I’ve launched dozens of startups and I’m the first to tell you that no two startup launches are ever the same — because no two startups are the same. Every PR launch strategy must be tailored to each unique startup and its goals in order to maximize results. This mere 2000-word post is not meant to be comprehensive; it’s intended to offer first-time founders a simple guide and general recommendations. This is geared toward seed-stage business-to-business (B2B) and enterprise-focused tech startups with an existing (beta) product and customers.
The 15 Steps for a PR launch
- What are you announcing? Sometimes it’s funding, coming “out of stealth”, a new product offering, or something else altogether. Sometimes it’s a combination of these things. Remember that early funding is no longer the hot news item it once was; you may need to bulk up your announcement to make it attractive to journalists. With a competitive news cycle, you’re going to need to be very realistic about the newsworthiness of your announcement. Consider your ideal headline: is it something that media and their audiences would care about? Why?
- Decide on a realistic launch date. Keep in mind that the process outlined below can take 4-6 weeks or longer. Make sure the ink is dry on funding (SEC filings, if any, may complicate this since they become public record) and the product will be ready. The last thing you want to do is shift the date on media. Also, while your product may have been available to customers for months or years, if it hasn’t been publicly announced or publicized, you can still announce it. If it has been previously announced or publicized, your announcement strategy may need to shift to address what is new/what has changed (e.g. new product features).
- Outline your KPIs. Many founders go into a launch without a clear vision for what they view as a successful launch. Is it a marquis piece of coverage in a widely-read publication? Is it an increase in website visits or signups? Visibility, credibility, or share-of-voice within the industry? Do you want to drive people to make a purchase or download something? Sometimes founders use launches to appease restless investors who want to see traction — or customers who want to see coverage so they know the company is real. Be honest, align expectations, and create realistic goals.
- Clearly identify customer segments, their pain points, and how you differentiate. This will be the backbone of your message. Remember: people don’t buy “speeds-and-feeds”; they buy a solution in order to solve a pain. Clearly articulating those pains and how you map to them is key. Savvy customers and journalists will likely know what else is out there — and your competitors may come up in conversation. How are you different? Be honest, be clear, be comprehensive. Make sure all the key stakeholders inside and outside the company are in agreement about who you are and what you do. You don’t want people “going rogue” and confusing your message. Unless you intend to take on a specific leader — think: Salesforce vs. Oracle in the early days — try to avoid mentioning your competition by name, otherwise you may end up giving them free ink.
- Assemble your most important PR-able assets.
- Customers, customers, customers. It’s one thing for a founder to extol the virtues of your company and product. It’s another when a customer will do it on your behalf. The more customers you have, the more who will go on the record, and the more detail they can share about how they’ve used your product successfully, the more credibility you will have. More often than not, this is where startups fail; they don’t have enough customer success evidence to prove it’s not vaporware. Wait until you have happy customers before you announce. Case studies are gold!
- Investors, advisors, industry heavy-hitters and others in your ecosystem. Founders often don’t realize that their investors and advisors have connections within the media. Ask what those connections might be and how you can leverage them (VC firms often have a PR person who can help). Get approved quotes from all of the key players in your ecosystem — these will come in handy later when speaking with media.
- Industry data, reports, and other types of validation. Collect all of the relevant industry data that supports your thesis. You may be able to cite these in a press release or use them in your pitch to media. Most importantly, they offer important context for why your solution matters and the market opportunity you’re tapping into.
- Screenshots, headshots, logos, videos, and other multimedia. These are ancillary assets, but you don’t want to get stuck pulling these together at the last minute. The more the merrier — it’s great to give media options.
- Consider if you want to engage with industry analysts. Firms like Gartner and Forrester play a huge role in creating categories and defining the marketplace. Think: Gartner Magic Quadrant and Forrester Wave — companies still place a lot of weight on where startups rank in these. It may take a little digging to find the perfect analyst(s) for your space, but requesting a 30/45/60-minute briefing with them is free. Remember that analysts generally book up weeks in advance, so plan to request a briefing at least a month before the launch date. You’ll need a Powerpoint or PDF presentation to walk them through your business and offering — often very similar to an investor pitch deck.
- Determine which publications make the most sense. Unless you’re doing something truly groundbreaking, you’re unlikely to land on the front page of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal anytime soon — that’s ok! Often, founders glamourize top-tier publications but don’t appreciate the role of smaller industry trade publications that reach their customers directly. Ask how your customers and prospects find their news. If your goal is to reach investors, respected pubs like TechCrunch, The Information, Re/code, and others are great bets. If your goal is to recruit, local publications with a tech section might be a good target. There are thousands of publications — partner with a PR expert who can help you and target.
