Startup PR: How I got my product featured in Time, Business Insider, and others with a $10 budget.
Note: Flixed, the product featured in this article has been shut down as of April 22nd. However, the information in this article is still completely relevant in regards to obtaining press coverage. Enjoy the read!
Journalists receive hundreds of pitches a day, so why should they pay attention to yours?
It was a question I mulled over as my product, Flixed.IO, was approaching the end of its development phase.
Having gone through the process with relative success by receiving coverage from not only Business Insider and Time, but Mashable, TNW, LifeHacker, and many others, I’ve put together this post to help others that are now in the same position.
Flixed was something I had decided to create after facing the typical Netflix binge addict’s dilemma in twelfth grade. I realized that like myself, many others had a hard time deciding what to watch on Netflix. It seemed that I would often spend more time trying to figure out what to watch, rather than actually watching the content itself. Because the solution I wanted did not exist, I decided to build it myself.
The result was Flixed. A (unofficial) search engine for Netflix content that integrates info like IMDb ratings, Metacritic reviews, and trailers in order to take the hassle out of finding something great to watch on Netflix.
It is important to note that Flixed is a product of my company, AdMark Technologies, and not a company in and of itself.
By the time Flixed was ready for public use, I decided that I wanted to launch it with a bang and reach out to all the big media publications. However, realizing that I would have hundreds of stories of all kinds competing for the same coverage space, it seemed that my PR strategy would need to be airtight.
Time to Research
I began by researching successful strategies that other startups had used in the past.
One of the most comprehensive resources I had discovered was Austen Allred’s press guide. Austen’s strategy consisted of scraping thousands of websites for articles related to one’s product or startup, using tools like Buzzstream to get the contact information, then filtering each reporter based on the domain authority of the outlet they were writing for.
Allred suggested working your way up from “mommy blogs”, to smaller publishers, to mid-tier blogs, and finally heavy hitters like TechCrunch and Mashable at the top. Working your way up the pyramid like this would help establish your startup’s presence beforehand, improving the chances of it being covered.
He was also a fan of three-sentence pitches. The first giving a personal introduction, the second with the pitch for the startup itself, and the third offering a sample or press kit.
Allred’s model seemed well thought out, but I didn’t see the point in reaching out to small, personal blogs. To me, the credibility boost that coverage from these blogs would bring seemed minimal, and not worth the time.
Second, Allred’s recommended template for the initial pitch seemed too short. It didn’t talk about why the product was relevant to the reporter, and didn’t leave room to provide multiple angles (which are extremely important, as we will see later on) for the story.
Lastly, Allred didn’t cover what is arguably the most import part of your pitch. The subject line! You could have the best pitch in the world, but if no one opens the email, it doesn’t matter.
In the end, I took a few key points away from Allred’s strategy.
- It is important to establish some coverage in the media before reaching out to the heavy hitters.
- Keeping your pitch short and concise is an absolute necessity. No one wants to read an essay on your startup when they have 100+ alternatives they could be covering.
- Create a press kit and have it ready for reporters. Allowing journalists to easily access screenshots of your product, pictures of you, and some general information about your company and its founders is a great way to make the journalist’s life easier.
However, there is a lot more to Allred’s pitch strategy than what I’ve covered, and I highly recommend that all of you give it a look.
With a general idea of what a successful pitch looked like, I began looking for additional resources to get a better picture of what creating the “perfect pitch” would entail.
When I discovered that there was a Udemy course focused specifically on startup PR, I immediately decided to give it a shot. The course, called Startup PR: Getting Press on a Tight Budget, seemed like a steal at just $10 (yes, this is where that ten dollars went). The creator of it is Erica Swallow, a former contributor to Mashable, Fortune, Huffington Post, as well as several others top-tier media outlets.
Throughout the course, Swallow covers a full framework of the essentials required to get your startup published in the big publications. Everything from crafting your subject line, to writing the pitch itself, to interacting with reporters and beyond. I’ve summarized my key takeaways below.
- Your pitch should be informative and concise, avoiding industry jargon. In other words, your grandma should be able to understand what your product or company does.
Erica recommends modelling your pitch after the MADLIBS format, which you can see below.
- Two important terms to know in the journalism world are exclusive and embargo. Exclusive means that you’re committing to offer the story to a certain publication before anyone else. An embargo is a request to a journalist to not publish your story until a certain date. I’ll talk more about how I decided to use these tactics later on.
