What’s next for the B2B tech media world — and how should PR pros and marketing leaders prepare for the big changes ahead? Sam Whitmore of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey joins host Peter Jacobs to tackle what’s coming in 2024.
There was a PBS producer that once used the phrase to me, “Big stories through small windows.” Whatever the client is, can you position the client as a window into a very big story? Every company can lay claim to being able to see around a corner or two. When you go to tier one, that’s one of the first questions that they ask you: “Why you?”
— Sam Whitmore, Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey
About our guest: For over 25 years, Sam Whitmore has identified the media trends and opportunities that help that helps tech PR pros pitch more effectively. Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey delivers insights and strategies that give subscribers the edge to land coverage and build lasting relationships.
Episode transcript (edited for clarity):
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Welcome to Lay of the Brand, where we talk with the experts on tech marketing, creative, and PR to learn what’s new, what’s working, and what’s next. I’m Peter Jacobs with Merritt Group. Like so many other aspects of B2B PR, how, when, and where we interact with the media has radically changed in the past few years. COVID upended a number of methods PR pros took for granted, like live events, and the impact of channels outside of those mainstay publications we all know and love is just beginning to be felt. So what does the media landscape look like now and more importantly where are things going and how can we prepare? For a realistic look at the obstacles and opportunities PR pros will be seeing in the year ahead, we’re talking with Sam Whitmore. For 25 years, Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey has delivered research and analysis that helps tech PR pros pitch more effectively. Thanks for being here, Sam.
Sam Whitmore: That’s my pleasure Peter.
Peter Jacobs: Sam, what have you seen as the biggest changes in the media landscape over the past few years?
Sam Whitmore: I’m going to keep it to the last year or two. And the biggie is that publications, more than ever before, want people to come to their homepage. They used to really depend on social media and search and also web advertising banners, and like all of those channels, have been hamstrung in the last year or two. And so all across tier one and even in the trades, they want readers to make a point to come to “mysite.com” and they want to really own the relationship with as many readers as possible.
Peter Jacobs: So in the past year since we’ve come out of COVID effectively and we’re starting to see a lot more face-to-face activity. Are there any big changes that you can point to?
Sam Whitmore: In terms of the reemergence of live events and all that stuff?
Peter Jacobs: In terms of live events, in terms of how people PR Pros are interacting with the media.
Sam Whitmore: Well they’re still trying to see what’s still, what is still alive. Like, is the deskside briefing still alive, is the press conference still alive. They’re going through all the tools that they had when they came of age in the PR business and they’re saying, “Okay well, how much of this stuff still works?”
And so that’s sort of a big dynamic going on on the PR side. But I’d like to go back to the earlier question that you asked, and it’s very important to note that the publications really are freaked out about. “Well, no one really comes to our site anymore.” They’re used to grazing through social media feeds or they basically read what’s put in front of them through an algorithm. And with the rise of subscriptions and with the rise of readers paying to be able to read what’s being published, renewals are a big thing.
And so the publishers and editors are getting together, and they’re getting together with a new class of professional that either are called “audience development pros” or “growth teams.” Basically it’s the analytics people.
So you got the top editors, top publishers, and the analytics people saying, “What is it going to take for people to come to us directly and how do we convert them?” Like, if you don’t subscribe, what kinds of content should we be publishing that will get people interested in maybe subscribing, or if you are a subscriber, what will it take to get them to renew? And so that is the number one conversation that’s going on right now among those three very important communities: the editors, publishing side, and the audience development or the analytics team. So PR people, in my experience, are oblivious to this.
And so when you’re approaching them with stories or exclusives, if I were in marketing or PR, I would be really cognizant of, What is this brand — like if it’s Wired or if it’s Network Computing or whatever it is — what is this brand trying to ,and is the story that I’m bringing them going to accelerate their opportunities with people who are willing to pay them? That’s the big 2024 item, I think.
Peter Jacobs: Well as we know, PR people are pitching more than reporters and editors and what we think of as the traditional publications. There’s podcasts, like this one, influencers… Are there any other untapped channels that will help PR pros get their story in front of their target audiences?
