How not to pitch your startup to a journalist


Every morning, the first thing I do is open my email and gawk at train wrecks.

Overnight, you see, my inbox accumulates pitches from eager startups looking for coverage. Some of them are good. Every now and then I get one that’s great. But most of them are terrible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something like this:

Dear Editor,

I’m a huge fan of your work! I really liked [obscure, unimportant article from years ago], and since you wrote that I thought you’d be interested in writing about [startup that’s totally unrelated to that article]. We’re a disruptive tech startup that aggregates virtual models to integrate seamless infrastructures and maximize back-end e-services. It would really be great if you could cover us. Thanks!


[Person whose email is about to get deleted]

And believe it or not, that’s a better pitch than many I’ll receive this week. Sure, it’s gibberish, but at least it doesn’t have any typos.

So how can you avoid being the guy whose email is about to get deleted? Avoid these major, super common mistakes that startups make when emailing journalists for coverage:

Mass emails.

Just don’t do it. As I wrote in Targeting Your Pitch: How to Find the Right Media Outlet for Your Story, mass emails are wildly inefficient. Most of the journalists who see your message are not the same sorts of people who’d be interested in your story. But even more important, mass messages are off-putting. Journalists want to write something original, not the same story that’s just been emailed to half the internet.

Mass emails are doubly obnoxious when (like in the example email above) they pretend they’re personal by using some script that inserts a link to a totally irrelevant, years-old article in an attempt to convince the recipient that the sender is actually familiar with their work. This has never fooled me, and I delete pitches that do it pretty much on sight.

Buzzword overload.

Every industry has buzzwords. And every industry has journalists that are sick to death of hearing those buzzwords. Don’t feed into our natural journalist cynicism by describing your company with over-used and overly-dramatic terms like “disruptive” or “revolutionary.” If your startup is really revolutionary, then it should be pretty easy to show me why that’s the case by describing your business. If you have to tell me that your business is revolutionary or disruptive, it’s probably neither.

It’s also worth pointing out that too many buzzwords can make your pitch genuinely difficult to understand. This is especially frequent in the tech industry, where founders can get so excited with attaching hip category labels to their business that they forget to actually explain what they do. You’re a mobile-first cloud-based SaaS platform? Investors might be salivating at that pitch, but journalists are left scratching their heads as to what your company actually does.

Technical overload.

On a similar note, many founders also go too far in explaining what their company does, immersing the poor journalist in a sea of technical details and esoteric jargon. Remember, just because a journalist writes about your industry does not mean they have the specialized knowledge that you do. They are probably more informed than the layman, but if your business is complex or highly technical, there’s a good chance they’re not going to grasp the specifics.

So ignore the specifics. Instead of getting technical, focus on what your business actually does. At the highest level, what problem are you solving for customers? What story does your business tell? Start there, and then the journalist can drill down into the technical stuff later if that’s what they want. Don’t blast it all at them in the pitch email.

Giving the investor pitch.

This is a common mistake, albeit an easily understandable one. Early-stage companies often spend a lot of time thinking about and pitching to investors. The quick investor pitch is a speech that many founders have memorized virtually word-for-word. But giving journalists your best investor pitch doesn’t always help, because investors and journalists are looking for different things.

Investors want to know how your business will succeed. That includes market information, your strategic plan, your team and their expertise, etc. Journalists actually don’t care about most of that. They probably already know the market information (they cover your industry, after all), so including that in your journalist pitch is a waste of time. And they’re not going to be as interested in your business plan or your team as they are in how your startup is of interest to their readers. You should take the time to craft a specific pitch that’s designed to give journalists the information they actually need.

Not including a story.

OK, so you want me to cover your startup—what’s the story I’m covering? Reporters do occasionally write apropos-of-nothing business profiles, but it’s not common. Generally, if you want me to write about your company, there needs to be some kind of story or news angle to it. Maybe you’ve just raised a funding round. Maybe you’re launching a new product. Maybe you’re expanding to a new office. Or maybe it’s a more personal story, like how you as a founder overcame some serious obstacle to start this business, or how your team pulled together to achieve something against all odds. There are many kinds of stories, and what works best for you will depend on your situation.

But if you can’t find an interesting story angle on your company, don’t expect a journalist to do it for you. Try to keep in mind that you really should never be pitching a company to journalists at all, you should be pitching a specific story.

Making it too long (or too short).

Reporters get lots of stories pitched to them each day, but only have time to write a few. We appreciate a good pitch that gives us all the information we need but doesn’t waste our time with unnecessary fluff.

It’s tough to set a specific word count target, because to some extent the appropriate pitch length depends on the story you’re pitching. But the best pitch emails are often two or three short paragraphs that quickly give the reader an idea of what the story is and who you and your company are. You can attach a press release with a link to photos to give journalists quick access to more in-depth information if they want it, but catching their eyes with a clear, concise email pitch first is often a good idea.

Insane formatting.

A little bold or italic text, used sparingly, can help key phrases jump off the page and drive points home or emphasize tone. But don’t overdo it, and don’t go any further than bold or italics. If you find yourself using different colors, different fonts, underlines, or embedded-in-email images, you’ve overdone it and your meant-to-be-serious email pitch is going to look like an email forward from grandma.

Getting too personal.

This is admittedly more of a personal preference, but I know I’m not the only journalist that finds it weird and off-putting when a total stranger emails me a pitch that reads like he thinks we’re best friends already. “Hey Charlie, was thinking of you the other day and thought you’d be interested in this story….” is a fine way to start a pitch email if we have an established working relationship, but it’s weird if this is the first email you’ve ever sent me. That doesn’t mean you have to be super formal—at least for me, “Hi Charlie,” is a totally fine opener—but don’t take that light-and-friendly casual tone too far or things get a little weird.

On a similar note, don’t gush about how much you like my work, even if it’s true (which it usually isn’t). A small amount of flattery can sometimes be nice, but anything more than that is awkward. And keep in mind that tone can easily be misinterpreted through email, so even genuine praise could be misinterpreted as you being sarcastic.

Keeping all of that in mind is not always easy, but avoid raising those red flags and you’ll significantly raise your chances of getting a good response when you send out your pitches. Lots and lots of people make these mistakes, and each morning they leave train wrecks in my inbox. Set yourself apart from the pack. Don’t be one of them.


About Author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is an editor at Tech in Asia, where he covers the Chinese technology industry. He lives in Maine with his wife and dog.