Every month, I get countless emails from readers asking me how they can get better results from their PR efforts.
And every month, I tell them the same thing: rethink the way you approach PR.
Conventional PR focuses too much on the pitching process. I’ve seen countless marketers obsess over subject lines and salutations. While that is still crucial, for truly outstanding PR results, you have to think about your entire content-to-pitch process.
This means looking beyond the pitch and taking SEO and virality into account during content ideation.
I’m going to demystify the PR process below. Instead of focusing on pitching alone, I’m going to show you how to create content that gets you results, and how to approach press the right way.
Follow the strategies below to get stellar results from all your content and press efforts.
How to Approach PR
Traditionally, PR comes into the picture after the content creation process is over. Your content team pitches an idea, the marketing team approves it, and once the content is wrapped up, you call in the PR army to bring it to the press.
Can you see the problem with this approach?
For one, even though the PR team is supposed to be the one pitching the idea, they aren’t involved in the ideation process at all. They are simply handed a finished piece of content and expected to get it placed.
If you know the lean startup methodology, you can see why this approach doesn’t work. You create a “product” (i.e. your content) and then shop it around to “customers” (i.e. press). Whether the customers actually want the product is an afterthought.
The right way to approach PR is to reverse the entire process. Instead of creating content and spreading it around, you factor in what the press actually wants and create something accordingly. And when pitching, you make sure to give value before you ask for something in return.
This “backwards-first” approach is far more effective since it actually involves the stakeholders in content creation. You don’t just launch a finished product into an untested market; you consider what results you want, what the press desires, and create content that will actually deliver.
To make this approach work, you have to consider SEO and virality in the content creation process as well. You will do far better by creating something that will naturally attract links than by spamming others with link requests.
Below, I’ll show you the entire process, from brainstorming content ideas to pitching the press.
Part I – Brainstorming Content Ideas
A successful PR pitching process begins with content ideation.
This process is always strategic in nature. You don’t simply look at what your competitors are doing and create me-too blog posts. Instead, you have to develop new ideas based on what you want from your content (shares, backlinks) and what your target publications need.
I’ll show you a structured process for brainstorming new ideas below:
I. Figure Out Your Goals
The first step in the ideation process is to figure out what you actually want from your content – links, shares, press mentions, or new sign-ups. This will impact what kind of content you create and where you distribute it.
In most cases, your content goals will fit into one of these four categories:
- You want relevant backlinks: In this case, you want backlinks from relevant websites (i.e. an SEO company getting links from marketing blogs, not entertainment websites). Usually, these links trickle-in slowly over time as others discover and link to your content. Resource pages and tools work particularly well for such cases.
- You want shares: In this case, your goal is to get as many shares (and traffic) as you can get. To do this, you might create content with viral potential and distribute them on high-traffic, high-engagement blogs (think HuffPo). Instead of a slow trickle of backlinks, you might pick up a burst of backlinks quickly as other people discover your viral content. Visual, story-focused content works well for getting shares.
- You want press mentions: In some cases, you might want to pick up press mentions from marquee publications and mainstream media (think CNN or NYT). The traffic from these press mentions might not be as good or as engaged as a high quality, targeted blog, but it does wonders for your brand perception. Founder stories, unique insight and data-backed studies do well in such cases.
- You want new users: If you want to get new people to visit your site and sign-up for your service, you’ll want to deliver them something exceptionally valuable, with a promise of delivering more when they sign-up. Your distribution will focus on publications where your target audience currently hangs out. Thought pieces, how-tos, studies, etc. are useful in this situation.
Before you jump to the next section, take some time to clearly define what you want from your content marketing. Don’t just say “traffic”. Instead, write out exactly what you seek to accomplish – get backlinks, shares, press mentions, etc.
II. Figure out What the Press Wants
Great PR happens when you can create content that meets you goals and gives journalists what they want.
Fortunately, there’s an entire study about what journalists want. I covered it in an earlier JRO post which you can catch here.
Briefly, journalists want:
1. To collaborate on content
A majority of journalists in the study said that they would rather collaborate with content creators than get a finished asset.
The takeaway is clear: before you send a finished piece, ask for feedback and collaboration from your target journalists. Do this at least for your top 3 target publications (usually big names like HuffPo, TechCrunch, etc.).
