The Advanced Guide to Startup PR
It’s no secret that in order to grow, your startup requires effective promotion – and there are few things that will give your company the boost it needs as effectively as press coverage.
Exposure doesn’t happen by chance. It’s no accident that the hottest startups right now (AirBnB, Slack, and Etsy, to name a few) are all over the media. That’s the power of PR machinery at work. All of these brands have great services – but that’s not what gets them the coverage. As VentureBeat points out, “Great products fail all the time because they never make their way into the public eye.”
Behind every great brand story you see in the media is a great PR strategy – and with the right strategy, you can turn your startup into press-worthy news.
This advanced guide will show you how to get the right press coverage so that you can increase your visibility and acquire more customers at a key stage in your startup’s development.
Mastering Your Story for the Media
A good story taps into our human experience and has the power to move people and motivate action. As a study done by the Center of Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University shows, a compelling story can actually alter our brain chemistry, making us more trusting and open to new ideas.
As you’ve probably guessed, crafting a great story isn’t easy. There are several components that you need to consider in order to make your startup story worthy of media attention.
1. Follow the 3 P’s of PR Storytelling: Product, Purpose, and Passion
Your story for the media should be built on three basic elements: your product, purpose, and passion. Using this framework will allow you to go through an exercise of company and customer discovery, which will help you illuminate the high-level, “big picture” stuff about your startup:
- Product: Define exactly what your product or service is and/or what it does, and where its niche offering currently fits into the existing industry landscape. In order to truly define your product, you need to know how it’s different, so do your competitive analysis at a very early stage if you haven’t already.
- Purpose: Identify your company’s “reason for being.” What problem does your product or service solve, and for whom? You exist because of your target customer, so you need to have a detailed understanding of who they are and what they care about.
- Passion: Use an enthusiastic, authentic tone that captures the passion, vision, and culture of your startup. You’ll want to present your story and company as human and relatable, so use real characters and events to shape your story. Honesty and vulnerability go a long way.
If you have a deep understanding of the 3Ps, then you’ve undergone a critical phase in startup development by articulating how your product or service aligns with the true and actual needs of your market.
Take Buffer, the social media management app, as an example. Like many startups, Buffer founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich started their work in a basement. Buffer is now generating $5 million in yearly revenue and has over two million users. So, how did these founders begin telling their story?
First, as Gascoigne tells us, they sought out to address the real pain point of their customers: people losing precious productivity time by posting manually on social media. When they had established a minimum viable product that met this need, they also started the BufferSocial blog to write content on social media topics that their target customers would care about. After ten months of blogging, they had 100,000 users.
By mastering the 3Ps – developing a working product, knowing their customers’ pain points, and writing passionately for their audience – they were able to acquire thousands of customers while establishing themselves as an authority on all things social.
2. Think Like a Journalist to Earn a Journalist’s Attention
Developing your 3P story allows you to position your startup in a clear and concise way. However, no matter how exciting you believe your 3P story to be, a journalist won’t find it interesting unless you give them a reason to. If you start thinking like a journalist you’ll dramatically increase your chances for success.
And that means making your story newsworthy.
“When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.”
Charles Anderson Dana, American Journalist, 1819-1897
Here are some key elements of newsworthiness to keep in mind:
- Timeliness: News, by its very definition, is ‘new’ information. Think about ways you can contribute to cutting-edge discussions in your industry.
- Relevance: Keep a pulse on the most recent articles by journalists in your industry. Do an in-depth analysis of popular posts and see how you can tie them to your own story.
- Novelty: Consider how your particular angle or argument is unique. If you’re saying the same thing as everybody else, you’re not making a very strong case for why you should be heard in the crowd.
When you live and breathe your startup, it can be hard to acknowledge that your product might not be inherently interesting to someone else. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely essential to develop a strong filter for what’s newsworthy in order to get coverage.
Let’s use Renters Warehouse, a professional property management company and longtime Onboardly client, as a case study. In all honesty, real estate isn’t interesting to anyone who isn’t already making money from it. So, how do you connect with journalists who can get you in front of tens of thousands of potential real estate investors?
You tell the story of your inspiring young founder, Brenton Hayden, who retired at 27. The booming rental market (in a slow seller’s market) was cutting edge. At the time, Gen Y success (and failure) stories were incredibly relevant. And hey, what’s not novel about the idea of retiring at 27?
