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PR is one of the most effective ways tech startups and small businesses tell their stories and acquire customers.
PR lets you scream at the top of your lungs and tell everyone about your business… for really cheap…. if you do it right.
PR, or press relations, is not a new discipline. It’s been around since the days of Mad Men and the companies that do it well curry the favor of editors who will cover them time and time again.
More coverage means more awareness and more customers. All of us would like more eyes on our tech startup or small business, but there’s not a lot of good, data-driven information about PR.
This guide makes the case for investing in PR and shows you how to do it optimally.
Table of Contents
Why Should I Care About PR?
I cannot underscore enough how important I think PR is for your early stage startup, tech company or small business.
If done properly, press can be your most cost-effective and highest converting channel. According to Axia, press placements have 6x the visibility and 3x the credibility of an advertisement.
Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective marketing tools there is and PR has the power to generate conversation about your business in the community and on interactive online platforms.
In the age of social media, fake news and the 5,000 ads we see per day, it is more important than ever to cut through the noise with real and robust natural content and press coverage that matters to your audience.
What Others Say About PR
The Business Insider article below was written in late 2013 about a company called American Giant. I know some folks who worked in PR for the company and this article catapulted the American Giant from a little revenue to a lot of revenue. You’ll notice the date – right before Christmas. How timely for an ecommerce company!
I can’t confidently cite a growth figure for AG, but I can tell you they achieved more than 2x revenue growth that year, with a large part of that attributed to this article. I also know that the article was so eye catching to my mom that she decided to send me a hoodie for Christmas that year.
American Giant continues to use this wildly effective piece by promoting it on native content networks even today.
Yogurt company, Chobani has always used PR to beat larger, higher spending competition. Peter McGuinness, CMO of Chobani says, “the growing importance of PR is not only a Chobani development, but a macro-category trend because of highly curious consumers and the increasing need to reach them with brand information.”
H&R Block Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Collins says, “[w]e are now spending more on PR, especially around our cause-marketing program on improving teen financial literacy, Dollars & Sense.”
At RealtyShares, my second hire was our Head of PR, Dave Claffey. When Dave came on, we also brought on a couple of freelance writers and one communications contractor to augment his efforts. In the early days of RealtyShares, PR was 30% of our marketing spend some months!
“We do so many great things in my business but when we moved the needle in our industry, we didn’t know how to let the world know. Investing more time into learning and understanding PR has been one of the best things for my business.”
-Thomas Melching, Brainware Ventures
The 4 Week Plan for Getting Your PR Efforts off the Ground
Making a small business or tech startup PR plan isn’t very complex. Start by simply stating your goals. Then, define your audience target and execute your plan. Easy right?
Week 1: Define your Audience and PR Goals
State your goals. If you’re a startup or small business and you’re not printing money, I imagine your goal is to acquire users and make money. If an ROI positive campaign is your goal, you will need to acquire profitable customers. But which customers?
Define your target customer and target publications. Don’t skip either of these steps. At my first company, BeGood, we did an excellent job defining our customer – a 30-50 year old, affluent, intelligent, city dwelling woman (among many other characteristics). But when it came time to garner coverage, we stupidly threw those learnings out the window and took the “spray and pray” approach, targeting hundreds of publications whose audiences were far outside of our core customer demographic.
Doing this might get you coverage, but coverage is nothing if you’re not in the right publications, reaching your core customer.
Week 2: Brainstorm and Create a Calendar
Create a PR calendar, this will help establish a commitment to PR throughout the year.
Don’t roll your eyes yet. I promise we will get into the high ROI activities like pitching your story, but first you need to decide which PR stunts or activations are worth pursuing.
This is the most important PR tip I’ll mention in this post: no editor will write about you if you don’t have creative, attention-grabbing, effective and timely things to talk about. Remember, they are bombarded every day by tens or even hundreds of eager entrepreneurs who think their company is worth talking about.
What I have found works best is taking 20 minutes every day to brainstorm creative press pitching ideas. The best time for creative thinking, scientifically speaking, is in the morning. But I find that a creative moment can occur any time, so I like to be prepared to drop what I’m doing and brainstorm if I catch the creative bug in the middle of the day. If PR is a priority for you, you must do this!
