One of the worst kept secrets in media is Sourcebottle. The site came on the radar for journalists a few years ago, thumb around the same time that Twitter was becoming popular amongst scribes as a place to say snarky things about each other and in particular public relations (PR) people that harass them about press releases.
Traditionally, approved the relationship between a journalist and a PR expert has been love-hate. Often that PR rep has a client that might be useful as a source and the relationship serves as a helpful conduit for a writer trying to meet a flurry of deadlines. But more often than not, pharmacy that PR hotshot is blasting out press releases to every reporter in a particular industry and then following them up with the hated ‘did you get my press release?’ phone call.
The thing is, most companies don’t have the time to chase journalists for media coverage, but they want to see a review of the company’s products in the local paper, or even better on national television (TV). Which is really why PR companies exist – so they can focus on getting media coverage for their clients and send them a sizeable invoice for their time.
The dirty little secret that PR reps won’t tell you, and journalists prefer not to talk about, is Sourcebottle. It’s a service where journalists and bloggers can post a callout saying they are writing a story about a certain topic, and that they are looking for comment. It could be anything from a reporter from a nightly current affairs show looking to speak to victims of fraud, or a glossy magazine looking for business owners to talk about life as a startup.
This doesn’t cost anything to use, and anyone can do it. As a small business owner, you can sign up to receive Sourcebottle’s email newsletter, or just check the callouts for a particular day, and then send a response to the journalist that posted it.
What this means, is that you can now very simply and for no cost at all, get your business covered by the local paper, magazine, radio or even a major TV network. Where you would once have to fork over tens of thousands of dollars for a massive PR campaign, you can now cut out the middleman and talk to the journalists directly.
The idea of do-it-yourself PR isn’t new, but Sourcebottle cuts out the PR and tells you exactly what stories are being researched. For instance, if you are a dog shampooing business, you might have paid a PR to write a press release and send it out when you open a new store or come up with a new product. Now, you can just sign up to Sourcebottle, select which industry you are interested in, and when a journalist is writing a story about something pet-related, you can be the person quoted in the story. Usually along the lines of ‘John Smith, the founder of Dog Shampoo Universe, explains…’
Sourcebottle is the brainchild of Rebecca Derrington, who once ran her own PR business (which still exists in name only for posterity reasons), and was getting frustrated with pitching her clients to journalists. She felt the whole thing was backwards and it would be easier if journalists could just post what they wanted – hence Sourcebottle was born.
“In the early days, when I only had a few hundred subscribers, I was doing whatever I could to make sure journalists would get results from the service,” Rebecca recalls. “I Tweeted about it, put it on my personal Facebook and sometimes I even called associations myself and said if your members have this expertise, then you should make sure they have access to Sourcebottle and can get involved with this callout.
Her persistence paid off, as more and more journalists started using the service, and PR reps saw the value in it straight away. Rebecca really focused on getting the word out to business owners, who would be the biggest beneficiaries of getting involved. Once a few business owners started getting picked up by major media outlets (for free), word spread out like wildfire.
Sourcebottle now has 18,000 subscribers that receive the two daily emails, 28,000 followers on Twitter and between 3,000 and 4,000 unique visitors to the site each day. More importantly, almost every major media outlet (television, print, online and radio) are using the free service.
One of the key reasons for Sourcebottle’s success is the fact journalists can post a callout anonymously. Rather than saying it’s a reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald, the scribe has a choice of saying it is for a ‘newspaper with a national audience’. This lets that particular journalist have access to thousands of sources he or she wouldn’t normally have, and cuts out the issue of having to deal with PRs in a lot of cases.
“Sometimes I’ll be at a conference, or out somewhere, and people will ask me what I do and I’ll say ‘I run a website called Sourcebottle’ – they’ll go ‘OH! I used that!’” Rebecca explains. “One girl was designing this new type of shoe, and she responded to an anonymous callout. Before she even received her first container load of shoes she was being broadcast out on national television.”
How do you do it?
To be clear, while the service can get you free advertising, it doesn’t mean you can just respond to a callout and be guaranteed to be on the 6 o’clock news. That does happen, though Rebecca believes it’s really just a numbers game, if you can be polite in your response and demonstrate that you would be a good source then you’ll really start to get somewhere once you reply to a decent number of callouts.
From the journalist’s point of view, a callout will get you anywhere from 10 responses for something really niche like ‘looking to speak with retired trapeze artists’ to 100s of replies when asking for ‘business owners to profile’.
The trick to getting covered is just to have a good email manner. Think about what kind of emails you would respond to, and it’s very similar to what you would expect in real life. You want people to be courteous, respectful, and knowledgeable about their field.
Rebecca suggests replying immediately – within the first hour if you have the time to spare. She points out that most journalists are time-poor (just like business owners) and even if they say a callout will lapse at midday tomorrow, if they can fill their sources in the first hour they’ll do it and move on.
