The Hacker’s Guide to Getting Press

Note: This is the second chapter of The Hacker’s Guide to User Acquisition. I’m publishing them for free as I go. See the other chapters here.

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The Hacker’s Guide to Getting Press

Preface

There’s nothing a startup (or any company, really) needs quite as much as press. It brings in traffic and users/customers, social validation and legitimacy all at the same time. Those are things it’s hard to get enough of.

It’s taken me years of trial and error, the help of a lot of other really smart marketers, and tons of time playing with hacks and tweaking language and strategy to figure out what works across the board and boil it down to a repeatable process. So far it has worked to help my company and others get published in:

Time Magazine
BBC
The Guardian
TechCrunch
PandoDaily
Slate
Gizmodo
and hundreds of smaller blogs/websites. Some are under NDAs, so I won’t be disclosing all of the details, but this process, if followed the way I spell it out below, should work well for you.

A special hat-tip goes out to colleagues Fit Marketing for helping me (and paying me) to come up with this stuff.

Overview

On the surface, the process of getting press seems reasonably simple. All you need to do is find a reporter or blogger that might like to write about you, and you email them your pitch. But doing that well and making it scale can become very complex very quickly. We’ll take you through step by step, and by the end of this guide it should take you less than a day to email up to 1,000 relevant press contacts with all the right information and messaging that would make them want to write about you. Even the crappiest companies should get a half dozen or so mentions in the press when doing so. We’ll cover:

    1. The overall strategy and approach
    2. How to find the publications that would be likely to write about you, and to programmatically break them down into manageable lists.
    3. Finding the angle to pitch
    4. Creating a press kit
    5. Writing the perfect, personalized email (at scale)
    6. How to send large amounts of email, pre-populating fields and allowing for personalization.

Now, let’s go get you some press.

Overall Strategy and Approach

Customer Profiling

Whenever I begin a marketing effort, I like to really try to get into the mind of the person I’m “selling” to, regardless of what it is I may be selling. In this case, we’re selling to the reporter, and what we’re selling is that we’re legitimate and interesting enough that their audience will want to hear about us.

There’s also a pecking order among reporters. The high-profile bloggers and reporters (think Alexia Tsosis, Sarah Lacy, Robert Scoble) can spend most of their time on investigative journalism and analysis, while some of the lower/younger reporters have a large quota they have to meet and can barely rephrase press releases before they throw them on their blog. It takes a unique strategy to reach the different places on the totem pole.

Though they all have their weaknesses and pet interests, (Robert Scoble, for example, is a sucker for anything involving Google Glass or fine alcohol), it rarely makes sense to pitch the highest tier first when we’re looking for press coverage. They’re big enough that if what you’re doing isn’t shaking up Silicon Valley they probably don’t care. Our strategy will actually be quite the reverse.

One of the first things reporters do when your pitch lands in their inbox is see what other reporters are saying about you (or if anyone has written about you at all). Reporters, naturally, like to see some level of social proof before they make a move. If other people are writing about you that signals that you’re worth writing about. We’re going to use that to our advantage.

The Press Pyramid

To solve the “What do I find if I Google you” problem, we will build a pyramid of press mentions, starting with the blogs and sites that are small and hungry for content, and work our way up to the 800-pound gorillas.

Press Pyramid

So we want to start at the bottom rung; the hobbyist with a decent following, the small tech blog just getting started, and the small companies doing what they can to pay the bills with a little traffic and some well-placed Adsense ads, etc. But most of them are blogs you don’t read often and may not have even heard of, so how do we find them? (This is where it gets fun.)

List Building

The first thing we need to do, before we can separate the websites out into their separate tiers, is generate a mammoth list of blogs that we can easily import into tools that we’ll be using later.

All we’ll need in the beginning are URLs of publications that write about companies like ours. We have tools to find contact information within those blogs, but the tools have to know where to start.

A word of caution: Blogs that are “vaguely related” and reporters who write about things “kind of like” your company will not write about you. If I make iPad cases, a blog that writes about iPad apps isn’t even worth approaching. So when we build the list, let’s make sure to narrow our searches as closely as we can.

Now let’s go build our list of URLs.

List-Building Method 1: Blog Rankings

We’re going to use a couple of sites that rank blogs within their categories, and scrape for the URLs blogs in the applicable categories.

First, download the Scraper Chrome Extension (or its equivalent in the browser of your choice).

Now we go to our blog ranking website. Let’s start with Alltop. Go to Alltop and find your category, remembering to be as narrow as possible.

We’ll use my startup, Grasswire as an example. Grasswire is a newsroom for the Internet; it lets everyday people fact-check and sort social media content as it streams in real-time. So we’re going to find all of the blogs related to “social media” and “journalism.”

