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Startup PR Tip: To Get Press, Don't Pitch Your Product

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, May 16, 2013

 


Entrepreneurs that are looking to get attention from bloggers and journalists will often pitch their businesses themselves or though a PR agency.

It's sad that most of those pitches fall flat and are likely to be completely ignored. A waste of time and money for everyone.product pitch small

For example, here’s a pitch from a PR professional. I’ve changed it slightly to avoid embarrassing anyone:

“I’m working with a wonderful new business… The owners grew up together and decided to go into business… it’s a story I’m sure your readers will care a lot about!”

Uh, no. It's unlikely that people are going to care about this story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the entrepreneurs are great people, but many entrepreneurs can tell a tale of struggle and euphoria and heartbreak and someday, against all odds, turning their dreams into reality and making their business a success. While occasionally readers might be inspired or motivated, for the most part we’re just not that interested in other people’s stories. Unless those stories are particularly remarkable we're more apt to just keep living our own dreams and writing our own stories. So, the things we're interested in is not other people's stories, but information that helps us write our own.

So what should you do if you’re trying to spread the word about new products and services, landing new customers, bringing investors onboard… all the stuff you hire PR agencies to do for you or, more likely, try to do on your own?

If you’re looking for press, forget the formulaic, cookbook approach to crafting a winning media pitch. That approach may result in coverage in a few outlets… but not the ones you really want.

Quick rule of thumb: Any media outlet that will do a story based on a crappy pitch is a media outlet that will get you crappy exposure.

Let’s pretend you’re thinking about pitching me an article idea for OnStartups.com (which has a modestly sized, but awesome audience).  You can apply the following to any media outlet or blog, though.

Here’s what to do and not to do:

Don’t tell me your story is unique.

No offense, but it really isn’t. There are thousands of Ramen noodle stories. There are thousands of 3 am “Eureka!” stories. There are thousands of maxed-out credit cards, relatives won’t return your calls, last-minute financing savior stories.

Your story is deservedly fascinating to you because you lived it (just as my story is fascinating to me), but to the average reader your story sounds a lot like every other entrepreneur’s story. Claiming your story is unique creates an expectation that, if not met, negatively impacts the rest of your pitch.

And if your story truly is unique, I’ll know. You won’t have to tell me.

Don’t tell me how much a little publicity will help you.

Never waste time by explaining how this could be a win-win relationship or, worse, by claiming you want to share your wisdom because you simply want to help others.

I know you want publicity, and I know why. I get it. I've been there. We’re cool.

Know what I’ve done recently.

It’s easy to think, “Hey, he recently wrote about choosing a co-founder, so I should pitch a story about how I help people find co-founders”

Um, probably not. If just wrote about co-founders. I’m probably good for a little bit on that topic. Never assume one article indicates an abiding fascination with a particular topic.

But do feel free to pitch if you aren’t a member of the choir I just preached to. Different points of view catch my attention; same thing, different day does not.

Know my interests.

You certainly don’t need to know I enjoy late-night walks on the beach. (Hey, who doesn’t?) But skim a few posts and you’ll know I have a soft spot for company culture, startup funding and startup marketing

So if you really want to get my attention, don’t use the tried-but-in-no-way-true “mention you really enjoyed something recent the writer wrote” approach.

Instead put your effort into finding an angle that may appeal to my interests. If you can’t be bothered to do that you’ll never get the publicity you want.

Forget a profile piece.

Straight profile pieces that tell the story of a business are boring. (At least I think so, which is why I don't post those)

The best articles let readers learn from your experience, your mistakes, and your knowledge. Always focus on benefiting readers: When you do, your company gets to bask in the reflected PR glow.

So,readers don’t want to know what you do; they want to know what you know. If you started a company, share five things you learned about landing financing. If you developed a product, share four mistakes you made early on. If you entered a new market, share three strategies you used to steal market share from competitors.

And while you may think the “5 steps to” or “4 ways to” approach is overdone, keep in mind readers love them… and even if I decide not to frame the story that way, developing mental bullet points ahead of time is a great way to organize your information (which helps me) and ensure you have great talking points (which definitely helps you.)

Realize that the more you feel you need to say… the less you really have to say.

Some people think bloggers are lazy and look for stories that write themselves. I can’t argue with the lazy part, but I really don’t want to read a 1,000-word pitch with a comprehensive overview of the topic and a list of semi-relevant statistics. The best products can be described in a few sentences, and so can the best pitches:

So now let’s get specific. Pretend you’re crafting your pitch:

Remember: forget what you want.

