Coverage in the mainstream media is one of the most effective ways to put your app, startup or website in front of millions of potential customers.
The only problem is that getting press coverage, at least for a small company, is very difficult. Cold emailing journalists is a slow, time-consuming and boring process that rarely produces results, while hiring a PR firm is usually prohibitively expensive.
The solution is to forget about the traditional rules of interacting with the press and instead use cheap and effective techniques to set your startup, app or website apart from the crowd and make it something journalists want to talk about.
From old-fashioned publicity stunts to deliberately offending people that you know will talk about your product, here are five cheap and unconventional ways to make the press pay attention to your startup, app or website.
Pull a cheap (preferably unusual) publicity stunt
Publicity stunts get a lot of criticism from marketers for being tacky, but they have one huge benefit: they work, often extremely well.
When AirBnB was just getting started and short on funds to hire a traditional PR firm, its founders created two bizarre breakfast cereals designed to look like John McCain and Barack Obama – the two candidates in the 2008 US Election.
The cereals generated more than $30,000 for the then struggling company. They also generated several times that amount of value in press coverage, with almost every major tech blog reporting on what was obviously a publicity stunt.
The best publicity stunts for startups are cheap and unusual. No one will pay any attention to a publicity stunt that doesn’t stir the pot – win the attention you want by doing something bold and crazy.
Latch onto an event or significant news story
One of the easiest ways to get your startup in the news is to latch onto a story that already commands attention. If journalists have already written about something, the chance of them writing a second or third post about it is fairly high.
In 2014, I released a simple online game that mocked the Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers. The game, which cost $55 to develop, got coverage in Gizmodo and Kotaku – two valuable links on high-traffic, popular blogs.
When a news story is hot, journalists want to talk about it. Latching onto the event with something funny and interesting turns your startup into part of the story and gives journalists a reason to write about it.
While there are some downsides to this approach – for example, latching onto an event that’s highly political could hurt your company’s image – it’s an easy way to put your startup in the spotlight and earn some cheap media mentions.
Build something newsworthy into the product
Another great way to get easy, cheap press coverage for your startup is to build a newsworthy feature into the product. This can be a helpful feature or something completely unrelated to your product or service’s actual function.
Here’s an example that a lot of marketers have already exploited: 404 pages. Tech websites love writing about quirky or usual 404 pages, since they’re a great way to attract traffic from readers that are already browsing their sites.
Search TechCrunch for “404 page” and you’ll bring up over 200 results, the first 10 of which are all blog posts about interesting 404 pages startups have developed:
Designing a weird 404 page costs almost nothing, but when it hits the mark it can generate $10,000+ worth of coverage. Once one blog picks up the story, it usually spreads to two or three popular websites, all of which are eager for traffic.
Create something deliberately offensive
There’s no better way to attract attention than to offend people. The old saying that “all publicity is good publicity” is often true, especially when your product appeals to a different audience than the people likely to be offended by your publicity stunt.
UK-based health supplements company Protein World recently placed ads on the London Underground asking passersby if their bodies were “beach ready?” The ad copy is fairly innocuous, but it still caused panic among the perpetually offended.
Fat acceptance campaigners, who took offense at the ad suggesting only slim people belong on the beach, set up a Change.org petition demanding it be removed. The end result was endless media coverage, both positive and negative, for Protein World.
As a result of the campaign, Protein World racked up £1 million in sales and put its brand in front of millions of new people. The campaign was a huge success: after all, the people complaining wouldn’t have bought health supplements anyway.
Just like latching onto a sensitive issue, creating something deliberately offensive is a risky strategy that can make some people dislike your business. But if they would never have bought your product in the first place, what does it matter?
Reach out to small blogs first, then scale up
When you’re a new business that people don’t know about, getting coverage on a popular blog or news website is difficult. Their writers are inundated with pitches from bigger companies than yours, and it’s unlikely they’ll pay attention to you.
The solution is to start small and reach out to blogs and news outlets that aren’t as popular. If the story about your business is interesting, bloggers and journalists at the more popular websites will notice it and write about your company.
Ryan Holiday calls this “trading up the chain.” Since most bloggers and journalists just copy each other, getting onto a small blog that people pay attention to is often all it takes to get onto every blog and news outlet.
To make your way up the chain, your story needs to be interesting. If you fail to get noticed by journalists and bloggers at the bigger sites, start by pitching a story to a writer further down the chain and let it work its way up towards the top.
You don’t need to spend a lot to each press coverage
Coverage in mainstream newspapers and popular blogs is something many people associate with a large PR budget, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. By doing something different, you can get large-scale media coverage for free.
Instead of taking the typical approach to PR, focus on the doing something radically different from other companies. An unusual approach is often all it takes to pop onto a journalist’s radar and inspire them to write about you.