- Your subject line should be informative, and sound like the headline of a story.
Having felt like I’d researched enough at this point, it was time to start crafting my own PR strategy.
Getting To The Good Stuff
First up was creating a list of reporters that would be worth pitching to. I started by looking for journalists that had covered products and companies most similar to my own in the past. For me, these were articles related to:
- Netflix search engines
- Video streaming search engines
- The names of my competitors
- General news on Netflix’s expansion into other countries. This was key, since one of the the most important features of my search engine was that it could search many of the most popular Netflix regions at once.
In order to find articles about these subjects, I tried two main strategies. First, was using a piece of software called MuckRack. MuckRack allows you to search for journalists by area of coverage, and also supplies you with their emails and social media accounts.
The alternative I used was Google News. Although it didn’t have the bells and whistles of MuckRack, it was a simple, effective platform for discovering the newest articles being written around my area of interest.
The issues I found with MuckRack were that:
- In order to conduct an unlimited amount of searches, you were required to pay $179/month.
- They were not as current as Google News, and often missed a lot of relevant articles I would find through there.
Eventually, I decided to scrap MuckRack and just used Google News. I would search for terms related to my product (as mentioned above), and create small personas for each journalist that had written a relevant article.
In hindsight, I wish I’d used Customer Development Labs’ Google News Downloader, which would have automated a great deal of my searching.
Before I did this, I would check to make sure that the journalist was still writing for that outlet. If I saw that they had not published anything in over a month, I assumed they were not active anymore.
In the personas I created for each journalist I would include:
- The reporter’s name, and the outlet they wrote for.
- A link to the article I found them through.
- What I had searched on Google to find that article.
- When that article had been published.
- Anything noteworthy about their article. For example: Were they complaining about a lack of a feature when covering one of my competitors? This was something I could leverage in my pitch.
You may have noticed by now that I opted not to use that email farming techniques that Allred recommends. I see nothing wrong with this, but I decided it would be better to create a small list of pitches (about 50), and really tweak them to match each individual reporter as best I could.
Before I would pitch anything, however, I decided to make use of Austen’s tactic of building up some credibility in smaller outlets, before pitching to big ones.
Luckily, I had maintained a relationship with Luke Bouma, founder of CordCuttersNews (CCN) over the past few months. We agreed that he would publish the story before anyone else. It would be an exclusive, so to speak.
CCN had essentially become a feeding ground for a lot of the reporters who covered video streaming related news for the big outlets. Many of these reporters would visit Luke’s website for stories, and reference them in their own stories. I figured that CCN could be a great channel to reach more prominent reporters without locking myself to one.
Furthermore, it seemed that by offering an exclusive to a bigger publisher, I would be confined to waiting for a response before being able to offer it to someone else. With Luke, I had a more direct line of communication, and an agreement that it would not be published until a certain date. This, by the way, was basically an informal embargo.
It was right around the time that me and Luke had solidified this agreement that Netflix’s announcement of their launch in 130 new countries dropped. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Although Flixed didn’t support any of these new countries (at the time), it fit well with the idea of being able to explore the content in different countries. I decided to add reporters covering the #NetflixEverywhere launch to my list.
Scrambling to take advantage of the news, I quickly put together my pitches and asked Luke to publish his post.
Moving on to the pitches I would send to all the other reporters, I organized my pitches into the following format:
- How I discovered the reporter and why this story would be relevant to them.
- My MADLIBS pitch.
- Relating my startup to the the big event that was occurring at the time, Netflix’s launch into 130 countries.
- An extra tidbit mentioning my age, providing an angle on my youth.
- A small line telling them to email back, or phone me for more details.
Shown below is the exact email I used to pitch a TNW reporter, which ended up succeeding.
Let me explain my logic behind creating this particular pitch.
Subject Line: If there is anything I had discovered from both Austen and Erica, it was that the angle you pitched your story through mattered tremendously. Rather than saying something like:
“Flixed Launches As New Unviersal Netflix Search Engine “
I decided to dumb it down, keep it simple, and make it sound like the headline of a story. I also wanted to appeal to the core problem I was trying to solve:
Making finding what to watch on Netflix an easy, seamless experience.
Beyond the integrated ratings, trailers, reviews, and multiple countries, that’s what it was at a fundamental level.
I also decided to add “Story:” to the beginning, to frame my pitch as a press-ready story. This, combined with the rest of my headline-esque pitch was all designed to grab their attention.
