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There’s Nothing Magical About Startup PR

I don’t do public relations, but I frequently get approached by startups looking to capture the attention of reporters and bloggers.

It is always surprising to see startups so unprepared to do PR. There’s no marketing collateral, target lists, media pitches or planning. Instead, there is enthusiasm and a misguided belief that media world will find them irresistibly interesting.startup PRThe harsh reality is hundreds, if not thousands, of startups want media coverage. In many cases, they have much better stories than your startup.

The most important thing for startups to know about PR is, for the most part, it’s not a game of chance. It’s not something that suddenly strikes you as such a good idea that it magically comes to life.

I met with a startup recently that wanted to create and launch a PR campaign in less than a week. They had a concept but nothing else; not even a Website that effectively told their story. They just figured their service was so cool, it would attract the spotlight.

Startup PR is not a spur of the moment activity. It is something that happens because a lot of work happens behind the scenes. Success happens due to strategic and tactical planning, as well as clear ideas on how to create a story that will resonate. Coverage from reporter and bloggers is the dividend for a lot of grunt work.

Some of the keys to startup success include:

1. Have reasonable expectations about PR: Too many startups believe PR is the silver bullet that will make everything awesome. Brand awareness will explode, while sales and leads will rumble in the door. The mantra is “If we do it, it will happen”. The problem is extreme success is rare. When a startup doesn’t attract lots of coverage, they are disappointed and, frankly, bitter. They thought PR was magic but it’s not.

Instead, it is important for startups to be realistic about what PR can do for them. They need clear goals and ways to measure what PR delivers. They to have enough insight to understand the competitive landscape so they can realistic objectives for PR.

2. Be well prepared. PR startups long before a press release goes live and media outreach happens. There is a lot of behind the scenes work that happens. It is tasks such as doing research to pragmatically build lists of reporters and bloggers to contact. It is not only knowing names and contact information but their interests and the stories they have written in the past few months. In other words, it is crucial to know your targets inside out.

3. PR is a long-term proposition. While there are startups that catch lightning in a bottle, most startup PR campaigns are part of a steady effort to establish a profile. It involves a lot of hard work but it is part of being realistic about PR. In some respects, PR is like hitting a series of singles rather than a home run. It is not glamorous but it is a willing to hammer away to slowly raise awareness.

4. PR is just part of your marketing arsenal. Going back to the idea that PR isn’t magic, it is important to recognize that driving brand awareness to build the sales funnel happens in different ways – be it white papers, case studies, blog posts, speaking at conferences, etc. Collectively, this activity start to build momentum and traction. It’s a team effort as opposed to having a star performer.

5. Develop stories that are interesting, unique, different or current. Every startups believes it warrants attention because their product is great. But that’s far from enough because interesting isn’t newsworthy. Interesting is “meh”. It’s neither here nor there.

Instead, startups need to take a customer-centric approach to PR. They need to think about what a reporter or blogger would cover and why. What would make a reporter or blogger open and read your pitch? Sometimes, it comes down to creative thinking and the ability to do something that goes against the grain. In other cases, news is happening so a pitch positions your startup as a part of a bigger story or you offer solid perspective.

Bottom line: For startups, PR is a seductive creature. It is so easy to think the world will beat a path to your door by simply hiring a PR agency to spread the word. The reality is PR is marketing that requires a blocking and tackling approach. It may not be an earth-shattering activity but it is one part of a startup’s storytelling efforts.

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical servicesmarketing strategies, core messaging, product marketing and content development.

Six Ways Startups Stumble With Marketing

Marketing is treacherous ground for startups because they often operate outside their comfort zones.

As a result, many initial stabs at marketing fail to deliver It’s unfortunate given marketing is expected to drive brand awareness, fuel the sales and lots of other good stuff.

So why does a startup’s marketing efforts stumble?

SixHere are some of the biggest culprits:

1. Lack of clarity about marketing goals: It’s not enough to do marketing because it seems like the right thing. It makes no sense, for example, to embrace marketing because rivals are using it successfully. Instead, startups need well-defined strategic and tactical goals. It does not mean having a crystal clear idea about what to do, but there are objectives – e.g. more Website traffic, leads, downloads, media coverage, etc. This gives marketing clarity, rather than ambiguity.