Many people think, “Wow, it would be awesome if OnStartups.com ran a story about our new product—think of the exposure! So many VCs would read it! We're looking for funding!"

Maybe so, but unless you focus on how readers can benefit from the story (learning about your new product isn’t a benefit to readers), that’s not going to happen.

Then, think about what I want.

I want to inform and occasionally – hopefully – entertain readers; the more you can help me accomplish that goal, the more interested I am in what you have to say.

Then craft your pitch with publicity as a secondary goal.

In the example above, the PR pro didn’t offer readers anything. His only focus was on getting publicity to benefit his clients.

Flip it around and focus solely on how you can benefit readers. When you do, your company will benefit by extension.

For example, if you want to spread the word about:

· New products or services: Share four lessons learned during the product development process; describe three ways you listened to customers and determined how to better meet their needs; explain the steps involved in manufacturing products overseas, especially including what you did wrong.

· Landing a major customer: Describe how you changed your sales process to allow you to compete with heavy hitters in your industry; share three stories about major sales that got away and what you learned from failing to reel them in; detail the steps you took to quickly ramp up capacity while ensuring current customers needs were still met.

· Bringing in key investors: Explain how you helped investors embrace your vision for the company; describe four key provisions that create the foundation for a solid partnership agreement; share the stories of three pitches to VCs that went horribly wrong and how those experiences helped you shape a winning pitch.

Sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s worth it. When you offer to help people solve problems and learn from your mistakes, bloggers and writers will be a lot more interested.

More importantly, readers will be more interested in the news you want to share because first you helped them—and that gives them a great reason to be interested in your business.



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Getting Crunched, Mashed Or Beaten Is Not A Launch Strategy

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Mar 19, 2013

 


This is a guest post by Alex Turnbull.  Alex is a serial SaaS entrepreneur and the CEO of Groove, a customer support software platform for startups and small businesses.  Alex was previously a co-founder of Bantam Live, acquired by Constant Contact in 2011.

It’s here!

After many, many months of long hours, take-out and cheap beer, launch day is finally here.

Your eyes are sore from not having looked up from your computer in what seems like ages, and every part of your body is screaming at you to get some sleep, but you’re too hopped up on coffee and adrenaline to listen.pot of gold

This is it. This is what we’ve been working our asses off for. To reveal ourselves to the world in all of our disruptive glory. Silicon Valley will kneel before us.

It’s like the slow, painstaking ride to the top of the first drop on a roller coaster; you just know it’s going to be absolutely exhilarating, but first you have to trudge all the way to the peak of a steep climb. Tired of waiting but itching with anticipation, you finally reach the top, and then…

Nothing.

Not a damn thing.

Scoble isn’t billing you as the next Instagram. You’re not showing up on Techmeme with a dozen stories about your launch. And the traffic. That sweet, traction-building traffic that you’ve been awaiting — the traffic that was going to prove that people were interested. That they wanted you. It never comes.

Who’s to blame for all of this?

That’s easy. TechCrunch. Those bastards.

If only they had read your press release, they would’ve seen that your story needs to be told! Your product is unique and compelling, dammit! How could they do this to you? How could they crush your dreams of a successful launch by totally ignoring your pitch?

Of course, you’re a startup. Bouncing back is in your DNA, and you get right back to work. But the experience is discouraging, and I've seen this story play out way too many times with friends and founders I’ve spoken to. And know that I’m speaking from experience: I've absolutely made this mistake before, too.

Here’s the reality: pitching TechCrunch is not a launch strategy.

It seems obvious, but it takes more than one hand for me to count the number of times a founder has told me that they expect their launch traction to come from getting picked up by TC (or Mashable, or VentureBeat, or AllThingsD, or any one of a number of similar outlets).

What every single hopeful founder with a similar plan doesn't realize (or doesn't take seriously enough) is that there are hundreds of other founders doing the exact same thing, and hitting the exact same “Tips” email account with their pitches.

Don’t get me wrong, here. Press is good, startup bloggers tell important stories and press outreach should be a part of your launch strategy. But it’s not enough.

So what’s a startup to do?

Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of folks will tell you that the first thing you should be focused on is building a great product that improves people’s lives. And they’re absolutely right. Nobody wants to hear about a crappy product, and more importantly, nobody wants to share your crappy product with their friends.

But let’s assume you've got something amazing. How do you get the world to notice?

First of all, shift your thinking. F*ck the world. It’s “tell everyone” approaches like this that lead to launch strategies like the one above. You don’t need the world to notice. You need highly qualified potential users to notice, and there’s a huge difference.

