It’s okay that your startup doesn’t have a communications strategy.
When Marc Benioff’s Behind the Cloud was published in the Fall of 2009, it was declared required reading for all 50 Box employees. Because I was new to the company and not yet acquainted with Aaron Levie’s insatiable appetite for business books, I complied. (I eventually retired from the “Levie Library” after slogging my way through High Output Management, and have adhered to a mostly-fiction diet ever since.)
Nearly a decade later, one mantra from that book sticks with me: “Tactics dictate strategy.” Benioff described how in its early days, Salesforce experimented with capitalizing on larger competitors’ marketing activities — something that began as a scrappy and creative tactic, but later became a marketing pillar. He wrote, “One idea alone is a tactic, but if it can be executed a number of different ways, it becomes a great strategy.”
Benioff’s admission surprised me. Tactics don’t get many kudos, especially from prominent CEOs. Strategies are strategic and tactics are, well, rather tactical. Strategies inspire PowerPoint presentations and lively debates among stakeholders. Tactics come later, in bulleted lists with initials of the employees assigned to carry them out. Strategies, handed down like commandments from on high, are supposed to dictate tactics.
But if you’re at an early startup and figuring out how communications can help grow your business, I’d argue that tactics are the friendly place to start. In today’s crowded startup landscape, it’s rarely obvious what will cut through the noise. You’re not just competing with direct competitors for customers, you’re competing with everyone for attention (and all the potential future hires, partnerships and funding rounds that awareness can help drive). Tactics are more amenable to creativity and experimentation, don’t devour massive resources, and come with shorter and simpler feedback loops. With tactics, you can see what resonates and then build a strategy around what’s working.
We were big believers in experimenting through tactics on the Box communications team, and the successful ones did indeed dictate enduring strategies. In my role as Marketing Partner at Social Capital, I spend a decent chunk of my time with founders brainstorming how best to approach communications given near-term goals and available resources, and then I help them interpret and learn from the feedback they get. Over time, those successes, failures and lessons add up to strategies — strategies that weren’t born in a vacuum.
So what does a bottom-up approach to crafting (and refining) your communications strategy look like? Here are a few examples.
1. Storytelling: learn what’s interesting, and then lead with it.
Startup communications begin as soon as you tell your story, whether your audience is a reporter, customer, potential hire, or investor. How much effort startups put into this early messaging tends to be rather binary: it’s either a complete afterthought (think: pitch decks with lists of features, numbers and headshots but no storyline), or it’s clear the founder spent too much time locked in a windowless room with his/her origin story (think: many posts on this website).
Whether your story is too porous or too precious, the next step is the same: get feedback. What resonates, what doesn’t? Ask for feedback from your colleagues who live and breathe your mission, but also from people who barely understand your category let alone your company. Iterate and then iterate some more. Even the most beautifully crafted messaging means nothing if it doesn’t inspire people to do whatever you want them to do (buy, apply, report, invest, share, download, tweet, etc.).
The most common storytelling mistake I see startups make is bypassing the problem and diving straight into the solution. Here’s my favorite formula, amended a bit after twitter feedback. Steps 1–3 are frequently skipped but, in my opinion, they are often the most interesting.
- The status quo and why it sucks (context)
- Why this problem is so important (passion)
- What’s changed about the world — new tech, behavior, regulations— that enables us to finally solve it (timeliness)
- Why we’re the right team to take it on (credibility)
- What traction we’re seeing (momentum)
- What you, the recipient of this message, should do now (call to action)
Once you have your narrative down, it’s up to you to learn which elements really grab people’s attention. Maybe your founding story is particularly compelling (Dropbox’s CEO forgetting his USB memory stick or Airbnb’s co-founders selling space on an air mattresses to make rent). Perhaps you have the opportunity to become a poster company for the hottest emerging technology trend (currently blockchain and AI) or revolutionary business model (“sharing economy” circa 2011). Warning: there’s a relatively small window between “emerging” and “cliché” where you can pull ahead of the pack — after that it’s easy to get lost in the noise (i.e. be the Uber, not the Uber for X). Occasionally, a company can build a substantial profile through its data (think: pre-acquisition Mint.com on spending habits or AdMob’s mobile metrics reports). Sidenote: we attempted data-driven storytelling at Box, but it turns out literally no one cares whether PowerPoint decks are shared more often than Excel spreadsheets.
This doesn’t mean you only tell that one part of your story — you just lead with what works. Once you’ve captured people’s attention, you can get to all the other things that make your company credible and valuable.
2. Conflict: lean into your drama.
When you’re building a startup, the odds are stacked against you. You are a small, scrappy team trying to achieve the impossible, and you need to convince a lot of skeptical people (investors, potential hires, customers, reporters) that you can pull it off. Given this, the natural impulse is to ignore or downplay the more foreboding and dramatic elements of your story. The behemoth in your space that could crush you, the regulation that would threaten your very existence, the potential abuses of your technology — why would you ever proactively draw attention to them?
