Heather Farr is the PR and Communications Director at Reverb, the Chicago-based online marketplace for new and used music gear. Read on for a transcript of her presentation from our September 19, 2017, Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, where she describes how she maximized PR results by minimizing media targets.

Hello. I’m Heather Farr and I’m the PR and Communications Director at Reverb. I’m going to talk about the Smashing Pumpkins today, but first, we’ll get the other stuff out of the way. Reverb is an online marketplace for buying and selling music gear. We used to call ourselves the eBay of music instruments, but we’re so much more than that.

We’ve become a community and a place where musicians gather. But it’s not just musicians, it’s also large retailers, manufacturers and brands who sell directly on the platform. It’s the mom-and-pop shop that’s in your hometown that’s been selling trumpets and tubas for hundreds of years. It goes all the way down to collectors and the people who are in the very beginning stages of music, like myself.

We launched in 2013, and since then, we’ve grown a lot. We have around 10 million people visiting the website every month and we’re on track to do around $430 million in transactions this year. This past August, we were named to the Inc. 5,000 list of fastest-growing companies as number 18 overall, number two in Chicago, and number one in retail – so a lot of exciting stuff is happening for us.

There are a lot of reasons that somebody might use Reverb over some of the other options out there, but I think the biggest one is that it’s a platform that was built specifically for musicians by a team of musicians. So anything that you see on the website, a tool, a service, even if it’s just an extra button on shipping, that was because one of our team members was on there trying to buy a guitar, and they were like, “It would be way easier if we could add this tool.” That’s how we keep improving the site.

If you call Reverb, you talk to a human. Wow, right? But you also talk to a musician. If you have an issue or you’re trying to buy something for your dad and you have a budget or need some advice, you can talk to our team of musicians. And I think, for this reason, we have been very fortunate to work with a lot of big names.

Earlier this year, we found out that we were going to be selling a lot of gear from Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. And this wasn’t just like a microphone that he touched one time or something that was in a room at the same time as him. No, these were seminal guitars, and amps, and guitar pedals that were used to create not only some of the best Smashing Pumpkin albums, but albums that really shaped the lives of a lot of musicians and shaped a whole genre of music. All of this to say, this was a really big deal.

With some of these artist shops, for a lot of different reasons, we don’t have a ton of control over the timing, which is not great for PR. And that’s for a lot of different reasons, not just specific to this instance. The person who’s selling the gear might be moving studios, and so they want to hurry up and sell this stuff before a certain date because they’re out of there and need to get rid of this stuff. Or, they might have shipped some of the gear to Reverb’s offices and at this point in time we only have enough room for one set of really iconic music gear that we’re going to be selling, so we might need to be getting it out of there because we are bringing more gear in.

For a number of different reasons, we didn’t have a ton of control over when this was going to be announced. We also were still finalizing things up until the date, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity for me to do an embargo on this news, which is something I would have typically done, especially knowing that the announcement was actually dropping while we were in Nashville for a conference.

This exercise really taught me something about my entire media relations strategy. But, just as a bit of background, before I joined Reverb in June of last year, I was actually working at Edelman, a big PR firm, and had a lot of different clients. I had a team that I was working with, it wasn’t just me, so you do things a little bit differently. There are people in this room that are working at startups or just starting out in PR or a one-person PR team. This is stuff I have just learned recently, in the last year, working as a one-person PR department.

These are the steps I took with this announcement, arguably one of the biggest announcements I had made since I had been at the company.

  1. I was direct and completely thorough in my pitch

I immediately pitched the press release.You typically don’t like to put the press releases in your email pitches, but knowing that I was going to have to send this off and then run off to a conference center, plus knowing that this was a pretty big deal in and of itself, I didn’t really play the game of teasing the information or trying to start the dialogue.

