Rebecca Lawson

Verve Search’s outREACH Conference Highlights

Verve Search is a renowned industry leader, so when we heard they were hosting their own outreach-specific conference, with a fantastic line-up of speakers, we jumped at the chance to go along. A huge success, it was a pleasure to attend a conference so targeted to our niche. If you weren’t lucky enough to acquire tickets, here’s our highlights roundup.

1. Mark Johnstone – @epicgraphic   

‘Innovation is a novel combination of previously existing elements in a way that adds value’ – Mark Johnstone

Mark Johnstone is a creative consultant, responsible for content that’s received over 20 million visits, 1.4 million likes and 14,000 links. Here he talks about what originally inspired him to come up with these ideas.

presentation screen with a mood board


  • Spend 1-2 days finding idea inspiration. This shouldn’t feel like work. Keep a list of stories, angles and interesting examples of data you find online. Build a bank to come back to for all your clients.
  • Be naturally curious – think of a kid who’s more interested in the box the present comes in, think of new ways to see the everyday.
  • ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’ – creativity takes time, rework your ideas.
  • Think visually – how can you distill your content into something unique, concrete?
  • Ask a lot of questions. Know your audience. Persil, in the 80s, repitched their advertising from ‘we keep your clothes whiter than white!’ to essentially, ‘we understand kids get dirty. Let us clean up the mess’
  • Add value.

Mark was keen to point out that creativity doesn’t come from brainstorming. If you want to get creative, break the process down into 3 steps:

  • Gather examples of inspiration and ways of presenting data
  • Research from there – what interests the audience?
  • How can we present this information in a way to give it more impact?


2. James Finlayson – @JamesFinlayson

James is Head of Innovation at Verve Search and is responsible for some top-tier campaigns, including the extremely successful Go Compare Director’s Cut.

‘There are now more searches for penalty removal than for link building’ – James Finlayson


  • Innovation doesn’t have to be complicated. Get simple. Alien was pitched as Jaws in space. How can you take concepts and combine them, spin them, to make them something new?
  • Find something that nearly worked, and make it better.
  • Director’s Cut was inspired by a blogpost. The information was already compiled and available in 2013. They updated the data, re-visualised and improved. This resulted in 610 pieces of individual coverage, and a share from the director of Guardians of the Galaxy James Gunn.
  • Credible data doesn’t mean new surveys and new data. Scrape data from websites i.e. using genius to find out how often rappers mention cars.
  • Invest in formats. don’t reinvent the wheel. improve it.
  • Build platforms and formats you can re-use.


3. Lisa Myers – @LisaDMyers

Lisa Myers is the CEO and Founder of Verve Search, and had some tips for fostering a strong creative atmosphere amongst your team.

Lisa Myers presenting on stage


  • Verve Search launched 62 campaigns in 12 months – but came up with 350 ideas in total.
  • Attitude counts for everything. One particular VR campaign the team secured without any additional budget. They secured a video production team willing to undergo the project for free and the local tourism board gave the video team free accommodation.
  • Certain classifications of team member. The ideal candidate is a ‘disagreeable giver’ much like Yoda.
  • It’s not all about what you can see on a CV. Look for people with certain skills. Ask the right questions. What would you do if you saw an elephant on the underground? I would take a photo with it, ride it, pet it etc are all creative answers. I would keep it safe from the edge of the platform or call for help are analytical answers.
  • Listen to the introverts. When they speak, they have something to say. Encourage people to ask questions and don’t be afraid to fail.
  • You have to be willing to come up with s*** ideas to come up with great ideas. Verve has come up with plenty!
  • Grit = passion + perseverance


4. Outreach Panel  

James Congdon – @JC_SEO1

Bobbi Brant – @Bobbifaye93

Gisele Navarro @ichbinGisele

Pete Campbell – @petecampbell

James Congdon is Senior Outreach Manager at Verve Search, with a solid track record of receiving high-quality coverage on sites like the BBC and Forbes. Bobbi Brant is an SEO and Content Executive at MVF and has been featured in the Huffington Post amongst numerous other top tier publications. Gisele Navarro is Director of Operations at NeoMam and leads the agency’s production and promotion teams. Pete Campbell is the Managing Director or Kaizen and has worked with global names like and River Island.

