How our press release ended up on 500 news sites with zero business benefit

Unless you get results from your PR efforts that are in alignment with your business goals, you may as well not bother.

Unless press coverage converts into sales, leads, inquiries, or what-have-you, it is a vanity metric.

This post is part of a four-part series — if you’re trying to figure out how to get press for your startup, it’s probably worth reading all four.

  1. This is how you create an amazing press release
  2. Your press release needs images
  3. How to get your news in front of journalists
  4. Should you send your press release out on the wire services? (This article)

Step 1 — What are your business goals?

Before you set out to attract press coverage, it’s important to ask yourself why. Why do you think it’s a good idea to be written about on a high-profile website? More and more, people are starting to realize that press coverage per se is purely a vanity metric. Sure, it’s fun to see your company name in print, and it feels great to tweet out that VentureBeat wrote about you… But does that help achieve the company’s overall objectives?

Spot the massive spike of new conversations started on the day where we had two orders of magnitude more press than any previous day. Hint: It was on August 10th. Can’t see any? Yeah, me neither.

What are your business goals? Is your goal to be written about on as many websites as possible? Probably not. That is rarely the case.

Unless press coverage converts into sales, leads, inquiries, or what-have-you, it is a vanity metric.

What matters is whether you got the attention of the people you’re trying to reach. Maybe you’re looking for new customers. Perhaps you’re trying to get the attention of investors. Some companies need to shore up their case for a potential partner. Those are all SMART goals, worth pursuing. Those are the same metrics you should apply to your press coverage. Did you get more investor meetings? Did you get more inquiries from customers? Did your sales go up? Did your partner discussions get easier after they read about you in the news or saw you on TV?

Getting coverage news sites is not what ‘success’ looks like. Getting new customers is.

If the answer is yes, you have a successful PR campaign. It’s working. It’s helping. Do more of whatever you did to get that coverage.

If — like we discovered yesterday — you end up being published on 500 websites without a blip in any of your business data, you did not have a successful PR campaign. To LifeFolder, getting coverage on news sites is not what ‘success’ looks like. Getting new customers is.

Step 2 — Target coverage that aligns with your goals

As an early-stage business, getting press is exciting. And potentially helpful. A good news story can help get you in front of thousands of potential customers, partners, and investors.

For the launch of LifeFolder’s Emily, we received some amazing coverage — VentureBeat, the East Bay Times and LifeHacker, to take a few examples. LifeHacker, in particular, was an incredibly powerful driver for valuable traffic. Makes sense: The site’s audience is self-selecting for people who want to ‘hack’ their lives better through tips and tricks. So a chatbot that helps you plan for end of life is a perfect fit.

This single article on LifeHacker was a lot more meaningful than the 500 stories we caught yesterday. Which comes as the surprise of exactly nobody, I’m sure.

The downside with working on our launch press, of course, was that it took me a tremendous amount of time: Research, writing up press releases, and reaching out to journalists, sending follow-up emails, etc.

But the numbers don’t lie — our launch was a tremendous success, no matter how you measure it. Our product is a chatbot, so the most important thing for us is “new conversations started”. We also had a number of potential partners reach out, and we found a new advisor as a result of our initial PR push. Success, all across the board.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought, “to get my press release into the hands of every relevant journalist without doing the work?”

Even as I’m writing that now, I see how naïve that was. But bear with me… The whole point of writing this article is that you get to learn from my harebrained experiments, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes yourself.

Across 502 published articles, the links were clicked… 23 times. That’s 0.046 clicks per article, on average.

Step 3 — Automating press release distribution

With previous releases, I ended up doing a lot of research up front and contacting individual journalists. I’m good at that, but it takes a lot of time, and as the CEO of a startup, I have a thousand other things on my to-do list. I decided to short-circuit the process by using a distribution list.

So, for our launch in Indiana and North Carolina, we put together a set of press releases and set about pushing those out to journalists in those two states, using Cision’s PR Newswire product.

Total potential audience: 88.1m. Break open the Champagne, we’ve made it. Or… Have we?

