How To Pitch A Story To StorefrontBacktalk
Compared with many other media, the definition of a story for us is quite straight-forward. Anything that we believe would surprise the bulk of our readers would be an ideal story candidate.
To make it easier, let’s make sure that we’re clear on the elements of that definition.
Who Are StorefrontBacktalk’s Readers?
Our readers are senior IT or E-Commerce executives with the world’s largest retail chains. Both elements—IT and largest—are important.
The IT element means that if the story is only of interest and value to retail marketing executives or operations people, it’s not likely for us. We often get pitches that stress that this story would be powerful for various chains, but they lose sight of the fact that IT might have no involvement. The most strange trumpet that fact, as in “Our product is so well-designed that IT isn’t even involved,” meaning that our readership isn’t involved.
Sometimes, we need to get even more granular. Our readers have lots of specialties. If your story pitch is about, for example, PCI, then it needs to surprise the bulk of our reader subset that focuses on PCI.
The part about our readers working for the largest chains is also important. A product or service that aims to deliver to mom-and-pop stores the capabilities that are generally only available to Fortune 1000 chains is generally not a story for us as our readers are those Fortune 1000 chains. On the other hand, if the product/service for those small chains would still be applicable to larger chains, it may indeed be surprising. Saving money is a popular concept for retailers of all sizes.
What Is A Surprise?
This is the biggest source of confusion among companies and PR firms pitching story ideas to us. They often will confuse “surprise” with anything from “interesting” to “valuable” or “unique.”
Surprise, though, is a very specific term and it’s a much higher hurdle than those alternatives. We see “surprise” as having three distinct and essential elements:
- Lack of Awareness (“I didn’t know that”)
- Relevance, Interest (“That’s absolutely something I care very much about these days”)
- Non-intuitiveness, something that runs contrary to the expectations/beliefs of the reader. (“Are you sure you didn’t get that wrong? That’s the opposite of everything I’ve been hearing. If that’s really true, that’s fascinating. Please tell me more. Explain how that could be true.”)
Of all of those, it’s the third one—non-intuitiveness—that is the most critical. Vendors are constantly putting out products and services that are unique because they are doing something differently. We certainly can’t do stories on every one of those, due to staffing as well as newshole limitations.
When pitching a story, it’s critical to not only tell us how the story would be surprising, but to say why. Often, we hear pitches that tell us things that make perfect sense and we’re left baffled as to why readers would be surprised. Example: “We’re introducing an XYZ widget next week. The reason it’s surprising is that our CEO gave a speech just three weeks ago where she pledged that we’d never introduce an XYZ widget. The reason she reversed herself was because of unexpected beta test results.”
Or “We are adding ABC capability. It’s surprising because retailers have abandoned that capability. The reason we think it’s worth trying again is because we’ve figured out a way around the problem.” It’s critical to spell out why you see this story as being surprising to senior retail IT or E-Commerce execs.
Important Note: One item that is not a surprise on its own is being first or being the only or one of the only. We hear tons of claims (some of which are quite correct) that someone is first or that they are the only one doing something. If that something is non-intuitive or otherwise surprising, great. If it’s perfectly logical and reasonable, then it’s not surprising and being first or only doesn’t change that. (Frequent pitch line: “Don’t you find it surprising that no other chain is doing this?” Answer: “Not necessarily. There are plenty of reasons why a chain might not deploy something.”)
Another example of something that is not surprising: “Would you be surprised that our package allows a chain do this without dedicated resources?” No, not at all–because that is the pitch of tons of vendors. Also, of course things can be done without dedicated teams. The surprise might be how you are enabling this. If it’s an unusual enough–and surprising enough–approach, it might work.
One more critical element. For a surprise to be a story, it has to suggest some action for our readers. An action might be “OK, then, we’ll give up on NFC” or “In that case, maybe we need to put those dollars back in our RFID item-level efforts” or “With those new laws about to be signed, we need to rethink how we handle CRM in those states” or whatever. If the surprise suggests a change in their behavior, it’s likely a story for us.
The Large Retailer Example Exception
One easy way to sidestep the traditional surprise issue is if you have information about a major retailer that would be news to most other retailers. Someone pitching a story, for example, that security certificates or keeping virus definitions need to be kept up to date needs would have a powerful pitch if it included specifics about a major chain that were generally not known, as in “Were you aware that Walmart.com/Target/HomeDepot, etc. was down for 11 hours on Monday, due to this issue?”
Reality check: Yes, we understand that delivering specific examples from major chains is stunningly difficult. The fact that such specific examples are so rare is precisely what makes them powerful.
Pitching An Expert?
We simply love subject matter experts. But when pitching a source as an expert for us, please let their ideas and insights—rather than a resume—speak for them. The only way we have to evaluate whether a prospective source would be quotable in stories is to see some of those concepts.
Example of a bad way to pitch an expert: “He/she has been tracking this area for 20 years and they used to run this area for General Motors.” That doesn’t tell us anything about whether they would be useful. Knowledge is great, but if they choose to not share anything, that doesn’t help.
Example of a great way to pitch an expert: “He/she looked at the announcement from Wal-Mart this morning and had the following three surprising insights.” Now that is a great way to evaluate whether a source would be quotable.
Roll The Dice On Our Client
When PR people pitch a story to us and we’re trying to figure out the surprise and we’re not seeing it, we often hear words to the effect of “Gee, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about this as my client is. If you spend just 20 minutes on the phone with him/her, I’m sure you’ll find a story.”
Sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense for us. We can’t do countless interviews on the remote chance that we may find a story. We need to have a solid reason to believe that they have something to tell us that would lead to a story, that would end up being surprising for the bulk of our readers.
Does StorefrontBacktalk Honor NDAs?
Yes, we absolutely honor NDAs, but we have stress the “A” part of NDAs. An NDA is a non-disclosure agreement, not a Non-Disclosure Declaration. One can’t unilaterally declare an embargo or an NDA. If you ask us, we will often agree (assuming it makes sense for us to do so.). In short, ask first. If we agree, then, yes, we will absolutely honor our agreement.