In 2001 my co-founder and I developed our first product, EasyBib.com, which saved students the anxiety of creating a bibliography by automatically formatting it for them. To get the word out, we started emailing reporters at local newspapers about “students helping students using technology.”
The Chicago Tribune liked the angle. After they wrote about us, we were featured in USA Today and a range of smaller newspapers. The publicity put us on the map, playing an instrumental role in growing EasyBib to 40 million users and enabling us to build an ever-larger business.
But reaching out to journalists today is very different than it was in 2001. The turn of the millennium was a different time: There was no TechCrunch or Business Insider, there was no Twitter for real-time news and journalists definitely did not receive the same deluge of pitches they do today.
Lately, we’ve been thinking hard about how to promote our newest product GetCourse, a platform that gives you deep analytics on your powerpoints. So when I heard about the recent press panel with TechCrunch, Business Insider and Fortune, I was curious to learn more about what it takes to connect with a journalist today. The event was moderated by J.J. Colao, founder of startup PR firm Haymaker and the New York Tech Press Meetup, and hosted by Turn to Tech, a mobile software education company. J.J. introduced the panelists: Jonathan Shieber of TechCrunch, Alyson Shontell of Business Insider and Erin Griffith of Fortune. We were then introduced to a day in the life of a tech journalist.
Journalists Are Busy: You Have to Make Their Time Count
Journalists are exceptionally busy. So if you’re going to reach out, there are a few things you just can’t do:
- Don’t autoblast irrelevant information, either as a company or an individual.
- Don’t email a pitch with the subject line, “STORY IDEA: [insert something generic here].” As Alyson Shontell put it, it’s their job to have story ideas. If they didn’t, they’d probably be doing something else.
- Don’t send a complimentary email about a piece only to pitch something of your own, especially if the two ideas are completely unrelated. Don’t throw in something “completely orthogonal,” as Jonathan Shieber explained.
It’s All About the Relationship: Trade on Information
Unsurprisingly, all three journalists echoed something I’ve learned as an entrepreneur: it’s all about the relationship. Alyson explains that a relationship “lowers the bar for lame pitches.” So how do you cultivate one?
The best way is to reach out without needing anything. Journalists operate using a wholly different currency than the rest of us: information. If you can give them something they’re interested in, they may be more likely to help you out later on. Don’t make your pitch transactional; instead, give them updates on companies you know they’ve been following or drop some hints about industry bigwigs. Even tweeting useful tips to them can be good for you.
They’re Really Just Looking for Interesting Stories
What’s interesting? Ultimately, it’s something that’ll make the editor cock her head when she hears the story. For Erin, who writes for a more conservative magazine that targets a business reader, it’s money changing hands — a tangible advance in a company’s story. She’s writing for the greater business community, so they want to make sure the company is going to be around for the next six months. Jonathan, who writes in more of a blog format for TechCrunch, has a broader mandate. He just wants to “write the sh*t out of what I write.” And Alyson explains that her favorite stories are the ones that reveal the person and ideas behind a startup. It’s rarely a service or “how to” article.
The ideas that drive interest, they warn, may not be the same as what you think, and it’s important that they’re framed right. For example, “This company is changing email!” may not be as cool or unique as you think. But something like, “Here are five companies that did this with email and failed, but here’s an ambitious company that’s trying to change that” could draw interest, says Erin.
There’s a Person Behind a Journalist: That Person Can Get Pissed Off
The journalists said they’ve been pitched to in the bathroom, at Thanksgiving dinner and by various family members. It’s important to remember that there are right and wrong times and places to pitch your ideas. Understanding that is key to getting coverage.
They mentioned some annoying things people do that will ban you from their consideration forever. Needless to say, here are some things to avoid:
- Don’t go past two follow-ups. Three or four is egregious.
- Don’t blow up their personal cell phones or inboxes with messages. One of the journalists said this had happened before, and it ruptured the relationship indefinitely.
- Don’t try to undercut one publication with another. It’s important to understand the meaning of exclusivity and media embargoes.
- Don’t lie. Be honest, be transparent and be approachable. In this case: You schmooze, you lose.
What to Put in Your Subject Line
We told you a lot of things not to include, but what about some good ideas? Here are a few things the journalists mentioned:
- Include a big name, connection, or something they care about.
- If you’re trending on Product Hunt or being written about elsewhere, mention it!
- Make it look like a personal email — be casual and friendly.
- Include as much information as you can.
- Ensure that the subject line reflects the content.
The Bottom Line
The key is to understand that journalists are really busy people who work in a high-speed, high-stress environment. Pitches are thrown at them day in and day out, and they can only write about the ones that are especially interesting and cool. What matters to them above everything else is interesting information.