Executing a 21st-Century Technology Launch
by Bryon Moyer
There are certain things that we all do without questioning. Ways and means have evolved on how to do them, and so we do them that way because, well, that’s how they’re done. But times change, and sometimes it’s useful to go back and see if the old ways are still the best ways.
Technology launches tend to follow a prescribed pattern. There are certain materials that need to be created, and they have to follow a prescribed formula. But these ways of doing a product launch originated a long time ago, when print was king and editors had full-time jobs and, well, somehow things moved at a statelier pace.
Nanette Collins, a seasoned independent PR consultant, was inspired to ask the question (see SIDEBAR 1), are these still the right ways? So she and I put together a project to survey a number of experienced editors to figure out what they wanted in a product launch. After all, most of the materials in a launch are aimed at the media – it helps to know that you’re giving them what they want in order to ensure that your message is spread as broadly and clearly as possible.
What we learned included some reinforcement of old things, some obvious effects of modern media, and some surprises. Editors are still writing original content (or trying to); they still like briefings; and they still like press releases. But they use email more than the news wires to get those releases, and they routinely ignore or eliminate the “required” quotes they contain. Contrary to popular assumption, embargos are routinely honored – at least by these folks. And – no surprise here – they’re overwhelmed by information, so it’s harder to get their attention.
We’ll cover these and other details in the results that follow. But one message was clear from the data: editors are not all the same; one size does not fit all. So, while we’ll discuss some broad trends here, you can’t apply them with a broad brush: you need to know who you’re working with and how they work. PR specialists can help with a variety of launch-related tasks, but perhaps one of the biggest values they provide is personal familiarity with editors so that you can get the most mileage from your launch.
How we did the study
We used a division-of-labor approach, both to split the load, but also to protect confidentiality. I write for EE Journal, which competes with what these other folks publish; they’re going to be less open with me than with Nanette, with whom they’ve built trust over the years. So, after collaborating on the questions we would ask, she did the actual interviews and then anonymized the results. I took those results and drew conclusions; I couldn’t tell who said what. (So you won’t see individual people quoted.)
We did this over a timeframe from November, 2011 through March, 2012. Nanette talked to 14 editors, all of them familiar names. Those discussions yielded some good insights, but, with a small sample like that, we can’t honestly say that the study is statistically rigorous (and we weren’t aiming for that). Nonetheless, we stand by the results.
When reviewing the conclusions, you should also bear in mind that these are seasoned editors. They don’t include people that blog randomly or aggregate news. But, for the time being at least, the editors we talked to have more media influence.
Of course, in giving editors what they want, you are implicitly assuming that the editors know what their readers want – it’s the readers that are your ultimate goal. We have proceeded with that assumption, putting our trust in the editors to do what is right for their targeted audiences.
Note that our interviews only involved US editors. Afterwards, we did a sanity check with our own European editor Dick Selwood. He provided his own personal take on the differences between our conclusions and what he sees in Europe, as well as a few bonus comments on press release likes and dislikes, delivered in his inimitable style, which we present in SIDEBAR 2.
What do editors want to cover?
We asked the editors what they thought was newsworthy. And there were two broad categories that they follow. Some like to follow business news – acquisitions in particular. These tend to be fast-moving, quick topics. Others prefer to follow technical news, primarily technology announcements. Many, although fewer, will follow product launches, but there’s a tendency by some to stay clear of what marketing is saying and focus only on the underlying technical issues. A smaller number of editors will address applications or broad trends.
For those following product launches, a subset will pay attention to product updates; they’ll do so only if there’s something meaty to talk about. But that really reflects a general conclusion: your news has to be interesting. 10% higher operating frequency may be a useful feature, but it doesn’t usually make an interesting story. So you need to pique the editor’s interest with something they think their readers will find interesting. This may sound obvious, but lots of PR folks don’t understand this based on the number of press releases that are boring, inconsequential, incomprehensible, or have no discernible news behind them.
How do editors get their news?
The old ways of getting news conjure up news wires and press conferences, with the promise of personal interaction and, most importantly, snacks (or better). But times have dramatically changed. Most editors get their news through emails sent directly to them or their organizations. A few use news wires and RSS feeds and aggregators, but most feel there’s just too much noise that they have to filter through.
