September 18, 2015
Ep. #3, Tactics for Customer-Focused Marketing
In this episode of the Pitch Room, I had a great time chatting with Runscope’s Ashley Waxman about customer marketing. We discuss customer...
In this Heavybit panel, developer-focused journalists discuss why and how they cover cloud infrastructure, application development, and other topics in the world of software. Get the word out about your company or product by learning:
Hear panelists from The New Stack, SD Times and DevOps.com explain what motivates them, their story-pitch pet peeves and why you shouldn’t underestimate the power of the press release. Read the full transcript below the video.
Derrick Harris: My name is Derrick Harris. I was once upon a time a journalist at GigaOm and I now work for a software startup called Replicated. I have a podcast, and a newsletter called Architect.
The real stars are the panelists here who do reporting on a day-to-day basis. They provide some value to you all. So I’m going to go through and let them introduce themselves one by one starting with Christina.
Christina Cardoza: Christina Cardoza. I’m the news editor of SD Times. We’re a software development magazine for software development teams and managers.
Charlene O’Hanlon: I’m Charlene O’Hanlon. I’m the managing editor for MediaOps, which involves three sites: DevOps.com, Container Journal and Security Boulevard. We focus on providing content for practitioners in the development space. That includes I would imagine everything that everyone who you guys work with as well.
Alex Handy: I’m Alex Handy. I guess you could call me a contributor with The New Stack. We focus very heavily on Kubernetes containers at scale management of large applications inside of clouds. I don’t have a specific beat because that’s such a narrow focus for the entire site. If you’ve got Kubernetes in your pitch title we’ll at least look at it.
Derrick: That answered one of the questions from earlier. Before we get started, we’re scheduled for an hour. We’re going to leave 15 minutes for questions at the end. So if you have questions, write them down, queue them up. Think about them.
Before we get into the actual discussion of how to pitch and what the process can be, maybe just walk through, I think it will be bigger to start with a discussion of trends. Things you’re seeing, maybe give a sense of what’s interesting.
Or what’s been interesting the past six months and what you think your audience is really going to be into for the next– a year seems like forever. Let’s stick with six months. What are the trends or the topics that are really top of mind right now?
Christina: I’ll start. We’re currently seeing a lot of interest with our readership with Serverless technology’s containers. How to manage and orchestrate containers. We’re seeing that the infrastructure operation side of things isn’t getting a lot of attention from us.
So we recently launched the website ITOpsTimes.com where we put a lot of that more ITOps focused news. And for SD Times, we’re writing about artificial intelligence automation, DevOps security. I don’t think that’s going to change within the next six months.
Charlene: For DevOps, it’s pretty obvious what the name implies. Anything having to do with doing DevOps or implementing DevOps, or what not to do in DevOps. This year seems to be focusing more on the culture side of DevOps for us.
Last year we tended to focus, not by design, but we focused a lot on the tooling. And before that we focused a lot on the processes. I guess it’s just a cyclical thing. Next year we’ll probably go back to processes.
But the technology surrounding DevOps, the culture side of DevOps as well. And then for Container Journal, this year is the year of Kubernetes. Again, if it says Kubernetes, we’ll give it a look. Security Boulevard is a different animal for us. We look a lot at DevSecOps on that site but we also look a lot at the IT surrounding security.
So again the hardware, the software, the tools, the technologies. And then we also look at, I call them the “softer”, “more fun” parts of security that people like to read about it. But nobody really likes to be involved in cyber espionage, and things like that. So those are fun topics for us. And those are what admittedly are driving a lot of our readership these days.
Derrick: There’s nothing more fun than cyber espionage.
Charlene: I know.
Derrick: It really makes me sleep easy at night.
Alex: As I said, The New Stack is really into containers, Kubernetes. We’re also doing things on server lists and microservices.
It’s just everywhere, and it’s used for everything and used for stuff that if you told me 10 years ago it was going to be used for I’d have called you crazy. That’s not necessarily something we can cover at The New Stack. But it is deeply of interest to me personally. And it’s a trend that I’ve noticed.
The other thing I will say is that machine learning and AI stuff, oh my God, just stop. Jesus Christ. It’s all bullshit, OK? It’s just, we’re not covering it. Come on. It’s ridiculous.
A guy comes out with one result and they’re like, “We’ve created a human being inside of a computer that can think!” It’s ridiculous. The hype in ML and AI has just completely destroyed that market for our coverage. We just don’t even look at it, really.
Derrick: Interesting. So you don’t like page views.
Alex: No, we get the page views for the Kubernetes and container stuff. I mean, if you’re running an AI and ML platform on containers, we don’t care about the AI stuff. We care about the containers that are behind it.
Derrick: Fair enough. I wanted to ask, though. When you talk about Kubernetes, and you have these things. How deep do you tend to cover it? I mean, is it more interesting to talk about, especially when you’re talking about stories emerging that have a story that’s really in the weeds? Like, “Listen. This is what’s new in Kubernetes 1.11.”
Or is it more interesting, do your readers care more about, “Here’s why you should care about Kubernetes. Here’s AI.” I mean, AI is like you said. There’s a lot of very high level discussions. There’s the archive level research discussions. Where do you guys tend to focus your coverage in terms of what level of the stack you’re talking about?
Christina: I think it depends on the topic. With Kubernetes and AI we know the benefits of it already. We know what containers and Kubernetes is. So we can get a little bit more technical. our readership doesn’t want to know what containers are. We’ve already done introduction of containers.
Containers have been around, so the next story would be getting a little bit more technical. “What’s next with containers?” “What can we do with Kubernetes?” And it is keeping up with the latest releases of Kubernetes and containers AI.
