Chase the Steak, not the Sizzle: Earned Media
It can seem at times that one of the rites of passage for a growing startup is an article in a publication like TechCrunch. Founders may even proceed to place a "featured in" bar on the startup homepage and include bits and pieces from articles about the company in their pitch deck.
These appearances can actually help the company -- and I'll discuss how -- but often a pre-seed and seed-stage founder doesn't have the time or resources to pursue a true earned media campaign. In fact, if we are reviewing a deck at the pre-seed stage and a founder has included media appearances, that can send up more red flags than it suppresses.
In this post, I'll discuss the trap to avoid with early stage earned media, why it's often not worth your time, and then break down the few areas where it can be useful, especially as your company grows. Finally, I'll cover how you can start landing earned media without
Earned Media is Not Traction
You have to keep in mind that just appearing in a publication isn't any kind of real traction. Journalists are trained to recognize the sizzle that comes along with steak, but they aren't looking for the steak itself. More often than not, a tech article is newsworthy because of current events or something relating to the founding team (e.g., famous exited founders, famous early investors, etc.). These are all fine and good, but they don't ultimately count as traction or really as indicators of future success.
In fact, given that earned media takes time and attention to develop (more on that below), too much too early raises questions like, "why isn't this founder spending this time talking to customers?" and "is this team hiding anything with this sizzle?"
As you progress to later stages (series A, B, etc.), many of the firms you'll raise from will have media contacts that they connect you with as part of a raise, so media attention comes more naturally and is a function of fundraising. But earlier on, unless your investors specialize in media attention, you'll have to carry a lot of the weight yourself.
That all being said, earned media can actually help you with some important objectives early on. You just need to approach earning it in a targeted way to serve these ends.
What Earned Media Can Help You With
If you do choose to pursue earned media at the seed stage and earlier, it should be targeted to a few specific ends. Notably, fundraising is not one of these ends. No (good) investor is going to cut you a check because you were featured in a news outlet. Instead, earned media can be helpful in recruiting and in some broader business development initiatives (depending on your industry).
One of the most important but under-discussed components of building a startup is building a talent pipeline. Ideally, you want to compete with established players for top-tier talent. This is hard. You can't compete with FAANG or sexy big startups on compensation. You can't really compete on perks, either. You have to compete on vision and opportunity for growth.
Ideally, these won't be people who are swayed by a fancy news article about your company.
But when you convince somebody to risk at least a few years of their career for your company, you're not just selling them on your startup -- you're also selling all their friends, family, and loved ones. They have to go home after the interview with you and tell their parents, or their partner, or their spouse that they're gonna pass on the nice six-figure job with seven-figure stock options from FAANG or a Series D company to instead go work for a startup that nobody has ever heard of before.
A few well-placed articles about your company, the big market you're attacking, and a short biopic on the team can be used as collateral in these cases. Those tuned into startups should know that this shouldn't persuade somebody alone but a friend or family member who is less familiar with the startup cycle may find this kind of article legitimizing enough to get their green light for your potential hire.
You can also use earned media to grow the top of your talent funnel. In this case, you want your earned media to be somewhere that potential hires would see it and then link over to your site. Think less Business Insider and more IndieHacks or something that may trend on Hacker News.
Earned media can also gain you some legitimacy in the eyes of economic buyers at your prospects' companies, especially if you're targeting niche industries. You will often find during the B2B business development cycle that you'll gain a "champion" inside of a company. This is usually a point of contact who has come to know and trust you and is excited about what your company is building. They may be more tech-forward and more exposed to the pain point you are trying to solve than their colleagues. But they may also not be the economic buyer for your contracts. You may need to win over their bosses or colleagues.
In this case, you need to make it as easy as possible for your champion to bring your product to the actual economic buyers. You want your champion to look good and feel comfortable in bringing your product forward. One area of concern is often, "why should we take this unproven startup seriously?" Earned media can help offset that concern.
In this case, you again do not want generic earned media from tech outlets. You want articles, interviews, and features from industry specific publications. Consider this (later stage) article about our portfolio company MaidBot in Asian Hospitality. Industry specific publications and journals are often easier to land media in, as well, as their writers have a very niche and specific beat.
If you can or do target more generic publications, try to go after relevant stories that will select for readers who may be relevant to your audience. For example, our portfolio company Symba was featured in this Washington Post article about internships during COVID.
Also consider podcasts and email newsletters. A small, targeted audience is often more useful than a large, untargeted audience. An extra advantage of a targeted audience is that you can prepare targeted talking points to help prime readers or listeners for future conversations.
If you're a consumer company, you want to target your media features to publications that are read by your audience. Consider Stryx having a product featured in GQ UK. It would not make sense for them to be featured in some tech publication, but GQ may actually be read by their user base, so this is better targeting.
All of these assume you have some kind of product to feature, of course. There must be steak before a good sizzle.
How to Land Earned Media Without Wasting Your Time
All that being said, you can lay the groundwork for some earned media without burning through the little extra time you have as a founder. You want to make connections with people who have editorial and publishing power, ideally relevant to your industry.
An experienced PR person (whom you likely should not hire, you don't have the budget for it yet) will come with a media list. A media list is essentially a Rolodex of contacts in the media who are relevant to your company. It includes independent contributors, beat reporters, and editors at publications.
You can build your own media list. Follow a handful of publications you'd like to target for media placement in the future and focus on articles that are relevant to what you're building. Make note of the names of the authors and load these into a spreadsheet or an Airtable base. Find out who the editors are at the publication on the staff or About pages. Saves these people with their names, contact info (if it isn't available, find it with something like FindThatLead.com), and which publication they work for.
When reaching out, understand that if you don't have a newsworthy hook, they aren't just going to write about you. You can reach out early and see if you can connect, but don't be offended if your first conversations don't result in a story or article. Use these conversations to lay the groundwork for future outreach. Then, when you have a newsworthy hook (e.g., something that relates to current events, a new feature launch, a fundraise, or significant traction), reach out to them to see if they'd be interested in writing an article.
Do not be pushy. Do not act entitled. Treat earned media like any other relationship-building process. It takes time and you'll eventually build up a nice media list of industry-relevant contacts who can help you drive recruitment or business development legitimacy.
But, as always, focus on the steak. The sizzle will follow.