The panel talked through a variety of tools before running through their Outreach emails, providing examples of best-practice alongside what not to do.

James Congdon presenting on stage


  • Keep subject lines generic i.e. ‘unique car content’ for data about cars. Keep it short as a specific hook can lead to snap judgements about whether the whole pitch is of interest and could lead to them not opening the email at all. A short subject line keeps it intriguing and a little ‘click baity.’
  • Follow up within a week. You can use a headline that’s been adopted on an already published piece. thinking here is that if a journalist has created it, it may have the best appeal for another journalist.
  • ‘Reveals’, ‘new survey’, ‘new data’ can capture a journalist’s interest.

presentation screen '8 ways to be a better multitasker'

  • Average emails sent per campaign – 50-100 personalised and then send generic emails to hundreds more. 3-400 emails per campaign. 1 month of solid work per campaign. 50 working days with 10 days of research and copywriting, 15 days design. This is top end, but shows how much work outreach can take!

Follow up once with unresponsive people but only if they open the email multiple times which means they are considering and initially showing an interest.
presentation screen showing an email example

5. Willard Foxton Todd – @WillardFoxton

Willard Foxton has been a journalist both in TV and Print for 13 years. He gave us insider insight into working as a journalist today.


  • It used to be that journalists had to write 3 new stories a day. But these days that figure is far higher. Staff at the Sun for example write 16 stories a day! Once they’ve sorted their layout and added pictures, that’s about….half an hour a story.
  • On the whole, journalists are very inexperienced and underpaid. They churn out material and can’t leave their desk.
  • Journalists have an enormous appetite for stories but most outreach isn’t interesting to a journalist. Remember, providing content makes their job possible, but nobody gets into journalism to answer hundreds of emails. This means sadly most pitches are ignored due to time.
  • Be aware of what a journalist has going on at the time you pitch i.e. news events. Don’t send a finance journalist anything during the budget.
  • Your email title shouldn’t be longer than a tweet, and try to get the whole of your story into as little characters as possible.
  • Willard has 53mb of unread emails and that’s low for a journalist – he generally reads all of them!
  • Honesty is important. Saying something is exclusive when it isn’t will get you blacklisted, and don’t try and make your content sound more exciting than it is.
  • Good tip – check email signatures as these can be too large meaning your emails never reach recipients.

6. Paul May – @paulmay

Paul May is the co-founder and CEO of BuzzStream, the outreach CRM for digital PR and link building. He gave us some pro-tips on outreach emails:

Paul May presentation 'fake personalisation'

  • 23% uptake/improvement on reply rates when you personalise an email.
  • A standard email template gets a better response than being fake with your personalisation – 1.3% reply rate – pretending you care is worse than admitting you don’t!
  • Google is cutting down on commercial emails from Gmail accounts to avoid spam – something to be aware of if you use Gmail!
  • Response rates are higher when first touch is made via social, not sent cold. 

7. Mike King – @iPullRank

Mike King founded boutique digital marketing agency iPullRank, and he ran through his tips on building a successful outreach machine.


  • You don’t really need new tactics – reposition the old ones!
  • Automation may threaten a few industry’s but outreach should always be safe. Mike ran through ways we could use automation to our advantage, by building tools and bots to scrape prospect lists. More of this in the slides.
  • Separate your concerns – who is good at what on your team? If someone’s good at research, or prospecting or outreach – then tailor them to that.

Check out Mike’s slides here.

8. Kirsty Hulse – @kirsty_hulse

Kirsty Hulse is the founder and MD of Manyminds Digital, and she had some tips on pitching content ideas, and convincing clients to say yes to something a little crazy!


  • Why do people object to ideas? There’s a few reasons. Something might be scary. It might be off brand. There’s a feeling some people in the industry want to do what’s safe, but that’s a bit stale. Can we do something scary? Innovative? Exciting?
  • When you face these kinds of objections, you need to make the client feel safe! Build trust.
  • Quit the jargon.
  • Links are the main goal from content marketing, but this might not be the case forever. Diversify your objectives.
  • Pitch ideas to clients as conversations – don’t just drop the ideas on them! Let them on them.

We rounded off with an inspirational keynote from motivation-man Jim Lawless.

A big thanks to Lisa Myers, Hannah Smith and the rest of Verve Search for organising such a great event.

See you all next year!

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