Episode #7

Michelle Songy from Press Hook

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In this episode of Beyond the Inbox, Michelle Songy, founder of Press Hook, shares her insights on the importance of PR and storytelling for small ecommerce brands in today's digital age. She emphasizes the need for brands to build a brand story that resonates with their customers, especially the Gen Z generation, who value authenticity and emotional ties.

Songy discusses how brands can leverage their founder's story to reach out to media outlets and connect with their audience. She notes that storytelling is crucial in connecting with media outlets as it can help brands stand out and get coverage faster. She recommends that smaller ecommerce brands should treat PR like business development, making personal connections with journalists and editors, and understanding the audience and the publication's needs.

Moreover, Songy highlights the role of affiliate marketing in PR and editorial space, stating that it has become nearly impossible to garner media coverage without it. She notes that smaller ecommerce brands can compete with larger companies by finding the right publications and writers and sending relevant pitches that align with what the publication writes about.

When it comes to the types of content that ecommerce brands can go after, Songy suggests product roundups, product reviews, trend stories, and more. She recommends being timely and finding the right person to break a story, as well as offering exclusives to publications before product launches to increase the chances of coverage.

Finally, the episode provides valuable insights into the world of PR and how small ecommerce brands can use storytelling and affiliate marketing to compete with larger companies and get media coverage. Small ecommerce brands should avoid PR mistakes like trying their hand at media outreach without a clear strategy. Instead, they should focus on building personal connections with journalists and editors, understanding the audience and the publication's needs, and offering relevant and timely pitches that align with what the publication writes about.

Show Notes

  • (0:43) Michelle Songy's background and the inspiration for creating Press Hook
  • (4:08) The importance of storytelling in PR, especially for Gen Z
  • (6:29) Common PR mistakes that small ecommerce brands make
  • (8:14) The role of personal connections in PR and understanding the audience and the publication's needs
  • (10:46) The importance of affiliate marketing in PR and editorial space
  • (11:50) How smaller ecommerce brands can compete with larger companies by finding the right publications and writers and by sending relevant pitches
  • (17:33) The types of content that ecommerce brands can go after
  • (19:30) Being timely and finding the right person to break a story, as well as offering exclusives to publications before product launches

Read the transcript:

Sam (00:02): Michelle, welcome to be on the Inbox. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Michelle (00:07): Thank you. Glad to be here.

Sam (00:09): I want to start with your background. I know that you were a tech founder in a previous life. And I was doing some research on you before our recording, and I know you spent some time in a remote part of Indonesia, and you told the story about talking to a local business owner about ideas to get him more media exposure. You called that trip the trip of a lifetime. Can you tell me about that experience?

Michelle (00:40): Sure. It's about five or six years ago, I read an article in Culture Trip, when I was doing some research on the best places in the world to go diving. And I read about this super remote place that was absolutely almost impossible to get to. And of course when I was working, I never had enough time off. So I finally got a little sabbatical after leaving the last company I was working with, and decided that it was time for me to go explore this place, like this image and this cute little B&B in the middle of Raja Ampat in Indonesia, just caught my eye and I said, "I have to go there one day, I have to go."

(01:20): So I decided to go by myself, and it was multiple planes, boats and rides to get there. It took a few days. And I finally got there, went completely off the grid. I remember my mom said that all of a sudden I just had no location. I was just in the middle of the ocean somewhere. And I get there, and it was a hundred times more than anything I've ever imagined. And I'm on this tiny little island again, in the middle of nowhere, no really electricity and service or anything. And I asked the guy, and the first thing the guy asked me, we're talking and having dinner.

(01:58): And he says, "I'd just love to know how'd you end up here, how'd you hear about us?" And I said, "I read about it in this article in Culture Trip a couple of years ago, and I just always wanted to come here." And he said, "That's crazy. I can't tell you how many customers we have that come from that one article. We probably get more customers from there than anywhere else, besides referrals, people just coming back and hearing about it." And we talked, and I was thinking about my next move, what I was going to do next.

(02:27): And we talked about how do you get more of this kind of media coverage? It's so powerful to a small business. And I struggled with it before too, having big competitors, and we just started talking, and we tried to think of other ways how we could get this again. And I really said, "It is difficult. You either have to figure out how to do it yourself and learn it and be educated on it, or have the contacts and network, or you have to pay someone a lot of money to do it." So we connected over that.

Sam (02:56): That's a good segue into, you founded Press Hook in an effort to solve the problems you yourself faced as a tech startup founder, with a limited marketing and PR budget. Can you tell me more about how those experiences shaped how Press Hook helps its customers?

