Does your company description resonate with potential customers?

Here are three company descriptions. In which is the value proposition for customers clearest, and why? How would you improve them?

CliClap helps you generate sales leads by sharing articles of interest to your target customers with an added call-to-action for your company or product. This gives you the benefits of content marketing without the costs of content production. CliClap’s solution doesn’t require any technical integration and allows you to get started in minutes.

Honeybook is on a mission to connect the different parts of the events industry by reimagining the way creative professionals work with their colleagues and clients.

OptimalQ helps companies increase sales. It does this by identifying, in real time, the best time to contact potential customers when they are physically and mentally available. Companies that use OptimalQ have realized an increase of over 70% in answer rate and over 18% in average duration of answered calls.

Notes:
(1) “The key here is to keep it really short and use plain English” — from Clarifying your strategy using a simple template.
(2) Cf. How to ensure your company is customer-centric, and the challenge for ad-supported services.
(3) Cf. How to name your product and create its tag line.

Fact-based persuasion takes time

Edited excerpt from Facing Up To The Fanatics by Douglas Murray:

Afterwards I found myself reflecting on how people’s minds change. It never does happen just there and then, with someone saying, “Yes — I see, I was quite wrong and you’ve changed my mind.” But over time the bits of your own argument that have become unsupportable simply crumble away, usually without you even acknowledging it.

Notes:
(1) Douglas Murray argues here that people are persuaded by facts, but it takes time. Contrast this with the evidence that people aren’t convinced by facts at all.
(2) Perhaps people are more convinced by stories than facts. Particularly if you set things up so they complete the story themselves.
(3) Cf. How to make your talk or presentation gripping and memorable.

Lessons from Trump: the most powerful marketing leaves room for imagination

Edited excerpt from Trump VS Bush: Persuasion Wars by Scott Adams (author of Dilbert):

Hypnosis rule #1 is that you leave out the details and allow people to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. That’s why, for example, my comic characters have no last names while working in a nameless company for a nameless boss in a nameless location. I don’t want a reader in France to think Dilbert is an American and therefore of little interest. I want the French reader, the Elbonian, and the American to look at the Dilbert characters and say some version of “That character is me!” In order to achieve that effect, I intentionally omit details that would knock you off the track. For example, the minute I give Dilbert a last name it would over-specify his ethnic origins and give folks a reason to feel less connected.

A golden rule in sales is “Don’t sell past the close.” That means that once your customer says yes, you stop talking about the product because you might accidentally say something that stops the sale. You never add detail when the customer is already sold. The less you say, the more likely the customer (who is already sold) will continue talking himself into loving the decision because people like to think they are smart.

Now review Trump’s empty sentence: We need to take America back. From whom? Notice the intentional lack of detail? In this case, the lack of detail is the powerful part of the sentence. See how the open-ended suggestion works? Every voter is free to fill in the topic of their own greatest fear. Trump invites you to hypnotize yourself to finish the thought. And you do.

Notes:
(1) Thank you Zach Abramowitz, founder and CEO of ReplyAll, for the article recommendation.
(2) The biggest mistake you can make in marketing is to add details which clash with your potential customer’s sense of who they are. See If you want to persuade someone with facts, steer clear of identity and ideology.
(3) I’ve expanded this category from Marketing and PR to Marketing, PR and Persuasion. The full list of posts is in Best practices for startups — a list by topic.

If you want to persuade someone with facts, steer clear of identity and ideology

Edited excerpt from I Don’t Want To Be Right by Maria Konnikova:

Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success. Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a three year study whose goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds. The result was dramatic: none of the interventions worked.

When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur. If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.

False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected.

Facts and evidence may not be the answer everyone thinks they are: they simply aren’t that effective, given how selectively they are processed and interpreted. Instead, why not focus on presenting issues in a way keeps broader notions out of it—messages that are not political, not ideological, not in any way a reflection of who you are?

Notes:
(1) Perhaps stories are more persuasive than facts. See: How to make your talk or presentation gripping and memorable.
(2) And perhaps emotions are more persuasive than facts. See: By the end of your talk or presentation, you should be talking love.

How paid content site De Correspondent acquires users from Facebook

Edited excerpt from Dutch journalism platform The Correspondent reaches milestone of 40,000 paying members by Ernst-Jan Pfauth:

Because we give our existing members the chance to share articles freely with anyone they wish,  potential members can get acquainted with the Correspondent before joining. We also share one or two pieces every day with 122,000+ users who have liked us on Facebook. When they opt to read an article, we ask them (using a popup and a call-to-action at the end of the story) if they would like to receive a sample story each week by email.