Charlene: For us, the majority of our audience is actual practitioners in this space. We rely on a ton of contributed content for all of our sites, in fact the majority of the content that runs on DevOps.com is contributed content.
We get that mostly from practitioners so we like to go deep. We like to really, really dig deep into the technology itself. And provide value to the audience. Something that they can walk away with and put to good use later on.
With that in mind, we like to say, “The deeper you can give us information, whether it be code snippets or charts, or graphics or line drawings, or whatever. We’ve got to speak to that level.”
We tend to eschew the high level stuff and like to go deeper than that.
Alex: The New Stack, it depends on what you’re pitching us or what the engagement is. We do ebooks, and some of those are really technical. We do news stories, where maybe it’s not quite as technical or it can go a little bit deep and get into a change log or something like that.
Our readers are practitioners, again, but I think that they’re coming to The New Stack to figure out how to solve the next types of problems. Generally there’s a lot of answers from vendors and so forth on the problems that you have today, but once you implement those solutions you get onto the next set of problems.
And that’s what we’re focused on at The New Stack. Trying to get out ahead of the curve, and figure out what are the best practices that are working for people who have implemented Kubernetes or containers, and actually using this stuff in production? And how did they get it to work? Because we’re all trying to figure that out right now.
Christina: I was going to add, I think “technical” means different things to different people. At SD Times we’re not publishing code, we’re giving developers the details that make sense. We will use technical terms, but we’re not going to put programming code within the magazine.
Derrick: Do you guys have a personal preference, or things that resonate more with readers? In terms of, is a case study more beneficial? If someone comes to you, is it more beneficial to come up with a case? So you’d say, “Here. We have actual users. Here is how they’re using this.”
I always felt that point to product releases weren’t particularly interesting. But you get pitched a lot of them. What actual type of news is most beneficial, or is most compelling?
Christina: It has to be different and unique. It depends on the case study and who is it coming from. I’m not going to write about a survey from a DevSecOps company who was telling me DevSecOps is great. That’s not giving me any value, that’s just pushing your own vendor product on me.
The product releases, if it’s a minor release? We’re probably just going to run your news release on the website unless it’s a really slow news day. We’re looking for in-depth stories that are going to help drive software development teams’ business and purchasing decisions.
Charlene: We love those case studies that really get into the transformational journey that companies go down when they decide to implement DevOps, and how it’s impacted their organization as a whole. We love to get into the weeds on that stuff, and that resonates well with our audience.
We’re not into writing about funding. We’re not into writing about the latest release of something unless it’s a pretty major release, and is so different that it’s worth writing about. The incremental releases don’t really mean a whole lot to us. We’re also into comparison articles, maybe open source technologies.
We tend to be very vendor agnostic in the articles that we do publish. When we write something about like, “The Top 5 Tools,” a lot of that has to do with open source. So we really tend to keep a focus on that, rather than going with ranking vendors and things like that. We tried to stay away from that.
Alex: For me, it’s find the gap.
Find a gap, find something that nobody else is talking about.
Now sometimes I find PR people will come in and be like, “Nobody else was talking about this.” But actually they are. You’ve got to be really thorough when you’re looking to make sure nobody is talking about stuff. Or maybe nobody’s talked about it because it was it was five years ago and nobody cares anymore. But if you present me with something that I’ve never heard before and never seen before, there might be a story in it.
Example. This past two or three weeks ago, my editor Joab at The New Stack sent me something on integration testing. I think it was an extension for Kubernetes that let you put your laptop on the Kubernetes cluster as a node, and you can do testing with all the services out there. It was a really cool little hack.
It was neat. Never heard of it before. It’s definitely one of those far out there things, so I wrote about 500 words about it. And Joab then says to me, “This integration testing thing, I haven’t seen anybody pitching us on this. Why don’t you do a story on that?”
Find that gap. That’s what’s interesting to us. Because we have such a narrow focus, if you can find something that isn’t being discussed or it’s still a problem or a pain point that nobody’s addressing, that’s really intriguing to us.
Derrick: Of course sometimes, if you’re pitching something that no one else is talking about, it’s because no one else–
Alex: No, absolutely.
Derrick: I once wrote a story about someone just because no one else would pitch me on it. Because someone wanted to deploy data centers in space, and this was about 2013. I was like, “It’s interesting enough. It’s not going to happen. But I’ll give you 20 minutes to tell me why I should care about this.”
Christina: I don’t think it has to only be something that no one else is talking about. If there is a story in artificial intelligence, or low code, those are big hot topic areas. So if you’re going to pitch me a story about that, it better be different. It better not be something that I’ve already written for.
And a lot of times that takes you to do the due diligence to research my website and see what I wrote about. If you saw I wrote about low code already, I’m not going to write about it again unless you come to me with a different and interesting idea.
Alex: I get that all the time. “I saw that you wrote about this, will you write about this again?” No. Not for at least a couple of weeks, couple of months maybe.
Derrick: Are there topics where that is relevant though? I mean Kubernetes seems like one. You could say, “I see you write about Kubernetes. There’s a whole lot to write about.”
Alex: Sure. And that’ll come through. If you look at the site and there’s 6 stories in the same week on that topic, OK, you can probably pitch that. But if there’s one every three weeks.
Christina: DevSecOps is a big one that everyone’s talking about, and everyone wants us to write about. And we’ve written about it. So what else do you have to bring value to our readership? Why should we continue writing about this instead of just beating a dead horse?
Charlene: I think there are certain topics that you can write about over and over again, but you’re approaching it from a different angle. DevSecOps is a good example because there are so many ways that you can approach it.
You could talk about the tools, you could talk about the culture. You can talk about the thinking that goes into integrating security into the DevOps process. There are a number of ways that you could do it. But you can’t, just like these guys said.
