About the author:
Anastasiya Shyrina is an independent Strategic Communications Consultant with over 6 years of practical experience. She is General Director at HelpSMI, Ukrainian platform for effective communication between experts and journalists, Chief Editor at PR Wiz, professional blog for Public Relations practitioners. Throughout her career in communications, Anastasiya devised and successfully implemented promotion strategies for startups as well as world brands, such as the United Nations Development Programme, International Organization for Migration, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, Lenovo, Knauf. She has won clients a number of media placements in authoritative media outlets including The Financial Times, Thomson Reuters, CNN, Euronews, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse and Deutsche Welle.
So, you want the whole world to know about your project, but have no idea of where to start? Or maybe you dream of gaining coverage in international media and earning trust of European customers? I assure you: all this is possible. Without hefty advertising budgets, costly help of PR agencies, populous marketing departments or “useful” connections. Resourcefulness, knowledge of certain promotional tactics, time and patience are key attributes to your success. A modest monthly budget of several hundred dollars allowed us to achieve publications in major business outlets and niche blogs, increase traffic to our website as well as land the first deals. In this article, we’ll explore in detail how a small British startup, which focuses on provision of automated wealth management advice, reached out to target audience in a cost-effective and efficient way.
First of all, let me say a few words about the project and the industry it operates in. Zen Assets is a London-based company that helps investors make smart financial decisions based on advice offered by specialized software. Instead of collaborating with traditional flesh-and-blood consultants, clients interact with technological platform, which is able to determine the level of risk tolerance each customer has, assists in setting realistic financial goals, forms investment portfolios and provides continuous advisory support. The idea was to create convenient and modern solution for tech-savvy investors, who want to simplify their lives. As for marketing, emphasis was made on the corporate blog, search engine optimization and media relations. We decided to reach our target audience – financially literate people seeking to put their savings at work – via publications in authoritative business media. By defining four major milestones we were able to gradually move up the media ladder and ended up with author columns on hugely popular websites in our pocket!
Goal No. 1: Notify media about the launch of your project
The first step is to write a press release about the launch of your project and send it to relevant journalists. We did so. Before that, we compiled a detailed list of correspondents covering the subjects of finance, investment, startups and new technologies. Our media database contained 200+ contacts, including authors of the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Forbes as well as members of regional media and bloggers. Nowadays marketing specialists love to say that press release is dead. I strongly disagree with this statement. If the topic of your announcement is worthy (people should know about new players on the market), then you are not only “allowed” to write press release, I think you should do it. And here’s why.
You, as an entrepreneur, are interested in the constant growth of your startup. The first customers will come from your own circle. Ads might work for a while. However, the former resource is exhaustible; the latter is expensive and in many cases not productive. Articles in media usually aren’t perceived as aggressive advertising, so with this format you stand a chance of winning new clientele. Journalists, on the other hand, are constantly looking for “the next big thing”, so they’ll be interested to learn more about your up-and-coming project. Tell them why you decided to start this business, who will benefit from using your services/products, how you plan to develop and grow. Add simple yet effective press release to your PR toolbox – and remember to use it every time you have something important to share with the outside world. In the best case scenario, you will earn publications with brand mentions; but even if that won’t happen, you’ll still enjoy excellent traffic to the website for a couple of days. Journalists might not be ready to mention you in materials yet, but they’ll know you exist. Once reporters decide to prepare, let’s say, an overview of the best startups in specific industry, your project will stand a very good chance of being included into that list.
Thanks to the regular mail-out we attracted attention of Samantha Scharf, financial correspondent at Forbes. She got back to us with a response letter, where she promised to keep an eye on Zen Assets. What’s more, she gladly took our Investor Personality test and as published results on Twitter. A few days later, Samantha sent us a questionnaire to participate in the project “Fintech 50″, saying that we were automatically included in the preliminary list of competing companies.