Sam Whitmore: I haven’t seen anything that no one’s thought of. The thing about podcasts is the host is probably, by definition, an expert. You would know better than me on that. And so the podcast hosts already have a certain level of expertise — let’s call it the equivalent of an industry analyst at a Gartner or Forrester. So using that as a proxy, if you’re pitching a podcast, let’s assume that the podcast host has as much domain expertise as an analyst at Forrester or Gartner. What can you possibly bring to them? Well, maybe somebody who has data about certain adoption or support data about what people are complaining about, or you know, what’s not working or what is working.
Pitching a podcast requires a very high level of domain expertise, even more than what the host would have. So to me, that means it’s like a CTO. It may not be somebody that’s actually been media trained, which is sort of a minefield, but that’s where you come in at the Merritt Group. But the more access that the guest has to data and sort of the tick-tick-tick of what’s happening in a particular marketplace, that’s what a podcast host really wants, you know. And not all podcasts are the same. It’s just impossible to figure out what the audience size is.
There’s no Neilsen ratings for podcasts, which probably every listener of yours knows. But there’s a hack to find out whether one podcast is better than another, if I may suggest it and that is to, number one, go back and and see who has been interviewed previously and then go to the social feeds, particularly LinkedIn, of the previous guests, and see if they have mentioned this podcast. See if they have gotten on their feed and said, “Hey I had a great time talking with Joe Smith at such and such. It was a great time.”
Then to me, that means that that was a successful experience. And so if a podcast doesn’t generate any sort of thank you activity in social media probably means that the guests aren’t coming back, you know. They probably didn’t have a good experience and so that’s sort of a blunt spoon, but it’s better than nothing. And that actually does work well.
Peter Jacobs: Are we seeing that influencers are going to be more prominent and more important in the B2B world?
Sam Whitmore: Influencers by what definition?
Peter Jacobs: Well, you’ve got your thought leaders and of course everybody wants to be considered a thought leader. But then you also have more of the pundit types who are observing what’s going on in certain markets, and have a large following and have reach because of that. Do you see that PR pros are going to be going after that group of individuals as well as the traditional publications?
Sam Whitmore: They’ll continue to pursue pundits to the extent that they’re fairly easy to persuade. As you know, PR people have to play both the quantity game and the quality game. So there’s a certain amount in my experience — I’ve never been in PR personally but I market to PR people, I’ve been doing that for 25 years — and they do have to have a certain amount of velocity in getting certain amount of conversations.
So there’s a certain number of pundits out there that might talk to you and you’ve got to sort of play the quantity game. But in terms of, if you wanted to get Reid Hoffman or somebody like that, or some really high-end podcaster, you really have to bring data or an introduction to somebody that they would like to meet — some sort of asset, not just a topic.
I don’t think when you go when you go high in the podcast world, I don’t think you can just have a topic, you have to be able to empower that podcaster then to go out and be able to recruit another guest or be able to impress somebody else. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be done in real time in the podcast itself, but you have to definitely leave the impression with the podcast host that “I am a gateway for you,” you know. “I know X and the people that I know know Y and Z, too.” I think that’s a good rule of thumb in my experience just across PR in general where — I don’t want to digress too much, but I want to reinforce this point: most PR people pitch the sum total of the value of that particular story and that’s it. They very rarely say, “You know, we have lots of relationships in this field.” And you know, for example, what you’ve been able to do, first in security and then later in healthcare. You’re way more than the sum of the parts. You’re way more than just the stories that you’re pitching; you know a lot of people, and there’s a lot of, sort of residual wisdom about things in the sort of the collective network that you’ve got.
I think that is a reservoir of powers for people when you’re pitching. To say, “Look, you know, we been watching this field a long time and our two cents is actually worth two and a half and you’d be able to back it up. So anyway, that’s my whole thing about podcasting. There’s so many of them, it’s sort of hard to single out, well, which are the big ones. I gave you a couple of hacks about how to determine it but also just inside the mind of what a podcast host is really looking for is really entrés into areas that they might not ordinarily get. and that’s something that a PR person can facilitate.