Once they’ve signed up, readers will receive the email newsletter from Editor in Chief Rob Wijnberg with a selected article from the past week. He emphasizes in the newsletter that the Correspondent owes its very existence to paying members. Last weekend alone, the conversion rate of newsletter recipients who become paying members was 1.8%.

With the sample story newsletter, we try to benefit from the massive reach of Facebook while at the same time establishing our own bond with these new readers. We organized a “Likers-turned-Members” Day, for instance, a special Facebook event during which we explained to Likers why we cannot continue to do what we do without their support. One of the things we shared with them was a pie chart, showing how we invest the fees paid by members.

Notes:
(1) Facebook has one strength and two weaknesses for publishers. The strength: Facebook’s daily audience is massive. The weaknesses: (i) While Facebook users have sky-high engagement with Facebook itself, they have low engagement with individual publishers because addictive platforms like Facebook have high content cadence. (ii) Publishers who rely on traffic from Facebook face acute business risk as Facebook controls that traffic.
(2) The right strategy for publishers is therefore to convert Facebook (and Twitter and LinkedIn) users to a higher engagement channel in the publisher’s control. This is what De Correspondent achieves by signing up Facebook users to its free weekly email.
(3) Once De Correspondent has Facebook users signed up to its free emails, it can then promote its paid product. The “engagement ladder” is thus: Facebook Passer-By >> Free Email Subscriber >> Paid Subscriber.
(4) Cf. Why the Facebook threat to most media businesses will only get worse.

How to get the most out of attending a conference

Edited excerpt from Startup Founders Guide to Hustling a Conference by Dan Martell:

As a founder, it is your responsibility to carefully manage your startup’s resources, and invest your time and money in areas where you will see the highest return. This means that your decision to spend $1500 on a three-day conference should be based on expected returns, not just a decision made on a whim.

In order to do an effective post-mortem on the return on the conference, set aside some time before the event to determine your metrics for success, and use these as benchmarks to hold yourself accountable throughout the conference. For example, often times entrepreneurs attend events to meet new people, expand their network and get introduced to specific people. Make a clear list of the those you want to meet at the event and make sure you get the proper introduction. Other metrics for conference success could include recruiting, learning, discovering new innovations/ideas, or chatting about what you are working on.

Notes:
(1) On setting measurable goals and metrics for marketing, see A better way to measure the value of marketing?
(2) Cf. Being “hot”.

Don’t overestimate the importance of launch and fundraising announcements

From Nine common things that start-up founders tend to underestimate or overestimate by Boris Wertz:

Start-up founders typically want to make a big PR splash when they’re launching their product or closing a funding round. A major launch announcement can make a lot of noise in moment, but it’s more important to focus on generating continuous demand than your 15 minutes of fame. Likewise, fundraising announcements can drive investor interest for future financing rounds, but I’ve found it’s usually better to just stay under the radar and build the company.

Notes:
(1) Cf. Should you make a big PR push when launching a product?
(2) Contrast with: The case for PR.

How to name your product and create its tag line

Edited excerpt from The Simple Rules That Could Transform How You Launch Your Product by Brenden Mulligan:

Boil your product name down to two words max
Picture only being able to say a few words to potential users to convey what your product does. What would you say?

Summarize your product in ten words or less
If you can’t describe what your app does in ten words or less, something is off. Maybe you’re trying to launch too much at once. To troubleshoot and help economize your language, try asking yourself the following questions:
— What is the hallmark superpower of this product?
— What is the primary problem this product fixes?
— Who cares about the challenge that this product solves?

Notes:
(1) That this is written about mobile apps. Is there any reason it shouldn’t apply to other products?
(2) Cf. Why messaging and positioning are fundamental to every startup’s success and The importance of product positioning, and how to get it right.
(3) “What is the primary problem this product fixes? Who cares about the challenge that this product solves?” — see Build your product to explicitly address a “Job To Be Done” and How to identify your customers’ “Job To Be Done”.

Questions to answer before you talk to a journalist

Edited excerpt from a Facebook update by WSJ startup reporter Lora Kolodny; I’ve excerpted what I view as the key questions:

Dear Founders,

Here are ten questions I’d like you to be able to answer candidly and accurately if you’re pitching me to write a story about you or your company.

1. (a) What service do you provide, or what product do you make and sell? (b) Who needs this most? (Please explain it, simply, as if you’re telling this to a classroom full of high school students, not a room full of VCs, peers or consultants.)
2. Who are your key customers or constituents, now? Who will they be in three years?
3. Define your competitive set, please. Now, how do you distinguish yourself from the competition if you are different than they are?
4. Why do customers or constituents like you or come back to you?
10. Are you solving problems for your industry, for society, the world? Which problems? How come nobody solved those problems before? Or if they did, why didn’t it work?

