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How to Get Press for Your Startup (medium.com)
151 points by austenallred on Oct 23, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments



    The high-profile bloggers and reporters
    (think Alexia Tsosis, Sarah Lacy, Robert
    Scoble) can spend most of their time on
    investigative journalism and analysis
haha, seriously? Investigative journalism?

Edit: OK, seriously, this is where you lost me.

    Robert Scoble, for example, is a sucker 
    for anything involving Google Glass or
    fine alcohol
ahem: http://valleywag.gawker.com/robert-scoble-in-recovery-going-...

Alexia Tsotsis (you misspelled her name in the article) has gone off to business school, and Scoble is in AA. I find it hard to give any credence to anything you say after this.

Also to be clear: I don't find Scoble's work particularly interesting. I think he's uncritical and offers little more than naked PR opportunities to companies hoping to tap into his ravenous mob of tech enthusiasts. But, it's not like I dislike him as a human being. I just wish he was more critical about the companies he shows off on Facebook, or wherever he's posting now.


Yeah, that paragraph was really just a couple of examples to point out the fact that reporters are just people at the end of the day. This was written a few years ago and was recently ported over to Medium, where it started taking off, hence mentioning Scoble and Tsotsis. I should update, but I wouldn't read too much into it.

The process definitely works, I've used it for a dozen companies when I used to work in marketing, and it has worked for my company as well.


"and was recently ported over to Medium"

Wouldn't it have made sense to update it prior to porting to Medium then?


...or at least updating it before knowingly posting dated info to HN.


Sure, I just didn't think about it.


While I am definitely not a fan of "influencer culture" either, the examples given are a bit ad hominem. (Scoble is back to doing newsletters)


Sorry, what about my examples are "a bit ad hominem"? I mention Scoble joining AA not to mock him, but instead to strongly dissuade anyone from trying to give him booze.


I made these same points below.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10440046

It's all about knowing the reporters. Form emails can't address that.


While I agree, not everyone knows reporters. That's like saying "knowing VCs is the best." If you are Jack Dorsey and know a bunch of VCs then great, but the vast majority of people have to pound the pavement and hustle.


Right. And I'm not saying you need to know them personally because they partied on your yacht. I'm saying you should do your research. Study them. Know who they write for and what they like. Anyone can do that.

Based on that knowledge, you can give them something they care about, and that gift may move them from their default setting of indifference toward a willingness to engage. You build relationships with them over time, even if it starts with a cold email.

But this conversation is about what should be in that cold email. I'm arguing that it shouldn't be a form pitch. Personalized at scale, for me, sounds like an oxymoron.


I don't know, I get the sentiment but at the end of the day you're pitching your company. It will vary a little, but not that much. When you pitch VCs 95% of the pitch is the same VC to VC. When they ask questions it becomes different, of course, but you don't have to recreate your pitch from the ground up going from person to person.

This process works. You may have a better one with no scale, but I've used this dozens of times and it works every time, even at big publications, and have developed many relationships using it.


Ah, that makes much more sense.


It's funny how many growth hacks finally boil down to "Collect 500 emails and then email them about your startup".

Is it okay to find users from Craigslist to tell them about your startup too?

Another thing that I never understand is If I draft the email personally by hand then it is okay but if I use a template to mass fill the emails with [first name] then it is spamming? How does one decide the ethical side of such growth hacks?


This is specifically a way to email writers of (tech) blogs, craft a pitch for them, then email them in a personalized way at scale.

I'd argue that the people we're pitching want to be pitched - it's actually a part of their job. We're just doing it at scale as a way to save a lot of time.

> Is it okay to find users from Craigslist to tell them about your startup too?

I know you're joking about this, but I'm pretty sure Airbnb would have failed without doing exactly that.

At the end of the day the ethical line is one you need to draw yourself. But IMO if the people you're emailing expect to and are OK with receiving email pitches from you you're well on the "ethical" side of the scenario.

Ask (almost) any reporter: They want to be pitched.


> I'd argue they want to be pitched, and doing it at scale is just a way to save you a lot of time.

There are sites like www.helpareporter.com which do the exact same thing but the difference here is that the reporters opt-in to get the emails. I think that is a more ethical way of doing it.

>I know you're joking about this, but I'm pretty sure Airbnb would have failed without doing exactly that.

Wow, though as per AirBnB it was a rogue marketing agency which did it without telling them.

