Startup Storytelling: how to make people care

When was the last time you read a book where the story started with a product pitch?  How many of the books you’ve read recently, autobiographies aside were about the author?  How many of the autobiographies were of people who had still to achieve something significant in business? I raise these questions because storytelling it was a topic of discussion during a twitter chat organized by Startup Canada as part of its #startupchats series.

The chat was a rarity on social media these days – a civilized exchange of views by people with polar-opposite viewpoints.  Scrap that.  It is a rarity these days. Period. One of the participants was a long-time member of the Toronto Startup scene, Mark Evans.  Mark’s position in the chat was that product is key to good storytelling.  He wrote a blog post about his experience of the chat and asked me to write a piece about my take on the topic because we disagreed so fundamentally on the issue.

In his post, ‘For Startups, What’s More Important: Good Product or Good Story?’Mark poses the question whether it is the product or story that is more important for startups stories. He makes a case for both in his post, but I still disagree with his assessment. While the story is always more important than the product, a story that focuses on the startup, as Mark suggests, is also the wrong approach. I’d also argue that the product is irrelevant if you’re not telling the right story.

Mark makes the point that product rules because a bad product will be found out.  I agree.  But that’s one of the Ps of marketing – not part of the storytelling process [the promotion P].  Marketing doesn’t work without successfully delivering on all four [Product, Price, Place and Promotion] but starting the promotion with ‘I’ve got a good product’ without explaining why anybody should care is unlikely to win friends or influence people – let alone sell things.

When I was a child of the stories I read started with the fabled sentence, ‘once upon a time…’.  Why?  Because it is a vehicle for setting the scene.  It’s a way to provide context; to draw people in to the story. They didn’t start with a product pitch.  None of the stories I remember from my childhood started with a pitch by the author telling me how good they were are storytelling, character development, etc. and none started by telling me they were the Shakespeare of children’s books.

We all know that when we find a good story we can’t help but want to read more. We enjoy the twists and turns; the stories of good vs. bad. So what is the right story?  If it’s not product or a story about your startup, what should the theme of every good startup or small business story be?

The right story is the one that the audience wants to hear.  And, this is where most companies get it wrong.  They’re so busy pitching and telling the world how unique their product is; how they’re going to be the Uber of X, Y and Z, that they forget about the audience and, as a result, they lose them.  Nobody cares about their story.

I read, on a daily basis, supposed content marketing ‘experts’ imploring startups to tell their story.  I hear the same people telling entrepreneurs they have a voice.  But, for startups in particular, the key to telling the story your audience wants to ‘read’ is first understanding the audience.  If you understand the audience you can create story they can relate to.  

In his post, Mark talks about Dollar Shave Club and the video that is widely credited with putting them on the map, called, ‘Our Blades Are F***ing Great’.  The key to that story is the problem faced by men around the world – having to spend ridiculous amounts of money every month on razor blades.  Had their story been about their blades or the company it’s likely nobody would have cared. It’d just be a story about a cheap razor-blade. 

But because the company told a story that showed it understood the problem and positioned its solution in a fun and attention-grabbing way, the company was able to communicate how it solved the problem in a new and innovative way. They didn’t lead with their product or their startup story – they lead with a problem that their audience understood. We all know how it worked out.

So, when you’re starting to write your startup or small business’ next story forget the product pitch and the narcissistic navel-gazing and figure out what story your audience wants to be told.

Startup storytelling tips

  • Write the story your audience wants to hear – not the one you want to tell
  • Your product is useless without an understanding of the value it delivers
  • Nobody cares about your story or your product.  They care that you understand their story and your product can help them write a better one
  • Resist the urge to use storytelling as a veiled product pitch

Learn from some of the greatest corporate storytellers

Nike ‘’Take It To The Next Level

Apple ‘think different

Maserati ‘Strike

Chipotle ‘Back To The Start

How To Measure Success of Public Relations

Ask most PR professionals and they’ll tell you that measuring the value of public relations is hard to express.  As a result, they’ll say, it’s hard to be specific about the value they deliver.  The return on your investment is affected by so many variables it is hard to be able to give you tangible outcomes.

It’s all a lie.  Here’s how to measure the success of public relations.  It’s all in the strength of the relationships build or maintained as a result of your PR activities. We do it every day in our private lives, so why do we find it so difficult to do it in our businesses?

Think about the most important people to your business right now.  Do you have relationships with them at all?  If not, they score a zero.

Of the people you have relationships with how strong are those connections?  Would they drop everything to help you if you asked them to?  Would they willingly do everything within their power to help your business overcome its current challenge?  Will they go to bat for you if you needed them to? Will they introduce you to people within their network that may have a need for your product or service? Will they testify to your credibility or vouch for the quality of your work?