“If you are responding to an enquiry, it means you have the perfect background knowledge and expertise,” she says. “You could probably talk endlessly about the subject matter, but restrain yourself in the response and keep it really brief – no more than a few short paragraphs with your contact information and the relevant details you are pitching.”
There are also some common sense rules to apply, such as proofreading before you hit send, and making sure your contact details are 100% correct.
“Include a brief introduction and demonstrate how you satisfy their requirements, and also respond to the enquiry so the journalist knows what position you are going to take towards the question they are asking,” Rebecca adds.
Proof is in the pudding
Jo Ucukalo is the founder of Handle My Complaint, an online business that chases up faulty products and dodgy services on behalf of customers for a fee. She started using Sourcebottle when a friend suggested it to her and has since become a regular user of the service.
“I have been interviewed for national TV programs, national newspapers, as well as plenty of online magazines,” she explains. “In all, I think I’ve had probably 30 stories in the media from Sourcebottle leads. The opportunities all came about from responding to callout requests. On occasion, journalists have kept my details and contacted me for a feature piece or story.”
According to Jo, her business is the only one that’s offering the service in Australia, so media coverage is all about getting the word out.
“Media coverage translates to business for us,” she says. “The more people that hear about our business, the more customers request our help. The media has been amazingly supportive of our business. This also means our marketing spend is kept to a minimum.”
The way NETT found Jo Ucukalo for this story was by posting a callout on Sourcebottle. By way of transparency, NETT uses the service (like almost every publication in Australia does) to find sources for stories.
“When I’m responding to a callout I always introduce myself, my business and my position in the business up front,” Jo adds. “I try to give the journalist a brief summary of the information or comments I can contribute.
“I try to convey that I am someone that can provide expert advice, comments or tips… I really tailor my responses according to the callout.”
Anne-Marie Orrock is a human resources (HR) consultant and founder of Corporate Canary HR Consulting. She’s been using Sourcebottle for 18 months and has been a source for stories in the Sun Herald, My Career, Sunday Life, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, NETT (Anne-Marie has been used for NETT stories via Sourcebottle before) and a host of niche HR publications.
“The media coverage has leveraged my credibility and made people and opportunities more accessible,” she says. “It has also increased traffic to my site and [boosted] attendance at my workshops.”
These days Anne-Marie is more of a Sourcebottle graduate, having reached the points where journalists are contacting her directly to be a source on a regular basis without having to respond to callouts, particularly for anything HR-related.
While Sourcebottle is probably not going to put PRs out of a job (blue chip companies are still going to use them, and small businesses can still benefit from their networks and expertise), the service is great for small business owners looking for media coverage.
If you’ve ever sat in front of the television and thought you could say it better than the talking head on the box, then chances are it could be you with a service like Sourcebottle.
It’s important to keep in mind that television opportunities, especially national ones, are the most highly prized and as such as are very competitive. Radio callouts will be slightly less so, and print and online media are the easiest types of publications to be a source for (there’s simply more of them). There’s no harm in replying to all types of callouts though, and other than a little bit of time there is no cost involved.
In a nutshell
Sourcebottle works by having a journalist post a ‘callout’ for a story they are researching. You, as a business owner, can see all the callouts posted by journalists and reply with the idea that the reporter will interview you. If all goes well then your business will be quoted (John Smith, from John’s Mango Shop) in the story and hopefully get some traffic to your website or visits to your store.
What to avoid
Rebecca explains that there are four really bad types of responses to callout. These should be avoided at all costs.
1 – ‘I know your story is about this, but have you thought about doing this instead?’ Journalists hate this. If you don’t think you are the right person for a callout, skip it and look for one that you know you are right for.
2 – The ‘I’m doing you a favour’ response. These responses will smack with attitude and criticise the journalist that posted the enquiry for leaving out certain details. Often they will say ‘if you can tell me who this is for I might be able to help you, but I’m really not going to help you otherwise’. Don’t do this.
3 – Just sending a press release. This is a common one for public relations professionals that use the service. For some reason they will just send a release that’s vaguely related with nothing else in the email. Journalists are using this service to avoid press releases. Not only will they click delete, they’ll do it angrily.
4 – ‘How much will you pay me to be a source’? If you have a story you think you can sell to A Current Affair or Today Tonight then you should really just call them up. SourceBottle is a free service for all involved. It benefits journalists by making it easy for them to find sources for a story, and it benefits business owners by getting them media coverage without having to pay. Journalists are not going to pay you.
How does it make money?
Sourcebottle is free to use. Free for journalists to post a callout, and free for business owners (and anyone really) to respond to it. The site makes money by selling advertising space in the two daily email newsletters and by charging $25 for people looking for products for goodie-bags for shows and events.