2. Exclusive research
Exclusivity is a powerful lure for attracting journalists. I’ve covered this later below, but essentially, you want to give a few of your top targets exclusive first rights to your data/research if you have any.
Other content types that work well are “emotional stories”.
3. Visual content
Blame it on our shrinking attention spans, but more and more journalists want to see visual assets in pitches.
Unsurprisingly, press releases and interactive content like quizzes aren’t a big hit. Widgets and badges are a big no-no.
This means that if you have a content idea, try to reframe it in the form of a visual asset.
Factor these points when you brainstorm ideas.
|Find and pitch journalists + influencers who are actually interested in you right now|
III. Find Content Ideas
After you’ve zeroed-in on your goal and considered what journalists want, it’s time to come up with new content ideas.
There are three ways to go about this:
1. Borrow ideas from your competitors
Analyzing your competitors is a great way to figure out what’s successful in your niche. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you can see what’s already popular and recreate something similar.
My favorite tool to do this is SEMRush. SEMRush will not only show you what keywords a competitor is ranking for, but also help you figure out the most popular content on that domain in terms of traffic.
To use this, enter your competitor’s domain into SEMRush. Then click on ‘Entire Menu’ in the left pane and select Organic Research > Pages.
This will show you the most successful content on the site in terms of traffic and keyword rankings:
In the above case, we see that Quicksprout’s in-depth guides do exceptionally well when it comes to ranking and traffic. These guides don’t have viral potential, but get a slow trickle of backlinks from others linking to them.
If you’re in a similar niche, you can use this data to brainstorm SEO-oriented content ideas.
2. See what’s popular on your target publications
If you want shares, press mentions or traffic from your content marketing efforts, you’ll do well to see what your target publications are writing about, then creating something similar.
I like to segregate my target publication list into two tiers:
- Top-tier: These are usually sites people would immediately recognize if they heard their names. Think NYT, HuffingtonPost, Buzzfeed, etc. If you’re targeting a particular industry, these would be big industry brands (like Hubspot for inbound marketing or TechCrunch for startups).
- Mid-tier: These are authoritative sites that don’t have the same name recognition. Think NYPost and Diply (for general news/entertainment). Mid-tier publications borrow some cues from top-tier publications, but often have their own niche audience.
Low-tier publications typically follow whatever bigger sites are writing about so I don’t bother factoring them into my brainstorming.
The reason I look at both mid-tier and top-tier publications is because I want to get an idea of the “range” of content these sites will publish. Big name sites like NYT are very hard to get into, but the barrier to entry isn’t as high at, say, LifeHack.org. This gives me a more holistic view of what publishers want and what I can actually create.
Sometimes, bigger sites will also republish content from smaller publications. This makes mid-tier publications the “Trojan Horse” of promotion.
To see what my target publications are writing about, I use Buzzsumo. Buzzsumo shows you the most shared content on any domain within a specified time frame. To use it, enter your target publication’s name in the search box and select your time frame in the left pane.
You can also enter keywords along with the domain name to limit your search to specific topics. For example, searching for “techcrunch.com big data” shows the best-performing articles on TechCrunch on big data.
The results clearly show that most top performing articles are actually opinion pieces. If you wanted to get placement on TechCrunch for this topic, you might want to create a thought piece as well.
Do this for all your target publications to build up a list of ideas.
Generally, the following content-types work great when targeting publishers:
- Visual assets and stories
- Exclusive studies and surveys
- Data-backed stories and analysis
3. Figure out what people are already linking to
If your goal is to get backlinks (always a nice goal to have), you can also discover ideas by checking what people are already linking to.
My favorite tool to do this is Ahrefs‘ Content Explorer. This tool works just like Buzzsumo, except it also takes into account the total number of links. You can use it to see find the most linked-to content for a specific keyword.
For example, when you search for “content marketing” and sort the results by the number of referring domains, you see this:
If you ignore the Politico link in between (no idea why it’s there), you’ll notice that two of the most linked-to content pieces are essentially lists of statistics.
This isn’t exactly “exciting” or “innovative” as far as content formats go. Yet it attracts a lot of links, mostly from others using these pages as references.
Analyzing popular content like this is a great way to discover such low-effort, high-reward content formats. Do this for all your target keywords (more on this below) to come up with content ideas.