Brenton’s story quickly spread from Entrepreneur to Yahoo! Finance to The Steve Harvey Show. The result? Over 82,000 page views in 24 hours to the Renters Warehouse website (which crashed due to traffic overload), and 576 solid leads in under two weeks. Not too bad — and all because his story showcased his 3Ps and was told with journalists in mind.
3. Find the Right Angle: Tailor Your Story to Each Journalist
If you’ve developed a genuine story that is newsworthy, you’re halfway there. The next challenge is to figure out how to personalize that story according to each journalist you plan on reaching out to.
What ultimately ‘grabs’ the journalist is going to be highly subjective. That’s why it’s so important to establish your target journalists well in advance and do the appropriate research to figure out how to find the right angle.
Here’s an overview of how to nail down your targets and tailor your story:
Identify the Right Journalists: Pick 3-5 journalists and make sure that they meet the following criteria: relevant industry, topic, and publication. This won’t leave you with a ton of options, but that’s the point: research shows that 20% of your outreach will yield 80% of your results.
Tip: Go for smaller publications that cover your relevant niche. You’re much more likely to get traction if you focus on similar interests rather than getting the biggest media outlet. Place your bets on where your key audience is – that’s how you get the best engagement.
When working with the folks at BeauCoo, a body positive startup helping women feel and dress their best, there was a lot of pressure as a tech startup to be featured in TechCrunch. In the end, the company was featured on niche style blogs written by passionate, body positive ambassadors and on highly relevant women’s sites that led to quality user acquisition. Once style bloggers tried the app out for themselves and blogged about the experience, more and more body positive supporters were signing up too. Thanks to targeted outreach amongst a highly qualified crowd, before long, an army of women were behind the app and word of mouth became the ultimate user acquisition strategy.
Research Your Targets: By subscribing to your target journalists’ social feeds and publications, you will begin to get a sense of their style, their sense of humour, and what they’re passionate about. This will help you tailor your story to their interests, and write to them in a way that feels more personal.
Tip: You should also research your target journalists’ audiences. There should be overlap with your own, but there will also be entirely new elements to consider. For example, journalists are loyal to their editors and publication in addition to their readership – so your research should cover those bases.
Establish Your Newsworthy Hook: In order for your story to grab the attention of a journalist, you need to ensure that you can build a reason for why they would care. Use all of the research at your disposal to create your hook.
Tip: Find a way to relate your story to topics that your target journalists are invested in. Ask yourself: what topics do they cover often, and what are their most popular articles?
Journalist Pete Schroeder makes a joke about how he’s sick of getting tax-related email pitches during tax season. Schroeder’s point is that you have to go deeper, more individual to really hook someone. For example, let’s say that a journalist writes passionately about underdog startups that manage to win over the hearts of customers by providing quirky, alternative solutions to that of a major corporation. You know that your tech solution follows the classic David and Goliath storyline – but with an unexpected twist – you’ve captured a truly unique customer story that underscores how meaningful your product or service is. Therein lies the hook.
Cold calls and cookie cutter emails annoy journalists and can easily land you on their blacklist. If you put in the work up front to personalize your outreach, you’re much more likely to get something in return.
Focus on ‘Human Relations’ for Long-Term Success
Targeting the right journalists is absolutely essential to your success. However, if you’re not developing any kind of relationship with these journalists, that still means you’re reaching out to them as a stranger in the crowd of many vying for their attention. Imagine how much easier it would be to send your story to someone that you had already built rapport with a year ago?
A good relationship can make all the difference to your PR efforts. However, the idea is not to go out and start pestering journalists with the hope that they’ll become ‘useful contacts.’ Instead, take an approach that’s proactive in building community. As journalist Patrick Coffee says in Adweek’s PR series: “Journos rarely sing the praises of their PR contacts in public, and most pros wouldn’t want such attention anyway because we all know that the key word in media relations is “relations” as in relationships.”
Follow the Golden Rule of PR: Make Friends Before You Need Them
Invest in relationships early on by giving something valuable before you ask for something in return.
If you’re wondering how to reach out to journalists and industry experts without it feeling forced or self-serving, look at natural opportunities to chat about topics that you both care about, where you can add value. You can do this by:
- Joining relevant groups
- Replying to publications and group forums
- Taking part in social media discussions
- Having a mutual friend introduce you
- Sharing interesting work on your networks
- Attending industry events
Do not post promotional content when you’re engaged in these discussions. Instead, focus on providing industry expertise and knowledge.