At Groove, we spent twelve months in beta, rigorously testing and iterating our HelpDesk and LiveChat apps to get them ready to launch.

But here’s something else we did, that you can do, too: we spent that time rabidly collecting email addresses of potential users. We asked our most engaged beta users to share our website (and lead collection portal) with their networks, we blogged about topics that were interesting to a customer support audience, and we wrote content for external outlets that brought value to readers, and loads of inbound leads to us.

When launch day came, we were ready: press release, pitch list, product video, blog post, email blast, the works. Here’s how it played out:

We pitched our press list.

The good people at TheNextWeb covered our beta launch a year ago, so they were interested in how far we've come. They wrote a great piece about us, and the inbound traffic got us about a few hundred signups. It was awesome.

Like everyone else, we also wanted to get Crunched. Or Mashed. Or Beaten.

Ouch.

But what hurt even more, is that like almost everyone else, we didn't get covered by any of them.

I have no doubt that a barrage of press coverage would've gotten us even more new users, but we knew that the odds were against us, so we planned for it.

Taking our carefully nurtured list of email addresses, we sent out an announcement about our launch, with clear calls to action to sign up and get in on the fun.

The result?

Double the signups, at nearly four times the conversion rate of visitors coming from the TNW piece.

Note that we didn't email this list cold: we had spent months giving away content for free, nurturing the relationships, before asking for anything. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.

We also sent an email out to beta users, announcing the launch and asking them to share Groove with friends who might find it useful. That email netted us another 120 users, at a conversion rate nearly double that of the TNW traffic.

It shouldn't be surprising that the most valuable traffic we got came from qualified leads we had already nurtured. But the problem is that most startups won’t make the effort to build that audience until after launch. I know, because as I've mentioned, I've made that mistake, too.

Look, I know that as an early-stage team, the chances that you have a full-time content person are nonexistent. But the chances that someone on your team has a modicum of writing chops are pretty damn good, and getting them to invest a couple of hours a week in this exercise can pay off in spades when the time comes.

At a loss for what to write about? Every startup should know how their customers think, and knowing what’s interesting to them is a major part of that, and it’s absolutely okay to ask them what they’d like to read about from you. Email them, survey them, chat with them. They'll appreciate it. Trust me.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas:

  • Write about your startup experiences - be honest and transparent (check out Balsamiq-founder Peldi’s blog, where he captures this masterfully)
  • Stir the pot. Share your thoughts on controversial topics with your audience.
  • Offer best practices for your space.
  • You’re probably an expert in whatever it is that you do — share your knowledge.
  • Everyone likes a success story. Or one about failure. Tell yours.
  • Show off case studies and interviews with your customers. This clues your audience in to what others using your product are doing well, and makes the featured customers feel good about themselves (and their relationship with your company).

Summary: Getting Crunched is not a launch strategy, and you shouldn't bet on it to make your startup blow up. Reach out to the press, but diversify your launch plan to reach qualified leads that you've already been nurturing. Invest in content. Profit. The end.



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Our PR Stinks: Here's What Your Startup Can Learn From It

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Dec 20, 2012

 


We were convinced from the very beginning that strong PR would be the answer to our market entry prayers. This is the story of how our reality turned into something of the opposite effect.

The Familiar Doubt

Many friends, fellow founders and business professionals told us along the way that creating a B2B interactive business platform would be a difficult project. (Hey, we knew that.)

People later told us that the most difficult aspect would be market entry. (Again, no surprise there.) The consensus among those critical of our venture was consistent, and usually along the lines of, “Don’t you want to do something more glamorous than a B2B platform? Maybe something B2C?”describe the image

(Actually, we believe our concept is glamorous and quite frankly, exactly what we believe the B2B market calls for.)

Any way you thought about it, the task at hand was going to be tough. The start was the most challenging, with an idea and an empty platform. But we were not the first facing this issue; surely there would be ways to maneuver our way into our key markets?

We knew some companies who successfully bought profiles or created fake ones, but decided that if we really believed in our concept, we would need real people behind genuine profiles and articles. And that we would need press coverage.

How did we solve the first problem of filling the platform?

We first talked face-to-face with various professionals we knew to get them interested and excited enough to participate on the platform, even though the it was new. It was hard, but we did it. Twice. Once on the German site, and again, when we went international with the English platform.

We were ready to move onto the next stage.

 Growth.

How do you go about growing something like a self-publishing platform for B2B professionals? How do you create public awareness? Would press coverage do the trick? High-profile technology publications, with all of their reach, would be a nice start…wouldn’t they?