Introduction: I wanted to the keep the intro as brief as possible, while also catching his attention. Hence why I said “I know you’re busy so I’ll keep it short”. I wanted him to know that I understood that he was busy, and that what would follow would only be concise, and relevant details.
Why it’s relevant: I figured that the first thing you would want to tell the reporter is why the story is relevant to them. Not what the product is. Not its secret sauce that made it better than all the rest, but why they should write about it.
I approached this very simply by stating the article and outlet I found them through. This lets them know that I actually care about what they write, that I read it, and that having done all that, I believe they are a good fit to carry the story on my product.
MADLIBS Pitch: You probably noticed that I used this exact pitch to introduce my product towards the beginning of this post as well. Not much to be said here, except for the fact that it follows the MADLIBS format, avoids jargon, and is short and to the point.
Relating To the Big News: The hot topic was Netflix’s sudden launch into 130 countries, and I wanted to capitalize on it. Despite the fact that my search engine did not cover any of these new countries, I still touted it as “the best place to find out what’s available in your particular country”.
Tidbit About My Age: I wanted to give the reporters as much to work with as possible. Therefore, I decided to sneak in that I had started working on Flixed in high school. This appealed to an angle on youth entrepreneurship.
Contact Information: Lastly, I finished with some contact details. Telling them to email back if they were interested in hearing more, and also offering my phone number in case wanted more direct access to me.
By now, I hope you see that I that I tried to include as many unique angles in my pitch as possible:
- Flixed was a great way to discover Netflix content more effectively.
- Flixed let you search content from many different countries, rather than just one. This coincided well with the launch of Netflix’s new regions.
- I was a young person who had built something cool that people wanted to use.
I wanted to make it easy for journalists to look at my pitch and say “hey, I can write a story about this”.
Mashable even decided to interview me personally for my thoughts on Netflix’s international expansion.
I was also in contact with the CBC and TechCrunch, but both ultimately fell through. The CBC expressed a great deal of interest early on, but didn’t respond back after a certain point. I exchanged several emails with a TechCrunch writer as well, but he wanted to see some of the regions that had newly launched, which we did not have yet. By the time I was able to get them up, he was no longer interested. Be prepared to make changes quickly.
All of this press attention resulted in Flixed receiving about 420,000 page views, and 90,000 unique visitors from January 11th (launch day) to January 18th, the following Monday. As you can see, there was a large amount of traffic for the first three days, after which it levelled off.
With all that being said, there were a few things about my coverage that surprised me.
- None of the journalists actually got back to me. They just saw the pitch, and published the story. The way I found out was by checking Google News for “Flixed”.
- I did not pitch to many of the outlets that ended up covering me. It seemed like they saw the story somewhere else, and decided to run with it. Furthermore, when someone like Business Insider or LifeHacker picked up the story, they would publish the content to their regional editions as well, such as LifeHacker Australia, Business Insider Singapore, and so on.
- I pitched to reporters on a Sunday. This would go against typical pitching wisdom, seeing as Monday is supposed to be the busiest day PR. However it worked, and it allowed a trickle effect to occur, where several outlets picked up the story throughout the week. If I had pitched it on a less busy day like Thursday or Friday, I don’t know if this would have happened (with the weekend in-between).
I know many PR guides place an emphasis on following your reporters on Twitter, interacting with them, commenting on their posts, and so on in order to build a personal connection with them. I didn’t do this because it was not scalable. The amount of effort you’d have to put into tweeting and commenting back and forth before they recognize your name in a press pitch is quite large. It’s something you’d have to do for months before any benefit came out of it. Multiply that by 50 or 1000 and it’s just not practical.
Another tremendous benefit that came out of being covered by all these different publishers was the SEO value. Receiving links from big publications carries a significant amount of link juice, which was enough for me to rank on the first page of Google for several of my targeted keywords within weeks.
I made this post to give some insight into the pitching process based on my personal experience. I know I did some things right, and I know I did many things wrong as well. My way of pitching is by no means the “best way”.
Instead, I hope that when you get ready for your pitches, you look at different strategies as I did, and do what makes the most sense for your particular situation.
I wish you all the best of luck with your pitches! :)
If you want to reach me, feel free to comment or email me at email@example.com, or tweet me at TKarunar.
Follow me on Medium if you’re interested in reading more posts like these. It was my first time doing something like this, and it was certainly a lot of fun. Looking forward to hearing you guys’ thoughts!