Even with email, some of these guys get hundreds of releases a day – that’s an enormous amount to manage. So there’s a clear triage process at work – they’re not going to read through them all. They’ll only read the ones that catch their eyes.
It’s interesting that some editors look to other competing publications for news. That, of course, creates a Catch-22: someone has to write the thing first before others can see it.
We also asked about social media. There’s some use of Twitter, but mostly for posting. There was very limited use of Twitter as a research tool largely because of the noise and the fact that there is so much repetition as tweets and retweets echo through the system. One other concern noted was that it’s “ephemeral”: if you don’t catch the tweet within 15 minutes, it’s gone, and you’ll never find it.
As to other social media, there’s some use of LinkedIn, as that’s viewed as a professional site. Facebook, by contrast, is viewed as a personal, not professional, medium, and there’s little use of that.
The topic that kept coming up again and again, however, was the amount of noise out there. If you’ve got something interesting to say, your challenge is to get the editors’ attention. Trusted sources matter, so developing relationships, either directly or through PR folks, can have an impact.
How do editors write their articles?
There’s a general feeling out there that no one is writing original content anymore – editors simply rewrite press releases and slap their names on them. Surprisingly, that’s not what these editors claim to do. Perhaps they don’t want to admit it, but, taking them at their word, this came as a surprise. A small minority said they do rewrites, but most do not.
Everyone is now targeting online content. Some target print and online separately, but it’s more common to focus on material presented over the web. One editor that handled both print and online started with online, and then selected the “best of” to put in print.
Print is also used in conjunction with conferences, so such special editions may be targeted towards the conference audience.
How do these publications make money?
While you may think that this is none of your concern, it’s important to know how your editors are getting paid. After all, they’re running a business, and the rest of this is academic if the business goes under.
There’s a lot of talk about pay-for-play these days. That means that, if you want to have your launch covered, you pay a fee or buy a subscription or become a sponsor – whatever the specific model is – and then you get covered. The logic behind this is that press coverage has value to the company doing the launch; why shouldn’t they pay for it? The counter-argument is that readers may trust the article less if someone has paid for it – it won’t be objective. Is that a problem? One editor literally said, “Objectivity doesn’t matter.”
That said, the overwhelming majority of the editors still follow the old model: coverage comes irrespective of money. As an example, we at EE Journal maintain that wall between the editorial side and the advertising side. We can see who’s advertising, of course, just by looking at the site. But we don’t know who’s paid what or who just did a deal. The philosophy is, if we write interesting stuff, then we get more readers, and that’s good for advertisers – whether or not we covered their stuff.
But the business is definitely in flux; there’s an overall frustration at the difficulty in monetizing the value of press. Lots of people think it’s got value; the question is, who pays for it? Online advertising was severely discounted in the early days as an “add-on” to print. When the print went away, all that was left was the expectation of super-cheap ads that won’t necessarily keep the boat afloat. So most of the editors expect a lot of further consolidation as publications merge or simply disappear.
As an aside, advertising goals are also often unclear. While that’s, strictly speaking, outside the realm of PR, it is the funding model for the PR in most cases. Many companies still think in terms of lead generation – even some of the interviewed editors do. But if you’re a big EDA or chip company, are you really expecting that there are thousands of names out there that aren’t in your database yet? In reality, what such companies are getting is continued ongoing visibility. It’s good to be in front of your customer’s eyes while he or she is reading and thinking of new ideas for the next project. Startups can reasonably measure success through leads, but not the established companies.
One new source of competition for the traditional media is the growing number of company-controlled publications. They cover more than just their own stuff, but they’re clearly not going to publish things that run counter to their own interests – there will, by definition, be an agenda. But they don’t have to live and die by their revenues – they’re supported by company product revenues, which can feel like unfair competition for the regular media. Such publications can be useful to you – if your interests align with theirs. If not, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Some of the editors also noted that this model doesn’t work as well when addressing vertical markets.
What should you include in a launch?
