On a Sunday afternoon in 2013, 108 million people gathered around their TVs with their chicken wings, pizza, and Bud Light to watch the most popular event on television: the Super Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens were leading the San Francisco 49ers 28 to 6, and there was 13:22 left in the third quarter. Then something unexpected happened: the lights went out, plunging a stadium of 73,000 fans into darkness.
The NFL, TV producers, and other event staff scrambled to figure out what was going while millions of fans sat confused and frustrated. One clever brand seized the opportunity.
That brand was Oreo. Its brilliantly simple and perfectly timed tweet is the ultimate example of what those in marketing and PR call “newsjacking.”
Here’s what Oreo tweeted:
Power out? No problem.
By the next day, headlines blanketed the internet to celebrate Oreo’s marketing win — like this one in Wired:
This one simple tweet (followed by a tactical media outreach campaign) generated millions of impressions for Oreo. They had their own Super Bowl commercial without spending a single cent on airtime.
With this little history lesson over, let’s dive into what newsjacking is!
Here’s the official definition:
Newsjacking is the practice of aligning a brand with a current event in an attempt to generate media attention and boost the brand’s exposure. Companies create related blog content and social posts to instantly reach a wider audience. While newsjacking began as a PR technique, it has expanded into inbound brand marketing and digital content practices.
The term was coined by celebrated marketer and author David Meerman Scott in his book “Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage.”
When it comes to pulling off a successful “newsjack,” there are several keys to increasing your chances of success.
As a story developings, journalists scramble for information, sources, and additional details to supplement the story. This scramble doesn’t last long — it’s not a measure of days, but a measure of hours and minutes.
Sometimes a brand’s attempt to attach itself to a story goes horribly wrong. This is often because they are clearly stretching the story to include themselves in it in an inauthentic way. Journalists and their readers are quick to detect this, and oftentimes don’t hesitate to call it out publicly.
Consider the Oreo example above. Now imagine if Oreo had sent journalists a pitch to journalists for a story idea on “dunking in the dark.” It obviously would have gone nowhere. Instead, they used collateral: a simple but effective visual.
We’ve found that one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd is to imbue your pitch with some form of collateral. This might also be a quick visual, but the fastest option is often to create a piece of content that provides all the details that are relevant to the story.
Now that you know what newsjacking is, let’s get down to how you actually pull it off.
Step 1: Monitor your industry with intent
There’s no hack to this. While live alerts and monitoring software can be helpful, true success requires that you be deeply involved in industry conversations on a real-time basis.
That’s not difficult for most, because you’re likely already highly aware of what’s going on in your industry. The key here is INTENT. For every piece of news you read and every conversation taking place around it, you need to be thinking: “How can I add value to this? How can I tie my brand in?”
Step 1 in action: (real example)
We’ve been deeply involved in the cryptocurrency industry since 2013. Because of that experience, we were aware of new regulations by the New York State Department of Financial Services that would attempt to regulate certain types of Bitcoin companies.
In summer 2014, the NYSDFS officially released its so-called “BitLicense.” The media scrambled for information. “What does this mean for Bitcoin as a whole?!” “How will this change the future of the industry?” “Which crypto players will this affect?!”
We set out to help answer these questions while giving them something unique to add to the story.
Step 2: Create collateral
When you see an opportunity worth involving yourself in, the key is to develop some sort of supportive collateral. We’ve seen many companies try to do this by reaching out to journalists with a simple message, offering help or resources as needed. But our testing shows that the key has extra firepower beyond that to help you stand out.
By creating a piece of valuable collateral that adds something to the story, you can insert yourself into the conversation. When you create this collateral, it’s very important that you focus on developing something controversial, unique, or otherwise adds something new to the story that no one else is already saying.
Step 2 in action: (real example)
As soon the BitLicense story came out, we acted. While other companies in the industry slowly announced that they’d be pulling out of New York due to the proposed regulations, we saw a unique opportunity.
Our client’s product was decentralized, a key tenet of blockchain technology that differentiated them from other centralized wallets and exchanges forced to comply with the new regulation. They didn’t need to worry about these regulations because they were decentralized, so we set out to tell that story in a clever way and newsjack the opportunity.
You can read the full post here, but it basically takes readers through an explanation of the BitLicense in a way that makes you think the company will announce its departure from New York. But there’s a kicker at the end:
“We want to let you all know that we’re very sorry that you have to go through this. Luckily, at Airbitz, we aren’t affected. We aren’t going anywhere. New York residents can use Airbitz just like anyone in the world can. It doesn’t matter where you are from — if you have access to the internet, you can access Airbitz. It doesn’t matter because we are decentralized. We don’t hold your money. We don’t hold your Bitcoin. You do. It’s in your control at all times. It’s expensive to hold someone else’s money and we will continue to see states pass bills like this for any companies that do. With all the companies announcing these restrictions today, it should remind the community of the importance to be, and to support, decentralization. Bitcoin was intended to give people true control and access to their money, and every time we use a centralized service, we aren’t truly using Bitcoin. So don’t worry, New York. You will always be able to find decentralized companies to work with. If the company has to comply with regulations, there is a good chance they maintain control of your money, and in the end that’s just not what Bitcoin was meant to be.”
This post successfully aligned with what the brand stands for: decentralization. But it also managed to directly and authentically tie into the breaking BitLicense story.
Step 3: Execute outreach
Once you have your collateral ready to go, it’s time to get it in front of journalists who you think will cover the story. If you’ve followed the process of building a media list of those writing about your industry, that’s a great place to start. Go through your list one by one, sending those people a custom, personalized pitch that offers your collateral for the story they may be working on. Offer to be an additional resource if they need anything else.
Do not spam. Do not send out a press release — there’s no time for that. You have hours, but not 24 of them.
Step 3 in action: (real example)
With our collateral in hand, we launched into outreach. It took us less than two hours to go from idea to execution. Speed was everything here.
But it worked.
Our blog post was quoted in Fortune:
It was covered in dozens of other industry outlets:
While this may sound simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Newsjacking is often about playing the odds. This idea could have easily not worked out, and you have to go into each newsjacking opportunity with a gambler’s mindset. The key is to execute as many times as possible, rather than rely on any single opportunity to be a home run.