III. Analyze Your Content Creation Capabilities
Before you settle on a content idea, take some time to analyze your own content creation capabilities. If a particular content-type requires strong design skills but you don’t have any in-house designers, it makes little sense to pursue it.
You’ll want to gauge your capabilities on five counts:
- Design: Take stock of your existing design resources. Look at both in-house talent as well as outside resources such as freelancers and agencies. In both cases, check for availability (sometimes, in-house designers are busy on higher priority projects). In case of outside resources, factor in the cost into your analysis as well.
- Copywriting: Again, figure out whether you have the writing talent (in-house or outside) to create the kind of content you want to create.
- Development: If the target content requires development, do you have in-house developers to build it out? Hiring outside developers for short projects can be very expensive so factor this into your decision.
- Data mining: Some content-types (data analysis, studies, etc.) require scraping and analyzing large data sets. Unless you already have in-house expertise for it, I wouldn’t recommend pursuing such content types.
- PR/Outreach: Do you have any existing connections at large publishers? Have you worked with influencers in the past? Without prior connections, it can be difficult to get into big publishers, even if you have stellar content. Factor this in when you decide what kind of content to create and where to distribute it.
The most successful content marketing teams usually have access to at least a designer and a content writer.
Three Tips for Content Ideation
If you follow the above, you would have a big list of content ideas from different sources. But how do you zero them down and refine them?
As a start, follow these four tips:
1. Your idea should be emotionally appealing
Nearly all content assets that go “viral” have one thing in common: they appeal to your emotions.
In fact, Frac.tl did a study on this and discovered that successful content usually has three elements:
- It focuses on a positive emotion: You might think that the news focuses too much on negative stories, but Fractl study showed that viral content is overwhelmingly positive. From the innocence of the “Charlie bit my finger” video to the sheer joy of “Gangnam Style”, going viral is associated with positive emotions.
- It is emotionally complex: Fractl found that the most successful content typically focuses on multiple emotions. Joy might be mixed-in with surprise, laughter with a bit of pathos (aka the Charlie Chaplin formula). This makes the content more emotionally “alive” and complex.
- It surprises the reader: Surprise doesn’t have to mean a big “gasp” surprise – even learning something new or discovering a novel solution can be surprising.
Thus, when you’re brainstorming content ideas, pick something that is positive, emotionally complex and if possible, has an element of surprise.
For example, consider this story on BoredPanda about an adopted Pitbull who can’t “stop hugging her”.
It checks all the boxes:
- The story is positive – woman adopts Pitbull, Pitbull loves her, everyone lives happily ever after.
- The story is complex – an abandoned dog makes you sad. Adopting the abandoned dog makes you happy. When the dog loves you back, the happiness turns into joy. A whole range of emotions!
- The story is surprising – Pitbulls have a bad reputation as aggressive dogs. So when you hear a story about a dog who can’t stop “hugging” his rescuer, you get a happy surprise.
2. Your idea doesn’t need to be new
People who are new to content marketing often think that they have to come up with something completely new and original if they want to get any attention.
The truth is that reinventing the wheel is neither necessary nor useful. You can get very far by borrowing older ideas and reworking them into new narratives (which is why I asked you to analyze competitors first).
Consider this example: In June 2014, Buzzfeed published an article about an artist who asked people from 25 countries to Photoshop her according to their local beauty standards. The story went viral and was picked up by hundreds of publications. The Buzzfeed link itself has over 3.3M views.
Fractl borrowed the same idea to examine body standards for women in different countries in a story titled “Perceptions of Perfection“. This story was picked up by over 600 publications and earned over 900,000 shares.
The core idea remained the same; the focus and presentation changed.
Keep this in mind when you’re struggling to come up with new ideas. Instead of trying to create something completely unique, pick something that is already working and find ways to rework it.
3. Your content doesn’t have to be about the brand or even the industry
The Fractl story I mentioned earlier (“Perceptions of Perfection”) was actually for Superdrug.com. But you wouldn’t know that by just looking at the story alone. The brand was weaved in very subtly into the story. It was a side mention, not the primary focus.
Remember this when you’re brainstorming content ideas. You don’t have to focus on your industry, and you certainly don’t have to focus on your brand (unless your brand is doing something remarkable, like Tesla or Airbnb).
