Pitching your startup to journalists can be tough, but here are some tips on how to get your startup into the press.
By Bonnie Boglioli Randall (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
Coverage in the media can broaden your customer reach, strengthen your brand and ultimately beef up your bottom line. But if you’re like many entrepreneurs, you’re not sure how to effectively pitch your startup to publications and bloggers.
With a little effort and some sage advice straight from a few of my favorite fellow writers, you can learn what piques our interest in a pitch and how to stand out from everyone else. Here are nine things to help you hone those press communications skills and create lasting relationships that will pay off.
1. Target the Right Publishers and Writers for Your Audience
Snagging press for your startup in a powerhouse publication with a wide reach may be the ultimate coup, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. On a recent panel I sat on, a journalist from a well-known tech site divulged that his inbox had upwards of 80,000 emails -- most of which will meet their demise in his trash without seeing the light of day.
Place your bet on making meaningful connections with the editors and writers who are most likely to cover your startup instead.
Alastair Goldfisher, veteran journalist and Editor-in-Charge at Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal, advises startups to identify what they’re trying to accomplish first. “If it’s just getting blanket coverage on a big site that’s going to get lost anyway, OK,” Goldfisher says. “But there are meaningful blogs and publications aplenty for each startup to target.”
Goldfisher cautions to be certain that the target of your pitch is relevant to your audience. “My biggest pet peeve is when I get pitched to and I wonder if they even know what I cover or what I’m looking for,” he questions. Do your research and identify the right person at the right publication before you send that email.
2. Develop Meaningful Dialog
Once you’re confident in your Step #1 findings, develop dialog in a meaningful way with these writers and editors. This may start at a conference or a demo day. It can also be a conversation on Twitter, where you exchange ideas and retweet articles that apply to your market or audience. Get to know the writer’s interests and take some time to read their recent stories.
Unless you’re sending out an embargoed press release (more on that in Step #6), do not succumb to sending out email blasts to a smorgasbord of writers in hopes of a bite. These types of emails are seldom read.
Covering entrepreneurs and venture business for Forbes, staff writer Hollie Slade gets her share of ubiquitous blasts. “I probably get 15 to 30 unsolicited pitches and press releases a day. Most start, ‘Hi Hollie,’ before launching into a cookie cutter pitch that they obviously sent to every email address they have.” Slade adds, “Give me something fresh that no one else has please.”
By getting to know writers and publications before you pitch them your startup, you leapfrog ahead of the others who are still stuck on the email blast thing.
3. Stay Away from Excessive Superlatives
Startups that fall prey to overhyping themselves with trendy marketing and PR catch phrases are the bane of reporters’ eyes and ears everywhere. Let us (and the readership, a.k.a. customers) be the judge of whether or not your product is “disruptive” or “revolutionary.”
“I’m a good bullshit detector, which is one reason people read us,” says Eliane Fiolet succinctly. Co-founding the widely circulated gadget site Ubergizmo, she weeds through countless press releases to discover the latest gadgets worth sharing with her audience. “I don’t really care about the message. I obliterate the words in press releases and get to the core of the product.”
Like Fiolet, Goldfisher has learned how to cut through the B.S. over the course of three decades covering venture capital and startups in Silicon Valley. “Usually the (founders) that don’t boast too much come across as easier to get along with, ask questions of, and write about.” He offers candidly. “If they speak honestly about their vertical or competition, it resonates better professionally.”
4. Focus on the 5 W’s
Leaving the fluff to others, learn to pitch your startup using the 5 W’s of journalism that draw us in like Pavlov’s dogs to the sound of a bell: Who, what, when, where and why. Strong growth or sales numbers can also help your case for coverage.
For Slade, a gig at Forbes brings an intimate knowledge of what works in pitches and what doesn’t. “Don't just say (you’re) growing like crazy.” Instead, she emphasizes concise and to-the-point pitches. “Give me some data points. What is revenue? Is the company profitable (or) likely to be soon?”
5. Don’t Treat Reporters Like Your Soapbox
Few things irk reporters more than feeling like a tool used for your free publicity.
It’s our job to cover the startups and technologies for our readership; your product or service will earn our coverage if it stands out on its own merits. What doesn’t sit well with us is when we feel pressured to cover you. Catching up over coffee doesn’t automatically equate to a feature length story; discussing your latest product at a demo doesn’t mean we can cover it.
We like geeking out to the latest gadgets and news just like you… with no strings attached.
6. Don’t Make us Feel Like an After-Thought
Don’t tell us about the article featuring your impending product launch on another website. It’s a bit like being invited to an exclusive party on second thought just to bolster attendance numbers.
Instead, if you’ve got big news to share (ex. product launch), learn how to use a press embargo to relay the information to many reporters at once. An embargo offers us the opportunity to conduct research, schedule interviews and see demos with the full faith and trust that no one else will beat us to the punch ahead of the specified date and time on the embargo lift.
“Embargos are very important to us because we don’t have a huge team,” explains Fiolet, whose site puts out 60 articles each day on the latest gadgets. “We try to cover as many cool products as we can, especially at big trade shows; getting embargoed information before the show allows us to provide our readers with better coverage, to see the product, take more time learning about it and write a better story.”
7. We May Narrate It, But You’ve Got to Write Your Own Story
No matter how unique you believe your product or service to be, it’s just another startup to us -- unless you clearly define what separates you from the pack.
Often, founders are so caught up in the product itself that they forget about their team, the hardships faced and the end goals. Remember why it is you’re doing what you’re doing, and then articulate that when you pitch us.
In addition to minding those five W’s, Slade suggests honing in on the story-behind-the-story when pitching to a reporter. “Do you have a really interesting entrepreneur’s journey to share?” she asks rhetorically. “What challenges has the company overcome? Tell me about the blood sweat and tears.”
8. Don’t Mistake a ‘No’ for a ‘Never’
Rejection hurts. Entrepreneurs know this better than anyone else on the planet. Leverage that thick skin you’ve grown when interacting with us.
Remember, we aren’t here to serve as your white glove publicity service. We have our own opinions, publishing schedules and workloads. Don’t take offense if we don’t feature you, and don’t assume we never will.
Patience is a virtue. If you’ve taken the time to perform the steps outlined above, we’re much more likely to remember you and your startup ahead of the countless others that we cross paths with.
As Goldfisher explains, “I may not have an imminent story, or a startup may not fit into a category I’m currently working on. But it could be relevant to me months down the line.”
9. Lastly, Show Your Appreciation & Keep the Dialog Going
If your startup has earned a coveted spot in a published piece -- no matter how big or small -- show your appreciation to the author. Always thank them personally and share the piece publicly. You can simply share on Twitter where us writers are eager to see our hard work garner some views; we’re also likely to retweet you to our other reporter followers.
Keep your dialog with these reporters rolling, sharing interesting new technologies or story ideas related to your mutual interests and not always just about you.
Welcome to the world of genuine, open conversation! If you can follow these simple steps, you can manage your interactions with the press and ultimately reap the rewards.
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About the author: Bonnie Boglioli-Randall is a Silicon Valley-based freelance writer with a predilection for covering the startup ecosystem, helping tell the stories of nascent technologies and organizations. She’s an enthusiast of non-fiction (of the sort that make most people’s eyes glaze over), running and her family. She’s always up for a good conversation. Follow her on Twitter at @BonnieBRandall.