PR is a tough game. When the market is red hot, its hard to get noticed because there are a lot of companies in the market. When the market is cool it is hard to get people to pay any attention because they are not interested (tired after the hot market). And for startups its even tougher to have effective PR because a startup can not throw a lot of money at the problem (not that throwing money always helps big companies).
There is a misconception out there that PR is kind of dead. Some people think that you just need to make a genius product and it will be viral and it will get pulled into the market. You launch it and then get it covered on a top tech blog. And then the traffic will shoot up and then it will get even more viral.
It certainly true that if you get coverage on a major blog the traffic will shoot up (much less now though than a year ago). But what is also true is that the traffic is likely to fall and not return. Unfortunately, the truth is that most companies end up with the spike like the one shown in the picture on the left. This launch spike is followed by a rapid fall.
We have been fortunate to be able to deliver our technology to the market place over the last year and a half. During this time, we had several major product launches and got substantial coverage in both blogosphere and main stream media. In this post, I share what we learned, hoping that you will find this helpful. So here goes:
Hire a PR Firm
This may come as a surprise, but you do need a PR firm. An early stage startup can’t really afford one, but it does not mean that it is not necessary. The number one reason you need a PR firm is because of their connections. They know people, because this is what they do - network.
You do not really know people and if you hope that you will just email them and they will reply - it is a false hope. It is very tough to get people to answer cold emails these days. Going through a friend or a connection is always easier, it almost always works, but direct email almost never works. This is where having PR firm pays off, they come with a Rolodex (nowadays called LinkedIn). But there are, of course, a whole bunch of issues.
a) You can’t afford it, because most PR firms want 5K per month retainer.
That is before they do any work for you. The answer is - bargain and be creative. If they want your business you can negotiate. They are not likely to be interested in your equity, but they maybe willing to come down and split the payments over time. Offer equity anyway and if they take it, do not think about it twice - it is X% of nothing as of now.
b) Even better, find the firm that agrees to be paid on results.
A typical, and really annoying thing that we heard was this: It will take us 3 months to learn your product before we can really start pitching it. Great, so this is 15K before we see any results? Thank you, but no. Find smaller firm that is willing to do things cheaper, faster and overall terms that are more fare to you.
c) Do not expect PR people to intimately learn your product.
This is not their role. They are connectors, they are the bridge between you and the media. They are responsible for putting you in front of the right press. This is their job. It is your job to pitch your product, to explain why it is so awesome and why everyone should be using it.
d) Get the PR people who understand your space.
PR companies have specialties, not all of them are right for you. For example, if you are in the consumer internet space, do not hire PR firm that specializes in mobile technologies - not the same thing. If you are a consumer internet company, you need a firm that knows blogosphere inside out, because this is how you reach your early adopter crowd.
e) Bottom line - use your common sense
A lot of firms that we talked to said things that set off the alarm. One stands out in particular. They wanted our CEO (that is me) to fly around the country with them and they will introduce us to reporters in major newspapers. When I asked who is going to pay for all this flying around they did not even blink and said - you. Well, I did not blink either, apologized and then hung up.
Bottom line - use your common sense. Find a person or a small company who specializes in the space you are in, who you like and feel comfortable working with and who is not trying to b.s. you in the first 10 minutes.
So you’ve been locked in the garage for last few months and now its all looking good and its time to launch. How? When? Where? If you thinking: We just gonna get on TechCrunch, its not really the answer. It is certainly a piece of the answer but far from the whole thing.
a) It is best to launch major products at conferences.
The reason for this is that you are likely to get a lot more media coverage and instant attention then if you do just a launch. But the conference needs to fit. In this post, we discussed conferences for startups, but focused on more than just product launches.
For the launches, you can do one of two things: launch at a specialized conference such as DEMO (recommended) / TechCrunch or you can launch in a non-startup conference which has a launchpad feature. For example, Web 2.0 events typically present 10-15 startups, as do conferences like Supernova. It does not make sense to launch at a conference that does not have any startup participation because it won’t be the right context.
If you are doing a launch during the conference, be very prepared to meet the media. This is where PR firm comes very handy booking all the appointments for you, dragging reporters over and making sure you are covered. If you are doing this on your own then be sure to remember how dating was in high school.
People who you want to date do not want to date you and visa versa. Specifically, if you are running around trying to grab the reporters or you are looking desperate near your booth, the chances are they will shrug you off. Instead, project confidence and be causal. Look like you’ve got the next YouTube on your hands and they will flow in. Seriously, pay attention to psychology or it will cost you time and money.
b) Demo, videos, pictures and slides
Here is the news, Press Releases are dead. We found them to be completely ineffective. To the point of zero leads. Zero.
Instead, you need to prepare new kind of media. Remember that people are spoiled these days, so they will have high expectations. If you think you can show up and tell them that you got the best new technology, hand wave and then expect a write up, you are dreaming. You need to prepare. You need to distill your product and the message, you need to be very clear.
Definitely prepare a live 10-15 minute demo of your product. We found it most effective to create a slide deck with no more than 10 slides and do a demo as one of the slides. In the first few slides it is helpful to give the background on yourself, the company and the product. This establishes credibility.
