When we think about the art of storytelling, we might remember a favorite novel and how its author wove a tale of wonder, skillfully drawing us in and creating characters we loved (or hated). And on rare occasions, we may find ourselves enchanted by a lush tale that leaves us wanting more when we close the cover.
Storytelling isn’t reserved for a good book or movie, though. SaaS marketers use storytelling regularly to drive home key messages, capture and keep customer loyalty and differentiate their brand from the competition.
But have you thought about storytelling’s impact on SaaS leadership? It plays a massive role in driving employee buy-in and engagement. Storytelling also connects to branding, change management, strategy development, values, vision work and more.
Adding storytelling to your SaaS leadership toolbox
Some SaaS leaders may think of themselves as devoid of storytelling abilities, but I believe it’s a skill they can learn. It’s a skill every leader should hone because when they tell a good story, they become more effective at:
Introducing new ideas.
Communicating their vision.
Shifting employee mindsets.
Winning over clients, teams and other stakeholders.
Inspiring audiences — and so much more.
Tap into emotions
Sharing narratives evoking emotions like empathy, excitement and humor allows you to establish personal connections and build trust with your audience. People who feel emotionally connected to their leaders are more likely to feel motivated, loyal and willing to follow their vision.
Explain and clarify
Want your people to remember your message? Tell a story. It’s much more memorable than statistics, facts or abstract concepts. A story offers the perfect vehicle to explain and clarify abstract concepts! Presenting information in a narrative format provides a context for people to understand and retain your message’s key points. You enhance your communication’s effectiveness and ensure your message resonates with listeners over time.
Champion your vision
Sharing personal anecdotes or illustrating real-life examples empowers you to paint a vivid picture of the core values and beliefs guiding your decision-making. Helping your employees understand and align with your vision fosters a sense of shared purpose and enhances collaboration and commitment to common goals.
Inspire and drive transformation
Leaders often face the challenge of driving transformation or overcoming resistance to change. By sharing stories highlighting the benefits of change — or positive, achievable outcomes — we can create a sense of urgency and motivate our teams or employees to embrace new ideas and approaches. Stories inspire during challenging times, reminding people of past successes or illustrating the resilience and determination required to overcome obstacles.
Define culture and identity
Storytelling also plays a vital role in shaping an organization’s culture and identity. You can use stories to establish a shared narrative defining the organization’s traditions, history and values.
Sharing stories celebrating past achievements, lessons learned and defining moments reinforces a sense of identity and fosters a culture that values innovation, collaboration — or other traits you deem essential. With these stories, you will communicate your organization’s mission and brand — internally and externally — to create a sense of shared purpose and attract like-minded people.
Characteristics of effective storytelling
Know your audience
You might share the same story across your organization, but delivering an identical message to your managers, teams and individual contributors, new hires and veteran employees won’t land as well as tailoring one to each audience.
Start by talking to people informally because it’s much easier to learn what worries or motivates them or what piques their curiosity. When you know your audience, you can more easily infuse your story with examples and specific language, speaking directly to their concerns and questions.
Ground your story in context
Imagine rolling out a new initiative but not explaining the reasoning behind it. Your employees might see it as a random initiative from the top — but if you show how it fits into your company’s broader vision, you’ll likely get more buy-in. Why? Because people will see the genesis of the changes, their necessity and how they contribute to future strategy.
Humanize your story
We’re all drawn to stories — especially personal anecdotes, which humanize abstract notions, help you reframe objective claims or drive home a point. And you don’t have to be your story’s hero, either. Sometimes showing your fallibility is more effective. After all, being great is… great, but it’s not always relatable. As Tyra Banks wrote, “Perfect is boring.”
Make your story action-oriented
If you want people to understand your story — and empower them to take action from it — focus on what you want your audience to do after they hear it. Offer practical advice and clear direction because specifics reduce anxiety. When you help people understand a change in company direction, for example, and how those changes relate to them, it’s much easier for them to set and work toward their goals.
Stay authentic and humble
Anchor your story with personal experiences, emotions and values. Embracing authenticity connects you to your audience and helps them relate to and trust your message. Speaking with humility demonstrates your capacity for learning and growth, showing you don’t claim to have all the answers, have made mistakes and have corrected course as necessary.
When you admit you’re not perfect and own your mistakes, your audience relates to you more easily. After all, some of the best stories involve failures, disasters and mistakes. They give your story tension, add emotion and become the pivot points that makes your story memorable.
Have a clear outcome
Your story should leave your audience with some takeaway — a lesson or thought-provoking message. What should people have learned, or what should they do after they hear your story? Perhaps you’ve provided actionable points that propel action. Or you’ve shown your audience where you’ve come from — and where you’re going. A clear outcome generates trust and confidence in your values, mission and purpose.
We remember those storytellers who have great presence and tell great stories. From actors and teachers to mentors and leaders, we associate these people with the stories they’ve told. Why? Because stories empower us to create connections, foster engagement and share meaning. And as leaders, they matter to our identity and roles, our priorities and our aspirations.
