Yesterday I received an email from a friend who asked to help him with a “horse trade” on Product Hunt, throwing my support behind a PR pitching service for crowdfunding campaigns. In exchange my friend will receive votes on Product Hunt for the photo sharing app he plans to launch in a few weeks. Gaming Product Hunt for votes toes an ethical line, but I complied.
Since December 2013 Product Hunt has exploded onto the scene as the de facto startup launch community, overtaking stalwarts like Betalist, and driving more traffic than TechCrunch articles. Product Hunt is so influential that startup Imoji was catapulted from atop the daily leaderboard, to the Today Show and dozens more media outlets. Perhaps even more remarkably, startup TapTalk sourced an early stage investment from SV Angel through its exposure on Product Hunt. Product Hunt is the daily leaderboard for new apps and services co-founded by Startup Edition creator Ryan Hoover, and public relations
In addition to publicizing hundreds of mobile apps and web services, a rising crop of public relations services aimed at startups have been vying for attention. Offering the promise of low-cost access to the top tech reporters, these pitching services have generated some ill will in certain corners.
Fast Company deputy editor David Lidsky commented:
As a journalist, I find it hard not to be a little disturbed at the profusion of startups purporting to help startups get press (PressFarm, PressFriendly, PressKing, and BitesizePR have all been on PH). Both as a signal of froth and in being reduced to a historical dataset. I agree that there’s some value in a founder reaching out directly versus a PR firm, but the downside is that you don’t have any emotional distance if I tell you that I’m not interested. Or you get upset and email me with every article you could have been included in but weren’t.
I don’t begrudge an entrepreneur trying to make an honest living, but Lidsky makes a fair point. However these pitching services are billed, it certainly seems like they’re selling the ability to spam reporters, in the name of “building relationships. As a technology publicist, I don’t worry my livelihood is threatened. As a communications professional, and journalist, I have concerns about the perceived commodification of my work.
Public Relations Is Not A Product Hunt
The public relations process is broken for a lot of startups. There are a lot of great companies chasing the spotlight that can’t land stories. Mind you, there are also plenty of duds. And while basic knowledge about customer development, A/B testing or lifecycle email campaigns may be in ready supply, the public relations process remains a mystery. In this knowledge vacuum it makes sense that a web-based solution might close some of the gaps. But tools and solutions available are borderline insulting.
Why Startups Don’t Get PR
By their very nature startup founders are product- and solution-oriented. Founders delight in the creative process, and they’re used to building things. Products cycles are finite. Assemble the right pieces. Test it. Ship it. Move on.
Startups don’t get PR, and this is a problem a growing crop of media pitching services understand. Media pitching services exist because founders understand product, and they understand the pay-as-you-go, SaaS model. Founders are also desperate for attention, especially from the media.
PR is not an optimization problem
Unfortunately reporters are not algorithms to optimized, or bugs to be squashed. This is why services that provide access to reporter email addresses, and crank out pitches to reporters PR apps are spam at best, and at worst, insulting. Your favorite reporter is the smart, gorgeous girl everyone wants to their prom date. She’s not sitting around waiting for you to ask. She’s got a line of suitors from the front porch to the sidewalk.
Why are startups so desperate for PR?
Seed-funded startups are pit fighters battling hard for investor cash, and one more day under the sun. Any signal that can prompt VCs to join a round is crucial to the longevity of an idea. Short of deals and actual revenue, media hits are one of the strongest external endorsements a startup can receive. The bigger the publication, the better, which is why “logo cred” has so much weight.
PR is an important signal, but it’s not a one-shot deal. Just because your startup gets ink doesn’t mean it’s a winner. As they say, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good PR.” And just because you botch your” launch doesn’t mean your dead. Either way, it’s fu£*ing hard!
Why Startups Don’t Get PR Pt. II
Online publications have unlimited space to run stories, but journalists are human beings–just like founders. As biological organisms we cannot crank out technology stories 24 hours per day. And while a prolific blog might run 40 or more new posts in a single day, your nameless startup with no customers and no revenue is fighting like hell to be one. But first Google, Apple, Facebook, Uber and Yahoo get their stories printed first. PR firm Waggner Edstrom has 85 full-time staff managing its Microsoft account, and the monthly retainer is probably worth millions of dollars. Then comes the big acquisition story, followed by huge funding rounds by well-known angel investors or VC funds. At this point, you’re competing against hundreds of other startups, apps and services that want coverage on any given day. Your machine-generated pitch doesn’t stand a chance.
Excellent PR Doesn’t Scale
To the extent PR professionals are aware of media relations tools, it’s hard to imagine they feel threatened. PR pros don’t sell press hits. PR pros don’t sell their relationships. Perhaps that’s why TechCrunch published the name and email address of all of its reporters in response to one PR pitching service listed on Product Hunt.
The biggest problem with good PR is that it doesn’t scale. This is completely at odds with the startup mentality. Startups exist to scale solutions to thousands or millions of customers, because the product can be built once, and sold infinitely. The PR process is repeatable, but each startup, and each reporter is different. The elements of a good story universal–relatable characters, innovation, financial upside and impact–the factors that drive reporters to run a story are unique.
I said PR doesn’t scale. That’s a lie. A well-crafted message will spread, and the right story at the right time will ignite audiences. The p0wer of the story is what matters. While a PR service may help a cash-strapped founder mimic the nuts and bolts of a successful story pitch, there is no substitute for hands-on experience.
Don’t Optimize For Press, Optimize For Product Hunt
It’s no secret why Product Hunt has blown up among early-stage investors, early adopters product geeks; the signal/noise ratio. While a prominent blog publication is a significant achievement in the life of a young company, it’s no indication of success. Converseley a top-ranking product hunt (noun) drives interest and traffic among a targeted and self-selecting audience.
Three months ago a top “hunt” might rank with 30 or few upvotes. It typically requires hundreds of votes to be the top hunt of the day today. And it turns out that Product Hunt drives more signups and site visits than a TechCrunch post. Startup BRANDiD earned $13,000 dollars in 24 hours from Product Hunt exposure. Exposure in tech blogs paints a rosy picture, but numbers don’t lie.
My advice to startups who can’t or won’t pay for PR; don’t spend your money on a canned pitch product. Focus your effort on a big Product Hunt debut. Product Hunt is driving targeted traffic and real revenue for the smart businesses who know how to use it best. Product Hunt is not a traditional publication, and there’s not “As Seen On Product Hunt” logo …yet. Hunted products that surge tend to garner a fair amount of media attention, without having to hire a publicist like myself.