This is a detailed guide to getting free media coverage for your blog or business.
Inside you’ll find strategies for landing major media features, step-by-step tactics and dozens of bonus tips from entrepreneurs. If you are serious about getting mainstream attention for your project, this is a must read.
The content and advice I am sharing with you is based on:
- PR results my team and I have created, including features in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN and other major media outlets.
- Private interviews with some of the world’s most successful marketers.
- 100+ hours of research on best practices, academic studies, and more.
Heads up: this article is long and extremely detailed. It took 40+ hours to write, and will take you 15 to 30 minutes to read.
Let’s get into it…
Foundation: The 80/20 Rule
It’s on you to create your best content, leverage proven psychological principles to make sure it spreads, and then PROMOTE THE HECK OUT OF IT.
– Derek Halpern, Founder of Social Triggers, a successful internet marketing site
Derek Halpern is very good at internet marketing, including PR and social media. Derek’s own site, Social Triggers, is a case study in quickly building an engaged, “ready to buy” audience and therefore a profitable online business. Years ago I consulted for Social Triggers on creating viral, authority-driven content.
A secret fuel of Social Trigger’s rocket-powered growth is the 80/20 Rule, which is a variation of the Pareto Principle (which states for many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes).
Here is how the 80/20 Rule applies to content marketing:
- If you invest in creating useful content, and only 1000 people read it, you could be missing out on 1 million additional people in the world who can benefit from what you wrote.
- It’s more productive (and often more profitable) to find another 10,000 people to view your existing content as opposed to creating more.
And it sounds pretty simple, you can just spend 20% of your time creating amazing content, and then 80% on promotion. But there are two key things to consider:
- The emphasis on promotion does not mean you can slack on content production. Derek puts five days of work into producing one video for his site. Ramit Sethi, an expert at creating profitable online courses, regularly invests 12+ hours in writing a single article. Tim Ferriss cut 250 pages out of his book 4-Hour Chef, published the remaining 672, and it became a New York Times Bestseller. I interviewed one guy who wrote his entire book over a weekend (he didn’t sell many copies). You can choose which sandbox you want to play in.
- Everyone has seen the promises of magic tactics for explosive website traffic and automatic dollars going into your bank account while you sleep. You’ll go viral! Just do this one thing! It’s not going to happen. What you need is proven principles of marketing and selling to an audience, solid business processes and then if you put in the time and effort, you may get results.
Before we get into the proven PR tactics, let’s take a quick detour. Many people that want to succeed at online business describe a “fear of success” or having imposter syndrome, so here’s my take on the psychology of self promotion.
Tom Hanks & The Psychology of Self Promotion
If you are one of the many people who are uncomfortable with self promotion, the idea of selling may feel foreign, scary, and even a little scammy. I want to challenge those beliefs, because if you have something valuable to add to the world then self promotion is more than just okay, it’s often absolutely necessary to achieve your goals. In short, you want to be a Tom Hanks not a Nicki Manaj.
Back in 2008, Tom Hanks appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman to promote his then new movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.
This is how Tom & David’s conversation went…
Tom: I didn’t realize it was legal to play baseball on The Mall in Washington, D.C.
David: I don’t think you can do that!
Tom: I didn’t want to, but I was prepared to drop the H-bomb if any cops pulled up.
David: What do you mean?
Tom: Well the H-bomb Dave, the H-bomb — “Look officer, I’m Tom Hanks. I get to do whatever I want.”
Basically, Tom Hanks knows he is the man and isn’t afraid to say it. You could say Tom’s self promotion is deserved as one of the top 10 highest grossing box office actors EVER, and I’d agree and reframe: self promotion, over a period of decades, allowed Tom to become the box office behemoth and a household name.
Compare Tom’s self promotion to Nicki Manaj, who in 2012 rapped about being on her way to earning a billion, but actually made $15.5 million that year. Fifteen million is a lot of money, but it’s a stretch to say Nicki is on her way to a billion.
So, how does the Tom vs. Nicky framework apply to you?