Link for the lazy (first article on Google): [1] http://www.tnooz.com/article/airbnb-admits-rogue-sales-team-...


> There are sites like www.helpareporter.com which do the exact same thing but the difference here is that the reporters opt-in to get the emails. I think that is a more ethical way of doing it.

HARO has like 5 requests/day, and it's for very niche topics. If you're writing for TechCrunch you expect to be pitched. That's just the way it works.

> as per AirBnB it was a rogue marketing agency which did it without telling them.

I call bullshit on that. They funded the company selling cereal for $50/box on Craigslist. They knew how to play the Craigslist game. Craigslist is incredibly difficult to mass post on, you don't do that by accident.

I don't blame them from shying away from it when they were big enough for people to care, but I bet you if you had them in private they'd admit to it.


> Wow, though as per AirBnB it was a rogue marketing agency which did it without telling them.

Plausible Deniability as a Service


This is simply not true. Some do. Most already get too many pitches. And the crucial point that we're not addressing here is: Pitched about what? A lot of work has to be done to target and tailor pitches, and that can't really be done at scale. You have to pick a few and focus on them.


If you put your email address in your byline, which is how we're gathering email addresses, it's fair that you expect to be pitched.


It's more complicated than that. You're extrapolating that because they put their email up on the site, they sent the signal that they want these spam-blast form pitches. That's a logical leap, and it happens to be incorrect.

In addition, the email addresses that reporters give on websites are not their real addresses. The publicly shown addresses lead to spam buckets, precisely because too many people are sending emails indiscriminately.


And I could argue that startup founders want to be pitched on "interesting candidates" because hiring people is part of their job...


When I'm hiring I'm grateful for inbound job applicants. And I've hired some. If I had to hire four people per day I'd probably be OK with it, especially if it was from the applicant themselves instead of a hiring agency.


I was once asked by someone if my Facebook Page scraper tool could be used for scraping personally-identifiable data, because "we are doing a growth hacking experiment whereby we want to reach out to a number of FB pages in a systematic way."

Facebook prevents scraping user data via the API for exactly this reason.


Yeah, spamming people who join Facebook groups is pretty low (unless through FB ads).

I still think emailing reporters through their publicly provided email addresses is different.


Why make an exception for ads? Sending millions of emails to people who did not solicit them is unethical and spam, but using an ad network to accomplish the same thing is okay?


Because that's how the platform works, and you agree to that when you use the platform.

If you want to debate whether ads in general are ethical, I'm really not about to have that discussion yet again; I'll let someone else take it and we can all argue the same points we always do for the millionth time.


You could argue the same of the email "platform", by virtue of individuals being "emailable" from anyone.


Stop saying "spam" (which means different things to different people) and start saying UBE - unsolicited, bulk, email.

If it's unsolicited, but not bulk, it's okay. If it's solicited (where solicited means "opt in, with a confirmation of that opt in") it's okay. As soon as it's bulk and unsolicited it's spam. And that doesn't change if you hand craft the emails or use a template.


Marketers, "growth hackers", and senators don't get to define spam.

Users -- especially those hitting the "spam" button -- define spam.

Whether or not something is considered spam depends largely on whose interest you're serving by sending it: the sender's, or the receipient's.


> Stop saying "spam" and start saying UBE - unsolicited, bulk, email.

> As soon as it's bulk and unsolicited it's spam

Did you mean to write this? You essentially said to stop saying "spam" and that this is spam...


Well, yes, I see that's confusing. "As soon as it's bulk and unsolicited it meets the minimum definition for what most people would call spam", perhaps, or "as soon as it's bulk and unsolicited your hosting provider is going to think it's spam".


"Collect 500 emails and then email them about your startup"...that's specifically why I ended up building https://conversationlist.com (it helps you skip the step of collect 500 emails and just jump right to the email everyone you have a pre-existing relationship with step).

Amazing how well that old-school growth hack still works...


I haven't tried this exact approach, but I have tried an approach I would describe as broadly similar, but a bit less automated.

I run a small ambient background noise app called A Soft Murmur [1]. It has been featured by some fairly high-profile outlets, including the Arts section of The Independent [2], Netted [3] and being tweeted by SXSW [4].