Lora

Notes:
(1) If your pitch isn’t clear, your strategy isn’t clear, because conversations about messaging are really about strategy.
(2) For that reason, compare this to: (i) Building a valuable product — a checklist of questions to answer and (ii) Clarifying your strategy using a simple template.
(3) Re. “Please explain it, simply, as if you’re telling this to a classroom full of high school students, not a room full of VCs, peers or consultants.” Reminds me of “I received emails so obtuse, vague, and laden with jargon, I couldn’t understand what I was being pitched on” from How to pitch your story to a journalist.

Why messaging and positioning are fundamental to every startup’s success

Edited excerpt from What I Learned Crafting Messaging for 15 Startups by Andy Raskin:

1. Conversations about messaging are really about strategy.
You have to make clear choices about who your audience is, what the future you’re promising them looks like, and how you’ll credibly make it come true. As Ben Horowitz says, “The company story is the company strategy.”

2. The hardest thing about messaging is leaving things out.
Leaders need to come to terms with de-prioritizing parts of their story — sometimes parts that they love — in service of becoming more effective.

3. Strategic messaging matters for recruiting.
Strategic messaging is about telling more effective stories to customers, investors, and potential new hires.

4. Differentiation can become a distraction.
Prospects have to understand what you do before they’re ready to learn how you do it differently. One of my clients, not wanting to seem like all the other companies that do X, didn’t even mention X on its home page.

Notes:
(1) “The hardest thing about messaging is leaving things out.” This parallels the key job of the CEO — to say “no” to good ideas.
(2) “Strategic messaging is about telling more effective stories to customers, investors, and potential new hires.” Add: “and your current employees”.
(3) Cf. Clarifying your strategy using a simple template.

Do traditional marketing methods work best for user acquisition?

Edited excerpt from Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing by Rob Go:

I’ve been on a bit of a quiet campaign to meet a bunch of really strong user-acquisition folks at different startups in Boston and New York.

One thing that is surprising is that many of these people have limited marketing experience. What they do have is a highly analytical background and a mentality around experimentation.

On the flip side, more experienced marketers often enter a startup setting wanting to employ an older playbook to stick to things they know work, which sometimes isn’t a fit for what an early-stage startup really needs.

Notes:
(1) Cf. Three advantages of experimenting a lot.
(2) Cf. Instilling a culture of experimentation from day one.

Best practices in copywriting for marketing your product

Edited excerpt from 10 UX copywriting tips for designers by John Moore Williams:

When you’re writing copy

1. Embrace the power of “you”: The word “you” catches attention and establishes a relationship between you and your reader.

2. Don’t make it about you [the seller]. I [the buyer] want to know what all that work means to me.

3. Don’t try to sound smart. Aim for a 5th-grade reading level.

When you’re editing copy

4. Read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound right read aloud, it’s not conversational.

5. Be the editor writers hate. Aim to cut 50% of your word count with each editing round.

6. Remember that writing and editing are different. Don’t try to write and edit at the same time.

When you’re designing copy

7. Label. People don’t know what they’re looking at unless you tell them.

8. Embed links in relevant, descriptive language. Make sure your links make it extremely clear what will happen on click.

9. Design with content in mind. Consider whether design is helping or hindering your writing.

10. Scale the page to the topic. If your product’s unfamiliar, complex, or expensive, you’ll usually need more content.

Notes:
(1) Re. “Don’t make it about you. I want to know what all that work means to me.” See Make me better and I’ll buy your product and What problem are you solving?
(2) Thank you Eran Ben-Shushan, co-founder of Bizzabo, for recommending the article.

Jeff Bezos on how much you should spend on potential vs. actual customers

Edited excerpt from The Institutional Yes, an interview with Jeff Bezos by Julia Kirby and Thomas A. Stewart:

Another thing that we believe is pretty fundamental is that the world is getting increasingly transparent—that information perfection is on the rise. If you believe that, it becomes strategically smart to align yourself with the customer. You think about marketing differently. If in the old world you devoted 30% of your attention to building a great service and 70% of your attention to shouting about it, in the new world that inverts.

Notes:
(1) Cf. Avrom Gilbert on how much you should spend on customer acquisition vs. lifetime customer value.
(2) Cf. Steve Jobs’ approach to marketing.

Don’t think “And we got here with no marketing!” is impressive

Edited excerpt from “No Marketing” Isn’t as Impressive as You Think by Ben Yoskovitz:

Almost every early stage startup that pitches me these days talks about the traction they’ve had with absolutely no marketing whatsoever. When you tell me that you’ve done no marketing what I hear is: “I don’t really know who my customer is yet. I have no idea how to find them. I don’t really understand my value proposition. But trust me, when we do start marketing everything will be awesome.”

