Above and below are five American Apparel ad campaigns that ran for less than $1,500 each. Designed to get attention and create controversy, they were covered in AdWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, Daily Mail, NBC, Gawker, and dozens of other outlets and blogs.
Despite this minuscule budget, they did millions of earned media impressions all over the world. People are still talking about them today. Click on each for more context (or, in one case, an uncensored Sasha Grey).
The real question this raises is: how do you craft an message, ad, or story that people talk about years from now?
We’ll aim to answer that in this post…
Ryan Holiday is the author of this guest post, which is a step-by-step guide to getting PR for free.
Ryan develops media strategies for clients like American Apparel CEO Dov Charney and Tucker Max. He dropped out of college at 19 to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, after which he started advising bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians on launch optimization. He is currently the director of marketing at American Apparel, where his campaigns are internationally known.
Note: This is a post on the process of getting media (much like this one), which can be used for anything from environmental non-profits to military propaganda. The principles in this post are used by Charity Water to incredible effect, for instance. Like a knife, media can be used for saving lives (i.e. surgery), taking them, and lots in between. How the knowledge is used is up to the user.
This post is not intended to be a cultural discussion of American Apparel… so please relax.
The internet is lying to you. It told you that making a good product, writing a great book, or starting a cool company was enough. They said that if you built it, people would come.
I’m here to tell you that this just isn’t true. I’ve worked with too many artists, entrepreneurs and authors—whose crushingly rude awakening came on launch day—to say otherwise. Great books won’t sell a million copies by accident, start ups don’t see hockey stick growth by chance, big ideas rarely become a sensation at random.
Doing “good stuff” isn’t enough in an attention economy. Getting people to care about what you’ve done is an exhausting and bitter fight for the world’s most precious resource: people’s time. To capture it, you must be a skilled and fluid marketer who can create or spot opportunities to leverage. As part of that, you must create the conversations you want people to have about your brand. If you want to be sure you’re in the news, you create the news.
I call myself a “media manipulator,” and there are good reasons why.
“But that sounds bad…”
I use the term manipulate like a skilled massage therapist might “manipulate” soft tissue. I don’t mean hurting, robbing, or stealing.
In helping #1 bestselling authors and billion-dollar brands, my job is to get people as much attention as possible, as expediently as possible. For the last five years, I have immersed myself in the history of media, learned its patterns, stress-tested its rules, and optimized use of new tech tools. What I discovered will hopefully help you replicate my successes.
You have to play the same game that the media pros play everyday. In other words, you have to beat the pros at their own game. The question is: how?
“We play by their rules long enough and it becomes our game.”
-Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
How News Has Changed
The news has fundamentally changed. Think of the New York Times. When they decide to publish an article about you, they are doing you a huge favor. After all, there are so many other people they could write about. There is a finite number of spots in the paper. Blogs are different, as they can publish an infinite number of articles and every article they publish is a chance for more traffic (which means more money in their pockets). In other words, when Business Insider writes about you, you are doing them the favor.
And what are you reading right now? That’s right, a blog. Blogs drive our media cycle. TV and radio reporters once filled their broadcasts with newspaper headlines. Today they repeat what they read on blogs—certain blogs more than others. I’m talking about sites like: Gawker, Business Insider, Politico, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Drudge Report. You may not read all these sites, but the media elite does and is influenced by them.
Getting press on those outlets is no longer a buyer’s market. It’s a seller’s market. And there are a lot of blogs out there willing to buy your story. That means your product, your book, or your start-up has more than a fighting chance of getting press. If you properly utilize the below three tactics for generating attention, you can create a million dollar press campaign… that costs you nothing.
3 Tactics for Free PR
Tactic# 1: Start Small
You want press tomorrow? Sign up for HelpAReporterOut.com 1 (a service that matches reporters “researching” stories with sources) and you’ll have it. You won’t be the sole subject of a story, but you’ll be in a story and that’s a start. Just for fun, I had an assistant set up an account for me earlier this year and gave him permission to answer every query he could, as me, saying whatever he wanted. The more preposterous the better, I told him. Within days, I had been featured in Reuters, ABC News, the Today Show and eventually, a Sunday feature in the New York Times. If I could be that wildly successful for a prank, what could you get if your livelihood or job depends on it?
Legitimate coverage can also be secured by going even smaller. Small blogs and hyperlocal websites that cover your neighborhood or particular scene are some of the easiest sites to get traction on. Started a company? Snag an article in the newspaper where you went to college. Writing a book? Get the blog that covers your neighborhood to do a post on you. Since they typically write about local, personal issues pertaining to a contained readership, trust is very high. At the same time, they are cash strapped and traffic-hungry, always on the lookout for a “big story” that might bring a big spike of new viewers.
