Advanced Growth Hack Guide to Startup PR: Everything you need for Media Coverage
Every other day we get lots of questions from our customers and founders of various startups about the most efficient ways of seeking and getting press coverage. The truth is that the efficiency lies upon a backdrop of research on various issues. From the firm’s PR strategy, one sentence pitch, media list, email pitches to the timing and follow-ups; everything takes time.
As we pondered with some founders who asked this question, we realized the need to outline a general process that can be followed by any startup struggling to get press attention. While there is no standard process that works for every startup, what we have is a framework that can easily achieve PR success if well implemented in various young and innovative companies. Our strategies in this article are for the founder who gets in front of the PR of his company — he or she doesn’t hire a PR firm and doesn’t let his marketing team define the messaging of his or her startup.
The biggest PR hack you can do is to not hire a PR firm. ~ Sam Altman
The answer to the questions we get about the struggles of getting media coverage by startups lies in the following 6 steps:
1. Refine your one sentence pitch
The first thing to do is to be sure you can say in one short sentence what your company does. It’s the one thing you have to get right first. If you tell someone what your company does using this pitch, as precise as it will be, they should be able to understand.
If your grandmother doesn’t get it at all, then you have no idea what your company is doing.
Let’s see some nice one sentence pitches:
- In an early interview before Facebook’s IPO, Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as:
“Something where you can type someone’s name and find out a bunch of information about them.”
- Travis Kalanick described Uber in this 2011 video as a mobile app where:
“You push a button and in five minutes a Mercedes picks you up and takes you where you want to go.”
Twitter is an online news and social networking service where users post and interact with messages, “tweets”, restricted to 140 characters.
Stripe is a US technology company that allows both private individuals and businesses to accept payments over the Internet.
Airbnb is an online marketplace and hospitality service, enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, homestays, hostel beds, or hotel rooms.
It’s easy to understand what each of the companies above do by reading one single sentence. All of these companies have hundreds of features but they simplify everything quite effectively.
To learn how to simplify yours, you might want to read: 6 Tips on Creating the Best Elevator Pitch to Interest Investors
2. Build a target media list
This is perhaps the most important part of the PR process. The target media list is a list of the journalists you think would be interested in writing or reporting about your startup in their respective publications.
The best tip here is to a create a large general list, then begin to refine it as you weed out the journalists who you think for one reason or another are not very appropriate for your startup.
You could start with a list of about 80 journalists. However, as you can tell this is a pretty huge list and there is need to prioritize it. Therefore, you will begin to sieve from this list and come up with upto 30 journalists that are the best fit. There is no way all of the 80 journalists in the first list can be the best fit. However, all of them are a good fit, hence the reason you included them in the general list. But we are in search of the best fit.
To begin with, let us have a look at some of the metrics that should guide your search of reporters:
The first metric to search for could be based on your niche. Let’s say you are in the field of fashion and lifestyle. You will therefore find journalists publishing in this niche.
Alternatively, let’s say your company is in the virtual reality or virtual computing space. Your niche-based search will focus on virtual reality and (or) virtual computing to create a bigger list of journalists publishing within the niche in general.
The second metric you could use is the set of keywords that define your startup.
Say you are in the fashion and lifestyle niche but your focus is in ‘custom printed women pants.’ It follows therefore that your more specific keyword would be ‘custom printed women pants.’ This particular keyword will really narrow down on the journalists that have talked about custom printed pants for women, or even pants for women. It is therefore a more specific way of searching especially when you want to trim your big list of 80 to about 30 journalists focused in your ideal space.
The second example is based on the virtual reality and (or) virtual computing niche. Let’s say your company is building a gaming console that works primarily for the virtual reality sphere. The keyword we are looking at is ‘virtual reality gaming console’. When you search for journalists based on this keyword, you will find a more targeted narrower list of journalists to help you trim the large niche-based list you created when you searched based on the niche only.
This is another way of narrowing down your list to an achievable target. You could list a set of media publications that cover your field and then reach out to specific journalists within those publications to pitch your story to.