You can’t pitch us the same story over and over again. Because it’s just not going to get written more than once.
Derrick: What’s the of rules on blacklisting people? I mean that seriously. Because I mean in terms of, not just pitching the same story. But like, “This is my fifth e-mail on this thing. Why aren’t you responding?” Or you feel like you’re being spammed at times. I mean do you have rules about when enough is enough, for when too many relevant pitches–
Christina: Don’t stalk me. That turns me off. That’s a little creepy. If you e-mail me five times, and give me a phone call, which, just don’t call me unless it’s an emergency. And then you IM me on LinkedIn or Twitter, and all of the social media accounts you’ve tried to contact me. At some point it just looks a little desperate to me, that I’m not going to write your story. Because why are you trying so hard to get somebody to write this story?
Derrick: Maybe fill people in. How many e-mails on a daily basis would you say you’re going through? Pitches alone.
Christina: Hundreds of e-mails. When I took the flight out this morning I cleared my inbox, and I opened it up and there was at least 50 pitches in there that I’m just skimming through. You really have to be clear and concise in your pitches when you pitch us because we are getting so many, so we’re just skimming them.
You have to make sure that you tell us what the company is, tell us what the news is and tell us why it should matter to our readers. Which also again, goes into doing research with our readership.
Alex: Do you look at the first paragraph on all 50 of those?
Christina: I’ll skim the subject line. If the subject line doesn’t catch me, I’ll just mark it as “Read” and then I’ll continue.
Charlene: That’s what it is.
Alex: Yeah. That’s absolutely it. Your subject lines have like 6 hour meetings and get crazy about it, because that’s all you get. That subject line is your entire hook. If that doesn’t work, none of it matters.
If you want a place to obsess over and have incredibly long disgusting meetings over single words, do it over subject lines of your e-mails.
Christina: You don’t have to get too detailed in your e-mails to us either. Just give us the facts. If we want more details, we’ll do the interview to get more details. We don’t have time to read three paragraphs just to find out what the news is, or what you’re trying to tell me.
Alex: If I’m looking at that e-mail. You’ve won. Right? If there’s three paragraphs you’re starting to lose. It doesn’t mean you’ve completely lost, but if there’s two lines of text that’s just as effective. You’ve got me to read the e-mail.
Christina: But because I do get so many e-mails, I would say follow up with me one more time if I didn’t answer you the first time. Because maybe I missed it. Maybe I said, “That looks interesting,” but I forgot to flag it.
So I would say follow up with me again, but after the second time if I didn’t answer you I’m probably not interested. I just don’t have time to answer every e-mail. It’s like a part time job.
Derrick: What’s the most important thing to put in the e-mail? What’s going to get you hooked? Let’s say I stick AI or Kubernetes in the subject line. And you go, “OK. This is definitely something that I might be interested in.” But what is it after that?
For me, sometimes it was like, “Who are the founders?” If it’s a funding story, who are the investors. What are the things that get you to be like, “OK. I’m interested. I’ll follow up on this,” versus just opening it?
Charlene: I think the application. So if it’s Kubernetes as it relates to whatever, one thing I would suggest is trying not to get pithy or clever in that subject line. Because if I’ve got to work at trying to figure out what you’re trying to tell me then I’m just going to gloss right over it. It’s going to move on.
Derrick: Do you ever read The Register? Sometimes I read their headlines, and I’m like, “What?! I spent way too much time trying to decipher that. I can’t possibly open the story.”
Alex: It’s the most fun an editor can have, is writing headlines. So don’t take that away from them.
Derrick: What about you, Christina and Alex? Are there things you look for in a pitch that are more compelling?
Christina: It has to be newsworthy. It has to have the news, but it also has to be interesting. If you’re pitching me a Kubernetes or artificial intelligence story, you have to be able to tell it in a different way. I don’t mind product updates, I don’t mind writing about company launches and products, but I use the news and then you have to have a more interesting story to tell me.
Alex: The first thing I look at, is it a company? Where’s it coming from? Is it a company I care about? If it’s Google, probably going to read that e-mail. If it’s Microsoft, probably going to read that e-mail. Oracle, IBM. Maybe not. If I get something from an Atlassian I’m going to maybe at least read it, but it might not get covered because maybe it’s a point release or something.
The other thing I’m always looking for is just getting right to it. You mentioned the founders or whatever, if that subject line tells me who I can have access to that’s going to save me some time. If that subject tells me what the company is and whatever it is, boil it down into that subject line.
If you have a point release, put that in there. Don’t say “So-and-so creates a vast revolution in software development technology.” No, you released version 1.2. Just say that. Plain spoken is better.
Derrick: It’s kind of like pitching a movie script, in the sense if you read about pitching movies scripts they’ll say, not that I have a secret writing side project. It’s like, “‘X’ but I feel like it’s ER but in a morgue,” or something. Whatever the difference would be.
Charlene: It’s sci-fi.
Derrick: But there’s something to that. To talk about that we need that to make those connections. If it’s a startup and they have no name recognition whatsoever, there seems to be some value in saying, “Well, you’re familiar with this. We’re the open source version of this,” or, “We improve on this by doing this,” or “By X percent,” or something. For a startup I can’t rely on name recognition.
Alex: No you can’t. But maybe the people in the startup have a reputation for where they’ve come from. I know a lot of PR releases are like, “Ex-Amazon founders create…” Or, “Ex-Amazon workers create xyz.” And that’s somewhat compelling. I don’t know that I’m interested in any old Amazon worker, but if you’ve got somebody interesting, maybe I am.
Derrick: Out of a company of 30,000 people.
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Christina: I’ll give you an example though. Today I talked to TruSTAR, and they’re another cyber security company. I’ve never talked to them before and at first it sounded like it was just cyber security, and we always write about cyber security. But they had an interesting story to tell.
