorns because they do many things including land links, drive brand awareness, traffic focused, and cross channel. They’re usually less about the links and more about the strategy and comms message - e.g “telling the world that we do same day delivery” “or encouraging long haul travel in a post pandemic world”. Brands want creativity more than ever, content and stories that people see and remember and I often see creativity being lost at the expense of just getting links. You can do both, but that’s why it’s called a unicorn. Reactive PR and reactive marketing in general has seen a 29% growth in demand in the last year - that’s more than digital PR, link building and content marketing. Brands just want to stay relevant.

Carrie RoseRise at Seven


A case study in Digital PR: Steve

Here's Steve.

Yes, perfect, thank you Google.
Yes, perfect, thank you Google.

He's your typical communications professional, tasked with establishing a strategy to "get backlinks" for the health and wellness brand that he works for. He researches his options and decides on a hybrid Reactive/Unicorn Digital PR strategy that he unpopularly coins "UniActiCorn" and everyone in the office hates that name but he doesn't care. Steve does what he wants.

So what does Steve do? He signs up for Help A Reporter Out (HARO) and requests digests for all Health & Lifestyle topics, so when journalists need industry leaders to weigh in on various health topics, he can quickly draft a response along with the CEO and send it straight from his inbox. Easy peasy. Next, he does the same by curating Google Alerts to their niche topics as well as following #journorequest and other related industry hashtags on Twitter. Now he's ready to react.

Next, he hops onto Reddit, Quora, Medium, and TikTok to see what people in the health spaces are discussing. He jots down some brilliant ideas, but not before setting up Google Analytics and other PR measurement tools to know what content is already performing well on their website and socials, all so he can focus on that content and repurpose what he knows to be stellar already.

Steve is doing a great job.

Way to go, Steve!
Way to go, Steve!


Digital PR is super important. Backlinks are important. Knowing how and why we need backlinks is crucial to staying competitive on the internet. If you'd like to learn more about PR data, measurement, and all those cool things, you can sign up for our sweet newsletter. We promise not to spam you with ham recipes.

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Published May 2022; updated January 2023

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