How I helped take a startup from 0 to 40M+ pageviews and got it acquired by Google

How I helped take a startup from 0 to 40M+ pageviews and got it acquired by Google

Dmitry Dragilev is the founder of growth hacking consultancy Criminally Prolific. He also runs JustReachOut, a service that helps startups get featured by the press.


Before I start this article I want to say that LukeW, Jeff Cole and the entire team at Polar have done an incredible job building and running Polar. I attribute the success of Polar solely to them and their persistence to make the product the best it can be. I was a simply a consultant on a sidelines helping them out. Most of the steps described below would have been impossible to implement without such an all star team.

So you finally put the finishing touches on your website and pushed it live. Damn, it looks so good! Your business is now ready to be shown to the world. Yet nobody is coming.

Or, you push it live and get a few hundred signups in the first hour. This is because you got your stuff together with the press and received a few articles written about your business at launch. So you pitch to more media and got to 1M pageviews in the first month.

Is it hard? Sure. But you can do this. You do not need to hire PR firms to help. I did not.

I’ve done PR for six years on my own and have gotten 1,298 stories written about things I’ve pitched. Quite recently, I helped a startup acquired by Google in two years after founding by just pitching to the press.

Before I tell you the story of how I did this I want you to remember one thing (if it’s the only thing you remember from this article): Whenever you pitch anything to media make sure to provide valuable content related to journalist’s beat. Notice the bold and underline.

Valuable content – that’s where it’s at, it will either make or break your pitch and that is what the press will respond to the most.

Growing from 0 to 40M pageviews a month

When I first joined Polar, we were in the process of building a gorgeous opinion sharing app on iOS. The problem, of course, was that we had 0 users when we got the app approved by Apple.

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My first idea was to marry polls with breaking news articles. Every breaking news story should have our polls in it; it would draw traffic to the polls and get people to download the app.

So the question I asked myself was: How can I reach out to journalists? Why would they respond to me and look at my polls? Can these polls be really valuable to journalists?

I decided to find breaking news stories, make a poll for the story, and pitch the reporter to embed the poll in the article to ask their readers for an opinion on the topic discussed.

Before pitching the journalist, ask yourself: Why would reporters embed my poll?

Then give yourself an honest answer: The poll would allow more readers to voice their opinions and engage with the content the reporter had written.

This was the BIG assumption which I was testing and trying to sell reporters on: Our polls drive more engagement for your article. You’ll get 200 votes vs 30 comments.

Here are the steps I took to reach out to reporters:

1. Research who to contact and why I’m reaching out to them

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In my case it’s breaking news stories I’m after, so I went to Techmeme to source top reporters and outlets. I picked a story and made a list of all publications and the authors at these publications. Here’s how my list looked.

2. Write the email

My emails were super short. I needed to show valuable content and make the ask clear. My goal was to do it in two sentences. Here is how the emails looked:

Subject: Got a poll for you: Which Foursquare logo do you prefer?

Hey Chris-

Made a poll for your article asking which Foursquare logo people like the best, check it, might be fun to get your readers more involved to get more to come back to the article: http://polarb.com/polls/194407

Here are how these polls look like live: http://guycodeblog.mtv.com/2014/03/21/vote-favorite-melanie-iglesias-photos/

-Dmitry

The key here was that I was showing/adding valuable content to reporter’s article and interests. It related directly to something they wrote.

3. Guess their email

Most of the time the format of the email is either jon@somepublication.com or jsmith@somepublication.com or jon.smith@somepublicaiton.com. If these do not work I like to use these tools to give me their email:

If all else fails there is a website called Email Format which will show you the email format for most domains. Use these services sparingly. Don’t abuse them to get emails of every journalist you could find just so you can get your name out there. The goal is to pitch to only relevant people who would find your content valuable.

4. Reach out and track the opens

Once I had the email address and the email copy, it was time to pitch. I used a handy Gmail plugin called YesWare to track whether the recipient opened my email. It’s useful to track if reporters open your email to figure out if your subject lines are showing value. I recorded my status and any notes in a spreadsheet.