Apart from collaboration with carefully selected journalists, consider contacting specialized companies that offer press release distribution services. For a reasonable fee, British Pressat landed us publication on Bloomberg website (Market News Section).
Manual monitoring of media outlets after press release distribution allowed us to discover an article about Zen Assets on Webrazzi, authoritative source covering startup news.
Based on my experience of preparing and sending out launch press release, I advise IT entrepreneurs to follow three simple rules: 1) compile the list of relevant journalists in advance; don’t be narrow-minded here – if you represent fintech startup, look for people interested in different kinds of topics (banking, personal finance, investing, disruptive technology, entrepreneurship, economics etc.); 2) write press release of decent quality, include facts from reliable sources and appeal to novelty; 3) take advantage of tried-and-tested distribution services: they usually offer good value for money – two or three publications on credible platforms are guaranteed.
Goal No. 2: Get the first publications
Once the launch phase is behind, you’ll have to find ways of gaining new media coverage. It’s too early to talk about serious financial achievements or high-profile partnerships yet. Save these attention-grabbing topics for future press releases. Try to write op-eds on subjects relevant to your audience or attend specialised events instead. We followed this strategy and got some tangible results.
Originally, Zen Assets was intended for European clients. Despite this, the company’s founder Sergey Sosnov shared his business idea at the Ukrainian IDCEE conference. Due to successful presentation and the received award (Zen Assets was named the best Ukrainian startup), we were mentioned in the popular Ukrainian newspaper Kyiv Post. Six months later, we were contacted by reporter representing the same media. He wanted to interview Sergey for a full-fledged article about the project. Participation in the contest allowed us to conquer Ukrainian blogosphere: Lyubomir Ostapov, local expert in financial technology, mentioned Zen in his post “Some impressions from IDCEE”.
“Going out” is essential for building relationships with business partners, journalists and investors. However, it also helps to draw support from your long-time friends. I suggested editors of online magazine Astrum People to run a piece about my client, and they immediately agreed. Guess why this happened? Because website owners happen to be my groupmates!
Another way of getting the word out is to place content in subject directories. The challenging part is to find suitable ones. We were lucky to discover rather popular interdisciplinary source SelfGrowth.com, which, among other things, offers readers author columns on investment topics. Fresh pieces are regularly uploaded to its finance section. After approving article’s title and structure with editorial board, we prepared the text and sent it over for review. In just one week, it was published for everyone to see. What can your startup gain from such directories? First and foremost, strong backlinks to your corporate website. In the eyes of Google, news sources are not equal. Some of them are truly influential, while others lag behind. Link influence score of SelfGrowth.com is worth 99% (out of 100% possible), so it made perfect sense to write for them.
Getting the first publications is tricky. Start with memorable appearances at specialised events (pitch your project enthusiastically from the main stage, win people’s hearts over, get awards), proceed with leveraging personal contacts (are there any relevant bloggers in your circle?) and finally consider placing branded content in thematic directories. All this helps. Once 2 or 3 sources give you their votes of confidence, it will be much easier to achieve coverage on well-known platforms.
Goal No. 3: Conquer industry blogs
Are the first publications already in your pocket? Congratulations! From now on, it makes sense to carefully analyze each media outlet before offering your work. Do they have the right audience? How much time or money you’ll spend crafting messages for them? Will this specific news source help you achieve business goals? Unfortunately, you don’t have the luxury of choice in the beginning. No one wants to risk reputation promoting the new project (especially when it’s all about computer programs and people’s money – what if that’s another fraudulent scheme?). But when external websites have already cited you couple of times, dialogue becomes possible.
We made an emphasis on financial and technical blogs. Our customers are well-earning young engineers who actively use Internet. The task was to tell them about Zen Assets. We managed to find the right resource by spying on a similar startup. We noticed that our colleagues regularly publish their materials on Kukuruku.co (a hub for programmers); so we decided to propose the blog’s editors a few posts. Content was accepted. Thanks to Kukuruku, truly interested people started visiting our website. They spent time reading biographies of our founders, testing demo version, researching possible return scenarios. This means that we correctly identified our target audience and found effective channel for promotion.
