Saturday, January 7, 2017

The importance of the press kit

I'd like to share a few lessons I've learned about creating a press kit. This helped us spread the word about our recent FreeDOS 1.2 release, and it can help your open source software project to get more attention.
I'm part of several open source software projects, but probably the one that I'll be remembered for is FreeDOS. As an open source software implementation of DOS, you might not think that FreeDOS will get much attention in today's tech news. Yet when we released FreeDOS 1.2 a few weeks ago, we got a ton of news coverage.

Slashdot was the first to write about FreeDOS 1.2, but we also saw coverage from Engadget Germany, LWN, Heise Online, PC Forum Hungary, FOSS Bytes, ZDNet Germany, PC Welt, Tom's Hardware, and Open Source Feed. And that's just a sample of the news! There were articles from the US, Germany, Japan, Hungary, Ukraine, Italy, and others.

In reading the articles people had written about FreeDOS 1.2, I realized something that was both cool and insightful: most tech news sites re-used material from our press kit.

You see, in the weeks leading up to FreeDOS 1.2, I assembled additional information and resources about FreeDOS 1.2 release, including a bunch of screenshots and other images of FreeDOS in action. In an article posted to our website, I highlighted the press kit, and added "If you are writing an article about FreeDOS, feel free to use this information to help you." And they did!

We track a complete timeline of interesting events on our FreeDOS History page, including links to articles. Comparing the press coverage from FreeDOS 1.0, FreeDOS 1.1 and FreeDOS 1.2, we definitely saw the most articles about FreeDOS 1.2. And unlike previous releases where only a few tech news websites wrote articles about FreeDOS and other news outlets mostly referenced the first few sites, the coverage of FreeDOS 1.2 was mostly original articles. Only a small handful were references to news items from other news sites.

I put that down to the press kit. With the press kit, journalists were able to quickly pull interesting information and quotes about FreeDOS, and find images they could use in their articles. For a busy journalist who doesn't have much time to write about a free DOS implementation in 2016, our press kit made it easy to create something fresh. And news sites love to write their own stories rather than link to other news sites. That means more eyeballs for them.

Here are a few lessons I learned from creating our press kit:

Include basic information about your open source software project.

What is your project about? What does it do? How is it useful? Who uses it? What are the new features in this release? These are the basic questions any journalist will want to answer in their article, if they choose to write about you. In the FreeDOS press kit, I also included a history about FreeDOS, discussing how we got started in 1994 and some highlights from our timeline.

Write in a casual, conversational tone that's easy to quote.

In writing about your project, pretend you are writing an email to someone you know. Or if you prefer, write like you are posting something to a personal blog. Keep it informal. Avoid jargon. If your language is too stuffy or too technical, journalists will have a hard time quoting from you. In writing the FreeDOS press kit, I started by listing a few common questions that people usually ask me about FreeDOS, then I just responded to them like I was answering an email. My answers were often long, but the paragraphs were short so easier to skim.

Provide lots of screenshots of your project doing different things.

Whether your program runs from the command line or in a graphical environment, screenshots are key. And tech news sites like to use images; they are a cheap way to draw attention. So take lots of screenshots and include them in your press kit. Show all the major features through these screenshots. But be wary of background images and other branding that might distract from your screenshots. In particular, if the screenshot will show your desktop, set your wallpaper to the default for your operating system, or use a solid color in the range medium- to light-blue. For the FreeDOS press kit, I took a ton of screenshots of every step in the install process. I also grabbed screenshots of FreeDOS at the command line, running utilities and tools, and playing some of the games we installed.

Organize your material so it's easy to read.

You may find your press kit will become quite long. That's okay, as long as this doesn't make it difficult for someone to figure out what's there. Put the important stuff first. Use a table of contents, if you have a lot of information to share. Use headings and sections to break things up. If a journalist can't find the information they need to write an article about your project, they may skip it and write about something else. I organized our press kit like a simple website. An index page provided some basic information, with a list of links to other material contained in the press kit. I arranged our screenshots in separate "pages." And every page of screenshots started with a brief context, then listed the screenshots without much fanfare. But every screenshot included a description of what you were seeing. For example, I had over forty screenshots from installing FreeDOS, and I wrote a one-sentence description for each.

Be your own editor.

No matter how much work you put into it, one will want to use your press kit if it is riddled with spelling errors and poor grammar. Consider writing your press kit material in a word processor and running a spell check against it. Read your text aloud and see if it makes sense to you. When you're done, try to look at your press kit from the perspective of someone who hasn't used your project before. Can they easily understand what it's about? To help you in this step, ask a friend to review the material for you.

Advertise, advertise, advertise!

Don't assume that tech news sites will seek you out. You need to reach out to them to let them know you have a new release coming up. Create your press kit well in advance, and about a week or two before your release, individually email every journalist or tech news website that might be interested in you. Most news sites have a "Contact us" link or list of editor "beats" where you can direct yourself to the writer or editor most likely to write about your topic. Craft a short email that lets them know who you are, what project you're from, when the next release will happen, and what new features it will include. Give them a link to the press kit directly in your email. But make the press kit easy to see in the email. Use the full URL to the press kit, and make it clickable. Also link to the press kit from your website, so anyone else who visits your project can quickly find the information they need to write an article.

By doing a little prep work before your next major release, you can increase the likelihood that others will write about you. And that means you'll get more people who discover your project, so your open source software project can grow.

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