(First published in the CAD++ Newsletter in early 1995)
The best advertising for your business is basically free. Ask any established company if they’ve found that paid advertising outperforms good editorial coverage of their product and services, and you’ll find that they’ll either burst out laughing hysterically, or just give you a resounding NO!
That’s because readers of publications tend to have a lot more faith in the words of writers and editors than they do in advertising (even if that faith might occasionally be misplaced). Some PC editors/writers, like John Dvorak and Jerry Pournelle, have even achieved cult status. Readers respect writers who are vocal about their likes and dislikes of various products and features, and that respect carries over to virtually all other writers as well. All this means that if you can get a publication to write about your product or service, you’re almost guaranteed to get more reader interest than any ad you’d place would elicit.
So, the $64,000 question is: How do I get magazines to write about my company, product, or service?
The answer is simple – Press Releases.
However simple the answer is, though, writing a good press release is not easy. It requires insight, creativity, and something newsworthy.
Make It Newsworthy
Don’t bother sending out a release unless you really have something newsworthy. This means that you’ve released a new product, bought out your competitor, shipped a noteworthy update, or licensed some technology. It’s not newsworthy if you’ve hired an unknown person, nor if you have increased the size of your office space, or if you’re just trying to see your name in print. Editors have long memories, and if you get a reputation for wasting their time with trivial releases, they’ll ignore your real news.
Use Insight and Creativity
As with any presentation, it’s vital that you put yourself in the place of your audience, which in the case of a press release is a swarm of editors and writers, all of whom have different backgrounds and levels of understanding of what you might be trying to tell them. As if that weren’t bad enough, all of these editors and writers also receive hundreds, if not thousands, of press releases a month, meaning that any single press release they receive is likely to be filed and never used unless they find it to be of immediate interest. This means you face two basic issues in trying to address your audience: limited time to grasp your presentation, and vastly variable understanding of what you’re presenting.
The first issue, that of getting the editor/writer to even look at your message is where a good part of creativity in press releases comes into play. The first step is to get the editor to open the envelope containing the press release (assuming you mail it – if you FAX it or e-mail it, that’s not an issue, but more on that later). Unless the editor is known to despise your company, make sure that your press release envelope has your company’s name on the outside, possibly a tag line indicating what your company does, and if possible, a label or line of text that says something like “PRESS RELEASE ENCLOSED”. The reason all this is important is because you don’t want the editor to throw away your press release because they either think it’s a brochure or because they think it’s not something they care to look at. If you follow these rules and you’ve done a reasonable job picking the right editor(s) at a publication to send the release to, there should be no problem getting the editor to open the envelope. However, some companies don’t like to even leave this process to chance, and use all sorts of gimmicks to help increase their overall odds. In one particular case, a press release had a realistic, but simulated, bullet hole in it (it was something unrelated to the product – just a gimmick). Others are more to the point, and include free copies of software, t-shirts, Silly Putty, and countless other giveaways to help stimulate interest in the release.
Anyhow, assuming the editor has opened the envelope, you next need to stimulate the editor’s interest quickly so that he/she is encouraged to actually read the release, and in turn, use the information in it in a news piece, review, or some other fashion. Unless you’re Microsoft or IBM, your only shot at getting “ink”, as it’s called, is via the headline on the release. Writing good headlines is pure art. The headline needs to, in just a few words, convey the full value and importance of your news, without using ambiguous terms or jargon. If you can’t fit your killer headline in one line of large text, it’s okay to use a smaller sub-head to help add a little background. Here are some examples of bad and good headlines:
Widgets Inc. Makes An Announcement
This one makes an editor say, “so what” as he tosses it into the garbage. The headline should say what the announcement is, and why it’s newsworthy.
Frobo Ltd. Releases New Product
Another “so what” headline. You need to indicate what your product is and why it’s important. It’s not even necessary to name your product in the headline – just highlight its benefits.
Widgets Inc.’s WingBat Software Is Better
Better than what? What does WingBat Software do?