Next, explain what are you going to demo without showing it. Then demo, and then a discussion who is this for, why is it cool, etc. Short and sweet, no more than 30 mins per briefing. Emailing people the slides will help them do a better write up. Supplementing slides with pictures and videos is hugely helpful (and you can recycle these on your site!). Marshall has more pitch and promotion tips on his blog.
c) Do not launch on Friday and on Monday
This may or may not be obvious but there are only 3 days when things get done: Tue/Wed and Thurs. These are the best days to do the launch, in that order. Monday could work, but in the afternoon, because in the morning people still can’t believe that the weekend is over. Fridays are really bad for PR - everyone can’t believe that the weekend is not here yet.
Initially, technology company should focus exclusively on Blogosphere. The reason is that this is the media where early adopters get information. There are a handful of premier tech blogs, second tier tech blogs and tech enthusiasts who may also be interested in covering your products. But getting coverage is very tricky for a couple of reasons.
a) Do not expect to get response to cold emails This has nothing to do with bad people. Please understand that Michael Arrington, Richard MacManus, Om Malik and their colleagues are getting thousands email a day from startups. It is physically impossible for them to process and respond to each email. You may find it unfair, but this is just a simple fact. So once again, this is where a PR firm or at least a friendly connection via LinkedIn will come handy. If you are introduced, the chances are you will be heard. (No guarantees that you will be written up).
b) Set the embargo and stick with it This is something that we had to learn over and over again. Everyone wants and exclusive. Each blog that does news, wants to do news and wants to be first. This is just the name of the game. If you do give an exclusive to one, you are running a big danger of not getting coverage in others. The way around this issue is to setup an embargo (meaning they can’t blog about your launch until certain time) and then brief everyone prior to that and give them time to write about you.
c) Don’t let people write based on a press release There has been a trend lately of writing based on a press release. While this does get you coverage, it is likely to do more bad than good. It is not just that you want to be heard, you want to be heard right. The key thing is that you get a chance to tell your story to reporter and she gets to then write about what she understood. A post based on a press release is likely to be wrong and harmful.
d) Work hard to get broad coverage A lot of times you will get your best coverage from someone who you least expect. Because some bloggers are not making leaving off the blog and are doing it as a hobby they can afford to take more time talking to you and spend more time playing with your technology. As a result their right ups would be insightful and longer than the ones on top blogs.
Mainstream Media Coverage
Every time when I tell my grandfather that we got coverage in a mainstream media he ask: Internet or paper? I typically say: Internet, and he waves his hands, gesturing that it does not quite count. But of course it does. The fact of the matter is that a vast majority of mainstream media now has online presence and even has blogs.
a) Remember that blogs are blogs no matter what
Does not matter if a blog is part of major media, it is still a blog and needs to have 4-7 posts a day to get readers to stick with it. Bottom line they need news just like all other blogs. So approach them, offer briefs, embargo, etc. the same deal, because really there is no difference.
b) Understand that mainstream media coverage can not happen overnight
After my first conversation with a reporter from PC Magazine I called up Brian Solis from Future Works (our PR firm) and asked when are we going to get this article about us published? I heard laugher on the other line and then Brian explained. Mainstream media is not going to start off by doing an exclusive on you. First, you need to be validated and the validation is about including you in a couple of articles on the topic. So when the article about next web came out 8 weeks later (8 weeks!) I found a paragraph about AdaptiveBlue there.
Chasing an article in a major magazine like Wired or MIT Technology review is not worth it. The reporters would not write a feature until it becomes crystal clear that you are a huge success and are worthy of a feature. Instead of spending efforts on that, you are better of making the product really great and then mainstream PR will find you.
Beyond Launch Coverage - PR Strategy
Many startups fall victims to the spike in the diagram in the beginning of the post. They somehow think that PR is a sprint. Its not, both startup and PR are really a marathon and you need to treat it as such.
One marathoner that you and I both know - Fraser Kelton, explained how he sets goals for each mile. By getting to his goal, mile by mile he beats the long road. PR is much the same way - you need goals, you need to have a strategy.
In the world where spikes are way too frequent, what gets you out of the woods is a simple straight line.
If you focus on a straight line, you will at least avoid the spike. What the line means is that you have steady continuous PR push. You do it consistently, through the right channels that you identify. But consistency is really the key. Its what beats the spike.
Community - The Best PR Strategy
I close this lengthy post with the simple observation - it is very difficult to achieve continuous PR unless you do it via your own users. A thousand of passionate users who have blogs and social network profiles can promote your product and expose you to more people than coverage on top blogs and magazines.
For better or worse today news is cheap. A post stays on top for a few ours and then scrolls out into a black hole. Only Google occasionally goes in to bring it back to those who seek, but realistically, news just flies by and no one wants yesterday’s news.
By building community of passionate users you are able to fight the problem of short-lived buzz. You can create a sustainable and steady stream of news, which is genuine, thoughtful and factual. Getting your users to talk about your product is going to not only bring more users, but will start a conversation that will immediately and ultimately help you improve your products. I leave you to think about all of this.
Traditional PR is dead. Long live the new PR!
Perfect timing that on a day when Alex posts this article Chris Anderson opens up on traditional PR (read the comments, some are hilarious: “Hey! I’m on that list”).
Ryan Block from Engadget provides some insight into how PR people can improve the process even requesting that “PR strategists interested in making real changes about this whole process should feel free to get in touch to discuss further.”