Marketing is about genuinely understanding your customer and the pain they have. It’s about reaching out through many channels, multiple times and building relationships with people such that they immediately recognize that you get them. It’s about speaking the right language and using the right messages.

If a smattering of users show up at your website and sign up you don’t know anything about them. You don’t know their motivation. You don’t know who they are. You don’t know if they have any similarities that could guide your future. And because you don’t know anything about the people that showed up at your doorstep, you have no knowledge to leverage as you want to scale.

Marketing is learning. If you’re not learning, you’re not making progress. Don’t tell investors that your traction is “without any marketing” because that just means it’s not repeatable and scalable.

Notes:
(1) Been there, done that. I made exactly this mistake in a pitch to investors: “We’ve sold x seats of Seeking Alpha PRO without any marketing. Think what we could do with marketing!”
(2) Ben Yoskovitz’ insights are outstanding. They always seem simple and obvious after you’ve heard them. But you didn’t think that way before you heard them.
(3) More from Ben Ben Yoskovitz on marketing and product: (i) How to increase active users, (ii) Product-market fit requires a market, a business model and customer engagement, (iii) Getting users up the engagement ladder, and (iv) How to choose the one metric that matters.

The importance of product positioning, and how to get it right

Edited excerpt from Price is what you pay, value is what you get by Inside Intercom:

Understanding why your customers buy your product is the key to positioning it properly.

Real example: A friend was having no luck pitching a product as “all your online files in one place“. That sounded good but simply didn’t solve a problem people related to. She heard lots of answers like “This sounds great! I’ll give it a try in a couple of weeks”.

After digging deeper, she found a real pain point that her potential customers experienced quite often. She re-framed the product as “When your favourite app gets bought and shut down, we’ll have your back“. That resonated with her market. Not a single line of code changed, but all of a sudden this product was a painkiller. And people started buying.

Key idea: Understand that it costs more than just money to use your product. So when you’re asking your users to do something, frame it in terms of their needs and desires, not your features and bullet points.

Tip: Customers who have bought your product recently will describe it far better than you can. As Peter Drucker said: “The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells him”.

Notes:
(1) Cf. What problem are you solving?
(2) Belle Beth Cooper frames this as “features vs. benefits”. See Make me better and I’ll buy your product.
(3) “Customers who have bought your product recently will describe it far better than you can.” Cf. Sean Ellis’ “rigorous process for identifying the most passionate users and then getting their unstructured feedback about how they were getting value”, in How to identify your product’s “must have” experience.

The case for PR

From The Silent Benefits of PR by Marc Suster:

Why PR?

1. Recruiting – It is 10x easier [to recruit ]when qualified candidates whom you may not even know read about your company and are excited by your vision.

2. Business Development – Every major company you meet is trying to size you up as to whether it’s worth their time striking a deal with you. Then they read about you and think to themselves, “we should really reach out to that company.”

3. Fund Raising – Great PR could add $10 million to your valuation or increase your chances of closing a round 2x. It’s much hard to get funded as a company nobody has heard of.

4. Staff Morale – I once asked somebody at Accenture (where I worked early in my career) why they advertised so much at airports. The reply was, “So many of our employees fly every week to projects and by seeing us advertised every time they fly they feel more proud working for our organization.”

5. Enterprise Sales – The very first thing a potential customer does when you email or call to set up a meeting is Google you.

6. Future PR – Press loves company as much as they love exclusivity. Ironic, of course. But true.

7. M&A – Everybody reads the press – even those who one day can make you very wealthy by deciding to buy your company.

8. Customer Acquisition – Every single company I talked to thinks this is the reason to do PR and often it is the least important reason.

Targeting customers for their marketing influence

From Picking your first customers: the gradient of influence by Roy Bahat:

At Bloomberg Beta, we often ask founders who they will target first to use their product. The “top 10%” answer is to think about the kinds of customers that (a) have greatest need for the product and (b) are easiest to attract and serve.

Yet this approach might be misguided. It works for maximizing the value of *those customers* to the company. It may fail to maximize the value of the company, though.

One way to think of it: your first customers are your first hires as marketers. You want them to be as good at their job as possible.

Imagine all your customers as you did before (in terms of how valuable they’ll find you, and how easy they’ll be to attract). Then, consider that some of them have influence on others. You’ll find pockets where one kind of customer influences another, and some customer classes who are widely influential, or influential to several important adjacent customer classes. Think of this as a gradient of influence among your customers.

