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On The Decision to Hire a PR Agency vs. Pitching the Media Internally

One dilemma that startups and early stage companies/projects face is whether to hire a PR agency or to conduct media relations in-house. 

The starting point assumption is that PR agencies are the conduits to getting stories published about what you are doing, because they already have the “relationships” with the media writers and editors. 

So, the conventional wisdom calls for companies to go looking for a PR agency with budgets in the range of 10-25K per month to start with. Sometimes, the impetus to hire a PR agency is because you’re thinking “I don’t have time to do PR, so why not off-load it externally.” But that’s not always the best decision path.

I’m a proponent of doing your own marketing in-house. Instead of rushing to hire a PR agency, consider hiring a person with media experience and paying them a fraction of what your media relations budget might have been. 

There are several reasons why the in-house approach might yield better results, especially for the long term. 

Your internal person will be expert on your products/services and they are always updated on developments. With a PR agency, not only do you need to bring them up to speed initially (sometimes at great length), but you need to continuously keep them updated. 

It’s so easy to reach editors and writers via their online profiles and what they have previously written. Reaching them is not the exclusive purview of PR agencies.

PR agency staff changes. If someone leaves, your “expert” is no longer there, and you will need to re-train someone else. Plus, the person who sold you the engagement is not typically part of the team that delivers the services for you. Sometimes, your team is a surprise you get later, and there will always be junior people on that team that don’t always pull their weight in, but you are paying for their time.

More importantly, the key component that is often missed is that you may not have a good messaging strategy as a starting point. Your PR efforts can only be as good as your messages are.

Although most PR agencies will tell you they will work with you on developing a messaging strategy, most of them do a poor and rushed job on it, because they aren’t really subject matter experts on your product/service, and brand strategy is not their expertise. They would rather pitch your story, and move on.

Often, the frustrations from not being able to get your stories published pushes you to hire a PR agency. But the real reason is that your messages are not good enough, unique, engaging or they don’t matter much to the market! 

Don’t put the cart before horse. You need to first have a formal and detailed messaging strategy (with a messaging hierarchy), out of which various pitching angles can come from. If you have a budget to spare, spend it rather on hiring a brand strategy firm (such as Brandsinger), and they will turn your messages into powerful weapons of attention.

Many startups / early projects (including blockchain ones) don’t have a formal messaging architecture matrix. They don’t think it’s important, so they either wing it or they rely on a PR agency to craft some mediocre messages for them.

If you don’t “own” your messages, you won’t be able to develop the necessary pitches you will need in order to attract the media’s attention. Pitching takes time. That’s why companies hire PR agencies to pitch on their behalf, but keep in mind that you are one of several other clients that a given agency will be pitching sometimes to the same editor. How can you be sure that your pitch is delivered in the most effective manner? An in-house person works only for you. They have a single interest in mind, and they are committed to being consistent across the board. 

So, here are the key components to think about when devising your media outreach strategy:

  1. Develop a comprehensive Messaging Matrix that includes the right Positioning for your Brand and the back-up proof points about your products and services (I have written extensively about that topic, this is a good starting point to 12 posts on it, Startup Marketing Compendium of 12 Posts on Positioning, Branding, Messaging and more)
  2. Hire a Brand Strategy firm, before you hire a PR agency
  3. Hire an internal marketing outreach person, before you hire a PR agency
  4. Work on your pitch angles on a weekly basis, and don’t pitch the exact same thing broadly to all your media contacts. Customize your pitch so it fits within their interests, or don’t pitch to them at all if there is not fit. 

Media relations takes a lot of orchestration, co-ordination and timing. Make it a core competency. Don’t outsource such a critical aspect of your marketing.

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The Biggest Blindspot of a Startup CEO is Ignoring Their Brand

Ceo leadershipI’ve been critical of startup CEO’s whose startup has traction, but they can’t seem to rise-up to make their company great by recognizing that elevating their company’s brand is their job, not the marketing department’s.

Traction, users and early revenue is a God’s gift to a startup, and it is a fuel that lets you go to the next level. How you take advantage of that is a key question.

