You’ve brought your team together, built a product you believe in, and spent countless hours massaging your message in accelerators, meetups, and VC pitches. Now you need to tell the world about your hard work. It’s time to start pitching AI journalists. I don’t envy you.
A day in the life
I just saw your recent marketing email about your AI startup called (company name). And I think you’d be the perfect person to read this article, (person’s name)!
Here at Neural, we’ve invented a new technology that will revolutionize everything! Can I go ahead and schedule you for a 45-minute call with a C-suite executive who doesn’t specialize in the topic? Is today good for you? Why aren’t you responding? Let’s go ahead and hop on a call so we can discuss why you should hop on a call with us. No? Fine. This is the last time I’ll mention it. Your loss.
Make it stop
The above paragraphs demonstrate how most of the emails I receive from AI startups read. They’re usually pointless, almost always a bit desperate, and at least half of them contain unforced errors.
I’m an AI journalist and the editor here at Neural, TNW’s futurism and AI vertical. I usually receive somewhere between 25-50 pitches a day, the vast majority of which are from AI startups. And most of them are bad.
I try not to let a crappy pitch throw me off of a good idea. If you’re repping a startup that, for example, uses AI to find homes for orphaned puppies, I’m not going to let marketing hyperbole or a poor pitch stand in the way of a good story.
And I’m not here to eat your lunch over little mistakes such as spelling my name wrong (which happens about 10% of the time, despite the fact it’s literally in my email address). I don’t mash the ‘delete’ key when someone forgets to fill in the blanks properly on their form mail. Pobody’s nerfect, right?
No, the problems I’m talking about go much deeper than just an “oops, I missed that,” here and there.
I’m not a VC
The vast majority of pitches I get from AI startups are funding announcements. There are numerous outlets and journalists out there covering startup funding and securing funds is a pretty big deal for a startup.
But I don’t really care. And in this particular context that’s a you problem. You wouldn’t pitch the editor of Scientific American a fictional slice of life story about baseball. Some stories just don’t make sense for some outlets.
That’s not the only problem, however. Selling a VC on your startup involves an entirely different methodology than pitching a journo.
VCs want to be convinced of something you can’t possibly know (how successful your business will be in the future). Journalists typically just want to know which facts about your business are the most interesting.
That’s why it makes sense to talk about projections, market research, and what your competitors are doing when you’re trying to secure backing. For journalists who don’t specifically cover startups and funding, however, your business plan might not be that useful.
Instead, I’d recommend tossing out your VC pitch deck and getting into the headspace of a writer.
Imagine your startup is a book and you’re trying to write the blurb on the back cover. Are you going to fill the entire space with statistics about how important your book is, how much you’re being paid to write it, and how well the experts predict it will do?
The tried-and-true formula is to describe the contents of the book and explain what a reader can hope to get out of reading it.
Know who you’re pitching
You might be pitching 500 journalists at a time. It would be impossible for you to research each one — even the most prestigious professional agencies can’t get it right every time.
But you should definitely have a list of specific outlets you’d most like to be covered by. And you can increase your chances of being covered by any given outlet significantly by aligning your pitch with its work.
Here at Neural, for example, we cover “human-centric AI advances and futurism.” Your best bet for securing coverage here is to keep that in mind.
It’s also important to remember that there’s a difference between pitching AI to a mainstream journalist and one who specifically covers AI/ML.
Anyone who’s been covering AI for a significant amount of time, for example, has heard every possible hyperbolic joke about AI taking over that you can imagine.
I’m far more likely to open an email if the first-sentence preview tells me what the company is doing than I am if it’s just something about how “We all know that movies like the Matrix aren’t real, but what if you could actually be friends with the Terminator?”
And, for the same reason, it’s almost always a bad idea to start an email with “I really enjoyed your article on artificial intelligence!” Not only is it usually obvious that you haven’t actually read our work, but about one in five emails I receive start with some variation of that line — using it ensures yours won’t stand out from the crowd.
The best thing you can do is be honest about what your company is doing, how it’s going to do it, and why it matters.
Don’t BS a BS-er
Most AI journalists don’t care how deeply you believe the innovations you’re engineering will synergize your client’s upward potential.
And those of us who are good at our jobs can tell the difference between super-sciencey-sounding bullshit and something that shows actual innovation.
At least once or twice a day I stop reading a pitch halfway through out of sheer frustration. If I’ve just read 350 words and I still don’t have the slightest clue what I’m being pitched, that’s probably a bad sign. Get to the point.
The best practice I can recommend here is to make sure the person sending the emails knows exactly what they’re talking about.
And when you’re pitching AI journalists, that means being able to explain the most basic concepts surrounding your company’s use of AI.
That almost never happens.
I’m literally asking for a simple explanation. Something like: “our company uses reinforcement learning and prediction algorithms to parse historical data on parking violations,” or “we build algorithms that interpret sensor data for waste management facilities.”
What I usually get is something more along the lines of “these days we all know that AI can write poetry. But that won’t help you on a hot New York day when you’re stuck in traffic! Meet Peter the Parking Buddy, your personal robot friend,” or “our problem-solving technology gives entire cities the power of the human brain.”
Those last two are useless to me. They contain no real information and, worse, they just blend in with all the other emails I get that also contain no useful at-a-glance information as I’m scrolling my inbox.
As a journalist, I know that the headline of this article will do more to get people to read it than the nearly 1,300 words that follow it. As the person sending a journalist an email, you should know that the subject line and preview sentences (usually the first one or two sentences in the body of your email) are the main deciding factor in how much attention your pitch gets relative to others.
Again, this advice is specific to journalists who specialize in covering AI. When it comes to the mainstream media all bets are off.
I can’t guarantee following these tips will get you the coverage you deserve from AI journalists. But making it easier for us to understand what’s actually interesting about your company is probably a good place to start.