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Ask HN: How did you hack the press when you launched your startup(s)?
188 points by akos on Sept 9, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments
How did you get on TC, RWW etc? Did you know your journalist before pitching him/her? How many signups/users/downloads did the post refer? How did it affect the future of your startup?

I launched a t shirt line a bit ago and got press in a decently hackerish way. The t shirts were geared toward gamers so I went to Alltop.com and scraped all of the blogs in the sections of gaming, t shirts, etc.. Used amazon turk to turk for the emails of those blogs, about 300 or so. Created a unique promo code for a percent off that was derived from the blogs name in the url. Used mailgun to construct and send the emails to all of the bloggers. Since the code was personalized, most thought they were receiving a personal email. The end result was about 15 blogs writing about the shirts, some of which were referred to me by the original bloggers, some of which held contests. One even interviewed me at a larger blog she does a column for.

Please, expand in the amazon turk to turk for getting emails.

On Mturk you upload a spreadsheet of the urls. Set up the "hits" so as to ask the worker to go the url and try to find a contact email. If they find the email they enter it in the "hit", if they find a contact form, they select contact form, if there's nothing they enter in an X or something else, you can decide. For just an email you can pay anywhere between 1-3 cents. For 300 urls you get this done in a day usually. You can put in filters for the quality of workers, I usually keep them pretty strict. You are suppose to go back and check the quality of the workers and approve or reject an answered "hit", though for the $3 - $5 that you'd be paying for this, it's not worth it, just approve all. After the turking you end up with a spreadsheet of all the urls and emails.

Is it possible to setup a turk where an ad is submitted to a message board? If so how?

Thank you

Not entirely sure what you mean. Mturk has an api, a lot of people use it for quality assurance, like checking images for nudity or stuff like that.

I actually just wrote a post about this exact process :)


This is a awesome post, thanks for sharing.

I'd assume you give people the blog URL and pay them to collect the e-mail address of the author. Verification could be done by having 3 different people tackle the same blog and checking that the e-mail addresses match. Pay $0.05 or $0.10 per e-mail address and you're set.

It's not just about hacking the press. Sometimes it's plain just learning to interface with people and having a unique angle on a story.

Most press I've seen from friends being TC'ed is minimal. Unless your customers are people who read TC, the effect is minimal to converted customers. They had a ton of visitors which might have increased mindshare. TC can be a vanity metric if you're not careful, especially if TC's audience is not your paying customers. It helps be legit in having (some) press coverage, but it doesn't last if you can't back it up and delight people.

If you're doing what everyone else is doing to get coverage in the same places, the chances are greater you'll end up like everyone else (a startup that doesn't get where it needs to).

Focus on learning who your customers are, where they truly hang out, get their attention in those places, be it through story placement or advertising since not all sites use adsense, and some very successful sites have their own advertising engines.

Quality of eyeballs on your site is a far better metric to pursue than quantity.

Yes, I think most first-time entrepreneurs have a fantasy about how all they need to kickstart the viral growth is a bit of coverage in the major tech blogs. But the reality is that unless your site is squarely targeting early adopters (the ficklest of markets) and your product is knocking the socks of jaded San Francisco tech hipsters (well-nigh impossible against such perpetually-bored countenances), then this coverage is going to net you next to nothing.

In the reality you should take the time when your traffic is small to reach out to customers and get early feedback and polish the product as much as possible. The more work you put into based on real feedback from real users before the numbers get big, the greater the quality of the first impressions as your target audience trickles in.

Once your product is good enough, there are many ways to get users in. Press is one of them, but in my experience it comes on its own and is not worth putting much time in compared to more targeted user acquisition. In general, word of mouth will always always be the best, and that takes a great product.

Very well said.

Let me say it clearly: I've had more visitors from being featured on HN than from TC and mashable together.

I'm not even talking about the conversion rates and the quality that HN brings over TC/Mashable.

Couldn't have said it any better. Being TC'ed is cool to put on your websites homepage (I know, we did ;)), but appart from having a huge spike in your Google Analytics dashboard, the direct results/conversions are minimal(especially for B2B products).

On the other end, it might get you a little extra cred to prove your rising traction.

Better to go for more specialized blogs, they are better for overall conversion.

I agree with J45, but if you really want to get press, here are some strategies that we used early on.