We believe that successful PR is altruistic because it focuses on creating mutually beneficial relationships. You have to put in ongoing effort, and it only pays off when you deserve it.
Connecting with a Journalist: Five Key Tactics to Follow
Once you’ve begun building connections and providing valuable contributions to your industry, you can start reaching out to your target journalists.
The most important thing to keep in mind about your outreach is that it does boil down to your initial interaction – and there’s some key tactics that will significantly improve your chances for getting traction:
1. Always seek permission before pitching: Don’t assume that a journalist will automatically want to listen. You’re more likely to get a ‘yes’ if you ask. Keep it short, but personal:
Congratulations on the new gig with Business Insider.
A fellow PR friend mentioned you were a pleasure to work with at Forbes, I hope this new opportunity with BI is just as awesome.
I was wondering if it’s cool if I share a few details with you on a company in the HR/Small Biz space that may appeal to your Careers readers. Just in case they fit with anything you’re working on or perhaps spark an idea.
Thanks in advance. I look forward to hearing from you.
2. Hone in on what’s in it for them: Use a tailored and personalized approach that speaks to their professional interests and offers value.
3. Work the headline: Follow basic copywriting 101: if you can get them to click on the headline, then you may be able to get them to read your first line of copy (and honestly, that’s the hardest part).
4. Back everything with facts: Use relevant stats, case studies and/or facts to show the impact of your organization. You helped get a client find success? Say it and show it.
5. Be prepared to support your pitch: Don’t wait until you get a ‘yes’ to compile the supporting pieces that accompany your story, otherwise you run the risk of keeping a journalist waiting. Have your media kit ready before you send your pitch.
One of the most important things to remember is that you should treat a ‘no’ like a future ‘yes.’ When you get a no, take the opportunity to ask for feedback and suggestions. Never burn bridges and always thank journalists for their time.
Example Pitch (once you’ve received permission):
I’m wondering if you might be interested in hearing more about a company that has developed a solution that
Company is and they are .
Solid founder story
I’d love to gauge your interest on if you think there’s a compelling story here.
Going Beyond Media Relations: How to Evolve Your PR Strategy
Building media relations and getting the right press coverage is hugely important for getting brand exposure, since earned media from trusted journalists carries a lot of weight in the eyes of your potential buyers.
However, the ways in which you can ‘be in the media’ have changed dramatically in recent years. As Top Rank Online Marketing CEO Lee Odden reminds us, there’s been a steady decline in the readership of traditional media outlets, which has been balanced out by the explosion of indie publications, social outlets, mobile technologies, and a huge movement towards brand publishing.
Today, it’s almost impossible to not take a blended approach to your PR in order to evolve your strategy. Here’s where to start:
1. Create Valuable and Consistent Content
Your brand story is part of, and can be enhanced through, every piece of content you create. It provides a unified, consistent voice across multiple digital platforms and improves your credibility. In fact, 61% of consumers feel more positive about (and are more likely to buy from) a company that provides custom content. That’s why so many influential brands (think Red Bull) have become publishing powerhouses – creating everything from social content, blogs, e-books, infographics, events, and videos. They’re bringing the news to their customers.
Clarity’s Mo Money, Mo Problems infographic was picked up by Forbes.
Branded content is also a strategic way to get the media’s attention because it instantly offers value to your shared audiences. For one of our former clients, Clarity, content creation paved the way to major success. Clarity’s eBook generated over 1,200 new content subscribers in less than a month, and its infographics were featured on Entrepreneur, Forbes, and Business Insider – which led to over 20,000 people sharing its content within the first week of publication.
They are now considered the de facto resource for on-demand startup advice and have been acquired by a huge startup platform called Startups.co. The lesson? It pays to have valuable, educational content as part of your PR strategy.
2. Share Your Expertise on Non-Branded Outlets
An excellent way to build credibility is to contribute content on industry topics for media outlets or companies. This might come in the form of a guest post or an opinion piece on another company’s blog, or a partnership webinar or podcast. Sharing your expertise on non-branded outlets allows you to get third party endorsements, build connections with thought leaders in your industry, and engage with your audience in new and exciting ways.
3. Leverage Your Social Outlets
Social media and social bookmarking give you a huge opportunity to attract and engage with niche communities in ways that were unheard of just 10 years ago. These social outlets can (and should) be used as a mutually reinforcing tool to your PR efforts.
