Stop Pitching Strangers on the Internet

Authentic influencer marketing: Make good contact with these people ahead of time so they’re not strangers anymore. You’ll be glad you did. This seems obvious but it’s not.

People used to say that you should reach out to blogs and social media influencers to cover your company’s announcement. Such a simple approach isn’t good advice any more though, because the playing field is full of desperate strangers cold-pitching online heavyweights. I was asked tonight by writer David Spark for an example of some no-longer-good advice that seemed to make sense in the past – and I’ve been trying to figure out how best to express this for a long time.

You wouldn’t walk into a crowded party and shout, “ok, who here is the most popular? It’s time for you to tell everyone about ME!” That’s what cold pitching influencers is like. It happens all the time. That’s not what we’re building our startup Little Bird to do, either.

Instead, you should discover people now (right now!), get to know them over time, enjoy the huge wins that come with paying attention to the best in your field, and then pitch them later once you’re a known and respected entity.

I’ve been on both sides of the coin on this, as the first hired writer at TechCrunch and then the co-editor at ReadWriteWeb – people were pitching me constantly. The ones I was the most responsive to were the ones I knew already because we had been talking for weeks before the pitch: about my work, about their work and about matters of common interest. By talking I mean they were tweeting at me and commenting on my blog posts.

On the other side, as a startup guy, consultant and now an entrepreneur I’m the one looking to get other peoples’ attention.

Let me tell you, it works much much better for everyone if you put in the time and can share real value through authentic online (and offline) relationship building. To say it’s worth it would be a drastic understatement.

I got started in my career by posting smart comments on peoples’ blog posts and linking to their posts in my blog posts. (1st person was Barb Dybwad, who is awesome and later hired me.) Today I send people public @ replies on Twitter. I read their stuff and I respond to or reshare it, with commentary. (Most recent example was Glen Gilmore, who I retweeted with commentary and who then followed me back and now I’m DMing with.)

In all of those cases I try to say something that makes the people I’m making contact with say “hey, that’s really useful/interesting – who is this person Marshall who just added that to my public conversation? If he has more things to say that are interesting, maybe I should be following him, too.” That’s how I’ve gotten just about everything I’ve gotten from other people on the internet: I did something interesting that was relevant to them and I used the structure of social media (comments, replies, etc.) to let them know about it. It’s not about stroking egos, it’s about earning peoples’ interest and appreciation for real. That’s not easy but there are ways to make it much easier.

So if you’re thinking “I’ll engage with the leading influencers in my market when it’s time for me to pitch them for coverage,” then you’re missing the point and leaving huge value on the table. (Imagine: “Hey Jared Spool, I have a product for designers – would you re-post my link? What’s that? You’ve written years of incredible content that could boost my professional development if I just read it and you’re coming out with more every day – and that’s why you’re at the top of the field? Whatever! Tweet my link, jerkface!!” < -- don't let that be you, no matter what field you're in.) And I'm sorry to tell you that unless you're incredibly, unusually interesting - you're going to have a much harder time getting someone's attention if the first time you ping them is to ask them to use their voice to promote you. So don't pitch top blogs and social media influencers on your company's announcement. Pitch your friends online, the world-class thought leaders you've interacted with in a dignified, interesting way. You're smart and interesting, don't you deserve to be thought of as a peer to those people at the top? If so, you'd better get started now. (We’ll make it a whole lot easier, by the way.)

Update: Here’s a great example of how you do it.

This morning B2B marketer Maureen Blandford shared with me a link to Alexis Madrigal’s great post about hiring Rob based on his great use of Twitter.

Rob got my attention by becoming a part of The Atlantic Tech’s extended cast of writers and interlocutors. His network analysis was uncanny. One minute I’ve never heard of this kid, and the next minute, he’s engaged in interesting, respectful conversation with half of my Internet friends.

That takes a certain kind of fearlessness, and most of the time it’d be paired with arrogance. But not with Rob. His humility is genuine, driven by a real desire to think this stuff through. And the thing that I always noticed about Meyer’s conversations with everyone was that he was such a good and generous reader of other people’s work. He tended to respond with whatever the opposite of snark is. His role became to connect good ideas with each other by connecting good writers with each other. He wove the social fabric tighter and made our conversations richer.

Full story here, with great detail. All of this is much easier to do well, of course, with Little Bird – but if you want to just muscle it all through, this is a great example as-is!

  • Well said, Marshall. It take time and being genuine to build relationships from the ground-up, online. But it’s worth it.

  • Much more simply said, William. I probably could have just left it at your two sentences!

    You sure have done a good job of pulling this stuff off yourself, William. Hope you’re well.

  • remybigot

    It’s a shame that a lot of people don’t really want to understand that simple thing. You need to really BUILD relationship and to give before want to receive, it’s crucial ! Good article !

  • LOL. Day in and day out.
    Thanks. I saw you followed SUM; it’s focused on startup management/growth/scaling topics.

  • greg schulz

    Great post and the obvious is not so obvious to so many. Engage early and often, get to know and be known vs. simply show up just when their is something to pitch. As Marshall said, I too get several pitches a day and more likely to take time for those I hear from in between the pitch cycles. Likewise do not be afraid to ask for a favor, however state what it is, why you need it and avoid making every request a favor, that wears out too quick.

  • I fully agree. It´s all about relevance and context. Also in real life: if you have more context with people (also as senders of information) it is a lot easier to judge the relevance of the specific information they have. It´s very interesting to see the development of tools like Little Bird that help you technically to get insight into the context (in several dimensions) so that you can determine the relevance easier. I too think that building sustainable and real relationships is the right way to create relevant conversations that might get amplified through networks.

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  • I love this plainly stated advice Marshall. It’s definitely easier to build relationships with people when you don’t need them.

  • Deane T Rimerman

    Note: Last sentence at bottom of second to last paragraph before “update” is a typo. It’s missing the word ‘time.’ (I’ll delete this part of my comment after its fixed)

    Great points Marshall… Makes me think about that old cliche about how we have two ears to listen but only one mouth to speak, so listening is therefor always more important… As in everyone perceives reality thru their own personal story. If you’re tuned into and part of someone’s story you’ll have their support way more than if you aren’t.

    Another key is to realize that when reaching out to thought leaders those who are super successful don’t do much mirroring/solidarity as those who are still up and coming… Details here:

    Or to take it a step further: It’s similar to why great enduring sports teams don’t recruit the best most famous players, rather they become a great sports teams because the coaches have keen instincts for picking players who are hungry, driven and skilled in the same way the stars started out before anyone knew they were stars.

    Likewise, I suspect your point is that Little Bird wants you to not only know who the thought leaders are in any subject, but more important: who the up and coming thought leaders are who are still accessible, thus allowing you to more easily connect and build a relationships that helps both parties get ahead.

    Have a great week Little Birds…

  • I think it’s pretty pointless getting to know the person via email for example because its just a fake relationship built on the PR needing coverage. In person is definitely worth it. such as getting to know editors, journos at events is different and more genuine.

  • JDK1970

    This is great advice and obviously the best thing to do in theory. The challenge comes when you are hired to do marketing for someone else and they want to see results relatively soon. It’s hard to simply say, well, we’re building relationships, give us a few months.