Within hours of the releases going out, it looked like things were going tremendously well. The North Carolina release was picked up by 248 sites. The Indiana release was published on 254 sites.

Incredible. 502 sites in total had articles about LifeFolder! We had coverage on Yahoo Finance, MarketWatch, TheStreet, and Seeking Alpha. Maybe they weren’t tier-1 publications, but at least I had heard of many of them. I’m not going to lie: I was excited.

This was my dashboard, 2 hours after articles on LifeFolder went live on more than 500 websites. That’s… Underwhelming.

That excitement didn’t last long: Only for the 5 seconds or so it took for our business dashboard to load up.

To call the results ‘underwhelming’ is an insult to every whelm that was every under-ed. The web traffic was lower (!) on the 10th of August than it was the day before — and on the 9th, we had zero news coverage.

We used trackable links to see how many times the links were clicked. Across 502 published articles, the links were clicked… 23 times. That’s 0.046 clicks per article, on average. Most of the clicks happened before the releases were sent out, so presumably it was Cision’s copy-editors checking the link. As for number of conversations started — the most important metric to us — we didn’t have a single one that could be attributed to the releases.

But… 500 articles have to be good for something, right?

Perhaps not.

It turns out there’s something fishy about those articles. Sure, they were posted on some pretty high-profile sites, but they certainly didn’t get the prominence I was hoping for.

You would think that, given that the story was right there on the sites, that a search for LifeFolder from the search box on all of those publications should, in theory, result in at least one news story found, right? It does not. I checked the top dozen sites or so, but a search for LifeFolder gave zero results on any of the sites. I also couldn’t find them in any indexes. In fact, apart from clicking on the direct link provided by the press release distribution tool itself, I couldn’t find a way of getting to those articles.

But what about Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? Nope, none of that either. At first, I assumed that we’d at least get the SEO benefit from being covered on these sites, but it turns out that wasn’t to be, either:

From the MarketWatch HTML

It turns out that all of the sites are running the PR Newswire stories with a special tag that prevents them from being indexed by search engines. Specifically, noindex means that the page doesn’t get added to the search engines. And nofollow means that none of the links on that page count towards any search engine rankings. Which, as you might imagine, removes any potential SEO benefit you might have had.

I spoke to PR Newswire on a conference call, and they dispute that there is no SEO benefit. “If you search for LifeFolder in Google News, you can see articles coming up,” was their retort. Which is true. I would argue that because the few articles that do turn up have no-follow links, it doesn’t do us any good directly, although I suppose customers could see us getting ‘coverage’ on other sites, which PR Newswire argues makes us more trustworthy.

Which ultimately leads me to wonder: Who are the PR Newswire articles for? As far as we can tell, nobody. There wasn’t anybody to click the links, which makes me think that nobody read the articles. No journalists were involved with choosing them for the sites. The search engine spiders have been explicitly forbidden from accessing them, so the articles won’t turn up on Google, Bing, or any other search engines. And the sites themselves don’t surface the stories anywhere either. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who benefits from this exercise. Other than PR Newswire themselves, I suppose.

That didn’t work. What should you do instead?

If I wanted to be disingenuous, I could say “Hey look, we got coverage on Yahoo Finance” in our next investor update. But I won’t. Both as a businessperson and as a journalist, I know the truth: there is no value whatsoever to these articles, and pretending otherwise is foolish.

The amount of money spent divided by the number of customers acquired…

What really matters is how your press coverage aligns with your business goals. And by every measurable metric, this whole exercise was a waste of time and a not-insignificant amount of money.

I had hoped we would have been able to attract at least one customer, so I could make a sarcastic “The cost of acquisition through this channel was (cost of press distribution)/(number of new users), which hardly seems worth it” gag. But given that we saw precisely zero new users, I didn’t even get a good joke out of it.

Want to get good coverage on the news? I can help there, too. Here’s a handy checklist to get you started, and don’t forget about the images!


Haje Jan Kamps is the CEO at LifeFolder, a company that’s building a chatbot that’s helping people plan for end of life.