You’ll find that de-emphasizing your brand will also remove a lot of resistance from editors and influencers. If you venture beyond your industry, you will also open up more opportunities for placement in related publications.
Factor in SEO during ideation
It doesn’t matter whether your goal is to get backlinks or press mentions, it’s always a good idea to factor in SEO when you’re brainstorming content ideas.
There are two aspects of this: competitor analysis and keyword research.
Keyword research using KOB analysis
The dumbest mistake you can make in a content marketing campaign is to target keywords that are either too competitive, or won’t bring you the right kind of traffic.
One way to workaround this is to use KOB analysis.
KOB – Keyword Opposition to Benefit – is a framework for determining which keywords to target.
As SiegeMedia points out, the formula is simple enough:
Here’s how you can use KOB analysis:
- Search for a target keyword.
- Find the top ranking result for that keyword.
- Place the top result into SEMRush to see estimated cost of all traffic coming to that keyword.
- Divide this by the keyword difficulty score as per Moz Keyword Explorer.
Do this for all target keywords to get a KOB score. The higher the score, the more the opportunity (at lower cost).
For example, let’s consider a keyword – “growth hacking”.
One of the top results for this keyword is Neil Patel’s excellent guide to growth hacking. Plugging this into SEMRush, we see that it has a traffic cost of $4.2k.
As per Moz Keyword Explorer, this keyword has a difficulty score of 74 (the earlier metrics used to be in % – I’ll assume the same for this example).
The KOB for “growth hacking”, therefore, is (4200 / 74% = 5,675).
By itself, this score doesn’t tell you much. But when you do this for all your top keywords, you will start seeing a pattern. High value and high competition domains typically have the highest KOB, but they aren’t good candidates because of the ranking difficulty.
The same applies for keywords at the bottom end of the KOB spectrum.
Keywords with mid-range KOB scores, however, offer the right mix of value and difficulty. Target these keywords initially, make them profitable and ladder up to higher KOB score keywords.
Competitor analysis is crucial for any SEO-focused content marketing campaign. If you’re familiar with SEO, you already know what to look for when analyzing competitors: domain authority, number of referring domains, domain age, content length, etc.
But there’s something else I want to highlight during competitor analysis: user satisfaction.
When you analyze SERPs, you’ll often find content ranking on the front page that is nowhere near as in-depth, well-designed or thorough as your own content.
Yet, it continues to rank at the top of the SERPs, even outranking better domains.
The reason? User satisfaction.
Although there is no official Google announcement about this, I believe content depth and quality doesn’t matter if it gives readers exactly what they want.
That is, if 1x content is enough for a topic, you don’t have to go about creating 10x content.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in keywords that show rich answers. Think of a keyword like “who directed Back to the Future?” where Google will show the answer at the top of the SERPs.
A majority of searches for this keyword would only care about the director’s name. A small fraction might care about the backstory behind the movie and other cast & crew information.
Thus, a single sentence page – “The director of Back to the Future is Robert Zemeckis” – would satisfy a majority of users. Creating a 10x page for this keyword doesn’t make sense if user satisfaction happens at 1x content.
Keep this in mind when you analyze competitors. If you see a lot of simple pages ranking at the top of the SERPs, it indicates that this keyword likely doesn’t demand 10x content.
|Find and pitch journalists + influencers who are actually interested in you right now|
Part II – Content Creation
Content creation is the easiest part of the content marketing puzzle (or the hardest) depending on your experience with content production.
I won’t cover this in much detail since content creation is a niche skill in itself and fairly straightforward conceptually.
However, there are a few tips I want to share:
1. Use content layering
The idea of content layering is simple: you layer multiple keywords into the same article to increase your chances of ranking.
For example, suppose you’re writing a guide to buying snowboards. Your primary keyword is “snowboard buying guide”. This is a late-stage keyword that people would likely search for if they are willing to buy.
While doing your keyword research, you notice that a lot of people also search for “snowboard sizing guide”. This is a middle-stage keyword that would fit in perfectly into a snowboard buying guide.
This is an example of content layering – targeting multiple relevant keywords by using them in the same article.
When you start creating your content, take a look at your keyword list. Ask yourself if you can use some of those keywords in your content asset.
With such layering, you can hit multiple keywords without creating multiple content assets.