But I’d argue there’s value and opportunity in addressing your drama head-on. On a more superficial level, every good story needs narrative tension, and people — especially reporters — will search for drama if you don’t provide it. Better that you help them get it right, and with the best possible framing. This approach also opens up completely new avenues for creating awareness. Reporters who would never write about your tiny startup will want to hear what you have to say about the category leader they cover. Taking an informed position on policy could lead to substantive conversations in D.C. Showing how thoughtful you are about possible misuses of technology (like AI) is a great way to become a (trigger warning: 🚨buzzword incoming🚨) thought leader. These are all opportunities to experiment and reach new audiences.
Even more importantly, openly talking about what’s hard builds trust. As a general rule, you should assume your audience is intelligent and informed. You can probably mask your challenges for awhile, but the truth always comes out. Proactively addressing your biggest hurdles is incredibly confidence inspiring. This is especially true for internal communications, since employees can always tell when issues are being evaded or sugar-coated.
This doesn’t mean you should be reckless. Don’t throw stones at your goliath if the risks outweigh the rewards. Your communications goals and your business goals should always be aligned. Be responsible, but realize that the things that are hard about what you’re creating are crucial elements of your story, and you should learn how to lean into them. Maybe, like Salesforce’s competitive antics, doing so will become a core part of your communications strategy.
3. Relationships: talk to reporters (especially) when you don’t need to.
You’ve probably heard that you should be “building relationships” with reporters. This doesn’t mean you need to invite them out for drinks or run into them at parties, which I worry are common (mis)interpretations. The “relationships” I’m talking about really come down to having somewhat regular and hopefully interesting conversations, including ones where you aren’t trying to convince anyone to write about your company.
This is what most reporters’ incoming communications from early startups look like:
- Radio silence
- “HI YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF US WE HAVE BIG NEWS TOMORROW PLEASE WRITE ABOUT IT!!!”
- “Did you get my email…?”
- “The news is out, are you going to write an article?”
- Radio silence
- Rinse and repeat
I get it. It’s hard to prioritize conversations that aren’t urgent or essential…until they are. But if you want your future announcements to be successful, you need to lay the groundwork. Ask to meet with reporters who cover your category to share what you’re building, keep them updated on milestones (quick email FYIs that don’t require responses are great), and try to be helpful when they need an expert opinion on something happening in the industry. If you can establish this context and cadence, they’ll be in a much better position to cover your next announcement, if it’s a fit. And you’ll find your company being mentioned in articles about your category, because you’ve done the work to explain how you fit into it.
There’s another really good reason to have regular conversations with reporters. They tend to be the best barometers for what’s compelling about your story, because they have to keep their readers’ interests and attention spans in mind. It’s perhaps blasphemous to suggest using reporter conversations for messaging feedback, but fuck it, I’m suggesting it. Pay attention to where they dig in and ask a lot of questions, and where they tune out and change the subject. (If the narrative or perspective you’re trying out is particularly controversial, please do the interview on background.)
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but when it comes to landing those bigger pieces, none of the major feature stories (including covers) I’ve had the privilege to work on in my career were explicitly my idea. I believe the best stories emerge from exposing the right reporters and editors to interesting concepts, insights and personalities, and trusting that if there’s a significant story, they’ll find it. Sometimes it’s months or even years after an initial interview that all the pieces of a story finally come together (especially when you’re dealing with magazines). So the best thing you can do for the long-term is to continually put yourself and your ideas out there, keep people updated on milestones, and nudge when something big is on the horizon.
There’s nothing more tactical than meeting with reporters for the sake of meeting with reporters, but in my experience, there’s also nothing more impactful.
4. Signals: it’s your job to create moments in time.
So you’ve learned how to tell your story, you’ve built some relationships, and now you have some major news to share. Unfortunately, you can’t just assume that it’ll be obvious to everyone else how important this news is. In an industry where every day looks like this, how well you signal the importance of your milestone is just as important as the actual substance.
On a really tactical level, it’s the difference between emailing a reporter with the news that you’ve raised a Series A and asking if they want to see your blog post versus offering to come to the reporter’s office for a meeting along with your new lead investor to talk about what this round means and give a demo of the next version of your product, which will go live on the same day as the funding news. Oh, and here are two early customers that are available for conversations, as well as a draft blog post and press release (everyone hates press releases, and their content usually sucks, but they do tend to signal some degree of seriousness). The reporter may not take you up on all of those offers —hell, she may decide to just read the draft blog post — but you’ve signaled that this is a big moment and thus made it a little harder for her to pass.
Experimenting with signaling can take you in all sorts of fun directions. Do you have major platform news on the horizon that needs to reach the developer community? Consider throwing a launch event that combines developers and press. If successful, maybe you’ll decide to turn it into your annual developer conference.
Sometimes creating a moment in time is less about highlighting the importance of your news, and more about manufacturing a sense of urgency. For a milestone that’s important but doesn’t have a built-in deadline, it’s often helpful to find or create one to get people aligned and excited internally and, eventually, externally. Conference keynotes can be great for this.
Don’t trust that others will take the time to understand the gravity of your news. Figure out how to signal its importance and timeliness, and let that effort take you in new and exciting directions.
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Hopefully I’ve demystified some of what goes into building communications strategies from the bottom-up without totally disparaging my profession. Building and evolving your story is more important and more complicated than ever before, but the place to start is not a lofty conversation and a blank PowerPoint deck. Start experimenting! Tactics are your friends: let them lead you to your strategies.