Promote What You’ve Got, And Keep It Real
It helps that Tom has multiple Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards to support his self promotion. Your list of accomplishments is likely less impressive, but you can start from anywhere. You will accumulate small victories, which you can showcase until you replace them with medium sized victories and then eventually big victories. Here are a few examples of how some well known bloggers and entrepreneurs use their credibility indicators for self promotion:
- When Derek first started Social Triggers, he talked about getting 20 million visitors to one of his sites in a single day. Now, Derek lists his set of high profile speaking engagements, and promotes his hour long video feature on Entrepreneur.com.
- In the early days of Ramit Sethi’s site, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit used his Stanford education as a credibility indicator. Then Ramit started making TV appearances. Then Ramit’s personal finance book became a New York Times Bestseller. Then Fortune Magazine wrote a six page feature about Ramit and his approach to online education. Then Forbes included Ramit in a list of top money gurus, with his photo right next to Warren Buffett.
- Neil Patel started by promoting his early successes, like being a top 100 blog on a major ranking site, and then a “top influencer on the web” according to Wall Street Journal. Now, Neil references that Entrepreneur Magazine says he is one of the top entrepreneurs in the world, and that President Obama recognized Neil as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs under the age of 30.
- Michael Ellsberg uses his day job as a writer for Forbes for credibility, as well as specific achievements like Eye Gazing Parties Michael created that were featured in major media. No doubt if Michael’s next book becomes a NYT Bestseller he will promote himself with that, but for now he lists off a major achievement of his book Education of Millionaires: being sold in 8+ countries.
- David Kadavy is author of the #18 Amazon Best-Seller, Design For Hackers.
These stories of Derek, Ramit, Neil, Michael, and David show that self-promotion is totally okay. You just need to know what stage you are at and use what you’ve got.
Active Discovery vs. Relying on Magic
A common reason entrepreneurs and authors don’t promote their work is a false belief that if you just create great content the masses will follow, or that if you have the right product idea the market will be busting down your door to purchase it. This belief is perpetuated by the myth that “content is king” – a myth that is easily debunked.
Now, sometimes content really does propel a project on it’s own. Here are a couple of examples:
- Sometimes Kickstarter projects just seem to catch fire, like 3Doodler: The World’s First 3D Printing Pen, that was featured across the web and raised $2,344,134.
- Friends of mine in Beijing opened a Korean BBQ restaurant on a quiet side street. My friends have great food, quality service and a cool atmosphere. But they never promoted the business. Slowly people started to come, and then the media started running stories about how good the food was and how reasonable the prices were. After six months the restaurant had hour long line-ups every night of the week.
However, not every great idea is enough to go viral on its own, and even if it does approach virality, you still may not be reaching your full growth potential. Examples:
- There is a pirate ship in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico that you can party on. You go sailing out with a bunch of pirates and drunk tourists. There are sword fights, lasso wranglers, dudes throwing fire around, pretty good dinner, and an open bar. The pirate ship is a successful business and a fun one, but if you just stuck a pirate ship in the port people are going to think you are a nutbar. So 90% of the pirate’s business comes from relationships, mainly hotels that sell tickets to guests for a fee and timeshares that give away tickets to lure in customers.
- For my friends in Beijing, when they opened a second restaurant they learned to promote and had line-ups after three months. Now, they are working on strategies to make this same success happen in one month. The end goal? Line-ups from the first day.
Hey, It’s possible that your content/product/idea could go viral, but would you rather wait for magic or work toward your own success?
Alright, now let’s dig into the meat – specific strategies for promoting your business.
Strategy #1: The Drafting Technique
I decided to apply the drafting technique as you suggested and I want to share my results… This has now given me the the amazing opportunity to get my name and brand out there in front of the entire country and also in front of the millions of expats who read their newspaper online everyday… All I can say is wow!!!
— Vanessa, Social Trigger’s reader
What is the Drafting Technique?
The Drafting Technique is a flagship strategy over at Social Triggers. This technique is a way to get major press for your startup, small business or website without needing connections or an expensive PR agency.
