The First Pillar Of Successful Start-Up Communications: Messaging

Part one of a two-part series outlining the two pillars of success in start-up communications.

One might say we are living in a new era of entrepreneurship, with bright minds seeping out of the traditional workforce to launch their own businesses, fueled by hard work and an undeniable, unrelenting passion. However, sources of record like Fortune note that the number of start-ups has fallen from representing 14% of all businesses to only 8% over the last 30 years. What is the reason for this sharp decline? The Economic Times lists 10 reasons why start-ups fail, but chief among them is a lack of understanding of the importance of communications—both internally and externally.

Lindsay Cosner, Gotham PR
Lindsay Cosner, Gotham PR

With start-ups growing and, oh so often, failing fast, it is more important than ever that ingenuity and passions are partnered with PR prudence and a tight communications strategy. It all seems to boil down to two major thought pillars, under which all else falls: messaging and relationships. Understanding how to create a message and have the relationships that will make your message matter are the foundation to creating a successful communications strategy at a start-up.

When creating your message, there are a series of questions to ask yourself and your team: 

What Are You Talking About?

This should seem obvious: You’re talking about your product, your company and your value proposition. But no matter how well-crafted your messaging or how in-sync you are with your media team, your product must always be put before publicity.

It is important to get your product, user experience and customer service right, because even great coverage and marketing cannot sustain success when there is a flaw in the core business model. You cannot expect your marketing and PR efforts to make up for issues with operations or the product itself. If demand comes in as a result of a great placement, review or social media post, be ready to fulfill. The best messaging needs to be backed up by action, a good product and even better overall customer experience.

Loop communications teams in from the early stages of development so they can contribute their unique perspective, begin to build excitement, develop the brand voice and nail the identity and positioning of the product and company. This is a process, not a light switch; all the time spent on development, the trial and error that went into creating the product itself, will likely also be reflected when it comes to creating the larger brand identity.

What Are You Saying About It?

When crafting your messaging, remain objective and control the subjective excitement that you have about your product. Remember the consumer and the problem you are solving and keep your value proposition simple and specific. You must find your place in the market and then focus your voice.

Seek opinions from each segment of your team, your marketing team, your investors, your development team, etc. and ask them each to define the company, the product and the problem they are solving. All answers given are important. Craft them into one narrative, even if, in the end, the answer looks a little different from what you originally had in mind.

When creating your messaging, resist the temptation to use analogies to define your business. Saying, “It’s like Angie’s List, but for all things baby,” is instructive, but it takes away from your brand. An analogy is an oversimplification that will leave your audience with an understanding, but you won’t stand out as a unique product. Instead you risk being simply an adaptation of someone else’s more original idea.

You can avoid this branding trap and still maintain customer comprehension by starting off at the heart of your brand. Reduce your message down to its very nucleus, perfect that, sell that as an idea, and then add layers of dimension and functionality to your definition over time. You have worked on this idea, this product, for years and it’s only natural to want to share everything that’s great about it all at once, but you must walk before you can run and so must your message.

How Are You Saying It?

You’re used to talking about your product, living and breathing your product, but talking to the media and the public about it is an entirely different conversation that will stretch you outside of your usual circles and the people who are already evangelized to your message. Now you’re talking to “outsiders,” and you need to be accessible and genuine.

Your great idea may have gotten you to where you are and you may think it’s the best and only true option in the space, but seeming at all patronizing will only distance you from potential customers. When positioning your brand in the competitive landscape, negativity never wins. Know your competitors and how to differentiate yourself without trash talking.

Brooke Hammerling, founder of Brew Media Relations, points out another critical messaging directive for start-ups when she says, “If you’re a huge company, sure, you might be able to pull off being snarky or sassy, but as a start-up, all you should be is respectful of your competition.”

She goes on to advise that you should pivot the conversation to speak instead about someone similar who has done it right and draw a parallel to them. This creates a correlation between you and your brand and the success of a giant in your space. Remember when speaking about your company and your competitors that you are all part of the same community, and always try to bring the conversation back to you.

Don’t get carried away when speaking about your company or the competitive landscape. Avoid broad, sweeping statements or generalizations, like “we’ll do it in half the time,” or “we’re the only responsible option.” Not only will you have to live up to these statements once you make them, but you risk alienating your potential customer base. If they are using the competition now, insulting their intelligence or compassion by obviating the need for and superiority of your product will only alienate them and cause defensiveness that might push them the other way. Negativity in messaging doesn’t work; inspiring a potential customer that they can be or can do even better is a stronger message.

You must also be steadfast with your promises: promises to the media, to your investors and to your customers. If you make a deadline for launch, or fulfillment public, you must not miss it. As a new company, you do not have a public track record to fall back on—you are creating it. So make your communicated deadlines achievable by planning for delays and educating your decisions by talking to your team to inform work from all angles.

Whom Are You Saying It To?

In a crowded marketplace, the only way a business can cut through all the noise is by having something of value to say to an individual costumer. A customer should feel as though they are being spoken to one on one. But how do you speak to a customer one on one when you hope to have hundreds, thousands? It’s easier than you think, but requires a deep understanding of “whom you are talking to.” A deep dive into audience segmentation, demographics and psychographics is required to create personas that will represent the faces of your customer base.

Once you know whom you are talking to, you know how to focus your message to their needs, concerns and personalities. Every customer matters and in today’s modern, media world, one voice really can be heard everywhere.

Once an effective message is created and adopted, it is the relationships you have forged internally and externally that will make that message matter.

Lindsay Cosner is an account supervisor at Gotham PR.