They were legitimately doing something different in the industry and they also had an interesting background to come from.
So that would make a better story than just, “This company launched and they’re a cyber security company. Yay.”
Charlene: Because we don’t have any of those already.
Derrick: Security is a tough sell.
Alex: RSA is empty.
Derrick: All right. But if you talk to someone in the space, or investors or companies, and you’re like, “There’s 9 million security companies. I don’t even know which way to look at this point.” Charlene, I think you mentioned you don’t want to write about funding stories. And I think a lot of reporters or journalists will kind of pooh-pooh funding stories, and yet they all seem to write them almost all the time.
Why? My theory is you should have something to say. To Christina’s point, you should have something to say beyond funding. But especially if you’re a startup, is funding alone not some sign that maybe there’s a “there” there?
Charlene: No. I agree that funding can be a part of the story, but it should not be the story. So if, say, a cyber security company is doing something really innovative in the AI space, or something like that. And, “By the way, they were backed by a round of funding to the tune of 5 billion dollars,” or something like that. That’s OK.
Derrick: Five billion might be worth a story.
Charlene: I’m being generous here. That will get into the story. But just the fact that they got the funding, anything less than 5 billion is not going to make the story for me.
Christina: I get a lot of funding stories where it’s like, “Oh we’ve made this much money, and now we’re going to bolster our marketing team.” Why do I care? I’m a software development magazine. Why do I care about you putting money toward your marketing team?
Alex: Yeah. That’s TechCrunch news. I mean where are you seeing those people, is it The New York Times and Post or MSNBC? Because–
Derrick: It’s big enough for a company with some name recognition. But to play devil’s advocate, if I’m a software developer or an engineer or someone who’s charged with buying software, with buying technology and making those decisions. Isn’t that a sign that maybe this company’s going to be around for a while?
Alex: Absolutely not.
Derrick: You don’t think so?
Alex: The exact opposite, in fact. The more money they take the less trust you should have in what they’re going to be in five years down the road.
Derrick: Why? What’s the logic in that?
Alex: Look at Docker. Everybody bet on Docker five years ago. “Oh my god. It’s the future.” And then they built Swarm, and swarm has already lost to Kubernetes. Docker is at the back of the race with no real revenues coming in because they didn’t get the big expensive thing.
Because they took so much money that the money said, “You have to build the biggest possible thing you can build.” And the biggest possible thing they could build was too big for them to build.
Derrick: They do claim nine digit bookings.
Alex: I’m sure they claim that. The game plan when they took 100 million dollars plus, was to build Kubernetes.
Derrick: Right. I mean, on the contrary, you could say that CoreOS took less money and is now part of Red Hat. Who knows what the future holds?
Alex: There are successes. I’m not saying it’s always, but I’m saying if I’m a guy who’s running an I.T. department any time I buy a piece of software my neck is on the guillotine. If that software goes down and we lose revenue, I can’t go to my CIO and go, “I bought this piece of software. It’s their fault.” It’s my fault for picking that piece of software.
You don’t make whimsical decisions based on how much money the company took on that. You make damn sure you’ve got the analytics, that you’ve got the use cases, you’ve done proof of concept. There’s nobody making whimsical decisions because these guys took 30 million dollars we can bet on them.
Derrick: That’s fair. It’s a factor.
Christina: Also if you’re pitching a funding story, you’ve already wrote the press release and have everything in the press release. So why am I going to just rewrite your press release?
Derrick: That’s a good point. Let me ask you this too, is there a value in a press release any more? I mean, at all. And also versus a blog post or just going and pitching someone the news. I scour the press release wires every now and then just to see if I missed anything.
Charlene: I think the value in a press release is getting the news out. Because blog posts don’t always get syndicated the way press releases do. So I think that is probably the best reason to still have press releases. But as far as going deep enough into the information, I don’t think that they are useful in that respect.
Christina: I think press releases are good to get the basic information but I want to dig a little deeper in an interview sometimes. I think press releases are just plagued with buzzwords like, “This is industry leading and innovative.” And if you’re a startup, it’s not industry leading.
Alex: Honestly, if I’m being a lazy journalist, the thing I get out of a press release is the quotes. Because I can lift them and put them in and my editor won’t know.
Charlene: Oh, your editor knows.
Alex: No, you didn’t have my editor. She knows my editor.
But if you give me a press release with 10 quotes. Holy crap! I’ve got my whole story. And I could get your message to go right on through.
But anything you have written as a PR person is going to be filtered completely out of my view, because it’s made up.
Derrick: You’re assuming they didn’t write those quotes.
Alex: Well maybe they did, but it’s attributed to somebody else. I could be like, “Look, the CEO of whoever-the-hell said this.” Because IBM used to do these press releases with 20 quotes from all the partners.
They were great. You could build these huge stories out of them. Because you could do the phone call and do the actual interview. But now I’ve got six other companies to throw in there.
And the other thing I would say is keep writing press releases. Good lord, don’t stop writing press releases. I know it’s frustrating and it feels completely useless and people don’t reply to you. But there is extreme value in that channel of being able to push that out.
And I’m sure everybody here has had responses to press releases in the last week. Would you stop? No. Absolutely not. If you’ve got technical stuff and you’re speaking to a developer, go ahead do the blog. But if you’re going to talk to the journalist do the press release.
Charlene: Include the blog in the press release. That’s super helpful.
Derrick: I don’t know if this is switching topics or not, maybe just following up with something. If someone is pitching a story, who is it you want? Who do you want pitching you, number one. Especially from a startup. Who do you want to talk to?