The Alltop social media page looks like this:

Get Press for Your Startup

We see the classic suspects: TechCrunch and Mashable, but also some sites you might not be familiar with: Smartbrief on Social Media and Social Media Examiner. We need to add them to our list (which will basically be a huge Google Doc to begin with).

Right-click on one of the sites in red, and click on the scraper tool.

Hacking the Press

Then click “export to Google Docs.”

Now we have a a fairly decent list of sites with their URLs that might write about us.

Repeat the process in as many categories as exactly match your company (I would do journalism as well), and then we’ll switch over to BlogRank.

BlogRank is a bit more complicated to scrape from. First, search for your category using the search bar. It will ask you to select a “view,” but it doesn’t really matter what view you choose, since we’ll be scraping them all anyway.

Again, we’re going to right click on the name of a blog, and say “scrape.” You’ll see the scraper tool pop up just as it did with AllTop, but this time it only appears to pull in one blog. It’s not scraping all of the content we want it to, because BlogRank is set up in HTML tables. We need to modify what the scraper is looking for.

Screenshot 2013-11-28 23.20.54 (1)

With the scraper window still open, we’re going to edit the XPath reference at the top-left of the tool.

The XPath probably says something like //div[3]/table[2]/tbody/tr[2]/td/a. All we have to do to make it scrape everything is to change the final number in tr[2] (which stands for “table row 2″) to tr[*], which tells the scraper to gather every row.

So change our XPath reference should now be //div[3]/table[2]/tbody/tr[*]/td/a. Click “scrape” at the bottom of the tool, and your results on the right side should look like they did for Alltop. We’re ready to export to Google Docs.

Screenshot 2013-11-28 23.24.12

Repeat the process for any other categories in BlogRank, and we should have a list of hundreds of blogs relevant to what we want to target.

We’ll expand the list with one more hack later, but we’ll treat that separately, so we’ll just work with this for now.

There are some duplicates, and scraping BlogRank brought in the URLs for the RSS feeds as well (which we don’t want), so we need to clean this list up before we can manipulate and import it.

Scrubbing the list

If we take the BlogRank Google Docs we just created, we can see that the odd rows from row 3 on only contain the RSS URLs we don’t want. Let’s get rid of those.

This is a bit hack-y and I’m sure there’s a better way, but it works for me. In cell C1, enter the following =MOD(ROW(),2), then copy that formula down (once your cursor turns into the cross when hovering over the bottom-right corner of the cell) to the rest of the spreadsheet. The result should be every odd C cell (C1, C3, C5, etc.) containing a “1″ and every even C cell (C2, C4, C6) containing a “0″.

Now select the entire C column, click on “Data” and select “Sort sheet by column C A ->Z”

The numbers in column C won’t change, but the rest of your sheet will be nicely separated out for easy deletion. Find anything that’s empty in column A and delete its row. Once you’ve done this, you should have a column that is strictly blog URLs that we can import into the tools we’ll use later.

Do this for each Google Doc spreadsheet you created, and then combine them into one giant list – hopefully it’s over 700 total sites at this point.

We will inevitably have some duplicates, so once we have everything combined let’s get rid of them.

In the new cell C1, enter =UNIQUE(A:B) and hit “enter.” This should create a list with only the unique entries in columns C and D. You can’t yet delete columns A and B, since they’re linked to columns C and D using a formula, so copy and paste the values from columns C and D and paste them in a fresh Google Doc.

What you just created is an enormous list of all of the top blog URLs in the categories and industries that would be most likely to write about you. Give yourself a pat on the back; that’s pretty awesome. But we’re only getting started – before we start building a press kit and sending out emails, there’s yet another way to generate a list. This list takes a lot less time to create, so don’t worry.

List Building Method 2: Google News

Getting a list of blogs in our categories may not cover all the bases. The next method to build our list will be scraping the results from the Google News API.

Thankfully the good folks over at Customer Development Labs have already built a tool that will scrape and download Google News for us.

All we have to do is go to their tool, enter a keyword (it could be a competitor, a keyword, a problem you’re trying to solve, etc.) and it will spit out a nicely formatted .CSV file of all the articles that have been written about that keyword in the past few days.

This is, of course, much easier to use and manipulate than our other list,. I haven’t found anything of a particular region to be of any value, so I would delete those (unless you’re from that region or your product is specifically relevant there), but other than that I would leave the CSV file as is, or copy and paste the information into your Google Doc.

This can be a little bit annoying, but hopefully, if you combined the two methods, in just a few minutes we have found over 1,000 URLs.

It will be easy to go from URL to email address later (I promise), so let’s put together something to send the reporters.

Creating Your Angle

News isn’t worthy of publishing just because it exists. Part of the job of any journalist or reporter is curation — deciding what is worthy of being published in their publication, whether that be a blog or the New York Times. Your job as someone looking for press is to show them how you meet their standards and/or would be interesting to their audience.