2. Improve content design and copy
Make sure that your content design and copy is good enough. Readers shouldn’t want to bounce away after they land on your content. They should want to stick around.
Here are a few simple tips to do this:
- Use short sentences.
- Limit yourself to 2-3 sentences at most per paragraph.
- Use copywriting tricks such as “bucket brigades” to hook readers in.
- Add relevant images every 4-6 paragraphs.
- Use lists, bullet points, etc. to retain reader interest.
If you follow all the advice above, you will have a content asset that you can actually promote.
3. Focus on clickability
Another factor to keep in mind when publishing content is clickability.
This a measure of how likely someone is to click on a page in SERPs or a social media feed. This is based on:
- The title: Clickworthy titles usually generate curiosity and use trigger words to attract clicks.
- The URL: A short, readable URL (yoursite.com/your-keyword) is better than a long, gibberish one (yoursite.com/98sa9xl.html)
- Schema.org: If the URL has Schema.org details – review stars, opening/closing timings, etc. – it will likely be more clickable in SERPs.
- Cover image: An eye-catching cover image (vibrant graphics, good photography, human subjects are good; stock photos, ambiguous graphics are not) will help your content stand out in social media posts.
4. Package all assets onto a separate landing page
Once you have all your content assets – the infographic, data sets, charts, graphs, etc. (for data-focused stories) – package them onto a separate landing page. Give this landing page a clean, easy-to-follow URL.
As an example, consider this landing page used in the “Perceptions of Perfection” campaign by Superdrug:
This is the page that you’ll send out to all your promotion targets, so make sure that its design meets your brand standards.
Once you have your content, you can start promoting it.
Part III – Content Promotion
This is where all your hard work pays off and content turns into shares, traffic and backlinks. A lot of marketers tend to ignore promotion but it is easily the most important part of the content marketing puzzle. You might have the best content in the world, but unless it is backed by regular promotion, you won’t see much returns from it.
Below, I’ll walk you through a framework for promoting any type of content for maximum exposure.
I. Promotion Prerequisite: Build a Brand First
Before you send out a single outreach email, ask yourself: is my site actually worth linking to?
If you look at any successful sites (in terms of rankings or traffic), you’ll invariably find that they invariably have a strong brand presence. You can take one look at them and tell that they are professionally run properties with a dedicated team behind them.
But “brand” is a big word, and a complex one at that.
Let’s look at what makes a brand, and how to create your own.
What makes a brand?
Sites that rank well on Google tend to have one thing in common: they all pass the “eye test”.
The “eye test” is difficult to quantify but you know it when you see it. Put simply, if you land on the site, you’ll think “this is a real business”.
This means that the site is:
- Well-designed, with a clear content hierarchy, logo, etc.
- Sufficiently busy with content and social activity
- Has an about page, contact information, and a team of people behind it.
As an example, let’s consider a frequently spammed keyword – “quick weight loss”.
The first result is from AuthorityNutrition.com. The site has thousands of pages of content, is well-designed, well-categorized, and a strong social following. It also shows the author name so you know it’s a real person writing.
Here’s another result ranking on page 12 for the same keyword. This one is a spammy article on a hijacked domain name. The main site has nothing to do with ‘weight loss’. You don’t know who wrote the article. And all of it is literally gibberish – it’s a word salad with zero sense.
You can take a single look at this and realize that it’s untrustworthy.
This, in essence, is the “eye test”.
Of course, passing this test isn’t enough; you should also have the metrics to back up your brand credentials. This includes:
- A strong domain authority (or at least growing domain authority)
- Site age
- Social following on major networks
- A decent amount of relevant content
How to build a brand
Building a brand is simple enough when you actually break it down:
- Use a relevant, brandable domain name. Not something long-tail, SEO optimized like “QuickWeightLossRecipes.com”.
- If possible, purchase an older domain name.
- Use a high quality design with a strong logo.
- Create at least 10-20 pages of content
- Show who is behind the site – include an about page, contact details, emails, phone numbers, addresses, etc.
- Build a social following
- Get some backlinks
Some of these will take longer than others (such as getting backlinks or building a social following). That’s okay – you don’t have to have a DA of 60 before you start content promotion.
But it is absolutely crucial that you invest some resources into your site. Make it appear trustworthy before you even think of starting a content promotion campaign.
