Sheryl is VP of Marketing & Comms at Plus One Robotics. She’s won many industry awards and was named ‘Global Best Partner’ while at Apple.
When it comes to marketing and communications strategies, there’s a common debate within early stage startups: Do we hire an agency or do we keep it in-house? And while many agencies will tell you it’s smart to hire outside help, and agencies indeed bring a breadth and depth of experience to the table, I advocate for in-house teams for very early stage companies.
Smaller startups may think they need to hire a PR agency, for example, to be successful with press. But in truth, agencies by their model come with overhead costs and need close management to understand your business and deliver tangible results. You want your hours going towards the work rather than the overhead, which is not efficient when budgets are small. And it’s hard for smaller startups to find the right agency given many come with a minimum retainer fees and contractual terms. As your startup grows, you’ll be ready for a full-service agency. But in the early days, hiring an in-house person might be better.
Take PR, for example. PR is an essential part of brand-building for startups. It’s a long-tail game, not a faucet that can be turned on and off. It requires months of relationship-building with editors and writers. And the most successful companies — no matter who is doing the PR — know and understand that effective communications strategies take time and consistency.
So, how should early stage startups gain visibility without hiring an agency? Here are some tips to increase your business’s brand awareness while building your marketing and communications in line with your company’s growth.
Build a robust website.
Building your first website can be a challenge, but it’s important to remember that it’s not a business card for your company. It’s a doorway to your business. It’s easy to throw up a quick website that’s glossy and professional looking, but in truth, your website is the central hub for the customer journey. Touch points to engage, educate and inform can be built along each step of the journey.
If your company is B2B, the sales cycle can be long, with customers taking four, six, even 12 months to make a purchase decision. Creating a website that accompanies a potential customer through the many points of the purchase cycle can speed up the process and keep your audience engaged. Excite your customers with high-level thought leadership content and add evergreen content too, such as on-demand webinars and white papers. It’s crucial to remember your site is not just brochureware.
Websites can be easily built without the need for coding. For consumer ecommerce businesses, Wix and Shopify can get you started. Squarespace offers a range of beautiful templates, and alternatives like Webflow provide greater control over design, features and functionality.
Don’t underestimate the power of the local press.
You’re unlikely to land the home page of TechCrunch with your first round of pitches so working with your local press is a great way to start. National media outlets often look to local press. Building relationships with your local reporters is important. Nurturing journalists in your area will help cut your teeth and prepare you — as your company grows, you will have more to talk about.
Be smart and deliberate as you develop relationships with writers. Learn what topics they cover and pitch accordingly. Keep an eye on trends within your industry and pitch unique and relevant story ideas. Offer your opinion in reaction to the news. If you have a local office opening or open house, invite them for a tour and briefing on the company. Be proactive! And remember, the national press is frequently looking to local publications to see what trends, news and stories are bubbling up in the area — their next piece could be on you!
Create a consistent cadence of high-quality content.
No matter your business, you need to create content to position your brand, differentiate from the competition and spread the word about your mission. Start a blog on Medium. You’ll need to invest in cultivating a following, but with the platform’s huge distribution, this is a useful way to get your content in front of a new and different audience. Note: This is in addition to maintaining a blog on your own website. While Medium provides a great opportunity to reach the masses, a blog on your website provides the detailed analytics and insight needed to refine and iterate on your customer journey. Your website should therefore host the primary blog, but with a little effort you can take one theme or article and rework it to create a different post that can live in both places.
These are a few of the steps an early stage startup can take to help increase visibility for their brand and products. In the beginning, marketing and communications strategies are more about time investment versus financial. Create the time and you’ll see the results.