Attracting and retaining the right talent in today’s job market can be challenging. According to a recent Gallup poll, employee engagement in the U.S. was down for the second consecutive year — only 32% of full- and part-time employees say they’re engaged at work.
Widespread layoffs across industries haven’t helped. Many employees feel disillusioned with the promise of job security. A Harvard Business Review study shared that more than 45% of employees who have experienced layoffs in the last year are concerned with job security. These factors, among others, have employers seeking better ways to engage the workforce.
When speaking with clients, we hear current and prospective employees cited as target audiences for SaaS PR efforts. Many companies want to use PR to share compelling brand messages or demonstrate what makes their culture unique. But most don’t know where to start.
Here are a few tips for effectively leveraging SaaS PR in talent recruitment and retention.
Leveraging award wins
Winning awards helps SaaS companies differentiate themselves from others in the market — by building credibility and engaging new talent and current employees. For example, earning an award for DEIB initiatives or corporate social responsibility practices, such as TechRadius’ Tech Cares Award, tells job candidates you’re committed to building a supportive culture.
You can showcase these culture-focused awards by issuing a press release highlighting the award category and criteria, activating a robust social media campaign or leveraging the award in future display or email advertising. But don’t forget to share the story behind the win. Depending on the award, the application process may allow employees to share takeaways about their time with your company — use those insights to continue enhancing the employee experience.
Maintaining a strong and consistent brand voice
Employees demand more than just a paycheck; they want to work somewhere that aligns with their values. As a result, companies have to demonstrate a clear set of values to stand out from the competition. In fact, according to a recent LinkedIn survey, 87% of Gen Z professionals — who comprise a significant portion of our workforce – would quit their jobs to work at a new company that more closely reflected their values.
Whether highlighting a DEIB statement or the brand’s culture or benefits, companies should ensure their brand voice is consistent across all channels. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bylined article, job description or social media post: The message should be authentic, meaningful and reflective of a company’s core values.
Elevate your thought leadership in the media
You may already use your executive team for industry-specific thought leadership — whether it’s unique commentary on trending topics, like generative AI, or actionable insights through contributed content. These strategies help establish brand authority and showcase a thought leader’s expertise.
But when elevating your thought leadership to appeal to current and prospective employees, companies should consider stepping out of their comfort zone. For example, if your CEO or founder deeply understands the burnout associated with scaling a SaaS business, leverage their insights to secure an interview on the importance of mental health benefits in the workplace.
Moreover, companies can further demonstrate their commitment to employee well-being by facilitating access to practical resources such as first aid courses. Encouraging employees to learn first aid in Newcastle, for instance, not only equips them with invaluable skills to respond to emergencies but also reinforces a culture of care and preparedness within the organization. By integrating initiatives like first aid training into the fabric of the workplace, companies signal their dedication to fostering a safe and supportive environment where employees feel empowered to take proactive steps towards their own well-being and that of their colleagues. This proactive approach not only enhances employee morale and satisfaction but also strengthens the company’s reputation as a conscientious and compassionate employer in the eyes of current and prospective talent.
Do you have an employee with a remarkable career journey or personal accomplishment? Use employees’ personal stories to secure podcast interviews or Q&A opportunities. These stories help establish trust and enable companies to showcase their unique cultural differentiators and draw stronger connections with their target audience: employees.
Data crunching isn’t enough: What’s the data’s story?
“Maybe stories are just data with a soul!” ~ Brene Brown
Every good story starts with a hook — finding the cure for a brain-eating fungus in a post-apocalyptic world. Stopping the Empire from overtaking the galaxy. Playing a series of kids’ games where to lose is to die, but winning it all means making bank.
And some stories rely on data to hook their audiences. Numbers alone don’t necessarily make an impact — but when B2B SaaS marketers, PR pros (and honestly, anyone else reliant on numbers) weave a narrative around the data, presenting it in context and framing its broader implications? That’s when the magic happens.
What is data storytelling?
Data storytelling allows SaaS PR professionals to help their clients leverage complex data and analytics to build a compelling narrative that tells a specific story via graphs, charts and other visuals while informing and influencing a particular audience. When executed well, data storytelling:
Adds a human touch to data.
Elevates the value of data and insights by interpreting and highlighting the key points of complex information.
Helps explain data patterns and trends to non-technical audiences.
Builds credibility as an industry thought leader.
Improves data literacy by guiding people and teaching them how to read — and understand — data visualizations.
You’ve got the data. Now what?
Interesting data stories include three main elements: the data, visuals and a narrative. These steps will help you transform your raw data into an interesting story.
Understand the question. Have you determined what question you want to answer first? If sales fell sharply last year among a certain demographic, do you know why? Knowing what you’re looking for will lead you to the best resources for the answer — whether it’s data about a product mix, marketing targets or customer preferences.
