“When should we start doing public relations?” is a question that we hear often at Ignite. The answer is not so easy — and even the suggestions we give below are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to figuring out when to go public with your tech startup, when to start looking for media attention and when to promote your company’s story to the world. Having worked with a multitude of high tech company and product launches, we can say that even though each company should figure out the perfect time to start marketing efforts on a case-by-case basis, there are a few things you can look at to see if you’re ready for PR.
1. BUILD A COMPELLING PRODUCT We cannot emphasize this enough! It’s not sufficient to just have a great idea, a couple of lines of code, and a few dollars to throw at public relations. You might be burning to spread your great news to the world, but not even close to being ready for media scrutiny. First, build a viable product that truly solves a problem for an identified customer segment. Get feedback from those beta users. Break something and fix it. Be wrong a few times and make a few mistakes, but continue to refine the product so your users love it. That product needs to be battle-tested on the back-end before you consider investing in Marketing or PR.
2. MAKE SURE TO HAVE CUSTOMER REFERENCES This advice may be more geared for a B2B or enterprise product, but can also apply to consumer facing startups. In either case, it’s best to have a minimum of two customer references. That means at least two legitimate businesses that are using your product and are willing and able to speak to press about their experience with your product. Note we say that the customer needs to be both willing and able, since some customers’ internal policies — whether they be PR or legal — may not allow them to speak to the media. So if you have great security software and one of your customers is the CIA… you get the point. Most good reporters will ask for customer references, and if you don’t have any, they’ll pass on the story. A better story and one that has meat on its bones is one where customers are willing to dish on what you’ve done for them.
3. BUILDING A BRAND TAKES MONEY Good public relations is not a light switch that you can turn on and off. PR should be looked at as an investment in building market visibility and brand awareness over an extended period of time. Some new companies think, “Oh, if I get into TechCrunch, I’m set.” But public relations is not buying a Super Bowl ad once a year, hoping that the one-off ad is the answer. Good public relations requires an ongoing effort from a company communicating its progress, validation, and milestones on a continuous basis – like a drumbeat. Building market awareness and earning mindshare takes time and evidence. Repetition is important — people need to hear from others they know (WOM) and see your company name in various sources talked about in many different ways. That kind of repetition and visibility requires strategy, execution and tangible proof points (customer wins, traction with developers, downloads, funding, partners, awards, etc.). Building strong market awareness is going to require an investment … aka money.
4. KNOW YOUR MESSAGE Do you know how your product fits into the competitive landscape? We understand that with a startup, messaging can evolve as the company grows and matures, but we still believe that prior to attempting any kind of concerted PR effort, you need to know what makes the company and your product special, compelling, better than what’s out there. Most startups aren’t first movers — in fact, it’s better not to be first — so if you’re second or third, what is so interesting about your product that gives your startup a strong competitive edge? Why should the press care that you’re throwing something into the ring? Why should anyone care? It’s important to figure out the core messages that set the company and its product apart from the others.
5. HAVE A STASH OF AMMUNITION Have some proof that your product/startup is as essential as you say it is. This goes beyond customer references because this tip is more about having something to talk about after you launch the company/product. Because, you launched….now what? If you’re like most startups, reporters are probably not banging down your door. So save something for later — feature enhancements, newsy items such as funding or new exec appointments, customer wins, partnerships, etc. — all these goodies can become part of the evidence that your company is what you say it is, that you’re legitimate and not just a one-time-press-release wonder. If you have these kinds of tangible items in your cupboards, then it might be a good time to ignite your public relations.