Let’s say you are a startup that has a very disruptive idea that will totally change how people use their vacant homes. You would then list publications that specifically cover disruptive startups, or the ones that cover real estate and home ownership.
Maybe you decide to go for the media companies that cover disruptive startup ideas, you would then list companies like Venturebeat, TechCrunch, The Next Web (TNW) and Pando Daily among others in your list. You then find out if there are journalists that have written about startups based on real estate.
A good way of finding out such journalists would be to also know your competitors and where they have been covered. Journalists that have written about companies like Airbnb could be a good target within those publications for a startup focusing on vacant homes.
One of the best tips while searching for press coverage is to put a huge consideration on the lower and middle-level publications. Being published in a publication that receives about 300k visitors a month within just a month of trying is better than trying in futility to get published at media companies like TechCrunch, Forbes and CNN after trying to get press from them for 2 years.
Of course, no one would forego press coverage if it were possible at media companies that receive millions of visits per month like TechCrunch and Forbes, however, on a realistic level, starting small is true too in PR.
What most startups do is pay big bucks to PR agencies with hopes of getting covered in the huge publications but most of the time that doesn’t really happen. Smart startups target blogs and middle-level to lower-level or even local media companies. The effect is that some times when you have been published on a smaller publication, journalists from other publications republish the story in other publications and this creates a ripple effect that really publicizes your startup.
Information to compile on specific journalists:
After looking at those 3 metrics and getting that out of the way, the question is, what kind of information should you compile in your target media list? The answer is simple. Create an excel sheet for this list and have the following columns:
You’ll find this in any journalist’s article or public profile on the publication website.
- Email Address
This is the most important information that you need to create contact. Some journalists have made this information public. However, in most cases you will have to wade through the internet mud to gather this information.
This is also information that you will find in the reporter’s publication profile page usually included in the reporter’s bio. If you don’t find the bio you will be able to figure this information from the journalist’s articles.
Depending on what information you found first between the name of the journalist and the publication, one piece of information will lead you to the other on this. There is no way to contact the journalist if you don’t have these two pieces of information.
- Last 10 articles they wrote + links
This is very important information to have for the following main reasons:
a). You will get a chance to read more than one article by the journalist in question. The effect is that you will fully understand their thinking process, ideas, and personality. Both these aspects are very important if you want to have a lasting impact from your first email pitch to them.
b). You will understand their writing and pitch from an informed point of view. The writing style of journalists is not similar at all. Most people might view every piece written by journalists as reporting, which is true, but the journalists go through a lot of time and effort crafting their own style of journalism. Understanding their reporting style also means that you have studied the journalist well beyond just the niche and keywords they like to focus on. This is an added plus for you.
- Twitter + LinkedIn accounts
Twitter and LinkedIn are the most professional of social media accounts. On Twitter you follow someone not because you know them already but because you would like to know them and interact. Unlike a platform like Facebook where you follow someone you already know, Twitter and LinkedIn give you the added advantage that you don’t have to know the person you choose to follow.
Journalists will therefore be receptive to you if you pitch through Twitter and LinkedIn than using their Facebook profiles where you will end up looking like some stalker.
That having said, the best place to source for all this information (name, email address, niche, keywords, last 10 articles, Twitter and Linkedin accounts) at once for each of the journalists in your list is Pressfarm. (Disclaimer; Yes, I work here and I believe the our self-service portal is the best place to find all this information without scraping a million webpages trying to find that email address. We save so many founders and PR people time and energy that they would rather commit to more important things like writing an email pitch and actually reaching out to the journalists)
A little insight of how Pressfarm works: Once you sign up for any of our packages, you have access to a database with valuable information about more than 20k journalists from several niches and publications within the United States.
On the self-service portal you will search for a particular niche or keyword, and what you get are results listing the journalists working in that niche. Alternatively, if you search by the publication, you get a list of all the journalists working in that publication.
In the image above, the search for a general term like ‘health’ returned so many results. But I picked ‘Meredith Cohn’ at the bottom right.
