Our eye-opening chat with VentureBeat's executive editor about how to get the attention of any journalist

Runtime:  22 minutes, 31 seconds

As part of our PR Hacker Labs podcast, we've created a new series called Secrets of My Inbox.  In this special series, we interview top editors, producers, journalists, reporters, bloggers, and on-air talent—going behind-the-scenes to reveal what it takes for your company to get featured by these media gatekeepers.

In today's interview (listen to the audio by clicking the embedded player above), PR Hacker founder and CEO Ben Kaplan chats with Dylan Tweney, Executive Editor of VentureBeat.  In the interview, Ben flips the script, looking at a media pitch from the perspective of the journalist receiving it.  

Among the topics covered in the interview include:

How to quickly get the attention of a media gatekeeperHow to write an email subject line that gets a journalist to clickWhat to include in the first two paragraphs of your emailHow to create a newsworthy story that is actually worth coveringHow to customize a pitch to the needs of specific media outletsHow to avoid the biggest mistakes when pitching the mediaWhy a press release is not essential to your pitchWhat time of day to send an email (if you want to get it read)What day of the week is best for pitching the mediaHow to use data mining and surveys to attract the mediaHow to demonstrate that you are credible and believableHow to show "traction" in untraditional waysHow to handle questions about "exclusivity" or a "story embargo"How to best follow-up when you don't get an immediate responseHow to get featured in VentureBeat right now

A complete transcript of the interview (edited for readability) is shown below.
 

Interview Transcript


PR HACKER'S BEN KAPLAN:

Hey there, Ben Kaplan here with the PR Hacker Labs audio podcast. We're really lucky to be joined by Dylan Tweney.  He is the executive editor at VentureBeat, and also has a long history in tech media. He was senior editor at Wired. He was editorial director at PCMagCast.  He's written for Business 2.0 and InfoWorld, you name it.  So we're really lucky to have him here.

The topic of the day, for all the startups listening, is what to do if you're pitching Dylan.  We were just talking about this before we came on the podcast.  Dylan gets on average around 150 pitches via email per day. Of those, maybe 10 or 15 come to the top where there's interest on his part and he wants to follow-up.

So how do you become one of those elite 10 or 15? And how do you successfully pitch someone who clearly is getting inundated all of the time? Dylan mentioned to me that of the 150 emails he gets each day, perhaps 70 percent are from professional publicists and 30 percent are directly from startups.  So if you're a startup listening and you want to do this for yourself, how can you break through the noise? How do you convince the media that you have something really worthwhile to say? 

Dylan, thank you for being with us.

VENTURE BEAT'S DYLAN TWENEY: 

I'm glad to be here.

BEN KAPLAN: 

First of all, what is your average morning like? Are you going right to your email inbox? What does it look like when you get these pitches?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Usually, I wake up and after getting a cup of coffee at home, the first thing I'm doing is checking what's happening on my website and out there in the news media.  Also, I'm very quickly looking at my inbox, which on a typical morning has hundreds and hundreds of unread messages, stuff that came in overnight. If I see a lot of things that were sent at midnight, I delete them immediately because it's a very suspicious time. Lots of spam comes at midnight, right?

BEN KAPLAN: 

That's a good tip to know.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

I usually have a lot of stuff leftover from the day before that I couldn't get to, as well as a lot of new stuff from that morning, so I'll go through that while I drink my coffee. I'll be reading email on the train on the way in to work. At work, I'll be doing email and talking to people on my team. A really, really large proportion of my day is spent in Gmail, responding both to people internally but also to a lot of people outside the company who want coverage.

BEN KAPLAN: 

What is the average time that you give each pitch? Let's say it's a cold email. You don't know the person. It's just an average email that ends up in your inbox. Are you just reading the subject line? Are you clicking on it and giving it a three-second look over? Are you actually skimming the whole thing? What's your process to deal with 150 emails?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

The average is really hard to say because there's a good proportion of messages that I don't recognize the sender and what I see of the subject line is not interesting. I just delete these messages straight off. You have, basically, your subject line. If I don't know you or I don't know your name, you have the subject line to get my attention.  And it better be the left half of the subject line, too.

BEN KAPLAN:

So you're saying about five words? If you're talking about the left half of the subject line, that's about five words to get you to read the rest of it?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

No, no, no, it's probably like the left ten words or so. It's 50 characters.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Whatever would appear in Gmail?

DYLAN TWENEY:

In Gmail, that's right, yeah.

