Journalists get a lot of email. (See: A Day in The Life of A Tech Reporter’s Inbox.)
So if you’re trying to get in touch with reporters about your nascent startup, you should know up front that the odds do not work in your favor. Unless you know a reporter personally, or possess a sparkling, high-profile pedigree, it’s probably going to be very tough to get press for your young business.
But over the summer we talked to three top-tier tech reporters about what they look for in a pitch. Jonathan Shieber of TechCrunch, Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell and Erin Griffith of Fortune were all kind enough to share some wisdom at the New York Tech Press Meetup.
We’ve distilled that wisdom into four distinct tips, described below. Follow their advice and the odds may tilt in your favor.
Imagine if a huge percentage of your interactions with humans consisted of people trying to pitch you. That’s the life of a tech journalist. They are treated as means to an end every single day.
Griffith was once pitched in the ladies’ room. Shontell, at Thanksgiving dinner. This, as you can imagine, gets annoying.
The best way to endear yourself to a journalist–and this goes for other humans of business value–is to initiate the relationship long before asking for anything. In other words, treat your relationships with journalists as ends in and of themselves.
Meet a journalist at a party? Try this: don’t pitch them. Just talk about the new Beyoncé album or the food in Chicago or whatever. Act like a normal, likable human. Then maybe send a follow-up email later in the week with some niceties. Then, a couple months later, when you have some real news, include the pitch.
If you need to initiate the courtship digitally, try a sincere compliment, thoughtful comment or a helpful tip (more on this below).
As Shontell says, ”If you can find a way to reach out without needing anything, and start a conversation that way, that’s always a good thing.”
If you run a tiny, unknown startup, journalists don’t need you. You need them. And since desperation has never served anyone well, how can a little bitty startup founder bridge this gap?
In short: be valuable.
Journalists work in the currency of information. If you can provide them with valuable, newsworthy information about the area of their coverage, or even provide a intro to someone who can, they’re much more likely pay attention to your pitch down the line.
“Part of my job is breaking news,” explains Griffith. “If people are going to feed me information, then I’m much more likely to be their friend.”
Odds are that you know your industry better than 99.9% of people in the world, and that probably goes for quite a few tech journalists as well.
“If you can give us something that will help us round out our story, or get the news to us in a more timely fashion, or put a new context or spin on it, that’s what we live for,” says Shieber.
Let’s say you work in the wearable computing space, for example. What’s the open secret in that world that might not be known to outsiders? Is the flashy company that’s grabbing headlines actually suffering from low morale and shaky management? Is there another, lesser-known company that’s printing money and making the best products on the market?
Though they might seem like accepted wisdom within your world, the answers to those kinds of questions may actually be revelatory to a tech journalist that covers broad set of industries.
How does this look in practice?
If you see an article about your space, chime in thoughtfully in the comments. Or send a thoughtful email augmenting the writer’s own thoughts and observations. Don’t be pompous, just be helpful.
Prove Your Cred
“Part of the problem with entrepreneurs is that everyone can be an entrepreneur,” says Shieber.
And anyone can find a reporter’s email and hound them with a pitch not worth their time.
In reaching out to reporters, you need to prove your credibility and worth, along with that of your company. What have you accomplished? Why should you be taken seriously?
Journalists need to be confident that they’re not writing about scam artists or amateurs. They need to be confident that you have a reasonable chance of success.
The reasons for this are twofold. One, no one wants to write positively about a company that fails, or worse, turns out to be a fraud. And two, journalists would like to have some confidence that you could become successful, so that their early coverage will look prescient and earn deeper access.
“The more information that you can give us about why we should give a damn about your company, the more we will give a damn about your company,” says Shieber.
Why should they give a damn?
Valid reasons include:
- You’re trending in the app store.
- You have an impressive number of users.
- You have backing from professional investors or known angels.
- You went to a very selective university or worked for a selective company.
- You have a track record of accomplishing or building cool things.
- Your product actually is insanely cool and innovative.
- You have an objectively interesting background or founding story.
Invalid reasons include:
- “We’re going to completely disrupt this industry.”
- “We love your writing and it would mean so much if you did an article about us.”
- “We think we’re really on to something.”
Focus on concrete facts. Avoid grandiose statements and tropes. If you don’t have any compelling concrete facts, PR probably isn’t the right area of focus.
Do Your Research
As a journalist, it’s infuriating to receive an email pitching a topic completely outside of your coverage. Reporters have limited brainpower to spend on email, and a careless, spammy piece of nonsense that soaks up that brainpower is a great way to annoy them.
Your work, as a founder, does not begin with a click of the “Compose Email” button. “You have to really know the media that you want to reach,” says Shieber. “Know what sector you’re in and who’s most receptive to running those kinds of stories.”
This means doing a ton of research before ever reaching out.
Let’s go back to the wearable computing startup as an example. If you’re trying to get into Forbes, there are dozens of staff writers and hundreds of contributors who are possible targets. All of these people have their own schedule quirks, personal interests and shifting job responsibilities, just like everyone else. Your job is to find those who will be most interested in your little wearable company.
The easiest way to approach this? Just type “wearable computing” into the search bar of the Forbes website. You are now presented with every Forbes article about wearable computing ever written. This is a solid starting point.
From here you can, and should, go much deeper. You can click through to bios, social media profiles, and individual writer pages that will present every story ever published by each writer. You can repeat this same practice on the website of pretty much any other publication you’re trying to reach.
The more often a writer publishes, the better. And in this case, the more they stick to wearable computing stories, the better.
From here you can get even more granular. Social media pages will often reveal writers’ personalities, which will give you a sense of the tone that might work best in your outreach.
For Forbes and many other sites, the distinction between staffers and contributors is particularly important. Staffers are paid to write everyday and generally learn as much as they can about their beat. Contributors, like me, often have other day jobs and write only on occasion. It depends on the individual, but generally contributors aren’t as good a bet for targeting.
It’s not rocket science. Just learn how to tell your story and be a decent, thoughtful human being. It’ll go a long way.