I’ve been out of the journalism game for a few years, but in the meantime, I’ve been working on a series of startups. In the process, I fell in love with powerful customer relationship management (CRM) software packages. With a decent CRM, you can be reminded when someone doesn’t reply to an email, or when it’s been a while since you heard back from a potential lead or a source.
To me, it made perfect sense as a tool to make my journalisting more efficient, so when I went back into journalism, I decided to embrace the power of CRMs.
The problem I’m solving.
There are a few specific inefficiencies I wanted to solve:
- Followup with sources who hadn’t responded to queries for a story
- Regular followup with certain sources that I know have news in the pipeline
- Automatic (canned) responses. I vowed to reply to every email that came my way, and to at least give everyone who emails me an idea for why I’m not covering their stories. Mostly with a link to that post, of course
- Getting a broader picture of each company and PR agency, to add a layer of context and more consistent replies
- Organization: Keeping my notes for stories together with emails, calls, and resources.
A CRM system helps with all of these things; each company and PR agency gets an entry, and even when I’m communicating with multiple people at a company about a story, everything stays neatly together and easy to find.
Setting up the systems
I signed up for a Close.io account, and stuck with it for four months. I diligently filed every source away as a PR contact, company source, or ad-hoc source. I had a number of experts, too, for me to reach out to for comments on certain industries. I had reminders to contact sources later on. It was a fantastic system… But it was eating up way too much of my time.
As much as I love to have full control and have everybody I’ve ever spoken to at my fingertips, life as a TechCrunch journalist is pretty insane. The email@example.com e-mail address gets thousands and thousands of emails, and the first thing I had to do was to filter those all out (which means I still had to use Gmail to actually check those, so I couldn’t just use the CRM system). For the remaining emails, there were simply to many to categorize them all.
In other words, what I thought was a problem worth solving, simply wasn’t. Having notes together was nifty, of course, but it turns out that since I write mostly news and op/ed pieces (rather than long-form, heavy-on-the-research writing), there wasn’t a need for this particular feature too often.
The real solution
I did learn a lot from my experience, though. Responding to everyone in a timely matter is important to me, and I wasnted to be able to continue to do that. Unsurprisingly, sources are supportive when they get a reply — even if it is a rejection — rather than complete radio silence.
It was also very helpful to be able to check whether I received a reply to a query or not; when you’re working on 5–6 stories at once, it’s too easy for something to slip between the cracks.
The other ‘problems’ were less important; Keeping info together for a story? That’s what a notepad is for. Regular followups? Recurring calendar reminders work just fine.
And so it turns out that there is a far cheaper and easier solution than running a full-on CRM package. This is the solution I ended up with:
- Gmail as the basis of everything. It’s plenty fast, and the built-in filters / starring of items I need to keep an eye on works great.
- Boomerang for Gmail helps notify me when I send an email without getting a response, so I can chase people up when necessary. It also enables me to keep my inbox clear by ‘snoozing’ emails until a later date.
- Text Expander helps me for canned responses and scripted replies. Best of all, it’s available for iOS too, and has more powerful conditional macros than the CRM system I was using.
If I need to get everything together in one place, a quick search in my e-mail usually gets me everything I need. A search like from:tesla.com shows me all the threads I’ve received from Tesla employees. Hacky, for sure, but I use it rarely enough that I didn’t really miss the more detailed categorization and e-mail grouping afforded by the CRM system.
I guess that means I went the long way around, implementing a complicated system I didn’t really need, but I’m glad I did; the suite of software I ended up with is better than what I would have chosen otherwise, I think.