Know the audience. Customize your presentation to suit them — are you sharing this story with the marketing team? Executive leadership? Board members? What’s their familiarity with the topic, problem or situation? How does it affect them? Are different presentation styles more effective than others? Can they process high levels of detail? These insights will shape your narrative approach.
Analyze your data. You can’t create an interesting story without understanding the underlying data’s structure.Evaluate both the structure and quality, and highlight critical characteristics — patterns, format and completeness. You can even use a data management tool to confirm accuracy and validity.
Organize and present your data consistently. Sometimes you might need to standardize formats (75% vs. .75). You may find other anomalies addressed via deduplicating, enriching or parsing. Look to other sources if your data set is incomplete.
Craft your data story. Effectively using charts, graphs and other data visuals requires knowing how people perceive them. Some people want the big picture at a glance to understand the message’s value. Others want to drill down into the granular, nitty-gritty details.
In what order will you present the information to generate a maximum effect? Anticipate questions people might ask about a specific visual. The first chart might show decreased sales and the second might explain why. Think about the trends your research uncovered and organize your presentation into a logical path.
Embrace a “less is more” approach by building a story in layers. Use multiple visuals (instead of cramming everything onto one slide) so your audience won’t feel overwhelmed. Presenting everything on one crowded chart drowns out important messages. Divide the information among multiple consecutive charts, and use animations to reflect changes or add emphasis and help the story flow.
Give some love to the text accompanying the charts, which often catch the eye first. Go beyond mere labels and include a brief explanation of what it shows. Incorporate text annotations to highlight important details.
Champion simplicity. A line chart or bar graph often works well to present information — use color, arrows, circles or other simple graphics to add visual interest.
Take a look.
Don’t just take it from us SaaS PR pros, though. We pulled some of our favorite articles that do an exemplary job of weaving data storytelling into the overall narrative to educate, entertain and provoke thought.
CMOs can’t defend what they can’t define — This article presents multiple visuals to illustrate the challenges CMOs face with explaining the challenges they face with explaining how their teams generate value.
We don’t make business decisions based on logic alone. Sure, analysis drives business thinking, but a barrage of numbers doesn’t inspire and motivate as effectively as a good story. Well-told stories create a shared human experience.
And let’s face it. Unless you’re a statistician, you’re unlikely to remember the numbers. Data in a vacuum? Pretty bland and unremarkable. But storytelling allows us to mold abstract, dry numbers into a captivating and interesting story. And we’re far more likely to remember a story than cold, hard numbers. Want to make sure your data makes a lasting impression? Go ahead and stretch your narrative muscles.
I planned Our First Half-Day Training Event and Here’s What I Learned
BLASTmedia recently hosted our very first Elevate Day — a half-day training event that gave our employees the opportunity to learn about new strategies in the world of PR and content development, tap into their creative side, and learn about the SaaS investing landscape from VCs themselves.
Think somewhere between Dreamforce and a The Office-style whiteboard presentation.
We used Elevate Day to hone in on topics that we identified a need for extended training around due to market changes and evolving best practices, as well as trends we saw in a recent training benchmark survey that asked employees to self-report on their confidence level around certain skills. Each employee could choose their Elevate Day track from a number of session options in each training category to personalize the day to their individual interests.
Here are the top three things I learned (outside of making plans for unexpected weather!) at our very first Elevate Day training event:
The media landscape is changing more rapidly than we could have imagined even five years ago.
Who and how I pitched last quarter could completely differ from who and how someone else at the agency is pitching this quarter. That’s why it’s so important to knowledge share across your agency — and Elevate Day made that glaringly clear. As I listened to various sessions, I saw so many people sharing tips and tricks about new approaches they’re taking due to shifts in how reporters like to be pitched or shrinking newsroom staff. Let’s just say…Elevate Day motivated me to keep this knowledge-sharing alive and well in our agency.
This conversation also reinforced the importance of tapping outside experts for their perspectives and advice. Outside of the investment landscape, we also talked about why PR sometimes gets a bad rap and ideas on how to position what we do to potentially skeptical execs or VCs (from VCs themselves!) — a conversation we face head-on regularly.
It pays to make time to learn
It’s easy to say that you want to make time to learn, but hard to actually set that time aside. Elevate Day showed me firsthand how important it is to not only create an environment of continual learning, but also to design opportunities for individuals to step outside of their norm to learn. That’s why we strategically planned the day during our regularly scheduled “No Meetings Week.”
Clearing our schedules and walking through the doors with our minds focused on soaking in everything the day had to offer made it so much easier to absorb new information and ask probing questions. I also noticed that stepping outside of our norm for a half day of learning helped boost the energy at the office and encouraged more creative thinking across the board!
Have a favorite learning event you’ve participated in that you’d like to share ideas from or want to speak at BLAST? Shoot me an email at email@example.com!
Would you rather buy from a brand pushing only product messaging or from a purpose-driven brand with a story to tell? According to AdWeek, 78% of consumers said they make purchase decisions based on their values and 55% purchase from brands that share their values.