If you already meet this prerequisite, jump to the next section.
II. Create a List of Targets for Promotion
The promotion process starts with a list of target prospects. This can be as expansive or as limited as your resources permit. I try to keep this proportionate to the amount of investment in the content and its potential impact (remember our KOB analysis above?).
Where to find targets
What kind of prospects you target will depend on the kind of content you’re trying to promote. Any content with a more general purpose slant (like the “Perceptions of Perception” example above) will be right at home on any of the countless large news/entertainment blogs (think Buzzfeed, HuffPo, etc.).
For more specialized content (say, a study on content marketing trends), you’ll want to target industry-specific publications and influencers.
When you’re looking for targets, it’s always a good idea to focus on engagement than traffic. It’s better to get a feature on a site with 1,000 readers who share your content than a site with 1M readers an no engagement. The latter will just move your vanity metrics; the former will help meet your actual marketing goals.
Here are some tactics to find high quality prospects:
1. Find sites that are linking to similar content
The easiest way to discover targets is to find similar content and see who all have linked to it.
For example, if you’re doing a study on “content marketing trends”, you can Google this keyword, see the top results, and plug them into your favorite SEO tool. Add relevant modifiers like “study”, “research”, “data”, etc. to this keyword to narrow down your results.
In the above case, searching for “content marketing trends study” shows this CMI research from 2016. Plugging this into Ahrefs and looking at the referring domains shows us more than 385 targets:
These would be great targets for reaching out. You don’t have to target all of them; just the ones with substantial DA.
2. Use Nuzzel
Nuzzel is a fantastic resource for finding curated content on popular topics. Use it to discover influencers, top stories and trending publications.
For example, this is Nuzzel’s curated feed for “wearable technology”:
If you connect it with your Twitter, the feed will be personalized based on what your friends/followers are reading.
3. Use JustReachOut
I hate to do a shameless plug, but I feel JRO is really relevant here, moreso because it gives you a list of target writers, not just publishers.
To use JRO, just search for your target keyword (say, “bitcoin”) and you’ll see a list of writers along with their contact details.
This is as simple as it gets.
4. Other tactics
There are hundreds of ways to skin this cat. Besides the above, you can also try these tactics:
- Search Reddit to find relevant subreddits. Then sort results by “top” to find links from popular sites that have covered similar topics.
- Search Google for your target keywords.
- Find a story similar to yours, then search for the complete URL on Twitter. You’ll find a lot of top accounts (from both media and influencers) who’ve shared similar content in the past.
- Use tools like RightRelevance to find trending stories in your industry. These would be great publications to target.
- Use AllTop to find top blogs in your niche.
- Use Alexa’s top sites directory to find top sites in your target category.
Three tips for finding targets
Not everyone who has shared similar stories in your niche makes for a good target. Follow these tips to narrow down your targeting and improve your outreach results:
1. Find top writers on each website
Every website has its superstar writers who have an outsized traffic and following. On NYT, for instance, Paul Krugman’s columns are usually shared much more than other columnists. In the old days of TechCrunch, Michael Arrington, M.G. Siegler and Sarah Lacy (who now runs Pando.com) would get a bulk of the traffic.
When you’re sending a pitch to a publication, try to target these top writers first. Think of them as “influencers within influencers”. Because of their large readership, they will get your story more shares than if you were to target any random writer.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to spot these top writers. You can try searching for the site on Buzzsumo to find the top performing articles (and their writers), but that’s not always helpful. You will just have to spend some time browsing the site like an actual user to spot authors who get shared more than others.
2. Target mini-influencers
There’s the perennial quantity vs. quality dilemma content marketers face when targeting influencers. My personal rule is pretty clear:
- If your goal is visibility, target a few top influencers.
- If your goal is engagement, target a large number of mini-influencers.
Since more and more top influencers are demanding some monetary reward for sharing your content (especially on Instagram), it makes more sense to target mini-influencers.
Mini-influencers are essentially up and coming bloggers, writers and social media personalities who have a small but dedicated following (think someone with under 10k followers on Instagram). They don’t have the reach of a Justin Bieber, but because their audience is heavily engaged, they often have an outsized impact on shares and engagement.
Again, there is no easy way to find these mini-influencers. You will have to immerse yourself in the field. Try to find people who frequently share top performing content (that often gets picked up by bigger outlets).
