Startups: Business Goals and Buzz

Kim Kapustka - November 20, 2015

Recently, I participated in a roundtable discussion with a group of CMOs hosted by a well-regarded venture capital firm. All of the CMOs were part of portfolio companies and most of the companies were early-stage.

One of the topics we discussed was measuring the impact of PR. Several CMOs said that a story, even a big story in a top tier business publication didn’t meaningfully change website traffic. When they were looking at should I invest in an agency this quarter or attend a trade show, they felt the decision to work with the agency was actually taking away leads that could directly contribute to the pipeline. One expressed concern that deciding to invest in PR was a decision that could get him fired.

Several people suggested ways to measure PR, including trackbacks, etc. Other suggested repurposing the content through blogs, reprints, etc. All very good advice.

What I would like to address here is the larger picture related to PR. As we were leaving the event, I spoke to the CMO who originally brought up the topic. His real concern was that the agency was too caught up in trying to get a story in Fortune, which he felt had marginal value for his company at that stage. My advice to him was to be very clear on his business goals for PR and to be sure that the PR agency was clear on those goals as well.

I’ve often found that even the best PR agencies do not have an intuitive understanding of what matters most to the company. And, why should they? It’s the CMOs responsibility to make sure that he or she has conveyed the business goals of the company to the agency and that they together build a solid plan for reaching those goals.

Here’s an example. Last year I was working with a startup that had a customer who was interested in talking to the press. He had been given approval to talk and had the time to speak to just one publication. At the same time, the sales team desperately needed customer references to validate the value and viability of the product. The company was up against a gorilla in the space. If the startup could confirm the power of its offering against that gorilla with a customer who had run the product through its paces over a period of several months, the sales team would have a great tool for opening doors and getting meetings.

The PR agency was very enthusiastic. They wanted to place the story in TechCrunch. I said no. The company’s customers don’t read TechCrunch. We needed a standalone piece of coverage in a publication that the customer trusted and read regularly. The startup was selling in the retail sector. We needed our story to be in that space's top tier publication. There were great stories that we could and should work to place in TechCrunch, but this customer story wasn’t one of them.

Another example. I recently got a call from an agency very excited that they’d placed our mutual client in USA Today. Tell me about the story, I said. They told me about a general trend story tangentially related to the client in which the client was listed as one of the vendors in the space. How much time did you spend on this, I asked. Only about 15 hours I was told. They’d spent nearly 20% of the company’s budget that month working on a story that was nearly worthless for meeting the business goals of the company: building awareness among customers, attracting and retaining talent, and attracting reseller partners. While you could argue that the story might help build general awareness, I believe that value was marginal when weighed against the larger strategy.

What about buzz you might ask. I’ve been told by at least one PR practitioner that basing a PR program on business goals would kill buzz.

Don’t misunderstand. Buzz is good. Very good. It will help you meet your business goals (attracting talent, raising your profile ahead of a funding round or raising awareness with your customers). But you don’t build buzz with a random mention in a general press or business publication. You build buzz with a sustained program built on solid messaging and positioning that is differentiated, authentic and well-articulated—and backed by solid evidence. You build it by being very clear on the why of PR and then working with journalists to get the right story into the right publication at the right time. And, in the hunt for buzz, you can’t sacrifice your overall business goals. Your PR agency needs to understand that. If they do, I believe much of the resentment that startups feel toward PR agencies would go away as the companies see the ongoing value of the relationship.