Michelle (03:15): Sure. So the idea was, looking back, because we were kind of trying to replicate almost like an Airbnb model at first. We were trying to create a marketplace. So if we know that journalists have to write new content, come up with new ideas, and they get assigned stories every day, how do we land at the right time, right place? So we decided to create a marketplace, on one side there's businesses and brands that create profiles. These are essentially their press kits, media kits, but digitalized.

(03:45): So once they're on there, now a journalist, when they do get assigned a story or they're just discovering, looking for something interesting new to talk about, they come on the site, use it like a little Google search engine, type in the keywords and automatically find those brands or products, or people that they can speak with for their stories, giving them more, like democratizing access to them, giving them more diverse sources. And they would just know through their own networks, and their own research. And then also obviously making it a very cost-efficient solution for startups and small businesses.

Sam (04:23): There's a lot I want to unpack, and I think I'll come back to that in a moment. One thing that stood out for me when I was reading about your story was, you were very hands-on when you were working at your previous startup, and you found media outreach to be time-consuming and often fruitless. What mistakes does small e-commerce brands make when it comes to PR?

Michelle (04:50): Sure. I think people try their hands at it in different ways. A lot of them just come in doing it, just saying, "Maybe we just email everybody, or how do we know who to email?" And they might not have time and effort even and the knowledge to know how to email people, when to email people, knowing this is a person on their side of the job, it's not just a publication you're blasting. So I think people just do it at first, just to see what works. And I think that's a part of us being startups and founders, is we just try something and see what happens.

(05:23): But it's not really done in a very thoughtful, a very meaningful way. And that's what you need to do if you actually want someone to respond. So I would say treat it the same way you would treat your own BD, to get in touch with your own retailers or suppliers. You want to make a personal connection. You want to get to know who are the people you really want to make connections with, build a relationship with, and eventually, hopefully get them to tell your story or think of you and include you when they do have a relative story.

(05:58): So I think it's really understanding, one, where is your audience? Which, you might really want to be in the New York Times or Forbes, your audience might not be, your customers might not be reading that, they're reading some other publication. So figuring out really who is your audience and where are they, targeting those publications. But then also within that publication there's a lot of writers, there's staff writers, there's contributors, there's the editors.

(06:26): So getting to know those people, and making a connection with them and saying, "Hi, I'm so-and-so, I'm the founder or marketer, and I'd love to introduce myself and share with you our brand or our products." And also, why are you sharing this with them now? Why now, why is this relevant right now to them? So it's really about the timeliness of why you're writing them, and why that's important today.

Sam (06:53): Timeliness is something that I also want to come back to when we talk about gift guides, a little bit later on. We started this call with a story, and you mentioned a story a little bit earlier on as well. What role does brands' storytelling play in PR? How can more brands leverage their founder story in reaching out to some of these media outlets?

Michelle (07:19): Right now, it's more important than ever before. Finding that good story, figuring it out, really connecting and understanding why you did start something and how that can connect with your customers. Especially for the Gen Z generation, it's really about the story, you want to understand, why did you start it, is it because of some sustainability or effort that you saw, or is there's this really gap in the market, or what are the competitors doing or not? Do you have a personal experience that they can connect to and understand? So it's just, I mean the product is one piece, but really the story can get you there and get you coverage, and get you a connection faster. So building the brands' stories is just as important as building your products.

Sam (08:06): Are there any brand stories that come to mind, some favorites that are doing really well right now when it comes to PR?

Michelle (08:21): I can think of so many. I'll pull some from our website and see what I have. But anything about, maybe you had a MA, anything from parents or a sickness or an experience you went through. I think people love hearing, especially the startup stories of you starting something in your backyard, and with your mom and some funny story of what happened.

(08:48): I think just making it personable to what the problem was or what the issue was, the core issue that you dealt with, and that being more emotional tied. It's hard to be put on the spot on this, but there's so many I've read that are so great. But yeah, I think definitely tying it back to you as a person, and how you really realized and figured that out.

Sam (09:15): I think one of my favorites that comes to mind, and I might be biased in saying this because I wrote an article about them many years ago, but the men's grooming brand, Harry's, because there was very much a David versus Goliath story in the marketing, where they started the brand because they felt like men were overpaying for razors. And I believe they were one of the first subscription offers for razors.

(09:42): But that's a brand story that sticks in my mind. And it's interesting, when I was writing this article and I was looking at some of the links that they were attracting, it wasn't necessarily about the products or the business model, it was about these two guys that came together and decided to go up against, I think that was the Goliath in the story. And that's just something that stayed with me for a long time.

