Saturday, May 10, 2014

Startup PR: When not to write a ‘momentum release’

Journalists may be laughing -- in a mean way -- about your client's momentum release, especially if your client is a startup.

Below, I gently lead you toward a more effective approach that a journalist might even consider using as source material for a news story. Perhaps my advice is *too* gentle.

When I go slow to create a how-to piece that you can follow step by step like a recipe, my emphasis is on the positive -- as in what you can do to succeed, not how you should feel when judged by others who don't have your back.

When I suggest that journalists are being snarky, I'm not just surmising. I've seen it and heard it, and I know why they are doing it. And I agree with them. But it's my job to get people out of trouble, not laugh at them when they are in it.

So, if you have startup clients and are assigned a "momentum release," please patiently read on and follow the advice. (Or, just scroll down to the before/after example. You'll get the gist.)

It's not quick reading or easy to absorb. You have to do it to get it.

But there is a payoff of higher credibility and more press coverage.

I write this for you, PR friends. There's no benefit for me.

I don't like watching smart, well-intentioned, hard-working people fail when they could succeed if only they knew about a few good tweaks.

The picture above is from an article in which a technology publication praises a press release. Your startup client probably doesn't have the moxie to do this, but ... maybe someday.

Note that the opening line is, "Our general rule is that we ignore press releases ..." Mike Masnick goes on to say why he didn't ignore "the best press release you'll ever see from a phone company."


Consider making your startup client a proof point in a “pain point” release, not the main point in a “momentum release.”

Advice on how to do that is below, but first a few words on why:

Eventually, you may be able to do a classic momentum release for your startup client, but perhaps not quite yet.

What’s a momentum release?

A “momentum release,” in PR jargon, is a press release that depicts a company’s momentum along a successful business trajectory.  Here’s a recent example from a famous international brand. And a really good one from a publicly traded New Zealand company that has since successfully broken into the U.S. market.

Usually, it lists things like the number of units sold, number of customers won, types of industries served, percentage of revenue growth and other milestones, including perhaps a new strategic direction or the launch of a next phase.

You and your client may feel celebratory and want the world to know that you are successfully doing what you said you would do when you first began, back when there were still a lot of questions and maybe even a few doubters.

Why does it turn journalists off?

However, this kind of announcement is “anti-news” that may turn journalists off. Even the ones who are enthusiastic about your company may be forced to all but ignore this press release because …

(cue ominous music) … it’s not about the reader.

What is “real news”?

Contrary to popular belief in some circles, journalists don’t care about companies and products; they care about stories and characters, usually those that either surprise readers or help them make decisions in their own lives.

Good news for you: Readers and customers overlap quite a bit, so if you write primarily for and about your customers, journalists can join in and help you tell your story (but in ways that conform to the rules of journalism).

When a momentum release is OK

A momentum release might be OK if you are – for example – one of the top-performing public companies on a list like this one. Why? Whatever you do affects an entire market and in turn the markets of your customers’ customers, so beat reporters are paying attention to your inner workings and hoping to foresee trends that will affect large numbers of people, including investors.

Or it might be OK if you are a young but established company in a market that is being redefined by technological advances, a market covered by beat reporters specifically assigned to watch that market’s ongoing developments.

Well-received momentum releases

For example, remember Palm Inc? It was the first company to successfully sell meaningful numbers of what became known as the smartphone. It created and shaped a market that eventually attracted RIM, Motorola, Nokia, Apple and Samsung, among many others. The first devices – digital assistants, not phones – came out in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, this was a fast-changing industry that continually needed new labels and standards for comparison. It created new vocabulary and launched ancillary markets.

Palm’s PR teams wrote momentum releases like this one. It made sense because Palm was a bellwether for an entire industry. In fact, it was so symbolic of the industry itself that its demise warranted this in-depth story, which is in fact a story about the industry, not just Palm. In this article, Palm is a character, not just a company, and its story offers lessons for companies everywhere.

How reporters use momentum releases

Nowadays, what used to be a momentum release is often a blog post instead, like this one for Xbox, which got picked up by news outlets, most of which combined it with info from the above-mentioned Sony momentum release.

You can write a momentum release if a journalist will use it as fodder for a story about an entire market that is in flux.

Reality check for tiny startups

But otherwise, if there’s no “market” yet, there’s no story. One company does not a market make.

And a tiny company in a crowded market that is dominated by big-name companies also won’t make a news splash – not even with a superlative momentum release – because a tiny albeit super-fantastic-and-worthy company doesn’t affect enough readers yet.

