This is for the early-stage companies—the entrepreneurs with great ideas and tireless work ethics who feel like they’ve emailed half of the country’s news outlets with nothing but the rare “thanks, but not interested” reply to show for it.
The irony hurts. You don’t have the traction, the big-dollar investments, or the marketing staff to attract media attention. Yet often it’s positive press that helps grow your user base, build credibility, and get investors on board.
Every publication is different, so there’s no single blueprint. However, as someone who’s spent the past several years covering startups, I can tell you absolutely what not to do. Even if you’re in the pre-revenue, pre-seed or seed stage, there are still ways to get on a reporter’s radar.
If you don’t want to irritate a reporter, do not…
- Pitch everyone – Journalists are busy people. Nine times out of 10, your email gets ignored—not because the reporter is a jerk, but because he or she is already swamped. If you email the same boilerplate pitch to 60 publications, believe me, journalists can tell. You don’t want to irritate your target, so put some work into tailoring your pitch.
- Pitch blind. Within three lines of an email, I can tell whether you’ve ever read my publication. That matters. If you want reporters to pay attention to you, you need to pay attention to them. Write your email armed with an understanding of the writer’s tone, editorial focus, and the kinds of stories he or she typically writes. That means avoiding a pitch to a software-centric publication about your biotech startup. Don’t pitch the real estate reporter on an app that has nothing to with housing. And don’t pitch a Boston newspaper on your San Francisco startup. Read the publication, understand its audience, and write your pitch around that.
- Pitch late. The operative word in “news” is “new.” If your early-stage startup does have something big happen, don’t pitch reporters on covering it two months (or even two weeks) later. Better yet, give them two weeks’ notice so they can decide in advance whether you’re worth covering. It puts less pressure on their busy schedule, and gives you better odds of landing a story. Avoid events that are never timely, i.e. anniversaries, holidays and “Go blue for/Go red for [insert cause here]” months. These happen every year. They are not news.
Even in the earliest stages, here are three ways to get your foot in the door…
- Be a person. Don’t be a faceless press release. Share some of your personal story and, if possible, schedule a quick coffee meetup. Whether you get press from it or not, building a relationship with the reporter will ensure you at least avoid getting marked “junk mail” the next time around.
- Be a resource. If your startup’s still small potatoes, a reporter might tell you it doesn’t merit a story just yet, and that’s okay. But the relationship doesn’t have to end there. Even if your own company isn’t newsworthy, you are on the ground in the startup community, and that is valuable. You can introduce the reporter to other entrepreneurs, or key him or her into events before they become news. This solidifies your relationship, and makes you top of mind when your startup does fit a story or you do merit your own article.
- Be empathetic. A reporter’s job is to share news that matters to their readers. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes, and think about how your story fits with that mission. A publication whose readers are in Boston will want to know you’re based here in Cambridge. Will the average person care which language you wrote your program in? No, but a publication that gets into the nitty gritty of mobile development will want those details and then some. A business publication may care less about the technical nuances, but you can bet they’ll want to hear about your numbers and your strategy for raising revenue. The more you consider the audience when you make your pitch, the less likely that reporter is to hit “delete.”
That leaves the question, what do you pitch? Here three things that never work.
- Your product launch. You did it! You’re finally on the App Store! Your Android version debuts soon! Start the presses! … Or don’t. Reporters aren’t here to advertise for you. Your app launching is not the story. Similarly, releasing your software or, worse still, putting out that Version 2.0 you slaved over for months? Not a story, (unless you’re Apple or Microsoft). You are an unknown entity, and unless your app is off-the-wall unusual or already attracting serious sponsors and thousands of users, why would reporters care?
- Your crowdfunding campaign. Same conundrum here: you need attention to hit your funding goal, but it isn’t reporters’ jobs to help you get there. Believe me, newsroom inboxes get blitzed with crowdfunding stories by the dozen, each for something more kooky than the next. This is not a good way to stand out.
- Anything “unique.” I’ll admit this might be a personal pet peeve, but it’s also a good rule of thumb. The sorely abused “unique” (or, worse yet, the redundant “most unique”) descriptor is a red flag for journalists. Its actual definition is “being one of a kind; unlike anything else.” Unless you honestly have the only grocery app in the world, do not sell it as such. Reporters are hyper-sensitive to hyperbole, and they won’t take you seriously if you oversell your product or services. Other automatic eye-rollers: “first of its kind,” “the next Uber,” “game-changing,” “revolutionizing,” “making the world a better place,” etc.
To figure out what is a story, you really just need to listen to your gut and pay a little attention to your brain. Put yourself in the reporter’s seat and consider what pitch would make them jump out of it. Ask yourself, What would you as a reader feel irresistibly compelled to click on or even pick up a good, old-fashioned newspaper for?
- Your crowdfunding campaign hit it out of the park. You set a $50,000 Kickstarter goal, reached it in four days, and the donation counter’s still ticking toward a million. That is objectively crazy. People will be salivating to know how the hell you did it. Offer reporters an exclusive on the successful, viral campaign that got you there, or a behind-the-scenes look at what your product does and how you’ll deliver on this huge campaign’s promises.
- You’re breaking taboos. Talk about that thing everybody else tries to hide. Pitch me on how your startup tanked, but you took away some lessons others entrepreneurs can learn from. Offer me an inside look at how tough the 80 hour per week startup life is on your family or your mental health. Tell me about that time a prospective investor royally screwed you over. These things are difficult to talk about, but incredibly necessary. Reporters crave the story that hasn’t been told.
- You have a truly compelling origin story. This one is tricker in the pre-revenue stage. Reporters may be leery of showcasing an unproven entrepreneur. However, think critically about what motivates you and how your own history tells the story of your startup. It could be the tough story of child loss that led you to develop an app that monitors sleeping infants, or how your childhood struggle with dyslexia spurred you to write a program that helps others with reading disabilities. As with No. 2, this requires a certain amount of honesty and comfort with vulnerability. The thing is, reporters respond to that because readers respond to it. Above all, avoid cliches. Although bootstrapping your startup is difficult, that in and of itself is not unique. If your personal story is of a young, white, male college student who developed an app to better find bar deals, believe me when I tell you that you could not be more trite. Read up on the tech news sites you’re pitching, then do a little soul-searching. Identify what about your story or your product is unpredictable, and build from that.
- Using hackneyed tech jargon or inscrutable acronyms (spare me your “synergy”)
- You are presenting at a conference or trade show and/or you have a booth at a conference or trade show (still boring)
- Receiving a patent (rarely exciting, unless you’re contesting Apple for the rights to it)
- You have a new hire (if they’re not the CEO or CTO, reporters probably won’t care)
- You have a new, big name advisor (unless it’s a big, big name this rarely works)
Editor’s note: You can find more resources around PR, content marketing, and customer acquisition for seed-stage startups in the Marketing & Growth section of our platform.