You want to target a class of customers, at first, who are as high up on that gradient as possible — even if they’re harder to attract.

Notes:
(1) Fascinating — but I’m not convinced. As you sell to your first customers, your top priority is to achieve and confirm product-market fit. Nothing else matters.
(2) Cf. Mark Andreesen’s The most important factor in startup success.

Being “hot”

From Startups aren’t supposed to be easy by Klout Co-founder and CEO Joe Fernandez:

From the day your company gets on the radar of the tech echo chamber your trajectory is studied and compared. There is a well established pace of vanity metrics and funding news that you need to be feeding the press to be considered hot. Being “hot” is not just nice for the ego but critical for attracting and retaining the best talent and attracting top VCs.

Startups now live in a world of spectacular growth at all costs. All the founders I spoke to this week had stories of over hiring, breaking the budget on marketing, focusing on cheap virals rather than building real utility and every other unnatural act that might help them ride the hype cycle a little longer.

Founders and CEOs are not innocent victims in all this. When you raise massive rounds of funding at huge valuations you sign up for this pressure. Big rounds of funding and skyrocketing vanity metrics are often just signs that there might be a great business bubbling below the surface. It doesn’t mean things are actually figured out. Instead we power through, afraid to show an ounce of doubt to our team, our investors, or the press. For many of us this pressure makes it taboo to tell the truth about how our startups are really doing until it’s too late.

Notes:
(1) Reminds me of this: “Yipit’s lofty expectations and subsequent disappointment… were the result of the powerful and potentially detrimental psychological effect of valuing media feedback and artificial “buzz” over the only kind of feedback that actually matters: The kind that comes from users.”
(2) “A company should not get addicted to being “shiny”, because “shiny” does not last.” – Jeff Bezos
(3) Cf. Conflicts of interest between startups and VCs.

A better way to measure the value of marketing?

From The Riskiest Investment a Startup Can Make by Tom Tunguz:

I spoke with a sophisticated marketer and she mentioned a marketing concept that was new to me called ROMO or Return on Marketing Objectives. In addition to a pure return on investment (ROI) calculation, ROMO includes measurements of changes in brand equity value, Net-Promoter Score and brand-recall metrics to measure the impact of a marketing dollar. Broadening out the way to measure of marketing spend makes sense to me because it helps articulate more of the value of a dollar of marketing spend. After all, intuitively we know Superbowl ads increase brand awareness, which can be incredibly valuable, even if the ads don’t immediately increase sales.

Notes:
(1) How easy is ROMO to measure?
(2) Is there sufficient short-term linkage (and clear enough causation) between marketing spend and ROMO?

Make me better and I’ll buy your product

From People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves by Belle Beth Cooper:

There is the famous story about Steve Jobs when he invented the iPod and everyone in the news and the rest of the tech industry scratched their head a little. MP3 players had been around for quite a while, what was so different about the iPod?

Of course, people argued many things were different, but one of the key aspects was how Jobs marketed and presented it: “1,000 songs in your pocket”. When everyone else was saying “1GB storage on your MP3 player”, telling people about the product, Apple went ahead and made you a better person, that has 1000 songs in your pocket.

Here’s how our friends at User Onboarding explained features vs. benefits: “People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves. When you’re trying to win customers, are you listing the attributes of the flower or describing how awesome it is to throw fireballs?”

Notes:
(1) The article also quotes Jason Fried: “Here’s what our product can do and Here’s what you can do with our product sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.”
(2) Cf. What problem are you solving?

Lifetime value can mislead you into excessive spending on marketing

From The Dangerous Seduction of the Lifetime Value (LTV) Formula by Bill Gurley:

The LTV Model Is Used To Rationalize Marketing Spending

Marketing executives like big budgets, as big budgets make it easier to grow the top line. The LTV formula “relaxes” the need for near term profitability and “justifies” the ability to play it forward – to spend today for benefits that are postponed into the future. It is no coincidence that companies that put a heavy emphasis on LTV are also the ones that have massive losses as they scale, frequently even through an IPO. Consider that most companies limit any “affiliate fee” they would be willing to spend to 5-10% of sales. Yet when they are marketing, they use different math. They use LTV math, and all the sudden it’s acceptable to spend 30-50% of revenue on customer acquisition. Find the most boisterous executive recommending excessive spending, and you will usually find a loyal servant of the LTV religion.

Notes:
Creativity and excellence result from constraints. LTV imposes almost no constraints on your marketing budget.