We’ve taken a look at what editors think and how they work; so how should you structure a launch so that it resonates strongly with them? The main thing that still puts you on their radar is the press release. But you’ve actually got competing goals with your release: in addition to catching the eye of editors, you also need to get on the search engines’ radar.
While we can’t help you with the SEO, you need to realize that your first goal is for your email title to convey that you have an interesting story. But here’s the deal: editors aren’t just looking for emails with subjects that make them look interesting; they’re looking for interesting stories. If you waste their time looking into an email that has no substance behind the headline, they’re not going to appreciate it. If you do that often, they’ll probably remember.
What happens next depends on the editor. For editors that rewrite press releases, you probably want them to change as little as possible. So write them with an eye to their reader. But whether or not it’s going to be rewritten, there has to be a reason for someone to pay attention. What problem is being solved? What’s unique and interesting about your solution? Editors don’t have time to compare your claims to those of your competitors to see if they’re the same or differentiated. If you don’t make it clear why you’re new and different, then they may assume it’s an also-ran and pass on it.
There is one traditional mandatory part of each press release that is a universal waste of bits or ink: the quotes. All editors ignore them or remove them. (OK, if there is actually something substantial that someone said that needs to be attributed, that’s fine – but we all know that almost never happens.) More than one of us has been a part of the quote-generation process: no one really thinks that someone actually said what was quoted; someone made it up, and the putative quotee okayed it. The only quotes that are of interest are going to be candid quotes, and those won’t show up in a press release. Editors mostly don’t quote anyone at all; the few that do will only use quotes they’ve heard with their own ears.
The other debatable part of the press release is pricing. And here the results are mixed: some editors like them, some don’t. It also depends on the business: everyone understands that EDA list pricing is absolutely meaningless. Chip pricing is a bit better behaved, although there is still some skepticism. Bear in mind, however, that there are editors that feel strongly about including pricing. They feel that engineers need pricing to know whether the product is of use to them.
Some PR folks concern themselves with writing styles, advocating for the AP style. As far as editors are concerned, there’s little adherence to a single style. Many just use their own personal style; a few follow AP or Chicago; and a few have formal hybrid styles. The bottom line is that there is no one style that a press release can use to align with editors.
Some editors like graphics to accompany a release. In fact, at least one said that the publication required a graphic with each article, so having one supplied helps. Datasheets are also nice to have for some editors, but not required. Further down the list are whitepapers – some editors like them for depth on certain topics; many don’t use them.
Analysts used to be a traditional part of the launch push. The idea was, you brief the analyst so that, when the editor contacted the analyst, the analyst would be fully armed with answers. The question is, however, do editors contact analysts? And the answer is, for the most part, only occasionally. Some do more than others. My takeaway here would be, the reason to brief the analysts is because you want the analyst to understand what you’re doing, not just because you think an editor will call; he or she more than likely won’t.
While analyst briefings may go somewhat out of style, editor briefings definitely have not. What’s changed is the timing: in general, there’s much less appetite for briefings far in advance. Most prefer about a week. But some like several weeks; others a day or two.
Many editors write more or less in the moment, and if briefed too far before publication, they may lose the thread. That said, however, others like to have some time to put together something more solid. It may be an issue of writing and research time, or it may simply be that the article pipeline is full. This is definitely a case of needing to know how your editors work. You can be more effective if you brief different ones at different times, as suits their styles.
The big concern you probably have about advance briefings is leakage. And it’s widely assumed that no one honors embargoes anymore. Well, one of the surprises of this study was that most of these guys will respect your embargo dates. With a caveat: one editor specifically mentioned being annoyed when everyone is given the material at the same time, and some honor the date and some don’t. It makes the honest guys look and feel like patsies. So, again: know your editors. Reward those that play well with you.
Most of the editors like to have the briefing materials just ahead of the briefing so that they can review them and prepare questions. Note that, along with the press release, the briefing presentation is the other top-priority launch deliverable. At least one editor specifically asked that it be left in PowerPoint format so that it’s editable, rather than using a PDF version. If you do an online presentation, send a copy of the presentation as part of the package.