Starting small is your beachhead into the news cycle. Blogs have enormous influence over other blogs—making it possible to turn a post on a small site into posts on large-traffic sites, as the bigger often “scout” the smaller sites. Blogs compete to get to stories first, newspapers compete to “popularize” it, and then everyone else competes to talk about it.
This isn’t speculation. It is fact. In a media monitoring study done by Cision and George Washington University, 89% of journalists reported using blogs for their research for stories. Roughly half reported using Twitter to find and research stories and more than two thirds use other social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn in the same way. Start there, legitimize coverage of your business and then you have a chance to reach a larger audience. I call this “trading up the chain.” Work it to your advantage.
How do you find these blogs? You’re already reading them! (That is, if you’re doing your job and know the influencers in your space). If you’re not, here’s a short cut: check Reddit, Gawker, TechCrunch, Huffpo and the other big guns and see what names show up regularly, what smaller sites they link to. These are the feeders you want to start with)
Tactic #2: Always Appeal to Self-Interest
Bloggers have traffic goals, and they often have posting quotas (sometimes as many as a dozen a day). They are overwhelmed and busy. Handing a blogger an interesting story lead about your business is like handing a thirsty man on a desert island a cool glass of water. Sure, he was surrounded by water—just like a blogger is surrounded by an infinite amount of stories—but this is one he can actually drink.
Think about it from their perspective. To ask them to “cover your company” is to ask them to do a whole bunch of work. They’d have to research you, come up with an angle, craft a headline, make a graphic or photos and then hope the story does well.
Self-interest gets you further, faster. Make your pitch specific and exciting: “Would you like the exclusive story on how my company went from $0 to $1M in revenue without spending a dime on advertising?” Or “How we got 30,000 members in 3 days?” Your company has such angles, but don’t leave it to a blogger to suss them out. Instead: Craft the narrative yourself, gather evidence, and present it nicely wrapped with a bow on top. If you do the work for them, they’ll be much more likely to run your plug-and-play story.
Last year, I got tired of a speed trap camera near my house and decided to do something about it. Now, I could have gone to a public hearing, voiced my objections to these cameras, and hoped that someone in the media might report on it. But that would have left too much up to chance. Instead, I emailed a reporter at the Times-Picayune—the struggling but influential daily newspaper in New Orleans—who I knew covered this beat before. I explained to him that I was a new resident to the city who had gotten dozens of unfair tickets (including 3 on one day). I emphasized what an undue financial burden such tickets had been on my girlfriend when she had gotten some herself and how she’d been reduced to tears by a rude city employee when she protested. I sent in a picture of a busted sign near the camera. I played the victim, saying that I felt shaken down, as if a bully had taken my lunch money.
Now these things are true, but still, I deliberately framed them in the most sympathetic way. The result: a week later, a front page story in the Times-Picayune, featuring the picture I’d taken and my bully quote in huge block letters, which spurred hundreds of comments and a ton of other coverage. A month later, the city announced it was changing course on the policy and the state legislature is now debating a bill to ban the cameras.
This is how easy it is to get coverage. Do your research, find your target and give them what they need. I provided the raw materials for the story and gave the editor what he needed to do his job. I created the narrative, which others have now continued to run with. They are doing what I want, because it’s in their interest to do so.
Think about this when you seek out coverage: what kind of reaction will it elicit from the reader and the reporter? What is your angle? Will this generate Facebook likes and Twitter shares? Would you share it with your busiest friends? If not, then you don’t have a good story.
You’re wasting your time, and you’re asking for a favor…and bloggers don’t do favors.
Tactic #3: Feed the Monster
I often use the metaphor of a monster for the blogosphere. It is a hungry beast, and to keep it on your side, you must feed it it constantly. And you must know what it likes to eat.
A recent study of over 7,000 articles on the “Most Popular” list for the New York Times Magazine found that the secret to popularity was how much emotion an article generated in the reader. In fact, the number one predictor in virality was how angry an article made the viewer. There are, in fact, many viral emotions: humor, anger, fear, joy, awe, primal attraction, etc.. The one thing they all have in common: passion/extremeness. These are called “high-valence” emotions.
I think about this when I design advertisements for American Apparel. For instance, look at these ads of Sasha Grey (NSFW). She doesn’t even have any product on (well, except socks)! But they provoke sharing, and were ultimately seen by many many more people than a tame ad would have been. The internet is a hungry beast that needs material: FB and Twitter don’t feed themselves. Armed with data that shows a direct correlation between chatter about products and sales spikes, I used emotion-provoking advertising to grow American Apparel’s online sales from $40 million to $60+ million per year.