If they would then score those relationships a 10.

If they’re not a 10 then you need to figure out where on the scale they are currently.

Perhaps they’re a new connection that will help you with advice, or will provide feedback on your product development.  They might be willing to introduce you to people that are potential customers or partners, but won’t provide a reference or testimonial.  They will help if they can, but you can’t guarantee they’ll come rushing in an emergency.  Would they help if they really were your last hope? What incentive would you need to offer in order to get them to help your business if you needed them to? Do you have direct access to them? Who are the people that you rely on to give you the access you need? Do you loose access to these people without the intermediary?

Make a list of the top ten people your business needs relationships with and score them, between 0 and 10, based on these criteria.  Having benchmarked the relationships that are most important to your business achieving its next milestone you can develop a PR programme designed to build, strengthen, or maintain these relationships.

Measuring the success of your PR activities can then be tracked, based on whether these relationships strengthen, weaken or whether you are able to maintain them until you have achieved your desired outcome.  If you reevaluate each of your ten most important relationships every 30 days you can quickly see the impact that public relations is having on your business.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: benchmark relationship strength and build a plan to ensure you have the ones you need in place.

What value media coverage? | THINK PR Espresso

The more I read in the media, the more I question the value of media coverage as a way to inform and educate audiences; as a way to start conversations and build relationships.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip:  understand why you want media coverage and its role in delivering your desired commercial outcome.  If you don’t understand why then you shouldn’t be doing it.

Where to do I find customers? | The THINK PR Espresso

PR Espresso, THINK PR Espresso, Startup, Smallbiz, PR Strategy

Why is that most PR programs focus on awareness with as many people as possible in the hope that you find the ones you’re looking for? The people you want to build relationships with are probably closer than you think – they’re either within your extended network or are accessible through it.

Rather than playing an expensive game of “Where’s Waldo”, why not focus on figuring out who they are, who you already know that can help you start a conversation with them, and focus on a few people, rather than broadcasting to the masses, hoping your audience will hear you?

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: don’t play a game of ‘Where’s Waldo?” – identify the people that are critical to the successful achievement of your next milestone and focus on building relationships directly with them.

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Why Tech Startups Don’t Need ‘PR’

I read a piece by The Houston Business Journal’s Joe Martin this morning called Tech startups: You don’t need PR, exec says.  In it, he says that Uber GM Chris Nakutis told a local group of entrepreneurs they don’t need PR.

In this video I explain why I agree.  Sort of.

Startup and SmallBiz PR & Marketing tip: Don’t mistake PR for publicity and make sure that you own the key relationships for your business – with customers, prospects, journalists and analysts.

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Do I need public relations, marketing or publicity?

PR Espresso, THINK PR Espresso, Startup, Smallbiz, PR Strategy

*Before you read this post please check out my definitions of public relations, marketing and publicity. It’ll take you less than two minutes.

PR is the process of building and maintaining strong relationships with the people that are critical to the attainment of a goal.

Marketing is compelling a defined person or group to take a specific action in support of your business – because they want to.

Publicity is awareness – the one-way communication of information/your story/your message to an audience en mass.

There’s a lot of confusion over the difference between public relations, marketing and publicity – most of it by people that are supposed to know better! The public relations industry in particular has struggled for decades – including the two that I’ve been working in it – to communicate exactly what the commercial value of it is.

Our customers see PR as smoke and mirrors; expensive smoke and ridiculously priced mirrors. Under no circumstances should they attempt to do themselves. Journalists are a prickly bunch that needs careful handling. You can destroy your business with a badly written tweet. The truth is that public relations isn’t only about the media – traditional, online or otherwise. It’s about relationships.

Relationships are what entrepreneurs do. They question you need to ask your self when figuring out whether you need PR, marketing or publicity to help you grow your business is, “what do I want them to do?”

If you want them to have a relationship with your organization then you need help with public relations. Public relations is about building and maintaining relationships. It is based on trust, mutual benefit, a shared value set, honesty and transparency. It’s also about the long-term success of the business, rather than short-term gratification. It’s a marriage, rather than a one-night stand. Editorial pitching with the aim of securing coverage is not, generally, public relations. Think about it – you don’t even have a relationship with the journalist in most cases, let alone one with the intended audience.

If, on the other hand, you want people to do something – then it is marketing support you need. Marketing is about getting people to take action on behalf of you [or your business] because they want to. I’ll say the last part again… because THEY WANT TO. If the action is taken grudgingly because you’ve kept asking or because you’re bombarding them with messages in the hope of beating them in to submission then it is not marketing. It’s intimidation!