To get started with the Drafting Technique, take a look at the name. Drafting is a skill that top athletes like cyclists, race car drivers and speed skaters use to get better results with less effort. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France, one cyclist is up front breaking the wind, and the other cyclists are riding in his slipstream to reduce drag from the wind.
Now think of this drafting principles in marketing. If you are the first person to contact a major media outlet you may have a difficult time, maybe they don’t know about your product or service, so you have to educate them. Maybe you don’t even know who to contact. But if your competitor gets featured first then you know you can contact the author of the column and they will understand your business and the angle you are pitching. You instantly reduce the drag (who to contact, education), and can get featured with less effort.
How to Draft Like a Pro
Drafting is about getting featured in the same media your competitor are, and it is a four step process:
- Make a list of 5+ competitors in your industry. The names on your list don’t have to be direct competition, just people that operate in the same world as you. Example: if you sell front-pocket wallets, you can find other companies that sell modern accessories for men.
- Search for media mentions of your competitors. You can use advanced tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs, or search Google with a query like link:michaelalexis.com and see all the incoming links to your site.
- Find the contact information for the blogger/reporter/journalist. If you can’t find an email, you can guess it with one of these formats: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. If both of these emails bounce, try contacting the journalist via Twitter or other social media.
- Instead of just reaching out and asking for links, make a value-focused pitch. For the reporter, writing a story isn’t about your company succeeding, it’s about something interesting and useful for their audience to read. So, give them a story with a unique or new idea, or new developments to an existing story. To find your angle, carefully analyze the story about your competition. Find any gaps or errors (if you are an expert in your niche this should be easy). Once you have your story idea, write and send your email.
One tip to keep in mind with the Drafting Technique is that it’s not about who was first, the method exists to find someone who was already covered. When you see a competitor featured in the media, it’s natural to think, “the opportunity is gone. The media already reported about XYZ. I’m too late.” But this framing is actually just a mental barrier to getting started. Instead, think about how you can add a unique perspective to the conversation.
Another tip, with Drafting, you don’t have to pitch what is hot or mainstream right now. Instead, you can pitch about what reporters or bloggers have a history of writing about. Seek out people that write about your niche. If you are a tech startup, find writers that cover that. If you are a relationship expert, there are countless columns in newspapers and magazines.
Here’s a tip that I always keep in mind when emailing someone new: KEEP IT SHORT, and assume that the reader has good intentions but is lazy.
You can write your own, or use Derek’s outline:
I saw you wrote about [insert topic]. Well, I’ve got some [insert unique story angle] that answers the concerns you raised in your original article. Here’s the article:[insert link to article here].
You’re busy but you’ll find this as the perfect answer to [insert the concern they raised].
– Your Name
Pro-tip: Think of both online AND offline media outlets for your promotional work. By getting featured in a major publication like a magazine or newspaper you can earn a great credibility badge and place their logo on your site. Sometimes you can actually double up on your efforts. By targeting media outlets that publish both online and offline you can get the credibility boosting power of being in print, with the link boosting power of being online.
Alright, let’s look at another media strategy, Controversy.
Strategy #2: Natural Controversy
If people are going to hate you, they’re going to hate you. You can’t really stop it. And when you present balanced arguments… for the sake of being balanced… you’re actually hurting your chances of finding the people who truly resonate with whatever you’re trying to get them to do.
— Derek Halpern
There is a simple equation for getting traffic to your website
Outrage + Controversy = Massive Traffic
Alright, this formula has two parts. Let’s break it down…
Mastering outrage is about understanding the emotional triggers of your audience, and pulling those levers in a way that directs them toward a goal.
As Tim Ferriss says, “study the top stories at Digg or MSN.com and you’ll notice a pattern: the top stories all polarize people. If you make it threaten people’s 3Bs—behavior, belief, or belongings—you get a huge virus-like dispersion.”
And as Derek says, “people go to great lengths to let everyone know how mad they are.”
So, if you want to threaten behavior:
- write a blog post like “why your evening routine is actually making you fat”
- post a YouTube video about “the three things you should have done in your 20s”
- ask Facebook “breastfeeding or bottle feeding?”