Indeed, we tried various forms of press outreach. After making a bad choice with a PR company for the German market, we chose the PR Company for our international venture with care. After months of consideration, research and negotiation, we made a deal with high hopes that we would see the benefits of this lucrative investment. While it would be wrong to say we gained nothing from this several month contract, it would be an exaggeration to say that it was worth the time, energy and money to do it again.

Maybe we chose the wrong firm or worked with people not experienced enough with an international, startup market. Regardless of the reason, we only barely inched along.

Eventually, we were forced to go out on our own to create brand awareness and ignite public interest.

The Big Guys

This time, we aimed for the big guys and landed one on our own. Coverage on GigaOM inspired positive feedback surrounding our concept and functionality. But as it turns out, getting highly coveted coverage is not enough. What happens is this: you get a spike of traffic, a couple of hundred or even thousands of visits for a day, but only a fraction of the traffic persists.

PR can work if you manage to stay continually on the radar of journalists. We did not succeed in getting enough “coverable” news out over and over again and thus faced the problem of limited exposure.

After personal and fired efforts, what did we learn?

Our PR still stank.

Without a celebrity investor or seven-figure financial round each month, we were forced to do what startups do best: build something from nothing, by using what we had.

Looking back, this hardship turned out to be a great thing for our business development. Without being able to rely on press coverage, we were forced to learn and engage in a marketing strategy - to find other ways to generate traffic and convert our target audience.

Essentially, our lukewarm PR made us better entrepreneurs.

How, exactly, did we manage to grow?

As a social publishing and content marketing platform we decided to do exactly what we had been advising our target group to do: run a content-based, social media campaign. The steps were as follows:

1. Research our target group: This involved getting to know the habits and motivations of our target group within each social media and online channel. It also required us to understand the conversations that were talking place about issues relevant to our service and knowing what our industry influencers were saying. Specific to our success, were analyzing Twitter and LinkedIn.

2. Connect with influencers: Connecting with influencers allowed us to learn the language of our industry and lay the foundation for future interaction. When we later began to produce content, we could guest post on these influencers’ blogs/websites and involve them in a series of interviews. In both cases, we found ways to expose ourselves to their followers.

3. Create content of utility: We knew that content had to be informative and engaging. Yet, the content that really made a difference for us was that which offered our platform and social media communities a sense of utility. If our content could be used to better understand the industry or tackle a common problem, it was more likely to be shared and discussed.

4. Publish content: This was when we had the opportunity to do what we had been advising our target group to do the whole time: publish on exploreB2B. Not only did we publish articles on our platform, we guest posted on active and relevant sites and blogs.

5. Distribute content: Publishing content was only one step of the battle. Distributing the totality of our content through our social communities served to create leads to our platform and, in turn, grow these subsidiary networks.

6. Continue to grow online communities: This was one of the largest factors in our spike in traffic and referrals. Once we grew our Twitter accounts and initiated daily interaction in LinkedIn groups, whole communities of like-minded people were exposed to – and became familiar with – our brand name. Growing our Twitter account from miniscule numbers to five-figure followers became a powerful increase in our visibility. Even though we are B2B, this kind of “social branding” played a large role in our growth.

Through a campaign of trial and error, we learned that social media and content marketing success is not immediate – and that it is not the result of one magical post. The persistence of our actions and the combination of the different measures resulted in a social media following, trust in our content, visibility, and stable platform growth.

What were our end results with PR?

1. A spike in traffic during April 2012.

Yes, that’s it. And it was smaller than our current (steady) growth rates.

What were our end results with content marketing?

1. Brand awareness.

2. Connection to key, industry influencers.

3. Large and active social media followings on more than one network.

4. Trust in our useful and engaging content.

5. An increase in weekly visits by a factor of ten.

6. An increase in registrations by a factor of ten.

In the few months we have spent content marketing, we have achieved something that gives much more value to our company than traffic spikes created by media coverage. We have an ongoing dialogue with our users, a network base that constantly returns to our site, and consistently grow our traffic.

Results from our content marketing campaign far outweigh any benefits we gained from being covered in the press.

We have survived by making ourselves the leaders of our own movement, utilizing the platform we created, employing the marketing strategy we recommend and connecting to thought leaders in our field.

clip_image002

Weekly traffic of exploreB2B from March 2012 to November 2012

Though our content marketing results were not instant, we were able to use this time to build trust and establish a reputation in “social business.”

With positive user feedback and a steady increase in their own article production, we now sense real stability in our social media and platform interactions.

At this point in time, our PR still sucks.

But, maybe that is just the point. It is due to the fact that our PR was not successful that we attained something that has proven more valuable in the end: steady, self-achieved, and sustainable growth.