Our next goal was to appear on British financial blogs. By using tactics dubbed “slow PR” we attained publications on Family Budgeting, The Savvy Scot, Money Bulldog and The Money Principle. Here is how it works. I started reading above-named blogs religiously, got truly interested in authors’ viewpoints, expressed my own opinions on various matters, invited website owners to online discussions and reacted to their personal posts on social networks. In several months (when I thought the contact was established) I proposed each blogger 2-3 topics for future articles and asked whether they would accept content from me. They reverted with affirmative responses. Even though it took us some time, results were impressive. Zen Assets was mentioned in all influential British blogs that focus on finance and investments. The number of Brits visiting our website increased exponentially. People started inquiring about the company on forums, question-and-answers sites. We began receiving information requests from journalists representing highly specialised outlets (result: brand mention on ETF Strategy) as well as from analysts who subsequently included our company in subject reports on digital wealth management. This was the time when we realised: Zen Assets is finally speaking to the right audience! Now the ball was in their court. Investors started considering investing with us.
By adhering to the following action plan, you will certainly conquer foreign industry blogs: 1) define subjects that are interesting to your TA (in our case, potential customers do not limit themselves to financial blogs, they are also avid readers of technical news); 2) create a list of 5 to 10 resources, where you would like to appear (assess the number of readers, nationality of the prevailing audience – this information is provided free of charge by service SimilarWeb); 3) before pitching your materials to bloggers, consider building trust or at least establishing some kind of personal connection: show your partners that their work inspires you, support conversation on issues they feel strongly about and help them raise profiles in social media.
Goal No. 4: Appear in top-tier media outlets
If you already enjoy support of the well-known niche bloggers, have published author’s content on external websites with real audience, then it won’t be difficult for you to get into major media outlets. The main thing is not to bet solely on veterans, such as The Financial Times, The Economist or The Wall Street Journal. Of course, many entrepreneurs dream of being featured on these sites, and I understand why. However, when analyzing today’s media landscape, you can discover many decent alternatives. Certain sites on the web can compete with media behemoths we all know and respect. They are equivalent, if not better, in terms of audience quality and level of engagement. Two websites were especially interesting for us in this regard (Seeking Alpha and The Street). The audience of the first one is 29.12 million people, while the average visit duration is 21 minutes. For comparison: ft.com is read by 28.4 million people for two minutes on average. Besides, the Financial Times is read by all business people, while Seeking Alpha enjoys popularity exclusively among investors, bankers and financial advisers. This practical reasoning defined our next ambitious goal: to appear on Seeking Alpha.
Seeking Alpha accepts in-depth articles on investment topics, built around unusual ideas, supported by proven facts, graphs and calculations. While direct advertising in the text is prohibited, it’s ok to mention your project in author’s byline.
Getting into the Seeking Alpha was by no means an easy feat, but our efforts were well worth it. Website provided us with unparalleled exposure. Multi-million audience representing potential clients, partners, investors and colleagues was suddenly available to a group of humble startup enthusiasts. People flocked to our website hoping to learn more about Zen Assets. As a result, company’s position in Google search improved dramatically; the number of visitors increased; media representatives started showing interest in our activities. We were even contacted by the author of hugely popular books on personal finance. He promised to mention Zen Assets in the forthcoming versions of his bestsellers.
Do you really want to take million audience sites by storm without spending a penny on advertising? By acting consistently and thoughtfully, you will achieve the desired result: 1) find sites-magnets for your target audience and ask how to become an author; 2) make sure you have at least 2 or 3 decent articles in your portfolio – that’s always a weighty argument in your favor; 3) after your candidacy is approved, proceed by sending impressive material that meets all formal requirements.
Good luck with all your ambitious endeavours, and please remember: patience and hard work ALWAYS pay off!