Michelle (10:08): Yeah, that's amazing. And if it's true and it resonates and it's authentic, it just feels so much better. And it's hard, everyone has a crazy story like that, so figure out what is something meaningful, because you're going to be telling the story over and over and over again. So whatever feels good, lights you up, really gets you passionate and going, that should be your story.

Sam (10:33): Do you think it's more common for bigger media outlets to tell the story of the founder or the co-founder, versus the creation of a product?

Michelle (10:46): It's always where it begins, it's where we started. How does it begin, why this start? And then you go and then it leads into the product. But at first, yes, we try products and we try and taste things and we like them. And then you kind of want to understand like, "Whoa, did you hear the story about how this product came about, did you hear this?"

(11:04): So I think it depends where you started, but a lot of times we do start off looking and seeing a product, and then we then develop that understanding of who they are, where they came from through being more involved with them being customers. But yeah, I think it's, again, it goes hand in hand, but further as you go probably people get more interested in your story, and then develop into your product.

Sam (11:33): Speaking of attracting backlinks from big media sites, you wrote in one article, I believe this was on the Press Hook website, you wrote, "In today's digital age, in the media is nearly impossible to garner without affiliate marketing." Tell me more about that. Why is it so important?

Michelle (11:50): Especially for e-commerce brands, anything in the CPG space. This really came about, I mean it really started taking over a couple of years ago, becoming something that we started to see and then get asked for on the editorial side. There's still some people confused, like, "Is this spies, is this not? Like what is this, why do they keep asking for affiliate links?" It is the way that these publications are making a revenue. Some of them are writing a story that has super high SEO. I've heard stories of some the best comfy couches going live, and they sell millions of dollars through these.

(12:27): So they're pushing hard, they have great writers, but it's like instead of just them flipping on a bunch of more ads and paywalls and subscriptions. This is an organic way, they still choose the products they want to write, but in the end of the story, they do want to put those links in the affiliate program because they're getting back a little kickback from that story, and the readership and the creditability that you're getting for that.

(12:50): So I personally think it's such a win-win for the industry, you've never seen, I mean right now every media company has an e-commerce team. They have an e-commerce portal, they're writing product reviews, product roundups. They know that it's working, it's connecting to customers, it's selling the products, it's working really closely with brands. And again, not just in, pay us X amount for one sponsored post or an advertisement, it's really a lot more meaningful, it feels more organic.

(13:22): And then you can work with them, if the publication you're working with, you start selling a lot through, then you can work with them and offer them a higher percentage, and they'll hopefully continuously keep working with you on a closer basis, because you guys are both benefiting from that, and you're really connecting to the readers who are your customers. So affiliate marketing is in the PR and editorial space, is more important than ever. If you don't have one, I wouldn't even do it. It's just that important. And it really means something to the publication too, that you're giving them, you're offering them something in return.

Sam (14:00): When I see list posts, like best mattresses 2023, if I'm reading an article like that through the eyes of a small e-commerce brand, it's very easy to feel like it's impossible to compete with these other more established brands. And my question for you is, how can small e-commerce brands with affiliate programs compete with these larger companies that can maybe offer larger percentages with their affiliate programs, is there a way that they can stand up and compete?

Michelle (14:37): Oh, yeah. They're constantly looking to reinvent to add new, and they're looking for new products, new businesses to add. They don't want to just keep adding the big corporate ones that everyone talks about. They're constantly looking and finding what's new, what they can recommend next. So if you can find, and you write down all those articles, those really high SEO articles that you want to be in, the 10 best, this best this best. They update them every year too, or some of them update every quarter.

(15:02): So just finding those writers and those articles and contacting them, and letting them know you exist, and you would love for them to test out your product and this is why, that is more than worth it. I can't even tell you how it is. And they do look for those, they're looking for those products because their editors are asking them to keep them updated. They might, right when it publishes the next day, they're not going to update the story.

(15:26): It already went live, don't ask them to do that. They'll get annoyed. But let them know that you're there, that you exist, and as long as you're sending them a relevant pitch, because it's about something they write about, that is fine. That is what they want, is to hear from more types of products that fit what they write about. But there's absolutely a chance, I see it every day. And they might have some relationships with some bigger brands, that's fine, but they have to develop their stories.

Sam (15:53): For any smaller e-commerce brands that are listening to this episode, what are some of the characteristics of an attractive affiliate program from the perspective of a larger media site, that might cover them in an article?

