Pitching 101: Or, Everything You Need to Know About Placing a Piece In Forbes
Of all steps in the thought leadership process, pitching is definitely the most confusing for our clients. We will spend a few weeks to a month communicating regularly about a piece in progress, checking in to get their feedback, explain our changes, brainstorm ideas, and so on. Then finally, the piece is ready to be pitched! And all of a sudden, our updates become brief: “Entrepreneur passed.” “We moved on to VentureBeat.” “No word from TechCrunch.” Etc, etc.
We understand that this can be frustrating. So we decided to write up a quick guide to what’s actually happening behind the scenes when we pitch—as well as a few tips for making your own pitch process go smoother.
First things first. How is pitching thought leadership different from plain vanilla PR?
The end result of traditional PR—sending out press releases, etc.—is having someone else write about you. A journalist could write a profile of your company, or they could quote you as an expert in an article about something else. They might also pick up data from a report you published and write a news article about it. The point is, though, they write the article and it’s published under their name.
By contrast, when you write thought leadership, the article is published under your name. You get to express your thoughts in full, with no interruptions. PR people call this type of placement a “byline,” because the name of the client appears in the byline of the article—that is, the line that names the author of the piece (e.g. “By George Washington”). To get a byline placed, PR reps have to pitch editors, not writers, who will decide whether or not to accept the piece.
A few publications have said no to my piece—doesn’t that mean it’s not good?
No. Often the length of a pitch process has very little bearing on how good a piece is, or even how well received it is when it is published. Sometimes editors say no because they don’t think a piece is a fit, sometimes they’ve published something similar recently, and sometimes, frankly, they can be wrong, too.
Our co-founder Anna Redmond’s piece about men reporting to women got rejected a handful of times and took nearly four months to place. But when it finally ran in Entrepreneur, it got over 2.5k shares on social media. Multiple news outlets reached out to her for interviews, including a radio show and two podcasts; the article also helped get her invited to speak on a panel. On the strength of the piece’s performance, Entrepreneur gave her a blog where she continues to post content regularly. If we’d given up and decided to just post her piece to Medium after month 2 or 3, we would never have seen all of these great results!
Does the pitch process always take four months?
Not always. Sometimes it just takes a couple of days! But placing an article can often be a tedious process: to avoid damaging relationships with editors, publications must be approached one at a time, and those editors can sometimes take weeks to respond—if they respond at all. Sometimes editors will reply with feedback. In cases they do, we will share it with you and incorporate it into any rewrites or edits, which eats up additional time.
Why do have to wait so long for editors to reply to you?
Thought leadership is called “earned media” for a reason. We don’t take editors to lunch, we don’t send them gifts, we don’t take them out for boondoggles. (And, if we did—it wouldn’t work. Publications are very careful about staying independent.)
If you find this process frustrating, there is another way—it’s called a sponsored post. Publications would be happy to place your content immediately, for a price. However, such content is labeled as sponsored, and may appear in a separate vertical. It often does not land you the same type of engagement or audience as earned media does. Nor does it collect the same prestige or cachet.
How do you decide where to pitch a piece?
The first thing we consider is audience. The intended targets of the article and the readership of the publication has to match. For instance, Inc magazine targets small business owners and entrepreneurs; it’s not a great fit for an article aimed at corporate executives, but Bloomberg might be. (In many cases, publications will describe their target audience on the About page of their website.)
We also consider the specific requirements of each publication. Most publications only accept thought leadership in specific verticals of their site. For instance, almost all thought leadership published in Fast Company appears in its Leadership vertical. Thought leaders that don’t have a column in Forbes get published in its multi-author My Say column. The Wall Street Journal publishes thought leadership in verticals devoted to the CMO and CIO.
Sometimes, those verticals have specific guidelines or requirements in terms of article length, topic, etc. The tone or focus of those specific verticals can also be pretty different from that of the publication as a whole. For instance, while Fast Company covers a lot of architecture and design topics elsewhere, you’ll see very little of that in its Leadership vertical—which means you shouldn’t be writing about that if you want to place thought leadership there.
There are also some publications that simply don’t publish much thought leadership, even though they’re in the business or tech space. WIRED is one of these.
Can you pitch to non-business/tech publications?
Yes, but it can be a bit trickier. Prestigious non-business/tech publications generally don’t have well-established conduits through which business leaders can pitch thought leadership. It’s a little harder to tell what will fly with their editors and what won’t.
There’s also generally a higher bar for getting in. Much more than with business publications, you’ll be fighting the perception that your article is self-promotional or biased. Some publications barely publish thought leadership at all. With a few noticeable exceptions, like Peter Thiel’s op-ed about online privacy, the New York Times barely ever publishes bylines from business leaders.
However, that’s not true everywhere. We’ve had US News & World Report—which is known for its education coverage—publish a thought piece by the CEO of an edtech consultancy we work with. And of course, non-business/tech trade publications often do have very well-defined pathways for people in the industry to pitch them articles.
What kinds of articles tend to get picked up?
That’s a hard question to answer, since no two successful thought leadership articles are quite alike. However, the best ones tend to have a few things in common:
- They have a surprising or controversial thesis. No amount of great writing or in-depth research can fix an article that doesn’t have anything new to say. To maximize your chances of getting into a top-tier publication, write an article you’re pretty sure no one else but you could write.
- They don’t try to do reporters’ job for them. It’s good to back up your arguments with evidence, but remember that this is an opinion piece. Most of the words in it should be your own—it’s okay to quote others here or there, but don’t make the whole article about someone else’s story, or fall into the trap of describing rather than opining.
- They don’t promote the author’s company. This is a big one, and could almost be an article in itself. Yes, the end goal of placing thought leadership pieces is good publicity for your company—but the article itself should be about something bigger than yourself or even your industry. Think of article ideas that touch on big themes like the Internet of Things, the gig economy, edtech, and the future of work.
The bottom line is:
We’ve been at this for over four years, we’ve worked on over 200 pieces of content for clients ranging from early-stage startups to Dell, Verizon, GE, and the Department of Homeland Security. We’ve developed a good eye and strong knack for knowing what content will place and how to best manage the process. Trust us: if we tell you we have confidence in a piece and want to keep trying, we are almost always right.