I made a large update to the app about a year ago and made a concerted effort to get some press. I compiled a list of people I thought would be interested, ranging from tiny bloggers to well-known tech journalists. In each case, I made sure that there was a personal connection between the person I was contacting and my application - either the person had written about finding it difficult to work in noisy environments, or they had written about scientific research on the effects of background noise on productivity, or they mentioned using background noise as a tool for meditation or relaxing, or they had written about a similar service before, etc. Each email was hand-written without using any templates, and each email referenced why I thought that specific person would be interested. I also experimented with different formats - more detail, less detail, more formal, more friendly, etc. I also tried lots of different angles, sharing different interesting tidbits about the app and how it came to be.

None of those emails generated a single article or mention. I probably sent a couple of hundred over the course of a week, and the success rate was literally 0%. What's more, although I worked hard to make each email sound positive, I hated the whole process and it made me feel like scumbag.

All of the positive press about my application has been generated by word of mouth. I've been very fortunate with happy users spreading the word on social media, and press outlets picking it up from there.

It's possible that I just suck at writing pitches, but I tried a lot of different approaches and made a real, good-faith effort to only contact people who I genuinely thought would be interested in my app. I had no success whatsoever. Even trying as hard as possible to make each message personal and relevant, it still felt a bit spammy. It also sucked up a lot of time.

It's not something I would do again.

  [1] http://asoftmurmur.com

  [2] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/a-soft-murmur-this-website-of-ambient-sounds-will-wash-away-distractions-a6684306.html

  [3] http://netted.net/a-soft-murmur-white-noise-machine-site/

  [4] https://twitter.com/sxsw/status/643805329013276673


Thanks for sharing your experience, and especially the details about your approach. As a writer, I'd like you to maybe consider that the effort you put forward at least was self-improvement exercise in communication - as in, through practice and time, you had some realizations about how you want to present yourself, your product, etc. I genuinely think time spent in your objective isn't a waste, per se, because you've got material that you created which can be used as a reference, template, or reminder in the future.

> None of those emails generated a single article or mention. I probably sent a couple of hundred over the course of a week, and the success rate was literally 0%. What's more, although I worked hard to make each email sound positive, I hated doing it and it made me feel like scumbag.

I occasionally participate in a Reddit forum for music production, and a frustrated member just went through the exact same experience trying to submit to music review / blog / coverage sites: More than 100 emails, targeted, using methods that the community had identified and cited as constructive. 0% response rate.

In the course of telling the group about the experience, sure, several members chimed in saying they'd be willing to take a look...some might even be writers or editors relating to a music blog, but I think the lesson I learned was that "joining a community and sharing with it is much easier than attempting to solicit interest." In a past experience, working at an indie movie theater, the biggest "success stories" were almost always word-of-mouth buzz related (e.g. Big Fat Greek Wedding) versus the films which did a lot of advertising (About Schmidt being the biggest exception).


> As a writer, I'd like you to maybe consider that the effort you put forward at least was self-improvement exercise in communication - as in, through practice and time, you had some realizations about how you want to present yourself, your product, etc. I genuinely think time spent in your objective isn't a waste, per se, because you've got material that you created which can be used as a reference, template, or reminder in the future.

I agree with this broadly, but I feel like I am too biased by how fortunate I have been to really appraise how useful the exercise was in the terms you describe.

By "fortunate", I mean the application has been a success in my own modest terms, relative to the time I spent working on it. I think that success is attributable mainly to luck.

Although the people who use the application like it based on its inherent qualities, I don't think those inherent qualities alone were enough to guarantee that my application would find users back in the critical early stage. I think it found users because when I submitted it to Reddit a couple of years ago, shortly after creating the first version, I was lucky that enough people happened to see it in the list of new submissions and happened to like it and happened to like it enough to upvote it. There are 5-10 people out there who I will never meet who are responsible for that submission getting on to the front page of that subreddit, which resulted in a flood of traffic, which resulted in a chain of events that eventually led to success (again, on my own terms).

If you flip a couple of bits of background entropy, I build exactly the same thing and try to spread the word about it in exactly the same way and it never gets any traction and no one ever really finds out about it.

So while the current version of me may agree that I value the self-knowledge "I'm not the kind of person who feels comfortable mass-emailing strangers in an attempt to promote myself", the version of me in that other, equally plausible reality where my application never got any users might not feel the same way, or might still be mass-emailing strangers, or what have you. I don't know, because I've been so fortunate with how things have turned out.


