I’ve been in tech PR for over a decade, and there’s one feeling that still never gets old – the pure joy of a positive media response to your pitch. The reality is that it’s only getting harder to achieve that moment.
According to Muck Rack’s most recent industry report, some journalists receive more than 255 pitches a week. But whether you’re asking ChatGPT to help you create an attention grabbing subject line or not, catching a journalist’s attention is only the beginning. Then, you have to maintain that attention long enough to make them want to take the time to learn about the company or product, take a call with a spokesperson, and perhaps even test a product before they commit to publishing.
We recently worked with industry veteran Tony Ware, Associate Commerce Editor of iconic consumer science publication Popular Science on an experiential demo with our client, sleep technology company Bryte, so took the opportunity to pick his brain. Our focus was on how PR professionals can ensure they’re telling stories through product (rather than just pushing product features), how best to work with a commerce writer like himself, and his real opinion on whether or not he wants to hear about your products’ AI capabilities…
(This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity)
First things first, what type of technology is Popular Science most interested in?
We look for products that provide readers with a solution, not just more ‘stuff’. The technology that I’m most interested in is anything that helps demystify the worlds of science and technology, and helps readers be smarter, healthier, more productive, and more conscientious in their relationships with gadgets.
Given your role as Associate Commerce Editor, I can only imagine how many review and demo pitches you get a day. What makes a pitch cut through the noise and capture your attention?
Clarity and sincerity are what I look for in a pitch. It starts with the subject line. Most people spend so much time crafting the body of an email they forget that first impressions are lasting ones. I want to see something clearly showing that the person pitching understands our coverage area(s.)
And I want to see something that shows it clearly for me. I want to be pitched with a dialogue, not just a transaction. If someone treats me as more than a publication, I’ll treat someone as more than a publicist. I like exchanging dog pictures and travel recommendations alongside press assets and published links.
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Tony and his pup
Finally, one follow-up might break through the static. Multiple follow-ups is the static.
Speaking of pitches… I’m sure you’ve been receiving significantly more AI-focused pitches recently. How can products that feature AI stand out when pitching you?
We have been seeing a rise in AI pitches, but it’s still feeling shoehorned in much of the time—more like a buzzword simply to replace “smart”, or “connected”, or “Internet of Things”, rather than a hero feature.
Saying there’s some kind of AI involved doesn’t always make something smart, or better. There have been adaptive technologies for quite some time and, honestly, AI does its best work on the software side. And we cover primarily hardware. That said, it is increasingly relevant in, say, computational photography. Every new camera (and smartphone camera) has some sort of AI feature… even gimbals (camera stabilizers) have AI now.
I’m not totally sure how AI products could stand out when being pitched, though, except by making it crystal clear how they provide an actually useful feature that improves the end result of whatever the gear is meant to achieve.
When it comes to product reviews, what makes for a good demo experience?
Could you explain whatever is being shown in an email and/or, could it be fully understood once in hand? If yes, be honest and seed things by mail.
If I’m coming out to see something, I hope to have access to a subject matter expert that can give me useful specs, not just feed me buzzwords. It kills me when I see a wireless product, for example, and someone can’t immediately tell me what Bluetooth codecs are supported.How compatible something is in any scenario should be baked in the presentation and not require a follow-up. I like when someone can attach practical tips and tricks, and share some first-person advice on how to set up or integrate the product.
Obviously, you want to showcase things in an optimal environment, but I wouldn’t say I like it when a setup is too sterile, or chaotic. I’m hoping to get a realistic impression of the product. For instance, audio products are often demoed with an approved playlist—but you can’t remove the emotional element from music, so making me sit through “Hotel California” for the millionth time is fine if you want somewhat muted enthusiasm. Follow up your pitch by asking me what I’d like to listen to. We all have our own benchmarks.
Overall, be passionate about the experience, not just the bullet points. And I definitely want it to be clear upfront what copy and images can be published, and what is embargoed or on background.
Any other insights to share around how best to work with you personally?
If someone treats me as more than a publication, I’ll treat someone as more than a publicity group. We can get work done without being purely business. At the same time, there’s a difference between an appetizer of fun asides, and being fed canned conversations.
From music to tech, your journalism career has covered such a wide range of industries. What’s been your favorite story to write?
I don’t have one favorite story, but I have a favorite type of story. I’ve always been an experiential writer—as concerned with the feel of the wires and words as I am the technical specs. I want someone to come away with a vivid perspective of what it’s like to be involved with whatever I’m covering.
My background is originally in music writing, blending in with crowds and alongside performers to get an immersive angle, so I care about the rhythm of writing and think of it more like a setlist than an outline. There’s gonna be a place for b-sides and deep cuts, but you gotta know when to shut up and play the hits.
What guidance would you give to brands when it comes to affiliate programs when working with commerce reporters?
Affiliate programs are not the end-all-be-all, but they’re something that can be a tiebreaker when multiple similar products could be featured in the same roundup. Ultimately, following research and testing, the clearly best thing is the best choice. But if there are multiple things in contention, the best thing will be the thing that is more beneficial for consumers and the publication. When pitching, don’t leave that thing off the product’s resume. You want the job? Show don’t tell.
We touched on AI earlier, so let’s end on that note too. How has the media landscape shifted recently in response to AI, and how do you see things changing in the next year or so?
The emergence of ChatGPT, Bard, and other AI has everyone (re)evaluating roles. We believe our content will always be set apart by accumulated expertise, authority, hands-on testing, and a thorough understanding of the context in which to apply it all.
Have any questions about this Q&A or how we can support your consumer tech brand? Reach out here.
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