It was heartening to read that Brian Chesky, one of my favorite startup CEO’s has 3 priorities he passionately focuses on: Product, Brand, Culture. It is no coincidence that these 3 areas represent the 3 poles of a company’s structure: its users (product), its market (brand), and its employees (culture).

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In addition to the confirmatory point that Brian Chesky is pro-active at being the bearer of the Airbnb brand, it is not a coincidence either that Airbnb’s valuation ranks as one of the highest among startups, on a per employee basis, with a respectable #4 position in private companies (behind off-the-charts Snapchat, then WeWork and Pinterest, and ahead of UBER). This confirms pretty much what I have recently written in my post, Why a Strong Brand Means Higher Growth and Better Valuation for your Startup.

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The Fortune article that chronicled The Education of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky is a fascinating read, offering an insightful roadmap and inspiration to any young startup CEO who needs to rise-up, and has a calling to become a leader. In my opinion, Brian’s self-aware roundedness is the new Tech CEO archetype, not someone who came from product management necessarily.

Brian Chesky self-educated himself at age 33, as a first-time CEO, as he became obsessed with figuring how what he needed to learn. I know that exact feeling, because at 27, when I became a young manager at HP, I started devouring every management and leadership book I could find, and got help from other more senior managers. As a manager, if you don’t obsess with mastering Management, then I’m not sure what is more important than that.

The other key thing about the Fortune article is that Brian Chesky decided to take his mentorship up, not sideways. I see a lot of emphasis in startups on peer groups for support and learnings, and although peer groups are great, you won’t learn something if your peers haven’t yet experienced it, and you certainly won’t get the depth and breadth of knowledge from more seasoned mentors. Brian Chesky went to Warren Buffett, George Tenet, Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Disney and Jony Ive chief design officer at Apple.

Back to Chesky’s 3 priorities (Product, Brand, Culture), it is not unusual to see Product and Culture on the list of other startup CEO’s priorities. But it is less likely to see Brand on it. “Brand” is that blindspot that many startup CEO’s have if they don’t value its importance. Brand pulls you forward and it helps you grow. It is the CEO’s responsibility to be the brand ambassador. If they can’t, they have a problem. It is not just up to the marketing department. At some point in time, when your product/market fit is helping you grow, it is time to Focus Your Startup Marketing on the Mind, not the Product.

To all tech startup CEOs, my archetype is Brian Chesky. I previously lauded Airbnb for consciously working on their brand as they positioned themselves to be in the Hospitality business, and not in the spare room or sleeping-on-the-couch service. I am now impressed to see how Brian Chesky has become an original, self-taught, rounded leader that values the importance of his brand.

I will end this post with my favorite Brian Chesky quote from that Fortune article:

“Usually in a crisis you have to go left or right, and everyone wants to go middle. And middle is the storm…and they’re usually the worst decisions.”

Marketing is the same. You don’t get to it by consensus. You take bold positions with bold statements, and you forge your own path in the marketplace.

I hear a red flag when I ask a startup CEO about their marketing, and the answer I get is “my team will figure it out, they are working on it”, or “my team did a great job with the website”, as if they have outsourced their marketing. Well, as a CEO, if you are leaving marketing and your market perceptions to the marketing department, you are failing to rise up and be your own, authentic brand’s ambassador.

No one else but the CEO can be the standard bearer for their brand. Don’t let it be your blindspot.

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Startup Marketing Compendium of 12 Posts on Positioning, Branding, Messaging and more

startup marketingI continue to see some very smart entrepreneurs missing out on exploiting what marketing can do for them, as they keep failing to understand marketing itself.

I’ve written a lot about startup marketing because my perspective has been unique, having started with a Big Co marketing foundation (Hewlett-Packard), ran a Fortune 500 global marketing department (Cognizant), and shifted in the past 7 years to being a startup founder twice (Eqentia, Engagio), worked for a third one (Influitive), and lately been mentoring/advising dozens of startups in that particular domain.

In this post, I’m going to highlight and offer a brief synopsis of 12 key marketing related articles I have written, and this format will tie them together. They are listed in the order written from February 2013 to August 2015. If you read them in that order, you will be up to date with my thinking pertaining to startup marketing. Maybe one day I will organize them into an e-book.

