How to Actually Get Press for Your Startup, and Why It May Not Do Much for You

I came across this hack by Justin Wilcox, “The hacker’s guide to getting press,” in February 2014 and was fascinated by the idea of getting reporters’ attention in a fairly cheap manner. At the time, I was just starting to put together Ignite Your Match, my startup that provides critiques of online dating profiles. It was a year before I actually implemented Justin’s DIY PR method. What follows is what I did, and what it got me.

Step 1: Start scraping and collecting articles

What’s your startup about? Let’s say you have an app that tells you where the closest water fountain is (or maybe you just own 10% like Erlich in Silicon Valley). With this DIY PR method, you want to find articles about similar topics and companies to yours, with the idea being that those reporters might give a shit about your startup, since they wrote an article before about something related.

For your water fountain locating app, you could search for articles with keywords like “water fountain”, “drinking fountain”, and so on. For my startup, I searched for phrases like “online dating”, “Tinder”, “OkCupid”, “online dating nightmares” and so on. Be sure to search also for related companies, and your competitors, as reporters who wrote about them could very well write about you, too.

And how do we gather these articles? Justin’s guide above, or this simplified tool, will go through the Google News API for the past 30 days and report every article with “water fountain” in it, or whatever you search phrase is. Just search to your little heart’s content, and save a slew of CSV files.

Since it resets every 30 days, put it on your calendar and be sure to do it monthly. Start gathering these articles as soon as you start working on your startup, or as soon as you read this article and wish you had already been doing this. You’re going to want a lot of possible articles, because we’ll trim the fat later, and you’re going to want as many as possible left that are actually relevant.

One thing I’ve only recently started doing is saving articles on my industry that I’ve found myself. Google News API unfortunately doesn’t index all the news sites, so you probably won’t find a Wall Street Journal author that way. So whenever you come across an article on water fountains or online dating, go ahead and save it in a CSV for later, with the title, just like Justin’s API scraper does.

Step 2: Trim the fat

Okay, so you’ve been good, and every month for the last year you’ve searched for “water fountain” and “drinking fountain” and “Nalgene” and whatever else you could think of, and you have tons of these CSV files, and your own articles because you paid attention above, all burning a hole in your DIY PR folder on your desktop. What now? Well, now is the super boring part.

If your scraping was anything like mine, you got a ton of unrelated junk, super random seeming articles that have absolutely no relation to your startup, or what you felt like you searched for. We need to delete those, and also remove the duplicates.

So what you do is you take all your CSVs and you cut and paste them into one mega CSV. Then with your Excel prowess, do Data -> Sort and sort them all by the titles. This puts them all alphabetically, so you can see any duplicates clumped together. Go ahead and start deleting duplicates. If you have a choice of different sites with the same article, just keep whichever site sounds better to you. In order for me to be able to quickly cull the junk, I only delete the cell with the title in it, so that I can go through them very quickly. It gets monotonous, especially when you have 5 or 10 thousand rows to go through. This is also when you delete completely irrelevant articles too.

After you’ve deleted the titles of all the bunk articles, do a Data -> Sort again in Excel and it will move all the bunk to the bottom of the CSV. Trim all those rows off of the CSV, and you’re ready to use Mechanical Turk to pay other people to find the authors for you.

Step 3: Turk the articles

Oh, man, I love Mechanical Turk. I recently wrote about it for Petovera. Mechanical Turk is Amazon’s digital work force, and they will try their best to find the authors of these articles for you for just a few cents each. I pay 8 or 10 cents an article, which adds up if you have hundreds to look up, but it’s not bad at all. Again, Justin’s guide is great, and has the Mechanical Turk HIT templates in Step #3. If you have any issues with it, or you’re super confused at this point, email me and I can try to help you.

They won’t find everyone’s address, and you just have to accept that. You wouldn’t be able to find everyone’s either. You’ll get a lot of N/A or maybe just “couldn’t find” in the HITs (a HIT is a Human Intelligence Task, what Mechanical Turk calls these teeny tiny little jobs). It’s not a huge deal, because you will have a few hundred author emails to use. Download the results as a CSV and you will use the data in your batch emailing later.

Step 4: Write your pitch

You know that old adage, “You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle?” Well, same here, sort of. These reporters want to write about something interesting, and they’re busy and flooded with emails from other people who want their attention, so you have to quickly tell them why your startup is interesting.

Tell them what your startup is about.

Tell them how you’re different.

Give them a pitch idea.

Does your business create interesting data? Tell them about it. I found out quickly that reporters were interested in what red flags my startup commonly found in people’s profiles, and by providing them that data, they had plenty of information for articles on the subject.

Let them try your service for free, if it otherwise costs something. They very well may want to write about their experience with your service. Let’s hope they have a good experience.

Oh, and I sent all this out right before Valentine’s Day, since that is the most relevant holiday to my startup.

Step 5: Email a ton of reporters

I used quickmail.io, which is pretty perfect for sending out these batch emails. It automates sending via your gmail account, and can feed from a Google Sheet. Quickmail.io also keeps great data on open rates and reply rates and all that, and it’s easy to do second touches, drips, and segmenting of contacts.