And if you want to threaten belief:
- write a blog post like Why Ketosis is a Myth
- post a YouTube video about “how law school is a huge waste of money”
- Tweet that “99% of NYC pizza actually tastes terrible”
And if you want to threaten belongings:
- “Do this or risk bankruptcy”
- “The hidden costs in your rent”
- “Homeowners are about to lose big on this one tax change”
If you aren’t sure what will create an emotional response in your audience, try testing different headlines. Send a snippet of your headline or idea to a small segment of one of your email lists and gauge the reaction. When you strike a chord, your audience will let you know.
And once you’ve caused outrage…
Mastering controversy is about harnessing BOTH sides of a debate.
With the examples above, each is going to have supporters that take different sides.
- Paleo people believe ketosis is real vs. vegetarians say you just need to get your beggies
- “Breast feeding leads to higher IQ!” vs. “It’s not proven! Einstein was bottle fed!”
However, you shouldn’t rely on these new audiences to seek you out.
Instead, go to their home turf by finding the blogs, forums, and other places these folks congregate.
- Reach out to the people that will disagree with you. Send a quick email with the link and encourage people to share their thoughts in the comments.
- Next, reach out to the people that will support your side of the debate. Again, aim for comments, dialogue, and shares.
Here is email copy you can use to contact each side.
I saw you wrote about [insert topic]. I know [insert unique story angle] is something your audience feels strongly about, and I did some research that might surprise them. Here’s the article:[insert link to article here].
What’s interesting is how [useful point about your article].
– Your Name
Repeat this method as necessary, and you will see traffic to your site increase and you will earn loyal followers with shared beliefs.
However, there is a risk of using this technique because you can actually be TOO controversial.
How to Be the Right Amount of Controversial
With great power comes great responsibility.
– Stan Lee (via Spiderman), Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and possibly first by Francois-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire)
Even though controversy is a powerful tool for driving traffic to your website or business, this method does have limitations. There are ways of communicating and promoting controversial topics that work, and there are those that have a net negative effect by offending your most loyal fans. Generally, you should avoid publicly taking strong stances on topics like politics, gender and religion.
This advice may seem vague at first, “be controversial without being too controversial”, but it turns out there might actually be a right level of controversy for bloggers and businesses.
A 2012 academic paper, published by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, discussed how online marketers can manipulate controversy to achieve results like increased comments or traffic. Here are the major takeaways from this paper:
- Contrary to popular belief, controversy doesn’t always increase discussion.
- Moving from low to moderate levels of controversy increases the number of comments an article receives and additional increases result in fewer comments.
- Exception: If you allow online commenters to be anonymous, they are willing to discuss more controversial topics.
- Less controversial stuff is more likely to be shared with weaker ties (acquaintances), and so is more likely to diffuse through a social network.
The basic mechanics of controversy are simple: “while controversy increases conversation by making topics more interesting to talk about, it simultaneously decreases conversation by making people feel uncomfortable talking about these topics.
So the art is in understanding what makes your audience tick, and not going beyond their limit. My friend Gregory Ciotti calls engaging in this low level controversy the Toilet Paper Strategy (because people have strong opinions about which way the paper should fall, which is inconsequential to anyone’s actual identity).
Of course sometimes even when you have zero-intent of being controversial, it still creeps in. To help keep you on track, I’ve created a list of rules to follow: the 12 Commandments of Natural Controversy.
The 12 Commandments of Natural Controversy
- Rally the people you inspire. Find the topics and emotional triggers they care about.
- Building an audience is more about exclusion than inclusion, so don’t worry about offending outsiders.
- Never piss off your loyal fans and friends. You CAN polarize people in the wrong direction.
- Instead, piss off the people you want to exile from your community. “If people are going to hate you, they are going to hate you.”
- You don’t have to be opinionated about everything. This is a big one. One of the common barriers to using Natural Controversy is “but I don’t feel really strongly about things like X”. This is easy to overcome, just talk about the things you DO have strong opinions on.
- Don’t create problems for no reason. Being controversial just to drive traffic or without any goal is a no-no. Instead, only use this technique when you truly support what you’re saying.