Currently, the economy is uncertain in the SaaS space, and many think that driving home product messaging or upping paid advertising will increase demand. But, with consumers so focused on doing good and finding alignment with their values, a key part of creating demand is leveraging personal stories through your SaaS PR program.
While sharing personal or vulnerable anecdotes can be uncomfortable, remember that these types of stories are often the most relatable and can help build trust with your audience.
Here’s a closer look at how personal stories open the door to many brand benefits:
Humanizes the brand
Personal stories humanize your brand. We have all seen the banner changes on social media during significant events like Black History or Pride month, but do you have an individual who can share their own experience related to these events? If a company leader is willing to get vulnerable, these messages are more impactful and authentic than just going with the status quo.
Providing a direct tie back to critical DEI conversations or worldly trends improves reputation with customers and is also positive for recruiting. If candidates can relate to company leadership personally, they’re more likely to consider your company when narrowing their options.
Personal stories not only improve brand perception but also help to build the brand of an individual subject matter expert. More than ever, people want to buy from people, and investors want to invest in leaders.
But don’t fall victim to the myth that personal stories don’t provide valuable lead-generation opportunities. Since tier-one media are often more interested in features with a person at the core, they can improve your ability to rank in search as a thought leader and company. Not to mention, those “about the author” sections often include the prized backlink!
Creates differentiation to pique reporter interest
Securing opportunities with tier-one media is often a goal many organizations want from their SaaS PR program. A key item to achieve this goal is to build rapport and foster a relationship with editors who may reach out for commentary opportunities in the future.
Well, rapport doesn’t happen overnight — and definitely doesn’t happen by constantly shoving product messages at a reporter. Leveraging personal stories is typically a great place to start. They let a reporter get to know you as an individual, company leader and then get to know your brand.
They may not result in a story right away, but they often create opportunities in the long run.
In today’s world, surface-level commentary will not cut it. Reporters and buyers want more, and we need personal, meaningful connections to capture media and audience attention. To learn more about how personal stories can improve your SaaS PR program, contact Lindsey Groepper.
Like many, I’ve spent the last few months reading, watching and listening to various opinions regarding generative AI and ChatGPT, a large language model trained by OpenAI. This technology takes immense amounts of data, looks for patterns, and becomes more proficient at mainly generating accurate and probable outputs. The buzz surrounding the tech today is primarily around the humanlike language and thoughts it can generate with only a few inputs from you or me.
More specifically, I’ve naturally leaned into how AI bots like ChatGPT affect the marketing industry and our future as a SaaS PR agency. Through this journey, I’ve realized that many of us are asking the wrong question. It’s not about whether or not ChatGPT will replace marketing jobs. The reality I’ve come to accept, and excitedly so, is that marketers who embrace ChatGPT will replace those who do not. And I believe this holds for every company across every sector.
The businesses that are quickest to adopt and refine this technology will win.
If you’re still on the fence about generative AI, I get it. It’s a lot to digest. To help potentially reframe your thinking, I’ll tackle a few overarching takeaways from the hours of material I reviewed, including insight from academics, technologists, marketers and analysts.
The technology reflects us
There will be ChatGPT champs and chumps, as ChatGPT starts with a human entering a prompt for a specific outcome. Suppose a particular human is apathetic about their job, takes shortcuts, and is generally lazy before using ChatGPT. In that case, there is a good chance ChatGPT will be used in a way that reflects poorly on the technology and its output. The output quality will depend on how much attention and time is spent on the input and refining the results. The lazy human will take the first draft received from the bot and run with it as the final.
On the flip side, if one approaches the technology from the viewpoint of being a beginning point, an idea-starter, and a tool to be more efficient, the strength, value and perception of the technology will be positive. The intuitive and intentional use of ChatGPT can result in helpful and valuable outputs if you approach it the right way.
Bots can’t be “forwardists”
AI bots like ChatGPT are limited to replicating what they’ve learned from what already exists online. And the training set currently only includes data through 2021. For example, ChatGPT won’t be able to create language around a new SaaS category, introduce a future concept or promote a new product because there is likely nothing accurate online about it yet from which to pull data.
Creating new points of view and introducing fresh concepts or unique predictions will still require human insight and creativity.
If you’ve played around with ChatGPT, as I have, you’ll see both the impressive value and the limitations of the technology. For example, I noticed very confident falsities in the output, “facts” that were inaccurate or not cited. In addition, most results were fairly general and baseline, even with intentional and detailed inputs.
ChatGPT isn’t good enough (yet) to be a competitor
The technology isn’t good enough yet to be seen as a competitive threat or a viable replacement for human creativity and common sense. Rather, it’s just another new tool in the martech stack. It’s insanely helpful at cranking out a “crappy first draft” when staring at a blank page, writing alternative headlines or email subject lines, and revising content in another tone or voice.
