August 17, 2008 |
Last weekend I published a post about the mistakes that startups make when pitching bloggers. That post attracted quite a number of comments from startups and PR professionals and one topic some of them seemed to be very interested in was the difference between pitching by startups in a do-it-yourself manner as opposed to pitching by PR firms. Even though this issue has already been discussed a lot, it still seems to be quite an acute problem (it is visible from the attention it has received this week again) so I have decided to cover it again in a separate post to address the usual startup dilemma – should they hire a PR agency to do the job of getting coverage in traditional and new media or should they do the pitching themselves.
Here I am putting my thoughts as a blogger who receives dozens of pitches a day and is able to compare those distributed by PR firms to those submitted directly by startups. And my main observation here is that pitches sent from both camps can be both good and bad but generally PR professionals know the job of marketing and PR better (well, it’s their job, after all) so they send poor pitches much less frequently than startups on their own. But there are also excellent examples of startups doing a great job in pitching and working with bloggers in the way that really deserves admiration.
So my main point is that both PR professionals and startups can do an excellent job in pitching bloggers and journalists and it does not matter if you do it yourself or hire a professional – provided that both can do the job efficiently. And in general there is no big difference between working on marketing and PR yourself and having a PR firm doing it for you – provided that you know the market, do some basic research and prepare your actions thoroughly.
There are some obvious advantages when you work with PR professionals:
- You almost don’t have to think about marketing and PR at all
- You will be able to focus on the product itself instead of its promotion
- The PR firms already have all the industry contacts required to get some coverage
- Even if your product is far from excellent, using their contacts you will still get at least some basic level of coverage for your product
But at the same time there are equally obvious disadvantages:
- Good PR firm will cost you quite a lot – much higher than a PR person/marketing manager/community manager on staff
- No one knows your product better than you and the coverage you will receive (along with the public image of your product) will depend heavily on how successful you are in communicating the nature of your product to the PR firm you work with
- Eventually if you decide to stop working with this PR firm, you will have to start everything from scratch for any further announcements you may have
So to make the decision as a startup getting ready to the first public appearance of your product you will obviously have to decide first which advantages or disadvantages are of higher importance to you. But basically when you sign a contract with a PR agency the most important thing you expect them to do is to get your product coverage with mainstream media and bloggers.
Normally from what I’ve seen PR firms are way more efficient when dealing with traditional media (newspapers, TV, radio stations) than any startup can be on its own. There may be exceptions but normally when you see an internet project covered heavily and frequently in various traditional publications, it means that they have a good PR representative working on that. But the blogosphere is somewhat different and it is not all that difficult to pitch a good number of blogs and encourage them to cover your product if you know the rules and listen to how bloggers want to be pitched.
First of all, you must understand that bloggers are generally willing to receive pitches because they are always hunting for the most interesting news to cover and startups to review. And this process of looking for the news is very time-consuming and of course we are happy when we get something interesting delivered right to our inboxes. So you should not position yourself as a humble startup owner pleading for some coverage, it is better to position yourself as an equal partner who is able to provide something of value to the blogger.
After all, all the PR firms that work with bloggers do exactly this: they provide us with a constant source of news that we can easily use instead of hunting for those same news everywhere. You can represent a very similar source of information, it will just be a smaller one. And this is exactly why you will find the “send us news tip” link in the contact information of the majority of blogs (I mean, those that serve as media outlets themselves, rarely you will find this information on personal blogs).
Another important thing that startups are often mesmerized with is the contacts and relationships that PR firms already have with bloggers and journalists. Of course, these contacts are the most valuable asset for them and it is definitely a determining factor for many startups to make a decision to choose an agency over “do-it-yourself” approach. But there’s still one thing you should keep in mind: all the relationships invariably start with something and this something is usually a very simple contact over the same send-us-news email. All the PR agencies have a data base for the journalists and bloggers they work with and it took them quite some time to compile it. But they all started from zero at some point and no one forbids you to build the same data base in a simple spreadsheet with all the contacts that you manage to get with bloggers.
Besides, while PR firms often have many clients and they will often use their established list of media people to work, you yourself can constantly update your own spreadsheet with all the bloggers that have chosen to cover you even without you pitching them. They may be smaller bloggers or those writing in a language that you yourself don’t speak but they all share a huge advantage for you: they already know your product and they believe this product to be interesting enough to share it with their readers. So next time that you have news to share, you will be able to contact these additional bloggers to ensure some further buzz around your product.
There’s also another problem with coverage of startups initiated by their PR representatives. In this case pitches often seem to be impersonal – simply because we don’t see real people on the other side of a press release. Instead we see our usual PR contacts and while they may do a great job of preparing and distributing press releases to the right people, they will rarely do the job of presenting your product as passionately as you would have done on your own. What’s more, they will rarely engage in any follow-up activity while it really means a lot to bloggers to get a thank-you email or a comment from the people behind this or that reviewed startup about our review. If we see the feedback, it will mean established relationships to us and chances are that when you have a new announcement we will welcome it with a new post again.
