Less Selling, More Storytelling: 5 Expert Tips on Doing Low-Cost PR for Your New Business
Startups that have just launched are inherently less newsworthy. Founders need to capture the media's interest beyond press releases and company milestones.
With as many as 100 million new businesses launched every year, getting the news out about a new venture can be a daunting task. After a long struggle to develop and launch new products or services, when founders finally reach an important milestone they want to shout their news from the rooftops. The problem is that millions of other founders are in the same boat, and are most likely trying to make announcements via the same channels.
While larger organizations may be able to fire news out on the wire and get coverage, for startups that still have to earn a name for themselves, relying on press releases alone is likely to be a wasted effort.
Craig Corbett, principal at startup and tech leadership communications consultancy Publicize & Company, says: “Most early-stage founders cannot afford to pay big agency prices of $10K per month and 6-month retainers to get coverage. As such, new founders who want to be heard above the crowd need to be scrappy, build relationships with different media influencers over time, put their team and their opinions out there as much as possible, and try lots of different tactics and channels to grab the attention of their target audiences.”
For cash-strapped startups, your PR strategy needs to be highly attuned to current trends and customer behaviours. “Most PR wins come from understanding why you are relevant at that time,” Corbett says. “To make yourself part of the conversation, you need to know what that conversation is. This means reading the news, having an opinion, and keeping up with key trends in your industry and in the lives of your potential customers.”
Most importantly though, PR has to further your mission, not grow your ego. Not every article you write or interview you do will directly plug your product, but every piece of content has to support your business’ core values, beliefs or objectives.
Here are five essential steps in building a hard-hitting PR strategy as a new business:
1. Prepare your 'shop window.'
Before you reach out to the first journalist, or even before you go to your first major networking event, you have to get your house in order. When you start putting your brand into the public eye—or trying to—the first thing editors, potential business partners or customers will be looking at is your website and social media presence.
Your brand image and website design can’t look like they were made in a high school classroom. Your content and messaging—that means website text but also social media posts and blog publications—must have a consistent, clear voice. Get rid of typos, unprofessional opinion pieces, and ranting vlog posts.
“Do a search of your online presence and make sure all public profiles about your company and founders are up to date before you begin reaching out to the press,” says Katie Griffing, co-founder of marketing and PR company Launchway Media. “Don't forget about sites such as Crunchbase, Angel.co, or any industry-specific directories or listings (G2, Capterra, App Stores, etc.) where you might have uploaded product information in the past.”
Once you’ve cleaned up your "shop window," put some good stuff on display. Have some content of your own to showcase: upload articles, blog posts and other forms of content produced by your team to your website and social media, but also to secondary channels like Medium and LinkedIn. This content is almost like your thought leadership portfolio—journalists and editors need a way to get a feel for your writing style and business ideology before they let you through the door.
“Startups should use their owned channels as a testing platform to see what kind of content really clicks with their audiences,” says Corbett. “This will force founders to start thinking about different themes that are relevant to their stakeholders.”
Big brands create one or more pieces of content a day, but at this early stage founders should be setting goals of around one blog post per week.
“Content marketing isn’t about putting out endless articles and hoping for a huge boost in website traffic,” says George Chilton, Co-founder of content marketing agency Hubbub Labs. “It’s about producing content that solves your target audience’s problems in a simple and in an easy-to-consume way.”
When you’ve prepared your showcase, put together an enticing media pack you can share with journalists and upload to the media section of your website. This should include things like press releases, team info, previous coverage, team photos and product information.
2. Stop selling, start storytelling.
Startups that have just launched (or are coming up to their launch) are inherently less newsworthy. Existing is not an announcement, and that means founders need to capture the media’s interest beyond press releases and company milestones.
Tell stories: Chances are there are plenty of inspiring, entertaining, and unusual stories you could be telling if you look beyond the product itself. Corbett recommends looking at other parts of your startup’s journey: often the media are more interested in the jockey (your team) than the horse (your product).
Most coverage of new companies on top-tier publications focuses on the team, the mission, and founding stories. Explore the journey that led the founder and team members to where they are today, the big values driving your business, or your diverse company culture. The point is to share what’s different about your company, not what’s the same.
Thought leadership: A successful approach to PR is to present yourself as an expert and conversation starter in your field. Thought leaders zone in on current topics—or more obscure areas that are still relevant to their target audience—and put forward arguments that will inspire people. They harness their insider knowledge of their industry, pick up on trends that no-one else is talking about, and offer data insights about the industry and target market (your startup might already be gathering such data for its own purposes).
Basically you should be educating, with content that’s tailor-made for your target audience and which has a strong argument at its core.
“You can understand what problems your audience needs solving by building detailed buyer personas, and researching what people are searching for by using tools like: AnswerThePublic, Google’s ‘People also ask,’ and search engines’ autocomplete search bars,” says Chilton.
Your thought leadership content should connect to your company's mission. That means identifying what your company stands for (do you want to promote financial empowerment? Securer internet browsing for all?) and working up from there. You can brainstorm this visually, with diagrams - break out your company’s mission into words or phrases, list subject areas that are worth writing about under each section, and find newsworthy topics under each of these.
While this type of coverage might not promote your product directly, it will draw traffic back to your website, offer social proof that your startup is serious, and let people know that the founders are credible authorities in their industry.