Okay, so I suggested building up those lists of articles to Turk for several months. I still think that’s a good idea, but the issue that arises from that is that you will end up with a fair amount of bunk email addresses, as reporters may move on from organizations and the email addresses will become invalid. You may want to create a secondary domain to email them from, so you don’t get your main email address or domain marked as a spammer.

The image above is my actual Quickmail.io stats. 44% open rate to strangers is pretty great. I used a question in my subject line to try to increase the open rate.

Step 6: Wait for responses

About 5% of the reporters actually got back to me. I started getting replies the first day I emailed them. It was interesting. Some people would respond and saw they might look into it, some asked for a phone interview, some asked questions via email. One reporter basically said “this is so interesting!” and then a week later basically said “okay I wrote about you in Huffington Post!” To misquote Chief Keef, that’s that shit I do like.

This is the easy step. Just reply to the reporters quickly, don’t be too pushy, and be nice and helpful. You’ll see results soon.

Step 7: Get press, good and mediocre

One interesting thing about doing a press release is that you have no control over what they write about you. They determine what angle to take, what aspect of your startup to write about.

I saw the most traffic from an article on The Bold Italic by far. The article was on their home page, and I got a little spike in traffic from it, but the writer took the angle of the critiquing of profiles being a fascinating job to have, not that getting your profile critiqued was a fascinating idea. The difference? I got three or four orders from the article. But I got 12 people emailing me asking for jobs. No regrets, because I’m actually expanding our offerings based on these job applicants. But it illustrates that you don’t know what will come of the press campaign.

In the end, I had six things written about me:

  • BostInno did a phone interview and wrote an article about “online dating tips” based on what I told them. This is exactly the kind of article I wanted written about Ignite Your Match, but it got very little traffic.
  • The Bold Italic article was on their front page, getting me way more traffic than any other article, but it wasn’t super motivated traffic to place an actual order, instead they wanted to work for me.
  • The Huffington Post article would have been a great inbound link to my site, but unfortunately they wouldn’t include an actual link, per their policies. It’s still good exposure, and a pleasant article, and a lot of the “direct traffic” I’m seeing in my Analytics is from the article.
  • Metro wrote an article, which was actually in the print version in Boston, which felt pretty awesome. I had a customer call and say “I saw you in the newspaper” which was confusing but thrilling. This article didn’t paint our profile feedback in a really positive light, but the reporter’s experience was out of the norm.
  • SF Gate was a female reporter submitting her profile, but my target audience and customer base is nearly all men. Guys actually get more out of the service, so writing about a woman’s experience doesn’t help interest as much. A good example of how you just have to take what you get.
  • SF Weekly included a write-up of my service along with another similar one. I wanted to applaud this writer because she was the only one to actually include a link (I had to ask others to go back and add one), but she did mess up the link. Luckily I’m enough of a nerd to fiddle with .htaccess and correct her link on the server side. Booyah.

I actually got a call from the Meredith Vieira show about my startup after they saw a write-up somewhere. They asked if I had any videos of me explaining online dating red flags or other information, and I said no. There’s a fair chance I could have been in a segment on the show if I had what they wanted. Maybe I wasn’t eloquent enough on the phone. I probably would have vomited on national television from nervousness anyway.

Takeaway

I spent maybe $80 total on the Quickmail.io subscription and all the Mechanical Turk HITs in order to do this campaign. It definitely paid for itself with orders, it got me inbound links, and press logos that I can put on my site. It’s worth it. I can’t wait to do it again.

Some more tips

  • You definitely can’t control what is written about you, so just hope for the best.
  • If someone didn’t respond to your first campaign, save their email address and try again later, with a different pitch or angle.
  • Have materials ready. I wish I had had lists of most common red flags ready to go, because reporters were most interested in that.
  • The reporters are content writers, like just anyone else, and they will LOVE for you to help them promote and share their articles. It helps you and it helps them too, so promote away.
  • Be sure to use the images of the publications on your site. That’s perhaps the best thing to come out of a PR campaign. By putting the logos of Huffington Post, Metro, New York Times, Mashable, or whoever, on your site you increase trust a lot, which increases conversion rates. It’s extremely valuable.
  • After you do your first campaign, keep scraping and saving articles, so you can contact more reporters later. Just have a fresh angle or something new and exciting to tell them about.

Questions, comments, concerns? I’d love to hear from you about this. Email me at stuart@vacord.com.

Stuart Brent is a free range micropreneur, founder of Vacord Screen Printing (they want to make your custom t-shirts and hoodies), and Ignite Your Match (they want to tell you how to improve your online dating profile so you can find love), userinput.io (an easy way to get on demand feedback for your app, idea or website), and StartupResources.io (a list of the best tools for your Startup). When he’s not glued to his laptop, he enjoys traveling, eating sandwiches, and trying to find decent espresso throughout The South. Follow him on twitter at @vacord.

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