As you check through the results of the journalists that our algorithm has returned, you can go through the profiles of journalists looking at their twitter and LinkedIn profiles, email addresses, bios, publications, focus niches and keywords. This information is available for every single journalist in our database.
After clicking on ‘Meredith Cohn’, you get her profile that looks like this image above with her Publication/outlet, subject and if you press the unlock button you get her email address, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. You also get to see her feed which will include the articles she has recently published.
Below that general view shown in the image above are the journalists’ latest stories. All you have to do is check out their last 5 to 10 pieces to learn more about their personalities, writing styles, ideas and thinking process. You find all these stories within the Pressfarm journalist profile.
In the image above are all my chosen journalists whose profiles I have chosen to unlock on Pressfarm. They go to my dashboard and now I have them all on one platform indicating their names, outlets, titles, email addresses and LinkedIn plus Twitter accounts. Saves me a lot of Ms Excel time.
If you choose to unlock the contacts of a journalist you have liked, they go to your dashboard. Eventually, on your dashboard you could have your list of 80 broad journalists or 40 narrowed down journalists that you would like to contact. This eliminates the need for an excel sheet too.
How to figure out the reporters with the best opportunity to tell your story
There are some opportunities you need to watch out for even as you do your research and prepare to pitch the journalists in your target media list.
- They are asking for opinions on a story on Twitter/LinkedIn
When working on new stories, several journalists turn to their followers to ask questions, request for leads, opinions, etc. If you are lucky, they are probably asking if there is any company doing what your company is doing. Providing them with such feedback might lead to accidental press coverage that you didn’t know would come that easy.
Alternatively, if they are not asking for specific company names, but your company has some valuable data in the form of research or analytics that might help the story the journalist is writing, it’s important to reach out and lend a hand. At this point, try to nurture that relationship and help the journalist as much as you can. This will help when you eventually pitch your startup to them.
- They have written about your competitor before
The best journalists to target are also the ones who have written about your competitors before. These ones understand the issues the companies are trying to solve and most of them will undoubtedly hear you out. However, the angle of the story you’re pitching has to be different from what they wrote about your competitor otherwise you will not succeed in your quest to get published.
For instance, your competitor might have talked about the gazillion of features they just launched. If they were covered, you can’t make the mistake of pitching your story from the many features you have as compared to your competitor.
You will probably want to talk about just one feature that covers the loophole you are filling, this is the feature that defines the uniqueness of the company. You might also take the angle of a milestone that you just hit and surpassed. If your competitor has 10k users, and you just managed to get 15k users within a month, this might be a good angle if you pitch it correctly.
In summary, when looking for opportunities and you find a journalist that published about companies in your market, tweaking the angle of your story will be very important.
- They have asked for opinions towards your angle in their previous stories
Some journalists want to continue the discussion about a particular story they have written. At the end of these stories they request for opinions or people who might have a different opinion or something to add to reach out to them. If this is you with something to add, reach out. This is very clever if the story falls within your company’s focus.
3. Create a killer email pitch template
An email pitch is the only thing that will help you create contact with a journalist. Whether the pitch is replied to or not depends on how well it is written.
I encourage people to understand the story they are trying to pitch first before beginning to write the pitch. There are many angles which startups can use to pitch their stories to the press. Once you understand the angle, it’s very easy to come up with a killer email pitch.
If you don’t take the right approach to PR, marketing, and advertising, it won’t be long before you realize that the competition is passing you by. ~ Neil Patel
Let’s say you would like to pitch a story to a journalist who has written extensively about physical ground breaking tech products. The angle of the story here is that you are pitching your new product too. Below is a good example:
Subject: [Launch Exclusive] Print products from smartphone with handheld 3D printer
You are definitely the most trusted journalist when it comes to making people understand technology news. I really liked your piece on why Kodak failed so terribly after the invention of the smartphone in the Steve Jobs era. In this time and age, it’s ill-advised to think you are always ahead of the game. You have to keep innovating.