Christina: I think talking to the marketing people is good sometimes because they’re able to explain things in human terms. But for SD Times, when we are more experienced software development teams, I want to get a little technical.
So I think it’s good to talk to both the maybe CEO or the CMO. And then also a CTO who can get a little bit more in the details.
I think it’s good to have the marketing people on the phone but I’m not going to quote them. I’m just going to use them as background.
Charlene: I like to talk to folks on the product side rather than the marketing side. Marketing is a good conduit for getting you to the right people, which is awesome. But as far as the level of technicality that we need for our sites it’s always better if we talk to either a product person or an evangelist, or somebody who’s more on that level.
Alex: I want to talk to the person who did the thing. So if they were on the team that built the thing you’re talking about, then that’s the person I want to talk to. It can be beneficial to talk to a CEO or a CTO.
But generally, if I’m trying to get a specific update to your product I should be talking to the project manager, the product manager, or lead dev. Somebody like that who’s really close to it. Because if I ask the person a question they can’t answer, we’re going to have to do a follow-up.
You’re going to have to go get that guy anyway and ask him that question, might as well just put him on the phone with me to begin with. Generally I don’t necessarily like marketing. The best person to talk to is one where there’s food between us. At a table. At lunch, or something.
Christina: I agree with Alex. I want to talk to the technical people but I also want to make sure the technical people I’m talking to are able to explain the product to me and not just give me one word answers. Or don’t know how to talk to a reporter to get that news out.
It frustrates me when I talk to a CEO or somebody, and they tell me, “I’m not too technical. I can give the low level stuff,” because I want to talk to the technical people. I want to get into the details.
Derrick: Is there such a thing as too technical? I mean, just with you three given your beats are in the developer realm. It seems to me that there’s a point where it might not be super relevant why some new product or some new feature is an improvement on this existing thing that only people in the weeds and software development care about, versus the bigger picture.
Where is that line where you need to tie this into seeing the forest for the trees? Being able to relate this to a bigger trend, or a bigger picture, or something? This is 20 percent faster than the previous version.
Charlene: It’s benefits. You’ve got to talk about the benefits. How does this benefit either the user, or the end customer, or the bottom line of the company? That’s the only time that we’ll really look hard at whether to cover a particular product release or upgrade.
Christina: I would say it has to be interesting. In order to get that technical you still have to make an interesting story. We don’t want to be put to sleep on the phone and we don’t want to write a story that’s going to put our readership to sleep.
Alex: I’d rather have too technical than not technical.
Derrick: Right. But does that put an onus on you to translate it into something relatable.
Alex: Yeah, but that’s my job.
Christina: It depends on the story. If we’re writing about a product we want to write about the features and get into the nitty gritty of what you’re releasing.
Alex: If it’s too technical I can filter it out. If it’s not too technical, then I’ve got to fill in the gaps of all the things that I didn’t learn about. So no, I don’t think there’s anything such as too technical of a conversation.
Derrick: All right, let me ask. Is there an ideal way to pitch?
Alex: Yeah. With food between us.
Derrick: No, not to tell the story. We talked about subject lines of the e-mail. I find phone calls beyond annoying unless I know you personally. LinkedIn, Twitter. Is e-mail really the way?
Alex: E-mail is the workflow. I’m an inbox zero guy. I mean, I see your stuff. I guarantee I’m seeing it.
Christina: I’m active on social media so I don’t mind being pitched there. I sometimes will turn to Twitter if it’s a slow news day and tweet out, “What’s happening? Is there any news I missed?” And then I get e-mails from a bunch of PR people and sort of shoot myself in the foot. But e-mail is always best. If you’re trying to get an immediate response from me it’s probably not going to happen on Twitter or Facebook.
Derrick: What are your stances on exclusive pitches? If it’s one of those that’s very navel gazing for journalists but ends up being important. Do you expect pitches to be exclusive to you? Or do you embargo? Some people are like, “I hate embargoes. I won’t deal with them.”
Is there something that is more appealing? I mean, an exclusive is appealing because you’re driving all the traffic. But I’m just curious, how do you gauge the type of accesses or the how broad something is? That effect?
Christina: Speaking about embargoes, I appreciate embargoes sometimes because that gives me time to do more research into the story and do an interview and craft up a story. Rather than having to rewrite your press release that day.
Alex: Embargoes are a useful tool. There’s nothing wrong with that. Exclusives? I feel like if you’re bringing me an exclusive nobody else wanted it. As a journalist I want scoops, and you’re never going to bring me a scoop?
If it’s a scoop it’s going to put you in crisis mode. It’s my job to put you in crisis mode, not to listen to your pitches.
I mean this is a little different cause we’re in the product world. But I mean speaking as a journalist, literally, we shouldn’t be reading any of your press releases because if you came up with the story we’re doing it wrong. That’s the basis. That’s level zero.
Now, in reality we get a lot of press releases and we get stories off of them. But I mean fundamentally as a journalist I shouldn’t be doing that.
Charlene: I’ll honor embargoes any day of the week. Exclusives though, I don’t like to play that game. I just think it’s poor form to offer exclusives.
Derrick: This is my advice to anyone who’s pitching people. If you want to get your story in Wired or The New York Times, it’s a tough sell but a publication like that, I might go with the exclusive route. If you have a compelling story and you can do it, that’s absolutely what I would do.
Alex: If you can get them to respond to you about your exclusive story.
Derrick: Right. But there are certain publications where they’re not going to cover the same story that 5 other publications are covering. It’s not going to happen. They have that level of selectivity and they’re going to use it. Are there other pet peeves you guys have? We’ve touched on some of them, but I’m guessing there are pet peeves that we haven’t touched on. What’s offensive?
