Startups: Don’t Use Exclusives and Embargos

embargoesFor early-stage startups, one of the most over-rated marketing exercises is the pursuit of media coverage.

The goal (dream?) of getting covered by reporters and bloggers is, in theory, seen as valuable because it has the potential to do so many awesome things: build brand awareness, attract new users, establish credibility and provide a competitive edge.

Given the importance placed by startups on media coverage, it isn’t surprising to see creativity, somersaulting and horse-trading. Some of the techniques involved trying to “play” the media include things such as exclusives and embargos.

The problem is startups spend as much, if not more, time on tricks and games as they do developing interesting and unique stories. In many ways, it’s a lack of confidence or creativity, or the fact what they’re doing isn’t that interesting.

I’ve always had a problem with startups that play games because it comes across as inauthentic and, frankly, cheesy.

I was reminded about this kind of behaviour recently when I was approached by a PR person about a private beta. The pitch included details about their performance on Apple’s app store. This was a startup I had already heard about on Twitter, and had started using after getting an invite to the beta through the Website.

The PR person said the details about the Apple store were embargoed for two weeks. It was surprising to discover a story about the startup on a major tech blog. It was explained that a “few select media” had received access while the rest of us had to wait two weeks until the embargo is lifted. It made me feel like a second-class citizen.

The problem with embargos and exclusives is they’re nothing more than short-cuts disguised as a media outreach strategy.

They try to create false sense of urgency or specialness in the absence of something fundamentally better and more effective: real relationships with reporters and bloggers.

While an embargo or exclusive may get a startup coverage, the gains are often short-lived. An exclusive story published by TechCrunch, for example, may generate a spike in traffic but is it really worth the reality that many other blogs won’t provide coverage?

My advice to startups is forget about embargos and exclusive, and quickly dismiss advice from PR people trying to sell you on their merits.

Instead, you have three options:

1. Establish and nurture real relationships with reporters and bloggers. Comment on their articles and blogs, meet them for coffee, offer them valuable insight and context without any expectations of coverage, follow them on social media and share their content, approach them at conferences, or provide them with story ideas. The goal: rise above the crowd by being personal, helpful, interesting and different from all the other startups battling for their attention.

2. Be creative rather than pitching how your startup is the greatest thing since sliced bread – something nearly every startups believes and declares. Instead, think big picture or out of the box. How is your startup part of a larger and more interesting story that involves other players? How is your startup unique or different from everyone else claiming they are unique and different?

3. Be honest and insightful about what you’re trying to do. When your product launches, for example, talk about the problem you’re trying to solve, why you decided to take a specific approach and some of the challenges encountered along the way. By being authentic and open rather than promotional, your story becomes better and more real.

Both of the above take time, effort and energy – a lot more than simply deciding to use an embargo or exclusive. At the end of the day, however, they’re far more effective in the long-run by establishing a solid foundation for additional coverage.

The bottom line: Attracting and getting media and blog coverage needs to be part of a long-term plan that should start long before a startup begins to seek coverage. It should not be seen a short-term exercise that will suddenly ignite an explosion of never-ending coverage, new users and brand awareness. And, finally, avoid using embargos and exclusives.

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