BEN KAPLAN: 

That's what we have to get your attention.  Then you'll click.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Then I'll click.  And then I'll scan the first paragraph or two. If it seems clear that they know what I cover and that they're stating clearly what it is they're pitching—what their story is, their company is, or their product is—then I'll skim the rest of the email. If I don't see something that looks relevant, interesting, or important in those first couple paragraphs, then I'm out. I delete it.

BEN KAPLAN: 

What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see over and over again?  What could we communicate to the startups listening so they'd at least get through the first cut and not get deleted right away?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

I made a little bit of a list. I'll hit some of these. The number one mistake is that they don't know what we cover. Maybe they put me on a mailing list and they blasted an email out to 500 people in the press. They just didn't take the time to craft.  Not that I'm requiring an individual message from every person who emails me, but they didn’t put me on a list of relevant people.

BEN KAPLAN: 

What is something that you got pitched recently that was clearly irrelevant?

DYLAN TWENEY:

I get pitched for promoters in LA who have signed a new act. I get pitches from concrete manufacturers in the Midwest who have just hired a new executive.  Just totally irrelevant stuff. Then there's also stuff that's quite irrelevant, but still might be within the realm of technology. VentureBeat is a tech news site, but sometimes the pitch is about some aspect of technology that we don't cover. I'm trying to think of a good example: chip design or something. We don't cover software for designing CPUs.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Let's say there's a startup listening now that reads VentureBeat. So they understand what you cover. They've passed that test. But then they pitch you and they're still not getting covered in VentureBeat. What are they doing wrong?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

What they're doing wrong is that subject line is vague. It's not specific. I'm looking for news, so you've got to tell me what the news is. In the subject line, you've got to tell me what the news is. In those first couple of paragraphs, you've got to be very specific. News, by my definition, is something that people haven't read before or that people don't know before.

Just the fact that you released a product or that you got funding is not necessarily news—especially if you're just like 20 other companies that look, to me, to be exactly the same. So you've got to show me what's new and what's different about you. If you don't get to the point in your email—or if you're news is buried in the third or fourth or fifth paragraph after some friendly warm up—I'm not going to get to it because the friendly warm up doesn't matter.

I don't care if you send me a long email. If I'm interested in the beginning, then send me that long email. I'll read the rest of it for instruction or for the rest of the details. You don't need a press release, but if you have a press release, put it in, fine. If I'm interested, I can use the information in that. But it's those first couple of paragraphs that have to be to the point, clear, and relevant to me.

BEN KAPLAN: 

There are a lot of startups now doing, say, social media monitoring or gamification. Their startup may seem like dozens of other ones but they think they're doing something differently. How does someone like that break through?

Is it enough just to say "here's my product" if there are 20 other products just like it? Should they start thinking about industry trends that they exemplify? Is there something else about them that's a newsworthy story besides their product?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

That's exactly right. It either has to fit into a bigger trend or it has to have a larger significance. Particularly if you're in a crowded, competitive space, you have to sell how you're different or why you matter more than the other guys.

The ideal case is a startup with potentially revolutionary technology that would affect millions of people and totally disrupt an industry. That's going to get my attention if you have a credible case for that. But not everybody's there.

If you have incremental technology or you have a Pinterest clone, you're going to have to make a much stronger case about how you stand out from the pack. It could be that you fit into some other trend. It could be that your founder has a really interesting story.  Or it could be that you have evidence of traction. So yeah, this is another Pinterest clone, but actually, we have more users than anybody except Pinterest. We're number two and you had no idea.

BEN KAPLAN:

How about mining their own user data or doing some kind of survey that offers insight into their industry?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Absolutely, absolutely. Data is always really good. If you can tell a story with numbers, that's fantastic.  We love to have that.

BEN KAPLAN: 

And they need to seem credible, right?

DYLAN TWENEY:

They have to not sound crazy. They have to sound like they have some traction. They're more than just a guy in a garage with a hare-brained scheme.

BEN KAPLAN:

No hare-brained schemes. Right. Now you're skimming the rest of the email. What are you looking for?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Now I'm looking for some more details about the team, the product, and who has funded it—which is important to VentureBeat and many of our competitors for that matter. I'm looking for who is involved in the team, how big it is, and evidence of traction. How many users do you have? How long have you been around? What's the revenue that you're generating from this? Maybe not absolute numbers, but give me something.

BEN KAPLAN:

There are a lot of startups listening right now who are not venture funded. Or maybe they have raised a very small amount of investment from friends and family. We're not talking Sequoia here. Does that make it harder for them to fill the credibility gap? What can they do to make up for that?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Profitability is great. That's always interesting. I think that it's a rare and underutilized angle.  So that's always worth mentioning if you're profitable. Look, funding is not the be all and the end all. One of the reasons we are interested in funding is because it is evidence of traction. It is evidence that somebody who is presumably credible—like a Sequoia or Kleiner Perkins or somebody—has endorsed you, has checked you out, and has said that you're valid.  But this is not the only way to do that.