Briefing length should be a half hour. I always appreciate the folks that double-check my time flexibility at the start and then honor it. Along those lines, I’d like to add a plea for PR people to prep the presenters on who the editor is, how they work, and their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t overwhelm a business editor with technical details; don’t explain what a computer is to a technical editor. (And, especially in EDA, we all have heard a million times that designs are getting bigger and more complex while design cycles have shrunk… we don’t need a 10-minute review on that with each presentation.)
One almost historical relic we discussed was the exclusive – does anyone still do them? The answer is, mostly, No. But it’s a bit more nuanced than that: several editors mentioned that they might do them, but no one offers them up anymore. The whole concept of the cover article is mostly gone with the de-emphasis of print, but you may want to consider whether an exclusive might have some value; if so, ask about it.
Finally, in another surprise, press conferences were still relatively popular. But there’s a catch: the ones that work are the ones that require no travel or piggyback on other travel. That means either local or in conjunction with a conference that they’re already at.
What are the opportunities for contributed content?
There’s actually quite a bit of opportunity for you to contribute articles. Some publications intentionally limit the amount of content they accept from outside, others thrive on it. Mostly it’s available free, while some publications require some sort of financial arrangement. Some editors prefer technical content; others prefer outside viewpoints.
The one overwhelming common denominator should come as no surprise: no one will accept blatant product pitches or marketing hype. One editor wouldn’t even accept materials from marketing people, period.
The bottom line
The overall undeniable trends are obviously dominated by the move to online. Almost everything ends up there one way or another. The one universal issue that this creates for all editors is the amount of stuff they have to sort through to get information and news. Since that’s the only universal, we can summarize with two fundamental takeaways:
Good luck with your launches. You’ve got your work cut out for you.
by Nanette Collins
A seemingly innocuous-looking news release about a new product sent this writer on a months-long quest for truth, justice and the technology way, as Superman might say.
I’m getting ahead of myself and long-time readers of EE Journal might wonder what possible relevance this story will have to their work lives. Well, maybe nothing and, in that case, check in tomorrow for a more relevant article. But, the lowly product news release is often the way an EDA, semiconductor or embedded company gets the attention of your favorite writers at EE Journal or anywhere else.
Now that I have your attention, please allow me to continue. In those days when your industry news came via print publications delivered to your office, either monthly or weekly, product introductions took on a formalized and structured approach. A company’s marketing team worked with a Public Relations agency or an in-house group to put together a detailed plan of goals, timelines and deliverables about four months prior to a launch. Yes, four months, plenty of time to start planning, developing press kit materials, briefing analysts. Then came meetings with editors at long leads (monthly publications) about two months before the break date and under embargo, then visits to editors at weeklies about two weeks in advance of the break date.
It was a well-ordered system that everyone knew and understood and success rate for good coverage was generally pretty high.
In a short five years or so, those blueprint plans are all-but-non-existent. That’s because there are fewer publications appearing in print. Online communications channels rule the day. The rules of engagement have changed. What’s not certain are the new rules of engagement.
And, that’s what confronted me when this product news release landed in my email inbox three weeks ahead of the break date, or the day the announcement would be public. It got me thinking. These days, who knows what to do?
For the less organized, this new reality may be a welcome change. After all, a four-month window for an introduction can become an impossible planning nightmare, especially if product schedules slip.
Industry watchers continue see loads of product announcements, but it’s not clear how companies should plan their launches geared to an influencer who might be interested enough to write about it. If they are interested, how quickly do our influencers, which now include bloggers in addition to reporters, editors and analysts, need to be briefed? Do influencers want to be briefed? How far in advance should the news release be sent out ahead of the break date? Who honors embargos? And, exclusives, something publications fought over, are hardly offered any longer. One neophyte online influencer didn’t know about exclusives –– a company would negotiate with a publication for special coverage or an “exclusive,” often a front-page story, of a big announcement. The publication would run it in advance of the break date.
These questions kept nagging at me until I concluded that a survey of influencers was needed to try to piece together a sensible way to do a product launch. More important, my goal became determining an effective strategy for product launches.