With this information, you can modify subject lines to ensure the best open rates. With the simple email above, I had about 50 percent response rate.

That is it. By showing engagement value, relevance and timeliness, it made it almost a no brainer for reporters to add the polls into the articles.

Once the poll was embedded here is how it looked.

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 12.54.22 PM

Because these were breaking news articles, Polar received a huge spike in traffic within the first few hours of being published and afterwards would die off. The goal was always to get the poll into the article as soon as it was published.

We constantly chased the tech hottest news traffic with our polls. 

Remember when Snapchat turned down $3 Billion from Facebook? We got 38,000+ votes on a poll in a Mashable article.

Remember when WhatsApp got acquired?  We got close to 60K+ votes on this poll in a TechCrunch article.

When iOS 7 was still in the works, we got a hold of the icons and redesigns they released and created a series of polls comparing iOS 6 vs iOS 7 screen by screen. BGR ran the poll.

We got over 1M+ pageviews of our polls just from this set alone. The results was actually surprising because most people hated iOS 7 at the time, but according to our polls iOS 7 was preferred. TechCrunch even made a separate article summarizing our results. 

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 1.09.36 PM

When the PS4 vs Xbox One war was going on, we ran a series of polls on it. These got so popular that the CFO of Sony ended up quoting our polls during its earnings call. 

You get the idea: every breaking news or just extremely hot article had our polls in it. I pitched everyone and anyone behind hottest news on the Web. 

As you may have noticed, the embeds of our polls had a Polar logo in upper right. The logo linked to our website where you could sign up and create an embeddable poll for your own page. In essence, we took traffic from other sites and moved it over to ours through embedding these polls.

Now just because the traffic dies on a hot article does not mean there is zero traffic. Each one of these articles still gets decent search traffic so we keep getting pageviews for months – sometimes years – after initially being embedded into an article. Soon, we made it to 40 million pageviews per month.

How you can do the same 

Copying this approach above word for word will not work for most people. However, adapting parts of it might turn very useful in your own outreach to reporters and journalists.

For Polar, we focused on journalists reporting breaking news. Find something in your situation that is a must for a reporter to respond to. It can be an interesting study you ran, a case study or findings you found. It can be latest news about an investor or company they covered in the past.

Takeaways to remember:

  • always provide valuable content reporter needs and finds interesting
  • when researching who to contact try to find people who write about exactly the same topics you’re pitching
  • give a really good reason of why a reporter would act on your pitch

When you get to the email pitch part, you might need to explain things a bit more than I did for Polar. Always remember that you are providing valuable content to the reporter.

Here are some great examples from a very good friend of mine Sapphire from The Art of Email:

Got a good story for your article about the extremes entrepreneurs go (involves not showering much)

Hey [Press],

Saw on Twitter you’re writing an article about the extremes entrepreneurs go to bootstrap their startups.

I’ve got a good one for you. I actually slept in my car while I run around pitching investors.

My gamble (and slightly less frequent showers!) paid off. I secured a $100K lifeline, giving my company enough runway to takeoff.

Happy to provide a few solid insights about how to decide if a big sacrifice like this is worth it .

If interested, I can provide the rest of the details,

Signoff

Or…

Juicy data about radical bias in dating preferences – interested?

Hey Journalist,

Been following your blog for a while, great insights into social trends. I’ve got a juicy one for you. Our whizzes at OkCupids have been busy crunching some numbers and our data paints a pretty sobering portrait of racial bias in online dating.

The highlights:

Black women receive the lowest number of messages

Asian and black men receive fewer messages than white men

Most races still prefer to date within their race

 Some interesting questions this poses:

Are these patterns played out in real life dating choices?

Or are online daters, who can so called window shop a lot of options, more selective?

Think this will be a good fit for your audience? Find attached an overview of the report.

Signoff

Sapphire and I have prepared a nice PDF with a complete set of best email templates and pitch angles to use for pitching reporters. Feel free to try them out and please let us know how your experiences go.

Read next: 9 key things to mention when pitching your software startup

Read next: How to optimize blog design to better engage with readers

Shh. Here's some distraction

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