I have another interesting breakthrough for you to consider. My company has recently developed a handheld 3D printer that prints products from a smartphone or tablet. We have also designed a platform that allows designers to design their 3D concepts and models on their phones and print them with a single tap. 
Previously, people have only been able to 3D-print on large printers directly from their computers. However, our inexpensive handheld 3D printer means people can carry it in their pockets to the office or to their favourite chill spot and print 3D models on the go. 
A fascinating thing we are exploring is if you can send 3D models from various 3D modelling software like Rhino to print on our device. 
Would you be interested in this story? I’m happy to demonstrate how it works and provide more information to make your writing process as smooth as possible.
The strong points about this pitch are as follows:
- The subject indicates that this story is exclusive for this particular journalist. Meaning no other journalist has gotten this pitch. This raises the journalist’s interest that he can’t ignore opening the email.
- In the first paragraph, I complement the journalist and comment on a story of his that I liked and why. This is what we call reaching out to the person of the journalist. That should be the function of the first paragraph of your email pitch.
- In the second paragraph I explain in a layman’s language what my physical product does.
- In the 3rdparagraph I explain the single major uniqueness of my physical product while comparing with what the market has or has been using.
- In the 4thparagraph, I let the journalist in on what our company is exploring currently. This increases our credibility and shows the trust we have put in this particular journalist.
- The last paragraph is a humble ask, with a promise to provide as much information as the journalist needs to ensure his writing is as smooth as can be.
Our second example is a company that touches on the pressing societal issue of food production. The journalist being reached out is very focused on how tech and agriculture merge to improve food production and ensure high yields for farmers. Here is the second example below:
Subject: How our product plans to increase maize production by 25% worldwide
For the past few months my interest in your articles has grown greatly — thanks to your cutting analyses on tech and agriculture. I loved your recent article on how robots will change the production and transportation of raw materials for farmers.
I wanted to introduce you to a new system we are working on that will increase maize production 25% per farmer if well implemented. Apart from increasing food production especially to curb hunger in third world countries, it will lead to increased earnings for farmers worldwide.
It’s a type of fertilizer that adds more resistance to pests for the maize crop leading to reduced death of the maize plant. Apply it to the seeds during initial planting, and later after 3 months, that’s it. For the average farmer it will cost 30% less than available fertilizers in the world currently and will increase yield by a quarter of initial production amounts.
One fascinating angle you could explore is how companies making fertilizers could utilize available technologies to make stronger fertilizers that can reduce usage of pesticides and add more resistance to disease for plants. 
If interested, I am available to send to you the whole report and even assign one of my team members to carry you through our most recent experiment in two different climatic regions.
The strong points about this email pitch are as follows:
- A catchy subject introduces the journalist to what could potentially be a breakthrough in maize production.
- In the first paragraph, I compliment the journalist as well as show some understanding of the field he writes in.
- I pitch my product and show how it improves the societal issue at hand.
- In the 3rdparagraph I explain briefly how the product will solve the problem.
- In the 4thparagraph I give the journalist a story idea, to just illustrate one of the angles they could explore. This automatically helps the journalist see the potential my story has.
- In the last paragraph I offer to send a report if the journalist is interested and even assign a member of my team to help them check through some climatic data from regions that we have tested the product in.
Our final example is an illustration of how to pitch a journalist with the intention of starting to build a long-term relationship. I advise everyone who intends to seek press coverage to start building relationships months in advance. This makes it so easy to eventually get featured in case you pitched your product a few months down the line. Here goes:
Subject: Found something to build further on your article about autonomous cars
I saw one of your articles on autonomous cars and I think you nailed some very valid points. With the advent of electric cars and artificial intelligence, cars are becoming more intelligent by the day. 
I read an article on The Guardian about the emerging trends in the car market. I thought you will find it very useful, (link). It gives you a lot of interesting angles to explore. 
I think you will find some nice points to build upon your previous article and even write a follow-up article to it, no? 
Let me know what you think about the piece and keep up the good work.
