How Earned Media Can Help Startups Drum Up Attention
Most successful startups have one thing in common: people know they exist. Typically, startups make that happen by relying on at least one of three channels: paid media (buying ads), owned media (content marketing) and earned media (getting press coverage).
While all three have their own merits, it’s the third kind — earned media — that is often least understood by founders and entrepreneurs. But when wielded well, it can be the most effective.
What Is Earned Media?
Benefits of Earned Media
Besides the swell of pride that comes with seeing the company you built mentioned in the pages of a national publication, earned media offers businesses at least two tangible benefits.
Earned Media Is Cost-Effective (Compared to Paid Media)
Earned media is just that — earned. The journalists who write about your brand, the people who mention you on social media and the YouTubers who review your product all do it for free. (If they were paid to do it, that would make it sponsored content or affiliate marketing.)
The only guaranteed cost of getting earned media is your time — the days and weeks and months you spend trying to get buzz generating organically.
That being said, earned media often does come with associated costs. Many startups purchase media lists (to get the email addresses of journalists to pitch) and social listening tools (to identify influencers whose radars they want to get on). Some also send free products to reviewers with the hopes they’ll be inspired to discuss them. And still others pay to retain the services of public relations firms that help spread the word on their behalf.
Even so, the potential upside of a successful earned media campaign is much greater than that of its paid counterpart.
For example, Parachute, a direct-to-consumer bedding brand, told Digiday that it earned the same number of impressions through a $20,000 PR campaign as it would have had it spent $2 million on Facebook ads.
Earned Media Offers Credibility (Unlike Owned Media)
Content marketing only takes startups so far. Company blog posts can describe how great a product is, and try to differentiate you from your competitors. Your social media presence can show off your cheeky personality and design chops. In both cases, though, you are talking about yourself. Neither provides a stamp of validation from a neutral, third-party source. Only earned media offers that.
Why is that important? Because publicity can legitimize you as a notable player within your category. It doesn’t even have to be an endorsement or a positive review; acknowledgment alone drives awareness. It makes your brand credible — often authoritative — in the eyes of consumers, many of whom are suspicious of advertising but receptive to the freely held opinions and considerations of tastemakers and experts.
“What makes the press have so much more power with the consumer is you can’t force the press to write about you,” said Helena Price Hambrecht, co-founder of and co-CEO of Haus, a direct-to-consumer alcohol brand.
In this way, earned media is similar to influencer marketing — it allows brands to capitalize on the trust and goodwill publications have with their audiences: brand reputation by association.
Tips for Earning Media Coverage
While earned media has advantages over paid media and owned media, getting positive media coverage is hard. Unlike paid media, you can’t buy it. And unlike owned media, you can’t control it. Earned media by its nature takes longer and is less transactional, so if you want to make it part of your marketing strategy, you need to get strategic about it.
Startup founders who want to better their chances of earning media coverage may want to try these approaches used by public relations professionals:
Pitch Relevant Publications and Reporters
If you publish a press release, there’s no guarantee that anybody’s going to write about you — you have to pitch journalists. But not any journalist will do.
To gain traction, you need to identify reporters who will find your pitch newsworthy for their readers. That means the pitch is a match for their publication and their beat, or area of coverage.
This might seem obvious, but it’s often neglected. The most-commonly cited pet peeve among journalists is receiving pitches that are irrelevant to them, and where it’s clear the person pitching hasn’t researched their work ahead of time.
To ensure you’re sending a relevant, personalized pitch, read multiple recent stories the reporter has written. That way you can (1) determine if it would make sense for them to cover your story and (2) tailor your pitch so the angle aligns with the types of stories they write.
For tech startups, for example, sending the same press release to a long list of tech reporters is unlikely to garner results. Some tech publications focus exclusively on consumer products, while others cover tech policy or venture capital funding. And within each publication, different reporters have different, even narrower areas of focus. To maximize your chances of getting earned coverage, you need to identify a handful of specific reporters most likely to write a story about your company.
“You have to be micro-specific with your pitch,” Lamont Johnson, a founding partner at the PR firm The Art Department, told Built In.
Curating a list of journalists whose beats are relevant to your brand — and calibrating your pitch to fit with their sensibilities — takes time and effort. But it’s worth it.
Tell a Simple, Specific Story
Reporters are interested in stories, not topics. Boilerplate press releases, lists of new product features or nebulous opinions held by executives are not stories — even if they seem related to the reporter’s beat.
