Hacking the Press, Part 3: Types of Coverage
Welcome back to my series of articles on how the press works and how to work with the press. I first talked a bit about why you should care about press coverage, and I followed that up with a discussion of different types of publications. This week I’ll turn to the types of coverage you can expect.
Whenever we write a review of a program that has significant competition, we immediately receive email asking why we didn’t compare the program with its competitors. Our answer, each time, is that the article was a review, not a comparison. I always feel bad about saying that, since it feels like a cop-out, but the fact is that every publication chooses to publish different types of articles depending on the situation. Let’s work through them, starting with the smallest and least considered, but by no means the least important.
Mentions — When thinking about article coverage, few people stop to consider the mere mention of a product or company, perhaps in a large feature article or even in a review of a competitor. If it happens to you, your product, or your company (for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to abbreviate these three possibilities to "you" from now on), you may not even notice. After all, the article wasn’t about you, so what difference can a few words make?
Actually, a mention is one of the most powerful and useful forms of coverage you can get, and it’s an indication of success. When it comes to press coverage, being ignored is a bad fate. The fact that you rate high enough to warrant a mention often means one of several things:
You’re considered the leader in the field.
You’re considered a significant challenger to the leader in the field.
Your PR efforts have been successful enough that the writer feels you must be mentioned to avoid numerous redundant comments from readers.
You’ve established a sufficiently close relationship with the writer that he or she can’t in good conscience omit you from articles about the field (but keep in mind that editors sometimes thwart the best intentions of writers in this respect).
So don’t underestimate the utility of small mentions. They don’t carry much information, but what’s important is that readers will think of you in that context. There’s little you can do to ensure that you’re mentioned other than cultivate your relationships with journalists and work on a solid advertising and PR strategy aimed at making your name well known.
News Blips — "News blip" isn’t a technical term, but I’m thinking about the kind of news coverage that can be condensed into a sentence or two. Publications often use news blips as a way of increasing timeliness and breadth of coverage, since it’s easy to throw in a news blip about a product or company that wouldn’t otherwise warrant coverage.
Readers like news blips because they’re easily digested and give an overview of what’s happening. Web-based publications like MacCentral, MacInTouch, MacFixIt, and MacNN, and even headline sites like MacSurfer draw much of their popularity from their frequently updated news blips covering recent events, product releases, and reader reports.
Single news blips are easy to produce, but the cumulative effort of posting numerous news blips each day is huge. Just sorting through incoming email and scanning other publications (yes, everyone does it – it’s a time-honored research method) is a brain-busting job, and writing up the results day in and day out requires true grit.
Thus, anything you can do to simplify news blip collection and production efforts will increase your chances of coverage. That boils down to creating effective press releases that contain all the necessary information. Although you should never baldly state this, a well-written summary paragraph at the top of your press release just might find itself becoming a news blip at publications that are under especially high time pressure or that don’t feel the need to write everything from scratch. One warning: don’t invent or overinflate events (like beta releases) just so you can put out a press release and get news blip coverage. It may work for a while, but it’s essentially a modern-day equivalent of the fable of the boy who cried wolf.
Although I don’t deny the popularity of news blips, I personally find them less useful than brief mentions because publications specializing in news blips often aim to be comprehensive instead of selective. More and more, I find that I prefer sites or publications – not just in the Macintosh world – that drill down on specific topics. So, when making decisions about where to focus your efforts, aim first at publications that are targeted to your desired audience, then move out to the more general publications.
Product Announcements — Next up in the arena of coverage is the product announcement, which many readers confuse for a review. A product announcement is essentially a news item that the publication wants to publish before there’s time for a formal review. People often confuse product announcements and reviews because a good product announcement brings together a fair amount of information and provides context and advice. A good reporter can even include negatives from early user comments or knowledge from a public beta to balance the positive information from the announcement. Although publications easily differentiate between the two, the fact that readers may not can be to your advantage.
Product announcements tend to be positive because most of the information comes from the company. Any negatives included are less likely to be serious or specific since the writer hasn’t yet been able to work with the final version of the program for long. So, when releasing a product, make sure your Web site has plenty of the kinds of information reporters can use to turn a news blip into a product announcement – what’s new and what’s cool. Plus, if you have relationships with specific reporters, it’s worth giving them – independently – a bit more in-depth information about particular features you especially like. That effort will increase your chances of receiving a better and more detailed product announcement article, and reporters like being able to set their stories apart.
