by Lisa Calhoun
For founders just starting out, there’s little to crow about. You’ve got few users and a small – or barely existent – revenue stream. You’re considered lucky if your office space is located outside your bedroom.
However, you have a vision for the industry you want to change, and your passion will more than make up for your lack of impressive numbers – and this is what the media (and customers) want. While you might be toiling away at getting more downloads, users, or higher-quality clients, you should focus on the thing that can make your business scale: gaining the attention of quality media.
Why Media Relations Matter
The DIY mentality of many entrepreneurs leads them to believe that their innovative product or service will create enough word-of-mouth promotion to push their marketing needs. It’s more likely that the startups you hear about have created strategic media plans and invested heavily in these efforts.
Here are a few benefits of good publicity in the startup phase:
- It Builds Customer Trust: If consumers and news organizations can’t see you, they won’t trust you. Search results for your company name should show an active organization and an accessible media contact. Without this, reporters and consumers will click the back button instantly.
- It Attracts Talent: Having great content about your company’s visionary work will attract potential partners, distribution opportunities, and employees.
- It Garners Speaking Engagements: As a published expert, conference organizers will want you to speak at their next industry event, boosting your visibility further.
- It Helps You “Fail Faster”: If your product or story pitch doesn’t garner any interest from editors — regional, national, or industry-specific — you should rethink the way you’re talking and writing about your company. Learn from these rejection emails so you get it right with your target market.
Creating awareness of what you have to offer is a critical predictor of business stability. While shelling out major money for PR before you see any significant revenues may not sound appealing, it’s pretty standard.
Look to Salesforce for how focusing on media in the startup phase can pay off: In its first year of revenue (February 2000 to January 2001), Salesforce spent $25.4 million on sales and marketing, four times what it brought in that year. This should be viewed in comparison to the company’s lack of a true sales team in its early days. Today, its marketing budget still hovers around $25 million, while its revenues are sky-high, and Forbes ranked it the most innovative company in America in 2012.
Attracting customers by sharing your passion is within your grasp, but it requires a strategy to work media touch points to your advantage. In your entrepreneurial early stage, do:
- Understand what makes your approach different, and always lead with that when promoting your business. Get your difference down to a sound bite so it can be incorporated in every blog post, press release, and webpage.
- Encourage regular customer contact early by sending email newsletters, blogging, or taking surveys. This helps people know who you are and how you’re changing the world from the start.
- Routinely read works by your favorite industry journalists. Have an employee or PR agency track them, comment on their work, and stay in touch, just as you would with a hot prospect.
- Identify a piece of information that’s unique to your company and mine it. This might be a special report, an index, or even a leading industry figure. If you’re the only one who has it, you can build a lot of interest with the right content.
- When sharing your story, always make sure people know why what you do matters in the larger context of your industry. This can make your company part of a trend: Think of TOMS Shoes as the face of social responsibility or Apple as creative identity.
Bad media relations can damage your startup before it gets off the ground. To stay on track to creating fruitful media relations, don’t:
- Get caught up in a “we can’t talk about that” cycle. Sometimes, customers are nervous to say they’re working with an early-stage entrepreneur. Let them know you’ll popularize successes — it’s simply part of doing business with your company. Give them a 20 percent discount for an “acknowledged” engagement or put a “privilege of mutual reference” clause in the contract so both parties can mention who they’re doing business with.
- Let perfection ruin your profit. In today’s 140-character world, a few typos are alright. Ditch your inner grammarian and get on with your story.
- Think you can’t afford it. Publicity is one of the most valuable bangs for your buck, and it’s not out of your budget. With today’s disruptive and ever-advancing technologies, media access for entrepreneurs is faster and cheaper than you might think.
- Forget that sales and marketing are inextricably linked, so pay attention to how they play off each other. Media can generate sales, and sales information can influence marketing.
- Try to control your quotes. Instead, prepare three to five talking points and stick to them. Accept the fact that some small percentage of the time, you’ll be unintentionally misquoted. Business journalists post five to 20 features a day, so they may miss a few finer points.
Pitching to Success
Usually, you don’t hear about how well a company handled media relations until they cease to exist, but I won’t hesitate to say that Salesforce did it right. It excelled at sharing its vision and became its own media organization by creating awards and major conferences.
You can also learn from the story of Dr. George Yu, the inventor of the Node gadget. He bought a ticket to New York City and hit the media circuit, which resulted in plenty of mentions in Businessweek, Forbes, Popular Mechanics, and Wired. Yu’s unique approach paid off for his company and his product.
Whether you pay someone to spread the word or educate people with your stories via online outlets, a strong media presence pays off. Knowing you exist is the first step to getting customers’ attention. Then, it’s up to you to convert these mentions into real business.
Lisa Calhoun is the CEO of Write2Market, an industry leadership consultancy that changes the world by helping tech and energy companies gain the reputations they deserve. Write2Market helps its clients scale by nabbing headlines, speaking engagements, and key business development opportunities, all with an eye on creating the best possible exit for the founding and investment team. Connect with Lisa on Twitter or LinkedIn or at her personal blog.