Lots of startups count on publicity to create awareness for their nascent product, service, or company. While a press release, new business announcement, or speaking gig should be part of any entrepreneur's awareness campaign, there are many other more subtle and sophisticated strategies you should consider. Here are just five:
1. It's not about you.
The media are no longer interested in hearing about you and you alone. They want to know about your target audience's wants and needs, and how you are uniquely filling them. Lose the self-congratulatory wording often found in startups’ brochure and websites, and instead adopt a problem-solution approach to your corporate storytelling.
This may sound obvious, but I recently spoke with the founder of a company that creates after-school education programs for middle school students. Naturally, he wanted immediate publicity. "OK," I asked. "What would the students say about your service?" He admitted he didn't know. I sighed, and then asked the obvious follow-up question: "Well, then, what about their parents? Would they recommend your company?" He said he was planning to hold a focus group in a month or so, and would let me know.
I told him to come back when he could tell me a compelling problem-solution story. He was miffed, to say the least. But I just saved that founder tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary PR fees, since no one wants to hear just about him and his experience. I’m still waiting to hear back from him, though.
2. The audience is king.
While the problem-solution strategy is key, a startup CEO needs to know more than just how audiences feel about her product or service. She needs to know where the audience goes to get information and how it forms its buying decisions. In some cases, prospects may visit an influential blog. In others, they may talk with their peers in chat rooms. Or Consumer Reports may be their go-to resource.
Here’s an example: A recently launched regional bus company hired us to create its internal communications. The company said it was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a state-of-the-art website. Rather than do as the client suggested, we asked to listen to the hundreds of drivers it employed. We wanted to find out how they wanted to engage with management. Only after doing so did we find out that good old snail mail was their preferred form of communication. So we created an old -school newsletter that would have made Ralph Kramden proud (and saved the company a ton of money in the process).
3. Keep messaging consistent.
As startups expand, we often find the sales and marketing executives tell different stories to different audiences. The end result can be complete chaos that will undermine your growth.
In one case, an up-and-coming copier company hired us to tell its "green office supplies" story to office managers everywhere. We got some nice initial publicity, but soon enough the media began telling us they were no longer interested in covering the company. Why? Because while our marketing executives were touting the cost-effectiveness of their alternative green office supplies, the sales force was trying to close deals by selling the firm's legacy, paper-hungry equipment. So when reporters called end users for quotes about the client's green-friendly ways, they heard quite the opposite.
Startup CEOs must make sure all lead spokespeople are singing off the same song sheet before embarking on a PR campaign.
4. Don't drink your own Kool-Aid.
I wish I had a dollar for every time a startup CEO told me her product or service played a key role in making the world a better place to live. That declaration almost always goes hand-in-glove with a boast that "We don't have any competitors."
Both statements are absurd. Startups need to be realistic about their product and market claims. They must be able to clearly explain what is new or better about their business. And they should be knowledgeable about the competitive marketplace and the white space they've identified.
Unless you're the second coming of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, you're not making the world a better place to live and you do have lots of competitors. Be prepared with a problem/solution narrative (see #1) and eat a little humble pie before your first interview with an Inc. reporter.
5. Define what success looks like.
Many CEOs are novices when it comes to marketing/PR programs, so they aren't sure exactly how to measure success. We launched one startup with a plethora of articles and broadcast interviews, only to be told by the CEO he was putting the account up for review. I asked why. "Because our sales force doesn't know how to convert your publicity into sales,” I was told. “We're wasting our money with you." I quickly suggested that I hold a PR 101 workshop for the company’s salespeople to show them how best to leverage media relations. The conversions followed, and we held on to the account.
Before hiring an in-house PR person or an agency, be crystal clear about your marketing goals. Do you want to heighten awareness, drive traffic to your website, attract second-round investors, drive sales, or some combination thereof? Define your metrics before starting any marketing/PR campaign and you'll sleep much more easily at night.
PR isn't a panacea but it can be the most important weapon in your marketing arsenal, next to word of mouth. So, take the time to learn the nuances of PR before you cut the first check. With the right business model and the optimal PR partner, you just might find yourself on the cover of Inc. sometime soon.