Reviews — In theory, a review is the ultimate coverage you can receive, since it’s devoted entirely to your product, with the only distractions being occasional mentions of the competition. I say "in theory" because reviews have a number of gotchas.
Reviews come in a variety of sizes, depending on the publication and product. When I wrote about Internet Explorer 5 in TidBITS, my review was almost 3,000 words. In comparison, reviews in print publications often range between 200 and 1,000 words. Each publication chooses review length based on space, what its editors think their audience finds interesting, and product depth and importance. In some cases, a short review might be better for you, if its size means less room for negative comments, but long reviews are generally best, since their length indicates that the program is both sufficiently interesting and worth the space. To give you some context, this paragraph is a bit over 100 words.
Although it’s unusual in the Mac world, a truly negative review can be damaging. Check back to the previous installment of this article series for suggestions on dealing with such a situation, but ongoing contact with the reviewer and editor is the best way to make sure you’re not surprised by a bad review. And if you’re concerned that the review is going to be awful ahead of time, there’s no shame in asking the editor if you can withdraw your product from consideration. Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but it can’t hurt to ask, politely and without implying that the reviewer is out to get you.
A glowing review with absolutely no negatives is good for the ego, but it is its own downside. Some readers may blindly believe the review, but if the writer couldn’t come up with any negatives, many people will distrust the review. Good publications try hard to present balanced reviews for this very reason – too many glowing reviews and readers may start to distrust everything.
The best way to increase your chances of being reviewed in a publication is to send review copies (also called "comp," for "complimentary," and "NFR," as in "Not for Resale" copies) or software registration numbers to the publications you want to review your product. (But don’t assume that sending a review copy entitles you to a review – it just increases your chances.) The cost in sending review copies is essentially nil in relation to the sales a review can encourage, and you want to do everything you can to ease the logistical aspects of a review being written. If you’re asked for a review copy by a publication, agree graciously. There are few things journalists hate more than nagging for review copies, and reviews have been cancelled because of vendors being difficult about review copies. In many cases, reviewers don’t plan to use the software after the review – writing about products is just a job, and having the software afterwards is seldom a significant bonus. For instance, I did a feature article on cross-platform issues for Macworld that resulted in 18 boxes and 10 loose CD-ROMs. They were mostly necessary for the review, but you know what I’m left with now? Another four feet of software boxes on a shelf that I may never touch again (even if I cover the topic again, I’ll probably need new versions).
An important (but often overlooked) flip-side to sending review copies is promptly following up with answers to the writers’ questions or concerns about the product. If you don’t respond to a reviewer’s questions, the likelihood of getting coverage drops toward nil. Since good reviewers tend to look deeply into a program to anticipate readers’ concerns, the questions can often help you by highlighting areas that need future development attention. It’s best to be straightforward with your answers; don’t view each question as an attack on the product since defensiveness may cause the reviewer to focus even more on the feature in question.
Many companies also provide detailed reviewer’s guides. I’m of two minds about these – I suspect they’re somewhat effective or the companies wouldn’t bother, but at the same time, I find them slightly insulting. As a professional reviewer, I should be investigating the program on my own or in concert with other users, not by working through a reviewer’s guide. If you’re debating whether to invest significant work into creating one, I’d suggest that you restrict your efforts to a one or two page summary of the program’s highlights. Reviewers can then use that to make sure they haven’t missed anything, but they won’t feel as though conclusions are being suggested.
Comparisons — Readers like reviews, but they like comparisons even more. Where a review aims to tell you whether or not you should consider buying a program, a comparison eases the decision even further by laying out the similarities and differences between competing programs.
The problem with comparisons from the reviewer’s standpoint is that they’re hellishly difficult because they require that reviewers simultaneously acquire and become familiar with multiple programs, then keep all that information in their heads as they write. Comparisons also aren’t as popular with the companies whose products don’t come out on top – in a review there’s still a chance the user will decide the product is worthwhile, whereas there’s less to debate in a comparison. Worse, comparison articles tend to be too long for many publications, and despite their length, there’s less room to examine any one program in depth.
One place you might direct efforts with regard to comparisons are Web sites that publish only specific comparisons – I noticed some of these recently while comparing the TiVo and ReplayTV digital television recorders. If you ever run across a site that maintains such a comparison, it’s in your interest to work with them to make sure all the information about your program is correct, although it’s dangerous to comment on details about your competition.