To build a great brand, do one thing right

From Get One Thing Right by Andy Dunn:

Consumers don’t need many things from your brand —they just need one thing from your brand. You may want them to need everything from your brand, but guess what: consumers don’t care what you want. Your job is to care about what they want, not what you want them to want. The difference between the two is the distance between a customer-centric company and an ego-centric company.

If you’re not careful, the mentality of you wanting them to buy everything from you could lead to them buying nothing from you.

Make one thing great. Get one thing right. That earns you the right to go from product one to product two.

How to pitch your story to a journalist

From Confessions of an ex-tech journalist by Bekah Grant:

If your pitch sucks, you are less likely to get coverage. This would seem intuitive, but swarms of bad pitches indicate otherwise. Perhaps the problem here is a lack of awareness about what journalists are looking for.

To start, articles need to be newsworthy — they need to have a hook that makes them worth writing about. Newsworthiness is defined by timeliness, relevance, significance, prominence, and human interest. The fact that you want articles about your company (or your clients) does not constitute newsworthiness, and disseminating pitches that meet none of those criteria is likely a waste of time.

You will have better luck attracting reporters’ attention if you know which ones have a genuine interest and expertise in your niche…  

It is important to be succinct, yet also provide actual information. I received emails so obtuse, vague, and laden with jargon, I couldn’t understand what I was being pitched on. Those generally go straight into the trash. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Furthermore, if you are having a difficult time getting someone, anyone to respond to you, you may want to reconsider what you are pitching.

Steve Jobs’ approach to marketing

From Kyle Russell, quoting from an interview with former Apple VP of Worldwide Marketing Communication Allison Johnson:

The two most “dreaded, hated” words at Apple under Steve Jobs were “branding” and “marketing.”

“In Steve’s mind people associated brands with television advertising and commercials and artificial things. The most important thing was people’s relationship to the product. So any time we said ‘brand’ it was a dirty word. Marketing is when you have to sell to somebody. If you aren’t providing value, if you’re not educating them about the product, if you’re not helping them get the most out of the product, you’re selling. And you shouldn’t be in that mode.”

Johnson explains that Apple treated its launch campaigns as massive efforts to educate the public about the company’s new products by effectively communicating what made the experience using them so great:

“The marketing team was right next to the product development and engineering teams. So we understood deeply what was important about the product, what the team’s motivations were in the product, what they hoped that product would achieve, what role they wanted it to have in people’s lives.”

Note the similarities between “If you’re not helping them get the most out of the product, you’re selling; and you shouldn’t be in that mode” and Jason Fried’s radical approach to marketing.

Courting controversy to get PR

From Build Your Brand by Cultivating Controversy by Dan Kennedy:

For companies, controversy and/or bad news and bad press can be dangerous, yet many brands are surprisingly resilient, and many even benefit from dynamite exploding in their hands. A short-term media or social media reaction, pro or con or both, to a company or its owner, CEO, celebrity endorser, or other “face” taking a controversial position or otherwise getting into troubled waters often has little or no lasting negative impact and can, instead, have positive impact, in making a larger population aware of the brand or at least rallying the loyalists. Some entrepreneurs who own valuable personal or corporate brands even intentionally, repeatedly court controversy.

Anytime you personally take a potentially controversial position or attach your company or brand to one, you do take risks. However, if you’re going to court controversy, you should do it consciously and deliberately, not casually or impulsively.

The Trump Technique of picking a fight with a villain or enemy can be an effective way to use controversy with little or no risk if you choose carefully, attack broadly and know your brand loyalists and target market well.

Should you hire a PR firm? A tech journalist’s perspective

From Confessions of an ex-tech journalist by Bekah Grant:

PR people are in the business of getting their clients coverage. They have a tremendous amount of muscle in the tech industry. Too much in my opinion. They represent the companies we cover, choose who and when to brief on news, stand between the reporter and their client, dictate the rules of embargoed stories, and distribute pages of piffle (otherwise known as press releases.)

No self-respecting reporter prefers to interact with a PR person over the story’s subject or an original source. PR people get in the way of stories more often than they enable them, in my experience. They unnecessarily staff interviews so they can bill more hours and seem to think it unreasonable that a journalist would want to talk to a source without a patrol present.

I understand that for many startup founders, crafting a pitch and media outreach is beyond their skill set and/or they don’t have time, which is why they hire a firm. However, a common misconception is that you need a PR firm to get coverage. Entrepreneurs would trepidatiously inquire all the time whether they were “allowed” to email me directly. Of course you can, and please do.

How to articulate your vision in a compelling way

From The Best PR Advice You’ve Never Heard, quoting Facebook’s Head of Technology Communications Caryn Marooney:

A message succeeds when people remember it — when it sticks. To develop a compelling message, Marooney advises running it through the RIBS test:

Relevant. Who is your audience, and is your company solving a problem that they care about? What matters to them about that problem? Why does your solution deserve attention?