I’ve done the same thing for clients like Tucker Max, (and had a lot of fun along the way), pulling off stunts like paying celebrities to tweet offensive things and trying to name a Planned Parenthood clinic after him. In a way, this is what Tim did when he put a chapter in his last book about orgasms—yes, it was interesting and helpful to readers, but it was also a fabulous angle for everyone on the internet to go berserk about.
Do interesting and crazy things. It’s what the cycle desperately needs. People need things to talk about and… you can be that thing! Of course, we all have different levels of tolerance for controversy, but knowing your comfort zone doesn’t mean you should never test the boundaries. I do it all the time.
That said, you’re taking a risk by feeding the monster, and it sometimes (always eventually) bites the hand that feeds it.
If the monster does bite you, or if the shit hits the fan, remember:
*Forget winning a pissing match. (Remember the quote: “When you fight with a pig you both get dirty-but the pig likes it.”)
*Don’t throw fuel on the fire. Sometimes it is best to ignore. The cycle moves fast and everyone will forget soon
*Fight a negative story by releasing a more exciting positive story (someone writes a critical piece on you, publish a great blog post about something else that will get more attention)
*Be the one who writes history: control the language on Wikipedia after the controversy dies down, know your Top 10 Google results and use SEO intelligently (look at services like Reputation.com or Metal Rabbit), etc.
Cliff Notes: How to Get Attention in an Attention Economy
Tactic #1: Start Small (Pick your target)
-Look for a site that is small but influences other media, especially your target media.
-Identify past stories they have written on your “beat” (subject area or industry).
-Establish your credibility first via HARO and other media.
Tactic #2: Always Appeal to Self-Interest (Approach your target)
-Pick an angle that fits for the target.
-Send them an email that does ALL the work for them.
-Make it clear that there is traffic in it for them. If you’ll help drive it, indicate how.
Subject: Quick question
I wanted to shoot you a note because I loved your post on [similar topic that did a lot of traffic]. I was going to give the following to our publicist, but I thought I would go to you with the exclusive because I read and really enjoy your stuff. My [e.g. “company built a userbase of 25,000 paying customers in two months without advertising” or “fashion label has new campaign with beautiful naked models” or “book blows the lid of an enormous XYZ scandal”] and [indicate how in 10 words or less]. And I did it completely off the radar. This means you would be the first to have it. I can write up any details you’d need to make it great. Do you think this might be a good fit?
If so, should I draft up something around [their average] words and send it to you, or do you prefer a different process? If not, I totally understand, and thanks for reading this much.
All the best,
Tactic #3 Feed the Monster (Trade Up The Chain)
-Now that you have a story. Blow it up. Make SURE it is on everyone’s radar.
-Submit it to social media sites, submit it as a tip to other news sites, drive tons of traffic to it.
-Email other blogs and offer to do an interview and get follow-up stories.
-Once you start, you can’t stop. Tomorrow, come up with a new story and start again.
To finish up, let me reiterate: If you just build it, they will NOT come… automatically.
BUT, if you come to the media with something good, something that appeals to the monsters needs and feeds it? Well, then you have something explosive on your hands—you can reap the rewards of millions of eyeballs pointed directly at the product you worked so hard to develop. You deserve that.
Baking shareable, spreadable messages into your product is the ultimate growth hack. As MIT’s Henry Jenkins puts it: on the web, “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The mechanisms for spreading and popularizing content on the internet are there. Content producers are going to cover someone.
So, make sure that someone is you.
Afterword by Tim:
Ryan Holiday is better at media strategy than anyone I know. His new (and first) book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, launches tomorrow (July 19th) and is already shipping.
Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, calls it “a playbook for the dark arts of exploiting the media.” If asked about Ryan’s talent, I have stated simply before: “Ryan is part Machiavelli, part Ogilvy, and all results. From American Apparel to the quiet campaigns he’s run but not taken credit for, this whiz kid is the secret weapon you’ve never heard of.”
As AppSumo bundle: Get the book, plus four case studies and extra bonuses.
And one more point, as a few people have been very offended by the American Apparel ads. Here’s the deal: I love helping women who want to change the world, and in the same token, I’m not going to stop women who want to use sex appeal to make a living, make art, or sell clothing. In both cases, it’s their prerogative. I have zero problem with consenting adults sexually doing whatever they want with each other or for each other, including sexually provocative advertising. I have a live-and-let-live policy whenever possible. After all:
“A thick skin is a gift from God.”
– Konrad Adenauer
Plenty more discussion in the comments…
*Photocredits for American Apparel ads go to Kyung Chung and Marsha Brady
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.