2. A product not ready for prime time: While the “Lean Startup” approach suggests the path to success lies in rapid product iteration, many early-stage startups do not have the luxury of offering a product with warts. The marketplace is too competitive. If a startup’s product is unable to go to head-to-head, it’s difficult for marketing to work. It’s the old adage that you can’t put lipstick on a pig. If a startup’s product is just okay, marketing can’t perform magic.

3. Insufficient resources: Marketing success depends on having the horses to make it happen. You can do lots of planning but it’s a pointless if there are not enough people and money to execute. This is a big challenge for startups. While marketing sounds good strategically (aka talking), the hard part is making it happen tactically (aka walking) without people and money.

4. A lack of commitment: This should really be 3A because it’s so intertwined. A startup may have a solid marketing strategy and resources but it’s not able to pull the trigger tactically. Having to actually invest in marketing is a show stopper due to cost, uncertainty or shifting priorities. As a result, marketing execution never happens or everything comes to a screeching halt before the ball is pushed into the end zone. For marketers, this is frustrating because all the work done to prime the pump goes for naught despite the initial enthusiasm.

5. Letting marketing operate in isolation: To succeed, there is alignment between marketing and  sales, product development and customer service. It thrives when everyone sits at the same table to create clarity about the objectives, target audiences and the strategic and tactical options. This lets marketing become a key cog in the machine rather than operating in a vacuum. As important, it is easier for the organization to get behind marketing because they are part of the process rather than bystanders.

6. Weak or non-existent approval processes: Unless a marketer has compete autonomy (not always a good thing), it is important to have approval processes that provides structure and workflow. Marketing thrives when it is agile and opportunistic. It falters when there is bureaucracy and an unclear path to tactical execution.

Are there any other ways that startups drop the ball on marketing?

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical servicesmarketing strategies, core messaging, product marketing and content development.

The “Gourmet Popsicle” Startup Approach

During a three-week road trip through Florida (yes, it was super-hot!), one of the things that struck me is how the most interesting retailers embrace a super-focused approach.

They’re taking products such as cookies, honey and popsicles, and injecting some pizzazz, sizzle and design to make them sexier desirable and more profitable.

gourmet popsiclesA perfect example is Hyppo, which makes gourmet popsicles. Gourmet popsicles?? Picture chocolate with Mexican chilies, strawberry with fennel or grape with cinnamon. It’s not rocket science but it’s a unique twist that lets Hyppo charge $3.50 a pop for a popsicle. (Note: They’re so good, we went back the next day!)

You’re probably wondering what gourmet popsicles have to do with startups. The key ingredient (pun completely intended) is the ability to transform a product into something better by being focused.

It means keeping things simple rather than complicated. It is offering minor variations on a theme (aka 20 flavours of popsicles) rather than a complex or inaccessible product.

Too many startups stumble because they believe more is better and more appealing.

As a result, they continue to add new features, even if the existing features are not fully embraced. In the process, their products are bloated and less accessible because there’s too much happening. The product not only confuses customers but it is more difficult for a startup to do marketing and sales.

The result: the startup flounders under the weight of its product.

There is a better way. Startups need to embrace the “Gourmet Popsicle” approach: simplicity with a twist.

It means offering a product that offers plenty of value but not a lot of moving parts.

By being ultra-focused, a startup can attack a problem or need to deliver a great experience. For example, think about how Dropbox pursued the online storage market. To position itself in a competitive market, Dropbox offered as a simple and elegant solution. It sweetened the proposition by making it easy to sample.

Hyppo is using the same approach. It’s so simple that you wonder why gourmet popsicles are not everywhere.

Maybe the ability to sell gourmet popsicles works by not over-thinking the market’s needs or problems. Not every product is disruptive or innovative. Many successful products simply improve what already exists. This does not mean being less creative or innovative but, rather, being different.

Then, it requires discipline to nurture simplicity. This is challenging because better often translates into more options. But better also happens when a product is easier to use or when its features are elegantly unleashed. This is a contrast to the dreaded feature creep that undermines many startups.

There is a time, place and need for complex products, including those offered by startups. But I think many startups give themselves a better shot at successful by keeping it simple.

Bottom line: A simple product that delights is a winning proposition.

Marketing 101: The Customer is Always Right

There’s a neighbourhood restaurant that we visit fairly often. The food is good, the prices are reasonable and the service is friendly and efficient.