Christina: We’ve mentioned the phone calls already. I hate getting phone calls. I try to ignore them as much as possible. Don’t call me unless it’s breaking news or I messed up on a story and I need to correct it as soon as possible.
Other things that really bother me is if you pitch me a story that’s, “Five use cases for Serverless.” Make sure that the person you set me up with can give me those five use cases. So many times I’ll take a story and they give me one use case, if that. Make sure you can deliver on what you are pitching me.
Charlene: I don’t like getting pitched on things that we’ve already written about. I know we talked about this, but I’m talking about quite literally, the same thing that we’ve written about. That drives me up a wall.
Alex: I go to 100 conferences a year. Register me for your conference. Please don’t make me register for your conference. Because everybody’s system is totally different, and half of them don’t work, and the codes don’t work, or I didn’t get the right press code. Just put my name in. And then if I don’t show up, whatever.
Just go ahead and register me and call me up, “All right. You’re registered.” I didn’t even need to say yes. Right? That’s one of my pet peeves. I can’t stand when I get through a six e-mail chain and then they’re like, “OK. Now go sign up.”
The other one is get my name right. Oh my god, get my name right. It shouldn’t be that hard.
Derrick: Just misspelled? Or when it’s someone else’s name pasted in?
Alex: Everybody calls me “Andy.” They all think I’m Andy.
Christina: Just shortening it.
Alex: It’s the “Handy” thing.
Christina: Get the name right and make sure you’re sending out e-mails with a name. If I read an e-mail that says “Hello ‘first name.'” Delete. You don’t know what you’re doing.
Alex: Seriously. Make sure your constant contacts are properly using the right triggers because I get a lot where it’s like, “Hello ‘@ name.'”
Christina: Also I hate when there is something like a security breach and I get a bunch of e-mails like, “Here’s some commentary if you’d like to use it if you’re writing about security.”
But if your goal is to just get awareness of the company and you’re just giving me a very broad comment on the security breach, I’m not going to use it. If you give me more detail, why you think this happened, how it happened, how we can prevent it. That’s something a little bit more useful to me.
Derrick: How useful is it in that case for someone to have something? Because people go, “How can we take advantage of this? We have a comment on this.” But you know exactly what that comment is. It’s either, “Company got acquired. This is really validating to a market,” or, “Something bad happened. We would never do this.” How important is it to be controversial or provocative? Or what’s the threshold?
Alex: I would say don’t be controversial or provocative. Not in the software development tools space. This is a very “business, and metrics…” To go back to Docker, Solomon Hykes was really controversial. How is Solomon doing? He’s not in charge over there anymore. Because he was a little too controversial, too sharp.
Derrick: He got paid, though, Alex.
Alex: Yes! Of course he got paid. I’m just saying. As for the company, being a little controversial wasn’t necessarily the right thing for them to do. Now, you can go the other direction where GitHub tried to be like all presidential and get involved with changing America, and coding for America. They built a replica of the Oval Office as their lobby and then Trump got elected and they ripped it out. And that was a big waste of money.
But what I would say is one of the things that I notice a lot about software development tools companies is once they start to get a community built up they can really get stuck in that community. There’s a very large company that I’m thinking of specifically that does this.
I will ask them questions about their products, and they will immediately get defensive as if I’m a commenter on the forum.
This is your job to train them not to do that. It’s your job to train them to be gregarious and happy about it. Not to go, “Who said that?! I can’t believe somebody said that about our product!” I get this reaction a lot in fledgling startup companies that deal with communities.
Because the communities can turn on them and they start treating the journalists like the communities. I feel like I’ve walked into this massive drama storm. I have no idea why there’s a drama storm and they’re explaining to me why the drama storm doesn’t matter. I don’t care.
Derrick: But isn’t that a tricky thing to bear? The software development tools market while in some ways it’s easier to build a bottom up audience if you have a quality product, it can be hard to stand out. How many CI/CD platforms do you need? Is there not any value in trying to stand out because the founder has an exuberant personality, or because–?
Charlene: I was just going to say, I think there are better ways to do that. I think making a case for your company in the form of thought leadership, or other ways that are non-controversial but still set your company apart. I think it’s a better way to go about doing it.
Derrick: Do you never advocate, even for the sake of a good story? Someone talking shit about you?
Charlene: I don’t want everybody to stand around and have a Barney moment. But at the same time I don’t believe in conflict for the sake of conflict.
Alex: You got to remember, when people are buying these tools that everybody is building here, we’re talking a six to 12 month proof of concept development to the sales cycle. By the time there’s some controversy that gets them in the door, 12 months later their controversy is over and they’ve done proof of concept or something.
I feel like software development tools are very much merit based, and the good stuff tends to win. Not always, but the best case you can make is that this tool is going to save you time. The biggest applause I ever heard at a developer conference is when Google said they eliminated 27 seconds from every build in the Android dev studio. The place went nuts. Guys freaking out over 27 seconds.
But that’s what they want. That’s what developers want. They want to save time and they want things to be easier.
They don’t care about drama and if the guy’s cool who wrote this. I mean some people do, but they just want to save time.
Derrick: Cool. I’m going to open it up for questions.
Christina: We like to accept contributed content and guest views. We just like to make sure that it’s vendor neutral, that you’re not trying to sell a product, and that you’re telling an interesting story and maybe explaining a trend in a way that we haven’t reported on yet.
Charlene: We’re the same way. We rely on the majority of our content from contributors and one of our tenants is “It’s got to be vendor neutral.” We are always asking for code snippets, or just something that the developer or the reader can glom onto and take with them.
We don’t like to publish anything that’s got even the hint of a marketing bent to it. But we are looking for information that the reader is going to walk away and say, “I didn’t really think about it that way.”
