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Generating buzz for your venture: 43 bits of free advice from entrepreneurs, PR peeps, and journos

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 19, 2010 11:17 AM

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Understanding how to generate buzz is a crucial entrepreneurial skill — especially for ventures that haven’t raised jillions of dollars to spend on advertising or giant trade show booths. At last week’s MassTLC Innovation Unconference, a group of PR pros, journalists, social media experts, and entrepreneurs got together to collaboratively create this list of 43 ways to generate buzz in both traditional media and social media. It’s not a definitive list by any standard, and I don’t agree with 100 percent of it, but it collects a number of perspectives about how to get free ink for your company.

I’ve edited the original list to try to make it more useful than the rough notes from the session (which were kindly taken by Richard DiBona of Episend), and added some advice that I found myself dispensing after the session to people who stuck around. When I recall who made a given point, I’ve attributed it.

1. Know what your message is. What is important about your company and how are you going to talk about it? Have a brainstorming session to talk about how best to present your story.

2. Who are you trying to reach? Investors, prospective employees, users, CIOs? That should influence the blogs and media outlets you focus on.

3. You only get a chance to launch once. There is no “undo.”

4. Your outreach efforts shouldn’t involve contacting every single journalist and blogger you know at the same time. Be selective about who you contact, and think about it as a “retail,” one-to-one conversation, not spamming.

5. Don’t ask a journalist, “How can I get you to write about my company?” That’s like asking an investor, “How can I get you to give me money?” There needs to be some romance…intrigue…storytelling…or a demo to get them interested.

6. If you’re targeting consumers, getting on morning shows (like “The Today Show”) can be really effective. (Meg O’Leary, Inkhouse.)

7. Three quarters of the word “news” is “new.” Product launches count, but product updates (version 2.3) are usually not that relevant. Funding, new executive-level appointments, major new customers, or new office space can be considered news-worthy events. (Doug Banks, Mass High Tech.)

8. Many journalists say that meeting you in person at an event is a much better way to get a sense of whether they want to write a story than getting an e-mail or a phone call. Just like the sales process, you’ll often find that you need to follow up on an e-mail with a phone call, or catch a journalist or blogger in the hallway at a conference, to make sure you get a few minutes of their attention.

9. Position yourself as part of a trend that’s happening – explain,“this is how we relate to this trend.” It’s hard for reporters to write about companies that claim to exist in a marketplace vacuum.

10. Be able to tell your story in 30-60 seconds – be “Clear, Concise, Compelling.” Messaging is an exercise in cutting back, not saying more.

11. Admit who your competitors, since good reporters will figure that out anyway, and most reporters like to write about competitive dynamics. Don’t say, “Our only competitor is customer ignorance.”

12. Be ready to answer this question: “If you’re at a cocktail party and had to explain what your company is doing to a normal person, what would you say?” Being overly technical or relying on too many buzzwords often winds up diminishing your role in a story.

13. Tweet as a person and not as your company. Journalists want to follow people, and get real insights about what’s happening in your marketspace, instead of following a sanitized corporate Twitter account.

14. Remember that talking to journalists and bloggers is a dialogue, not a monologue.

15. Follow hash tags on Twitter to understand where journalists and bloggers go (what conferences and trade shows and other events), and what they’re hearing. You may not need to go to a conference, but can be part of the conversation anyway by using the hashtag or @replying to them. (Here's the action on Twitter for the #MassTLC hash tag, covering what happened last week at the conference.)

16. Video and animation can drive buzz – a product demo or screencast can be helpful. Many bloggers or news sites may even embed your video. But don’t make videos that are too “sales-y,” like late-night infomercials for the Sham-Wow.

17. If you have a website with no phone number, it can be difficult for reporters to reach you when they’re on deadline. Don’t rely just on a generic e-mail contact form, which most reporters won’t fill out. (Embed your phone number as an image if you’re worried about spammers collecting your digits.)

18. If you want to appear in print, be sensitive to journalists’ deadlines. If they don’t mention it in an e-mail or voicemail, you can always ask: “what’s your deadline on this?” If you don’t promptly return a reporter’s call or e-mail on one story, they’re not likely to call you for a quote the next time around.

19. Influential Twitter users can help you build buzz – sometimes even moreso than journalists. Find out who they are (people like Cisco’s CTO), and build relationships. But be aware that even a tweet from a person with a massive Twitter following can be transient – it’ll give you a traffic spike that lasts just a few hours, compared to a blog post that is around forever.

20. Be prepared to get negative coverage. Reporters aren’t your “outsourced marketing department,” in the words of Mass High Tech editor Doug Banks.