1. Do searches on Google News for topics or companies you compete with. See who has covered them and create a spreadsheet with their names, contact info, etc -- This tells you they might be interested in what you have

2. Reach out and personalize -- Show them you've seen and taken time to understand their perspective on the industry or competitor. In a nice way, suggest an angle that you feel is more interesting or which often gets overlooked which hopefully dovetails with your product and piques their interest. This helps the blogger/journalist think about the storyline and whether readers would find it interesting quickly and not your X, Y, Z feature which only you care about.

3. The angle should ideally be something you have unique insight into. It might be directly related to your product or just something you have data on because of your product.

4. Use data as possible. There are lots of unsubstantiated claims out there so journalists/data appreciate useful facts supported by data. Warning: Don't make data/facts up or don't try to draw inane trends from 2 data points as smart journalists/bloggers will see through that. Yes, hack doesn't mean being dishonest. You're trying to build a relationship based on trust so don't be short-term greedy and try to kickstart things on a lie.

There are some downsides to this. The biggest being that your data might get featured and not your company. This may not be what you want. But, at the same time, you may become a resource for the journalist which means mentions over time, they may come back to you for additional data and you get mentions. This has happened for us. We're a data company so we might not be apples to apples for you, but we're a go to resource for journos/bloggers and see mentions 1-2 per week in a slow week in major media because of early legwork we did (note: our press page is hopelessly outdated so don't judge us based on that)

Hope this helps. Good luck.

I've actually employed this exact strategy.

I created targeted hit-list of bloggers that wrote about my competition or similar competition.

I also created a field that had sentiment analysis, so I read the previous article they wrote to see if the were PRO our type of tech or CON against our type of tech.

This would then allow me to send a more personalized email, and either give them fodder to support their PRO stance, or reasons to persuade them away from their CON stance.

In addition to this, there are different ways to reach out to them, wether it be via email, or other methods. I often find that starting some dialogue on twitter non-related to the subject and getting them to respond to you before "pitching" them works incredibly well.

Journalists do not see through BS data. Any data is good data for news hits.

In a previous life I created data for media, and my attempts to provide correct analysis and context were disregarded or shut down.

Perhaps, but we're optimizing our journalist/blogger relationships for the long-term, i.e., when they have a question on X topic, they will call us first. Sure - they might not write about everything we offer them, but we want everything we send them to be seen as credible, interesting, and sometimes contrarian. I'm not sure a few extra press hits will be worth the hit to credibility of taking a short cut.

Just honestly build these relationships. I use Twitter and events to do it, just speak to journalists honestly about what you're working on without full on pitches.

Roughly 25 useful tech journalists are following my progress via Twitter and I regularly reply offering my perspective on stories. With a few from time to time I'll ask for their advice when they can add value and eventually when I have something fit for a piece I'll get in touch having already validated my experience and progress.

It's much better than cold emailing asking for a story about your launch. They want to help you but you have to help them finding a story out of your launch. If they know a little about your history it will help this is why building a prior relationship helps.

Upvoted becuase this is the sinsible approach to the issue. Though it takes time and the OP may not have enough time to nurture a relationship. Good points regarding how to interface with the press.

How did you start? How did you get the 25 journalists to follow you? Did you start replyng to their tweets on Twitter?

At Newsvine, we capitalized on an opportunity when John McCain and his campaign people hijacked some graphics from my MySpace design tutorial without permission. He referenced/hotlinked images hosted on my server on his own MySpace page so one day I "hacked" his site by changing the graphics. The prank got us on TechCrunch immediately (no surprise), the local news in Seattle (kind of a surprise), and then featured on The Daily Show (huge f'ing surprise and still a career highlight!). Here is the coverage:

TechCrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2007/03/27/john-mccains-myspace-page-h...

Local News: http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/archive/2007/03/king-5-co...

The Daily Show: http://www.mikeindustries.com/scratch/dailyshow.mp4

OT: But wow at the blog spam on the old TC articles.

It's not as "hack"-y as a HN reader might like, but the bottom line is you should help your journalist tell a story. That's their job, so make it easy.

When we launched Precorder, we got little (and so-so) press by describing a newly launched app w/ X Y and Z features.

When we started telling writers that we saw the camera technology used to capture great white sharks jumping out of the ocean and ported it to iPhones, we were covered by Kottke (http://kottke.org/11/01/precorder) and other influential photography bloggers who immediately triggered a long wave of follow-up press.

This, this, this. If you subtly lay out the possible angles and all the interesting data for a journalist, they will be that much more likely to cover your product. Don't make them do too much research.

