Getting your story started is arguably one of the most challenging and frustrating exercises in your company’s marketing lifetime. When you’re a startup, there are a dozen other concerns, you know you’re competing with more noise than ever and sometimes it’s hard to even know where to start. So let’s kick off this series by talking about the major problems with startup PR. Forewarned is forearmed and, by concentrating on the problems first, maybe you can avoid situations that will cause difficulties down the line. Without further ado, here are our top five challenges for startup PR life.
1. Standing Out
“Democratising” this, “disintermediating” that — the rhetoric of disruption and innovation is a natural route for startups. But as a result, it’s also the most crowded and numbing to anyone you might pitch. Finding what makes your company different and articulating that in your own style is the only way through. Distil what makes your company important right down to the simplest essence. Ask why your company exists then ask four more whys until you get through to the core of that matter.
Once you have that nucleus, you have the simplest way to explain what you do and the simplest way for someone else to pass that idea on. This also means you can’t hide from the truth if you have gone down too generic a route with your answers. If what you have left is too similar, too unconvincing or too bombastic, you need to go back and start again. Better to find out this way than to waste time with a story like everyone else’s. Ultimately, you will need fresh eyes on this story to know if you have struck something unique. Keep telling it to people, keep watching for their reactions and over time you will develop your own take, your own phrasing, and become more memorable.
2. The chicken and egg story
It feels like nobody is talking about you because you aren’t in TechCrunch. And you can’t get in TechCruch because nobody is talking about you. Now, bear in mind almost every company, almost all the time, simply isn’t worth writing about. Every now and then, they take some action or some wider issue affects them, and suddenly there’s a story.If people aren’t talking about what you are doing, 99% of the time it will be because you aren’t doing anything worth talking about. So, how do we work around this seeming tautology? Well, there are two ways.
Firstly, you can focus on the relationship instead. If your company works in the retail sector, and you’ve heard a juicy bit of news in the market around you, then to the right target, that’s currency. Use that knowledge to help a journalist do their job. Then down the line, they may remember you when you come along with your own story.
Secondly, think about how you can get closer to the people who are regularly making the news. Perhaps it’s partnerships. Perhaps it’s by playing a more active role in their community, or creating one for your audience to join. Perhaps it’s a matter of simply publishing your own thoughts about the news around you on your blog or Medium. You don’t have to always be the main character of the story — and indeed, it’s unrealistic to pretend you are. Accept life’s natural cadence and choose your battles. It will be much easier and more credible if you go with the flow instead of pretending you’re in the spotlight 24/7.
3. Effort vs Results
Spamming out rushed out press releases to a list you bought from eBay is easy. It’s also PR suicide. Many technology companies think they can “hack” their way to good PR, like it’s just a simple system or game to be played. And this is understandable: many other aspects of your business work that way and you simply don’t have time to pitch 100 contacts separately. It’s better to do a small focused effort properly than to try and go big but alienate everyone you were hoping to charm. It’s like going into a party with a megaphone and shouting “WHO WANTS TO BUY ME A DRINK?”
Instead, carefully think about the first handful of people who may want to know about what you do. Don’t overwhelm them with information, but introduce yourself and make it clear why you are there and how you can help. Think about what you can offer that nobody else can. And keep it short – maybe a couple of paragraphs with links. If they don’t reply, you’ve lost perhaps an afternoon — and if you are concentrating on your pitch properly, that is not wasted time, it all counts toward you clarifying your message.
Don’t underestimate the ‘process’ of PR. It is not a big one off splash when you want the world to listen to you, it’s a slow-building set of relationships and building value that happens in parallel to the rest of your startup experience.
4. PR with purpose
PR can mean many things today — and yet it’s often used to attempt the wrong challenges. If accelerating sales is your current focus, do potential customers really read TechCrunch? Are glossy product videos really the best support for a push around a news article? Does anyone really care about a minor software update, award win or event attendance? What is your goal? What obstacle does your business need to tackle next and, maybe most importantly, how are you going to measure PR’s contribution to that challenge? Clue: coverage is almost never the answer.
Strategic startup PR relates directly to a goal and is almost always best measured in metrics like traffic, app downloads or lead generation. If your efforts barely make a difference to key business metrics, it doesn’t really matter if they look good on lame, unrelated PR metrics. Be especially careful with agencies who might try and persuade you on ‘awareness’ or ‘buzz’. These are benefits, but if you can’t measure them, there’s no way to optimise for them.
5. Agencies suck
How many people have you spoken to who rave about their PR agency? There’s a reason for this. When it comes to startup PR, it turns out half of it is worthless because it’s so basic you’re best off executing it yourself, especially early on. The other half is worthless because it’s so poorly executed that it just doesn’t show any benefit. And yet. There is much to be said for the need to bring on the resources, expertise and relationships of great PR. Those few who do rave about this asset are the reasons so many still rush toward it like moths to the flame.
Finding great PR is like selecting any supplier. First, check your network to uncover recommendations. Then, be sure to push them hard for evidence of not just talk but numbers, measurement and success stories. Ask for references and suss out if they have simply given you a client who is a soft touch. Key question: do they deliver? Make sure you review progress hard after a few months — not expecting them to have changed the world but asking: are they a partner that has got under the skin of our business and is helping us build this company for the long term? Would you hire them? Short term help is obviously also available but the real gains are in a close, ongoing relationship. Done right, there’s almost no part of the business PR can’t help.
Good PR goes well beyond the media relations described above. It’s a solid, strategic part of your company’s planning. These challenges are not ridiculously complicated — especially not in comparison to the kind of problem you are likely solving with your business. With a little thought and guidance, many of them can be tackled with sheer common sense. Don’t fear PR as some foreign discipline, think about it like you would any other element of your business. Identify the problems, research and design your solution and get on toward your goals.
Post produced in partnership with Max Tatton-Brown at Augur.