People buy people, focus on personal stories for startup PR

Building buzz – the elusive buzzword that all companies, big and small, diligently work into their marketing plans and then struggle to achieve in the absence of loads of money to run high decibel advertising campaigns. Or those who have already spent all their big bucks stare dissatisfied at the rest of the year as the brand whimpers along in the absence of TOM. The challenge is all the more acute for start-ups, funded or not, who often have to do more than build their brand, they often have to build a category. With money, or without. And in most cases, without money.

That’s when the spoken and read word backed by third party presentation comes into play – loosely called PR, Word of mouth, influencer communication or social media. The measure of how effective these are have been reduced to pithy captures such as ‘Google Quotient’, advertising equivalent value, trending, viral and so forth. In a senses, the measurement approaches have knocked the bottom of what really makes for ‘buzz’ – loosely word of mouth, recognition, unprompted recall and, often, a smile.

More importantly, the real measure is fairly simple: Is the story of your brand well understood, whether it was through one exposure or a hundred? In the dirty gutter space between advertising and content, tentacles from both sides have reached out to muddy the other side but, at the core,  building buzz is all about telling a great story. And most start-ups really begin their life with faith in their ‘story’ addressing a huge market they can make money out of. The question really is how do you make your product or service into a story that captivates a large group of people, consistently, engagingly and with a sense of newness every time they come across it.

So, here are five quick ways to examine whether you are getting the buzz builders right.

First, check your newsiness. What’s that? It’s simply about knowing which part of your story will make a lot of people want to know more about you. It’s all about ‘who cares’ and ‘why now’? Use the ‘big deal’ concept (why is your news a big deal for anyone apart from you and your team?) and shed that ego cloak – just because you raised a few millions – or even tens of millions -  you are not news. Just because you set up an enterprise based on an unprecedented idea that blew your investors’ mind, you are not news. You are not news because you set up a large office or got a 100 people on board or even made Rs 10 crore of sales in your first year.

Strangely, you are often news for the softer things you do – how you hire, train, equip and reward people. Or the difference you are making to the community. Or the promise that people see in you. If you have a global lineage, if you are a part of a larger global trend but the first one around here, if your story is going to get a lot of people concerned, excited, interested, informed. Often its not about what you do but the ‘benefit’ you intend to deliver. The hard work is in creating that story that would interest people, and therefore people who write-comment-post interested.

Second, news attracts news. The more you make news, the more newsy you are likely to be. Yes, yes, we all want to be in The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Hindustan Times, India Today, Mint or a Hindu or a Business Standard or any of the top rung publications that speak to people you want to get noticed by. But that happens when you are breaking ground that is a complete disruption or simply relates to a lot of people. Still, eventually, that’s where all brands have to be.

How do you get there? By driving every piece of news you can make. And pushing it in every channel possible. In today’s online world, news replicates equally for big and small platforms. The way in which newsiness comes into play is often driven by the density quotient. The more people see you, the more they get interested in you, the more of news interest you become. I have seen too many companies that outstripped big brands simply by driving news density. Take 1996 when online was not a factor at play. Global brands such as Sony and Panasonic started operating in India and, more or less, had the edge of being well known brands with a great story to sell. India was thirsty for global brands. At the same time, there were hungry start-ups like Airtel which were dying to get themselves heard over the din. With per minute call charges of Rs 16.50 per minute and a small customer base, most newspapers kept tucking away brand news even as the brand churned out release after release and held conference after conference. At the very same time, Sony and Panasonic sat back and waited for market success to touch them before engaging media. In another two to three years, Sony and Panasonic became a part of a bunch of undifferentiated brands. On the other hand, companies like Airtel had dedicated correspondents feeding off them. 

Third, build the person story. People buy people. Every time. Whether it is in raising investments. Or selling to another business. Or a policy to government. Or to media. Or to consumers. Who you connect with, how you build your personal profile, what you stand for takes you to clear identification of the news brand. Those brands which are hesitant to present clear leadership tend to lose traction. Take the example of Nestle in the midst of the Maggi crisis. After floundering on every front, it took a new, visible, leader who was in command of the facts and the situation to start changing the discourse. Look around and you will find that every start up and major company that makes news is known by the person at the helm articulating the story.

Fourth, get over the idea that the media is obliged to cover you in any manner. At any time. No matter how ‘big’ you are. Many hot shot entrepreneurs who switched boats after selling out disappeared without a blip. And that’s quite the norm for most CEOs. Media reports the brand. The spokesperson is just that, the spokesperson. No matter he was the creator, founder, enabler, nurse-maid. So, spend time thinking through what the story ought to be. Meet people. Talk about the brand to influencers. Creating a buzz about the brand is not just about taking the brand to the journalist. It’s about taking it to the people, creating space in their minds about the brand. When Sheroes’ predecessor, Fleximoms, was just a start-up with little to show, its founder used to wear a badge of the brand even to social functions. That was often a conversation starter. And a way for a lot of people to meet up with her, approach her and talk to her about what she was doing. Slowly, that created a wider recognition of the concept much before she started getting talked about in the media. That was a brilliant example of how to build a category, a concept and a brand by simply getting a lot of people interested in what you do.

Fifth, know your media and connect to the world. Either work out where your story is a natural fit or create a story that fits the space that you want to be. Relationships will give you one shot at a story but not build a lasting news brand. The media reacts to the news environment. The best shot for telling your story in a way that it is relatable is to connect what you do to what difference it makes in the current context and on the platform that best understands your particular context. Not every story is a pink paper story or a story for the English national dailies. Indeed, very few are. But there is a very large set of media, particularly online, that might well be focused on stories such as yours. Too many companies have erred in presuming that the media needs to ‘find’ the story. The news media works at a pace and delivery times where finding new stories have become a luxury. So, getting onboard places where you are likely to be ‘discovered’ counts more – whether that is by finding the right media fit or finding a story that fits into the big picture of what’s happening around the world.

 Supriyo Gupta is the founder & managing director of Torque Communications and Digilogue Communications.

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