This email pitch that we used a couple of months ago is great for many reasons:
- I started by complimenting the journalist on a story that they wrote.
- I went on to present to the journalist an interesting story from a trusted publication and related to the one they wrote. What this did was build our credibility with the journalist.
- I finally presented the journalist with something they could do after reading the article I sent them.
- I also posed a question to open up the feedback option where they could get back to me with a yes or no and why. The idea of asking a question at the end means that am opening up my line through which they can get back to me if they choose to. This ensures that our conversation goes beyond what I pitched and becomes a personal relationship through which I can pitch my product in future.
Note: One thing you will notice is that our pitches are very brief. The longest is the second example, with 222 words, the first example has 212 words while the last example has only 113 words. Email pitches are supposed to be as brief as possible — I recommend a maximum of 250 words. They leave the reader wanting to learn more. However, it takes very long to write these simple pitches. The first pitch you write is far from perfect. You have to keep refining until it feels, reads and sounds right.
Precision with impact is one of the most effective writing skills one can have. ~ Tim Ferriss
For more email pitch examples and templates, we have dedicated a page on our website that you can check out: 10 Cold Email Pitch-to-Journalists Templates (Based on persuasive stories)
Must-haves of a killer email pitch
i). Attention grabbing subject line — A well put subject line not only increases the interest of the journalist to your story but also improves the open rates of your email pitches. If the journalist opens your email, there is a very high likelihood that he will read through it. However, if you have a boring subject line then there is high probability the journalist won’t even open the email. One thing to note is, all factors constant, higher open rates also mean higher reply rates.
ii). Acknowledgement — This is where you respectfully compliment the journalist on the great work they did in a certain piece. At this juncture, you have the chance to start a discussion by either agreeing or disagreeing respectfully with the opinions of the journalist in a piece that you read. As we said earlier, it’s all about starting a discussion, and it can start long before your actual pitch.
iii). One sentence about your product — As before, if you can’t state in one sentence what your product does, then that pitch isn’t ready.
iv). Demonstration of how the product is solving the problem — This should be in the most non-technical terms possible. Just like your one sentence pitch, a layman should understand it very easily.
v). Brief illustration of the current situation — To put things into perspective for the press, provide a brief explanation of what is currently happening in the market. This may include the choices available, the loopholes, the problem you are solving, and background of your innovation.
vi). An angle of the story — Providing the journalist with an interesting angle to follow for your story can really give you the upper hand. It shows the potential your story has if the journalist followed it through.
vii). Invitation to the journalist — Invite the journalist to ask more questions, or offer to give them a free demo, trial, research, or product to help them have an easy time writing.
4. Find out the best time to reach out
Most outlets have their planning meetings between 8.30–9.30 am and again between 2.30–3.30 pm. Reach out before these times so that the journalists can share your story with their editors. I prefer to send at the beginning of the day between 7.00–7.45 am. Generally, most people check their emails immediately after waking up and just before they go to bed.
Avoid weekends, Friday afternoons and Mondays. Mondays are specifically not appropriate because this is probably the day when journalists have to catch up on so many emails from the previous weekend. There is a higher likelihood they won’t concentrate on your email that much.
Beware of time zones, holidays and major events. If you send an email at 8.00am to a journalist whose time zone is 3 hours ahead of yours, then it means they receive the email at 11.00am their time. This kind of mistake can mess up your PR strategy.
5. Reach out
After you have everything set, just log into your email address and reach out.
6. Follow up
When you don’t hear from a journalist the first time, the first thing is to assume they probably liked your pitch but forgot to get back to you. Wait for a full day to pass and send a follow up email asking if they got around to checking your email and what they think. If you don’t hear from them the second time after sending a follow-up email then it means that they have probably trashed your email pitch already. You could do a last follow-up again, but in all honesty, it’s mostly an effort in futility.
Not all email pitches will work out as you would like. Soldier on and reach out to the journalist that sent a reply.
That’s it and at this point all I can say is “Go forth and conquer!”
Originally published at press.farm on July 25, 2017.