“Don’t be afraid to let your company have an opinion,” says Ida Åsle, who serves as head of platform, marketing and PR at byFounders. “Too many companies are afraid of putting potential customers off, but being bland is not going to draw anyone in. Making your voice heard shows that you understand the context you’re in, and that you have the guts to make real change.”
3. Not just content: Start putting yourself out there.
Much of PR is not about media presence, it’s about putting a name to the face and a face to the brand. Make the leap and introduce your new business to your peers and target market.
You could double down on your expert persona, offering presentations and workshops to relevant local organizations, schools, and larger conferences. Don’t limit yourself to niche events, think about where your target audience goes to learn, have fun and socialize, and be there. Engaging with the public is often trial and error, teaching you the dos and don’ts of marketing directly to consumers.
If you’re a B2C startup, be especially focused on going directly to the customer. Face-to-face interactions can start as small as street fairs, handing out samples at events and organizing meetups. If social distancing is an issue, research virtual fairs and marketplaces, and send any physical product samples via mail.
For B2B startups, getting in front of your audience means embedding yourself into industry networks. Offer to be a mentor for startup organizations, and join business and funding communities. You should also be applying for contests such as pitch competitions. Even if you are not accepted, sharing your profile and product could put you on the radar of other events, investors or media influencers.
Also build a persona behind your brand by showcasing your product on various platforms, and using these to interact with potential customers. Grow your profile on discovery sites like ProductHunt, BetaList or StartupRanking.com. Answer questions by users, even if they’re not engaging with you yet, ask your own questions, and be a proactive member of several communities. Getting a high number of votes on sites like ProductHunt can give you a huge PR boost and attract a wave of new users your way.
These discussions and interactions often start or end up on your personal social media platforms. “Never underestimate the power of social media,” says Dalia Landes, Head of Marketing at startup accelerator MassChallenge Israel. “Smart startups can use social media channels to control messaging, create a buzz, show demos, share data and become a thought leader.”
4. Build media relationships over time.
Journalists are bombarded with hundreds of pitches every day. Rather than always sending opinion pieces or expecting them to cover your most recent press release, it is important to give more than you take.
You can offer journalists exclusive data without asking for anything in return other than a reference. Re-package your information: present your data in infographics, put your thoughts together in the form of whitepapers, and distribute marketing resources to help journalists build the story.
"My number one tip is to do a research report on your problem area,” says Patrick Mork, founder and chief storyteller at cultural transformation company LEAP. “You'll get valuable data for your product team, data bites for your social media and PR folks and a treasure trove of information you can cobble into an ebook, blog posts and infographics to do lead gen for your sales guys. Hands down a no brainer!"
Also offer journalists an interview with the founders that latch onto a current news event. To not come off as arrogant, share a few bullet points on why you can provide a unique or alternative insight due to your experience over the years. Make recommendations and introductions to other startups (not competitors) within your network who might be of interest to journalists.
By offering information that’s of actual benefit to the journalist, you’re showing that you have your finger on the pulse and an in-depth understanding of the industry, and they’ll likely be coming back to you for more.
“Following a journalist's interests, their social media profiles, and reading their latest articles is highly recommended,” says Rosa Jiménez, former Silicon Valley correspondent for the El País and Chief of Ecosystem Relations at The Venture City, a new venture and acceleration model based out of Madrid and Miami.
Use your social media to comment on journalists’ articles, re-share their posts, and send them tips and data which might be of use in future articles. This will put you on their radar, and they’ll be more likely to give you the time of day when you do have a strong announcement.
Every founder should set up an account at Help A Reporter Out, and check in each day to see what journalists are requesting. It’s a great way to kickstart relationships.
“Becoming a reliable and consistent source of knowledge is a basic precursor to having a feature story about your company published,” Jiménez says.
Don’t dismiss smaller publications. Often, these are syndicated by larger platforms, they can reach hundreds of thousands of readers a month, and journalists and peers will be reading them to get inspiration. And because they’re in their early growth phase (like you), they’ll be much more willing to cover the progress of emerging startups.
Remember that as a young business, you must be realistic about where you’re likely to get placement. “While MarketingLand might not be as sexy as Forbes, the reality is that you’re much more likely to reach your target audiences through niche publications than general publications,” Corbett says. “Your aim in your first year is to build up a base of media coverage, which will better your chances of being discovered by ‘the big hitters.’”
Forge relationships with up-and-coming and regional media, industry-specific publications, blogs and podcasts, rather than aiming for TechCrunch straight off the starting line. Who knows, perhaps the blog author who covered your launch will be the editor of a top-tier publication by the time you hit another major milestone.
5. Do the right thing.
The best PR is rooted in tackling new problems, being socially responsible, and helping out communities. If you have an inspiring mission and can narrate that to regular people, coverage will come organically.
COVID-19 has revealed the cracks that exist in our society, and created new ones. Companies that go out of their way to solve real issues and prioritize helping others over profits, are more likely to get the recognition they deserve.
Showcase your company’s long-term vision. Perhaps your startup has adopted a social purpose such as encouraging more diverse work environments, educating school children in your niche, or donating a percentage of your sales to a disability charity. Why not write an article on these social issues and what the startup world should be doing to better the situation? Often this is much more interesting to the media than your actual product.
“Sell your dream,” show the human side of your business, and prove you’re more deserving of people’s hard-earned dollars than your competitors.
Don’t shy away from PR if you’re still in the early stages of getting your product out there. The point is to demonstrate that the startup has something more to offer, and has a strong voice and purpose to add to the community at large.
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