Why We No Longer Pitch Techcrunch or Any Other Tech Media, For That Matter

When I first joined Bitrix24 marketing team three years ago, my primary goal was to get Bitrix24 inside Techcrunch. I was obsessed with it. I pitched relentlessly. I flew to Techcrunch Disrupt event and talked to Mike and Ingrid personally. Ingrid was pretty cool too, perhaps because she’s originally from St.Petersburg, if I remember correctly. She said something to the point ‘if you raise tens of millions, we’ll probably write about you, but all you are going to get from us is four hundred retweets’. I did not get what she meant back then, but I do now. I’ve talked to PR people who have good track record getting European startups in Techcrunch (Masha Drokova was very good at it, at least while working for Runa). I’ve tracked peer startups that got good Techcrunch coverage. I’ve made sure that Techcrunch really doesn’t have grudge against us — they have a pretty good track record of barely covering Zoho or Odoo recently too. In short, getting/not getting into Techcrunch doesn’t seem to make any meaningful difference.

This is not a universal proclamation — one Russian startup reported that getting in TC resulted in getting 5000 new visitors, which was good for them, but is just few hours worth of traffic for Bitrxi24. And I am quite confident that if you need VC money, Techcrunch coverage can get you far. I don’t want to be bashing Techcrunch either, because the underlying problem for us, marketers, is universal. The problem is this — you (we) can no longer rely on tech media as a meaningful source of new users and customers, unless you’ve just launched and starting with zero.

There are three causes for this problem

1. Content fragmentation

Population of planet Earth is seven billion people and is growing by 1% a year. There over 3 billion people on the internet and this number is growing a bit faster. The content is growing much faster, probably doubling every few months. This means that each particular piece of content is grabbing fewer and fewer eyeballs. As publishers, Forbes, Business Insider or Techcrunch, don’t care if one million people will be shown banner on the same page or if it’s million different pages — the number of displays is the same. But it makes huge difference to PR and marketing professionals, because you want people to read content about YOUR company. Just for the record, I don’t believe that you can buy banners ads in popular tech publications with positive ROI either, never met a human being who was able to accomplish this feat. It seems to be the case of ‘well, look at all those other advertisers, they can’t be all wasting their money, can they?’ We’ve had really dismal results with post that went through the main page of VentureBeat and many other publications — this is exactly what happens when the audience is sliced up in million different pieces.

2. Are they really publishers?

I’ve been told that Techcrunch, Venturebeat and others make much more money from events than in online ad revenue. Techcrunch in particular is so good with their TC Disrupt brand that they frequently don’t even have to do those events themselves, they simply license out these events to third party organizers who pay for the right to use Techcrunch brand. That was the case with the event I attended. It kind of creates a conflict of interests for tech media. First, you have to convince the hopeful startups (and sponsors) that participating in these events (which isn’t free) is going to do something for them, even if you know that’s not the case. Second, you are risking bias. Third, once you become VC cheerleading machine you can do less and less intelligent reporting. Sarah Lacy of Pando.com (who used to work for TC) had a few good posts on the subject. It’s as if for some (most?) tech publications the only reason for existing is just to promote their annual conferences and special events.

3. The incredible vanishing audience

A really, really strange thing has happened over the years. Most countries, at least in Europe, used to have at least 3–5 of what was known back than as ‘computer magazines’. When they shut down print versions, that was quite understandable, since the audience was migrating to the Net. But then online publications started closing en masse. Online publications that were really, really hot just five years ago, say GigaOM or Ubergizmo, are long past their glory days. GigaOm now just does research. When was the last time you’ve personally read ZDNet, Cnet, eWeek, InformationWeek, CIO or Network World? Do you even remember they still exist? And publications that still have good readership, like Techcrunch, suffer from what’s been called ‘audience inbreeding’. Meaning they are being read by your peers, venture capitalists, technohipsters, startup founders and other journalists. They are NOT read by system administrators, or people trying to find new CRM system, or early adopters. These people moved onto ProductHunt somewhat, perhaps they still read Lifehacker but mostly they disappeared to never be found again.

As I’ve said in the beginning, this poses really, really big challenge to us, marketers. We no longer have captive audience that we can buy. There is no reason to spend money or time on PR either, because you’ll fail even you are successful. Coverage no longer means registrations and sales (save your breath and don’t write comments that PR is not a lead generation channel and never was). So, after getting Bitrix24 into over 200 publications, I am giving up. We have a pretty big announcement coming up in March, so I think I’ll be forced to fire one last press release and pitch a few journos just to keep my boss happy, but I have no illusions that I’ll just be wasting my time.

I don’t want to be all doom and gloom either. The world has changed and will be changing. As vendors we have to become our own publishers, meaning we have to have a strategy and means to deliver news to our clients and future users. We have to stop pretending that posting new articles in corporate blog is ‘content marketing’. We definitely should stop paying agencies that write blog posts for us and charge 10x for what others charge for blog post writing, because they call it ‘content marketing’ or ‘content strategy’. In fact, there is no point in creating new content at all, unless you have clear understanding of how this content is going to be distributed and reach your target audience first. But that’s the subject for entirely new article. Stay tuned.