Mar 01, 2011

Opportunities & Elbow Grease: Getting Visibility for a Start-Up

Breathless reporting from SXSW 2007 - Twitter hit 60,000 messages per day at the event.

A discussion over on Quora about generating visibility for a start ups has garnered answers from some heavyweights (the founders of Twitter and FourSquare have weighed in.)  But no magic wands or silver bullets were revealed – at their heart, the launches are tales of savvy tactics that recognized (and capitalized upon) opportunity – and hard work.

Evan Williams of Twitter noted that the company launched in mid-2006, “….to a whimper.”  In March of 2007, the company went to South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) and got creative.  Williams, noting (correctly) that the action at this event isn’t on the exhibit floor, it’s in the hallways (and indeed, on the sidewalks, at the parties and in the BBQ joints) sunk $11,000 into flat panel displays in the hallways that showed a “Twitter visualizer.”    In addition, the company ensured a positive and interesting experience,  enabling attendees to send a text that would pop up on the screens.  And they took it a step further – those who sent a text would be automatically following a group of ambassadors who were also at SXSWi.

This story is interesting in its own right – the Twitter team created a totally new experience for SXSWi attendees.  However,  Evans also noted in his answer that they had noticed that seemingly all of their users were going to SXSWi, and that’s how team Twitter decided to double down, as Evans said, in Austin.

Listening to your audience and knowing where they are (in this case, SXSWi) is a critical component to successfully building visibility for a small company or a start up.  As another commenter in the Quora thread noted,  SXSWi isn’t the place to launch enterprise software.

Dennis Crowley of FourSquare also related his company’s experience at SXSWi, which was just as inspired as Twitter’s approach, but different in every way.   From getting FourSquare live before SXSWi (they were coding at the airport and on the runway, and flipped the switch on FourSquare just before SXSWi opened), the FourSquare team hustled.   How did they get the word out?  Simple – word of mouth.  Simple, but not easy.

” Start telling friends and stranger to try out your app, ” Crowley advises. “You can do this via word-of-mouth, stickers, flyers, etc.  FYI – We spent $0 on marketing and only did word-of-mouth.”

Crowley also noted that the FourSquare team was all over Twitter, searching for what people were saying about the app, and replying directly to them.  In particular, he advises relying to as many Tweets about features and support requests as possible.  “Get people to spread the love.”

FourSquare turned SXSW 2010 into a giant game.

Providing great customer service is a tactic for start up that more than one marketing pro I queried recommended.  Creating delight is a good way to spark positive online commentary from your new customers.

But what if you’re not unveiling a groovy new social network at SXSW?  Many I spoke to said don’t forget traditional PR, and they’re right.  Well done, a good  PR campaign results in credible publicity that reaches your target audiences.

Reid Neubert, owner of Reid Neubert & Friends, a Bay Area marketing agency, recalled his experience with a successful software start up.  Public relations was a key part of a strategic mix that also included advertising and direct marketing.

“We built relationships with journalists and editors as resources for them (rather than always pitching something,) he continued. “We were often contacted for information and referrals when they needed industry information or expertise, and as a result always included in or quoted in related stories.”

As a result of the PR campaign, coupled with the active and focused trade show and marketing efforts, Neubert noted that within six months of product launch, the company was seen as a major player within its vertical.

“We all hear stories about companies that seem to have come out of nowhere and become overnight successes, he noted, “But usually there is an incredible amount of work that went into those successes. There aren’t any shortcuts.”

The approach Neubert relayed was disciplined and focused. Discipline was also a recurring theme in other conversations that led to this blog post. And building some discipline around goal-setting and planning is also a key piece of the puzzle.

Paul Weber, CEO at Entrepreneur Advertising Group, related details of his own company’s disciplined approach to launching, which started with the number of new clients needed, and then focused on filling the funnel with prospects.

“Literally, with no clients and little money to spend we calculated the number of events we needed to attend, the number of people we needed to meet, the number of direct sales meetings and the resulting close rate of new clients,” he said. “From that point on it was all about discipline in following the plan.”

The kind of elbow grease that really is the key to making or breaking a campaign.  Taking the time to target the right journalists and bloggers with relevant, personalized pitches takes time, but it works.  Observing and listening to your audiences online takes deliberation and patience – but reveals the pain points and opportunities that, when answered, can fuel success.

Have you hit a PR home run with a start up? Let’s hear the details!

Authored by Sarah Skerik, VP social media, PR Newswire.  See you in Austin at SXSWi March 10 – 15.

Follow the Quora discussion: http://www.quora.com/What-is-the-process-involved-in-launching-a-start-up-at-SXSW

Are you building a plan to publicize your start up? Earlier this year, PR Newswire launched the PR Toolkit for Entrepreneurs, an affordable service that helps entrepreneurs and small businesses effectively promote and publicize their products and services online.  The toolkit combines information on  how to write press releases, work with the media, raise your profile as an expert and plan an economical PR campaign with a set of low-cost online visibility services.

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