We could go into all sorts of journalism principles that determine why something makes it into a publication and what principles they use, but really it’s just common sense.

Is it timely? Is it relevant? Is it interesting? Why would someone like you be interested in reading this?

Again, we’ll take my startup, Grasswire, for example. Grasswire is an Internet newsroom that lets everyone fact-check and sort social media content in real-time. But what does that mean?

That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is…is freedom.” – Jack Sparrow

What grasswire needs is an Internet newsroom. But what grasswire is is democratization of journalism and information. It’s turning over the power of governments and corporations to everyday people. It’s letting ordinary people control the information that determines how they see the world.

Not many people want to read about yet another social media tool. People love to read about freedom.

So in the initial pitch we won’t go deep into detail about how the technology works, what APIs we pull from, why the UI/UX look like they do, etc. We talk about the story of grasswire. What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why it needs to be done. Reporters don’t like products very often, but they always love missions.

Grasswire also had the benefit of the angle that I lived in my car for three months to get it off the ground; that’s interesting to anyone, if only to understand how I lived in a car, where I slept, where I showered, etc. That also goes in the arsenal, and should be mentioned when we’re sending our email, and kept in mind as we develop our press kit, which it is now time to do.

The Press Kit

Now we have an even bigger list of sites that would potentially write about our startup; I usually start working with a list of 1,000 or so URLs. We’ll create a semi-automated way of sending the emails in a minute, what we have to do now is create something to send them.

The Press Kit, basically a .zip file of all of the content for the reporter to use, will vary from startup to startup. Grasswire‘s original press kit (will download as a .zip) was honestly mediocre. But that press kit combined with a few emails got us our first press (BBC, The Guardian, Slate, Yahoo Finance, etc.) before we even had a product. Let’s look over the basic structure of a press kit.

A press kit should include the following:

The Grasswire press kit included another document we called the “Grasswire Story,” because the idea that I lived in my car for a few months to get it off the ground was quite compelling. If you can think of anything else specific to your company that would make for an interesting story, include it in a separate document.

Company Overview

The company overview is a very simple document that explains who you are and what you do. Think of it as an elevator pitch for newspapers.

For Grasswire we included a tagline, a one-sentence description, three “how it works” paragraphs, and a bit of a call to action. An example might look something like this (note: this is a press kit for a real company we did work for, and it got them more than a little bit of press, from AllThingsD to the Wall Street Journal.

Underwater Audio Overview

Tagline: Waterproof iPods and headphones for swimmers

Description: Underwater Audio has developed technology that allows us to waterproof ipods, headphones, and other electronic devices for swimmers.

How it works: Underwater Audio music players come waterproofed from the inside out. They look, feel, and smell like any other 2GB iPod Shuffle — but they work underwater.

Underwater Audio seals the iPod from the inside out using a proprietary process, and we have tested it at a depth of 200 feet (though we don’t recommend Underwater Audio for diving). Dunk it in water, leave it there, it still works.

The Underwater Audio player will work with any headphones, though under the water you’ll need waterproof headphones to create a watertight seal with your ear to have good audio. Our recommended picks are available along with your iPod on UnderwaterAudio.com

Underwater Audio iPods and bundles are available at UnderwaterAudio.com starting at $149.

Of course, Underwater Audio is fairly easy to describe — they sell waterpoof iPods. Your company might be a little bit more nebulous, but you should be able to nail it down to both a one-sentence description and a short explanation that’s not more than a couple paragraphs. I like to start out pretending like I’m explaining a company to a five-year-old, then making my explanation more technical and detailed from there if necessary.

Founder Photos

Yes, this can be a bit weird, but some publications really like them. Send headshots if you have to, but really if there’s an interesting angle to your story you can tell them through your founder photos as well. Most of the Grasswire team photos were published because my co-founder and I were standing in front of the car where I lived while we got Grasswire off the ground. Underwater Audios might be something underwater with a waterproof iPod demoing the product. These are rarely used, so you can go out on a limb. Put them all in a folder.

Logos

I’ve had some reporters ask for .ai or .psd folders that will scale better, while most prefer simple .png logos. It’s not dificult to throw them all in a folder, send them off, and let the reporters decide.

Press Mentions

This is basically to show some social proof; it’s just a document with links to other articles that have been written about you.

Product Screenshots/Videos/Photographs

The most important of these three are screenshots. It’s really difficult to explain how a product works without a visual; everything seems incredibly abstract. Include any other product demo videos or photographs that a reporter may want to include. Remember the strategy here is to give them every piece of content they could possibly use, and let them decide what is relevant for their type of media.

The Email

We’re almost ready to start systematically gathering reporters’ emails and sending them our press kit, but first we need some text to populate the email.

Ask 10 reporters what they would like to see in press pitches, and all 10 of them will say “keep it short.” And when they say short, they mean it – looking through our press pitches, anything that was longer than two (really short) paragraphs cut our response rates in half. So I like to boil my pitches down to three really easy parts.