1. CMOs vs. CIOs Roles and the Pitfalls of Native Marketing

Covers what I call The Native Marketing Trap. Most tech startups are digital natives, and so is the predominance of their marketing. They stay online and market solely via growth-hacking techniques, user activity and analytics data because their business model is online. But that’s a trap and it gives you blind spots.

2. Startup Marketing is for Growth

The hardest part of marketing for a startup is to take it seriously, to commit to learning it, and spending time on it. If you’re a young startup CEO/founder who has come from the product or engineering ranks, you probably don’t know what you don’t know about marketing. 8 quick marketing lessons for startups.

3. Positioning: The Battle for Your Startup

Much of my inspiration for this post was borrowed from the seminal book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. That book was written in 1981, and it is a marketing classic. I added my own context for startups and companies experiencing hyper-growth, in addition to modernizing some of its concepts to reflect the current online realities. The book’s original direction focused on advertising as the method of communicating a brand’s position in the marketplace. But today, the blog post is arguably the new Ad unit of today’s world which is dominated by online influences. Therefore, much of the basics of these principles (with my adjustments) squarely apply.

4. Forget the Product, Start Focusing on the Model

if you have gone way past the MVP and are well into the product/market fit, do not forget why you started the company. It’s not to develop the product. It’s not to get tons of users. It is to find out how the product is generating value for the user or customer so you can translate that insight into a sustainable revenue model. Nothing else is more important after that point. In this post, you’ll understand Peter Drucker’s view that your customer doesn’t really care about your product, but they care about what the product does for them.

5. Being Different with your Marketing Thinking

Whether you want to get noticed via creative and fun interruption, or inside the stream of content that we are already consuming, you need to get noticed. Unless you’re already famous, the easiest way to get noticed is by being totally different. Head-turning different. Eye-popping different. Attention-grabbing different. Purple Cow different. Passionately and decisively DIFFerenT.

6. Introducing Product-Value Alignment: What Comes After Product/Market Fit

Reaching Product/Market Fit is a key objective in the life of a startup, whether it’s a journey, a continuum or a given point in time. But right after that, it becomes really important that your product roadmap remains totally coupled with your value proposition. This post includes a value proposition writing quick guide, and a checklist for it.

7. The Only 5 Types of Messaging You Need

This is one of the most popular posts I have written, with over 2,700 retweets equating to about 2M views (and counting). It helps you put some order into your messaging, according to a hierarchy, comparable to the structure of a rocket: 1) the nose, 2) the guidance apparatus, 3) the propulsion system, 4) the fuel reserve, and 5) the fins. You can apply this process to your website, marketing material, or pitch.

8. Hack Your Growth, But Don’t Hack Your Marketing

To gain some perspective and see the forest from the trees, I made up a diagram to depict the “whole marketing system”, and if you start from the top down gradually, you can appreciate the hierarchy of cascading effects from one stage to another, and the objectives inside each phase. Not everybody needs to know marketing, but everybody needs to understand what marketing does.

9. Why You Don’t Need To Worry About Branding Until After Product

This was the second most popular post I wrote, with over 2,000 social shares. Branding is bigger than your product. It’s part of the love affair that your customers, prospects and the market in general, will have with you. It’s what you stand for, the emotions you evoke inside your customers’ hearts, what they will remember from experiencing your product, and it’s also what you stand for in terms of values and causes you may associate with. Brand power, done well, has infinite value, and it keeps growing almost forever. Whereas market share has a finite limit, mindshare doesn’t. The mind welcomes great ideas, makes room for them, and likes to keep them forever as long they bring good feelings, or offer a real benefit. As a startup, if you begin to worry prematurely about your brand, you are really wasting time.

10. Focus Your Startup Marketing on the Mind, not the Product

This is one of my favorite posts, because it is so pertinent to a need I am still seeing. If there’s only one post you can read, then this is the one. Your user growth is giving you a false sense of success, because user growth alone is not enough to let you become a great company.Simply put, high user growth doesn’t equal high market awareness or valuation. As a startup, you need to grow your brand in the eyes of the market, specifically targeting the market that you haven’t reached yet. Therefore, you should never be content with viral growth, organic growth, referral growth, or any type of quantitative growth, even if you are adding 250,000 users per day.

