It feels good to own a startup. But building it, getting customers, making profit, making it a recognised brand, etc. is not always easy.
At our last edition of Techpoint Startup School, I taught a class on getting free press for your startup. I thought I should share some the lessons I gave with the Techpoint Africa audience.
Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to ask questions/seek clarification.
Lesson 1: Do you even need press?
Early startup founders always seem to forget to ask this question and that is mostly because there is a common misconception about marketing and press. Press is different from marketing. Marketing is advertising your brand to get customers, it helps you build traction. Press, on the other hand, may not necessarily get you customers but it highlights your previous successes and achievements, number of customers, level of revenue achieved, that is, traction, to build your reputation. You need marketing in the early stage because you need traction which you can use to get press.
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions, you need press:
- Do you have some traction (quick growth, prominent clients, etc.)?
- Have you been operational for at least 3 to 6 months?
- Do you already have some reputation?
- Have you previously run a successful or prominent startup?
- Is there something truly interesting about you, like an innovative, unique business model, or a ridiculously valued pre-seed round?
Lesson 2: Do the work
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of the previous questions, you need to do the work. Especially if you run an early stage startup, getting someone to handle press relations for you will cost you a lot, so you just have to do the work yourself. You need to make things easy for the journalist. You have to learn the art of storytelling and, when you can, you should make the journalist’s work easier by providing good pictures. This will make your pitch stand out.
Lesson 3: Where is your audience?
Depending on the stage you are, and your immediate objectives, you need to know who your audience is and where they hang out.
If you are a Nigerian agro-crowdfunding startup, for example, and your objective is to increase your number of crowdfunders, you have no business looking for press on Techcrunch. Focus on trying to get press on a Nigerian publication. And no, not just tech publications. Most of your potential crowdfunders are probably hanging out in places like Nairaland.
Before Tage Kene-Okafor took over from him, Techcrunch’s Africa correspondent, Jake Bright would not even pay attention to your startup unless you had at least gotten to the Series A stage. Even now, most African startups that end up on Techcrunch do so after they raise a Series A round. In their case, their objective is to signal their viability to potential investors in their next round.
As an early stage startup, your primary focus should be getting customers. The questions you should be asking are: What do my customers read? Where do they hang out? Linda Ikeji”s Blog? Nairaland? Nairametrics? Techpoint Africa? You need to seriously consider this.
Lesson 4: Connect with subject matter journalist
After finding publications and media houses that cater for your target audience, find their journalists on social media. Follow them, engage them, drop valuable insights on their posts. Let them notice you for good.
Do not pitch yet.
Don’t interrupt their quiet breakfast randomly at a restaurant where they’re just recharging for the day or anywhere at all and start talking about your startup (true story). Don’t do that.
Lesson 5: Pitching
Email or Text first. Do not cold call
Unless you met the journalist earlier at, say an event and you have established a relationship, please do not cold call. It is a complete turn off, journalists are distracted enough from trying to keep up with 20 stories at the same time. Be nice, send an email or a text message and be patient.
Press, not puff piece
Now it is time to pitch your startup. Points to note:
- This may be a hard fact to swallow but, the media does not owe you coverage.
- The media is beholden only to its audience.
- If you are not bringing value to their audience, you risk being ignored.
- It should, and can, be a win-win for both you and their audience.
If you just changed the logo of your startup, don’t expect the publication to announce that. That’s marketing, a paid service. A better approach to get free press is to find a journalist who has shown interest in the intricacies of UI and design. You could pitch a story about the inspiration for your new design choices and lessons other startups can learn from your process.
The average journalist is chasing like 10 stories at a time. Make things easier for them by pitching an interesting angle they can build your story from. This is where your storytelling abilities come in.
Pitch to suit
Every media publication has its leanings and processes. You need to study them. Some tech publications for example lean more towards gadgets than startups. Some have a certain bias for certain types of stories. Some have repeatable series you can build on.
For example, Techpoint Africa has Techpoint Digest which is published every weekday morning.
Techpoint Africa also has a bias for new and innovative startups. We publish at least 3 new startup features every month. It is one of the few times you can get an article where the spotlight is solely on your startup. The only other times are when you raise funds, hit an exciting (for our audience) or truly groundbreaking milestone and (sadly) your startup fails (we hope you share).
Press is about gaining reputation, not marketing. Most publications have a paid service for marketing (shameless plug, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Otherwise, you need to be willing to accept that sometimes, the article might not be solely about you. It might be on a topic that your startup can relate to and you can be mentioned alongside others. This provides an opportunity to subtly build your reputation as an expert in your field.
You can also offer exclusives
But don’t abuse it. Don’t offer fake exclusives (multiple-timing other publications breeds distrust) and ensure that your offer aligns with their bias and leanings.
Journalists are human too
We tend to dehumanise people who are not playing in the same space that we are. Journalists are probably among the most dehumanised. We feel it is their job to give you coverage. Quick reminder; they do not owe you coverage.
Approach them with respect, show them you value them. They have hundreds of stories they are chasing at a time. They have targets to meet and a lot of pitches coming in.
If you are tempted to say “but I am giving you content and traffic,” don’t. Any publication or journalist worth their salt will be fine without your content. There are always content ideas for the discerning and curious, and even stories relating to you can be told without your input.
When pitching via mail, do not blind copy, it is disrespectful and you’re likely to be ignored.
Lesson 6: Maintain the relationship
After applying the previous lessons and you succeed, don’t end it at that first publishing. Keep the relationship going, don’t forget them and don’t let them forget you.
Respond to journalists when they seek for insight on stories they are writing. Respond if they have a negative tip about you and want to get comments and clarify. Reaching out to you means they respect you and are giving you a fair chance at a balanced story.
Responding to queries about negative news also gives you the opportunity to somewhat control the narrative (not guaranteed). Take a leaf from Jumia, they preempt the media, with proactive spins to all negative stories and challenges.
If you always respond to journalists, when they reach out to you as a source, and with valuable insights, you manage to stay on their radar. This opens you up to other reputation building opportunities like speaking at events, AMAs, etc.
Press is about building reputation, not blatant selling (again, that’s marketing, a paid service). You must be willing to build it slowly. And remember, you should always aim for win-win situations.
To pitch to the Techpoint Africa editorial team, email email@example.com.
Featured image by A life without animals is not worth living from Pixabay.