It’s the mission of marketing professionals, consultants, and small business owners everywhere: How do we get our company’s name in the news? Getting cited—by a major news organization, or popular blog, or local TV station—results in benefits that multiply, through increased publicity, improved SEO rankings, more followers, and more customers.
But, as you probably know, getting a story about your business picked up is tough. Trying to make that story go viral is a good way to make sure it won’t. The internet fishes out insincere attempts at garnering a large audience and will shun your idea, product, or business quickly. All your investments of time and money into a “surefire hit” can easily go bad.
One method that marketing experts and big brands find a lot of success with is “newsjacking.” Sound like a crime? It’s a perfectly acceptable practice of injecting yourself—you, your business, your product, a campaign you’re running—into an existing news story, preferably one that is about to go viral itself. It’s a low-cost and usually low-risk way to generate buzz for your own business.
The term newsjacking appears to originate with PR expert and author David Meerman Scott, who covered the topic in his book The New Rules of Marketing and PR. Scott has since released another book focused on newsjacking called, fittingly, Newsjacking.
Newsjacking takes place almost any time a company uses an existing story or trend to further their brand. It happens all the time on social media: Take the 2013 Super Bowl, which was interrupted by a stadium blackout. Brands like Oreo and Tide jumped all over it, inserting jokes and brand references into tweets to capitalize on the trending topic. And it happens all the time today: A viral moment from a red carpet event or breaking news story becomes hashtag fodder in no time.
Creating a social media buzz is easy when you’re an established company with a massive online following—it just takes a clever marketer or two and an eye on the pulse of the internet. It’s tougher when you’re a small business still looking to make a name for yourself.
Take Trent Silver and his business CashForPurses.com, which has a similar model to the Cash4Gold craze you’re likely familiar with if you were alive and conscious in the 2000s. People can mail in their high-end handbags for cash. The company makes an effort to highlight how selling purses can be done philanthropically—they recycle the donated bags for fundraising purposes.
Silver was relatively new to the cash purse game when he newsjacked a story about actress Lindsay Lohan owing the IRS and her tax attorney hundreds of thousands of dollars. He put out a press release offering his service as a way for Lohan to make back what she owed, and he also said he’d match her bags’ value with a donation to charity.
Silver pitched the story to some of the internet’s top celebrity news sites and got a hit. RadarOnline ran a post about the offer, and it was picked up by The Huffington Post soon after. A subsequent segment appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime TV show.
To recap: A random story about a Hollywood actress owing people a lot of money became a vehicle for an unrelated company that buys handbags to get their name out in front of millions of people.
“I never heard from her, but that wasn’t the point,” says Silver. “When you newsjack a celebrity, you never actually hear from them, but you still generate a ton of publicity.”
That publicity can take many forms. Getting an inbound link from a monster outlet like HuffPost is great for SEO rankings and should result in a social media bump as well. But Silver says the biggest benefit comes in the form of what he calls “emergence.”
“When you’re under a national or international spotlight, it creates all kinds of new opportunities. You’ll have opportunities that didn’t exist before,” he says.
Silver claims that his company saw 8,000 new leads in the week following the Lohan newsjack and that his site ranked #1 on Google for searches like “sell purses,” ahead of a competitor that had recently raised $40 million in financing. By any metric, that’s an incredible return on investment.
As noted by Scott, newsjacking needs to happen in real-time. The life of a news story is extremely short, especially in the modern era.
Ideally, to pull this off, you take notice of a story just as it breaks. And be prepared to offer journalists who need a fresh perspective or additional information something valuable they can use in their follow-up articles or posts. That way, your story rises with the tide of the original story, reaching the peak of the life cycle before interest dwindles—and as with most stories, disappears altogether.
So don’t wait too long to newsjack. A story that happened a week or even a few days ago is likely too far gone for you to ride effectively. Almost everything that needs to be said about the original idea has been said already, and you won’t find much traction in search or on social platforms.
Another issue with newsjacking is that it can backfire spectacularly. This typically happens when a company chooses a tragedy or other unfortunate event to piggyback off of. Sears figured this out when they tweeted out during Hurricane Sandy that people could get all their emergency supplies in one place. Sure, the message was actually helpful, but nobody wants to hear that Sears is their one-stop shop for tragedy buying. Pick positive stories, or if you’re going to go dark, make it a dark comedy endeavor (which is what we’d file “Help Lindsay Lohan out of debt” under).
So, barring an enormous marketing budget that funds a team waiting for the perfect moment to jack a story (not to mention come up with great media on the fly as a bonus), how can small businesses set themselves up to newsjack effectively?
The first step is to comb the news for anything that could be relevant to your business. Set up Google News alerts that ping you when certain keywords are mentioned. Expand your daily reading to outlets that include celebrity news or the big political stories of the day. (Remember: Picking a political story doesn’t mean you’re getting political. You’re simply using this larger platform to push out your own message.)
If you do find something you feel comfortable jacking, the next step is to get your take on the story out there.
“I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit and just put out a press release,” says Silver. “I’ve seen press releases go out that end up on CNN.”
Silver recommends using PRWeb, the online press release distribution service. Depending on how much you invest (anywhere from $99-$369 per release), your releases could provide a page you can refer reporters to when they want more information or could be sent directly to premier outlets through the Associated Press.
You can also cold-pitch reporters already writing about something relevant by contacting them directly to see if you can offer an interview, a video, or other information that would strengthen their subsequent pieces.
It helps here to cultivate relationships with reporters, journalists, bloggers, influencers, and anyone else who can share your content and story. You want to be known as a knowledgeable, reliable source who is easy to get in touch with on short notice. Your business could end up in stories you might not have known were in the pipeline otherwise.
As mentioned earlier, not every story is ripe for newsjacking. Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into every trending story—you’ll waste your time and lose traction among the writers you need as resources. Find your opportunity, strike quickly, and prepare to celebrate for a short time until it’s on to the next one.
Typically, newsjacking should be a win-win for all involved. It helps your business increase its buzz, improve your standing in the search world, and gain new clients. It helps journalists and writers looking for fresh perspectives to ride the wave of a good story past what should normally be its expiration date. And, if you did it right, you extended the lifespan of a positive, or funny, or unique story—not a sad one.
Plus, it’s not like the original story gets overshadowed. No one forgot Lindsay Lohan owed the IRS a bunch of money—they just also found out they could sell their purse for cash through the mail. And don’t worry: Based on Lohan’s Instagram, she seems to be doing fine nowadays.