From the link -

  This video is no longer available because the 
  uploader has closed their YouTube account

The key thing which helped me reach bloggers was understanding that they're not interested in covering my start-up, but in getting more people to read their blog. Give them all the materials they need to write a good post - great story, something personal, good images, video, and you have a much better chance to get covered. Good materials helped me increase my success rate by about 5X. Even though most of your future users will not come from TC or RWW, it builds your company resume. It's much easier to approach medium-small blogs with a TC/RWW reference, than the other way around. It also helps when raising (more) money.

This AirBNB Mixergy interview is a must-watch - they explain how they hacked their way onto top news sites like CNN & NYTimes (start watching at 31 minutes in):


They explain how to get press coverage using the "pyramid" method: start at the bottom, with small bloggers in your space. Email them, ask them to cover you. Then move up the chain. At the top of the chain are the big media people like NYTimes, CNN, etc.

good share

Do something outrageous. Something so big, so daring that people will not have an option but to cover the story. Though this takes balls/ovaries of steel and a clear and defined strategy to reduce to amount of negative press you will get. It should also be done off-line, as in outside. Internet news get less coverage than real world news. If your outrageous idea happens somewhere real (like in San Francisco) then people will be able to relate to time/place where the news happened. Something that is lost on cyber space.

Just don't do anything too crazy. You don't want to go to jail or hurt anybody. Keep it legal and moral, and you should be on your way.


Also, giving early access to smaller blogs/bloggers will allow you to create a given amount of buzz around the product. When reporters research your offerings (using Google for 99.99% of the work), they will get a lot of favorable hits about your product from these smaller blogs. Plus since they are smaller, they dont take away from the big news chance they might have with your story. Just be careful about who you contact, and be aware that some people will write about anything. They might write nicely about you in one post, and then praise Hitler in the next thus putting you in very very very very bad light.

We "hacked" Fred Wilson's blog for PR, which in turned helped us get to TechCrunch. Here is the story:

Without the knowledge of Fred, we created an automatic podcast for his blog, AVC.com, using our API. We had no idea how he would react. It was weeks of effort, time, and money spent to build AVC.fm with the hope that Mr. Wilson would love us (or at least not send us a cease and desist!) And then, there was the tweet that made the weeks of brainstorming, trials and errors, and late nights, all worth it:

"AVC.fm, the unofficial blogcast of @avc created by @VoiceBunny avc.fm via @VoiceBunny." by — Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) February 21, 2012

Fred tweeted our work and our name to his 207,000+ fans. That day, VoiceBunny.com got a huge amount of visits, with most coming out of Silicon Valley. We, of course, reached out to Fred right away and a few emails later, you can now hear AVC.fm right on Fred's blog at AVC.com.

Before you get into the “how” of a PR stunt, you must first figure out the “why”. You don’t want attention just for the sake of attention. You have got to capture the attention of the right people. And for VoiceBunny both Fred and his audience were the right audience.

The VoiceBunny team is a big fan of Fred Wilson’s work and especially his blog, AVC.com, but we didn’t always have time to read it everyday. So, we thought it would be great if AVC.com had a podcast so we could listen on our commutes or while we were working. So we thought, let’s make one for him! What better way to show off our technology and get the attention of the VC community? Mr. Wilson is a big supporter of the “freedom to innovate” and that’s why we felt creating AVC.fm was the perfect project for VoiceBunny.

So, since Mr. Wilson publishes under a Creative Commons license, we did not have to worry about getting his permission first. The VoiceBunny API automatically pulls the text from AVC.com after Fred posts and posts a project. One of our voice talents accepts the project and uploads a finished read. It is then screened for quality and automatically uploaded to SoundCloud and AVC.fm.

We wanted to make it very obvious we did this as a tribute, not to capitalize on his name or work. Yes, we did it to show off our technology, but, we created something of value to him and to the community. We also made it very easy for him to add to his blog if he chose to do so. We included a link asking, “Are You Fred?” that included instructions on how to embed the widget onto his blog.

On his blog, Fred said:

"In any case, I like they way they used a stunt to get my attention. So much more effective than sending me an email saying “I’d like to come talk to you about a new project we are working on”. So I’m going to start auto-embedding the avc.fm voice overs at the end of the posts on AVC (via the SoundCloud embed of course)."

You can read his entire post at http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2012/02/feature-friday-listen-to-thi...

"(or at least not send us a cease and desist!) "

Actually being sent a cease and desist by Fred would have given you an angle to get publicity if things didn't end up the way they did. But I'm actually a little surprised that since you say "The VoiceBunny team is a big fan of Fred Wilson’s work and especially his blog" you should have known that it was highly unlikely he would have done something like that.