Inevitable. You want people to feel that whatever you’re developing is inevitable. This is like having a gust of wind at your company’s back. “If you can convince the reporter at lunch that whatever you’re doing makes intrinsic sense and that they can see it realistically happening, your journey to relevance will be that much shorter.”

Believable. “You can be relevant, and your product may even seem inevitable, but you still may not be believed.” You have to convince people that your company is the one that can make it happen — that you’ll be the ones to carry the ball over the line.

Simple. “Take your messaging and edit it down. Get it to its essence. What is the one line you want people to remember? You only get one.”

Should you blog (or tweet)?

From Value is created by doing by Sam Altman:

Value is created by doing.

It’s easy to forget this.  A lot of stuff feels like work—commenting on HN, tweeting, reading about other companies’ funding rounds, grabbing coffee, etc [1]—is not actually work.  (If you count that as work, think really hard about the value you’re creating in your job.)  These activities can be worthwhile in small doses—it’s important to network and meet interesting people to stay in the flow of ideas—but they are not by themselves how new wealth gets created.

Value gets created when a company does things like build widgets and sell them to customers.  As a rough guideline, it’s good to stay in roles where you’re close to the doing.

[1] I count blogging as a marginal use of time, but the reason I started is because I realized it was important to be good at writing, I was bad at it, and the only way I was going to improve was with lots of practice.  And sometimes I meet really interesting founders because of something I wrote.

Notes:
(1) I started blogging for personal brand, but quickly realized that the goal was unclear (vanity?) and it didn’t justify the time.
(2) Now I blog for practical reasons: (i) My blog posts are excerpts from the most useful articles I’ve read, so publishing a blog post every day forces me to constantly search for best practices. (ii) Selecting the key excerpts forces me to read more carefully. (iii) Tagging the posts produces a library of insights I frequently revisit. In other words, writing the blog makes me a better CEO, irrespective of whether anyone reads it.
(3) The bonus: Other entrepreneurs have told me they find my blog helpful. So it’s a great way of helping others.

Should you make a big PR push when launching a product?

From Don’t Launch Your Product by Vibhu Norby:

Here are a couple reasons why focusing on a big launch is the wrong strategy:

1. “Launching” screws with your metrics – and you need clean metrics to evaluate and iterate on your business. If you see 6000 signups on day one and 2000 on day two, you can be mislead about the strength of your vision. It clouds your ability to single out the passionate users and understand their usage patterns.

2. You’re probably not going to find product/market fit right out of the gate. So whatever press or marketing you have planned will fall on uninterested eyes.

3. The bigger your launch, the quicker you will enter the famous “trough of sorrow.” No human can easily withstand the emotional rollercoaster of startup metrics. Such baggage can lose you co-founders, employees, and your capital. And you will lose faith in yourself in the process.

4. You’ll be penalized when raising your next round. Neither the bell-curve nor the downward slope is an attractive graph to show investors.

Non-scalable PR

From 5 PR lessons from Viber’s rise from zero users to a $900M exit by Ayelet Noff, who runs PR agency Blond 2.0:

In an online world, a face-to-face meeting is still king

While the Internet has made global communication cheap, quick, and easy, nothing carries the emotional resonance of a face-to-face meeting. So when we were preparing for the launch of Viber Desktop, we knew that it was time to get in front of leading journalists.

I traveled to New York with Viber CEO Talmon Marco, and we went from office to office, meeting to meeting, demonstrating the new desktop app that the Viber team had built. We met writers, spoke to them, shook their hands, and added faces and voices to our pitch. With tech writers frequently receiving thousands of pitch emails a day, it’s important to leverage any opportunity you have to meet these writers in person. There is still no substitute for a sincere handshake and a smile…

Pick your moment: If you feel like you have a huge story to tell, get on a plane and tell it to the world in person.

Contrast this with WhatsApp’s approach (or lack of it) to marketing and PR.

WhatsApp’s approach to marketing and PR

From Four Numbers That Explain Why Facebook Acquired WhatsApp by Jim Goetz:

From the moment they opened the doors of WhatsApp, Jan and Brian wanted a different kind of company. While others sought attention, Jan and Brian shunned the spotlight, refusing even to hang a sign outside the WhatsApp offices in Mountain View.

…There may be no greater testament to the viral nature of WhatsApp than the fact that the company has accomplished all this without investing a penny in marketing. Unlike their smaller competitors, it hasn’t spent anything on user acquisition. The company doesn’t even employ a marketer or PR person. Yet like the world’s greatest brands, it’s created a strong emotional connection with consumers. All of WhatsApp’s growth has come from happy customers encouraging their friends to try the service.

