Most entrepreneurs are experts in software, hardware, or the particular line of business they've chosen to pursue. Most are not, however, expert in the nuances of marketing or public relations. As a result, they may be making mistakes they're not aware of.
As someone who started his own PR firm 18 years ago and has counseled countless startups along the way, I want to share five marketing missteps that businesses frequently make.
1. Viewing competitors as enemies
Don't think of large competitors in your space as, well, competitors. Instead, view them as a source of business.
When I launched Peppercomm, I knew my nascent firm wasn't a threat to the giants in my industry, so I made a point to ask the big firms' CEOs to join me for a drink. My goal was twofold: to let them know I'd started a business, and to ask them on bended knee to send any prospect my way that was either too small for them or that they perceived to be a conflict. Several large competitors did just that and ended up sending me hundreds of thousands of dollars in new business.
I thanked the competitors by mentioning their name as the source of the introduction in our new business announcement--and with a bottle of fine wine.
2. Partnering with the wrong charity
Lots of startups believe they'll do well by doing good, so they partner with any local or national charity that strikes their fancy. That can be a big mistake.
Few if any entrepreneurs think about charities and nonprofit organizations as strategic business partners. We once represented a rock-climbing gym that partnered with a veteran's organization. The gym donated 10 cents on every dollar of revenue in exchange for the veteran's group recommending the gym to its members. Talk about a win-win partnership.
3. Believing your own hype
Most startups believe their product or service deserves to be on the cover of Inc. on day one. It may indeed warrant such attention by, say, 2017. But, until then, new companies need to nurture their marketing and publicity in the same way they do the other parts of their business.
Start by telling your story in regional, online, and trade media. Assemble strong third-party testimonials. Rack up some industry awards. Then, when you've proven you really do have something special, have your PR team contact editors of national business publications. There are never any guarantees, but your odds of success will be exponentially better.
4. Mistreating the media
While some entrepreneurs expect to be lionized by the media, they rarely treat reporters with the same respect they would extend to a big prospect or customer. I've seen numerous media relationships destroyed before they even begin when a busy entrepreneur decides to cancel a TV interview at the last second. Later, he'll be completely baffled when his PR adviser tells him that the TV network is no longer interested.
Reporters can be critical to building your business. Treat their time the same way you would with the purchasing manager of that million-dollar contract you've been trying to land. Don't cancel meetings!
5. Constantly changing your strategy
Many entrepreneurs succeed because they can multitask. That's an admirable trait in many aspects of management, but not in marketing communications. In order to establish awareness, credibility, and finally consideration, a startup needs to tell a clear and consistent story. So don't chase every shiny new object.
Case in point: We'd just placed a Wall Street Journal opinion piece for a very smart, very hot startup consultancy. The Cambridge-based CEO was pleased, but not at all content. Since he listened to NPR as he drove to and from work, he decided to reallocate the entire PR budget to drive-time radio spots.
In addition to losing momentum, the CEO was mortified to hear his firm's commercial sandwiched between those of an erectile dysfunction drug and a local car dealer. He sheepishly asked us to reinstate the PR program. We did, but we had to start from scratch.