Wow, I've got to give you some genuine compliments that you've got a very, very useful introspective compass. I'm not sure who said the maxim of "Success is when luck meets preparation" but I can totally see your point in how things went. Though I've never been devout in Christianity (other than really digging Jesus-was-a-hippie thoughts), when I see a person down and out, scraggly, maybe who made some bad decisions in their life that have held them back, I do appreciate the thought "There but by the grace of God go I" because flipping a couple bits of background entropy means a lot. I guess that's why in fiction there's so much talk about messing with the past having large consequences in the future.

In some ways though, I think your reluctance to want to reach out, unsolicited, is something I can relate to my music endeavors. I get stage fright, whether in front of people I know or just a gathered crowd at an open mic night. I mean, they're there to hear music, so why should I feel nervous? Eventually I got to the point where I would go out and play on street corners, sometimes with a tip jar but mostly just to do it, and get over the fact that what I'm doing has merit because I want to share it, and if nobody pays attention, it doesn't mean I was a jerk for playing some nice tunes in a public space.


> I'm not sure who said the maxim of "Success is when luck meets preparation"

Seneca.


Thanks, I looked around briefly but couldn't get the attribution correct. Much appreciated.


This is remarkably humble and honest. Most people are willing to take far too much credit for their own success, and far too little responsibility for their own failures.


I do freelance writing. Some of the writing I do needs to be positive and also not sound promotional. It's something I got feedback on to learn. It is surprisingly hard to be positive and genuine and hit the right note. It is possible that a first time attempt, with presumably no constructive feedback, just didn't come across as smoothly as what you were shooting for.

Also, I got interviewed in July by a reporter who sought me out. No article has materialized. I kind of suspect it got killed. So even if they come to you, it may not get published. It was a national paper. I get piddling amounts of traffic. I am incredibly bummed and have no idea what to do. I thought it would get published and make a big difference in my life.


Do you have a copy of your pitch?

There are a lot of things that can go wrong. I look at marketing like I do computer programs. Most of the time your first go at it is buggy (and maybe won't even compile). If any single thing is off the entire process comes crashing down.


In your HN profile you are hinting expertise in user acquisition.

Your acquisition results are occasionally impressive, but not sticky:

http://www.similarweb.com/website/grasswire.com

Note 400K monthly visits in August, but then only 85K in September.

Why the results are so unstable?


First, those stats are wrong: both are low, but Sept is very low.

Second, we're a crowd sourced news company, so we're focused on the contributor side, which has been consistently growing 15% week over week. Sometimes that causes traffic spikes, and we can drive insane amounts of traffic if we try, but it will still be a couple months before readers are our priority.


What are your actual numbers?

Correction: similarweb shows 540K visits in August.

> 15% week over week

For how many weeks?


600k in August, 230k in sept.

It was 20% for eight weeks, 15% for the next four. If you join the newsroom you'll see how incredible it's becoming.


> My name is Austen from Underwater Audio. We developed a technology that makes iPods completely waterproof — it’s some pretty cool technology you (and your readers might be interested in. We’re at underwateraudio.com, and I have a [press kit/sample/demo] I’d like to send your way to [review/check out] if you’d be interested. Let me know! > Thanks, > Austen Allred > [contact info]

> Once it finds the right contact info it will automatically plug that information in, so you could be pretty close to simply hitting “send” for every email you write and moving on to the next site.

> If you’re copying and pasting or just hitting “send” you’re doing it wrong.

I thought the example email was good and the article also says its good, but it has no real personalization, that email could work for any reporter. Then at the end you call that "pretty close" and say that you'd be doing it wrong by sending the same email over and over.

What level of personalization is recommended for cold emails like this? And if that email works when sent en-mass, why not set up a script that sends an email through gmail once a minute instead of spending a day sending 500?


Personal tip - the first sentence should almost always address that you've read a recent article of the journalist that's relevant to your pitch.

Hey X!

Loved your recent coverage of [relevant topic to your startup], raised some interesting points about A, B and C.

[Begin pitch about startup]

Be intentional about this stuff. I run a news site that gets pitched a lot of topics, some relevant and some completely off base, and a lot in the middle. The ones that have proven they have at least spent 5 minutes on the site understanding what we cover are always way more likely to get a response from me.


Yet, the author specific said, in his experience, that level of personalization made little difference.


Theoretically it should make a big difference. The difference in the numbers were negligible for me, but YMMV.


yup


While this automated solution appeals to technical people, who would like to get past the messy relational approach to PR, it's a false promise. PR doesn't really scale. Like recruiting, it's just hard work. You're dealing with an eclectic group of individual reporters...