Feature Articles — Whereas most everything we’ve discussed so far revolves around products, feature articles instead focus on topics. I’ve written a number of features for Macworld on topics like backup, email programs, and cross-platform issues, and in each case, I talked not only about numerous products but also about usage strategies, pitfalls, and other universal aspects of the topic.
My comments above about mentions apply well to the kind of coverage you can expect in a feature, since you’re unlikely to be the focus of the article. Any appearance you make in a feature is a good thing, since it legitimizes you in the topic being covered.
It’s worth repeating the importance of maintaining good relations with writers and editors. Many writers contribute to several different publications, which are all looking for fresh angles on existing hardware and software. If your product has added a new capability that crosses into a different category, it’s more likely to be mentioned in a feature article. For example, there wasn’t much to say about the Mac desktop PIM (personal information manager) market for several years until new Palm synchronization capabilities opened up an entirely new editorial category in which PIMs could be mentioned.
Ratings — Some publications assign ratings to products covered in reviews, comparisons, and features – Macworld took over the mouse ratings after merging with MacUser, and MacAddict has the little "Freakin’ Awesome" guy. Ratings work well for readers as a summary of the writer’s opinion of your product, and being able to slap a good rating on your box or Web site only helps. However, ratings are tricky for a number of reasons.
Speaking as a reviewer, they’re difficult to establish because there are so many variables to consider.
It can be difficult for a reviewer to reconcile the text of an article (particularly a short review, comparison, or feature) with the rating.
Publications often have different reviewers work on competing programs, which either requires negotiation to make sure the ratings match or results in inconsistent (and thus useless) ratings.
Product ratings have to be updated to account for changing competitive landscapes – date of review is extremely important when evaluating a rating.
You can’t argue with a rating, and trying will only irritate everyone. Your best strategy if you receive a lousy rating is to release a revision that addresses the problems raised in the review and ask the publication to look at the new version. Even if you don’t get a full review, they may redo the rating.
We had some discussion on TidBITS Talk recently about starting a ratings system for TidBITS. In the end we decided it didn’t fit with our editorial approach, but the conversation was fascinating.
Tech Support/How-To — I’m clumping tech support and how-to articles together because they both focus on a specific aspect of your program. Publications generally restrict this sort coverage to the important programs that they think many of their readers are likely to use; as a result it’s great to find yourself receiving such coverage because it means you’re sufficiently important to warrant such a look. Even if the article talks about a task your program doesn’t do well, it probably also offers a workaround.
There’s little you can do to influence this sort of coverage, with the possible exception of passing on clever tips with your software to writers. If they think a tip or trick is sufficiently useful, it might become an article.
Editorial Analysis & Opinion — I’ve saved the fuzziest sort of coverage for last – these are the sort of articles where a writer spouts off on some topic or another. Much of my writing falls into this category, since I like to explore topics and attempt to explain them. From the point of view of a developer, this sort of coverage might be great or it might be awful – since these sorts of articles are couched largely in the experience and knowledge of the writer, they vary widely in quality and insight. Thanks to the Internet, everyone can express their opinion, and believe me, there are differing opinions of varying quality on every side of every issue.
I’ve hammered on the utility of relationships throughout this article, but good relationships are never as important as when affecting editorial coverage. Look at it this way: you want to be mentioned in appropriate analytical or opinion pieces, and you want those mentions to be positive. If you have no connection with the person writing such a piece, the chance of a mention decreases, and the chance that any such mentions will be negative increases. In contrast, if you have a relationship with a writer, he or she is more likely to think of you when looking for quotes or giving examples, for instance, and if you’ve made sure that person’s knowledge of you, your product, and your company is accurate, you’re less likely to suffer from a misinformed example. From the writer’s point of view, having accurate information helps avoid unnecessary comments and corrections.
Having a relationship with a journalist also gives you some additional leeway in pointing that person at topics you think need coverage. It’s usually a bad idea to say, "Hey, you should write about such-and-such," since that may raise journalistic hackles. But there’s nothing wrong with forwarding a piece of email about the topic along with a short note explaining why you think it’s interesting. Who knows – it might turn into an article with you at the center.
That’s it for this week’s coverage of these rather broad classes of press coverage. I realize I’ve set myself up for the big question of just how you should go about establishing relationships with journalists, and that’s where I’ll turn my attention next.