I've been asked privately quite a few times over the last couple of years how one should pitch their startup to a tech blog like TechCrunch, GigaOm, VentureBeat or ReadWriteWeb. So I've decided (quite selfishly) to write a post about the subject instead of repeating myself or re-forwarding emails.
This comes from my experience as both a tech writer (for TechCrunch, ~1.5 years) and internet startup entrepreneur (for Plancast, also ~1.5 years), so I've been able to see things from both sides of the table, particularly when it comes to PR for newly founded startups. As such, these are principles that I primarily recommend to unproven entrepreneurs with unknown companies who want to launch publicly for the first time. Once an entrepreneur or their company gains visibility, their approach to PR will evolve and the press may end up coming to them for news instead of the other way around.
The Story Is Key
When you pitch a blogger – or any writer for that matter, whether they work for The New York Times or your local paper – it's crucial to recognize their desire to identify and then write a story. And by story, I mean something that starts, continues, completes or encapsulates a narrative. Bloggers have no interest in merely reporting facts detached from meaning. And they certainly don't want to report facts that actually have insufficient significance to their readers. Bloggers dread the idea of someone coming along and justifiably saying "so what?". Good narratives prevent that. Great narratives are thought-provoking and get further developed in readers' minds.
Now, you obviously don't have the power to directly dictate which narrative a blogger will craft as the result of your pitch (no matter how many pay-for-publish conspiracies you've heard). But it's important to think about a narrative for your company or product, because you can and should steer the blogger towards it. Why? Because bloggers are strapped for time and don't possess the same depth of domain expertise as you. Lay out a narrative that jibes well with their preconceptions and they'll likely run with some form of it.
It helps to recognize some of the more common types of narratives. If you read through the headlines on Techmeme, you'll find that most fit into at least one of the following:
- Competitive or Political Drama - aka "company X releases product Y to kill company Z"
- Gossip - "CEO of company X gets tangled up in Y"
- Insight - "trend X will change the world because of A, B, and C"
- Evolution & Confluence - "service Y is like X for Z, capitalizing on the recent developments of A and B"
- Success - "company X has created super impressive technology Y, is growing fast, or has made lots of money"
- Failure - "company X is dying or has messed something up"The idea is to figure out which type you want to adopt and then craft the facts of your announcement into a compelling and succinct narrative that conforms to it. You'll likely opt for type #4 or #5, but don't hesitate to spice it up with a bit of #1 or #3 (the story can have sub-narratives, but expect the blogger to lead with only one). This isn't an exercise in stretching the truth or making stuff up; there's a reason why you've built what you've built or done whatever you're announcing. Weave that reason into a bigger story while avoiding as many buzzwords as possible.
When framing your narrative, you'll do well to remember that bloggers are creatures of comparison. They'll immediately try to compare your product or announcement to another they've already seen, and if they find a close match, they'll pass on it. You should get out in front of this reaction by emphasizing the characteristics of your announcement that make it unique. But don't insist that it is incomparable; on the contrary, be forward about drawing comparisons that will highlight the significance of its uniqueness. The writer should come away from your pitch thinking "I've seen cows before, and this is indeed a cow, but it's purple! All of the other ones I've seen are only black and white" not "This guy insists this purple thing is not a cow but it obviously is. It might be worth writing about the fact that it's purple but I'm not sure; it feels as though I'm being pitched another cow".
This may sound like psychological manipulation directed towards selfish ends (i.e. sales) but if that's how it feels, you're doing it wrong. The goal here is to help the blogger, not exploit them. When you help them (with well-articulated material for a story), they help you (with a story that will publicize your business). As with all transactions, it relies on a relationship, however temporary. And the success of that relationship will depend on how much trust and rapport you've established.
A lot of times when entrepreneurs are ready to pitch, they go looking for a friend who knows and can refer them to a writer. The idea here is to leverage someone else's relationship to validate themselves transitively. This is all fine and good, and it's certainly better than submitting a story to a writer cold. However, it's much better to begin building a direct relationship with them well before the pitch.
One of the beautiful things about the internet is that you can develop relationships with people without ever meeting them. Get on your favorite bloggers' radars by commenting thoughtfully on their posts, retweeting and replying to them on Twitter, and submitting promising tips to them for stories that have nothing to do with your company. If you blog, take the time to write pieces that link to their pieces; they'll most likely read them and take note of your name. If you happen to live in their area, introduce yourself and chat with them casually at an industry event without giving an elevator pitch unless they ask.
The point is to achieve some level of familiarity and validation before ever pitching them on a story, not to become their best friend. In fact, you don't want to be too overeager or complimentary, otherwise they'll perceive you (rightfully) as a suck-up.
When you're ready to pitch, make sure you're not wasting their time with material that can't be delivered as an interesting story. A litmus test is whether you'd honestly be interested in reading about your announcement if you weren't the one behind it. And when presenting the story, keep it real. Certainly don't embellish or lie about anything. Build trust by throwing in a few facts that, if published, might not make you look so good. If you must, just ask the blogger to please not publish them and they won't, but you'll gain credibility in their eyes.
A Straightforward Procedure
As far as the mechanics of delivering a pitch, it's best to ping a blogger about the announcement you'd like to make about a week beforehand. Describe it in one paragraph (no more, no less), suggest the time you'd like them to write about it, and ask them if they're interested and want to hear more. If they respond in the affirmative, send them a few more paragraphs with details and some visuals (e.g. screenshots or demo video) or private access to an alpha product, if relevant. Do not send them a press release; it will only insult their intelligence.
Try to be flexible on the timing if they're busy, and if you must pitch the same announcement to more than one blogger (not advisable for unknown startups who should bolster the value of their story with exclusivity), be completely forthright about it and your reasons for doing so. Resist the urge to propose an embargo; they only cause frustration.
Once a blogger has written about you, don't embarrass them by being the first to comment with "thank you for writing about us!". Do your part in promoting the piece by getting friends and family to retweet, post to Facebook, etc. And space things out before pitching them again so they don't grow tired of you or the subject.
Your Company's Best Representative
If this procedure sounds simple enough, you can craft the most compelling story for your company or product, and you have the time necessary to build these relationships, then you shouldn't hire anyone else to handle PR for you. It'll only be a waste of money, and you'll get less than optimal results. In any case, bloggers much prefer to work directly with executive-level representatives than PR firms, so you'll be doing them a favor.
As you scale your business, or if you find any of this particularly daunting, then perhaps you should seek professional guidance. But otherwise take this as an opportunity to develop a new skill set and relationships that'll serve you well even beyond your current startup.