  1. Introduction
  2. One-sentence pitch
  3. Offer/ask (sample or press kit)

Here’s the general framework for an email that works really well.

Hey [name],

My name is Austen from Underwater Audio. We developed a technology that makes iPods completely waterproof — it’s some pretty cool technology you (and your readers might be interested in. We’re at underwateraudio.com, and I have a [press kit/sample] I’d like to send your way to [review/check out] if you’d be interested. Let me know!

Thanks,
Austen Allred
[contact info]

The most important part of that email, to wax Steve Jobs-like, is what isn’t there. No long introductions, no links, no videos, no demos, just “We’re here, are you interested?” I’ve also gone back and forth with varying levels of personalization, a la “I read your article about x and I really liked y” or “I’m a huge fan of your work” enough to make it clear that an email is really personalized, but the difference in results has been negligible, especially because you don’t know the writer or his publication.

It’s really easy for a reporter to hit reply and say “Yeah, send me what you’ve got,” and then you’re introduced and talking. It can be tempting to send 1,000 press kits out or tons of links on the initial email, but trust me; this gets much better results.

Also note that you’ll want to avoid links, especially considering you’ll be sending about emails in bulk. 1,000 similar emails with the same link will look really spammy to email providers, and you will probably start hitting spam folders.

Sending the Emails

So we’ve got a press kit ready, some email text to send, and list of sites to send them to. It’s time to start gathering some email addresses and sending some emails (this is, surprisingly enough, the same step).

To save us hours of time we’re going to use Buzzstream. Buzzstream lets you navigate to sites, automatically pulls contact information, lets you send pre-populated but personalized emails, and helps you follow up on those emails. The starter pack, which will be enough to meet our needs, is $29/month (with a 14-day free trial!), so it’s well worth our time to not have to do all of this manually.

Open up your BuzzStream account, and you’ll see this page:

paste URLs

Hit “paste URLs” and paste the URLs from your Google Docs (you still have them, right?)

Click “add websites,” and wait a minute for BuzzStream to do its job. It usually takes somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes for it to process 1,000 websites.

get a drink

What you have now is a giant list of websites with email addresses, Twitter handles, etc.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 1.13.39 PM

I use “domain authority” as the best sort method to decide how legitimate a blog or website is. Generally the biggest (TechCrunch, Wired, etc.) will be 90+; really, really good blogs will be 80+. Anything 40-70 is either a smaller blog or a mommy/amateur blog.

If you’re looking to go straight to the top, look at 80-100. If you’re looking to start at the bottom and build your way up in legitimacy, go for the 40-70. I don’t even bother with anything that has a domain authority lower than 30.

Now we have our list; let’s go to work.

Reaching Out

The temptation here is going to be to send a mass email blast. Fight that temptation. Even if it takes us a couple days to pore through and send out 500 really good emails, it will be worth it. I promise.

Buzzstream makes it easy for you to take an email template and fill it in with variables (e.g. “[firstname]” or “[sitename]“. Once it finds the right contact info it will automatically plug that information in, so you could be pretty close to simply hitting “send” for every email you write and moving on to the next site.

It’s also possible to reach out on Twitter; but this doesn’t scale very well.

First, if there are one or two blogs that would be your ideal publications. Find the ideal person there, and reach out to them on Twitter. Try sending a message somewhat like this:

@username hey I have something to send you about [your angle]. What’s a good email?

This creates a bit of a personal relationship, and if you’re vague enough and your angle is interesting enough, few will refuse to give you their email address.

I like to send two tweets, but of course refrain from tweeting at 50 people. First because that’s annoying, second because the other reporters will see you blindly reaching out, and third because you’ll be suspended from Twitter for spamming.

Some reporters’ contact info won’t be brought up as well as some others, but make sure to find the right person to contact. If you’re Grasswire, don’t email the person who writes about The Internet of Things. It’s worth spending twice as much time to find the right person.

Now we’re going to open up the “BuzzBar,” which will let us go through our list of websites, open them up, and pull and send information to contacts. It will track the emails we’ve sent, remind us to send follow-ups, and let us get rid of the sites we don’t like.

I try to send 500/day if I’m working a full day (yes, it’s a full day’s work to send 500 emails).

Follow Up

If you don’t receive a response after a couple days, you can use BuzzStream to follow up. But don’t be annoying.

Remember that running a company is a marathon, not a sprint (a startup is kind of a sprint then a marathon), and you may want to get coverage from these reporters again. So be cordial, don’t burn any bridges, and be grateful if anyone writes about you.

Let me know how it worked for you on Twitter, and reach out to me by email (see the link in the navigation to the left) if you have any questions or concerns. If you are running into trouble other people might be too, so I’d love to help you out.