If you want the world to know about your product, service or business – without an attempt to either build a relationship [a transactional purchase for an app, for example] then you need publicity. Publicity is the communication of information to an audience. Most media coverage is publicity – if it is news then it’s almost certainly publicity; editorial bylines can have the intention of building a relationship with the reader – but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Advertising is paid publicity.

So, what do you need most in order to grow your businesses?

  • Relationships based on trust?
  • People taking action, because they want to [I’d argue that you need to build relationships before people will willingly take action on your behalf]
  • Lots of people to know about you – without any intention of building a relationship or them taking action?

I can only think of a handful of scenarios where the latter is the case.

Startup and SmallBiz PR & Marketing tip: Understand the difference between public relations, marketing and publicity – and which one your business needs to achieve your next milestone.

If you have questions then please feel free to get in touch – you can email on lyndon@thinkdifferently.ca or call me on +1 647.773.2677

Ask questions; start conversations | The THINK PR Espresso

PR Espresso, THINK PR Espresso, Startup, Smallbiz, PR Strategy

Next time you’re tempted to pitch somebody – whether it is a prospect, early adopter or a journalist – stop yourself.  Before you introduce yourself think of a question. Think of something you’d like to know about the person you’re about to try to engage in a conversation.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip:  Asking questions is a great way to start conversations and can provide you with information that could help you ultimately get what you want.  It is one of the best -and most overlooked – public relations strategies.

How To Sell Your Product or Service Like Elon Musk

Public Relations, Tesla, PR, PR Strategy, Value Proposition, Startups, Startup, Smallbiz

When I work with entrepreneurs I ask them repeatedly to tell me what their business does.     In the majority of cases they talk about feature and function, rather than about the value it delivers to their customers. It’s often the biggest hurdle to growing a business.

An effective value proposition focuses on the value to the customer.  It understands the problem that a product or service solves. Why? Because if you can prove a value over and above the sticker price the question of price tends to be a secondary consideration [this presumes the prospect can afford the price – a question of finding the right audience].

Let me give you an example.  Tesla announced yesterday it will launch a $35,000 electric vehicle in 2017.  Its current Model S sells for anywhere between $60,000 and $110,000. When customers talk about price what do you think the sales representative says?

“Imagine if you never had to buy gas again”.

Gas, the great variable in owning a car right now.  Let’s say you spend $100 a week on gas…

$400 a month. $4800 a year. $24000 over a five year period.  The car suddenly starts to look less expensive.  Factor in that gas prices will fluctuate – and are likely to continue rising…

You also have no expensive trips to the Shop for repairs.  No fluids. No oil changes.

Elon Musk is thinking about the perceived value to prospective customers and is looking at the total cost of ownership of a vehicle, rather than just the sticker price.  When you think about your product or service, consider what your customers will value most – and sell it to them.

Things Can Go South On Social Media. Quickly!

PR Espresso, THINK PR Espresso, Startup, Smallbiz, PR Strategy

Earlier today I wrote a post about best practice on social media.  I should have known better!  If you want an example of how quickly perceptions can change on social media, check this out!

Having published my original post I tweeted, “We may disagree about PR but get’s social. You can learn from his example! [cc ]”.  It seems, however, that despite calling Shane out for best practice in social media, he wasn’t happy!  

You can read his tweets below [from the bottom up]. 

Social Media, Public Relations, 'Experts'
Everything can change in 140 characters

Apparently, he was concerned that I had outed his professional background in my piece because I had said he works in social media and, as he had admitted publicly to me on Friday, has no experience in public relations.  This, despite the fact that he’d written a piece that assumed publicity was PR – and that PR was dead.  For anybody that doesn’t understand the industry I work in this is misleading – and, having worked in the profession for 17 years, I feel justified in correcting this common misconception.

Here are my tweets from this morning’s exchange:

Public Relations, PR, Social Media, Publicity, THINK DIFFERENT [LY]Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 1.00.05 PM

If you want to read Friday’s exchanges then you can find them at @THINK_Lyndon

Why am I so passionate about this topic?

Let’s face it, my industry does a good enough job without help from uninformed commentators like Shane adding their misguided opinions that are based on an incorrect definition of what public relations is.  I have spent 17 years trying to help businesses to understand that public relations is not about publicity, but about relationships – despite the industry’s attempts to drive it in to the ground for a quick buck.

Shane, as you can see, disagrees!  He, after all, thinks you don’t need to be a singer to know how to sing! [his words not mine] I’m not qualified to comment on that, as anybody that has heard me caterwauling along to a Radiohead of Depeche Mode track will confirm!  But what I am qualified to talk about than him is public relations – I’m 17 years more qualified that Shane and, despite his claims that he’s open to being corrected, I’m not so sure!

I’m also not convinced that he really understands communication, let alone social, at all.

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