Think of ChatGPT as adding a new instrument to the band. It enhances the overall sound but doesn’t replace or compete with the other instruments.
Bot bias is real
One of the key challenges with AI-generated content is the risk of bias, which shows up for a couple of reasons. First, the AI has trained on a biased sample set because the internet inherently is limited with a general lack of representation in its content. Second, humans are biased, so human-created content is biased too.
Marketers need to be trained and more attentive to bias and take steps to minimize it in their communication. It is not a simple tech fix, but it requires a conscious effort on the part of marketers to ensure their communication is unbiased and inclusive.
Modern marketing teams will adapt ChatGPT; it’s inevitable if you want to survive. But it’s up to us humans to use it effectively and creatively. As with any tool, it’s only as helpful as the person wielding it. So, let’s become highly skilled at our technique and use it when needed and for the proper purpose.
We’re bringing back our media connections series, and we thought what better way to kick us off than with Alex Konrad, senior editor at Forbes. He’s worked at Forbes for 10 years, covering venture capital, cloud and startups. Additionally, he edits the Midas List, Midas List Europe, Cloud 100 list and 30 Under 30 for VC. You might have also caught him in a Hulu documentary 👀
While Alex covers what some consider a ‘sweet spot’ in SaaS, he can’t cover every startup story. We sat down with him to discuss his PR pet peeves, how he comes up with story ideas, and what topics he’s hot about right now.
How do you choose what you write about? What elements make a company interesting to you?
Alex: One important thing to remember is that a good company does not equal a good story. Sometimes the best stories are because companies are not great, and sometimes great companies don’t have a great story. It’s OK not to have a great story yet, but it can be difficult to force it if nothing is interesting or dramatic.
As reporters, we’re looking for a compelling narrative that speaks to a bigger lesson, trend or warning. We must think about each company we look at and consider if it embodies something bigger. What is the exciting narrative? That might be a David vs. Goliath story, overcoming the odds as a founder or someone with a surprise second career or a quirky passion.
A fun story I once wrote was about a midsize tech company at the time called Appian. It’s not the most exciting company in the world, although it did go public, but its CEO is an elite board game designer and has designed and commercialized multiple board games. Every year he goes to the world boardgaming championships. Going with the CEO of a public company to watch him compete and understand his leadership style from his board-game play was the kind of thing any reporter would want to do once. It’s a good example where the story might be more compelling than the business itself.
I noticed crypto and Web3 were common themes in your stories last year. Is that a personal interest, or is that a macro trend that performs well that led to stories written about that?
Alex: Journalists want to write about the hot-button topics of the day because they want to write useful information that people will plausibly read. There are topics that I’d love to spend more time on, but it’s hard to find my angle or justify why people would care about them.
It is a business. We have a lot of autonomy at Forbes, and in some newsrooms, there is a lot of trust in a reporter, but it’s never a good feeling to spend a lot of time on a story that only a few people care about. At Forbes, we’re not judged by our pageviews, but still, if you create something, you want it to matter.
With something like crypto, we at Forbes try to follow the money, especially me as the venture capital editor. If that industry has lost its mind about a topic, I need to have a point of view on it, explore it and look where the money is flowing. It’s not necessarily a great thing, but it’s meaningful, and if you’re a founder, or you work in the tech industry, or you want to learn about it, you need to know what that buzzy topic is on some level.
Are there any other tech trends or technologies that you’re personally interested in right now that you think will be a focus in 2023?
Alex: I am looking at AI, where we recently published a feature explaining the field. I wrote a cover story a couple of years ago on UiPath. I’ve written a lot about work software companies like Slack, Notion, Asana and Canva. The future of work is always exciting, and how generative AI could play a significant disruptive player in many of our workflows is compelling. I’ve enjoyed meeting companies that are trying to build on top of these tools.
Climate is something my team is interested in. There is more appetite from investors to put money into climate startups again. There is a bit of a sense of urgency by some people in the industry that now is the time to work on solutions there, but at the same time, climate companies face a high bar for success: they’re capital intensive, and historically we haven’t had that massive breakout climate tech company. So we might be cautious about not overhyping or over-promising.
I continue to write a lot about representation. We love looking at underrepresented founders doing great things or companies coming from unexpected places. Our 30 under 30 summits have spent the last few years in Detroit, and now it will be in Cleveland. We love at Forbes to try and break out of the bubble of Silicon Valley and New York.
Are there any other hot spots you’re seeing companies come out of that you’re interested in?
Alex: I think Seattle will become more relevant in the future, especially with this passion for AI. They have the Allen Institute and smart folks coming out of the big tech companies.
I’ve spent a lot of time understanding the European market. I haven’t done all the homework, but all the signals point to Paris being a surprisingly great place for entrepreneurship. I’m open to looking at other areas that are outside the so-called west of Europe and the U.S. as well.
What is the best channel and time to pitch you?