It has worked really well for me for dozens of different companies. Your mileage may vary, but it definitely, de definitely works.


There's a very interesting book on this topic - "Trust me, I'm lying."

It looks at similar methods, at people getting published on small blogs and then leveraging that to get articles in major publications.

The book has it's flaws, but it was still a great read.


"I find it really important to personalize whatever I'm selling to whoever I'm selling it to."

"Here's how to scrape a bunch of emails from AllTop"


> The temptation here is going to be to send a mass email blast. Fight that temptation. Even if it takes us a couple days to pore through and send out 500 really good, personalized emails, it will be worth it. I promise.


There are a lot of misconceptions about the press in this article, and some outdated information.

First, let me just say I spent a decade working as a reporter for the NYT, the IHT, Bloomberg, Businessweek and others. For the last two years, I've done media relations for startups in one way or another. I'm not selling my services here.

Outdated info:

Alexia Tsotsis stepped down as co-editor of TechCrunch in May. She writes for them on a very occasional basis now.

https://recode.net/2015/05/20/techcrunchs-top-editor-tsotsis...

Robert Scoble, whose taste in fine alcohol Austen has highlighted, actually went on the wagon in January. Pushing him back toward his addiction is probably unadvised.

http://valleywag.gawker.com/robert-scoble-in-recovery-going-...

So the big lesson is: know your reporter. And I'm afraid to say that that doesn't scale. It's a lot of work by one human being, figuring out who covers what and how you can appeal to them.

That's why PR agencies exist. One small group of people does the grueling work of tracking down and getting to know reporters.

Unfortunately, PR agencies have a principle-agent problem. Most of their clients have no way to figuring whether they're doing their work well. They just know they're paying $15K per month. And in fact, more than half of all PR agencies suck, including some of the most famous ones. So you need to watch out.

One of the reasons they suck is they send out form emails, like the kind Austen is advocating here. Personalized emails don't really scale. Changing the names of the reporter and publication is not really personalization.

To be fair, Austen is right in saying you need a list of publications and reporters that may be interested in you, and you need to know where to situate those publications in a pyramid of importance. He's also right about the trickle-up effect. You want to start off Broadway, and offer increasing social proof of your newsworthiness as you move up the ladder (which keep going past TC to larger general-readership publications if you're lucky).

But if you send out a form email, you will piss off the people you want to please. They get 1000s of those per day, and they don't even bother to delete. Deletion itself would be too much effort. You have to understand that with the evisceration of the press in this country, the ratio of newsmakers to reporters has increased. The reporters are overwhelmed. You need to offer them something special.

And you need to do that from the subject line of your email -- that's your only chance to get any of them to spend an additional 5 seconds on your message.

And now I need to say something counterintuitive:

Your first message to a reporter shouldn't be about you. It should be about them. People approach PR way to late in the game, when they have a launch they need coverage for.

If you're smart, you'll start much earlier, when you don't need press, and you can simply offer someone help. Read their stories, figure out if you have information, insights or introductions you can make to help them do their job and look smart, and give them that.

It's better to start out giving rather than taking.

I wrote this free ebook for a startup where I worked two years ago. Some of the info may still be relevant and up to date.

https://legacy.trycelery.com/shop/pr-ebook


"Your first message to a reporter shouldn't be about you. It should be about them. People approach PR way to late in the game, when they have a launch they need coverage for. If you're smart, you'll start much earlier, when you don't need press, and you can simply offer someone help. Read their stories, figure out if you have information, insights or introductions you can make to help them do their job and look smart, and give them that."

Oh is this ever 100% true from my experience and it's exactly what I did in the past. I would write and offer praise for an article written and then offer some added information. After a bit of that I finally ended up being quoted or asked about events and was considered a source. (NY Times, Dow Jones as two examples).

That said most people will not want to put in the effort to lay the groundwork like this. But it is for sure a good idea.


As for the outdated info, this was written almost two years ago, but got ported over to Medium recently.


And I would argue that the effect of porting out-of-date articles is approximately the effect startup founders will achieve when they send form pitches to reporters. The reporters will know that something is off.


This is a how-to for spamming people.


One man's spam is another man's treasure.


Good point. What's your email address?


Very cool article, thank you!


So how is your startup doing after all this press? Grasswire's Alexa ranking of 135,000 is nothing special. No amount of good press will work if the basic product isn't good.




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