You’ve just launched your product, and will do anything to get your message out into the world and sell beyond your family and friends. You want your brand to be talked about, Tweeted about, raved about. However, all publicity may not be good publicity, particularly when your startup is still in its infancy.
“There are common mistakes I’ve seen many startups make in their early years,” says Oli Wheeler, CEO of THRSXTY, a communications agency specialising in PR, digital and influencer relations, who was previously the right-hand man to PR legend Matthew Freud. “In a race to become high profile, you can waste a lot of time and money,” he says.
Sitting down to plan your PR strategy? The publicity expert shares his early-stage no-nos.
1. Chasing fame as a founder
Customers can feel more engaged and loyal to a brand when they relate to its founder, but you don’t need to tell everyone your origin story, while you’re still at that origin. “In the first year, it should be all about the product,” says Oli. “Spend your effort making the product famous, not the people behind it – that may come later.” As part of the PR team that launched Airbnb into Europe in 2010, he learnt about humility. “Those three guys, Brian [Chesky], Joe [Gebbia] and Nate [Blecharczyk], became famous for the right reason – because the business is brilliant,” he says. “They are three of the most humble, down to earth people I have worked with, and they still are.”
2. Big public statements
Confidence has its benefits, but beware the temptation to exaggerate – especially on a press release. “You are not going to be ‘bigger than Uber’ in your first year,” says Oli. “So stop telling people that you are. Instead, demonstrate your success with facts about what you’re doing now, not wild claims about future performance.” Even iconic entrepreneurs can grow to regret these kind of statements. “I recall Richard Branson claiming that Virgin Cola would be ‘bigger than Pepsi’ by the year 2000 or he would shave his beard off,” says Oli. “Did anyone ever follow up on that?”
3. Hiring outside agencies
Even PR experts say early-stage startups shouldn’t waste resources hiring PR agencies to manage their publicity. “You almost certainly don’t need to hire a PR agency in year one,” says Oli. “Spend your time getting your product directly in front of the customer instead.” Wait until you have an established customer base before using a PR agency to expand it. “I’m not sure why so many young companies feel the need to hire agencies, perhaps this strategy is in a marketing textbook I haven’t read,” says Oli. “It’s generally a waste of money unless you really know what you are doing and what you want from it. Ten pieces of news coverage a month is not going to make your business a success on its own, and nor is spending $10,000 a month on an agency to do it.”
4. Speaking at conferences
Although conferences can be a positive place to network, Year One may not be the best time to take to the stage. “No founder in their first year should be speaking at a conference,” says Oli. “At this point, nobody is going to care about your eight-minute speech on stage four at 3pm on a Thursday. It’s a waste of time and energy for you at this moment.” He urges clients to politely decline invitations, especially if travel expenses come out of your pocket. “You’ve received this invitation that makes you feel special,” he says. “You’re invited to speak on the ‘Yacht Queen Elizabeth’ which will sail from Sydney on a three-day cruise. Your ego says yes, but it can be a waste of time and money.”
5. Paying star influencers
Want to get your message out there? Don’t aim for the million-follower influencers who come with a hefty price tag. “The best target for your small marketing budget would be micro-influencers who you have already identified as being interested in your space,” says Oli. “We did this very successfully with Polaroid Cameras recently, and our chosen Instagrammer didn’t need paying because she already loves the brand and so do her 8,000 followers.” The partnership cost the brand one camera, which they gifted to the ‘grammer. When it comes to free gifting, Oli recommends being mindful. “The worst kind of sampling is giving away water outside a hot station to commuters,” he says. “They ‘drink and discard’ without even looking at the brand.”