Alex: Emailing me politely during work hours is the best chance of success. I don’t appreciate when people try to gain creativity points by reaching people in unusual methods like my personal social media accounts. I don’t like cold calls because my day is usually chaotic. If I’m getting a call from an unknown number, I’m only answering it because it might be a source on a story, and for it to be a non-super time-sensitive pitch or hail mary pitch is inefficient for me.
I have a lot of empathy for PR professionals, but there are a lot more PR people than journalists. It’s hard for me to feel we owe a response on every pitch. I can spend a whole day just responding, and I still wouldn’t get to every pitch in my inbox. That said, I try to respond to exclusive offers because I know the person is waiting for my response before going to someone else. I will be very unlikely to respond to something that misrepresents anything. For example, we recently had an exclusive offer sent to my entire team. That’s not going to make us feel good that we all got the same email, so that will put them on the untrustworthy list.
Otherwise, emailing me a general pitch and sending a follow-up email is reasonable, but I will not have time to respond if I haven’t responded to one follow-up. Unfortunately, sending three more messages doesn’t make anyone happier.
I know that’s difficult because I know some clients want PR professionals to have a hard answer, but I would encourage my friends in PR to be that go-between for the journalists and the client and feel empowered to speak on behalf of the journalists and say, “It’s a pass from Alex, calling him isn’t going to improve the situation. We should graciously move on.” There have been times when I’ve been hounded to get a hard no, and it’s not helping anyone. The goal for a pitch should not be just to get a hard no.
What are other pitch pet peeves?
Alex: The relationships I value the most with PR professionals are the ones where they can guess how I think and act as a go-between between a client and me on an idea. They can anticipate when something won’t be a good fit or, at most, ask whether I think this will be a fit for someone else on my team.
One other pet peeve is if I go out of my way to pass on something or explain why something isn’t going to be a fit, an unfortunate number of times the person feels like they’re in the middle of a live conversation with me and can bring up something else. Given asynchronous communication, that is not the case. Now you’ve sent me another email, and you expect another response. What it’s doing is training me not to respond because if I politely pass, you’re going to pitch another client, and it’ll take more time out of my day to help you.
The last thing I’ll close on is conveying that the best relationships are back and forth. Some folks have brought me great stories in the past or tips, and then it does feel more like a back-and-forth. Other people feel like we’re old friends because they’ve pitched me for years unsuccessfully, and I’ve tried to be polite back, but we’ve never met. They’ve never actually helped my career, so the idea that we’re some partnership is misguided. I’ve helped them by passing or doing whatever to check a box, but no box on my end has ever been checked off.
That’s something to remember: unless we’re writing a big exciting story, agreeing to meet is not a win for us. What comes out of the meeting can be a win. Just the act of going to a meeting puts us in the red. We’ve invested time in this that we could have used elsewhere, and we need to deliver on that eventually. Earlier in my career, I agreed to a million meetings. I didn’t do a good job of converting those meetings into conversation-starting stories, so now I am more thoughtful about why the meeting would be helpful.
Do you have a list of go-to sources that you reach out to? How did those people build that relationship with you?
Alex: Companies and people who punch above their weight or are willing to give us a perspective that isn’t the known public perspective are ones that I will remember, and I am more likely to trust them generally in the future.
Let’s say we’re looking at AI, and we’re talking to all these huge companies. A small startup says, “You may not want to write about my small AI startup today, but I used to work at Google, and I can tell you pretty confidently the behind-the-scenes of how Google is approaching this.” OK, so maybe you’re a source on Google’s AI perspective, and then as your company gets bigger, I’m more likely to think of you and know you’re legit and potentially cover you down the road. But you have to give me something to trust you when you want something.
People think that meeting has built a relationship, but the journalists want something to come out of that relationship. My best go-to’s are people who are sources. They tip me on things. I’m writing a story about X. Do they know anyone with inside info about that topic? They’ll say yes or no, honestly. They won’t try to shoehorn a client in. There are a few people in my head, whether VCs, founders or PR professionals, who are good at understanding that flow, so I go to them first.
Are there other things that make a pitch stand out to you?
Alex: I’m looking to be surprised. I’m looking for something contrarian or that teaches me something that will get my attention. Any facts that speak to that compelling, personal story might be interesting to me, or any breadcrumbs that can allow me to think that this speaks to a bigger story. If a pitch was basically like:
Hey, we’re a climate tech company, and we’re doing this alternative to carbon capture. It’s very early, but we worked at the leading carbon capture startup, and we got disillusioned that it’s not effective.
Communicating that in some way might interest me because it’s a two-for-one. I can learn what you’re doing, but I’m also interested in why carbon capture is not working. They can punch above their weight. That’s something we look for.
So, a founder’s background is a defining factor?
Alex: It’s helpful if they’re compelling. If they’re not relevant, then you need to try something else. The more companies can be evaluated beyond just how much they’ve raised, who their backers are, and what scale they’re at is going to be important. The reality is few companies will pitch us, hey, you’ve never heard of us, and we have $100M in revenue — and if they do, they’re often 30-year-old private equity-owned companies that will not excite our readers either.