Peter Jacobs: So let’s take an example from we’ve seen it in the real world quite a bit: you’re a CMO, you’re at a B2B Tech startup, and you want your agency to start delivering tier one media — of course, you immediately want tier one media because you’re a startup and you’re doing the latest greatest thing. How do you go a bout setting up your organization for that kind of success, to be paid attention to?
Sam Whitmore: I think you have to give yourself a six-12 month runway for that. I wish I had a more magical answer than that, but…
Peter Jacobs: Yeah you were talking about not just telling stories, but how do you make sure that you’ve got enough to grab the interest of the media? What kinds of things are you going to need to be thinking about and have in place before you go out and maybe go out too soon to that top publication?
Sam Whitmore: There was a PBS producer that once used the phrase to me, “Big stories through small windows.” And I thought that was a really poignant thing to say. And so whatever the client is, can you position the client as a window — so maybe even a prosaic window if the client’s small — into a very big story? And I think that that’s, that’s a sort of a tantalizing approach. Every company can lay claim to being able to see around a corner or two. That’s why they got funded. That’s why they continue to be funded. There’s somebody that believes that they’re going to be quicker and more effectively getting to success. In other words, why Acme? You know, why them? Is it a bunch of patents. Is it a bunch of fantastic hires that they made. What is the unique competitive advantage? And so that’s when you go to tier one, that’s one of the first questions that they ask you, is, you know, “Why you?”
There was one experience that I had very early in my career and it was back when I worked at Ziff Davis and Ziff Davis was pitching John Battelle at Wired about when Ziff Davis was going to do Ziff Davis television, and it was going to do this and it was going to do that. And John listened patiently and he wrote the story but he ended the story by saying, “You know what? Somebody could do these things. I just don’t think, I don’t know if Ziff Davis is the company that can do it. But their blueprint is doable. I just don’t know if they’re the ones to do it.” Well that’s a disaster from a PR point of view. Because you know, he was saying great idea, I just don’t think you’re the ones to do.
So you get out ahead of that situation by saying, “We are the ones that can do X and and this is why. And I don’t know how many junior tier one reporters have told me that, you know, the PR people successfully pitch, let’s say a junior person at a Bloomberg or Times or CNBC something like that. Well when you’re playing that kind of Major League Baseball, those people have bosses. It’s not like pitching Techcrunch where if you can convince them, they press publish, out it goes.
But that’s not how it works at tier one. There’s many people that have to say, “Okay I’m on board, you sold me.” I don’t think PR people realize that. I think they’re just trying to pitch the reporter, “Are you going to take this story or not.” But they have to, in turn, sell it to the senior people. And one of the first questions that the senior people say is, “Why them?” It makes sense, but why them? You know, why should we anoint this company as the one that’s going to deliver the goods. You have to arm that reporter with good answers in that conversation. You have to arm them.
So you’re actually pitching concentrically, Peter, right? You’re pitching the reporter but you’re also anticipating the kinds of questions that his or her boss is going to be asking them. And that’s one of the big reasons why PR people get crickets when they pitch tier one. Because the reporter will look at the pitch and say, “Well, I could never sell this up to the boss. You can sell me but I can’t sell it through so I’m not even going to bother.
So that’s a takeaway that I think marketers should really bear in mind, that when you’re if you’re going to go big game hunting and you you want to do tier one tier one or bust you know you better understand how to pitch two levels of editorial management at the same time.
Peter Jacobs: Yeah, so much of that is as you say not really understanding who your initial audience is. It’s not the reader who is going to get to find out about your wonderful thing down the road — they’ll never know about it if you don’t get past these gatekeepers. Does it help to, instead of talking about, “We did a thing,” talk about, “Here’s why a thing needed to be done. Oh, and by the way, we’ve done it.”
