In my office right now, I have six bottles of whiskey, five bottles of beer, a fancy notebook with my name printed on its cover, a wallet, a pair of gloves, a pair of slippers, high-end earphones, a bag full of nutrition bars and a bazillion books — all of them freebies from companies hoping I’ll run stories about this stuff. Most of it arrived in the mail, totally unsolicited. Do not pity the life of a magazine editor: We’re doing just fine.
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But when Steve (not his real name) emailed in March offering to send me a bundle of his grooming products, he added a catch: “If you could promise me to either do a genuine review on them, perhaps write a blog about beards and/or my products (I can always write the article as well) or share my homepage link as a cool website to visit, I’d agree to any of these!”
Oh, no. Did you catch Steve’s critical error? I’m not trying to go hard on the guy; he’s just making rookie mistakes. But his misunderstanding of how journalists think, and how promotional products work, is instructive. Before you put something of your own in the mail, you should understand what he doesn’t.
Here’s the most important takeaway: Don’t make quid pro quo offers to journalists. Ever. Bloggers and Instagram “influencers” might take you up on them, but professional reporters and editors won’t — and they’ll be insulted that you asked. (And they’ll be doubly insulted if you offer to write something for them!) Some publications, typically newspapers, have strict policies about freebies; The New York Times, for example, won’t let staffers keep anything other than what its ethics code calls “trinkets of nominal value.” Magazines and websites typically have more relaxed policies, but their journalists still operate by a code. It’s this: Coverage can’t be bought. You can send us stuff if you’d like, but that doesn’t mean we’ll write about you.
What happens when an entrepreneur mails their wares to a magazine editor? A typical scene unfolds. A box arrives on the editor’s desk, and a colleague asks, “What’d you get?” The editor shrugs, then opens it. If it’s food, everyone dives in. If it’s booze, it’s set aside for later. If it’s anything else, the editor might give it to a friend or a colleague, or put it on the free-stuff table that every magazine office has. (The one at Entrepreneur is covered in bags of beef jerky right now.) Or, very occasionally, if the product is super interesting, the editor might think, I’d like to learn more about this. I genuinely have thought that after opening an unsolicited product in the mail, but to be honest, I can’t remember the last time it happened. Maybe a year or two ago?
The thing is, media offices are inundated with stuff — and that’s especially true at big consumer-oriented publications, because movie and TV studios send out swag like you wouldn’t believe. When I worked at Men’s Health, FOX sent me a giant tub of blue hair gel to promote its new season of Glee. Would a men’s magazine cover that show? Doubtful. But most products are sent indiscriminately, which trains editors to think of them as random and valueless. That’s the environment you’re mailing your stuff into. You’re just one of many.
So, why bother? If you have the budget, a publicist might argue that you can treat mailings like a long-odds investment. A journalist who likes your product might reply to your next email. They might be more receptive to a meeting. They might remember your brand when working on a related story. But if it were my money on the line, I’d just send emails instead. I’d try to catch a journalist’s interest by telling my story. And once someone seemed intrigued, I’d say, “Hey, want to check out my product? I’m happy to send you one.”