Communications for Tech Start-ups

Technology start-ups are often more concerned with getting funded than they are with marketing communications, not realizing that a polished marketing communications plan and presentation may increase the chance of a successful pitch to venture capital firms.

The marketing communications program also can help a company establish clear and achievable objectives, including the key message points that must be conveyed to potential investors, partners and customers. Public relations, a cornerstone of the program, can put a start-up on the map and help build the awareness it desperately needs to attract clients and affiliates.

Often, such plans are developed and executed by a public relations agency. Unfortunately, from Silicon Alley to Silicon Valley, start-ups and smaller tech companies are quickly discovering that despite the recent stock market “corrections” and dot-com layoffs, larger agencies still are not taking on new clients with monthly retainers of less than $20,000. At the same time, visibility is critical to start-ups, especially those being severely outspent by well-funded competitors.

Young developers and engineers are the experts and visionaries behind many new tech ventures, but marketing and public relations are not their forte. By handling their own marketing communications, they may fall short of the excellence demanded in today’s competitive marketplace.

Where can start-ups turn for marketing communications expertise? There are several alternatives — agencies, an inhouse marketing communications staff and independent contractors. Each has pros and cons.

Large agency/small agency. Large agencies have vast resources and can offer a wide variety of personnel and services. Of course, this overhead is passed along to clients that pay for these services whether or not they are used. Larger agencies are best able to serve large, established accounts, which are more profitable and, therefore, garner the lion’s share of attention from experienced players.

A smaller account may match better with a smaller agency, where it will be a bigger fish in a smaller pond and more likely to be serviced by senior staff. Unfortunately, a small agency does not always have access to the vast resources and talent that a large agency can offer. It is not unusual for a large or small agency to farm out work to an independent contractor at a considerable markup.

Bring things inhouse. An inhouse staff means marketing communications professionals are dedicated to your account full time as members of your team. They are not billing you on a project basis or marking up expenses. It is the lowest cost on a per-hour basis if there is enough work to keep the staff busy and cost-effective. Otherwise, it is difficult for start-ups with limited funding to justify the expense of salary and benefits.

Outsourcing/independent contractors. Independent contractors are senior professionals who provide additional resources on an as-needed basis — supplementing an existing marketing communications solution or serving as extra support, or “relief pitchers,” for employees on leave.

Independents usually charge by the hour or project, working faster and cheaper than agencies. Many offer a full range of services, including company/product launch and rollout, media and analyst relations, case studies, customer success stories, white papers, collateral, advertising copy, company newsletters, Web content development, special event organization and trade show support.

Here is some advice for tech start-ups searching for a marketing communications solution:

• Myth: If an agency can service “EveryoneOnline.Com,” it can service a start-up. Reality: Large agencies match best with larger, established clients. Working on an established account, a public relations professional can become complacent and forget how to be proactive in introducing a start-up. Small accounts may initially receive senior staff’s attention but soon will be serviced by less costly/less experienced juniors. Start-ups are harder to work on and need seasoned professionals.

• Location, location, location — not! Location may be the most important factor when buying a house but not when selecting an agency. A prestigious address does not make an agency do better work or increase the chances of media coverage. Would you rather pay for the view from your agency’s conference room or pay for results? How easily can you or your agency travel to and from each other’s offices? What is your time worth?

• Though agencies love to drop names of their media contacts, these may not be the right reporters, editors and analysts for your company. Experienced professionals will develop new press relationships as needed.

• When reviewing agencies, make sure the people pitching to you will be the same people who will do the actual account work. This should be written into the contract.

• Independent contractors are a limited resource, often working simultaneously for several clients. Make sure they have the bandwidth to take on additional work for your account and can meet your deadlines.

• Your inhouse staff should be experienced enough to do the job alone and handle periodic spikes in the workload. In a tight labor market, ensure that they are well-compensated to lessen the attraction of offers from a competitor or agency.

• Chemistry counts — you will have regular contact with your marketing communications professional. Marketing communications professionals should be experienced in their field and must be able to learn your business quickly.

A start-up’s marketing communications needs and funding vary from month to month — your marketing communications professional must be flexible. Marketing communications is an investment. Selecting a source that matches your company’s culture/personality is likely to give you the best return.

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