If you’re targeting a specific industry, these mini-influencers are often people with proven expertise in a particular sub-field (say “link building” in SEO). This will make it easier to find them.
3. Offer exclusives to top publications
If you have a big story, you can increase your chances of getting published on marquee publishers by offering them an exclusive. This means that for a limited period of time, the story would be exclusive just to that publisher.
Top publishers like this because it gives them first dibs on a juicy story. It also makes them feel a tad bit special which can help you get featured.
I like to reach out to 4-5 top targets (think NYT, HuffPo) and offer them all exclusives. Usually, only 1 out of 4-5 will bite. I make sure that I tell them about the exclusive offer, as well as the time limit for the offer (usually 2 days). If they don’t respond within the stipulated time, I move on to another publication.
Once a top publisher picks up your story, you can use it as “social proof” and piggyback it to get published on smaller outlets.
III. Find Email Address
Once you’ve made a list of targets, start finding their email address.
I’ve already covered this in the past so I won’t go into detail again. Check out this article to start with.
In brief, you can use these tools to find email addresses:
Add them all to your spreadsheet, then move onto your pitch.
IV. Things to keep in mind before pitching
Sorry for hitting the brakes, but before we start writing our stellar pitch, we have to keep a few things in mind:
1. Target writers, not editors
The biggest mistake you can make when pitching a publication is to pitch the editor, not a specific writer.
To understand why, you have to first understand how media outlets work. Editors either assign news stories to a particular writer, or a writer pitches a story idea to an editor, who then approves it.
As the Fractl survey referenced above shows, publications are increasingly ceding authority to writers. Instead of editors going to writers, writers pitch stories to editors. At some publications, top writers even have the freedom to write whatever they want without prior approval from the editor.
So when you pitch the editor at a publication, you are essentially creating work for him. The editor will now have to find a suitable writer (who might already have his hands full with existing ideas). This creates a lag in the process which can hurt your chances of getting published.
Save yourself the trouble and just pitch the writer directly.
2. Avoid spam triggers
Want in on a secret?
Many writers at top publishers have spam filters for words like “infographics”.
Basically, SEOs have abused infographics so much that many writers refuse to even look at them.
“Widgets”, “SEO”, etc. and other heavily abused terms are also common spam triggers.
Try to avoid them at all costs. And if you’re pitching an infographic, call it “visual asset” instead.
3. Align the pitch with the journalist’s beat
If you’re reaching out to the press, know that at any moderately large publication, journalists have different “beats”. This beat describes what the journalist covers.
Most publications will list their writers/editors and what beat they cover. For example, on Recode.net, if you select “Writers” in the top menu, you will see a list of writers. Clicking a writer’s name will show you what he/she covers.
Journalists will often also include their beat on their Twitter bios. Here’s Kurt Wagner’s Twitter from the above example:
Always check the journalist’s beat before you message him/her. You will greatly increase your chances of getting press by doing so.
4. Give value before you ask for anything
This is the last, and most important aspect of pitching: give value before you ask for something in return.
This is such a simple concept – give before you take – yet it escapes so many marketers and startups. Journalists get hundreds of emails every week asking for coverage. They get only a handful of emails actually giving them something of value.
Before you send an email, ask yourself: would you be willing to say the exact same thing in your pitch if you met the journalist in-person?
In most cases, the answer would be no. Real life relationships work on a give-and-take. Not take-take.
So how can you give value to journalists before sending them your pitch?
- Answer a relevant Quora question and then ask them to participate because they are more of an expert than you. This works great for influencer outreach since you are essentially appealing to their vanity, plus you’re giving them an opportunity to give back to the community.
- Find a relevant HARO request and send it their way. Again, you are showing that you’re thinking about them and giving them an opportunity to get press.
- Include them in a roundup of “experts”. By giving them the expert tag, again, you give them a chance to brand themselves + appeal to their vanity.
- Follow their advice about something they’ve shared publicly (say, a new tactic to get higher email open rates), then share back the results.
More than specific tactics, I want you to rethink the entire PR approach from taking to giving and building relationships.
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V. Write a Stellar Pitch
First, let’s define a “pitch”: A pitch is essentially a short message describing a story. It isn’t very different from an SEO outreach email, except it is focused more on getting placement on a target publication (as opposed to a link).