Sam Whitmore: Yes, absolutely. If you go to the Media Survey site, I did an analysis of story formulas that year after year show up in tier one. And the two most common story types are “can they do it” and “how they did it.” So they’re two sides of the same coin. There’s a little bit more drama in “can they do it.” “So and so had a couple of bad quarters but they hired somebody and they’ve got this new product coming. Can they do it?” There’s lot of infotainment to that, but, I’m telling you, getting back to what we were talking about earlier about attracting new readers and getting them to subscribe. And you know not everybody’s an expert.
Now in B2B you can assume that certain certain number of readers know what the acronym means and has you know have previous knowledge about something. But if you’re pitching tier one you you absolutely cannot assume that people have prior knowledge so you’ve got to sort of loop them in. So “can they do it” is a big story formula. But “how they did it” is the other powerful one because how they did it is really a blueprint for how you could do it as a readership.
Now, case studies are the most common manifestation of this. But there are other kinds of stories that sort of map to that as well. So narrative formulas and particularly those to “can they do it” and “how they did it” — if you could take your go-to-market thinking, if you’re a CMO, is you package it in that way, you know. Bake in a little bit of drama in the “can they do it” and also be really candid, as candid as you could possibly be, in terms of, you know, your dark hour before you had to commit to spend the money. “What was that like? What was that like?”
You have to be willing to play that game. That’s what tier one wants and if you’re not willing to play the game, then you have to stick to the trades, you know. You have to just stick to the trades and just like it.
Peter Jacobs: I want to go back to something we talked about at the beginning of the show about events and face-to-face. Now these things are starting to happen a lot more. Is the press as engaged, is the media as engaged as they were pre-pandemic?
Sam Whitmore: That’s what I’m hearing. We’re still in sort of a reunion phase socially where a lot of reporters… we’re at the tail end of it but we’re still in it: “Oh, man, I haven’t seen you you know since before times. What’s up?” And uh we’re still, I think 2024 will be the last year of that. So I think there’s a lot of attendance going on sort of with that in mind. Because source development, everybody agrees — the vendors, the PR agencies, the editors — source development is really best done in that milieu: face-to-face, at the bar, and so on. Nothing wrong with that.
So I think you’re seeing a resurgence in… you see a lot of hiring, too. One of the things I like to do is look at the hiring patterns of publications and seeing what they’re looking for. And Fortune is hiring for general manager of events, and trades are really investing in it. Because as a business model, you can couple trades and lists. So, hey, you know, “We got the AI 50 and we’re going to roll it out at our event at such and such.” So it’s a come on to get people to come and if you’re an award winner, if you know if you’re part of the AI 100, well most of those 100 people are going to show up and they might bring other people and, you know, buy tickets and do all that.
If I were in PR right now, I would elevate the events right up there with words on a web page. I would equate them 50-50 right now, in terms of what your goals are to be. There’s a cheat sheet on the Media Survey site with the contacts. If you’re in PR, here are the people that might put you on the panel. Here are the people that might interview you at a face-to-face event and that’s up there on the site right now.
Peter Jacobs: Well, since you brought it up let’s talk about AI. We’re hearing it everywhere. We’re seeing surveys saying that those of us in the communications industry are making use of AI now — at least we’re trying to learn how to use it effectively. Because it’s not only a big thing for the marketplace, there’s a potential benefit to people in marketing and PR. How do you see AI impacting the PR profession?
Sam Whitmore: I don’t see it fundamentally changing process, not for another 12 to 24 months. I see it optimizing certain things that are already done. We have to really be very specific about the permutations of AI, in my opinion. so there’s the generative AI, ChatGPT and Bard and the word generators right? And so I’ve done a lot of interviewing of editors and talking to people in-house about, “Okay, we have a content shop. How can we use GenAI to optimize our owned media?”
And it’s still not trustworthy enough. This generation is still hallucinating and it’s got a lot of trite constructs grammatically. But it’s awesome for idea generation and it’s awesome for outlining and basically packaging your embryonic thoughts and getting you from the blank page stage into, “Okay, well, here’s some raw material that I can use.” I’m seeing that all over the place. That’s 2023.