To increase the odds of getting media coverage, pitch your startup within the context of a larger trend or story.
Take the DTC alcohol brand Haus as an example. The company was sharing news about the launch of its bottled aperitif brand that has lower levels of alcohol and comes in a few different flavors — but that’s not a story. Instead, Haus positioned its origins as part of a broader trend.
“It’s more interesting to be part of a bigger narrative that shows where culture is headed.”
Hambrecht, the co-founder, pitched the story of how she noticed lots of her friends and colleagues had become disenchanted with their relationships with alcohol as they hit their late twenties and early thirties. They liked drinking socially, but they didn’t like getting too drunk and experiencing hangovers. It was a growing phenomenon that others found relatable.
Hambrecht and her husband (a third-generation winemaker) found inspiration in the aperitif drinking culture in Europe, where friends sipped alcoholic beverages for hours — and still felt good afterward. So they set out to make a low-alcohol booze brand that embodied this healthier, more-communal vision of drinking that Millennials were hankering for.
Within the first several months of its launch, Haus was covered by Fast Company, Forbes, Adweek, TechCrunch, Paste, Glamour and Food and Wine.
Christina Shatzen, head of communications at Haus, puts it this way: “Part of it is taking a step back and thinking about how we can be additive to things that are naturally happening in the space, versus trying to constantly frame the story around Haus specifically. ... It’s more interesting to be part of a bigger narrative that shows where culture is headed.”
Provide Unique Data
Another way to increase your chances of getting media attention is by providing original data about emerging trends, said Victoria Chow, communications lead at Public.
People love reading data-driven trend stories. Data adds authority to anecdotes. It verifies fads, debunks widely held assumptions. Stats simply make for a more-compelling read. For those reasons, media outlets are often more receptive to accepting pitches that contain original data.
Startups can find original data by conducting surveys or examining the behaviors and activities of their users. Those insights can be sharpened into compelling story angles that media outlets find interesting.
In her case study of Porch.com, Domenica D’Ottavio demonstrated the power of providing unique data to earn media coverage.
As part of its campaign to get media attention, Porch.com examined internal data about home repair costs and cross-referenced it with the ZIP codes in its database. It made a ranked list of the priciest kinds of home repair projects, and another of the ZIP codes where home repairs cost the most.
Then it created three versions of pitches around this data, each personally tailored to different kinds of reporters — regional reporters, mortgage industry reporters and personal finance reporters.
As a result of this campaign, Porch.com got over 188 pieces of coverage, including a mention in the Washington Post titled “How does your ZIP code rank in home maintenance spending?” It likely gained lots of credibility in the process.
Play the Long Game
Startup founders eager to get their names out there should still maintain a long-term perspective on earning media coverage.
The quickest way to get media attention is to buy an email list and blast everyone on it with pitches. But a more sustainable approach is to find relevant reporters and develop relationships with them.
Shatzen, Haus’ head of communications, recommends keeping relationships with reporters warm so you can stay top of mind. You never know when they are going to write something you’re a fit for. She once pitched a reporter who didn’t end up writing about Haus. But the two kept in touch, and eight months later, the reporter finally had had a story that Haus was a fit for — and included it.
“The P in PR is patience,” said Suzanne Struglinski, public relations manager at Industry Dive, a business journalism company. “It’s very much a long game.”
“The P in PR is patience. It’s very much a long game.”
Check in with reporters from time to time, even if you don’t have anything to pitch. Ask how you can be helpful. Offer to be a resource.
Struglinski suggests getting to know a reporter’s work and occasionally offering sincere compliments on the ones you like. This does not mean emailing vague praise — “Hey, I liked your story” — all the time. Reporters can see right through that.
Play the long game: If a reporter publishes a story in which you think your startup should be featured (a listicle that features your competitors, for example), resist the temptation to ask the reporter to retroactively include it in the story. Even if you think your startup would be a good inclusion.
Asking the reporter to make that change is a short-sighted tactic that might work in your favor. But more often than not, it’s a quick way to alienate them and prematurely end the relationship.
One communications professional I spoke to described a different approach to take in this instance. Tell the reporter that (1) you read the story and found it insightful, (2) you want to make sure your company is on their radar, (3) if they plan on writing about this topic again in the future, you’re available to talk with them as a resource and you’re happy to help. That’s it.