My conclusion here is that bloggers are usually willing to see your news but to get the news delivered to bloggers you will either have to work with a PR agency or you will have to collect all the contacts yourself. The main disadvantage here is that it is a time-consuming process so you will need to either have a dedicated marketing person on staff or you will have to do it yourself as a founder (provided that you don’t really do all the coding yourself and have time for marketing). But in the long run these contacts will be a valuable asset to you because if you are serious about the business, your product will live after its initial launch date and initial coverage – and relying on the word-of-mouth marketing only is only possible if your startup has something absolutely unique and extraordinary to offer to users.
And this brings me to the most common mistake startups make by thinking that a good product will sell itself and will find its users on its own without you actually having to do anything to promote it. Sure, there are some examples when this approach actually worked but in the majority of the cases when you see a product growing quickly and even becoming profitable, it means that they are very good in promotion. A product can be excellent as it is but unfortunately if no one knows it exists, it will be hard to make it possible. We often see the best products vegetate in obscurity while over-hyped applications, no matter how poor the idea or execution is, will enjoy success and popularity. There are a number of factors that influence this situation.
First of all, this is because the web 2.0 market is very dynamic and if you launch a product based on unique idea someone will be sure to notice it and launch a clone in a matter of weeks (well, if it is easy enough to duplicate). And if that someone is better in promoting their product, they will get much more users and no one will even remember you pioneered the idea.
Another thing is that oftentimes users have no idea that they actually need a product like this. Did we really need microblogging before Twitter was launched? I don’t remember anyone telling that there’s a need in the market for a solution to make the blogging process easier and faster so that everything could be told in 140 characters. But then Twitter was launched and it created the market – people admitted the concept was cool and started using the service heavily. So while there had been no obvious demand in the market, this demand was created when the product was launched.
But creating a market is a very difficult thing to do and this is exactly why so many startups with innovative unusual ideas fail: they know the idea is cool and that people will enjoy it when they realize how cool it is. But unless they manage to communicate to the market the coolness of the idea, they will see no demand. And to generate this demand it is simply required to get coverage in the blogosphere and (better yet) traditional media – and the more coverage you get, the better. But relying on the word of mouth to create the market for you is irresponsible in most cases.
Finally there’s one more factor to consider when making a decision to choose a PR firm over the “do-it-yourself” marketing. And this obviously is the cost of the process. Since I’ve never worked with PR agencies on behalf of a startup, I have no exact information on how costly it is to work with professionals (and strangely my PR contacts I asked chose not to share their rates with me) but usually startups mention the prices at $5-$10K per month for PR and marketing services.
And obviously when you are a startup (especially a self-funded one) this amount will sound like a huge one and obviously something to consider not paying if you have a limited budget for an unlimited period until you get funded or acquired. This thought was confirmed when I discussed my plans for this post with Boris Simkovich from Zuula and he mentioned:
It will be particularly valuable to get a sense of the cost of working with a PR agency. I know such data are not easy to come by. But it’s a critical question when evaluating whether or not you want to work with an agency or take the do-it-yourself approach. In many senses, if your posting does NOT address this issue, it will ignore what is probably THE big issue that startups face when deciding whether or not to work with a PR agency.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that I failed to get the information necessary but googling it proved that the monthly rates actually vary in the range from $5,000 to as high as $15,000. And for a startup even the lower point is often a huge portion of the entire budget. And when you get to consider that you can actually have a full-time marketing/PR specialists on staff for less money, it should make you think at least twice before signing a contract.
Really, pitching bloggers and journalists is not really a spacecraft and if you have a dedicated person who can handle it (establish contacts and continue working with these contacts through the life of your product), you will most certainly receive the coverage you need. Of course a PR agency may do it better and get more people to talk about your product but the obvious disadvantage of the high costs combined with the long-term advantages of having those contacts to yourself for future use is something that can compensate for not having your product described on every single technology blog on Earth.
What’s more, if you are serious about your product, you will still need to have someone working on marketing and public relations as a community manager for a long time after the initial product launch (through its life actually). And this person should definitely be someone on staff – talking to users, tracking their opinions everywhere (be it blogs, comments, Twitter or FriendFeed) and addressing them properly. And even if you can outsource the coverage, I can hardly believe I will ever see a PR firm representing a product as a full-cycle community manager.
And if you already realize that a successful product is not only a review on TechCrunch on the launch date but a huge number of happy users, you should definitely contemplate the idea of actually having a dedicated person to address all your PR needs on staff.
My final conclusion is that an ideal arrangement is to have both: a PR firm actively pitching your news to traditional and new media in addition to a community manager on staff. In this manner all the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches will be compensated for: the PR firm will get you coverage while the community manager will deal with feedback and tracking the comments on all those posts you will receive, at the same time collecting all the media contacts for when you don’t work with a PR agency any more.
But of course this ideal arrangement is even more expensive so it is only applicable to very well-funded startups. And if you don’t belong to those lucky few, you will have to make your choice based on what you think is more important for your particular product. But no matter what you choose, make sure that either the PR firm you choose is an excellent one or your own marketing efforts are top-notch. Just keep in mind that it does not really matter who is pitching the blogger, what matters is how a blogger is pitched.