VC funding is not the only way to do a startup and I know that. So let us know if you have some other evidence of endorsement. It could be that you have a lot of users. Maybe you have 10,000 users. Or maybe you have 1,000 users, which is not a lot, but there is something that distinguishes them. Let's say that you have 1,000 users, but every single one of those users—or 90 percent of them—comes back and uses your app every single day. That's interesting. Wow, you have 90 percent daily usage. That kind of thing stands out because that shows that even though you're in a very early stage, you're on to something. So your users are validating that.

BEN KAPLAN:

When we've talked in the past, you've mentioned that one of the things people do is pitch you on a story that just ran in a competitor's publication. Is it good to be in a competitor's publication or not?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Generally not, no.

BEN KAPLAN:

Why is that not good?

DYLAN TWENEY:

You might think that was good because it was evidence of traction.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Oh, I'm credible because I was in XYZ publication.

DYLAN TWENEY:

Right, but in reality, that goes back to what I was saying earlier about news. News is something that people don't know yet. If you've been covered in one of my competitors, you're much less newsworthy to me because people already know about you from my competitor's site. Plus, it's just annoying.

I would much rather be the first publication in my space to report on something. That's a very common—and I think it's a forgivably naïve—mistake. People who don't know the news business don't necessarily know that, but it's one thing that's really annoying to reporters. Do you want to write about us now, too? Well, no actually, thanks. You're covered.

BEN KAPLAN:

How often do you ask for an exclusive or to be first in print? Is that common for you or not common?

DYLAN TWENEY:

It's really common. We're much more interested in stories if we can be the exclusive one to break it. If we can't be the exclusive one, I'm always going to ask for exclusivity. Sometimes, I will be happy if you can give me some angle of the story or some aspect of it that nobody else has.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Somthing that's new or different.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

One of the ways that we differentiate ourselves is that VentureBeat wants to go deeper. We want to be more sourced, more responsible, more evenhanded—not necessarily more friendly to the entrepreneur, but more fair than the competition. If you give us a chance to show what we do well and really go deep with a story, that's going to be valuable, especially if other people aren't going to do that as much. Our readers find that that is valuable, too.

When we do cover people, we get feedback like, "Gosh, we were covered by six or 10 different outlets, but yours was the one that really got it. Even though you ask harder questions and weren't necessarily glowing, we got a much better overall write-up. The people who followed up with us after reading that one were the heavyweights that we wanted to reach."

BEN KAPLAN: 

If people don't get a response back from you, does that mean you're definitely not interested? Or could it mean that you're on a deadline and you just don't have time today, or that it got buried in your list of things to do?

DYLAN TWENEY:

It got buried. Yeah, exactly. The thing not to do is to follow-up with a phone call. Multiple calls is the worst. Did you get that email that I sent five minutes ago? Did you get that email I sent you yesterday? Horrible. I hate getting calls like that and I ignore them.

BEN KAPLAN: 

What about tweets? If they tweet it at you, is that still annoying?

DYLAN TWENEY: 

That's kind of annoying, too. Just re-email me on the same thread. Just reply to your former message. Email it. Makes it really easy.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Gmail will thread it, right?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Yeah, exactly. You're not creating another line in my inbox. You're just moving the same line back up to the top. It gives me another chance to see it. You could do that a couple of times. Don't do it every day, but if you don't hear from me after a day or two, email me again. Re-email me again if the news is still current. You might give up after a week or so—if I'm really not responding—but give me a couple chances because I may have just overlooked it.

BEN KAPLAN: 

That story idea may not be interesting to you, but maybe there's something else in a month or two that's different or new. You might be interested in that one.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Exactly.

BEN KAPLAN:

It's not like a final verdict on the company, like your company is never going to be in VentureBeat.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

Right. Unfortunately, we can't respond to all of those pitches that we get, so you may not get a direct "no." I'll try to give you a direct "no" if I have the ability or it seems really clear, but a lot of times all you're going to get is just no response. So re-email me a couple of times. If you don't hear back, then give up for now. Try again with a different angle or when you have a different milestone you want to talk about.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Any other pet peeves or common mistakes people make that you want to touch upon?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Sometimes I'll turn people down and then they'll come back and argue with me. They'll be like, "But you aren't considering this," or they'll want more details. I don't blame them for wanting more details. They can learn from what they did wrong, and if they did something obvious, I'll point that out. But just don't try to argue with me about it because I don't have time for that.

