Pitching the media can be tough. Every day, reporters are inundated with breaking news from different sources, all clamoring for attention. One way to break through the cacophony is to offer a different type of article--one that speaks to a topic that's of interest to a target audience but isn't dependent on being newsworthy right at the moment it's sent. That type of article is called a feature.
A feature is an in-depth look at a topic, product or industry--it's a complex story designed to be read at a leisurely pace. And a feature can benefit your company by linking your brand or product to a larger trend or industry focus while also showcasing you, the entrepreneur, as a thought-leader in your field. While a news release is designed to entice the reporter into finding out more information themselves, a feature's designed to be used as is, or merely edited to fit the space available.
Topics such as health, home improvement, travel and technology all lend themselves well to features since they can be used in special sections of newspapers--such as lifestyle, home, arts or technology--or in the weekend magazines. Trade publications also publish feature articles, usually in the form of special supplements.
Because a feature should be written from a journalistic perspective, you should emphasize information over outright promotion. Ideally, a feature editor won't change the story at all and will use it when it's needed as part of a theme or to fill space.
Papers like to have quality articles on hand, so come up with your feature-worthy concept, then use the following guidelines to help you write a great article.
The headline is the most vital part of your feature. Treat the headline as if it were a summary of the article. Ask yourself, Why is this story important? What about it will it grab readers' interest? A good headline answers those questions by telling the reader something new, different or useful--in 20 words or less. A few examples I've seen recently include:
- Plug-In Devices Help Save Money on Your Utility Bill
- Reinventing the "Mommy Tack": More Women Choose Business Ownership to Gain Control, Flexibility and Family Time
- The Sleep Expert's Advice on Creating the Right Sleep Environment for Students
To come up with a good headline, pretend you're telling a friend what the article's about, explaining the most interesting aspects of your story. Keep the wording simple, and avoid superlatives and emotive language. Also, avoid using a brand or client name in the headline unless it's very well known. Instead, focus on what's most interesting about your topic.
A strong lead paragraph offers intrigue from the start. Editors don't have time to read through the entire article to reach your key point, and neither do your readers. Think of the lead as an extended version of the headline, even using some of the same words.
When writing a lead, try to keep the paragraph short--two to three short sentences at the most. In total, your feature should be close to 400 words. Don't worry about your brand at this point--just introduce the interesting aspects of the story. If your lead reads like an ad, it'll be discarded immediately.
The Second Paragraph
The second paragraph serves to support and expand on the ideas set out in the lead. It's also a good place to let people know who's "behind" the feature so there's no confusion about who provided the copy. Also, if the article has to be shortened due to space limitations, having the name of the company or spokesperson and your web address near the beginning will be vitally important.
If written well, the first two paragraphs can serve as a brief column item or filler if a newspaper or magazine has only limited space.
A quote can lend authority to an article, introduce an expert and further advance the story. Most important, quotes can introduce personal feelings, comments and opinion, so this is where you want to use superlatives and emotive language (without sounding false!). Be sure quotes are in a conversational style, and don't merely cite facts or figures--no real person speaks only in data. Also avoid repeating information or using jargon; speak as if you were explaining your product or service to your grandmother.
Ideally, the person you quote should be someone who'd be available for interviews should a journalist want to ask additional questions. So he or she should be knowledgeable on the topic and open to working with the media. Use your strongest quote first, and be sure to provide information on the speaker and his or her relation to the company in a contact section at the end of your article.
Getting Into Detail
After the third paragraph, any information you add should develop the story further and hold the interest of the reader. Now's the time to go into detail about the benefits of a product, or the mechanisms of how it works. However, for ease of reading, use bullet points or "top tips" if you're listing information.
Another thing to remember--and one way a feature differs from a news release--is that a feature story will almost never include corporate identity or forward-looking statements.
When to Send a Feature
Generally, newspaper feature sections are planned at least three weeks in advance, so you'll need to plan ahead. E-mail the features editor to determine their interest before you start writing--just a simple outline will do. If you're trying to get into a trade publication, do your research and check the deadlines--they could be working as much as three months in advance.
Most newswires offer feature services and media databases, and they'll often offer a feature calendar that corresponds with publications' due dates. Consider distributing your feature via newswire and, if possible, choose one that has a list of when and where your feature could be placed and advises on crafting your feature for the different audiences.
Also, don't forget your web audience. Search engines are used millions of times each day by people looking for how-to, where-to and when-to articles. Your newswire can help you reach these audiences by providing search engine optimization to help get your story placed highly in searches.
Images and Multimedia
A photo can often mean difference between your feature being chosen for publication vs. them choosing your competitor's. A photo helps explain the story and can draw the eye of those scanning the page. It also giveseditors more options when filling space.
Make sure your photos are high-quality: Always provide digital photos in high resolution (300 dpi) and, if possible, have them shot by a professional. A bad photo will reflect on the quality of your feature.
Other multimedia options include a video or audio version of your story, or additional expert quotes and interviews. A feature podcast or multimedia news release can include all these assets to transform your story into an online experience for your audience, complete with links and reference materials to let them experience more for themselves.
When sending your feature to reporters for editorial consideration, don't be afraid to call them to offer more information; however, don't call to check that the article has arrived. Reporters are busy and don't like being called without good reason. And be patient--since your feature isn't breaking news, the reporter may file it for use next week, next month or during the next holiday season.
Once your feature's been accepted, look out for follow-up opportunities: Keep tabs on industry trends, or consider doing a "What happened a year later" story or a biography of someone quoted in the article. With luck, your feature could be the next topic of discussion around the water cooler.
Mark Nowlan is senior vice president of marketing & communications at PR Newswire. Nowlan is a frequent lecturer on media relations, strategic communications and crisis communications at industry conferences around the country. Get more information about PR Newswire and public relations with their PR Toolkit for small businesses.