A Good Pitch: The Age of Surge

Sometimes people send me books to review; sometimes I review them.

As a writer myself, it’s an interesting approach to marketing. Based upon my previous Amazon reviews, authors have approached me to review their books. It’s almost always business books, and rarely novels or bottles of whisky. Perhaps this is because business authors are more marketing-savvy.

The email pitch was a good one:

I’m a first time author reaching out to those who love learning and reading about innovation, leadership and new ideas on reinventing companies for digital.
Your review of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is what caught my eye.  Our new book (The Age of Surge.) was written to help leaders and everyday employees take the kinds of ideas covered in StrengthsFinder 2.0 and show how to put them to work in even the most dysfunctional, “broken” companies.   I think you’ll find our book provocative and thought provoking…  you might even like it 🙂
Would you be open to reading our book if I send you a free digital copy (no strings attached)?  Obviously I’d welcome and appreciate any time you’re willing to spend leaving an honest review.

This was a good pitch for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was personalized. The email was not just a press release but a personal note that highlighted the fact that I liked a similar book. There was research behind it.
  2.  It was written in a human voice. The pitch came from the author. It was direct, concise and respectful of my time.

That said, just because it’s a good pitch doesn’t mean I’m going to review it.

I look at these books on business reinvention with a jaundiced eye – my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block satirizes the genre, following a clueless consultant who leaves disaster everywhere he goes. It’s based upon my experience seeing organizations conduct ill-conceived change initiatives.

I didn’t want to like The Age of Surge. But it is a very readable, humane look at change in the workplace from someone who operates in the real world, not the theoretical domain of management consultants. The author praises middle management – I’ve never seen that before.

So, it’s not enough to craft a catchy email. First, you have to write a great book. But to get reviewers to read your book you have to approach them with a personalized, human, relevant message. That’s a good pitch.

Five Things Reporters Want

reporter at OccupyDC rally“Reporters are lazy,” a PR director once told me. “They won’t do any work – they want everything explained to them.”

I’ve been on both sides of the table, as a freelance writer and as a communications manager. It’s not that reporters are lazy. They just have different objectives than PR reps. The job of a reporter is to find news and report it back to an audience. If you’re in public relations, your task is to get favorable media coverage for your organization.

What looks like journalistic laziness is in fact a relentless search for news. Reporters don’t have time to unpack the complexities of your press release. Don’t ask them to parse a technical document. They won’t sit through a press conference unless you have something really special to announce.

If your communication is not clear to them, they move on. If you can’t explain the story in a sentence, then they’re going to find something else to report on.

So, what do reporters want?

  1. They want news. News is, above all, new. It just happened or (even better) is about to happen. It is new – not something repackaged from six months ago. It is different, special and unique. Publishing an annual report is not news – everyone does that. Publishing your annual report as a series of tweets – that would be news.
  2. Benefits, not features. XYZ Company announcing a new widget is not news – the fact that the widget cures cancer, that would be news. Would you describe an iPhone by the kind of chip it uses or all the things you can do with it? Promote benefits to users, not a laundry list of features.
  3. Relevancy. Why do my readers care? A blog post from your CEO is not news. Bring me something that my audience wants to read about. Give me something that informs, scandalizes or improves them.
  4. A good elevator speech. You only have a few seconds to pitch your cause. What do you say? How do you summarize your story? Reporters are drowning in press releases – they’re not going to read more than a sentence or two in your release before they hit the delete button. Put the value up front, in the first sentence of your pitch.
  5. Speak like a human. Do you want to sound important or do you want to be understood? Think simple. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Take out the run-on sentences. Instead, explain your point so clearly that your grandmother would understand.

Reporters want interesting stories that audiences will read. Help them out by producing news and not news releases.

And check out these tips on pitching from editors and reporters. Note how publications have very different and unique requirements.

Find Small Business Success with The Pumpkin Plan

The Pumpkin Plan

Around this time each year, you’ll see a news story about a farmer with a record-sized pumpkin, one much bigger than anything grown by his neighbors. How did he do it? How did he find success in the pumpkin patch?

He did it by nurturing his best pumpkin, a principle that can be applied to any small business. That’s the message of The Pumpkin Plan, a new book by Mike Michalowicz.

To make your business thrive, you must weed your garden, like a good farmer. This means removing the pumpkins that are too small or not worth your time, so as to focus on the one great gourd that can grow bigger than all the others.