- Draft your press release. Press releases are still the industry standard for announcing major news. For a fee, they are distributed to thousands of publications “over the wire” (e.g. PR Newswire, Businesswire, or others) and live on the web forever, offering a go-to source for information about your company. They’re also distributed to media as part of media pitching, so you’ll want to make sure it includes all the information related to your launch that you want to be made public. Still, some companies choose not to issue a press release at all and instead announce via their blog, Medium, or other destination. Determine which make the most sense for your budget and goals.
- Create a talking points document. Ideally your press release will address most questions, however you’ll want to create a comprehensive guide to anything and everything that a journalist may ask you — and your well-crafted responses. In addition to all the basic questions about your company, founder story, and product, include uncomfortable questions that you might not want to answer, like revenue or past publicized failures, and think about how you would respond. Not only is this a great exercise and preparation for the briefing, it will help to ensure you’re not caught flat-footed. Remember that anything you say can and will be put in print (unless you ask for something to be “off the record”). You may choose to respond to a question with “no comment”, but never lie!
- Pitch media. Assuming you’ve successfully accomplished all of the above in the way it makes sense for your business, the next part is critical to your success — and how you do it will determine the outcome. You’ll want to pitch media (via email) about two weeks before launch (sometimes more or less depending on the specific kind of news and sensitivities) in order to give them enough time to ask questions and write the story. It’s ok to ping journalists a couple of times if you haven’t heard back, but it’s usually a sign that they’re not interested after the third email. Wait at least two days before each follow-up. Avoid calling, but you may have luck with social media. Tailor every media pitch to each individual journalist — do NOT use mail merge!
- Option A: The Exclusive. Giving an exclusive means that you will pitch one — and only one — journalist with the news. This is typically an attractive offer to a journalist, who will know that they alone will break the news and receive all of the traffic (at least until other publications pick it up). On one hand, you’ll likely get a more in-depth piece; on the other, it will likely diminish your overall amount of coverage. This will give you some flexibility as to when you announce, because you’ll time the press release to go out simultaneously as the article that is written, which you can coordinate with the journalist.
- Option B: The Embargo. More commonly, companies will choose to embargo the news. That is, pitch the news (ie. press release) to media under the condition that they will not publish the news until the specified launch date (when you publish the press release). Get an agreement to the embargo and be clear about the date and time. This offers you the opportunity to speak with more journalists ahead of time and get a variety of coverage.
- Option C: The Strategic Hybrid. On some occasions, you can offer the core news under embargo to many journalists and still reserve some pieces of news or access exclusively to must-get journalists. For example, you might offer your highest-profile customer exclusively to one journalist; or you might give them a sneak peek into other things coming down the bend. Remember that with this strategy, you’re playing the field — be careful, thoughtful, and respectful.
- Arrange briefings. Assuming you’ve got a newsworthy story, journalists will likely want to speak with you by phone or meet in-person. Due to time or other commitments, some journalists may only want you to email them press release. Expect calls and meetings to take 30 mins to an hour and be prepared to do a quick demo. Expect for the briefing(s) to generally take place in the week before your launch. Remember that they may need several days to conduct any other interviews, write, and queue up for publication. Leave a buffer.
- Issue press release, thank journalists. If all goes without a hitch, you’ll issue the press release at the embargo date and time and you’ll begin to see coverage roll in. Remember that you should never expect coverage just because you had a meeting. Be sure to send notes thanking journalists. If you need to ask for any corrections or clarifications, that’s OK, as long as you’re asking for a factual edit (not because you don’t like something they said or that they praised a competitor) and do not make demands.
- Keep the momentum going. Be sure to retweet; share on LinkedIn and Facebook, tagging the journalist if possible; include links on your website and blog; and include coverage roundups in communications to investors, advisors, partners, customers, and everyone else you know. If there’s an especially great piece of coverage, you may want to invest in paid promotion on LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter. Be sure to use the coverage for lead gen, lead nurturing, and in sales and partnership conversations.
- Measure, measure, measure. Per Step 2, take a look at how you did relative to your goals and KPIs. Do a post-mortem to determine what worked and what didn’t.
- Build relationships. While interactions with media may seem transactional, it’s all about building a relationship that will grow over time and be valuable for both parties. You want journalists to approach you when they have questions or need insight about your industry — so keep the lines open. Go to coffee just to chat. Connect them with experts. Ask about the things they’re thinking about or seeing in the space. Read their articles, share them, comment on them. Stay engaged!
I hope this helps! I’d love to hear your thoughts about what has worked and what hasn’t. As always, feel free to comment below or email me at aaron at aaronendre.com.