11. Communicating Your Vision vs. Your Product

Here’s a classical mistake I’m seeing with some early startups that have a compelling vision, during the time when they come out with the first iterations of their product. They try to blurt out their vision on the marketplace instead of communicating a user behavior they want to induce. If you’re a startup, your vision was great for telling (and selling) the VCs about you and getting them excited, but your market needs something more tangible and concrete, that they can work with. If you have a great vision, think about how you want your users to boot-up your vision. That bootup starts with the product, not the vision.

12. Why a Strong Brand Means Higher Growth and Better Valuation for your Startup

This is a follow-on to #10. Startups that don’t focus pro-actively on building their brand are making it harder on themselves to command a higher valuation in the venture or capital markets. As much as users and engagement contributed to your early valuation, brand and its strength are an amplifier of your market value. It is like a premium that the market or investors bestow on you, as a reward for having penetrated their minds and the market at large.

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Why a Strong Brand Means Higher Growth and Better Valuation for your Startup

Beyond having an amazing product, nimble engineering, and a great team of people, marketing excellence is the next big differentiation factor that startups should focus on. And within marketing, a smart brand strategy is one of the biggest levers available. Ignore it at your own peril.

Sadly, the typical marketing books that we are still relying upon were mostly written during the era of large company marketing, and focused on established brands. If you already have a market position, own some market share, and are releasing one product after another, the kind of marketing you need is very different than when you’re a startup with nothing to begin with. Marketing an existing brand is very different from building and growing a new one. And if you hire a marketer who has always worked with established brands, their experience will not include what it takes to create a new brand.

In part, the recent explosion in “digital marketing” has overshadowed our activities and understanding of marketing practices. In reality, marketing has 2 sides: a quantitative/measurable one, and a non-quantitative one that appeals more to the mind, perceptions, expectations, experiences, feelings and emotions of the market. This non-tangible side of marketing is the most difficult to understand by a startup CEO who is typically either an engineer or a product-focused founder who has never experienced, witnessed, nor worked with great marketers and understood the how, what and why of marketing. That non-quantitative side is also harder to measure, and rather is the impetus to a trickle down effect with results that become visible much later.

Overall, startup marketing is different. In the same way that your product evolved from being an embryo (starting as a Minimum Viable Product), to a more mature version, marketing also needs to evolve and grow with your startup evolution.

Marketing’s Role Changes Based on Your Stage

We could break-up marketing’s role into three different phases of evolution, each with various needs and activities according to the following table:

Startup Stage

Need

Key Activity

Marketing’s Role

Early

MVP Iterations Hacking growth

Looking for Product/Market Fit

Value Proposition

Growth

Quantifying and systemizing growth

Expansion via Repeatability

Messaging Differentiation

Scaling

Market Leadership

Brand Awareness

Brand Strategy

Most startups figure out what they need to do in the early and growth stages, and that type of marketing is very focused, specific and rather quantifiable. But things get more tricky and difficult in the later scaling stages when you need to let marketing become an effective weapon that differentiates you in the market. In the scaling stage, working on your brand becomes a key aspect that needs to be developed proactively. And it starts with a strategic brand assessment and positioning development exercise, with the goal of developing a comprehensive brand messaging architecture that can be deployed in the marketplace.

Enter Brand Strategy Development

Brand strategy is a soul searching type of work that you do in order to find your unique brand position as it should be amplified into the market. Few people do brand strategy well, as it takes a trained eye to pick out the needed insights, and it is typically done from the outside, by a brand strategy or marketing professional expert.

A common pitfall some startups fall into is to hire a brand agency who will sell their “branding capabilities”, but these types of projects typically fall short of providing anything of strategic value, as they will gravitate around the brand visual identity, which is one the last tactical steps of brand strategy. Here’s an example of what a brand agency sees in terms of “brand strategy”, and you must avoid this type of work because of its low value: 7 Components of a Powerful Brand Strategy.