Outcome 1: What happened, you got what you wanted

Outcome 2: Cease and desist - if that had happened, may hay with it. Mentioning if anyone else has this outcome.

Outcome 3: Ignore your "hack". The worse outcome. But in that case you have to be more proactive and approach him, several times (once again if you understand the way he rolls you realize he declares email bankruptcy and actually appreciates follow up emails.

Thank you Larry. You are right. If Fred didn't like what we were doing, probably he would have not sent a formal "cease and desist". He is not that kind of guy ;)

Perhaps you're asking the wrong question. It often should be "How do I get ___ to be interested in reporting on me?" rather than "How do I get on?"

Think of it as a value equation: you want the reporters to help you get press and make people think you have something cool on hand; they want something cool to share with their readers.

So, one way to do it is - as most of the comments have suggested - use guerrilla tactics to get to the journalists/writers/topics that are often covered.

But, what if you created or generated something that is really unique and content-worthy? We did this recently with my product, and ended up with an unsolicited TC piece.

How'd it work? We showed-off the types of awesome things our product could do, and it caught the writer's interest.

So, I'd say find a way to show-off why what you're doing deserves coverage, and then take some steps to help get that in front of people (that's where Twitter, HN, etc. comes into play).

Also, quick note, but the traffic you probably expect from TC coverage may not be accurate.

I made comics deriding IT recruiters; this was to promote my programmer-testing web app (now defunct). This HN thread persuaded me to find them in the blog archives. Here they are: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46384225@N00/sets/7215763148518...

There were also text articles on the blog, one of which was even on the HN front-page for over 24 hours (it reported some friendly social-engineering by a then-competitor, now a YC company). The comics significantly outperformed the text articles in terms of engaged readers, though I didn't run the whole thing long enough to be of any practical help.

My partner and I are releasing an iPhone game soon, and we're planning to repeat this experiment but with somewhat longer-form comics. The idea is to communicate the human story behind the making of the app. If anyone is interested, my email is in my profile.

Loving those comics, are there more?

Thanks! These are all I made.

I'm building a tool that helps you figure out which journalists you should target.

It figures out which journalists write about your space / niche, and also figures out what their reach is and how busy they are.

If you're interested, shoot me an email: joseph at metaoptimize dot com.

I made a satirical hot or not type site called hipster or homeless. Perez Hilton retweeted it and I ended up using that to as a segue to contact different news organizations. Being in the SF Bay area, there is an omnipresent homelessness problem here, so NBC bay area decided to relate the website to raising awareness of the homelessness problem. They did a news segment on it and interviewed actual homeless people. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Hipster-or-Homeless-124... is the segment.

The system I'm working on got press via the local news a few times (they love running scrappy tech startup stories, so it was one 30 second Channel 5 type interview and a news story). There wasn't a direct bump in sales because of it.

Everything I work on is B2B so 100% of sales are done via a conversation and not someone landing on the site and clicking "sign-up" so YMMV. The news articles was only important to solidify ourselves as a legit operation, and not really for the press it generated.

We had similar success! CBS local Pittsburgh Website Simplifies Car-Buying http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2012/08/17/local-website-simp...

What we did was ensure we could have a story behind the product we were building. From the start we knew exactly what angles we can approach the press with for our app. In fact the timing was perfect for us and we managed to get a lot of good press (AllThingsD, CNET etc).

Unless you have the perfect product don't expect anything but a spike in downloads/visitors to your product. For me it has been an excellent learning process and every time I release something I get better and better at it.

All they want from you is pageviews. Just come up with something that has a high chance of getting them pageviews.

A probably easy angle would be, "Rejected from YC, now Bigger Than Jesus". A well-baited hook for HN and bonus SEO on YC.

bring them something they can use, like stats, insights, or an edge on a story that no one else has. they have pressures like everyone else from their bosses to produce and deliver, and they're competing for an editor's story approval. help them be your story's advocate by being their source for data and insights that's unique.

To add to this (and as patio11 has said several times in his articles) OKCupid does this with regularity, and has provided a people with great deal of entertainment and information value, and have been covered many times in the press. They've also possibly indirectly helped their business doing this.


KISSMetrics is another:


Step 1: Live in San Francisco (or at least have a remote office there). Physical, accessible presence is key.

I've had some success with http://www.helpareporter.com/

Reporters post there looking for sources for their stories. If you match what they are looking for, you email the reporters.

I've gotten myself and my co-founder quoted in a bunch of publications this way. Hard to tell how much traffic they've generated though since it's been mostly print publications, so no link.

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