While we passionate founders believe the press can’t wait to write about our baby, the reality is pretty bleak. The birth of yet another new startup is hardly earth-shattering news, and reporters get inundated by pitches every hour that are all equally ignored.
Of course, there are exceptions: serial entrepreneurs with huge exits and startups receiving big name Series A funding certainly have a leg up. But for those of us entering the startup arena for the first time, here’s what worked for us…
Avoid Large PR Firms
Large PR firms are expensive and in today’s digitally connected world, overrated. Twitter, Foursquare, emails, and the plethora of other ways to find and reach out to journalists and bloggers removes the once impenetrable barrier to entry that required traditional PR contacts to crack. When you get to a size where you need a flock of PR professionals stewarding your brand across multiple geographies, hire a PR firm. At least for the first couple of months, you can do most of the tasks yourself. At Sparkology, we wasted nearly $20K on a relatively large NYC PR firm that paid little attention to us and our relatively small budget (another blog entry to come!). If you DO decide to hire a PR firm, really consider whether your needs will be better met by a large or smaller agency.
Prep Materials and Target Your Media List
In the past, you needed elaborate press releases, printed pitch decks, and long, formal corporate overviews (see where the $20K goes!?). Today, you just need to be ready with a one-pager that includes the product, company history, and a few lines about the founders. You’ll also need some good screenshots.
Lastly, make your own media list. Think about the goal of press. Is it to raise awareness? Target early adopters? Bring in mass market consumers? Backlinks for SEO? Be realistic. You may not get into WSJ, NYT, or Cosmo… but what about Mashable, a local CBS affiliate, or Springwise? You should have a list of 20-30 publications, writers, and their email addresses. Avoid generic email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a couple thousand dollars or a friend in PR, you can use a resource like Cision to get contact info. If you’re on a budget, use all the usual stalking techniques: twitter, facebook, linkedin, old articles they’ve published, bio pages, about.me, personal blogs, meetup.com, etc. Here’s a simple way to organize your media list.
Do a quick search of the writers’ work and biography to make sure there are no conflicts. For example, we knew not to reach out to openly gay reporters because our dating site hadn’t included functionality for gay singles (but will in the future). Similarly, male reporters who were college dropouts probably would not have liked our strict membership criterion that men hold degrees from top universities. Neglecting to do this quick research can lead to embarrassing gaffes like this one.
Mine Your Networks
The first coverage of your startup will come through one of your team members’ personal connections. This is the hustle. Ask your friends on Facebook if they (or anyone close to them) know any writers/bloggers/journalists (and make sure you ‘like’ each other’s posts so that they get more visibility on news feeds). Go on LinkedIn and type in the names of publications you are targeting as well as the big name newspapers. Media is a very incestuous world – if you can get a meeting with any writer, take it. They will probably know a way to make an introduction to the reporter you need. Also, go into your college’s alumni database and perform the same searches you did on LinkedIn. I’m batting a thousand or cold emails that have the words “Fellow UPenn Alum” in the subject line.
One network you’ve probably overlooked is that of your customers. If your customers have personal profiles, scan them for press-related keywords. If not, put a little popup on your internal pages that lets customers know you are looking for a connection to the press.
Note that the first publication to cover you does not need to be huge. It just takes one “influencer” to read a blog, Reddit, or Hacker News and the story is everywhere.
Create Time-Relevant Content
We were taught this beautifully powerful tactic by one of the industry’s true PR mavens. Journalists and bloggers have a content calendar that they need to abide by. They need to put out a Dads and Grads story, something about love on Valentine’s day, something about Christmas, etc. Take a holiday that’s 3-6 weeks away and spin a story that relates your company to that holiday. Or even better, create data survey your customers for data that relates your brand to that holiday. For example, if you are a travel company and July 4th is coming up, poll your users if they would rather fly or drive to their destination. Any writer speaking about coming home for the holidays will gladly reference your data! Here’s an example of how we put this strategy to use for Sparkology.
Use Customer Data
See the theme yet? The press loves data because their readers love data, especially controversial data… So find the data that goes against common perception or includes potty humor. OKCupid published an entire OKTrends blog where they spliced their data (and we’ve done something similar). If you can’t mine interaction data, integrate a polling platform into your site. We built a custom, convenient, and non-obtrusive polling platform, because we found that sending customers to survey sites like surveymonkey had low hit rates. .
Become an Expert
Don’t have enough data yet? You can still create meaningful articles by becoming experts in your fields. If you’re a rockstar SEO hacker, detail some of your SEO strategies. You can even use your platform to encourage other industry experts to opine and generate valuable content. For example, we run a monthly expert panel where America’s top dating experts give their opinion on a single topic. Not only are their followers introduced to our service, but their strong opinions make for great press. Both you and the experts benefit from the additional exposure.
Pay for It. Or Don’t.
Reputable newspapers have strict boundaries between editorial and sales departments. Many online periodicals and blogs do not. Many publications are run by profit-driven management whose business model relies on serving ads rather than serving informative articles. Sometimes you’ll get turned away no matter what you can offer by way of timely data, scoops, or exclusives simply because you refuse to become an advertising partner.
We ran across a situation where a prominent blog started speaking to us about publishing a story and that same day someone from their sales department called us wanting to sell ad space. If you have the cash and don’t find this contradicting your morals, go for it. In fact, you might be able to start by contacting the blogs about advertising opportunities. We chose not to as this would contradict our mantra of ‘our reputation is our greatest asset’. Not surprisingly, the communication with this publication dried up immediately after we made this decision.
Pitches That Stand Out
Reporters hate being treated like mules for distributing your startup news. They have egos and principles. They are humans, not newswires for hire. We’ve found that the following tactics work:
- Keep pitches short and informal. Add a picture of an ascii pterodactyl if it’s comical and relevant. A pitch should start a conversation, not spell out the entire story.
- Pitch yourself as a resource. “Fathers Day is coming up. We’re a cool dating site. Is there any data you wanted to reference that we could help gather?”
- Ask for advice. “We just launched a dating site and you’ve written so many articles about dating. Could I show you the site over coffee and get your feedback?” Even if they don’t write about you, they’ll refer you to three other reporters who might.
- Show that you are adding value to them rather than asking them to provide you with free advertisement.
- Build a relationship. Writers are people, not robots eager to disseminate any information you feed them. Continue to offer them value beyond just pitches and they will become invaluable long-term spokespeople for you regardless of which company you are with.
Since graduating with two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Alex Furmansky has enjoyed a successful career in both finance and tech entrepreneurship. He is the founder of Sparkology, an exclusive, quality-driven dating site set for attractive young professional singles.