How My Startup Used Data to Get 1,300 Press Hits with No PR Agency
A step-by-step guide to earning $7.2M value of PR in 18 months
Growing a startup business is a lot like passing through the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
In the early days of a business, revenue and user growth are all that matter — they’re the proverbial food and shelter for an early-stage company. Once those basic needs are satisfied, however, the company starts asking more existential questions, like “is it time to tell our story?”
It’s not hard to understand why things start to move in this direction. The formative years for any company can be brutally hard, and there’s a natural desire to take a well-deserved bow for finding market traction. More importantly, good PR can be a powerful accelerant, attracting more customers, partners, and investors as the company grows its credibility and public profile.
When I joined Womply at the beginning of 2017, the little-known San Francisco-based SaaS startup had big ambitions to become a household name. We agreed to use PR as one lever to efficiently grow the company’s brand, but we didn’t want to follow the typical pattern of lurching through several agency engagements before we hit our stride. Frankly, we weren’t ready for an agency.
So, rather than hiring an outside PR agency, we built a small, nimble internal team to handle content and PR, keeping the execution and strategy close together. After a fair amount of trial, error, and iteration, we landed on a model for using data to generate earned media coverage at scale.
The results speak for themselves — so far in 2019, Womply has secured:
- More than 600 earned media placements
- Over 500 related organic “do-follow” backlinks — a combined media and link value of $7.5 million.
- 700 press mentions in 2018, when we first rolled out this model in earnest.
To date, few of our PR wins have been company profiles or product reviews (with some notable exceptions). Those are critical parts of any program, but they don’t scale and you usually can’t control the timing. For technology companies like Womply, data is the most scalable PR asset.
How we built our in-house PR engine step by step.
Use the “watchtower test.”
Let’s just get this out there: the press doesn’t exist to cover your company. Even if you have great relationships with reporters, coverage is predicated on giving them something they find interesting.
Good PR requires aligning the agendas of news gatekeepers, their audience, and your company, which in turn requires some intellectual honesty. For example, why would news consumers want to read a puff piece about your company? And if they don’t want to read it, should a profile really be your goal?
Of course, there are certain events where company-focused PR is achievable and should be the goal, including when you raise money or launch a newsworthy product. In all other cases, your PR strategy needs to focus on what you can offer that can propel a conversation.
To figure this out, I use something I call the “watchtower test.” Imagine your company was positioned on top of a very tall scaffold, surveying the world. What insights (especially data-backed insights) could your company share from its unique vantage point that nobody else could offer in quite the same way? When you answer this question, you have the foundation of a scalable PR program.
At Womply, our software is powered by transaction data for millions of small businesses. Through this data asset, we have a spectacular perspective on how American consumers are spending money with local businesses from coast to coast. This foundational realization informs a kind of mission statement for our external communications program: “improving the relationship between American consumers and small businesses.”
This realization is critical because it ensures that your PR program is rooted in something authentic, credible, and scalable. Watchtower insights are the foundation of any high-performing PR strategy.
Build the plumbing inside your company first.
Knowing your unique point of view is critical, but it’s not enough. The next step is to add meat to the bone — to get beyond the “what” and focus on the “how.”
In today’s wacky news and information landscape, a curious trend has emerged: there are now six PR flacks for every one journalist. Practically speaking, this means your story has to cross a higher bar than ever to get coverage.
Hence, it’s critical to show — not tell — why your story is too good to pass up. You can accomplish this by “building the plumbing.” In this stage, you find a scalable source of newsworthy content (ideally that can’t be found elsewhere) that tells the story you see from your watchtower position.
Data is a great source of this kind of content when it’s structured in a consumable way. But it’s not as simple as just pinging the database.
At most companies, data lives in silos. Even if a company has phenomenal practices for data structuring and curation, a raw data dump doesn’t really tell you much. The magic happens when you apply a storytelling lens. In that regard, there’s no substitute for pulling data into a spreadsheet and cranking away until you find a format that tells a clear story.
This is easier said than done, which is why so many companies have access to tons of data but so few use it to tell great stories. I wish I had a secret formula for this step, but it’s really just a matter of locking your marketing and data teams in a room and letting them figure out the right structure, format, and query cadence.
This cross-functional plumbing work will look different for every company, but the one constant need is to make it a priority. Otherwise, it will be relegated by countless other priorities and never get off the ground.
Run the playbook, but be ready to audible.
For our first foray into data-centric PR, my team and I analyzed the financial impact of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma on small businesses in Texas and Florida in 2017. After the storms hit, our data team crunched the numbers and, to our surprise, we found that in both cases, average small business revenue rebounded to normal levels within 7–10 days after the big storms made landfall.
Boom, we had a counterintuitive angle. We used it to secure coverage on NPR and in a bunch of regional outlets. We blogged about it. We even had the Texas state comptroller and some Ph.D. researchers reach out and ask if they could cite our analysis in their research.
Success! But alas, it didn’t scale.
Our analysis came after events had already occurred, often several days later. With hurricanes, we had the benefit of long news cycles, so that was OK. But with more timely stories on shorter cycles, it wasn’t feasible. By the time we had a story to tell, the conversation had moved on.
We had our viewpoint. We’d plumbed the data source. But our playbook wasn’t durable.
As Mike Tyson said (in so many words), “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
When we realized our after-the-fact approach to analysis wasn’t as scalable as we’d thought, we went back to the drawing board. In Q4 of 2017, we hit a breakthrough after a fair amount of experimentation. We analyzed transactions for every day of the previous calendar year as a way to project what might happen this year.
We tested this approach during the 2017 holiday season. In our 2016 analysis, we uncovered the surprising finding that Black Friday was the top day for small, local retailers, too — it’s not just for big-box stores. We projected the same would be true in 2017 and pitched the story to national and local retail reporters nationwide, resulting in nearly 30 unique articles citing our data.
From there, we hit the gas. It worked. Since the beginning of 2018, we’ve reeled in 1,300 unique press stories (and counting).
Once your house is in order, be opportunistic.
Fortune favors the prepared. When you’ve built a scalable PR program, anchored on proprietary insights and content, it’s easier to be opportunistic.
In the past two years, we’ve secured scores of press placements from a free service called HARO (short for “help a reporter out”), which is basically a newsletter full of reporter queries. The top queries from reporters at top-tier outlets typically get hundreds of responses, and the reporter might be looking for one or two sources.
Time is of the essence. With data and analysis in our back pockets, we’ve been quicker on the draw in response, and we’ve had dramatically better success with HARO and other timely PR opportunities as a result. Over time, these wins add up, as does the opportunity cost of missing out.
One important note in closing: not every data-led PR program will produce the same results. For example, the volume of press mentions we secure is based on our emphasis on regional media, since those outlets are preferred by the local businesses we serve. Every company has different raw material to work with and cares about different stakeholders. The specifics will vary, but the principles outlined here apply to any business.
If you’re ready to add PR to your marketing mix, take the time to go through the right steps in order. If you do, you’ll build something that scales instead of thrashing around for the occasional hit. If you want to discuss, hit me up on LinkedIn.
How My Startup Used Data to Get 1,300 Press Hits with No PR Agency was originally published in Entrepreneur’s Handbook on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Source: Enrepreneurs Handbook
Author: Brad Plothow