Alex: The New Stack does publish sponsored content. I would say that when it comes to sponsored content, if you want to get your message out there unadulterated that’s the path. There’s always going to be a journalist in between you if you don’t go that way.
Charlene: So there’s sponsored content, and there’s contributed content. We have both on our side. Contributed content is just that. It’s free. You send it to us and we’ll vet it and then we’ll publish it. Then there’s custom content that we will actually create on your behalf, whether that’s a white paper or a survey, or do a webinar or something like that.
That’s something that you as the vendor or our customer, you have a pretty big say in how that goes. But as far as the contributed content is concerned, as I said before, we vet that before we publish it and we make sure that it upholds our standards.
Derrick: I would say I always break guest content or contributed content down to two categories. One is a practitioner, especially for DevOps.com or DZone, or any very developer-focused site. Practitioner level stuff I think is really useful.
And then if you’re going up to a TechCrunch, or a Wired, or when I’m in a higher level tech publication it tends to be more of a thought leadership, macro-economic trend sort of piece that that will get attention.
For me the middle ground of contributed content is a no-man’s land. No one wants to hear your thoughts.
They want to hear a big thought leadership level piece or a practical piece.
Charlene: We do have thought leadership pieces. We do run those on DevOps.com and the other sites as well. But the majority of the stuff that we do is that more practitioner level.
I know what you’re saying. It walks the line between marketing and technical and it never really does a good job of either one of them.
Derrick: I mean realistically, for a lot of sites sponsored content runs on weekends. And the goal of it is to get page views while reporters aren’t writing. It’s always something controversial or something that a huge audience of developers is going to latch on to. But the middle ground is just like, “No thanks.”
Christina: I would say, “If we’re not covering it, is it a trend then? If we haven’t heard about it?”
Derrick: What about some completely off-topic stuff that you wish you’d get pitched?
Alex: I don’t get pitched on enough legacy-to-cloud stuff. I feel like there’s a huge gap there and Pivotal has been filling it. But there’s got to be room for more than just Pivotal. They’re not the only people playing in that space.
I feel like there are some more interesting stories to tell there but I’m the only person in the world who thinks those are interesting stories. Because I’m a big computer history nerd.
Derrick: You mean the thing where it’s not true that everyone is already building everything on Serverless? And Kubernetes? And maybe there’s some legacy technical depth that needs to be addressed?
Charlene: There’s a server closet somewhere.
Alex: I mean, remember HPE was bought by Micro Focus and their main business is like, “We’ll support your COBOL app.” Which, for people who don’t know, COBOL is like a 50-year-old language.
Charlene: But it’s still being used.
Derrick: Every year at IBM, yeah.
Charlene: There’s a big renaissance for the mainframe right now in DevOps, so that’s something that we kind of sit up and take notice about.
Alex: Depends on the analyst. There are analysts out there who are paid straight up to right some of the things, and then there are other analysts who are paid straight up to do the research. I think it also very much matters what the content of the report is.
And then my final thing is, can I get the analyst on the phone? For a very long time I would use almost only Forrester because if I called Forrester they picked up the phone. If I called Gartner I got a secretary. “We’ll schedule you in the next three weeks.” Forget it.
Derrick: In terms of reporting on analyst stuff, I don’t know. Because my opinion is that the only thing that seems to have a broad audience was the Gartner Magic Quadrant. If you’re not on that, I’m sure there are people well more versed in this than me. But great for sales, and great for the business.
But in terms of report? Like, journalists, no one cares that you’re a cool vendor. They care if you’re in the top right of The Gartner Quadrant, and otherwise that’s my vote.
Alex: My personal bar is, “Did I get it technically correct? Did I spell everybody’s name right? Did I spell the company right with the right midcap?” Which is friggin’ hard. You all have the silliest capitalization schemes. But that’s my metric.
I just want to make sure that it’s correct. I’m beholden to the truth, personally. Now I’m sure page hits count. But for me I just want to make sure it’s true. Completely true.
Christina: For more in-depth longer term stories I want to write something that I’m proud of at the end of the day. I just wrote a piece that’s coming up in our next issue on the 20th anniversary of open source. And I spent months interviewing bot leaders and writing the story, and I was really proud of it at the end. So that makes me feel successful with my own job.
My editor is also looking to make sure that we are catching breaking news and we’re writing stuff that our readership is interested in and we look at the page views on Google Analytics to make sure that we are still getting that readership and reaching out to developers and managers.
Charlene: My personal metric is a zero unread e-mail inbox every day.
I do not get up from my desk and turn off my lamp until I have looked at all of my e-mails.
I may just flag it to get back to it the next day, or something. But at least it doesn’t go unread. My editor is happy when he doesn’t have to talk to me. Basically when he can go about his business and he knows that everything is copacetic in his world then I know that I’ve done my job.
Alex: If you mean, if I’ve written a story about your competitors, I’m the right target. If I haven’t, then I’m not.
Christina: I think it has to do a lot with research on your part. Making sure that you are contacting the reporters that are within that. And if we wrote about you before maybe not e-mailing us if we’re going to write about you again.
But asking what we are writing about and then we can tell you what we’re writing about. And maybe you have somebody that can fit that might be interesting, or maybe remind us, “Remember you talked to this person? If it was a good story, maybe you want to talk to them again.”
Charlene: I would say the writer who you have a personal relationship with, who you’ve worked with in the past is going to be your best first bet. And then from there if that person isn’t available or no longer with the company or whatever, then take it a step higher.
Talk to whoever the managing editor is, or the news editor or somebody. They’ll put you in touch with the proper person if it’s worth their time.
Alex: Last time I did one of these I also said, “Send something in the mail.” Nobody ever sends anything in the mail. Send me something in the mail, I will read it because you’re the only one.