The hard part about writing a great pitch is that the competition inside journalist inboxes is immense. The typical journalist gets over 100 emails everyday, often with pitches similar to yours. You will have to play all your cards right and have incredible content if you are to grab their attention.
I’ll show you how to get inbox-smashing pitches below.
The subject line
The subject line is obviously critical for outreach success. As the Fractl survey showed, 85% of journalists decide whether to open an email or not based on the subject line.
Follow these tips to write better subject lines:
1. Limit yourself to 45-60 characters
Long subject lines get truncated in mobile apps. Keep the subject line less than 60 characters long unless you want to see the trash folder.
2. Use numbers in subject line
For some reason, human beings are instantly attracted to numbers in subject lines and headlines. In fact, one study by Conductor showed that we have a large bias towards titles with numbers in them.
This applies to subject lines as well. If you have any data in your story (say, “78% of marketers prefer Android over iPhone”), make sure to mention it in the subject line.
3. Use the information gap (or curiosity gap)
The “curiosity gap” is a copywriting technique where you hook readers in by giving them some information without resolution.
For an example, consider this headline from Upworthy:
It tells you that someone did something with results that were stunning. You aren’t told whether the results were stunningly bad or stunningly good, just that they were stunning.
While this is obviously an exaggerated example (and Upworthy is notorious for exploiting the information gap in its headlines), you get the basic idea. Use a similar curiosity gap in your subject lines. Tell them a part of the story, but withhold the resolution (or the punchline) until the body copy.
4. Use geographical triggers if possible
If you’re targeting a location-specific publication, try to mention something related to the location in the subject line.
For example, if your story is about a survey of homeowners and one of your findings is that a majority of homeowners in Florida manage their own home repairs, mention this fact when you’re pitching a Florida-focused publication.
This will help your story stand out in the journalist’s inbox. Plus, it shows that you’ve actually done your research about the publication.
Essentially, try to think of a blog headline when you’re writing subject lines. This might yield some clickbaity results, but trust me, they actually work when your job is to attract attention.
The email body
If you’ve got the journalist to open your email, you’ve already won half the battle. The email body is much easier to write than the subject line since you have much more room to write.
Follow these tips when writing the email body:
1. Personalize as much as needed
Personalization can be a slippery slope. It’s easy to fall into the trap of too much personalization, which will impact your efficiency.
My workaround is to do the bare minimum of personalization that will help establish that you are a real person (and not a spammer). Mostly, this means:
- Addressing the writer by name
- Getting the name of the publication right
- Adding a single line addressing something personal about the writer
For instance, if you checked the target’s Twitter feed and noticed that they just tweeted about a recent vacation to New Zealand, mention that in the first line of your email. This will help establish that you are a real person. Yet, it is easy enough that you can scale it for all the people on your target list.
2. Keep it short
I aim for a maximum of 3-4 paragraphs in my emails with 2-3 sentences per paragraph.
An easy structure to follow is to break the email like this:
- Who you are (1st paragraph)
- Why you’re emailing them (2nd paragraph)
- What are the main findings/gist of your story (3rd paragraph)
- How you arrived at above conclusions in case of data analysis/surveys (4th paragraph – optional)
You only need to establish the bare essentials in the first email. You can always send them more details in future messages. Your job in the initial pitch is to get them interested – a short email works wonders for that.
3. Mirror the target’s communication style
This isn’t absolutely necessary for every prospect on your list, but I certainly recommend it for your top priority targets: mirror the target’s communication style in your email.
Say, you looked at the target’s Twitter feed and noticed that she writes with a lot of enthusiasm, using plenty of emojis and exclamations. Try to sound sufficiently enthusiastic when you’re pitching such a target.
On the other hand, if the target uses big words and academic language, be more formal in your pitch.
There is a great tool for figuring out a target’s writing style – Crystal. Use it to quickly see what kind of personality a target has and how you can mirror it.
That’s pretty much it! If you follow the above three tips, you will greatly increase your chances of getting read (and getting a response).
Over to You
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. You’ve learned everything from coming up with content ideas to pitching journalists and influencers. I recommend using this article as a reference source. Read it once to get the basic gist of the content marketing process. Then come back to it when you want to tackle a specific part of the process – ideation, creation or promotion.
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