Hacking the Press, Part 1: Why Bother?
The last two years that I’ve attended the MacHack developers conference, I’ve also participated as a speaker. I’ve done this in large part because the attitude that permeates the conference is one of sharing knowledge, and although I can’t contribute a line of code to a hack, I can explain to developers how the press works and how developers can better interact with the press, for the benefit of everyone via improved reporting. In the spirit of the conference, I call this session Hacking the Press. Although my talk and representation of it in this article series are aimed primarily at developers, it should shed light on the inner workings of the Macintosh industry in which we all play roles.
The Utility of Exposure — In this first installment, I’m going to look briefly at the basic question of why anyone would bother trying to score press coverage for their product. It may seem painfully obvious, but you’d be amazed at the number of developers, both large and small, that don’t seem to grok this basic principle: the goal is increased exposure for your product and company. And for those who fail to understand the goal of increased exposure, consider the following results of exposure and decide if they’re attractive:
Additional sales. If you’re attempting to make money by selling your program, increased exposure is likely to help increase the number of people who will plunk down their hard-earned cash for your software.
Improved brand recognition. If you’re trying to make a name for yourself or your company, increased exposure can help make that name the first one that springs to mind when someone thinks of the overall topic. For instance, it’s impossible to think about desktop publishing without thinking about Adobe and Quark. But what about Diwan Software (Ready, Set, Go!) and Corel (Print Office)?
Enhanced reputation. Many developers who release their software for free are doing so to satisfy the little voice inside that wants recognition for good work and the reputation that accompanies that recognition. But if no one learns about and uses your program, how can it help your reputation? Keep in mind that reputation is incredibly valuable in helping to open doors elsewhere in life. For example, the reputation I built up publishing TidBITS helped open the door that allowed me to write the best-selling Internet Starter Kit series of books.
Successful altruism. Many developers, particularly smaller ones, write software solely to help other users. Even if there’s a financial component to your overall goals, the more people who know about your work, the more likely the software can help them. For instance, when I write books, I do so with the hope that they’ll earn some money, but my primary goal is to help readers. If the book doesn’t sell well, I’m disappointed both on financial grounds and because few people benefited from my work.
Types of Exposure — Of course, the press isn’t the only conduit for telling potential users about your software, but in many ways it’s the best. Let’s finish off this week’s article with a look at the different possibilities.
First, it has become important to have a Web site, and indeed, it should provide extensive details, including pricing, system requirements, release notes, support information, patches, mailing list archives, and so forth. There aren’t any limits on how much information you can put on a Web site, and you shouldn’t skimp. You don’t get any points for a concise Web site, and if you’re confused about what should be on your Web site, put yourself in the shoes of users and journalists. And even if a Web site doesn’t automatically increase your software’s exposure, you will gain a resource that’s always available, working for you while you’re working on other projects.
Although a solid Web site is important, users know they’re seeing only your side of the story. For instance, it’s tempting to publish a comparison table with competitive software that puts your program in a positive light, but no one will be surprised when your program wins on every comparison. There’s nothing wrong with doing such comparisons, but don’t assume that users will take your word on everything. Plus, no journalist worth his or her table salt will look at your comparison and say, "Wow, now that I’ve seen this nicely formatted table I can see that GurgleWeb is by far the most powerful Web browser on the market."
Second, it’s important to employ some sort of advertising, which can take a variety of forms, all of which are designed to tell people about your program and its features and benefits. Advertising in publications is great on two counts – you control exactly what’s said, and it’s extremely important in helping publications survive (which is necessary for editorial coverage). However, advertising is less important than it was before the Web, when it was a primary source of information for potential buyers. I remember poring through the ads in computer magazines for every scrap of information I could find. These days, advertising is more about branding and basic name identification – you want users to think of you instantly as soon as a problem solved by your software appears.
On the downside, advertising does cost money, and if you’re making claims about your product, you can be sure that many people will take your claims with a grain of your aforementioned table salt. We’re all becoming ever more media-savvy – I remember when I first learned that the paper catalogs put out by MacConnection, MacZone, MacMall, and others listed only products that had paid to be featured (it’s called cooperative advertising, and TidBITS covered it a few times back in 1996 and 1997). Before, I’d always assumed that merit was somehow related. So although advertising is important, relying on it can be dangerous if users don’t buy into the message you’re trying to convey.
Third, and here’s where we’ll pause for this week, we come to the most important form of exposure (in my humble but utterly biased opinion): editorial coverage. Other than the minimal cost of a review copy and possibly a bit of your time working with the writer, editorial coverage is essentially free, making it more attractive than advertising for those on limited budgets. Plus, any opportunity to connect with writers and editors is valuable in its own right. Even if the coverage is limited, such as being mentioned in a review of a competing product, it’s almost always better to receive the coverage than not. Full coverage is of course ideal, and although space varies from publication to publication, a review not only offers readers far more detail than any advertising you could buy, it also carries far more weight with readers than anything you can say, either on your Web site or in an ad.
The risk with editorial coverage is that it may not be entirely favorable, since you don’t have any control over what the reviewer writes. But is that entirely true? In reality, there are ways you can improve your chances of getting coverage, avoiding bad coverage, and recovering if you do happen to be on the receiving end of some bad press.
I’ll include those tips in future installments of this series, which will also look at the different types of publications and the best ways of interacting with each type, the roles different people within your company (development, marketing, PR) play when dealing with the press, what journalists are like and how to interact with them, and finally the types of coverage you can expect and the value of each type.