Michelle (16:10): So there's a few programs that are all connected to Skimlinks. Some of those are, ShareASale, Impact, Partnerize, Awin, and you can look those up. So there's a few programs that are connected to Skimlinks, and that's the main affiliate network that most of the big publications use. So as long as you get on one of those main programs, it's up to you. They all have different pricing and needs, depending on how much affiliate revenue and links you're doing out for them.

(16:44): Some are really good for younger brands and startups that are just getting started. Some are better when you start pushing a lot more transactions through they make more sense, and they're more advanced. But yeah, there's a handful out them. Pick one, look at them, compare their prices and find out. A lot of them also are on the Shopify app marketplace, so you can just search them and there's an automatic integration there. So it's super simple, it takes a day or two total.

Sam (17:12): We talked a little bit earlier about gift guides, and you will typically see best products 2023, and so on. Are there any other types of content that e-commerce brands can go after, ever done, gift guides, reviews and so on?

Michelle (17:33): So lets think, so there are obviously the product roundups, the best things to buy for Mother's Day. Top trending products on TikTok for XYZ. So the product roundups are one style, product reviews is an individual review, you can get written up. Those are definitely harder to get. And again, that comes down to timeliness. Why are they writing? They have so many people pitching to them. Everybody wants a big product review. Why now? Why do they have to write about you right now? Maybe you're offering them an exclusive, before the product is actually launching and going to market. They love that. They love being the first one to break a story.

(18:12): Again, it helps them in their SEO and their rankings. So you just have to really think about connecting to them, and really finding that right person that can maybe break or take your product launch. And that can be a really obviously amazing feature to get. So there's product roundups, there's features, there's trend stories, just being a part of a trend that's happening in the market, and they contact you. Another big thing is just day-to-day and something on a platform too is journalists are constantly just looking for expert sources. They're looking for sustainability experts or fashion experts, lifestyle experts, on a broad range of subjects.

(18:51): So if you can just get connected to them in that way, and for them to see and know you, and you helped provide some commentary to their story, now they have a connection to you, they know you. And maybe you talked and you told them some other things, and then you can start building that relationship, and they can think about you for future stories. So I do think having someone in the company, whether that's the founder or a CMO, or someone else that can really talk on behalf of the industry, and not just really just being there to pitch yourself, but be there to help them craft their stories on some important topics. So, that's another way.

Sam (19:30): I'm sitting here listening to this, and I'm thinking this all sounds great, but at the same time I'm reflecting back on my own experiences of doing link building and contacting editors, and understanding how much time it takes. How can small e-commerce brands make this part of their weekly process where they're actively trying to get more PR, especially when you have to be so timely in doing it?

Michelle (19:53): Yeah, it's definitely not, it's quality over quantity. I've learned that after many years. It's not about blasting, it's not about trying to do something really quick, really fast, just to see if you get a quick response or a quick story made. And we too, at Press Hook, we provide a lot of these PR101 courses and structures. It's a few pitches. It comes down to, we would say even a max of 10 every week that you can do, a quality targeted, nice pitch to an editor.

(20:24): Again, the same as if you're emailing the procurement director at Whole Foods or Sephora or somewhere, think about how you'd craft an email to them. The same way. You can take a couple of hours every week, if someone on your team can write very quality targeted pitches once a week, maybe do one round of follow up with them, and that's it. It's not as difficult as it seems.

(20:49): But it's also hard if you're out there doing that, that's why there's platforms like us that exist, because we can help get journalists to come to you in return too, by seeing you and knowing who you are on a daily basis. So I think there's still, no matter what, proactive outreach is important, do it. There's no reason not to. But there's also other tools out there that can also help you maximize and get more coverage.

Sam (21:16): I'm guessing, knowing when certain promotions or rather holidays are coming up, is going to help inform when you do this outreach. So if you know Valentine's Day is coming up, and there is a good product fit with some of the content that media sites are writing about, you know that maybe in January you want to start pitching certain outlets. And I'm guessing the same with Black Friday and Christmas, you want to be ahead of everyone else and have, well, am I on the right track, would that be fair to say?

Michelle (21:50): You're a little bit late to the game.

Sam (21:52): Okay.

Michelle (21:56): We typically do about, say three months out, and you start three months out at least, and then you can work your way in because there's going to be last minute stories up until the week before Valentine's Day. So mostly we start seeing media get stories assigned around three months out. Some can be even further, especially if it's print, that's going to be six months out. Then for Christmas and holidays, that's the only one that's a lot different. That starts in July, not even June. So you need to get ready, you need your holiday gifts and gift guides ready in the summertime.