I think we’re going to have to wait ‘til GPT-5 and all that to see if pitching is somehow affected. I personally — especially in tier one — you’re going to have to just write that yourself. But if you’re a bottom feeder agency that’s out there spamming people anyway, then you can turbocharge your spam process. But this podcast is not for you anyway because that’s just not how it should be done.
In terms of the other kinds of AI, such as Midjourney and Dall-E 3 and the image stuff, I think that is going to be a frontier for PR. Because there’s a lot of power in story imagery, particularly when you think about, like, with Business Insider and Fortune, 85% of the readers of those publications read on the phone. Only 15% of the readers of Fortune and Business Insider read on a laptop; they’re on the phone. And so a lot of thought goes into what kind of visually arresting image can we put on this thing so that people stop flicking and they start paying attention to the stories.
So I think that there’s an opportunity for agencies to develop expertise in image generation, both still image as well as video and to elevate again at-peer — 50-50 emphasis between word AI and visual AI — and to imagine what the reader experience could be like. So if you wanted to build a relationship with a publication, for example Silver Linings, sort of a deep trade on cloud, they were very early with AI image.
So if you were to pitch a story but also say, “You know, we’ve got somebody in Al that does really cool images regarding this particular technology segment or market segment,” you could very well wind up pitching an image and get credit for it and change the way that publications think about your agency. These are not just people that are pitching us things that we can key click about, these are people that understand conveying editorial value visually and there are some people that really understand the techniques with image generation using AI.
I think that between now and beginning of 2025, I think there’s going to be an agency or two out there that decides I want to be expert in this area and I want this to be part of our personality and part of of our brand.
Peter Jacobs: The evolution is happening so quickly. Matt Donovan here at Merritt G roup said he was told a great phrase, I think: “AI is the worst it’s going to be right now.”
Sam Whitmore: Right on! That’s so true, that’s so true, I think though we got excited when it first came out and like we just the fundamentals of, “Oh, my God. Look at how look at how well it spits out whatever it is you ask it.” But can you really go to market with it? No.
Peter Jacobs: Yeah, it was going to write all of our pitches, all of our bylines, all of our web copy. And then we realized there’s value to the expertise of the humans who actually understand how to speak to those different marketplaces and those different personas.
Sam Whitmore: Before we move off this topic I do want to say that last November, couple of months ago, I put 10 Tech crunch articles all from a single reporter into GPT-4 and I said, “I want you to analyze these things and then tell me what the best one was and why, and what can you tell me about, sort of, what you can glean from what this reporter is all about, what he cares about and all that.”
So I basically did a Q&A with an algorithm instead of a human for and, and I challenged it and I said, “You know on Sunday, you said that article B was the best one because of such and such, but now you’re telling me article C is.” “Oh, I’m sorry. Thank you for paying so close attention to my output. Um, yes, I should have mentioned that.” I mean, this is how the algorithm actually responded. So there’s one thing, and that is like, “How effective and competent is the software itself.”
But the other thing that the communications organizations are going to have to learn is sort of the aesthetics of communicating with an AI. And I’ve done a lot of reading on this and it’s going to seem awkward at first, but the agencies that treat it quasi-human and like give it a hard time and talk to it sort of like you and I are talking, you can actually get better responses out of it. So there’s going to be — I don’t know what the word is — it’s going to be sort of an ethic or sort of a karma to this, and I think every organization is going to have a specialist.
You and I are both old enough to remember when social media came out. Like every agency had a social media expert because everybody else was too busy to understand what it was, but there was this one 25-year-old that was, like, all about it and that’s who we went to. And I think, I think the same thing is going to happen this year regarding how to communicate, sort of like a soothsayer, with this AI stuff. It’s actually going to be something that people will put on their LinkedIn resumés and say, “This is something that I can do.”
Peter Jacobs: Well, the world is changing faster than most of us can keep up with it and on that topic — how’s that for a segue — world events are always in flux. There’s controversies always going on at home. Do you believe that the way PR pros work with the media around sensitive issues will change?