Can you give us an overview of your editorial process?
Alex: It’s very different based on the type of story. If it’s a quicker, exclusive story, I can call the shots on whether or not it makes sense, and then I get approval from my editors. Forbes trusts its reporters a lot to know their beats and understand what’s story-worthy.
Once you get into stories requiring travel or more time, there will be more dialogue between the reporter or several reporters and our editors. John Paczkowski leads our tech team. He used to run the tech and business reporting at BuzzFeed News, and before that, he was at Re/code with Kara Swisher and that whole crew. He’s very smart and plugged in, so as the story gets more ambitious, I’m more likely to be dialoguing with him. We also have a deputy editor under him, Katharine Schwab, who might be editing our stories and who works closely with John. Typically, I tell them I’m planning to write this online story, and I’ll need an edit. And if I’m saying I want to fly to Europe and meet every company in Paris, that would require a much larger conversation!
Do you have a monthly or quarterly story quota?
Alex: We do not have any hard quotas at Forbes. As a best practice, my team aspires to write at least once a week. We want to put points on the board and don’t want any pent-up pressure that we feel we haven’t published in a while. We also want to stay in the conversation with our sources and the topics we care about.
Publishing a story is the best way to get more people on that topic to reach out to you. That is our goal. It can often not be the case. Leading into the holidays, I got married and went on my honeymoon, and I went two months without publishing a story; this week, I plan to publish three stories. So it can vary.
Forbes likes to think of itself more on the once-a-week cadence, which is very different from the daily places or multiple times-a-day places. It’s also very different from the New Yorker, where you show up every three months, I assume, with a 30,000-word magnum opus. Our stories never get longer than 3,000 words, so it’s a bit different.
Where do you find the idea for most of your stories?
Alex: Most of my stories are not pitch driven. Often the pitch-driven stories come from an existing relationship. For example, a VC I’ve met before with an underrepresented background has a new fund. As they talk about their announcement plan with their PR representatives, they say, “I know Alex at Forbes; let’s see if he’s interested.” It’s a warm intro-type situation where I’ll give real feedback.
It may occasionally be the exclusive offer, or it may be that I come back a year or three months after a meeting and say, “I want to write about this company now.” That’s what happens with the bigger stories. For example, take the cover story I wrote on Flexport. I met with the CEO five years before that. I think I had a catch-up a year before the story that came from an inbound from their agency. A year later, that holiday season, the supply chain was top of mind, and I knew I could reach out to that agency and say the time is right to spend more time with him. They were very helpful in making that happen.
Industry experts also pointed to the ill-timed and jargon-laden press release SVB issued about its strategy as a contributor to the bank’s demise.
For those leading communication for software companies, we’re looking at what we can learn about communicating effectively in a crisis. Clear, transparent and timely communication keeps stakeholders calm in a proverbial storm. Below are critical components of a crisis communication strategy.
Know your internal team and protocols.
Senior management, IT, legal, HR and PR should all understand their roles and responsibilities in a crisis. We can’t anticipate every possible situation, but teams should have a plan around problems that could cause concern for software companies, such as outages, layoffs and data breaches. In the case of the SVB collapse, we advised our clients to rally senior management, including the CFO, to help understand each client’s possible exposure to the bank failure and what it could mean for employees, customers, investors and partners.
Outline stakeholders and possible impact.
Every crisis plan should include key stakeholder groups and the most effective communication method for each. For example, know your customer base and how they best receive communication: is that through your customer success team, an email blast, Twitter or another medium? With SVB, lists of companies who bank with SVB started circulating over the weekend, so some of our clients proactively communicated with customers about their continuity plans. We also helped leaders with messages to their employees, ensuring they wouldn’t see an interruption in payroll, a possibility most tech workers were worried about Friday.
Monitor media coverage and social media.
Whether through a PR agency or an internal team, every SaaS company should have a system for media monitoring and social media management. Especially paramount in a crisis, media monitoring helps companies understand what the public is hearing about a situation and what the sentiment is in the market. As an agency, we are not only monitoring the SVB media coverage as it unfolds at a macro level, but we’re also tracking for mentions of our clients and flagging those in real-time.
The day SVB failed will be a day those of us in tech and communication will remember. While the demise of a key component of the tech ecosystem has been disheartening and scary, seeing the tech community rally around startups in exposed positions with capital and advice has been inspiring.
If you’re a software company needing assistance with your communication, contact Lindsey Groepper to chat about how BLASTmedia can help.
POV: You know the importance of investing in brand, and you’re looking for a SaaS PR agency. Whether you are switching agencies or hiring your first one, there is likely a different onboarding process and expectations with each.
Every agency does things slightly differently, but the fundamentals of building a strong PR program should be the same: research, planning, outreach and results. If you’re like most SaaS companies, you’re anxious to jump to the last stage and see results (aren’t we all?). But without a strong foundation and time to build pipeline, your media relations program is doomed to fail.