Not all ideas need to involve dropping free samples out of the sky at the Super Bowl. Some can be much more simple. Easy places to start are by thinking about any feature or product releases your tech startup has upcoming. If you have a mobile application and you think you’ll add a new message feature or significant update two months from now, it would be smart to add that to your calendar.
More, look at a schedule of important dates for your industry and line up press activations during those times. For my first company, BeGood, an eco friendly ecommerce store, Black Friday was a very natural fit, so we made sure to be ready with an interesting activation for that day (more on that later).
Having a strong presence in the media is crucial in the first stages of your small business or startup but PR isn’t a sprint. A one time hit in the public eye won’t consistently increase your ROI. Your public relations efforts need to be more like interval training, bursts of high-intensity effort with short breaks in between in preparation for the next push. When you’re not pushing bigger stories, fill in the gaps by consistently releasing blog posts, ebooks, or sharing on social to maintain momentum.
Your PR calendar is ever-evolving, but you should target having two or three things to talk about per month, depending on the size of your company and the resources you’re able to put behind PR.
For each piece you create, plan to share this content on various social media platforms and through email marketing to further expand the reach of your news by targeting specific communities online.
It is important to remember that not all of your PR efforts have to be directly related to your product. For example, during the winter holidays, plan to release a piece about a unique way your business gives back to the community or other philanthropic things your company is involved in while your audience is in the giving mood.
Things to remember while creating PR content:
- Keep your target market in mind when creating content and when choosing publications to go after. You’ll find the most success when you identify what kind of information your audience is interested in and where they go to get it.
- Promote your business by telling, not selling. PR is an opportunity to promote your business and products through storytelling. Your audience and industry publication editors will be more receptive to your message when it’s told in an interesting way.
- Relevance is a must. You need to be aware of the hottest topics in your industry and be able to explain how your company is a major mover in these areas.
- Draw a connection with your audience. People have a hard time caring about news unless it impacts them directly. Figure out a way to show how your company is having an impact on the lives of your audience, personally or professionally. Editors will be more likely to consider your piece when it serves their audience.
- Data is a key resource. As a startup or small business, the majority of your marketing strategy is data-driven. Your PR efforts should be no different. Utilize data analytics to track the amount of traffic and conversions you receive after your company is in the press. This way you’ll get an idea of what kind of content and publications produce the best results for your business.
Week 3 and 4: Meet the Small Guys!
“Should I start pitching the New York Times?” No! This is a mistake many over-eager founders and marketers make. Begin your PR push by getting the attention and respect of editors who cover your industry day in and day out. Getting in industry publications will help you reach your exact target customer, fast. Getting into these publications is often less competitive so you will see results faster.
Working with smaller publications is the best way to practice PR by doing and it’s easier to bounce back from a mistake while you’re learning if you start small.
Network and make friends with the journalists and editors at the smaller publications. Later down the line as your reputation develops, they may be able to introduce you to representatives at larger publications.
Befriending journalists, editors, and publication reps before you need their help, makes the entire process feel less forced as you’ve already established credibility and a working relationship.
For instance, if you’re an enterprise software company, a simple Google Search tells me you would be smart to try and get placement in Effective Database, Network World and Gartner.
Even more, think about the psychology of a New York Times editor. If they want to write a story about virtual reality, are they likely to scour their email inbox and find cold emails from eager startup founders? No, more than likely they will Google the topic, just like the rest of us and begin by reading the industry publications about virtual reality.
The companies they see covered robustly in these expert publications will be the companies they reach out to for quotes and coverage. It would behoove the virtual reality founder to get real chummy with PCMag based on the search result below.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to begin your PR journey by getting in the good graces of your industry publication editors. Laying a thick foundation in the industry publications is the best way to land the big placements a few months down the road.
You should target about 20-30 industry-specific blogs and publications in weeks 3 and 4. Don’t hit them with your pitch right away, start by simply introducing yourself and your company to the editors. Your goal is simply to get a friendly response to your email so you can gauge their interest and begin developing an ongoing relationship based on mutual respect.
Land Coverage with Your Industry Pubs
Once you have a nice little rapport with your industry editors, it’s time to start garnering coverage. Let’s assume your startup has a couple of interesting stories or product releases coming up. You should make your industry editors aware a couple of weeks before.