In other words, the Pareto Principle. 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. The key to growth is to focus on the most profitable activities of your business.

(I satirize this idea in my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, where my narrator chooses to eliminate all distractions – even family – to concentrate on getting rich.)

The most interesting section of The Pumpkin Plan is where Michalowicz talks about failure. So many entrepreneurial titles gloss over the hard work of building a business – yet, this is the norm. Each year Americans start one million new businesses, nearly 80 percent of which fail within the first five years. Michalowicz frankly discusses how his company was eating him alive, consuming every waking hour and ruining his family life. Only by concentrating on what he did best was he able to escape this trap. He learned to weed out the activities that weren’t worth his time so as to focus on his best customers.

Michalowicz is a serial entrepreneur who started his first business at the age of 24, moving his young family to the only safe place he could afford – a retirement building. With limited resources and no experience, he systematically bootstrapped a multi-million dollar technology business, sleeping in conference rooms to avoid hotel costs. After selling his first company, Mike launched a new business the very next day, and in less than three years, sold it to a Fortune 500 company. In the Pumpkin Plan, he describes his life story as well as the stories of similar entrepreneurs.

This is not a book of theory. It’s chock-full of real-world examples from people who have had to sell products, make payroll and keep themselves sane. Chapters expand on the Pumpkin Plan concept, with checklists on how to discover what you do best and how to get back on track if you stray.

What’s your Great Pumpkin? This Halloween, find out with The Pumpkin Plan.

Give Me Pizza, I Will Give You a Quote

No one can resist free pizza. That was the idea behind a novel recruitment effort by Vocus, a public relations software company out of Beltsville, MD. They sponsored a food truck on the streets of DC and gave out pizza in return for a resume or card.

Not only did I drop off a card, I got my name in a Washington Post article on the effort with a quote on how this tactic was good at reaching passive job seekers.

I’ve been quoted in articles before. My secret? Pithy ten-word statements of opinion that reporters can easily copy and paste into an article. Being a writer myself, I know what I like in a quote – something clear, direct and short – so I try to do the same when I’m asked for a comment. And bribing me with pizza doesn’t hurt 😉

New Article: How Do You Measure PR?

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations thusly:

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

Which is just an awful definition, reeking of the stale conference room and whiteboards crowded with b-school jargon. Merriam-Webster has a slightly better explanation:

the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution

PR is about getting the word out about your product, cause or service. I’d consider myself a semi-professional PR practitioner, busy trying to “induce” the public to do something increasingly unknown in 21st century America: read a book. And not just any book. My book, fiction, of all things, by an unknown author.

So, I’m always interested in new ways of “inducing” (why not just say “persuading”?) the public. I attended a session on movie marketing put on by the DC Film Salon. A pair of PR stars gave a presentation on how they got the word out about indie films, including some creative tactics like having screenings for “tastemakers.”

But the room was filled with cash-poor independent filmmakers. How could they afford these PR services? And, moreover, would this be a good use of their limited funds? I asked if there was any way to connect the parties and screenings to the most important metric of all – ticket sales. But there’s no way to accurately measure the impact of PR.

Which is what inspired me to write How Do You Measure PR? It’s on the blog FlackRabbit, published by my friend Margie Newman, who is perhaps the smartest PR person I know. We’ll see what answers her readers come up with.

Do You Have a Minute for…

On the streets of DC, there is a proliferation of well-meaning people soliciting for good causes. It’s not just the holidays, they’re parked on sidewalks year-round. Clever, too, for they patrol in two-person teams and stake out opposite ends of the block. I have been known to walk in the street or pretend to talk on my iPhone to avoid them.

Do You Have a Minute is a post I wrote for FlackRabbit, a blog on PR. My argument: these street teams cheapen the reputation of the charities they represent.

Elements of Publicity Workshop

Last night, I attended the Elements of Publicity Workshop put on by Amanda Miller Littlejohn and Jacqueline Lara of Mopwater PR. These two charming and knowledgeable ladies covered a lot of ground in just a two-hour session:

  • How to develop your message
  • How to create a “news hook” for your story
  • How to pitch to local, national and social media.

What I liked about the workshop was that Amanda and Jacqueline have a lot of practical experience in real-world PR. Their talk was spiced with useful examples and anecdotes from their work. They didn’t just tell you how to pitch a story to a reporter, they shared what should be in the email subject line and the best time to make a follow-up phone call.

