This is not advice: What I’ve learned from a year running PR for a startup
- I have zero background in PR. I’m a brand strategist and a sometimes writer. I manage comms at Chartbeat because at a startup you have lots of jobs and PR is one of a handful of mine — today anyway. So, some of this is probably PR 101 (that’s half of the point) and some of this is probably dead wrong (that’s the other half of the point.)
- Chartbeat is based in NYC, which is the media industry’s mecca, and our clients are mostly publishers and our users are mostly editors and journalists. So, in the pursuit to get some coverage for ourselves that stuff, you know, helps.
- Success is relative. So, don’t take this as my trying to give any of y’all advice. But I’d really love to learn from yours.
Throw out everything you thought you knew about everything.
I headed into the Chartbeat office in 2011 wearing a blazer, armed with a PowerPoint deck. Because I was a consultant from a big-deal agency and that’s what you do, even though I was only asked by my best pal (hi, Mona!) to come in and help the team land on a homepage headline. I was used to working with brands like AT&T and Disney and General Mills, and I was used to being hired to be the smartest person in the room. And that meant blazers and decks.
After about 45 seconds, I learned that I would never be the smartest person in the room ever again and I was dead wrong about pretty much everything I thought I knew about startups and marketing.
I went in thinking Chartbeat had a brand challenge that could be solved by the people in the room in a day. Turned out it was the entire media industry’s challenge to move from a click-based business model to one of post-click attention that will take years and the smartest publishers, brands, agencies, and technologies to solve — Chartbeat was just the crazy company that decided to do something about it.
My biggest challenge wouldn’t be about creating a buzz around Chartbeat, but instead marketing change for the industry.
Flaunt what you’ve got.
Day one: I walked in with a 90 day plan and a to-do list.
Day one: I threw out the 90 day plan and to-do list.
Instead, I just got to know Chartbeat. I found out people loved us, which, you know, is a pretty great thing to find out. But it turned it out it wasn’t for the thing that Chartbeat was best at — data. We work with most every news site across the globe, which means we have our finger on the pulse of the web at any given moment. But a year or two back, no one really knew that.
So that’s where we started.
Our Chief Data Scientist (hey, Josh!) and I decided to put some effort in to see if we could use our data to show there’s more to the performance of an article than its clicks and impressions. We (by “we” I mean me standing over Josh’s shoulder eating snacks while he did all the work) anonymized and aggregated our data and pulled out the stories that we, as readers of the web, found interesting. We shared them with a couple journalists who dig data.
Two pieces — one from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic on the rise of dark social traffic and one from Farhad Manjoo who was writing for Slate at the time on how we consume content after we click — started making people think about data differently. Really smart people in the industry started agreeing that content should be valued by more than just spikes of traffic.
Long-term investment takes a long time.
Those stories worked because Alexis and Farhad are good at what they do. They asked the right questions, they did their research, they didn’t take any data we gave them at face value without poking some holes in it.
They’re great journalists.
In order to keep working with great journalists not just one off but, well, forever, to get the kinds of stories out we wanted to, we had to accept a few things:
- No press releases. Writers hate them, so we don’t do them.
- Not all press is good press. Focus on getting the right story out, not the traffic that story could generate.
- We can and should say no to some stories. If we aren’t the people that can tell that story best, provide the best data, we don’t do it.
All this means I only email specific journalists when we have something I think they specifically would love, and I’m told they appreciate that.
But this also means we’ve missed out on A LOT of traffic and media impressions by following these rules. I’ve had editors of publications with huge reach email me the day after I’ve given an exclusive to another outlet saying they would have loved to have covered it. I’ve been incredibly bummed out when a great story talking all about an idea my team busted their asses to develop doesn’t get a lot of reach.
But I’ve also had writers come back to us dozens of times asking for our thoughts on a topic, and we’ve built incredible relationships with editors that have given us feature stories generating 20,000+ shares, minutes of active attention, and, yes, lots of traffic and pageviews as well. So it’s a trade off I’m still working to balance.
When you don’t have a lot (er…any) money, consistency is your best friend.
Chartbeat was founded in 2009 (I joined in 2011). And we’ve pretty much had the same mission and the same message since the beginning — to help measure and monetize the best content on the web.
Why? Because we believe it. But, let’s be real, we aren’t spending millions on advertising either. That means it would be tough to get people used to associating Chartbeat as the “go-to tool for measuring and monetizing engagement and attention on the web” and then pivoting to something new and different overnight…or even over a year.
Companies like IBM have done that well, but only when they’ve reinvented their entire business — and it took billions to do.
Even when those companies have billions of dollars to spend, like Coca-Cola, they often choose to stand for one simple message — in Coke’s case, Happiness—for decades. Why? Because they believe it (hopefully) and it’s expensive to change your message without changing your entire business and without confusing your audience. It’s like the New Coke version of messaging. It’s a dangerous game to play.
Stay true to your goals, but it’s OK to ignore metrics in the beginning.
This is an embarrassing statement, coming from a gal working for an analytics company, but man, I had no idea what metrics to look at in the beginning. If we could get them, I tracked peak concurrents, overall pageviews, overall engagement, time people actively read the stories, shares, influencers, Klout scores, everything.
Sometimes posts got tons of traffic but few shares, sometimes lots of engagement and lots of shares, sometimes an article of one topic on a specific publisher dominated but another one bombed. I had no clue what to make of any of it.
So instead of killing myself over the metrics, I focused on the goals. Sometimes it would be to get new people who hadn’t heard of us before reading and talking, so even just getting published in a specific trade was a goal. Then next time that changed to getting a majority of Twitter shares of the article being from agencies or brands, for example.
Goals driving metrics is a super simple basic idea. But it’s tough to force yourself to follow.
People are smart and kind and helpful.
I asked for help. A lot. I bugged my friends who work in PR (hi, Meg! hi, Kerry!). I joined lots of PR groups on every social network ever. I constantly emailed our investors and their marketing teams for connections and advice. I even asked journalists for their feedback. And every one of them gave me their time and brains. Every one. (Thank you all again, by the way.)
This is probably the only part of this article that I think you should take as advice. People are smart and kind and helpful. Let them help you.
That and wear blazers, no matter where you work. Blazers are a great, great look.