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?”
(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.
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.
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.