So it was disappointing during a recent visit that the service was slow, even though the restaurant wasn’t particularly busy. While not in a hurry, we were hungry so we told the waiter that we had been waiting for our order.

customerThe response was polite but unapologetic. When I mentioned our situation to the manager, his response was a shrug and a suggestion maybe he could “do something”. When the bill arrived, nothing had been done. When I asked why, the manager said the order hadn’t arrived unreasonably late so the owner decided the service had met expectations.

The problem, however, is the experience didn’t meet my expectations.

As the customer, I thought the service could have been better. In complaining, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a free dessert or complimentary appetizers the next time around. Instead, I wanted an acknowledgement that I had an issue, even if it was a relatively minor one.

It’s the age-old adage the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong. More than ever, we live in a customer-centric world in which it’s so easy to complain about bad service, products and experiences.

For any business, it means dealing with complaints and problems that give the customer a sense of satisfaction. Maybe it’s a discount or a complimentary glass of wine. But it can also be an apology or a promise to do better next time. Often, customers simply want to air their grievances to someone willing to listen.

For startups scrambling to attract and keep customers, they should embrace the “customer is always right” as a corporate mantra. For businesses with minimal or non-existent track records, it’s crucial to make every customer happy to some degree. Not all of them become ecstatic evangelists, they just need to know your startup cares.

Here are some examples on how startups can be customer-centric:

1. A personalized email to a new customer that thanks them for buying or using the product, as well as a few tips on how to get started. And make sure the email comes from an employee (perhaps the CEO) rather than an anonymous auto-response.

2. Acknowledgement and encouragement when a customer submits a suggestion for a new feature or product improvement. It’s important to make people feel like they are part of the process and the community.

3. Quick responses to complaints and problems. Every complaint or problem is an opportunity to make customers happy or less unhappy, as well as improve your product or processes. A negative can turn into a positive with the right touch and approach.

4. Reward your long-time customers with things such as early access to new features, discounts on premium products, or invitations to events such as dinners.

Truth be told, not every customer is going to love you or your products. Some are content because your product does what it needs to do. Some will stick around because there are no other options. And some will abruptly leave because they don’t like your product or discovered something better or cheaper.

Regardless of the different customer “camps”, it is important for startups to embrace a customer-centric view of the world. It’s how happy communities develop, even if it takes awhile to happen.

I will probably go to restaurant again but the relationship has changed, which means I’m open to new dining options.

So what’s your take? Is the customer always right? And what happens if they’re wrong?

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I provide strategic and tactical services – core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation.

Don’t Be Afraid to Hire a Marketing Consultant

With apologies to Neil Patel, hiring a marketing consultant is not a risky or worthless proposition.

Yes, I’m biased being a startup marketing consultant but I believe consultants can play a valuable role.

marketing consultantsA key part of Patel’s recent blog post is marketing consultants do not deliver “miracles”, they are expensive and they are specialists.

These are valid points that any business, including startups, must consider before jumping on the consultant bandwagon.

As Patel suggests, there are dangers in hiring a consultant. This is particularly the case when a company doesn’t have a clear idea about why it needs a marketing consultant or, as important, it’s not ready to do marketing.

Patel shouldn’t scare you away from exploring the idea of using a marketing consultant. In many cases, it’s a matter of knowing what has to happen, and then getting someone with the right skills and track record.

Simple, right? Not exactly. Hiring anyone is challenging because there are many variables – skills, experience, personality, culture, compensation, etc. Often, hiring comes down to making educated, fingers crossed guesses. Hiring is not a science, at least not yet.

For many startups, marketing consultants are strange creatures. They talk a different language, success is measured in specific and obtuse ways, and they often have experience and skills that are non-existent within a startup’s workforce.

As a result, it’s not a surprise that hiring a marketing consultant is a risky proposition – something Patel bolsters.

So what’s the trick to hiring a marketing consultant? 

There is a simple answer: be well prepared to capitalize on someone else’s expertise.

What does “well prepared” mean?

1. Your product is ready for prime time or on the right path. Marketers thrive when they have something to, well, market. They’re more effective and probably happier when they’re pitching a product rather than an idea or vaporware. The better the product, the easier to market. Yes, that is simplistic but a solid product provides any company with a better chance of getting value from a marketer.