BEN KAPLAN:

Do people actually take it personally and get upset with you?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Sometimes that happens, but not very often. You want coverage and somebody turns you down. I understand rejection. It hurts. I would also advise any of your listeners that if you've been exposed to PR, you may have heard how a lot of PR strategies involve setting an embargo time. We're going to release the news at 7:35 Eastern Time on Thursday. I would really advise your listeners not to do that. It's a tricky thing to pull off.

BEN KAPLAN:

If you're Barack Obama, maybe you do that. Then you could get away with that.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

When you're at the stage where you're hiring a PR firm—and they know what they're doing, you trust them, and they have a well thought out plan—then do it if they think it's the right thing. Don't try to manage an embargo plan on your own because there are too many ways it can go wrong. That really pisses off the journalists who got shafted when somebody else runs their story too early.

BEN KAPLAN:

It's one more thing that everyone has to remember. On the issue of timing, one of the questions we always get when helping startups get media coverage is people ask us, "When is the optimal time to pitch our story?" Let's say they're going to have a newsworthy event coming up. Do I need to give VentureBeat a heads up beforehand? What is a good lead-time that gives you enough time to actually write and publish your story?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Even though we don't like embargoes, we will respect holding news if you have an event you want to let us know about ahead of time. I do appreciate having some heads up. A week ahead of time is pretty good. A day is not quite enough. So somewhere in there—a couple days to a week.

BEN KAPLAN:

Do you have a pet peeve when startups come out and say, "I need you to publish this at this time on this day because we have a big investor meeting right then?" No, you don't get to tell the editor when to print their story. You don't get to control it for your benefit.

DYLAN TWENEY: 

That's right. It's a negotiation and I'm willing to work with people if they're reasonable about it. But yeah, please don't come on strong like that.

BEN KAPLAN: 

We've discussed what your inbox looks like and how you get through your inbox. We've discussed the biggest pitch mistakes. One thing I'm reminded of is the legendary ad man, David Ogilvy, who was famous for how he tested his ads. He would actually publish ads that violated every rule he knew to be true about advertising. Most of the time these "bad ads" completely failed. But occasionally, those ads with tons of mistakes in them would actually succeed. So he would go back and study those ads. He would ask himself, "What are the lessons I can learn from this one that should have failed but actually succeeded?"

So here's my last question for you: Is there anyone who broke all of these PR rules we just said and still succeeded? Maybe they didn't know how to pitch. Maybe they didn't make it pithy in the subject line. Maybe they didn't do a good job at all, but they still got covered or featured. Is there anything surprising we can learn from their example?

DYLAN TWENEY:

There was a guy from some UK graphic design agency who emailed me an infographic that he thought we ought to publish. He pitched it in completely the wrong way. I forget exactly, but there was something still attention-getting about the subject line. What I do remember is the email. He's like, "It's 6:00 pm on Saturday afternoon and I'm sitting here in the office banging out emails to bloggers."

BEN KAPLAN: 

That's what he said in the email?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Yeah, he actually said that. He also said, "What I really want to be doing is hanging out at the pub and having a pint, but I'm going to email you because I really think that VentureBeat might be interested in this." It was a totally backwards pitch, but there was something about it that was just so charming. And it happened to be a Saturday. I was looking for some content because I was on duty that day. I was like, "I'll give this guy a shot." It looked sort of interesting and it turned out to be a really good infographic. We published it.

BEN KAPLAN:

There you go. If you give either a great news story or great content—in this case, a good infographic—you can succeed in spite of everything else.

DYLAN TWENEY:

Partly, he was just lucky about his timing. He had no idea that I was going to be there at that time. But it worked.

BEN KAPLAN:

Ok, that was the almost final question. This will be the final question then. In terms of the busiest times to pitch you, when are your busiest times of the week?  When is the best time to pitch you?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Monday is usually like trying to ramp up for the week. Tuesday is usually the biggest news day for some reason. Companies seem to make the most announcements on Tuesdays, so Monday or Tuesday are probably not good. Wednesday is a little bit better. On Thursday, it's much easier to get our attention. Friday is a very slow news day. We're desperate for content many times. So if you have something good, Friday can actually be a good time to get our attention.

BEN KAPLAN:

You heard it here direct from the expert. Thank you, Dylan Tweney. Dylan is executive editor at VentureBeat and a long time tech writer, editor, and reporter.

Thank you so much for joining us for the PR Hacker Labs podcast.  So startups, go get some great media coverage. Get the traction you deserve. Thanks again, Dylan.

DYLAN TWENEY:

Thanks for having me.