Armed with a long list of questions that EE Journal’s Bryon Moyer and I came up with, I started contacting industry influencers, all of whom willingly agreed to participate. The 14 discussions that ranged about 30-45 minutes in length over a five-month period were thoughtful, insightful and chock full of useful information. However, any hope of developing a standard template for product launches was dashed almost from the start, though a few principles remain. They’re covered in detail in Bryon’s article, but their essence bears reiteration here.
Yes, it’s clear that coverage in our industry publications still matters. After all, it’s a third-party endorsement. Likewise, it’s the lowly news release that can catch an influencer’s attention to get that story told. But first is a working knowledge of the publication, online or otherwise, and the influencer’s interest or area of expertise. An announcement in the mixed-signal design tools area will not be of interest to someone who covers embedded software.
Our industry chroniclers use news releases as the predominant means of getting product news, though some wish they were better written. If an influencer is not on a company’s distribution list, they scour various online databases and wire/distribution services or use a newsfeed aggregator to make sure they haven’t missed an announcement.
Many report getting inundated with news releases in their email inbox, skimming through the list until one or two catch their eye. Clever headlines, then, can make all the difference between coverage and no coverage. One harried influencer relies almost exclusively on trusted sources who contact him through email or phone calls. Another networks to stay abreast of industry news and product announcements.
Optimal timing for getting the news to an influencer varies as much as their personalities. Some want a week to determine if they’ll cover it, others can handle receiving the news release the day before the break date. Some want additional material, ranging from data sheets and whitepapers to PowerPoint presentations. Some may do briefings, though constrained resources prevent many of them from scheduling one. Many will take executive-level opinion pieces outlining market trends or in-depth technical articles on the problem the product is solving.
by Dick Selwood
The very title of this perspective is misleading – there is no European perspective: there is a French perspective, a German perspective, a Swedish perspective etc. In all these markets there is generally a concentration on technical news, and the same rules for an interesting story apply as do in the US. However, there is always a strong focus on the local market; the implicit/explicit assumption is that many readers will receive some US publications - now often in electronic format. As an example: there is no point in most non-local companies distributing appointment stories, except for local senior management. (OK – the big beasts should distribute CEO appointments.)
The move to electronic versus print media is continuing, with print titles physically shrinking and/or totally disappearing, although Germany seems to be different with a wide range of print media still publishing.
Social media is not seen as input, apart from some elements of LinkedIn and some (although no means all) company blogs.
Writing releases with an eye to the reader comes expensive in Europe. Virtually each market is a separate language and the logic of time pressure means that a sometimes a second rate story in the local language is going to trump a more interesting story in English. (And using the local manager to translate your release can be a route to disaster.)
Providing graphics is an issue. My preference, and that of those editors I have spoken to, is an attached thumbnails or low quality images with a link to an easily downloadable print quality. “Graphic on request” is a complete no-no.
Analysts are generally irrelevant.
Press conferences are less common, given the scattered nature of Europe and the high cost of travel. Large companies will fly journalists to strategic centres once a year or so, and in Germany there are major trade shows, which attract international journalists and offer a great chance for face to face briefings. (For efficiency you might consider talking to several journalists at the same time. Ask first, but most won’t object.)
For phone briefings the same guidelines apply as in the main discussion.
Bonus round: Bees in my bonnet:
The positioning statement in the first par of most press releases is so often awful, “… the world leader in pink painted boxes delivered on Wednesday when there is an R in the month…” On the other hand, except for the very big beasts, it is helpful to have something.
Boilerplates: I know the blood, sweat, tears and egos that go into these, but the same things apply as for the positioning statement.
“Company Confidential” on PowerPoint slides. Either they are – in which case why are they giving them to us - or they are available for use – so why leave it on the slides?
In a phone/face to face briefing – the first six slides on the company. (Except when it is the first time I have met them.)
Sending briefing materials over with half an hour, or less, to go before the phone call. I need time to read them and I may be juggling other things at that very moment.
Full scale press conferences at trade shows given only “Because we always have one – I am sure that the editors will appreciate our CEO giving an update on our company.” And while the briefing slots are half an hour they seem to think that they can take an hour for a press conference.
Press releases on company web sites (which I might use when researching a feature) without a date or without any contact details – and no press contact details given elsewhere on the website.