It can be challenging for unknown startups to garner press attention — budgets are tight, relationships with journalists may not be that strong and explaining a new concept is difficult. Not to mention, early-stage startups usually only employ a few people focused on product and development. Therefore, marketing and public relations are often tackled piecemeal by whomever has time.
Good press, though, can be one of the biggest drivers for startups looking to grow their user bases, and as a result, a pretty important component for success.
As a tech journalist, I’ve been pitched by hundreds of companies and have developed a taste for what works and what doesn’t. Read on for my startup tips.
1. Know What’s Newsworthy
Before you begin pitching your startup, stop to think about what is truly newsworthy, especially to the publications you’re targeting.
Sadly, many startups simply aren’t newsworthy, because they aren’t unique or don’t offer any added value beyond their existing competitors. If your startup is in that boat, it’s really not a matter of figuring out how to pitch your company — instead, you may want to consider improving your product before hitting the pavement.
That being said, if you feel your startup is unique and worthy of coverage, figure out the right angle with which to approach a journalist. A few common ideas include:
- The startup’s launch
- The launch of a new product, feature or offering
- The release of a compelling study or interesting data
- The company’s response to a current event
- News of a high profile partnership
Once you figure out what qualifies as newsworthy, begin crafting your message by first understanding all of the details about what you’re pitching.
2. Have a Concise, Value-Driven Message
Before sending out any pitches, take time to craft your company’s message. Be able to explain your startup in one sentence so that anyone — techie or not — can understand its purpose. For example, here is how a few of my favorite startups describe themselves:
- “Airbnb is a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover and book unique spaces around the world online or from an iPhone.”
- “Skillshare is a community marketplace to learn anything from anyone.”
- “Lot18 is a membership by invitation website for wine and epicurean products from coveted producers at attractive discounts.”
Cut down on industry jargon so that any average Joe can understand your pitch with one read.
After you’ve crafted your company pitch, stick to it for everything you pitch — unless, of course, you find ways to improve it over time.
Besides your company’s description, you’ll also need to create a message for the news event you’re hoping to get covered. Figure out how to explain your story pitch in only a few sentences. Journalists get tons of pitches every day — it’s very likely that the journalist you’re pitching will only read the first few sentences of your email.
When finding your voice for the pitch, try not to force a hook. For example, a lot of press releases and pitches that I receive around key holidays try to make the enclosed news sound more relevant due to the upcoming holiday. If the hook is unrelated, though, it just bogs down the message and makes it difficult to understand.
Once you’ve crafted your message, making sure that it is clear and concise, be certain that it answers these questions for the journalist: “Why is this newsworthy? Why should my audience care?”
3. Understand a Journalist’s Coverage Area & Audience
Determine which demographic — and therefore, which publication — would be interested in your startup. Then research which journalists at that publication cover the vertical in which your startup or its news would fall.
Consider making a list of the top 5-10 journalists in your industry that you’d like to build relationships with and then move forward, focusing on those journalists every time you have a story to convey. Read up on the journalists’ articles and get a clear understanding of what each of them covers. When you pitch them, showcase that you follow their work and feel that your startup fits in with their coverage.
You don’t have to come right out and say that you’ve read all of a journalist’s articles to convey that information, though. For the sake of originality, try to stay away from the cliche first sentence of, “I read your recent post called ‘XYZ,’ and I think you’d be interested in my startup.” If you can’t think of a compelling format, go with something like, “I noticed you’ve covered location-based networks quite a bit at Publication X, and I think you’d be interested in learning about how my startup is changing that space by [fill in blank].” Be sure to differentiate your company from ones that the journalist has already covered, however.
While pitching individual writers sounds more promising to many PR folk, you should always determine the official pitching method for your preferred publication. For example, stories for Mashable should be pitched to firstname.lastname@example.org. That inbox is monitored at all hours of the day and relevant pitches are forwarded to the correct editors and writers. Contrary to popular belief, news inboxes aren’t always bottomless pits.
4. Customize Your Pitches
People generally don’t like to be part of blast emails, and journalists are no exception. When you want a particular person to cover your story, customize your pitch to be relevant to his coverage area and audience.
Take the extra time to craft custom emails for a small list of journalists that you really want to cover your story. They will most likely notice that you’ve taken the time to write a thoughtful email and be more likely to respond.
5. Avoid Press Releases & Simple Mistakes
I’ve rarely encountered press releases that were helpful. Generally, they are lengthy, full of empty quotes from company reps and tainted with marketing jargon. Just stay away from them. Period. Instead, stick with custom emails.
Now, I know you’ll be tempted to copy and paste information from one email to another — and you should. After all, your company’s description and the news pitch won’t change much. Be careful, though, of copying incorrect information, such as “I love your work on TechCrunch,” when the writer actually works for VentureBeat.
Another common mistake is to misunderstand a writer’s coverage area. Just because a reporter has written about the top startups in Canada doesn’t mean he wants to know about your Canadian printing company.
6. Have Useful Assets Available
As you get down to pitching time, make sure you have all assets ready that a journalist might request, such as:
- A company or product description
- Photos relevant to the story
- Screenshots of the product
In some cases it may make sense to include a screenshot or photo in the initial pitch, but most of the time just mention that you can send over photos, screenshots and more details if the writer is interested in learning more.
7. Consider Timing with Exclusives and Embargoes
Timing is essential when pitching news. You want to give the writer enough time to report, but you don’t want to pitch the idea too soon that the writer forgets about it by the time your company launches or announces the news officially. I personally prefer to receive news one week in advance of the official announcement. And when possible, I love to have the option of covering the news as an exclusive, when a publication is given the right to be the first publication to report on a given story.
Another key term to know is “embargo.” An embargo is “a request by a source that the information or news provided by that source not be published until a certain date or certain conditions have been met,” as stated on Wikipedia.
An embargo is useful if you anticipate that reporters will need extra time to accurately report the news. This gives them time to interview sources at your company, for example, while still getting the story out right when everyone else does.
8. Offer Up Unique Data
When pitching, include data and numbers that support your ideas when possible. In fact, an interesting study, infographic or other data sometimes warrants its own pitch. If your company has gathered proprietary information that tells a compelling story, pitch it.
9. Follow Reporters on Twitter
Make it your goal to build relationships with the group of journalists that cover your industry.
Meeting up for lunch or drinks isn’t always the best option when it comes to keeping the conversation alive, though — oftentimes, a journalist may only want to meet up when you have a story to pitch. After all, he or she is probably busy doing other things.
A great way to stay in touch is to follow your key reporters on Twitter. Writers often tweet when they’re looking for sources, and they share articles and other news that they’re interested in. Use these pieces of information to learn more about each journalist and tailor your communications accordingly.
Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with a little interaction. When you find something you think a journalist may enjoy, tweet it over. And when he or she shares an interesting article or tweets something entertaining, feel free to interact.
If you’re unsure of who to follow, check out Muck Rack, a list of journalists on Twitter.
10. Reverse Pitch Using HARO & NewsBasis
If your company or someone within your company matches a journalist request, respond by clearly explaining how you could add value to the story. Oftentimes, this type of coverage helps position individuals at your startup as subject matter experts.