I thought through every question I would possibly have to answer, made sure that was in the press release and the pitch. Even stuff that I didn’t have the answer to, so like, “There’s this amount of gear. This is the stuff it was used on. No, you can’t talk to Billy Corgan. No, I don’t know the prices on a couple of these items.” I laid out absolutely everything that I could possibly have wanted to give.

  1. I identified my top five targets

This is hard for a lot of PR people to grasp, but this was a huge announcement and my media list was no more than 15 people. I have never been of the mindset of the “spray and pray,” but I do build a big list, especially if it’s a big announcement like this. There are a lot of people that would typically care about this. Say I had some more time, maybe I would’ve looked at every person who’s ever written about Billy Corgan, every person who’s ever covered any type of gear auction and that sort of thing, but this time around, I approached this a little differently.

I identified my top five targets. This should happen in any announcement or any pitch you’re doing. These are the five people that, if I don’t get any other coverage and only one of these guys, then all of my effort will have been worth it.

  1. I identified the top targets with the most potential to yield additional coverage

So I had my top five and then from there, we’ll call these other people “aggregators” because on paper they probably don’t look like the biggest publication, but I knew some things about these different publications that would help expand my reach. One was more of a trade, a really in-the-weeds, guitar-focused publication, but I knew that when they had good news it got syndicated to a lot of different radio stations. Another one was a local publication. This was big, national news, so why would I spend my time on a local publication? I knew that this local publication got syndicated to a lot of the broadcast news stations and that broadcast news often gets syndicated beyond that point, etc.

Again, these two people on paper beg the question of “Why are you reaching out to these people?” It’s because I knew that the reach would extend far beyond just that one person. So I had my group of five, I had my aggregators. I was researching the crap out of these people. Some of them were people I already had relationships with and some of them were new. Like I said, I’ve only been in the company for a year, so I always have some targets that I’m still trying to reach and make relationships with.

  1. I crafted hyper-tailored pitches to my 8 – 10 targets and sent them as soon as the news went live on our site

This is something that I know a lot of PR professionals and PR firms are not doing. If you have a list of 50 people or a target list of 100, you can’t read the writing of all of those reporters. But you can read, look into and creep on Twitter and LinkedIn for a group of 15 targets, that’s easy. So I crafted those pitches and sent them out when it went live. A lot of this, like I said, had all of the information in the email, so most of the time I didn’t even get a response back. If I did get one back it was just, “Thanks for sending me this. Here’s the story that I wrote” or maybe they responded to me a week later, “Thanks for this. Yeah, I saw the article. You’re welcome.”

It wasn’t that I was spending less time, I wasn’t being lazier, I was just being more targeted in where I spent my time, whereas before, I might have spent a lot of my time researching this humongous list of targets saying, “Oh, crap, I spent all my time on that, now I have to write a generic pitch, send it out and try to personalize it.” Because I was able to really focus on the people that mattered and the story that I was crafting, I think that my result showed that.

  1. I applied what I learned from this announcement to my everyday work

Like I said, this is something that I’m using in practice now. I hear and read a lot of studies about reporters who think that PR people aren’t reading their stuff, they think that they’re not taking the time. Even if it’s relevant, sometimes they’ll pass on it, because the reporter or the PR person didn’t do a good job of saying, “This is why this is relevant for you.” So now in my media relations strategy, I have a list of about 25 people that are my key targets right now. There are other people that we still talk to, but maybe I’m not spending as much time stalking and researching these other people.

The Results

We got over 100 placements: Broadcast, radio and online. Print wasn’t really a target for this, just based off of the timing it didn’t make sense. We got coverage in Rolling Stone, our first coverage since I’ve been at the company; Spin, which was a big one for us; Pitchfork; Yahoo Music and even beyond that. Reverb is an international company. We’re trying really hard to strategically build outside of the U.S. We even got coverage in the top music publications across Canada, the UK and Australia, so that was huge. Again, it was just a matter of shifting my strategy a little bit. Just focus on the people that matter and that is it.