The Fate of Your Brand

My advice for startup growth is to not rely on press to determine your market reputation. Instead, formulate a connection to your target group members by telling your own stories and sharing knowledge that defines your industry leadership. This provides a foundation for your own means of security and growth.

Using methods such as social media and content marketing, figure out where you can reach your target group and pursue them in helpful and entertaining ways. It’s not the tech journalists, bloggers and authors covering your competitors who protect and ensure the bottom line of your company.

In the end, it comes down to the people who trust you and find value in your ideas to decide the fate of your brand.

This was a guest post by Susanna Gebauer.  She is one of the founders of the social publishing and content marketing platform, exploreB2B. You can also find Susanna on Twitter.



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The Classy Way To Get Media Coverage For Your Startup

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Oct 30, 2012

 



The following is a guest blog post by Nicholas Holmes. Nicholas is the co-founder of MediaGraph, a public relations platform that enables small businesses to manage their own media outreach. He was formerly a journalist and an Accenture management consultant.

In my previous career as a journalist, I received hundreds of story pitches with press releases attached every day. Like so many other well-meaning journos, I'd make a valiant attempt to at least skim the first two lines of every one in a vain attempt to maintain some sort of equilibrium between the read and the unread.press hat

In those two lines, I (and almost all the journalists I know) made a rapid judgement on the newsworthiness of content, never spending enough time thinking about what a story could become, rather than what it was. In short, if your piece of news wasn’t 100 percent right, it would rarely get the time of day.

Savvy PR practitioners know this. The best will be in contact all the time (or at least well before they have a news story to pitch) in an attempt to figure out how to maximize the chances of something being picked up. It’s a wonder there aren’t more of them. Sadly there aren’t and 80 - 90 percent of pitches I received followed the tired format of "Hi X, Company Y is launching a product next week and we thought it would be of interest to publication Z."

So here's an idea to try when getting media coverage for your startup - don't start by pitching the product. Start by pitching nothing.

Clearly showing that you understand that a journalist doesn't just exist to publicize you is one of the fastest routes to his or her heart. It’s literally the difference between drunkenly hitting on someone in a club and taking him/her on multiple dates to the restaurant you can’t afford. Hell, you'd be unlikely to start a sales pitch without knowing your customer, or begin discussions with an investor without finding out exactly what they were interested in -- so why treat the media differently?

The closest relationships journalists build are with people who can provide long-term value to them by offering something that isn't just self-promotion. Conversely, these tend to be the names you see cropping up again and again in the media.

So instead of a product pitch, why not offer something else if you’re trying to use the media to get the word out about your startup? The following list should get you started:

Comment

Having a network of people to offer opinion and analysis is critical for most journalists and it's a great way of getting your name out there, even when you don't have any news. So make sure your media contacts know who you are and what you're qualified to talk about by introducing yourself with a short biography and an offer to help.

Briefing

Most journalism is about distilling complex topics into chunks that people understand, which means journalists need to be knowledgable about a lot, and always stay up-to-date. If you're an expert, or have access to experts, you can offer to spend some time highlighting trends or recent developments in your area to help journalists do their job better.

Access

Perhaps it's a cliche, but one of the best ways to curry favor is to open doors. Does your business have an investor, a board member or a founder who's in demand? Offering an introduction to the right person can help ensure that you're remembered for the right reasons, and it doesn’t have to be just a cynical gesture. Connect two people who will benefit from knowing each other and you’ve done them both a good turn.

Data

Many companies I've come across sit on piles of newsworthy data they've never considered using. It could be information interesting to everybody or just to a niche audience, but take a look at some other examples of companies doing this and see if you might do something similar. Are you collecting data you can aggregate about your users that will be of interest to a consumer publication, such as their top tracks, movies or TV shows? Do you have access to collated information on Twitter that a journalist could use to prove a point? Or does your business measure something nobody else does?

Insights into the business

TechCrunch ran a surprisingly popular series (http://techcrunch.com/tag/tc-cribs/) some years back which took a look around startup offices in the style of MTV Cribs -- a perhaps extreme example of how day-to-day business operations can be interesting. Think about whether your organization does anything particularly noteworthy operationally which could give a journalist some inspiration. Are there unique management styles or internal practices?

Coffee

Too simple? Never! If you can meet conveniently, meeting a journalist face to face is the best way to make sure that you'll be remembered as more than just an email address. It also signals that you’re willing to invest serious time on getting to know this person, which will be appreciated - and who knows where you’ll both end up in the future?



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