- Be confident and people will believe in you. Always maintain your position unless someone provides new data that makes you change your mind. Don Moore, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, demonstrated that “consumers tend to pick advice from those who express more confidence that they have the right answer (Moore, 2009).”
- Stay out of conversations related to politics, gender, and religion These topics are a little too polarizing for the average blogger or business. Studies show that controversy above a certain level actually decreases discussion. Instead, optimize for “low level controversy”. Noteable exceptions: you run a political blog or church.
- Find the common enemy. every group of people has a common enemy, so find it.
- Question the 3 Bs. This one is borrowed from Tim Ferriss. Threaten the 3 Bs (behavior, belief, belongings) and traffic follows.
- All controversies burn bridges. “I don’t mind burning bridges that I don’t want to leave up.” – Derek
- Controversy is like chess — it’s easy to learn how to move the pieces, but it’s hard to learn how to play like a grandmaster. AKA: this all may sound pretty basic, but it’s actually quite hard to pull off.
More Examples of Controversy
- Andrew Warner used controversy to build up the viewer base at Mixergy. When a TechCrunch intern was accused of taking bribes to write articles, Andrew reached out to get the interns story. For Andrew, it wasn’t about creating controversy, it was about sharing the story – “he did an interview with me because he knew that I would listen, instead of sandbagging him.” Sometimes just providing a new viewpoint is enough to provide value to your fans (this also turned out to be one of Mixergy’s big traffic days).
- When I interviewed Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion, he told me about how he jumps on controversial topics that he has a genuine opinion about to get more traffic. Example: When a popular blogger, Chris Brogan, deleted all his Twitter followers, it caused a small uproar. Marcus voiced his opinion on his blog and started a big conversation on the topic
- Once you become an expert, you know when you can bend or even break the rules. Ramit Sethi masterfully executed a gender series back in mid-2012. The starter post was “A confession about gender and money”, followed by “How Much Should You Spend On An Engagement Ring”.
- My brother’s party rock band is made up of reformed heavy-metal dudes. They name all of their songs after girls. They produced a fun music video and got slammed by a major heavy-metal blog for being sell-outs. The result? Over 100,000 views for their video.
- I contributed to the first issue of an early digital magazine for a client, Blueprint Entrepreneur. As part of my research, I asked Quora, “Programmers, what do you think when you hear ‘I just need a tech co-founder’?”A rage storm followed with 23,120 views, 45+ comments and marked as “one of the best conversations online” by one of the mods. All because the question struck an emotional chord.
- A thread on Reddit re: controversy, BLEW UP, getting 13,000+ comments in 5 hours and actually crashing Reddit. “What extremely controversial thing(s) do you honestly believe, but don’t talk about to avoid the argument?”
Conclusion: Spend 80% of Your Time Promoting Your Business
There is a lot of terrible advice out there: “you have to blog every day”, and similar. But it’s not about how much content you produce, and past a certain level it’s not really about the quality either.
What matters is the marketing and promotion you do for your product or business, and when you master high level strategies like the Drafting Technique and Natural Controversy, you set yourself up for explosive growth.
The strategies in this article are just two ways to promote your business. If they aren’t the right fit for you, that’s totally okay, try one of these instead:
- When Laura Roeder, social media expert and founder of Edgar, spoke at SXSW, a fan told her “It’s my dream to give a talk at SXSW”. Turns out that fan had never even applied. If you want to speak at events, ask.
- Ramit Sethi builds relationships with journalists by being a source, and if they need stats he is able to source and provide numbers quickly.
- “The public responds to precedents and superlatives.” – Elon Musk
- Danny Iny wrote 80+ quality guest posts in less than a year (he told me about his system in an interview)
- Chris Guillebeau talks about how you can grow a following by creating a compelling story and building flagship content.
- Tim Ferriss teaches how to get national media coverage by creating a reel, knowing your topic, and pitching properly.
Remember, spend just 20% of your time/effort on creation and the other 80% on promotion, and you will see results. Bonus: this strategy also means you get to repeat your BEST stuff everywhere you go, instead of diluting your message with average or even mediocre content
Go forth and conquer.