So, if this is your client – either too tiny or too unlike what’s being covered as a regular news beat – then I recommend this other kind of press release instead.

Opt for the ‘pain point’ release

I call it the “pain point” press release because it’s about the pain that society feels while suffering from the lack of your client’s solution. Your client and its successes can serve as proof points about the pain point.

This inverse approach is more likely to get coverage because it’s about readers for readers. Write about the readers’ pain. This is what sells your client’s solution, indirectly.

Caveat: There’s no such term as “pain point release” as far as I know. I’m sure PR people will continue to say momentum release in conversations with clients. But I offer it as a stealthy insider’s term to help PR people conceive a better press release.

In concrete specifics, here’s what I suggest:

Sell ‘headaches,’ not ‘aspirin’

Your client’s customers may be living with discomfort because they don’t realize there’s a solution. Sell the discomfort. Make them aware of it.

This is news, as journalists define it, because so many people experience the discomfort. Remember: News isn’t whatever’s “new.” Rather, it’s information that either surprises readers or relates to their decision-making.

If so many people/companies signed up for your client’s fantastic new product or service, it‘s probably because they are the clever forerunners in an inevitable shift who realized they had a headache and decided to get rid of it. Now your client’s solution is a data point in a story about readers overcoming obstacles.

Now co-starring: readers’ obstacles

Put a few connotative details about The Problem in the lead, in the CEO’s quote and in the middle of the release. If you have a customer quote, let the focus be The Problem. Often, just a phrase in each place is enough. No need to overdo it.

Real-life examples

Here’s an example of a problem-centric press release, and where it got picked up by an important trade publication for that industry.

Here’s a charming one that I believe would have been picked up had it been released a couple of weeks earlier.

Blend ‘momentum’ with ‘problem’

Sure, include your company’s name and milestones – of course! But don’t make them the centerpiece. Treat them as attribution or data serving a larger theme.

What journalists do

It’s OK to write press releases about companies and solutions, but keep in mind that, ideally, they will also include material that reporters can actually use for stories.

Fictional bad example

Not so good, though people do it:

SAN JOSE, California – May 8, 2014 – Good Law Inc., the leading provider of mobile solutions for the legal services industry, today announced that it has signed more than 100 customers for its breakthrough Find Legal Help Fast outreach platform for law firms and other companies in the litigation, mediation, arbitration and advocacy industries, demonstrating its momentum in the quickly changing landscape for digital legal services.  

Good Law’s 600 percent revenue growth and its achievement in surpassing the 1-million-mark in apps downloaded nationwide as of April 14 are further evidence that Good Law’s innovative solutions are driving a revolution in the legal services industry.

“We are pleased to announce that Good Law has achieved a key milestone in its commitment to law firms and clients alike,” said Good Law founder and CEO Dante Williams. “Our mission is to aggregate and curate legal discussions to enhance the quality of the legal experience, improving client outcomes while helping law firms create new revenue streams.”

Fictional good example


SAN JOSE, California – May 7, 2014 – Good Law Inc., a network of well-qualified legal experts bringing authoritative advice to mobile devices, is helping Americans avoid high legal fees while giving law firms new software tools for aggregating the management of smaller-scale cases.

“The cost of private counsel is prohibitively high for many litigants,” said Good Law founder and CEO Dante Williams. “Many attorneys charge over $300 per hour and ask for a $5,000 retainer.  Meanwhile, the average American family earns $22 per hour, or about $3,500 per month.”

Good Law’s Get Legal Help Fast platform uses patent-pending natural-language analysis software and other technology to index and analyze small-scale but recurring legal problems and offer authoritative assistance.

The Good Law app, available on iOS and Android devices, has been downloaded more than 1 million times by families, small businesses and individuals who can now benefit from advice tailored for 37 states. Three more state-specific rollouts are scheduled for summer, with all 50 expected to be complete by mid-2015.

Already, more than 100 law firms are using the Find Legal Help Fast platform to build client communities around issues such as small claims, family law, personal injury, landlord-tenant relations and other cases that – once aggregated – offer economies of scale that benefit both firms and clients.

Both the bad and better versions include the 100 customers and 1 million downloads, but the bad example is about the company and the better example is about society’s need for help.

More examples

 Also note the description in the same press release’s fourth paragraph.

Another nice one: the second paragraph here that says, “… roughly 2 million visits to an automotive service facility every day, … no better informed about these major expenses than they were 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.”