This is a good workshop for people who don’t want theory but want to know tactics – the practical steps they can take to get media coverage for their product or cause. Want to know what should be in a press kit? Should a backgrounder be in print or electronic format? Should you do a social media release? How do you deal with a TV producer? All of this was covered in the workshop.

Workshop attendees consisted of small business owners, entrepreneurs and managers of small nonprofits – exactly the type of people who will do PR themselves, lacking the budget to hire a firm. The workshop was a really good fit for their needs and Amanda and Jacqueline tailored the class toward them. It was a very interactive session, with lots of Q&A and idea-sharing.

As someone who’s promoting his own book (Murder in Ocean Hall), I left with a lot of useful ideas to pursue, including things I had never thought of before (people still listen to radio?).

Elements of Publicity is just one of a series of low-cost workshops that Mopwater PR is teaching on blogging, social media and publicity.

FlackRabbit

I wrote a little piece on making your blog look good on the iPhone for FlackRabbit, my friend Margie Newman’s blog. FlackRabbit is filled with useful thoughts on social media and PR. She’s a communications professional who really gets the web – there’s not many of them out there.

Technically, I’m not in PR. But I’ve worked long enough in web strategy and communications to have strong feelings on the subject.

Look for more articles on FlackRabbit in the coming months!

Go Hollywood! What’s the Logline for Your Site?

InternetDay.com, April 1, 2002

“In the dizzying world of moviemaking, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king.”
–Jeffrey Katzenberg

I can hear the protests already. Creating a web site is not like creating a movie, we don’t need to go “high concept” or any of that other Hollywood marketing fluff. We will build the web site, its value will be obvious, and it will sell itself to the appropriate audience. End of story. FADE OUT.

Wrong.

Every year, around 300 movies get released into the crowded multiplexes of America. And they get encapsulated in a sentence or two to make it easier for moviegoers to find what they want.

Every year, thousands of web sites get launched into the disorderly, low-barrier world of the web. How will your site stand a chance among all these competitors for your customers’ most valuable asset, their time? How will you differentiate your site among this cacophony?

Just like a movie, you better be able to explain the purpose of your site in a sentence. For those who wish to look down on Tinseltown, you may refer to it as your “elevator speech.” If you can’t explain your site in 15 seconds to a customer, how are you going to get him to visit your site?

Unfortunately, web development frequently begins with only the vaguest notions of what a site should be about.

FADE IN

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
The CEO of Widgets, Inc., has ordered the construction of a new web site. It’s going to be filled with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to impress his buddies at the country club. The MARKETING DIRECTOR is nervous.

CEO
And I want Java. I read about that.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ll get the techies to work on it. But, sir, who’s this site going to be for?

CEO
Me.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
Well, yes, you, obviously. But who is the audience? Customers? Investors? The press? What are we trying to do here? Before we start spending money, shouldn’t we figure that out?

CEO
All of the above. And everything. Now get out.

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
6 MONTHS LATER
The new web site for Widgets, Inc., has been launched to crushing silence. It’s another bland, corporate web site.

CEO
Can you explain to me why we have no traffic?

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ve thought about that, sir. And I think it’s because our web site has no identity. Our press releases, brochures, banner ads, and emails just talked about the “online home of Widgets, Inc.” They provided no compelling reason for anyone to visit.

CEO
You better have a plan.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
The most popular feature on the site is designing your own widgets.

CEO
It’s also the most profitable.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I propose rebranding the site to appeal to customers, highlighting our widget customization feature. Our logline will be, “Widgets lovers, design widgets in seconds at the Widgets web site!”

CEO
Why didn’t you think of that in the first place?

FADE OUT

A good log line will help you focus your site around a single organizing principle. For example, eBay is “The World’s Online Marketplace.” Clickz.com provides news and viewpoints from the Internet marketing and advertising industry. The Onion is America’s Finest News Source. All these sites concentrate on one big idea which they do well.

Here’s a tool to help you get started.

Sample web site:

url: where’s the site going to be located?

title: what are you calling your site?

logline: what’s the elevator speech for the site?

audience: who’s the audience?

Think this is simplistic? It is, and necessarily so. Oftentimes, like in the example above, web sites get built with many different consituencies in mind and with many different purposes. The result is design by committee and a web site that pleases no one, especially visitors.

Creating a good log line is just the first step in marketing your web site. This first step is also the most important one. Taking the time to think about the unique benefits of your site will help focus the work of your web team on delivering a quality, unique site. It will also make later marketing efforts considerably easier and more effective.