A brand is a lot more than a stylized name, color, sound or logo.

Another mistake is to assume that the internal marketing department can figure this out. Unless you have a marketing CMO or VP who has had experience with real brand strategy, you will fall short, and undoubtedly land in the realm of the first pitfall category. A third type of mistake is to fumble your way via A/B testing of marketing slogans on the website landing page, and take that as an accurate brand messaging test.

But you can’t short circuit a proper brand strategy development.

When you start developing the brand strategy, you need to interview several customers, prospects, and partners; conduct a competitive assessment, a market assessment, a review of what analysts or experts are saying about you; and then you can start to develop some hypotheses to determine your key differentiators. You need to extract your single most powerful differentiator, the one idea that you should be identified with,- that one promise that you must make and keep to build your business.

Marketing is telling your message very clearly and simply to a segment of the market who has never heard about you, with the goal of making them want to interact with you (by buying your product/service or using it). You don’t just market to your existing customers or users with the hope they will relay their enthusiasm and advocacy to their peers. You need to do more than that.

A brand architecture includes the following elements:

  • Brand Attributes (a series of qualities and strengths your brand possesses)
  • Brand Position (and its key statement)
  • Brand Messages (customized by audience segment)
  • Brand Communications (via customer touchpoints, living it internally and physical environment/sensory)
  • Brand Visual Identity and Standards (the design, styles, and guidelines that will govern the visualization of your brand)

If you have a strong brand, the perception and the reality are close to each other, because your promise and your delivery are total in sync.

Branding is how you transcend and project your values into the customer mind, and the memories you leave them with, each time they use your product. It could have little to do with the product features, but rather everything to do with how the customer feels after they interact with your product.

Branding is how your prospects think about you before they experience your product.

Simplicity and clarity are part of a strong brand messaging. The message must be easy to understand. There is a genius behind crafting a memorable message that sticks in the mind of your prospect, as a smart position that matches what you are really about.

Starbucks’s promise is not great coffee, but rather comfort in a place that’s not your office and not your home.

Here’s how Brunello Cucinelli, the CEO/founder of the company sporting his name, a world leader in the cashmere products, explains his brand in an interview reported by Om Malik. It is a case where he clearly associates his company’s purpose- “dignity” with his brand. For Brunello Cucinelli, his brand is that catalyst that unites the inside of his company to the outside market that consumes his products. “I wanted the brand to have my face. I wanted the product to convey the culture, life, lifestyle, dignity of work. I wanted a profit with dignity. Because the press all talk about the moral ethics of profit. Why can’t we have a dignified profit then?”

Better Growth and Higher Valuations

A strong brand has two key beneficial aspects: growth and valuation.

A strong brand creates pull in the marketplace, because it lets your mindshare be larger than your actual marketshare. When a large number of business prospects know about you, you render your sales people’s job easier because the prospects they encounter will have heard about you and already have a favorable opinion of you. That way, the salesperson can focus on their job without an uphill battle, or time spent trying to explain who you are. And in consumer markets, a larger mindshare means more users will eventually decide to try your product.

Startups that don’t focus pro-actively on building their brand are making it harder on themselves to command a higher valuation in the venture or capital markets. As much as users and engagement contributed to your early valuation, brand and its strength are an amplifier of your market value. It is like a premium that the market or investors bestow on you, as a reward for having penetrated their minds and the market at large.

Grow your brand in order to grow your startup.

Focus Your Startup Marketing on the Mind, not the Product

via shutterstock via shutterstock[/caption] Here’s a classical situation that some very successful consumer startups are finding themselves in. These companies are growing users like crazy, with 5, 10, 40 million or even 200 million users, but they are not growing their brand awareness as much as they should be.

Your user growth is giving you a false sense of success, because user growth alone is not enough to let you become a great company. Simply put, high user growth doesn’t equal high market awareness or valuation.

As a startup, you need to grow your brand in the eyes of the market, specifically targeting the market that you haven’t reached yet. Therefore, you should never be content with viral growth, organic growth, referral growth, or any type of quantitative growth, even if you are adding 250,000 users per day.