So, what can you expect when you begin a new SaaS PR agency relationship? We believe in transparency through every step of the process, and we’re happy to share our onboarding process with you as a means of comparison:
Every BLASTmedia program starts with a discovery call with the marketing team and, often, the CEO/founder. We tell you about our team and processes, and you tell us about your value proposition, competitive landscape, ICP, founder story and business goals. After this meeting, we get to work on our media landscape analysis and strategy foundation.
You want to work with a PR agency that understands your market. We work within the B2B SaaS industry, so we know the right questions to ask, who to speak to inside your organization, how to work with your customers and determine the most newsworthy stories from your execs. Even so, the media appetite for stories from HR tech companies vs. marketing tech companies is unique. That’s where our media landscape research comes into play.
We dissect months of media coverage and releases from you and your competitors to determine the following and more:
What narratives dominate your space? What isn’t being discussed?
Which spokespeople are most commonly quoted from your competitors? What are their titles?
Which media outlets most frequently cover your competitors?
What is the average news cadence in your industry?
Are there known thought leaders in the space? If so, what are their stances?
The research phase concludes with two key elements: story-mining calls and a product demo. You can read more about our process for story mining with execs from our VP of content, but it’s exactly what it sounds like. We chat with your sales leader, chief people officer and other identified SMEs to dig out ideas we believe will make a solid thought leadership campaign. Next, we get to planning.
The two biggest deliverables during the first month with BLASTmedia are the strategy foundation deck (SFD) and our 60-day plan. The SFD includes the results of our media landscape analysis, along with our top recommendations on target media and reporters, talk tracks to reach your buyers and speak to their top pain points, a SWOT analysis, a competitor deep dive, ideal cadence of news and bylines, trending news to watch in your space and established benchmarks.
With that research in hand, we set our sights on building your PR OKRs (objectives and key results). Based on the activity in the space and where you currently are in terms of output, what does “good” look like for you? What about “great?” And once we establish that objective, how will we get there?
Enter: Your 60-day plan — I know you’ve been waiting for it! This is where you’ll see all of the research put into ideas, established OKRs and our plan for getting it done. In addition to three “pillar” thought leadership campaigns for the quarter, we lay out topics for reactive opportunities, competitors we monitor for share of voice measurement, trends to latch onto, any customers we can leverage in media relations and what company news we can support with outreach. Then it’s go time.
PR isn’t like a faucet — you can’t turn it on and off. It can take months of building a pipeline (like in sales) to consistently realize the fruits of your labor. At the beginning of any client campaign, we focus on quick-turn opportunities where we can — we know it’s crucial to showcase early wins to your executive team.
At the same time, we’re making introductions to key members of the media — those we already have relationships with and those we want to build relationships with on your behalf — to get that pipeline filled as quickly as possible. Every campaign is different, but in general, if you do not have news (a press release) in your first 90 days, you should expect to see the following:
Between months 1 and 2, you should start seeing interview requests come in
In month 2, you should get your first piece of contributed content for review
In total, you should see around 10 pieces of coverage in a variety of trade, podcast and (yes, sometimes even) top-tier outlets (if you have news, this number will be significantly higher)
After the first few months, we’re off to the races. We’re an anti-black-box agency, so I will share our actual client result averages with you. Each quarter I look at all-up coverage across our client roster and average it out. We hand this to our teams internally to use as a guideline for performance. We also share it with our prospects so they understand what to expect when running a PR program with us.
After tracking KPIs and coverage types for 10,000+ pieces of coverage over multiple years, I am confident in sharing these numbers with just about anyone. And any PR agency that won’t (or can’t) do the same isn’t as data-driven as they might claim.
Of course, there are exceptions to these numbers based on client participation, approvals and spokesperson availability. And, if you are a public company, these numbers could be wildly different. But, based on our data, here are the results you should expect from your SaaS PR agency each quarter:
Around 25 pieces of coverage
About half of all coverage should have a backlink to your website
15 of those 25 articles should be driving traffic to your website
Quarterly coverage breakdown
2 – 4 pieces of contributed content
1 – 2 podcast placements
2 – 3 quote inclusions
5 press release postings
3 – 5 features
5 – 10 other mentions or syndications
Choosing the right PR partner can be challenging. But taking your time up front to find one that will be open and honest with you about their process, team and results will yield dividends for years to come. As will taking time to properly invest in and trust their need for proper ramp-up time.
I’ll leave you with this. If I were hiring a PR agency and I wanted to know how they were going to get up to speed during the onboarding phase and what kind of results I could expect from them, these are a few of the questions I would ask:
On average, what kind of results are you generating for your clients each quarter?
Tell me about a time you worked with a client where you had never worked in the space before — how did you get up to speed?
What is the #1 thing that determines how much and what kinds of coverage you can generate?
How do we make the most of our onboarding process?
What is your process for monitoring competitors and trending topics?