5 tips for pitching the unpaid reporter

A one-time Huffington Post contributor offers advice for pitching the growing legion of serf writers online.

With countless blogs and sites like The Huffington Post increasing their Web traffic through posts and opinion pieces from volunteer writers, the need to channel your message through these unpaid sources is growing.

Coming from a journalist who has blogged and written for free almost as much as I have for money, here are a few tips on getting your message to, for lack of a better term, a serf reporter:

1. Decide whether the writer is influential enough to bother pitching.

Ask yourself: Do you want your brand associated with this person’s level of professionalism? Even if a blogger’s audience is small, it doesn’t mean they’re not worth pitching. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but I’ve seen some no-name blog posts go viral because—for one reason or another—they landed an influential interview or had some exclusive information.

Bloggers tend to lift up (and link to) like-minded bloggers. When I started a sports blog with a friend a few years ago, a major sports drink brand (OK, fine, it was Gatorade) asked us if we wanted to interview a major athlete in conjunction with an event he was hosting. We got to sit down with the athlete for 15 minutes and ask whatever we wanted. Once the interview was posted (with the news hook being about the Gatorade event) some of the nation’s most influential sports blogs linked to us, giving our site tens of thousands of page views and excellent exposure for the brand.

Understand the relationship that bloggers have with each other. If you see that an influential blog is often linking to a not-so-influential blog, then maybe reach out to the less influential one with the hopes that larger sites will pick it up.

2. Your avenues for contacting will likely be via email or other social media sites.

I’ve had PR reps from Fortune 500 companies reach out to me via Twitter’s direct message to pitch me when they didn’t necessarily know whether I would be getting paid for any coverage I supplied. If your 140-character pitch is compelling enough (“We have an event coming to launch a new product and would like to extend an invitation to you” sufficed in one instance), it’s very likely that these writers will respond with more sufficient contact information.

3. Don’t be afraid to guide these writers toward pitching for paid work.

No one wants to work for free—except, perhaps, my grandma, who volunteered at Sarasota Memorial Hospital for several years. But when it comes to writing, 99.99 percent of us would much prefer to get paid to do it. Do a bit of research about these writers’ history. It’s likely that a lot of them have some level of professional experience and, with the right pitch to a paying publication, could be getting paid for their writing (and gives you even greater exposure).

4. Understand why some bloggers write for free.

It’s not something public relations people want to hear, but most bloggers who are writing for free don’t want your pitches. They’re in it for self-promotion. Especially on The Huffington Post, it’s a good place for writers to get their names and opinions out there. When I left a job as an editor in Los Angeles to return to the Chicago freelance writing market, I wrote for HuffPost to get the clips and let some of my contacts know (without being in-your-face about it) that I was back in town and ready to work.

That said, if someone had reached out to me with a solid pitch that was in my wheelhouse, I would have likely used the info in a pitch for a paid writing assignment. I know of a lot of bloggers who are working for free to try to build up their credibility, because they’re just starting out in the industry. They would likely be flattered if someone deemed their work influential enough to warrant a pitch.

5. Avoid snarky sites.

Let’s face it. Some bloggers are just bitter. They use their blogs as a personal sound-off machine to voice their opinions about things that irk them. Remember that bloggers don’t necessarily play by the same rules that journalists do. Therefore, keep in mind that any correspondence you have with an unpaid blogger could end up as the blog post. If there’s even a hint of snark or a history of brand bashing on the site, it may be wise to avoid it.

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