Don’t be afraid of pitching. You will get plenty of “no’s.” But, a Harvard Business Review survey concluded that 70% of publishers are open to being pitched on a topic via email as long as it’s within their “beat” (area of coverage).
Make your email pitch personalized. Never send a mass email and bcc people. 25% of all pitch emails are rejected by editors for being too spammy or impersonal. Weave in some details that show your news will be relevant to that specific publication’s audience. This can be achieved by referencing topics in your industry they’ve recently covered.
Your email should be succinct and should show thorough research of the editor and should provide value. Include images, offer product demos and quotes from you or your CEO where possible.
Always be respectful of “no” or “not interested.” Follow up with a thank you note, promising to keep the editor in the loop for future announcements. Bothering editors is the easiest way to get blacklisted.
Here is another template created by Neil Patel for when reaching out to editors:
4 Tips for Landing Big Publications
Landing the larger tier press is a total crapshoot. You will get many passes from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNBC, CNN and the rest. At RealtyShares, we aim to get one or two large placements per quarter. The good news is there are a few things you can do to increase your odds.
#1 – Dominate your industry blogs and publications
Develop an online presence and share reputable content consistently. This prompts editors to view you or your company as the leader or expert in the field. When they need a quote or a topic, you will be top of mind. Having a reputable online presence shows journalists that you are a source of valuable information and influence in your industry. This makes everything your company does more newsworthy because you know what direction your field is heading.
To do this, you need to optimize all of your content to be as visible as possible online, specifically in searches. When trying to convince Google to see you as a leading force in your industry, SEO is your best friend. The higher you rank in Google searches, the more likely big-name publications are going to lay eyes on your content.
#2 – Keep social and press proof on your homepage
When an editor receives your pitch and is mildly interested, he/she will probably check out your website right away. They’re looking for a seal of approval so make sure you keep social and press proof on your homepage.
Authors who have made it on the New York Times Best Seller List always print that accolade on the front cover of their books. That’s because it’s an automatic seal of approval and readers are more likely to check out their work.
This is not only a best practice for conversion rate optimization, but will lend your company a lot of credibility, especially in the eyes of big-time editors. See how RealtyShares does this below. Check out our awesome quotes from Yahoo Finance, TechCrunch and CNBC!
#3 – Keep a press section on your website
Again, editors want to see proof that you are worth covering. Keep a simple page that tracks all your large placements. Editors will look to this page for proof as well. Keeping an archive of newsworthy achievements your company has accomplished, proves your business consistently produces noteworthy contributions to your industry.
#4 – Give exclusives
Exclusive or embargoed access to stories used to be very preferable. Big editors and publications liked stories that nobody else had access to. This has recently fallen out of favor amongst my PR colleagues and I don’t know why because it works! If you decide to pitch a piece under embargo, you will simply say so in the subject line and provide a small teaser of the news story. Make sure this is one of your big stories or the editor won’t take you seriously in the future once you give them the scoop. The editor will either accept the embargoed story and ask you for more information or will pass.
For example, if your business is launching an innovative product in a few weeks, you can let the press know ahead of time. If they’re interested in picking up the story, it can be created before the launch and published soon after the product is released. This is guaranteed to bring more attention to what your business is doing as it happens. Don’t wait for the press to discover you.
One of My Favorite Startup PR Activations:
My company, BeGood did press pretty well. On Black Friday a few years ago, we executed a press activation that landed us $10,220 in online sales in one day. Most retailers have clothing waste – inevitably, some garments come from manufacturers with small holes, ripped tags, etc. Instead of throwing these out (as most companies do), we decided to sell our “factory follies” on black Friday – faulty or lightly damaged garments. We did a small, funny photo shoot, overhauled our website in the middle of the night and made it quite sassy and fun. One article about the activation here.
We pitched the idea and because it was so different than the normal Black Friday sales announcements, a lot of big publications picked it up. Even more, it was an effective brand builder for our eco friendly company, which was built to reduce clothing waste and positively impact the environment.
As marketers, press is one of the least formulaic things we will do, however, that doesn’t make it any less important. Press is one of the highest ROI channels I’ve come across and I think it would behoove all of us to create and execute a robust pr strategy in 2017.
What are some of your favorite PR activations by startups?