21. Establish yourself as an expert in your space through speaking, blogging, and Tweeting. That way, journalists will find you, rather than you having to chase them down to write about your company. (Andy Updegrove, Gesmer Updegrove LLP.)

22. What can you do if a reporter or blogger publishes something that’s factually incorrect? With bloggers, you can get in touch and ask for a correction. That’s harder for something that has already gone out in print, in several hundred thousand copies of a magazine. But what you can do is, after giving an interview, mention to the interviewer that you’re happy to answer any follow-up questions or go over any facts or figures, and offer your mobile number. You can also e-mail this information afterwards, along with perhaps attaching a basic fact sheet or a copy of a press release with key details. It’s always helpful to have things in writing like the year your company was started, how much you’ve raised, or who your key customers are. (The mark of an amateur, however, is asking to review your quotes or the finished article — this is something most publications will refuse as a general policy.)

23. Investors, attorneys, and other service providers can help spread the word about your company, since many of them interact with journalists and bloggers. Let them know you would like their help.

24. Saying “nobody knows this part of our story” is a good way to get a journalist’s ears to perk up. (Matt Lauzon of Gemvara used this phrase during the session, describing his company's recent growth.)

25. Sharing a few numbers may make you nervous because of competitive issues, but journalists appreciate it and it can sometimes be the difference between being included in a story and not. Honestly saying, “We’ve sold more than 10,000 units of our product,” is much better than saying, “Our sales are up 10,000 percent over last year.” (Reporters simply assume that you had no sales last year.)

26. Make sure you have photos of your key team members and your product that are good enough for newspapers and magazines to publish. Many publications don’t have time or resources to send out a photographer to shoot you or your product, and this can be the difference between being just a line or two in a story, or having your product prominently featured.

27. Even if you think you don’t need press, because you’re doing a great job finding customers and establishing partnerships, it can serve other purposes — like attracting investors or employees. (Greg Schmergel, CEO, Nantero.)

28. If your product is great, enlist your customers in spreading buzz and talking about your product. This can mean having customers who will serve as references, or simply tell bloggers and journalists they know about what you’re up to. It can mean inviting customers to man a booth at a trade show, in return for a free trip to Vegas. It can mean setting up a Webcast with key customers talking about your product, or an in-person roundtable discussion with journalists or analysts.

29. Envision the headline you’d like to see, and make sure you cover those points in your interviews or e-mail exchanges with journalists and bloggers.

30. Be aware of what you tweet. People can get the impression that your company is doing great when you tweet positive things, but they can get the opposite impression if you tweet anything vaguely negative. (Matt Lauzon, CEO, Gemvara.)

31. Create a calendar for the next three or six months of the big announcements you will be making, and use that in your interactions with press.

32. Print reporters appreciate getting an “inside look” at your company, rather than just sitting in a conference room and interviewing you. That can mean going along with an installer for an installation appointment… spending time with you backstage before you give a speech… or sitting in on a meeting of customer service reps talking about how they can improve service. These inside looks give the reporter scenes and stories that will make the story more detailed — and often, will give your company more space in a story that includes multiple companies.

33. Don’t over-promote your company if the product is still buggy and rough.

34. Don’t be afraid to be fun. Be human and authentic.

35. Why would you ask a journalist to sign a non-disclosure form before visiting your company or interviewing you? Don’t laugh: it happens. Getting coverage is about disclosure, and most journalists won’t sign one.

36. Even if you don’t want to give an interview on a particular topic (say, a lay-off involving your biggest competitor), you can be helpful by pointing a reporter to other people to talk to, or talking “off-the-record” if it’s an individual you trust. (But beware of bloggers who proudly and habitually publish “off-the-record” information.)

37. Many journalists don’t read the news wires (press releases), but would prefer to simply have an e-mail exchange with an individual about upcoming news. You can always ask first, “Can I send you some information today that is under embargo until Monday?” Again, trust and relationships are essential here.

38. If you do pay to send press releases over the wire, you may not need to pay for a national release. Just having the release available on the Internet through a regional or state wire can make it "findable" online.

39. Check out, and compare it to services like BusinessWire, MarketWire, and PRNewsWire. (Adam Zand, Almost Ubiquitous.)

40. Pick your shots. If there’s a major publication you’d really like to be in, go to them first. Beware that if you get coverage in a small publication (like the Apopka Weekly Shopper) about some important news, other news outlets may not want to cover it afterward.

41. Many reporters and bloggers have information online about what they tend to cover, and how they like to be contacted. Always a good idea to read this first.

42. Giving a journalist or blogger good story ideas that don’t relate to your company — just stuff happening in your space that you find interesting — can be a good way to put a few coins into the favor bank when you need coverage.

43. Tell the truth.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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