In addition to joining discussions on traditional social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), consider capitalizing on social bookmarking sites like Growth Hackers, Inbound.org, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Quibb. They offer an amazing way for startups to stay plugged in, create discussions, and amplify the reach of PR placements. Remember, it’s important to engage on a regular basis because most of the content from major publications gets picked up organically. Focus only on relevant outlets and really dive into those communities.
4. Use PR Metrics to Measure and Improve
Tip: Enable goal tracking to see how each media outlet converts.
New technologies have helped turned PR into a practice that you can measure – and this is something you should certainly take advantage of. As we’ve discussed before at Onboardly, it’s important to start developing PR metrics to ensure that you’re accountable to your benchmarks, and that you’re improving your bottom line. If you’re just starting out, you can use Google Analytics for basic tracking, or KISSMetrics to get more insights on who your customers are.
15Five (shown in the Google Analytics snapshot above), for example, follow their leads from email submission to free trial signup. They know the exact ROI of their PR efforts. If you do PR analytics right, you will know which outlets generate the most traffic. More importantly, you will know which outlets actually convert.
Maintaining an ‘Always-on’ Presence: How to Map Out Your PR Calendar
There’s no doubt that the way we consume news has changed dramatically over the past few years. As FastCompany rightfully points out, “No longer are episodic, big budget launch campaigns the ticket to success. Instead, brands must widen the net and maintain an always-on presence.”
So, how do you keep a constant presence and remain top of mind for your customers? With proper planning, you can ensure that there’s always a piece of news about your startup, 12 months of the year:
Step 1. Brainstorm ideas: Create a mind map of ideas for the most newsworthy elements of your product or service. Get input from every single member of your team – this is not a ‘marketing only’ exercise. Each department will have valuable insight on how to address the needs of your customer.
Step 2. Establish emerging themes: Consider emerging themes from your brainstorming session and articulate how and why they will engage your target audience. Apply your journalistic lens – what will make a journalist want to bite?
Step 3. Map themes onto your calendar: Map out your themes onto a 12-month calendar. Consider one campaign every 4-6 weeks.
Step 4. Develop relevant campaigns: Think about how content and social outreach can aid your PR outreach effort during each campaign cycle. What kind of content would be the best suited to each campaign? Create this content accordingly.
Step 5. Invest in relationships: Start getting to know your target journalists well in advance of your pitch. With advanced planning, you can get yourself into a process where you’re one cycle/campaign ahead of your outreach.
Step 6. Track your outreach: Log each correspondence you have with the media. Use tools like Hubspot’s Sidekick or other email tracking software to understand if/when journalists open your email.
Step 7. Gear up for sprints: Your team should be fully aware of campaign cycles and should be ready to participate, share, and engage with customers during these ‘sprint’ periods. The more activity you can leverage during these periods, the better exposure you’ll have with customers.
Step 8. Plan for down time: Don’t ignore the in-between times to publish great content. Think about white papers, eBooks, guest blogging, partnered webinars or podcast discussions. Aim for content that will have the greatest impact, keeping in mind that less is more. Consider partnering with brands boasting larger networks to create joint content, and keep it consistent with your overarching PR themes.
Step 9. Test and re-assess: Analyze the value of each media placement. Were there any problems that should be resolved? Build in monthly, department-wide meetings to track your progress. Learn from any mistakes and refocus your energy to ensure you’re maximizing your PR efforts.
Every single person on your team should be aware of what’s going on in your campaign cycle – from development, to sales, to marketing, to admin. Keep lines of communication open at all times and update campaigns accordingly.
PR is a Critical Component to Your Demand Marketing Mix
It’s not uncommon for startups to place their emphasis on product development rather than on customer development. However, as Steve Blank argues, this is totally misguided: “… the product development diagram completely ignores the fundamental truth about startups and all new products. The greatest risk—and hence the greatest cause of failure — in startups is not in the development of the new product but in the development of customers and markets.”
For a growth model that puts the customer first, you need to utilize PR in the early stages of your startup. It will help you discover your customers, continually refine your positioning, give much needed exposure, and inform the building of the product itself.
PR is an essential component to your startup demand marketing mix – but it’s only really useful if you take a proactive approach. While it doesn’t solve last minute customer acquisition issues in the eleventh hour, with strategic planning and execution, it can take your startup down a more successful, fulfilling path.
About the Author: Renee Warren is co-founder of Onboardly, a demand marketing agency that works with funded tech startups to gain greater visibility and acquire more customers. We work at the intersection where public relations, content marketing, and social media meet, to deliver marketing that gets results. Follow her on Twitter @renee_warren.