Can you be successful without PR?

From Launch Your Startup When You’ve Already Won by Ben Yoskowitz:

There’s a time and place for making noise about your startup, but you’ve gotta be clear on whether you’re doing it to feed your own ego and make yourself feel good, or if you’re doing it strategically for some understood and measurable benefit. Making noise can definitely help – but more often than not we do it for the former reasons and not the latter: we want to feel important, we want people to recognize our “accomplishments”.

One of my best portfolio companies has never publicly launched. And yet, if we compared their metrics to a lot of similar companies (and others in my portfolio), I’d bet they would be on top. They’re absolutely killing it. Why? Because they’re 100% focused on their users and providing an awesome experience. Press, publicity, blogging, tweeting, shouting from rooftops, etc. doesn’t help them. In this particular case their customer isn’t an early tech adopter either, which is even more reason to ignore the “rah rah” bubble we live in and stay focused on real growth.

This portfolio company has also raised two rounds of financing… It might have been a bit harder to get investors’ attention without being in the tech news cycle every few months, but their team + mission + traction got them to the right people, and those people invested.

Personal brand, company brand and PR

Excerpted from Charlie O’Donnell:

I had a great conversation with a CEO yesterday who recently realized that she had been too heads down and focused on her day to day tasks to build up her personal brand.  It was never something she made a priority until she realized that building up her own brand was part of the company’s marketing.  It would create just as many opportunities for her company as it would for herself.  A strong leader’s personal brand helps with hiring, creates inbound business development opportunities, and opens up speaking opportunities where a founder can talk about the business of her company, not just herself and her career.

It’s also key to financing…

PR meets strategy — the Jeff Bezos approach

From The Secrets of Bezos: How Amazon Became the Everything Store:

Bezos rarely speaks at conferences and gives interviews only to publicize new products, such as the latest Kindle Fire. He declined to comment on this account, saying that it’s “too early” for a reflective look at Amazon’s history, though he approved many interviews with friends, family, and senior Amazon executives.

John Doerr, the venture capitalist who backed Amazon early and was on its board of directors for a decade, calls Amazon’s Berlin Wall approach to public relations “the Bezos Theory of Communicating.” It’s really just a disciplined form of editing. Bezos takes a red pen to press releases, product descriptions, speeches, and shareholder letters, crossing out anything that doesn’t convey a simple message: You won’t find a cheaper, friendlier place to get everything you need than Amazon.

In other words, Jeff Bezos has a single “talking point”, the core mission statement of Amazon, and brings everything back to that.

Why your startup needs a visual message

Mark Suster’s second piece of PR advice:

Create visual metaphors that stick in people’s minds and are easily repeated

Think of James Carville’s slogan for Clinton in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  It was so easy it was repeated frequently. Or Ronald Reagan, “are you better off than you were four years ago.” What about Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com? He didn’t get too complicated on the differences of multi-tenant online databases or the power of remote logins when all your data is in the cloud. He simply asserted, “the end of software” by putting up a logo with the word software and a red line through it. WTF does that even mean? Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s not software. But journalists (and buyers) sorta got it. And it was oft repeated and gave Salesforce a huge marketing advantage. Other tech examples… Marc Andreessen famously opined, “software is eating the world” and now everybody I know says that…

These are all powerful concepts that are simplified into catchphrases that allow people to remember the core point with a one line phrase. You don’t need to establish an industry catchphrase to be effective. You just need to give journalists, your marketing department, your sales team, your VCs and everybody else who becomes an ambassador for your brand a simpler way to tell your story.

Should you care if you don’t get any media coverage?

Max Ogles, analyzing startup Yipit’s PR roller coaster:

Yipit’s lofty expectations and subsequent disappointment weren’t just a coincidence; they were the result of the powerful and potentially detrimental psychological effect of valuing media feedback and artificial “buzz” over the only kind of feedback that actually matters: The kind that comes from users. If a startup isn’t aware of it, the spotlight effect can occur repeatedly over time… Time and again, artificial buzz will belie the cricket-sounds coming from the user-base…

…As Venture Capitalist Brad Feld wrote in his book Burning Entrepreneur: “The great entrepreneurs just keep building their companies. They focus relentlessly on their products, their customers, and their people. […] They just keep at it and the very best ones shut out and ignore all the noise.”

Notes:
(1) This subject has been a recurring topic of conversation at Seeking Alpha board meetings.
(2) Seeking Alpha has about 750,000 daily users on market days and massive brand recognition from the buy-side, but we get almost no media coverage. Is that a problem?