Dmitri Lisitski, Influ2 Spreading the word about your product is incredibly hard. Experienced PR people focus on creating a great story that is attractive to both journalists and the audience. But if you don’t sell an amusing toy to play with pets, like my friend does, and your product is more like a “vertical DSP platform with machine learning driven by proprietary DMP,” like we have, you notice very quickly that the journalists are yawning before you even finish answering the first question. This post is for the folks who struggle to get the attention of journalists for their nerdy high-tech B2B product.
If you take a step back from your daily routine, you quickly realize that you are stuck in a cycle of creating content, talking to journalists and getting little, if any, results. Let’s dissect this dilemma to get to the root cause of the problem. Why do good PR people focus on great stories? To attract the attention of journalists. Why do you need their attention? To make them write about you. Why do you need them to write about you? Can’t you just write it yourself on your own blog, like I am doing right now? Yes, as a matter of fact, you can, but then you need to find some way to attract your audience. Ta-daa! It sounds obvious, but please remember this one fact: The reason that you need journalists is because you need their readers. The importance of that fact will become very clear by the end of this post.
Journalists own the audience and that’s why you need them. However, if you work on a niche technology product, you can do amazing things and your customers admire what you are doing, but it’s not at all exciting for journalists. It’s too nerdy and too niche and their job is to write for a broad audience. There is no secret: The more audience they attract, the more money the media that they are working for makes — this is true whether they sell subscriptions or advertising.
For that reason, journalists will only be excited by your wonderful story if it’s simple enough to be attractive for a very broad audience. Although it should sometimes be simple to the level of what seems dumbness to those in the field, a dumb story is not what you want to tell your customers. Looking at it from another perspective, your customers are smart enough to understand your story simply because they have a need your sophisticated product and therefore they understand the matter far better than the mediocre level of an average mass-market reader.
The media business model is similar to that of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the business model of bookstores used to be relatively simple: They had a limited capacity of bookshelves so they had to choose popular books to attract customers. The good thing is that physical presence was a tremendous barrier to the entry of competition. If there is no other bookstore in walking distance around and you are doing your job well in selecting popular books, your business is rock solid with no signs of danger in the near future.
However, this model has a big disadvantage for niche writers. Imagine that you described a very interesting alternative theory in quantum physics. Even if there are 100,000 physicists in the world who can understand what you are talking about, are interested in reading your book, and are even willing to pay $10 for it, there is no bookstore owner who will put it on their shelves, and you won’t be getting rich off your great idea. On top of all that, the probability of a physicist living near any given bookstore is not high and bookstore owners prefer to put reading material that is more popular than that on their shelves.
This is exactly what happens when you pitch a niche technology product to a journalist. Even if your story is absolutely fascinating to those who understand what you are talking about, there is no economic value for journalists to spend their time on your technology. This is because there are very few people, among their online media readers, who are interested in your topic.
Amazon has dramatically changed the lives of writers. There are 12 million titles on Amazon — this number is probably three digits bigger than any brick-and-mortar bookstore anywhere. As a result, as Chris Anderson vividly explained in The Long Tail book, the long-long tail of niche writers found their readers through Amazon.
Drawing from this analogy, you might expect to find a similar effect when media went online. However, online media remains highly fragmented and no single online media channel can satisfy each and every taste. As a result, we have thousands of online media titles. This is mostly because traditional online media remain vertically integrated, meaning that the same company does both content production and content distribution. To become a universal media for everybody requires giving up content production to millions of people and companies, like YouTube did for video.
The good news is that social media is quickly acquiring the function of content distribution. Back in 2006, Twitter was the first to combine a social network with content distribution. Facebook quickly followed by implementing the news feed, which now accounts for over 40% of the traffic for popular media. LinkedIn launched articles to attract the business audience. There are other hybrids of social networks and online media, such as Medium and Tumblr, as well.
By posting your content through social networks, you can reach the right audience. You don’t need to convince journalists that your content is amazing. Even a techy article that is super-boring for an average reader could be amazing for some people. If your team produces great content, that content becomes the best marketing tool for you. If you take it one step further and engage with your audience, you unleash the power of inbound marketing — a beast deserving of a separate post.
This is the time to reflect on the very obvious fact that I started with: You need journalists because they own the audience. If you start a personal or corporate blog, your marketing team will read your content, some of your employees will read your content, and some of your customers will read your content. If a piece of content is completely amazing, they might share it with their social circle and, hopefully, there are some prospective customers, in that circle, who actually read your content. You need to produce a tremendous amount of great content to make this system work well, and, remember, it will only work if both your product and your story are truly great.
I first realized this when we were discussing content marketing back while I was working at All.biz. Content marketing helped to quickly improve our relationships with existing customers and this improved our retention nicely. However, engaging with new customers was still difficult.
For that reason, when we shaped Influ2, our current product, we asked ourselves the question: What are the real problems that we could tackle with the super-precise advertising targeting engine that we have in our hands. The first thought that came to my mind was: Can’t we help nerdy folks like us — who have their own amazing stories — to skip the incredibly hard and largely ineffective PR efforts and get in front of their prospective customers? The idea of showing your own content straight to prospective customers sounded like magic to us, and we love to bring magic into real life, so we rolled up our sleeves. When we saw the initial results, we felt like Harry Potter when he first used his magic wand, in fact, you are very likely reading this article thanks to an Influ2 engine that showed the content promo to you.
To sum it up, media business challenges are similar to those of the bookstore business. They need to focus on content production and leave the distribution to social networks. This means that journalists will become more like bloggers, some media will look like a hub of bloggers, and others will vanish entirely or they will become extremely lean organizations.
For high-tech companies, this opens up an opportunity to produce their own content that talks directly to the hearts of their customers. However, it also creates a new challenge: As professionals in the field, we need to master the art of storytelling and drop the habit of using marketing lingo, buzzwords and being too technical, which in many cases hides the fact that the story itself is not good enough. And, finally, we need to routinely search for new content distribution channels to get the word out in front of our own potential customers: We need to experiment with publishing platforms, social network advertising, content promo vehicles, account-based marketing tools, etc. — all these elements are good topics for separate posts.