Hacking Press is a Waste of Time

Our MTurk + Google News = Press post got quite a bit of attention – all supportive, some supportively critical.

Adam Drici has been the most supportive critic and as a journalist, he took us to task. 

[Update] Adam and I recently did a Google Hangout hashing out our thoughts on getting press. Watch it here: What I learned about Press Hacking.

Adam Drici – Journalist, Ball Buster

I really liked the first half of Justin’s hack. It’s a smart and efficient way to identify reporters writing in your space and collect their contact info, which can be a hugely valuable resource if you’re smart about how you use it. But while getting your launch day announcement picked up by the big tech blogs is nice, it just scratches the surface of how you can use the press to help grow your startup.

Show, Don’t Sell

A reporter’s primary job is to serve his or her readers. The best way to get them writing about you and your company is to show them how you can help them do their job better.

Be an Expert and a Resource. You can make yourself available to reporters through websites like Newswise.com and Helpareporter.com. These services are free to reporters, but there is a fee for companies and experts to get listed, so they may not be the right tool for everyone.

Find the reporters that are most relevant (in terms of subject matter, geography, demographics, etc.) to the work you’re doing. Develop a relationship with them. Journalism is a small world, everyone’s only a degree or two away from everyone else, and if you build a few of those relationships and demonstrate your expertise, other reporters will call or email you. When you have a good story to tell involving your company, they’ll be there to listen.

Tech sites aren’t always the best when it comes to the value of your press coverage. About half of the articles Justin got were on sites with a lot of crossover in readership. Some of those readers could have seen pretty much identical stories about the site seven times in one day, which:

  1. makes it way less special and
  2. means you potentially missed out on six additional sets of eyeballs.

Plus: if your target users/customers are “normals,” you have an incentive to get into the “normal” publications they read on the regular, i.e., general news sites, and local news outlets in particular. Tech and the web get very little coverage on that level, but those are the publications that often have the highest reader engagement. Reaching out to a targeted handful of local outlets could pay big dividends.

People like reading about other people, not websites Startup weekend customer development

Don’t waste column inches having your CEO or co-founder tell people how your website works. Instead, use them to share a story about how your product helped some user(s) achieve a goal, preferably one that readers can relate to or that they face in their own lives.

One of the area’s where ThingsWeStart’s press was lacking was its velocity.

I didn’t feel compelled or motivated to take any action after reading those articles. But if I had just read about how someone saved their farm by connecting on Kickstarter through this site or a small town or inner-city neighborhood banded together to crowdfund a new park or addition to the public library, I would head to the website and try to find some meaningful local project that’ll make me feel like the star of my own story.

Know your users/customers. Who are they and how are they using your product? Find the ones with interesting stories, and either shine a spotlight on them yourself through your company blog or point them out to the relevant reporters.

On Press Releases

In the 13 write-ups for ThingsWeStart, there were only two narratives:

  1. the press release about the company, maybe with a fresh quote or two thrown in
  2. stories about the infographics where the company was not the main attraction

Both are easy, throwaway stories that reporters crank out in 15 minutes because the story they want to be writing fell through or hasn’t come in yet. The results would have been the same, if not better, had they opted to run the press release and infographics on a service like PR Newswire or even just sent one email the night before embargoed until 6:00 a.m.

The underlying issue, though, is that those 13 articles only generated two unique data points. When I Google “ThingsWeStart,” I get headlines from a bunch of different sites, but they’re all pretty much the same story. If I’ve read one, I’ve read them all, and if that one story doesn’t grab me, neither will the other nine that say the same thing. Ten unique stories, on the other hand, will offer ten unique angles on your product or service.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that research, reports, rankings, infographics, etc. will outperform product or launch announcements because they can generate a greater number of unique narratives, which can in turn run in a greater number of unique publications. Using the materials you folks generated for ThingsWeStart as an example, each of the infographics could be pitched by its title, i.e., “Top 10 Kickstarter Cities in America,” but they can also be pitched by the individual cities and their rankings, i.e., “Chicago #3 City for Crowdfunding.” Push out the same information under multiple, location- or subject-specific headlines to increase visibility for reporters covering those places or topics.

Trulia is particularly good at producing this kind of third-party research and analysis on the real estate market for its Trulia Trends blog.

You can also be effective by staying on top of the news cycle and pushing out releases offering expert analysis/reaction to big or breaking stories that intersect with the space you work in. Again, using the ThingsWeStart example, if Kickstarter makes a big announcement, I have to post something on it, but so does everyone else who got the press release, and we’re likely to have very similar headlines and stories: “Kickstarter Launches [X].” But I want something more newsy so my story stands out. You, as an expert on the platform, can give me that something. Now my headline is: “Expert Says Kickstarter’s New [X] Will Change [Y] and [Z].”

Some practical tips:

Don’t spam reporters with multiple form emails. The three emails from the article were worse than the average press release because they were both too informal and at the same time clearly not personal. Why should I write a story about your company if you couldn’t even spare 3 minutes to bang out an email to ask me? Aim for conversational but professional in terms of tone.

Don’t try to write the story for us. We know how to do our job a lot better than you do. We know what people read and how to present the narrative in the most effective way possible. You can give hints or suggestions, but all we really want is straight information. When you try to write the story for us, you also run the risk of missing out on a much better story the reporter could have written by bringing their area expertise to bear, putting your project in a larger context or analyzing why and how it’s important and who it will affect.

Send press kits as attachments. But include the 300-400 word press release and couple paragraphs of background on our company in the body of the email. PDFs for documents, high-res .jpgs or .pngs (300dpi) for images and graphics. It’s more professional and easier to work with. And by making me open up a new tab to read and retrieve your info, you’re giving me one more (tiny) step to do, which is one more opportunity for me to not do it. Attachments get your materials in front of their eyeballs.

Let’s Hangout

Big thanks to Adam for his post, and for the follow-up Google Hangout he did we with answering everyone’s questions about getting press. Watch it here: What I learned about Hacking Press.

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