As a new company, if your mindshare isn’t at least 100X your market share, you are leaving a lot of your valuation premium potential on the table.

This means that for every new user you get, there would be 100 other potential users that have heard about you, but not tried you yet.

I call this the “top restaurants” test. Ask yourself to name the top restaurants in your city, and I can guarantee you will name more restaurants than ones you have been to, just because you have heard of them. The ones you haven’t been to yet are probably “on your mind”, and you are constantly thinking about going there one day. For those restaurants, their marketing job was well done, because, via some awareness magic, they were able to become noticed by you, and they lodged themselves inside your mind, triggering constant thoughts like: “I’ve got to try this restaurant soon.”

A “top startup” is the same as a “top restaurant”. Their mindshare must be everywhere there’s a potential user or customer that fancies trying them. A recent example is Meerkat, whose mindshare has just exploded, perhaps at a x1000 times factor over its usage market share.

How you achieve more mindshare than market share is a direct function of your marketing shrewdness, and is the result of your ability to create a narrative that captures the imagination of the market, way beyond your existing reach.

I’ve already covered the importance of narratives for startups in The Power of Pull for Startups. You need to build on that concept in order to capture the imagination of your full market potential.

And by not doing great marketing, I can guarantee your market valuation will not have a good premium.

The turning moment for having a significant market pull (which leads to higher mindshare) is when you stop thinking about what your product does, and start focusing on your company’s positioning in terms of how it is pulling prospects towards you.

Therefore, you need to understand your positioning in the market. Not your position. Your positioning.

Your Positioning and Narrative Are Related

When I ran Engagio in 2012, we had a strong narrative that captured the imagination of many more people than we had users. We were written-up in unsolicited ways on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis. We counted 103 stories over the initial 12-months of our existence. In fact, during December 2012, we were mentioned or featured in 21 web or print articles, almost one per working day. That didn’t happen accidentally, but it happened because we articulated a company and product story with many open ended angles, and the narrators provided their own conclusions and analysis.

Let’s look at some examples by reviewing the positioning evolution of 4 startups that have a powerful narrative to their story.

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You will notice that these companies became obsessed with simplicity and clarity. Their websites carry simple messages that are easy to get inside the mind. They are not product-focused, but mind-focused.

UBER became more than getting a taxi ride.

Airbnb became more than sleeping on a stranger’s couch.

Snapchat became more than messages that disappear.

Dropbox became more than storing your files in the cloud.

If UBER, Airbnb, Snapchat or Dropbox hadn’t come out of their cocoons, they wouldn’t be the premium brands they are today.

Takeaway Actions

Sometimes you start with a great narrative, and sometimes you start with a great product, but sooner or later your brand positioning should become intricately tied to the narrative that your company is generating. That inflection point directly translates into an incredible brand power for your startup, which will result into a market valuation premium, and all the other benefits that come with it: attracting top employees, opening doors in the market, new users growth, easier financing, etc.

If you are lucky enough that your product has a lot of users, but you’re feeling that your brand deserves a higher awareness in the marketplace, then I’m willing to bet that one or all of the following statements are true:

  • you’re still stuck in the product marketing mentality
  • you have not found your true market positioning
  • you don’t have a strong narrative around your company
  • the CEO is a product-focused founder and is more comfortable talking product than markets or marketing
  • you don’t have a strong marketing department or you don’t value or understand marketing the way you should be

So, stop looking at what’s under your nose and start looking out the window.

Who you were and what you are today are two different things. If your marketing is too product-focused, you need to evolve beyond it and start inspiring a larger market with a positioning narrative. When Starbucks started to break away as a global brand, they didn’t get there by claiming to have the best coffee (because they don’t). They positioned themselves as this “third place” you go to, not your home, and not your office.

  • Create a narrative that captures the market’s imagination and let others write about you without assistance. Let them complete your story by making it open-ended.
  • Virality is good for starting, but not for leaping into the great company you want to become.
  • The original message you gave your early customers may not the same one that will let you capture your next big market.

Start casting a net over the market you don’t have, and that will get you a higher mindshare. Do it with a compelling narrative, and suddenly, your mindshare will continue growing and pulling your market share to higher grounds.

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