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Doing the Web Better: An Interview with Erin Commarato
By: Mike Bush
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PR folks are doing the Internet wrong. So says Erin Commarato, Chief Creative Technologist at Theory Digital Group, a web design and development firm that aims to help PR people and firms be more effective online for their clients.

I met Erin at a terrific PR Innovators MeetUp in NYC, and, to be fair, Erin didn’t exactly say PR folks are “doing it wrong.” She more intimated that there are things PR people can be doing better. The following is an e-mail exchange she and I had regarding how her company is working with PR firms to add web elements to campaigns.

Mike: Tell me about Theory. What do you offer? Who is your target market?

Erin: The name is a play on the theory of evolution in the sense that nothing in the digital world is static, but rather it evolves as the need arises to become stronger and better. 

We offer a number of web design and development services for Public Relations firms that may not necessarily employ a creative or digital staff, or whose creative department is busy with other projects. Our expertise ranges from website and SEO audits, Facebook and other web apps, websites and email campaigns.

Mike: What does that actually mean? For example, does the agency handle content, while you augment the SEO value of an agency’s first draft, or does Theory DG handle content development too? Is the agency driving all of the strategy and you’re a set of “extra hands” to help broadcast the message, or is it more collaborative?

Erin: Each agency tends to operate in their own unique fashion, depending on their expertise and type of staff they have on hand. On top of that, each project tends to be unique in what is required as well. We’ve built websites from concept to launch with only minor input from the hiring agency and client, but we tend to work best as a collaborative team member, filling in obvious gaps in the areas of creative design and web development.

Mike: Presumably, you set out to solve a problem. What are PR people and firms doing wrong? What should they be doing differently?

Erin: I see a lot of PR firms approaching web projects the same way they would approach a traditional PR campaign. Budgets are typically appropriated at the beginning of the year, but may be mostly spent at the end of the year — bad news for a campaign on World AIDS Day or Giving Tuesday, both of which fall at the end of the year!

Mike: Part of me can’t imagine a PR firm operating in a “run-out-of-money” sort of way…but yeah, I can see it happening.

Erin: When budgets are thin, it’s difficult to justify spending development hours on websites. Without maintenance, these websites tend to fall behind and look outdated over time.
 
Lately, we’ve seen a lot of positive movement towards a mobile-first mentality. This is a methodology where a website is designed or planned starting with the mobile version first. For many of our clients, mobile usage makes up anywhere from 40–60% of their traffic. If the site isn’t mobile-friendly, then you can count on those visitors to leave in a heartbeat!

Mike: Are you talking about responsive design, or something a little more specific?

Erin: Yes, responsive design is part of a mobile-first methodology. Basically, it refers to developing a site that smartly resizes itself based on the device it’s being viewed on. Responsive sites tend to be more future-proof when new devices come out.
 
Mike: Based on the little I know about your company, it seems like a very specific niche you fill. How do PR agencies and clients react when you explain your offering?
 
Erin: We see one of two reactions:

1) The agency is rooted in traditional PR and doesn’t handle digital work; however, it’s rare that the agency isn’t curious about branching out, or they may not want to turn down a client’s request for digital work. In this event, we’ll walk the agency through the project so they know what to expect in terms of timing and expectations.

2) If the agency is already familiar with digital work, they often want to start with a low-risk project to get a feel for the working relationship.

Mike: Does this walkthrough include success metrics? For example, if an agency brings you in for a project, is there a certain amount of traffic you guarantee? A number of backlinks?

Erin: Since we don’t handle marketing or distribution of digital work, we don’t include success metrics. However, we make sure the hiring agency is in a position to fully report the success (or otherwise) of a digital project by having analytics at the ready.

I like to think of Theory as a tool in the agency’s toolbox. When the time is right, they can pull out the tool to help with a problem they’re facing, whether it’s building a website for a client or developing a mobile-friendly HTML email campaign.

Mike: What haven’t I asked you that you’re dying to tell me?

Erin: We love to pitch! Bring us in as your behind-the-scenes digital team member during the pitch phase. We’re personable, clients love us, and we get stakeholders excited about the technology behind their next campaign.

*****

Erin made some really great points in this exchange. The points about keeping websites up to date in the face on budgetary constraints was well received (I have a few microsite projects that were cutting edge at the time, but since those sites haven’t been updated in years, they now look obviously out of date).

If you’re working on a project that might benefit from web (or app) support, drop a quick note to Theory. The firm seems to do really great work, and can boost your campaigns from really good to outright amazing.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.


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About the Author
Mike Bush is a PR and Marketing freelancer with more than a dozen years of experience in the field. Find him on and connect Twitter @mikebush or at www.mikebush.nyc. 
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