Derrick: I want to add, it can get annoying if you’re constantly pitching to the same person every single news item that might come along. There’s nothing wrong with saying an FYI. Like, “We’re announcing this. Just letting you know.”
I think if something is interesting enough and you have a relationship with a reporter, they’re going to be interested to follow at least to keep up. Because it doesn’t do me any good if I write about what someone wants and then only look at them again 3 years later, and that the world has changed drastically.
I think it’s good. It’s fine to follow up and just keep a line of contact, but not to expect a story every single time because you can’t have it.
Christina: I agree. It’s not about just pitching us, it’s about building relationships with us. Building relationships is not buttering us up by e-mailing us saying, “I read your story!” Like, did you really read our story?
I have one PR person that just keeps pitching me the same person about the same topic. And I’ve interviewed him, and I wrote about him, and you’re still pitching me the same story and the same person. I don’t understand why. Am I just getting a bad e-mail?
Derrick: I was going to ask before and I don’t think I did. Do you guys have a preference, especially for early stage companies, dealing with founders versus dealing with PR firms?
Alex: I will say that when I get an email and it says, “Hello I am the founder of so-and-so,” and that’s the first line, I’ll read it. Because I’m like, “This guy’s just putting it all on the line and doing it himself.” Or this lady or this guy is like actually doing the thing.
Charlene: It’s probably written by the PR person.
Alex: It very easily could have been, but it gives the appearance of like, “I’ve got my fingers dirty. I’m trying to do this right at the beginning.”
Derrick: I mean, at a certain size it’s probably written by the founder.
Christina: It makes it feel like the company is more accessible when an early stage startup contacts you directly. It makes me feel also that the founder of a company is interested in the work that I’m doing and that I sort of have a handle on what I’m writing, and writing things that companies and readerships are interested in.
Derrick: Journalists have egos too, they like to be validated.
Christina: Definitely makes me feel good.
Derrick: Being like, “I love your work.” That someone who is trying to build a company thought enough to say, “This person’s good. I’m going to reach out to them directly and open a line of communication.” The ego stroke can go a long way.
Christina: It means more to me if a founder of a company compliments me on my work than if a PR person compliments me on my work.
Alex: I like to reference Ratatouille. Anybody seen the movie Ratatouille? Remember Anton Ego, the critic? He has a great line in there. He goes around and rips restaurants apart all the time. He also has a very important role in the defense of the “New.”
And I think that’s also something that I really relish. Getting that interesting thing right at the beginning so I can watch it all the way through. I did this with Docker, I did this with GitHub. I ran into the founders of GitHub at Google.
They were there just by chance in the lobby one day. This is in 2010. That’s exactly the sort of interaction that you need to foster in order to get a sense of ownership from us. If the thing is really good, and you show it to us first, and you get us in there with no BS, maybe we will get that sense of ownership and sort of enjoy watching it grow.
Derrick: And then maybe there’s someone who’ll give you the benefit of the doubt when stuff goes sideways at some point. That stuff matters to some degree. Like when you actually know someone and have seen something grow, you have some context. It’s not as if you’re expected–
Alex: Don’t expect the benefit of the doubt. Our job is to rip you all apart. But I will say that it will give us the context. If you were there from the beginning and shit goes sideways, I will have the full story and I will understand why it went sideways. I won’t just run in and go, “Look at these idiots.”
There’s always a reason, there’s always a very rational way that we got to the drama. And if your journalist knows how you got there you’re going to get a much better story out of them than if they’re just running by going, “Look! That house is on fire.”
Alex: As a founder, shouldn’t you spend your time raising the first round of funding? The next round of funding? I mean, honestly. If you’re a technical founder or a marketing founder, maybe you should be focusing on this. But as a CEO I’m sure you’ve got so much more stuff to do. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to contact us, but there’s a lot more important stuff you should be doing.
If you’re the only guy who can contact us you might not be ready to talk to us.
Christina: As the founder of a startup I would say you should focus on trying to figure out what your message is so that you can then contact us in a clear and concise way, and explain to us what you are trying to do. Instead of, a lot of times startups are still trying to figure out their message.
And so they don’t really know how to explain to us what they want to write about or what is coming out. So I would say just focus on making sure you know what you want us to know.
Derrick: I would say be realistic. Have got a good sense of who your audience is. What’s your target persona? The target persona for your product should influence, especially at that moment in time, should influence what kind of outlet you’re reaching out to.
So if you’re still going for bottom up growth and you’re still very much in trying to build a developer community, there’s a certain set of publications. Or even if you consider StackShare or whatever, or Product Hunt. There are all sorts of ways I think you could start to generate that.
And then as you get higher up I know founders who’ve been like, “We want to be in The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal.” It’s like, “You’ve got a lot of work and a long way to go before you’re there.” So it’s knowing who you’re targeting and who are trying to reach at any given moment.
And then if you’re trying to get funding, trying to get investors, TechCrunch is a good place to put some effort. Like, “What can we get them to write about so we get on someone’s radar, maybe? And have a clip we can share?” It really is a matter of knowing where you are as a company.
Alex: And you’re building a relationship too. I mean, maybe it’s not time to get a story, but maybe you could take us out for a drink or something. We can talk about what you’re building.
It’s a networking thing. You open the relationship and then the next time you contact me I’ll know who you are.
Charlene: It’s also important to know what it is and why you want to have this conversation. Are you looking to build a developer community? Are you looking to just get your name out there as a thought leader in the industry? Are you looking to raise capital? There’s a different audience for all of those.
So if you come to me with something that maybe necessarily I’m not going to write about, it’s a waste of time for you and for me. But if your messaging resonates with say, building a developer community, then that’s something I’m going to listen to you about and it’s going to get covered.
Derrick: Thank you.