Attention — it’s so valuable that drill sergeants ask for it by name.
At the most basic level, attention is what all marketers and PR professionals are after. It’s a fundamental requirement for being able to influence purchase decisions, for shaping a brand identity, for moving people into the yawning mouth of a sales funnel.
This isn’t news to anyone. What many businesses (and politicians) fail to grasp, however, is the way in which you attract attention has a dramatic impact on your own success.
Broadly speaking, attention is either earned or bought. Earned attention is delivered via earned media — press mentions, name-drops from influencers, retweets, etc.
The alternative, paid media, typically relies on advertising, which by its very nature is designed to interrupt people to capture their attention. Paid media can be extremely effective, but only within specific contexts.
Earned media is harder to win and harder to measure than paid media, but in an economy where attention functions as the world’s reserve currency earned media can provide exponentially greater value to your company.
Here is what you need to know about getting press and earning word-of-mouth promotion the right way.
When reporters and other influencers talk about your company, they are speaking to an audience whose trust they’ve earned. Therefore, you essentially get to borrow their authority and use it to grab attention and drive traffic to your own site.
In the short term, this can earn you a ton of attention. That attention tends to be fleeting, though, and is really only useful if you have a time-sensitive message to get out or need to build an initial base of users for your startup.
But in the longer term, earned media gives you an authority all of your own, and that authority can snowball:
In late 2015, digital agency von Hughes Creative put together a masterpiece example of how to parlay short-term media hype into long-term authority. That fall, the company created a fake application called Rumblr, a Tinder-like app that would connect local people who wanted to fight.
The hype grew in waves. First, there was the novel curiosity behind the idea. Then, there was the backlash. Finally, von Hughes’ team admitted it was all a big hoax.
The result? Several six-figure deals from companies who wanted that kind of exposure.
“When the marketplace realizes that you are the one writing the story, and not the media, you become the star,” the von Hughes team writes. “The media becomes reactionary, reporting on things you say and do, with a sentence or two of opinion thrown in at the end. The press will start to call and email you relentlessly, hoping that, if you do say something, you say it to them first. The more attention, news, and plot twists you give the press in this stage, the more noise you’ll create.”
That last line needs a little unpacking. Too often, people get caught up in how much noise they’re making rather than why they’re making noise, and for whom.
Paid media is attractive for two major reasons, neither of which have anything to do with its real effectiveness.
First, you can measure the results of paid media pretty easily. You can see precisely how many website visitors click over from an AdWords campaign, and you can count precisely how many cars drive by your billboard every hour. Note that these aren’t measures of how much attention you’ve captured, though, just your potential for doing so.
“This focus obscures a much bigger marketing struggle: the battle for attention,” digital marketer Jerry Daykin writes. “We need to rethink earned media less in terms of extra eyeballs seeing our content and more in terms of getting the first set we’ve paid to reach actually paying attention to us.”
Second, it’s easier to buy an ad than it is to build a relationship with an influencer.
Those two qualities bias a lot of companies toward simply throwing more money at advertising. But if your goal is to truly capture someone’s attention, interrupting people at scale isn’t so effective.
As Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of digital agency 360i tells Advertising Age, earned media has a “disproportionate” impact on most companies’ marketing efforts. Good PR and influencer marketing builds more authority than advertising ever could.
“The advertising-averse consumer disdains just one side of the marketing mix: paid media,” Ad Age writes. “Meanwhile, earned media is doing what it’s always done, gathering and holding the collective attention of those who wish to consume it.”
Or, as Glenn Turner and Shayna Samuels, co-founders of Colorado-based PR firm Ripple Strategies, write at Triple Pundit: “Which would have more influence over you — 10 digital side-bar ads or one compelling article with compelling messages in an outlet you trust? Likely the latter.”
Many media professionals point to Donald Trump’s winning the Republican nomination as an example of the power of earned media. After all, by February of 2016, Marco Rubio had spent five times as much money as Trump on ads, and Jeb Bush had outspent Trump eight times over, Scribewise founder John Miller writes.
“The lesson here is obvious — just because you spend a lot of money on marketing doesn’t mean you will make a mark on the audience,” Miller writes. “It doesn’t mean you automatically will be victorious over competition that has less money.”
Trump himself understands this as well as anyone. “…from a pure business point of view, the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks,” Trump wrote back in 1987 in his bestseller The Art of the Deal.
“It’s really quite simple. If I take a full-page ad in the New York Times to publicize a project, it might cost $40,000, and in any case, people tend to be skeptical about advertising. But if the New York Times writes even a moderately positive one-column story about one of my deals, it doesn’t cost me anything, and it’s worth a lot more than $40,000.”
It’s a good point, but businesses shouldn’t be so quick to adopt Trump’s method of dominating news cycles with negative press. After all, he’s playing a finite game: He just needs to stay top-of-mind long enough to get 270 Electoral College votes. If you plan to continue growing your business beyond early November 2016, you can’t afford to burn bridges as Trump does or alienate half of America’s voters.
Therefore, your approach to earning coverage must be built on top of creating and nurturing relationships with journalists and other influencers.
First things first: If you want your business to make the news, you need to have a newsworthy business. Whether you have an inspiring founding story or are hosting a charity event, you must give other people a good reason to talk about you.
The launch of a new product doesn’t count, either. “Reporters don’t like products very often, but they always love missions,” says Austen Allred, who founded a news startup called Grasswire in 2014.
“Grasswire also had the benefit of the angle that I lived in my car for three months to get it off the ground; that’s interesting to anyone, if only to understand how I lived in a car, where I slept, where I showered, etc. That also goes in the arsenal, and should be mentioned when we’re sending our email, and kept in mind as we develop our press kit, which it is now time to do.”
No matter whom you want to connect with — whether a local reporter or an industry influencer who has a widely read blog — the most important thing is having a story that will resonate with that person’s audience.
“Your story is more important than your pitch,” growth marketer Sujan Patel says. “A journalist isn’t going to say ‘no’ to the perfect story if the pitch is a little lackluster, and, likewise, the best pitch ever won’t convince them to use your story if it just isn’t right.”
The team at Ogilvy PR does an annual survey of news professionals to find out how those people keep up with news. According to Bulldog Reporter, those sources break down as follows:
What this actually means is most news outlets are a bit downstream from where initial coverage happens. Your business already needs to either achieve virality or earn media mentions before most reporters are even aware of it.
Therefore, if you want to get a reporter’s attention, your best bet is to reach out yourself. And reaching out rather than pitching a story is the right way to think about this, Shopify’s Tucker Schreiber says.
“You’ll find that if you send out a generic email, you probably won’t get a response. You’re looking for a long-term relationship instead of quick-hit story coverage so that you can reach out to them every time you have a new product.”
Scheiber says there are a few things you can do to optimize your outreach, too. These include personalizing the message (this is an absolute must), taking the time to write a strong email subject, and offering a product sample or login access.
There are a few tools that will help you in your outreach:
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