Frobo Ltd. Hires New Office Manager
This might get some play in your 10-page hometown newspaper, but it isn’t going to do much else.
3D Rendering Patent Awarded to Widgets Inc.
This headline implies that significant technology is now the property of Widgets Inc., inviting the reader to find out the details of what’s covered by the patent.
DemoCAD Bugs Can Now Be Fixed with Frobo Ltd.’s
This headline is gripping to anyone who writes about the leading DemoCAD package because it implies DemoCAD has bugs, and that Widgets Inc. has the solution. Anyone reading this headline is going to want to know what those bugs are, and how your software can do what the originators of DemoCAD can’t, and will therefore read the rest of your release.
So, in summary, the key elements of a good headline are:
- Show an immediate value or benefit of the subject of the announcement.
- Ride the coattails of a well-known company or product.
- Tempt the reader into reading more of the press release by releasing a tantalizing tidbit.
- Don’t be arrogant enough to assume that just because you or your company have made an announcement, everyone will flock to read the release even if you have a lousy headline.
- Keep it simple and informative.
- Distinguish the headline from the body of the release using a larger point size, and bolding it.
The Meat Of The Release
Once you have a good headline, you should be able to ensure that you’ll get the reader to continue reading at least some of the rest of the release.
Your next challenge is writing the body of the press release. What makes it challenging is that you have to make sure your press release doesn’t insult the more knowledgeable members of the press, and at the same time, you can’t make it so technical that you alienate the less informed press. The best way to handle this is what’s known as the “inverse triangle”, which is how the best news articles in newspapers and magazines are written. The inverse triangle represents the breadth of useful and vital information presented in the article (or in this case, the release) as you continue to read through it. With an inverted triangle approach, all the important information is at the top of the release, as you continue reading, the remainder becomes less important and pertinent. Using an inverted triangle is especially appropriate for news items because it allows readers to read the headline, and then as far into the article as they feel they need to get the information without having to read the whole thing.
Your press release can address both sophisticated readers and mildly ignorant ones via the inverse triangle. You put the core of your information, in the first, and possibly second, paragraphs, put a supporting quote in your third paragraph, and wrap it up in the fourth with background information pertinent to the announcement. You may have heard that there are rules about double spacing the press releasing and making sure it’s not too long. The double spacing is no longer a real requirement in this age of computers (the extra space used to be for editors to write notes between the lines – no computer publication editor I know does this anymore). The length issue is a real one. Outside of bringing on boredom, a long press release is a waste of paper, and in these environmentally conscious times, that’s a big no-no. Limit your release to 1 sheet of paper, double sided (single sided is even better), using 12-point type.
Your first paragraph should start with the date of the announcement (which can be at some point in the future, since many magazines have 2-3 month lead times) and a city of origination of the announcement. I frequently see releases with no date on them, which makes me wonder if this is old news worth worrying about. A date helps determine if the announcement is timely, whereas a lack of a date raises suspicions. The first paragraph also should provide a greater view of the news than the headline did. An example:
ANYTOWN, CA – February 1, 1995 – Widgets Inc. today announced that it had successfully acquired its largest competitor, Frobo Ltd., which makes Widgets Inc. the single largest manufacturer of DemoCAD add-on software in the world. This move will permit Widgets Inc. to start offering products which combine Frobo’s award winning TattooVision add-on for DemoCAD with its own AggieCAD farming software add-on. The new combined product will be called BrandAVision, allowing cattle farmers worldwide, for the first time ever, to use DemoCAD to brand their cattle using portable penplotters.
The second paragraph should help explain why the news in the first paragraph was so important. What are the alternatives to what was announced? Why is the new announcement more beneficial? Are there any technical terms that need better explanation?
The third paragraph generally includes a very powerful quote by an industry figure, partner, well known user, or at least the company president, about why this announcement is so monumental.
The fourth paragraph wraps up all the loose ends.
