Public relations for startup companies is unique because most don’t have a lot of money to spend compared to large companies. In some cases, founders are spending their own money bootstrapping the entire operation. The top PR agencies out there take in billions of dollars a year from companies that can afford those prices. You get what you pay for, so good luck finding a firm that charges very little and gives you loads of value. We know this because we are emailed “pitches” by public relations firms on a daily basis. That’s how most of these firms work. They will get you media mentions in exchange for money. Lots of it.
As a startup that runs lean, you need to know one thing: What are the absolute basics you need to worry about when it comes to public relations? The answer is simple: You need to make it easy for people to find your story. If you are developing “the fastest metal 3D printing technology,” then you want to attract people who are looking for exactly that.
Basic Public Relations for Tech Startups
A notorious venture capitalist once said “TechCrunch don’t pay the bills” in response to all the startups that believe being featured in a TechCrunch article is the holy grail of media exposure. It may well be, but prepare to pay a public relations firm thousands of dollars a month, and you still might not be noticed by TechCrunch. Even if you are noticed, what sort of story will be told? For many startups, execution takes precedence over promotion. After all, the people paying the bills are the investors whose money you are spending. Do they really want you spending thousands of dollars a month trying to tell more people about your sacred cow, or would they rather that money be spent on building and selling product?
A venture capital firm in Europe uses machine learning algorithms to find startups across Europe to invest in. The most frequent comment they hear from startups they approach is “how did you find us?”
We hear that a lot, too, when we come across startups that aren’t even listed in Crunchbase. That’s because many startups out there are so busy executing that they don’t have time to self-promote. This begs the question: What efforts should a startup make in respect to public relations? We’ve covered thousands of companies on Nanalyze, and here’s what we think every startup ought to do. All you need to do is make sure your story can easily be found by people who are looking for it.
The Absolute Basics
Some of the basics go without say, but we’ll say them anyway. You have to have a professional-looking website that appears modern and portrays the sort of web presence one would expect to see from a company that’s doing something great. At a minimum, you need some “about us” stuff that provides bios for your leadership team and an easy-to-understand explanation of your value proposition. When anyone Googles the name of your startup, that’s what they see. It’s your calling card, and it needs to look good. You then want to put your calling card into a directory where people will find it.
Listing your startup in Crunchbase takes about five minutes, and you choose what to disclose. There are plenty of examples in Crunchbase that show what sort of information you should include. That allows more sophisticated databases like CB Insights to find you with its algorithms. If you’re not in Crunchbase, it’s a bit suspicious frankly.
Now that you have a web presence and a profile on Crunchbase, you need to think about how you can tell your story. We see many startup founders trying to do this on Medium. They’ll post a brilliant article about their company’s story, and then nobody reads it. Unless your brand is pretty popular already, don’t expect much success from a company blog either. The way to attract people to your story is by using something called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
How to Reach People
“You guys must be experts at SEO,” said a founder to us recently. That’s because Nanalyze articles kept popping up as this individual conducted research on various technology topics. We’re not experts at SEO by any means, but we do know the basics – like getting decent SEO placements for your articles takes a long time because you can’t try to take shortcuts. This is why we have never “traded links” or “sold links” to anyone. Links need to happen naturally, and machine-learning algorithms are sophisticated enough to tell if you’re gaming the system.
In order to build credibility, you need to publish insightful content that gets shared because people find it useful. You need to teach people something they didn’t know before. That’s what we try to do, along with researching SEO keywords for every single article we write. We then find startups with amazing stories and tell them to our audience. When the SEO kicks in, these stories will then get traffic and interest for years to come. So, how can a startup get us to tell their story?
Rush Fees and Content Marketing
Writing, publishing, and promoting quality content takes a great deal of resources. Whenever we ask a public relations firm to share some of their fees so we can tell their amazing story, they always say, “we don’t pay to play.” That’s their way of saying, “we don’t want anyone challenging the current model where PR firms pretend to be the gatekeepers that decide who the media covers.” The traditional model is that you pay sizable monthly fees to a PR firm to promote your brand, and they’ll email digital media brands like ours with “pitches” where they offer access to some embargoed press release along with an offer to setup a meeting with some senior management member or the founder. It’s the same bog standard offering that all their paying clients get.
Essentially, they’re reaching out to us with some canned marketing spiel and asking us to do all the heavy lifting by telling their client’s amazing story on our platform, which costs money to operate.
We get approached daily with people asking us for coverage, and we already have hundreds of topics we need to write about. Your amazing story is just one of many we come across. We’re happy to let you get in front of our editorial queue if you pay a rush fee that helps support our platform. We’ve been offering this “rush fee” option for the past year, and it’s worked well. We take on select clients and tell their amazing story, and make enough money to cover our costs. It’s usually companies that pay these fees. That’s because public relations firms refuse and cite something called “editorial independence.”
“Editorial independence” says that you should never allow conflicts of interest to interfere with your ability to tell an objective story. We couldn’t agree more, and that’s why we probably turn away half of all the stories people want to pay a rush fee for us to tell. Turns out there’s a whole industry out there called “investor relations,” which relies on compensated story telling. We don’t tell stories unless they’re amazing. If we deviate from that goal, people will stop being interested in what we have to say.
If you’re a small firm, save some money and cut out the middleman. If you have a great story to tell, do it once and do it right. Most stories don’t change that quickly, and we find that seeing what a startup is up to about once a year is enough. You don’t need to have a PR person emailing out your press releases to sites like ours “under embargo,” as if we would actually drop everything and start doing free work for their client. The sort of people who do free work probably won’t be to capable of articulating your story in a way that will attract readers.
We’ve now been telling stories about technology startups for half a decade. In the past year, we’ve been very selectively letting some startups pay us for prime coverage. You’d never be able to tell who has paid us and who hasn’t. We only tell good stories. Period. If we don’t, loyal readers will immediately complain. This sort of “content marketing” – telling a brand’s amazing story in an articulate and entertaining manner with SEO optimization – ensures people will be reading the story for years to come.
This year we’ve doubled our rush fees, but if you’re reading this, then you already know what we’re looking for incredible stories to tell So, we’ll cut our rush fees in half for any startup with an amazing story to tell that lets us know it read this article. You’ve taken the time to read what we have to say, and your time is as valuable as ours. We’re happy to compensate you for it. PR firms, see how that works? Cut out the middle person and make sure your story gets told right the first time, then go back to focusing on what your investors value the most. Execution.