Sam Whitmore: Absolutely. Years and years ago only Nike and maybe Starbucks were considered the socially-conscious companies. And I use the word woke today — I don’t want to own that word but I think that there are political forces out there that apply it to that kind of sensibility. And DEI and related issues all are sort of being lumped into that kind of business and I don’t think business is going to be any different than the body politic of the United States in terms of like, “Where do you stand? Whose side are you on?”
So communications professionals, as long as I’ve known them, are allergic to these sorts of issues. They don’t want to get involved in those sorts of social positions. They want to sell products and services and serve customers. But I think that that’s a luxury that nobody’s going to be able to afford anymore in this particular election cycle and also from an employee communications point of view, no one really knows what’s going to happen. But, there’s a guy who, if Donald Trump is reelected, there’s going to be a guy in the administration named Steven Miller. He was in the first administration. He is working really hard right now on coming up with programmatic ways to attack woke behavior in corporate America. and I don’t think communications pros are anywhere near prepared for anything like that.
So, this isn’t going to happen overnight and it’s not clear that Donald Trump will be reelected. But if he is, this time next year there’s going to be a lot of offsites, you’re gonna see a lot of communication about, “Uh-oh. Are we going to have to fly a flag of some sort politically if we’re a business? Are we going to have to take some sort of a position relative to Ukraine or Hamas or Israel or Russia or whatever else is going to be going on at that time?”
I don’t think that the communications industry, save for the crisis business — the crisis business is all over this, this is actually what they what they live for. But everybody else is out there trying to sell products and services. Well I think that we’re not going to be able to just draw the blinds on that. So I think that’s the number one issue.
It’s not presenting itself quite yet, but I think any communications organization has a horizon that they examine and that they monitor. I think that’s the number one thing — it’s like if you’re in business, how do you stand? And if your employees want one thing and you want another then how is that going to go? You know, how is that going to go? Who’s going to win that one? So these are questions that are new to the marketplace but they will be common.
Peter Jacobs: Let’s use that as a jumping off place for a final thought. You just spoke about something that’s new to the marketplace? What else can we expect in the year ahead for B2B tech PR and communication pros?
Sam Whitmore: Just unlimited opportunity, Peter. Unlimited opportunity. We’ve got, like, commercialization of space and environment. And I know you’ve heard this before, but we’re really only like a year or two away from Quantum Computing, and the impact that that’s going to have on security because man, if you can crack — I mean traditional computers can’t crack a certain level of security technology, but quantum’s going to be able to crack it. And so there’s all these really exciting issues. And the budgets are coming.
And we are on the tail end of like this horrendous VC funding drought, but there’s a lot of sovereign money coming in and there’s a lot of family office money that’s still out there. And I think that there’s going to be enough business for all the good agencies. The agencies that aren’t imaginative or daring or who don’t insist on hiring the very best people — they won’t be able to participate as well as everybody else. But the money is going to be there in tech B2B. So I think you’ll continue to see alliances and rollups and agencies are going to be looking for capabilities under one roof. I think you’ll continue to see that.
I think there’s going to be more interest in, “Who do we have in mid East or who do we have in India or in South Asia?” More than ever before because there’s just going to be so much technology happening in Africa and South America and you know this whole EMEA, North America thing — yeah, that’s still good.
But honestly if I were running the circus, I would be really honestly thinking globally and the global South, I would make sure I understand what’s going on there and understand publications like Semaphore and make sure you understand all the publications that care about that stuff — Quartz — care about the the non-EMEA-North America markets. Because there’s going to be a ton of investment, a ton of VC there.
Peter Jacobs: I’ve been talking with Sam Whitmore of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey and you can find him at mediasurvey.com. Sam, thank you so much for talking with us.
Sam Whitmore: Oh Peter it was fun.
Peter Jacobs: It was fun. Thank you for joining us. Lay of the Brand is brought to you by Merritt Group, an integrated strategic communications firm that blends the best of PR, marketing, and creative to help our clients tell their stories and build business. Got a topic suggestion or want to share feedback? Subscribe to Lay of the Brand on your preferred podcast platform and leave us a review. And please spread the word and tell your friends and colleagues to tune in as well. To learn more about Merritt Group and the show, check out layofthebrand.com.