The best way to know that you’ve written an understandable, powerful press release is by having people who understand your market marginally read the press release, and if they get excited, you’ve probably done a good job. This will help make sure that you haven’t written a hard to understand, overly technical, boring press release that is full of gaps.
No matter how informative and exciting you make your release, it’s likely that some editor will read it and have questions. So, always make sure to put contact information in your release. There are two types of contact information to include. The first is the editorial contact. Traditionally, this goes in the upper right hand corner of the front page of the release, as in:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Fred Smith
Your Company, Inc.
YOUR RELEASE HEADLINE
The second contact point is the one that the editor will use in his or her article to inform readers how to get hold of your company. This contact information is contained in the last paragraph (ideally the 5th paragraph) of your press release. This paragraph is normally called the press release boilerplate (or as one friend in Canada called it, the “Motherhood Statement”). The boilerplate provides a tag line for your company, information on where your company is located, and how to contact your company. Here’s my company’s boilerplate, as an example of a real-life boilerplate statement:
Panacea Inc. is the world’s leading provider of commercial and OEM display drivers and software-only accelerators for graphics-intensive applications. Panacea specializes in PC-based software for graphics processors and graphics boards. Corporate headquarters are located at 24 Orchard View Drive, Londonderry, New Hampshire 03053, U.S.A. Phone: (800) 729-7420 or (603) 437-5022. FAX: (603) 434-2461. Panacea’s sales department can also be reached as email@example.com via the Internet.
It’s very likely that your first press releases will still be a little awkward, but have no fear, with time you should be able to produce something every editor will want to read. One way to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t is to read other companies’ press releases and see what you like and don’t like (i.e. put yourself in the shoes of an editor). However, unless you’re an editor, you won’t generally receive other companies’ press releases. So, for some examples, look in the Business Wire section of CompuServe, as well as the ACAD Forum (look in the uploads for files ending in “.RLS”). This will help give you an idea of what other companies do to promote themselves to the editorial community.
Making Contact & Measuring Success
The best press release in the world won’t get you any publicity if it doesn’t get in the hands of editors and writers. The simplest method of obtaining the names of editors is to go through all the magazines you read that pertain to your market, look for the masthead (usually near the front of the publication, or near the editorial page(s)). The masthead contains the list of all the editorial staff of the magazine. Don’t limit your press releases to just a single member of the staff either. It’s always important to include the news editor and the managing editor or editor in chief. While the latter two may never actually read the release themselves, their assistants very well might, and if they think it’s of interest, they’ll pass it on to the correct department at the publication. If you feel uncomfortable mailing lots of the same release to many people at a publication, just call them and ask who the best person to send your releases to might be (I believe it’s better to send too many than too little press releases to a publication – after all, the only cost is a stamp and the cost of the paper – a mere pittance in exchange for a shot at an article).
If you don’t read a lot of magazines, you may want to talk to your peers or customers and find out what they read, and maybe even having them provide you with back issues so you can look at the mastheads. That’s an excellent way of building your press mailing list.
Some editors prefer FAXes or E-Mail press releases, but I wouldn’t just go and use that form of contact without first clearing it with the editor. Finally, if you’re targeting the general PC market, you can get costly but worthwhile subscriptions to a couple of different services that actually track editors and publications. One of these is Press Access of Cambridge, MA. They charge as much as a couple of thousand dollars for their databases, but that’s a very worthwhile investment. You get complete editorial biographies, and since there’s a lot of changeover in the editorial community, they provide a valuable service in helping update you when editors move to other publications.
After all this, it’s still possible, and even likely, that most magazines won’t publish any information on your announcement. As an example, my company is pretty well known, but even when we send out a press release to 600 different editors (about 300 different publications), we still generally only get anywhere from 1 to 5 mentions (usually on the lower side), if we get a mention at all. However, that shouldn’t cause you despair – if you frequently make interesting announcements and send them to the presses, you will sooner or later get noticed as a company that makes news. Keep in mind that even one editorial mention will easily pay for a mailing or three, and these things have a way of gaining momentum as well, all for a lot less than traditional print advertising.