Press can serve a lot of purposes but one of the main ones is credibility. As 19-year-olds working on a startup during college, credibility mattered a lot for us.
But it especially mattered for the product we were building: a product that helped empower the blind via object recognition. Why? Targeting the visually impaired is quite difficult; you can’t use traditional marketing techniques like social media. Instead, we relied on press to capture the attention of our relatively unconnected audience. Indeed, we found that sighted readers would almost definitely recommend our product to their visually impaired relatives and friends.
After being featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, Business Insider, SIRIUSXM Radio, and HuffingtonPost among others, we learned three major principles when it comes to pitching journalists.
The first basic principle behind finding press–as it is with selling anything–is to understand what’s in it for the other party. If you want to sell something, you have to show the other party–the journalist–that it’s in their interest to write about you.
At the end of the day, media companies are businesses. How do they make money? Ad revenue. How do you increase ad revenue? Increase number of potential clicks by increasing page-views. How do you increase page-views for a story? Make sure it’s “juicy” and that people want to share it on social networks.
Ultimately the question many journalists may use when determining whether to write about a company is: is your story juicy enough so that enough people who read it share it, and then those who read a shared article share it, and on and on?
Students have it easier than most everyone when it comes to press. Since we’re in school, we know we aren’t expected to be working on anything interesting; we’re just supposed to be in the library all day, right? Since nobody expects students to do something interesting, when they do something interesting, people become immediately interested and they share it.
Your job then is to hit a nerve such that the journalist doesn’t feel like she’s doing you a favor but that you’re doing her a favor by earning her pageviews.
It’s also important to not necessarily to pitch what you do but rather why you do it. Don’t pitch journalists on how awesome your crazy blockchain distributed ledger app is but instead talk about how you were students and you had personal pains and decided to solve this problem instead of going to class. As Simon Sinek says in his book Start With Why, people don’t buy what you do…they buy why you do it.
The second major principle is that you must give before you take. Journalists receive pitches from thousands of newly minted founders trying to have their company featured. All of them say something along the lines of “Hey I just founded this awesome company that does this super technical thing; do you want to write about us?” No. Don’t be one of these individuals.
As Wharton Professor Adam Grant talks about in his bestseller Give and Take, the best way to help yourself is to help others. Start early and develop a great relationships with all the potential journalists who’d be interested in your story months or even a couple years in advance. Help them and they will help you. A few months before you want to launch, start talking with journalists and becoming good friends with them. Share their content on Twitter and Facebook. Ask them questions. Send them emails. Connect them with other people.
Once more, connecting with journalists and building that relationship is quite easy as a student. All you have to do is go to your alumni database, find interesting people, reach out to them, and then just ask for advice. As I explained in an earlier article, simply cold emailing my business heros and asking for advice allowed me to establish relationships with them (this article also has email templates). Mentioning that you went to the same school makes the world smaller and thus makes the recipient more likely to respond.
Note that this second principle goes in the face of the spray and pray approach of sending out a hundred emails and hoping one of them works. That approach can work too but this approach leads to authentic relationships that both parties can benefit from down the line.
The third major principle is to build up credibility before pitching to the big whales (Forbes, NYT, WSJ). The best way to do that is via other articles. Just as birds of a feather stick together, journalists tend to like other journalists; in other words, if one journalist covers you, another is more likely to cover you.
It’s easy to get an article in the local university newspaper or in a local town newspaper. Oftentimes, these small papers and magazines don’t have enough stories and if you just cold email them, there’s a good chance they’ll write about you.
Once you can get a local article, use it as leverage and mention it in your email to Huffington Post. Then use the Huffington Post to go to Tech.co or StartupGrind. Use the StartupGrind article to get a Inc Magazine or Fast Company feature. Then use that to get a Forbes or NYT or WSJ feature. If you patiently go up the chain, not only will you get featured by a lot of varying sources, but you’ll also push your story in front of diverse audiences.
Ultimately, there are lots of small tactics you can use but there are already plenty of articles about those. Always remember these strategy principles though: frame the request in terms of the journalist’s desires, give and add value before you take, and go step by step up the ladder. Press isn’t hard. There’s no need to hire an expensive PR firm. Just follow the principles.