(22:29): I would get them ready in June, and be ready to pitch in July. Even if they're not live on your site obviously, and they're not ready to go, you still need to get, they start landing those, I would say by October most of them are finished writing them, and November and December they're doing the last minute quick gift guides, for last minute, what you can buy very quickly. So they need to know what gifts can be shipped super fast, and who has inventory left even.

Sam (22:55): That's really fascinating to hear, Michelle, because I feel like being organized would give you such a competitive edge over maybe some of the bigger brands that have the budget, but maybe don't have the same organization, is maybe a smaller, more scrappy brand. So I think that's quite inspiring to hear actually.

Michelle (23:14): Yeah. Oh yeah, no, I hear it all the time. And I didn't know too before that someone emailed us the week before Super Bowl being like, "We have this huge release we're doing on this app. We want to get it out. It has so much coverage potential for the Super Bowl." And I'm like, "A week? You should have started that a year ago. No, you're out of time. They're already working on stories in three months."

(23:36): So yeah, it's just understanding how a publication is built, doing a little research, little guides, again, there's a lot of resources out there. But you're right, it's what it's all about. It's about timing, it's about understanding and structure to this role, because it is different, and you need to understand how it is if you want to do it right, and get the most out of it.

Sam (23:59): Let's assume that our fictional, small e-commerce brand, they land a nice backlink from a big media site, and they're getting some earned media and some nice exposure. What are some of the things that they can do to really make the most of it, outside of taking the brand's logo and putting it on their website and saying, "As featured by, and so on."

Michelle (24:24): Yep. I mean, putting it on your website, obvious. So obviously talk about it in your social media. A lot of times we see people using it as an advertisement themselves to acquire customers. Email your existing customers, for attention. Tell them like, "Harper's Bazaar just said, buy this, this is the best new product for moms for Mother's Day." Let your customers see and know, because they'll be excited for you. They want to know, they own this product and now it's being written about, and other reasons that it could be used for in the future.

(24:56): So it gives them ideas of what products you have and what those uses could be for it. So we see a lot of people doing well and using it in their own customer emails for attention. What else? Obviously adding on your LinkedIn, adding to discussions, putting it in your sales decks, putting it in your marketing decks, putting it in your investor decks. Make sure to update, when you do your monthly or quarterly investor updates, list the press you've gotten in, share it with your investors. Let them re-share it on their networks, and they will. They love seeing that. I know that.

(25:32): Another reason we see people doing it, is if they are looking to get into a retailer or someone big, they might forward their publication, or their press to them to show them like, "Hey, look at us, look what we just got in." That's exciting. And you just constantly want to be sharing, and show it off. It is a big achievement. And share it with, not just your mom and dad, share it with as many people as you can. There's plenty of networks out there, plenty of uses for it, internally as well. And obviously it's exciting for your team to see.

Sam (26:06): Michelle, I'm cognizant of our time soon coming to an end. One question I wanted to ask you before we start wrapping up is, you recently launched an AI powered press release generated tool, and I wanted to ask you about that.

Michelle (26:18): Sure. So I would say there's lots of good ways and bad ways we're seeing that, ChatGPT could be used. But we did find some really useful ways that it can be used, especially for small brands and businesses. And people like me before, still to this day can barely tell you how to write a press release. There is a structure and a way. I'm not a good writer. I didn't even get into my journalism school or English school, so that makes me nervous writing something like that.

(26:47): But this tool is amazing, because it literally prompts you and tells you what facts and things it needs from you. Like you put in a little bit about your brand, about the launch and why you're launching, what's it for. And it does develop an entire press release for you. We also have something similar that helps you pitch. So it can actually help you write a media pitch as well. The press release generator is free.

(27:14): You get a few free uses, check it out, Google AI press release generator. And I think we're the top result right now. But it really just helps you figure out the structure, and it writes it pretty nicely. I still advise, you definitely need to look over it, make some edits. It might throw some things in there, it has a mind of its own. But it's a good structure and place to start from, make some edits and send it out and see what happens.

Sam (27:40): Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, I've really enjoyed it. Michelle, where can our listeners go to learn more about Press Hook?

Michelle (27:48): Our website is presshook.com. That's P-R-E-S-S-H-O-O-k.com.

Sam (27:56): Perfect. Well, thanks again for taking the time to join us, and best of luck with Press Hook and everything else.

Michelle (28:03): Thank you so much. I really appreciate this interview, and hope to see some of you guys soon.

Sam (28:08): Thanks Michelle.

Michelle (28:09): All right, thanks.