Monday, August 27, 2007

Where Web 2.0 Start-Ups Go Wrong with PR

Lots of Web 2.0 start-ups try to avoid hiring a public relations firm as long as possible, to keep a tight grip on costs. That’s a decision I totally get.

But why do they make it so hard for journalists to contact them?

Over the past five years, a number of things have happened which have been counter-productive when it comes to getting free publicity in mainstream newspapers, magazines, and Web sites.

In the olden days of the Web, every site had a prominent “Contact” page, which listed the company’s address, phone number, a general e-mail address, and perhaps the names of the founders or senior executives.

From a journalist’s perspective, that was great.

If you were writing for a newspaper in Minneapolis and were looking for a particular type of start-up in that city, Google would help you out, leading you directly to a company you might’ve never heard of before...because they let you know that their headquarters were in the Twin Cities.

If you needed a quick quote at 5:30 PM (for most newspaper journalists, this is usually in the last hour before their deadline) about a particular news event that happened that day (Microsoft buys Your Main Competitor), you could easily find a start-ups phone number, dial it, and ask for the CEO. If that person wasn’t in, you’d often get their cell phone number from their voice mail, and get a comment from them that you could include in your story.

But what has happened in the wonderful new era of Web 2.0 is that companies have suddenly gotten coy about where they are, and how to reach them. Most sites, if they have a contact page, tell you nothing about where they’d headquartered, and if they give you a way to contact them, it’s a generic e-mail address ( or a “Contact” form (“Just fill in these seventeen fields, click submit, and someone from our PR team will get back to you.”)

And when Web 2.0 companies put out press releases, there’s often no contact info at the bottom.

I suspect that’s happening for two reasons: a lot of Web 2.0 companies have no office (they’re based in a dorm room, a Starbuck’s branch, or another company’s borrowed conference room), and they have very few employees. Why make it easy for every user who has forgotten his password to dial you up and waste your time?

Unfortunately, you’re also making it harder for journalists to get in touch when they’re working on stories. I almost never send e-mail to addresses, or fill out contact forms – usually because you never get a response, or if you do, it comes three days later, when a story has already been wrapped and published. Instead, if a company doesn’t offer a phone number and I really want to talk with them, I search Google for a few minutes to see if I can get their phone number, call 411 if I happen to know where they’re based – and then usually give up after about four or five minutes of trying. I just move on to another prospective interviewee.

Here’s an experiment you might try for a few months, to see if it produces any results. (I’m certainly open to the possibility that it could generate scads of unwanted phone calls.) Put the name of a person who is responsible for PR on your Web site, and their e-mail address, and their phone number. If you really want to make yourself accessible to journos, put a cell phone number there, too.

This person could be one of your team members, or, if you have a PR firm, the person there who handles your account. (Just be sure you keep the name of this person updated, since the cast of characters at PR firms sometimes seems to change weekly.) When you send press releases over the wires or just post them on your site, put this same contact info at the bottom of them.

If this experiment doesn’t work, just go back to the old way:

Yes, you can try to prove to journalists how cool you are: "We don’t use phones anymore… instead, Skype us, IM us, leave your question as a comment on our blog, or post a message on our Facebook profiles."

But unfortunately, I’d estimate that about 80 percent of professional magazine/newspaper/Web journos working on deadline don’t have time to do that. (Bloggers may be a different story, since I think they tend to be more averse to picking up the phone.)

There may be a time when journalists up against a deadline no longer want or need to call sources on the phone for a quick five or ten minute chat. I just don’t think that time has arrived yet.

So why are you making it so hard for journos to get in touch?

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Anonymous David said...

Excellent article! I do not know how much time I spend trying to figure out the location of a company - I sometimes resort to scanning the terms of service for the "choice of law" section if needed.

Getting local pubs to write about your company should be considered low-hanging fruit and funded start-ups have no excuse not taking advantage of it.

I suspect you are right that some small companies are simply just too small. However, there is also the issue that the "borrowed conference room" might be their current full-time employer's and they are reluctant to have the rest of the office find out they are moonlighting by posting a name that can pop-up through a Google search.

August 28, 2007 10:19 AM  
Blogger Mike Volpe said...

Scott -

Welcome back to Boston!

I have taken you up on your offer.

I put very "press friendly" contact info on our website. (Actually, we pretty much did everything you proposed already, but confirmation that we're doing the right thing is also valuable.)

I look forward to all the great coverage we will get. :)


Mike Volpe
VP Marketing

August 28, 2007 2:52 PM  
Blogger Wade said...

Scott, I could not agree with you more. As a fellow local technology blogger, I run into this situation every day -- in fact, I'm pursuing one hard-to-reach company right this second. Yet I'm continually astonished that the young companies that need attention are the same ones putting barriers in the way of reaching them.

I understand that these companies are mainly trying to throttle down the number of incoming messages they have to deal with -- which can be important when you are building a startup and have so many other critical things to work on.

But if a reporter needs to reach you TODAY and you just wind up pushing them away, the opportunity costs of filtering the incoming messages become very high. I would advise every startup that wants to be "in the game" to publish a phone number for press inquiries, at the very least.

September 5, 2007 11:14 AM  

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