2. There are needs that require marketing expertise. It could be something obvious such as driving brand awareness, attracting inbound traffic or developing well-articulated messaging. It could also be the need to create a marketing strategy to complement a product’s growth and the salespeople looking to drive sales.

3. The needs align with the required expertise. Marketers come in different shapes and sizes. Some are specialists, while others are five-tool players or jack of all trades. Being able to identify the right marketer is easier when a company knows what it needs or realizes its problems. The hiring process is more effective by able to determine who has the right mix of skills.

4. Patience. The challenge in hiring a marketer is they’re great at marketing themselves. Whatever your need, they can handle it…or so they say. It means being careful and pragmatic before making a hiring decision. Don’t be seduced because someone says what you want to hear. Do your homework and take your time before pulling the trigger.

5. Establish the rules engagement and expectations. A marketing consultant gets hired to get stuff done so it’s important to define what needs to happen. This includes establishing goals and monitoring progress so everyone knows what’s happening, how and when. As important, both parties need to understand how to effectively get stuff done. What are the approval processes, for example, that will let work efficiently move forward?

But wait, there’s more.

There are some other good reasons to hire a marketing consultant.

1. Not every startup or company needs or wants to hire a full-time marketer. Instead, they are looking to dip their toes in the water rather than dive in. It’s walk before you run approach that makes sense to learn about how marketing can drive growth.

2. Hiring a consultant provides the opportunity to get a better handle on the specific skills required. In some cases, a startup has little idea about who they need until it is determined what needs to be done. It makes no sense, for example, to hire a marketer with search engine optimization when marketing is going to be driven by developing content. It could mean the marketing consultant hire doesn’t look exactly like the ideal marketing person but this is part of the discovery process.

Bottom line: marketing consultants are not the bogeyman. They should not be feared and avoided at all costs. That would dumb. With good timing and due diligence, hiring a marketing consultant offers lots of potential to take your business to the next level.

More: In the wake of Patel’s post, Sarah Brown asked him for an interview. Here’s her recap of the conversation.

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I provide strategic and tactical services – core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation.

Do Startups Really Get Value from Social Media?

In today’s digital marketing world, social media is table stakes. It is used because everyone else is apparently using it. Truth be told, the decision to leverage social media often has little to do with achieving goals.

The enthusiastic embrace of social media includes early stage startups that believe a social media presence is important. As a default, startups embrace Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Often, they are also using Pinterest, Tumblr and Slideshare.

processIn theory, there are many reasons for use social media for brand awareness, engagement, business development and customer service.

But does it really make sense for startups to use social media given the valuable resources consumed?

It’s a question startups need to explore because resources are scarce. Can social media drive enough growth when time and money could be invested in product, sales or other marketing activities?

Many startups use social media because not using it seems wrong. But I think going against the grain makes sense because startups have so many competing priorities, which includes attracting customers. In the scheme of things, social media ranks down the list compared with other sales and marketing activities.

So what should early stage startups do about social media? Use it anyway? Ignore it? In many ways, it comes down to some basics:

1. Marketplace. Who are your customers? Where do they get information and content?

2. Priorities: What are your most important sales and marketing goals?

3. Resources: How many people, money and time do you have?

4. Goals: What do you want to achieve? What would symbolize success?

A startup must explore each question when creating a plan for social media. It needs to surface realistic answers to make the right decisions. It is difficult given social media’s popularity, but it is an important process. Putting time, money and people into social media is a startup killer if other areas don’t get enough attention.

Don’t get me wrong, social media provides benefits and value for startups that are well positioned to capitalize on it. There are many reasons why social media makes sense.

At the same time, there are probably lots of startups that are better off having a minimal social media presence (e.g. Twitter or Facebook), or not using social media other than a static presence to protect their digital real estate.

Whether a startup has a minimal or vibrant social media presence, they should do it as well as possible rather than going through the motions. Being bad on social media damages a startup’s credibility and prospects.

As important is deciding how to drive social media. Someone internally can do it if they have the interest and cycles, or someone can be hired on a part-time or contract basis. This is an option until there is enough work and a budget to justify hiring a community manager on a full-time basis.

Bottom line: Before jumping on the social media bandwagon, it is important for startups to scrutinize why they want to use social media and their goals. It is a process that takes time and effort but it is a healthy process to make the right decision.

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I provide strategic and tactical services – core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation.