“But, customer acquisition isn’t how you measure the success of public relations.” I didn’t have formal PR or marketing training and still, I knew it was a ridiculous KPI.
This was during my time at direct-to-consumer (DTC) healthy snack startup NatureBox. We were a series A startup, a lean team that needed to grow our business quickly. It just wasn’t useful for us to hang our hats on impressions, share of voice, and brand sentiment.
I stared at my spreadsheet and started splitting my media outreach list into two parts:
1) Reputation wins that might help us work our way up to the highly coveted Wall Street Journal feature (FoodNavigator USA, Food & Wine, etc) and…
2) Acquisition wins, or media placements that were likely to result in new customers (Lifehacker, Mental Floss, etc).
(Over time, I’d realize that the niche coverage, either in trade or affinity-based publications would ultimately serve as short-term wins that I could later use in my pitch arsenal to score longer or deep dive features in mainstream publications.)
I wasn’t using any PR or media software at the time — remember, my lack of marketing training meant I didn’t even know such things existed, so I resorted to leaning on my journalism background, doing tons of manual research, and following lots of food and lifestyle journalists on Twitter. I read every food-related publication I could get my hands on, and I took notes on the various writers I kept up with. All of this was tracked in a spreadsheet I updated and sent to my CMO and CEO nearly every day.
(Far from chill work, this was absolutely not a healthy way to work. I don’t recommend this.)
Part of my manual research included reading and replying to the comments on our brand’s paid and organic social media posts. I’d see anything from gleeful gotchas catching a typo here and there on our ads, to strange critiques of the doorsteps we’d photograph our snack boxes on. But the comments that really caught my eye were from the hacker and gaming communities. I don’t have the quotes handy anymore but fairly common sentiment was this:
“These look like they taste like Doritos. I’d eat these if someone sent them to me.”
“It sounds gimmicky but honestly, I’m so lazy that I would pay $20 per month to not have to think about buying healthy snacks.”
“Healthy snack delivery lol. Sounds like the perfect product for the hypocrite who loves healthy eating but somehow hates the environment.”
…Ok actually, that last one was almost verbatim. Harsh-but-fair feedback that was burned into my brain forever.
These comments were so… specific. They seemed to indicate a certain lifestyle preference or archetype. I’d check out the commenters’ public social media profiles to see if there were any commonalities. I started to pick up on clues that indicated they were gamers or hackers.
Meanwhile, we’d occasionally get some inbound requests from nonprofits asking for snack donations, and from local Bay Area hackathons. Unless the quantity was unreasonable, we fulfilled all donation requests. For the hackathon donations, I’d include some custom flyers and stickers, and follow up with the event organizers to see if they were happy with the snacks. Perhaps not surprisingly, hacker-types aren’t that picky about free food.
I didn’t really know what hackers read so I just sort of… Googled around. I searched for gaming sites. I lurked in Subreddits to see if I’d find any other sources of influence. Eventually, I stumbled upon a gaming site called Kotaku. I followed some of their writers on Twitter, including then-reporter-now-editor Mike Fahey. I read some of his work, and then I reached out with an offer to send him a custom snack box. I was more than delighted when he replied! He wrote his review, and we were able to attribute this placement to hundreds of customers.
Next on my list as I went down various audience research rabbit holes: Lifehacker. I pitched them on a review as well, though I believe they had the idea of doing a full review with our competitors. As they did their reporting, I responded quickly to all their questions. And of course, I sent only our best snacks in the first box.
The result? The writer was honest AND gave us high marks. (Worth noting that article has been edited in the 10 years since it was published. In its current state, it shows only a few paragraphs for context along with a coupon code.)
Four months later we had over 1,600 new customers from these reviews.
All through audience research, hard work, and without spending a dime.
For me, this was a lesson in rolling up your sleeves, following your curiosity down rabbit holes, and not being afraid to challenge assumptions about customer identity.
I really believe that stories like this are some of the best ways to hone your marketing skills. Stories work because:
- They’re memorable; they stay with us, despite information overload
- They’re relatable – even when a story doesn’t perfectly match our situation, our brains build connections about the takeaways and applications
- They illustrate real problems and real solutions, not just hypotheticals
Here at SparkToro, we’re such big believers in the value of stories to teach better marketing, we built an entire conference around it: SparkTogether. If stories are how you learn best, too, join us – grab your early bird ticket for SparkTogether. Ten speakers are sharing stories they’ve never told before, in a format where they can be fully honest (because sessions aren’t recorded) It’s an unforgettable digital event that doesn’t require plane tickets, expensive hotels, or days away from home.
How I would strategize that same win today (using SparkToro!)
This PR win was back in 2013. I spent an immense amount of my bandwidth — literally hours per day, for weeks — purely on audience research, reading, and writing cold pitches. And PR was only half my job as a content marketing manager. I don’t have the same bandwidth that I used to. Backwards-engineering what I did then with the gift of hindsight and better tools — ahem, like SparkToro — here’s what I would do today to uncover similar arbitrage opportunities much more efficiently:
Define success at the outset
There are lots of KPIs to track PR efforts. To name a few: Number of placements, impressions, share of voice, and brand sentiment. But success usually looks different to a lot of people. Especially so if you have a CEO who’s obsessed with getting that Wall Street Journal placement — certainly, a desirable outcome, but one that’s ultimately decided by an editor, not by you and your hard work.
Have an honest conversation with your leadership team. If you can sum it up in a sentence or two, can you define success like…
- 8 media placements in one quarter (assuming you have upcoming news on the roadmap)?
- A handful of placements generally, and one deep dive magazine feature about your company within the next six months?
- Getting any kind of placement in at least half of the trade publications in your industry?
- …or something else?
These are just a couple examples of desired outcomes I’ve heard from executives. It’s certainly not a comprehensive list. Aligning on this before you run ahead with your media plan is crucial.
Conduct ongoing audience research, and revise messaging for each media pitch
Let’s stick with NatureBox for this example. At the time, the company sold healthy snack subscriptions. For $20, customers could choose five snacks (from options including nuts, nut mixes, wholesome cookies, dried fruits, crackers, and more) that we would ship every month. Alternatively, they could opt for a discovery box where we choose snacks for them while also taking into account most dietary preferences.
Our value propositions were:
- Our snack recommendation algorithm (or technology)
- Healthy/wholesome snacks
- Convenient snacks
- Food discovery
Each of those value propositions informed each pitch I sent. Everybody likes to feel special. Media publications are no different. Applying this to your own PR strategy, consider how your product or brand’s news is unique to each publication. Maybe you’ll decide it’s worth giving Fortune an exclusive on your latest business growth. Or maybe it’s tailoring a pitch wholly about the technical aspect of your product for a trade publication.
When I started my media list and outreach strategy, my bosses and I knew we wanted coverage in tech, lifestyle and food-focused publications like TechCrunch, Women’s Health Magazine, and FoodNavigator USA. So if I were to have used SparkToro back then, one starting point could have been to analyze each of these publications. For instance, here’s what we’d learn about the TechCrunch audience today:
An overview of this audience’s behaviors and demographics suggests that the likeliest readers of TechCrunch are some combination of founders and VCs, interested in venture capital, interested in online technology, and proficient in management and marketing. Just that intel in mind, TechCrunch would be first on my outreach list if I were to announce a new round of funding (which they were, and we did reach out to them).
But that’s softball advice. Every PR manager knows to reach out to TechCrunch for funding news in tech.
I’d also head over to the Press tab within SparkToro to look for other publications that this audience also reads:
The TechCrunch audience is also interested in TED Talks, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Forbes Tech, and VentureBeat. These publications would also make it onto my outreach list. I knew to do this back in 2013, but that was only through having the lived experience of being a tech journalist. I already knew of these publications.
I pitched them with different messaging, and I was able to secure some solid placements:
- VentureBeat: The angle I focused on was food deserts and healthy vs. unhealthy snacking. This was due to what was generally newsy at the time.
- Forbes / Food + Tech Connect: Danielle Gould’s Food + Tech Connect was an up-and-coming influential column/media entity/community in the food and tech space. Given the community and events aspect of Food + Tech Connect, this was a relationship I really wanted to nurture, so I offered up my CEO and our lead investors for an interview.
- FastCompany: They don’t typically cover regular funding news. But they do cover deeper dives, so I pitched them on our snack recommendation algorithm.
Find really niche websites and publications
I had identified food trade publications through manual research — namely through Googling, lots of reading, and asking around in the food and consumer packaged goods industries. But I would have saved a lot of time if were able to run a SparkToro search for the audience that frequently visits the website: foodnavigator-usa.com, a well-known food trade publication:
This search leads me directly to other food industry websites like Foodingredientsfirst.com, Bakeryandsnacks.com, Nosh.com, and lots more. Back then, I would have thought to pitch these websites in hopes of developing street cred in the food industry.
Find publications based on topic and affinity — through Custom Search
I would have also found media publications by searching for topics, keywords or phrases that my audience is talking about online, and then looking for the relevant influential social accounts, websites, podcasts, and press publications. Here’s an example:
Let’s say I want to find more sources of influences that might be interested in NatureBox’s snack recommendation capabilities. I’d try a Custom Search (currently in beta) for the audience that talks about “machine learning” and follows MindBodyGreen, a food and health publication:
In the Press tab at the top of this list, it’s actually MindBodyGreen, the New York Times, CNN, and Huffington Post. As a small startup, I’d be worried about whether these major media outlets would even see my pitch, much less write about it. So I’d scroll down further and look for smaller publications or influential individuals. Vogue Magazine, NYT Health, Maria Popova, and, interestingly enough, Lifehacker, are on this list. I might have a stronger chance of getting on the radar of Maria Popova (if she were recently writing or talking about healthy eating!) than CNN.
I’d also look at influential podcasts, research the hosts, and reach out to them with the offer to send a seed kit of snacks that I’d guess are in line with their dietary preferences. A handful of shows I’d reach out to would be the mindbodygreen podcast, Highest Self Podcast, The Balanced Blonde // Soul on Fire, the Scope, and the Ultimate Health Podcast.
Find gaps in media coverage for each publication
Remember how I said that back then, I spent hours per day reading each publication? I wish I could have used SparkToro to target my efforts. Instead of scouring every single publication on my list, I’d move steadier through pitches by analyzing each publication in SparkToro and looking at the Text Insights. Here’s what I mean:
Let’s go back to our audience research data of TechCrunch. This is data on people who frequently visit the tech news site. We’ll head over to the Text Insights and scroll through Phrases Used:
Over the past three-or-so months, this audience has been talking about portfolio companies, female founders, and funding rounds. (Quick tip: If you’re currently running PR for a woman-led startup, now might be a good idea to check TechCrunch for news and figure out how you can pitch your senior leader for an interview.)
I’d keep scrolling to look for topics that might be relevant to me/my company. I can see that digital health and driving cars are top of mind for this audience. If I were running PR in these niches I’d check TechCrunch for related coverage.
If I couldn’t find any, I’d reach out to them which a short pitch:
“I’ve been reading your recent coverage and doing research on your audience. According to the data I found in SparkToro, I noticed that about 3% of your 1.7 million readers have been talking about digital health, but you haven’t had any news coverage on that recently. I’d love to tell you more about what we’re doing at my health tech startup…”
You get the point. But if you want a 90-second video on this, check out Rand’s tutorial:
As you keep using SparkToro, you’ll find more and more rabbit holes to go through. Analyzing one media publication will lead to another. Analyzing a social account will lead you to a podcast. And so much more.
And you’ll finally be able to spend less time doing the manual research that helps you uncover all this, and more time refining those pitches.
Good luck out there!