Bubbles, booms and unicorns, we’ve seen them all. The indisputable dominance of technology and the radical transformation it’s had on the way we live, work, socialize and relax appears to be at an all-time high. If you’re not a “tech” company in today’s day and age, you’re likely to be disrupted by one. For a growing number of industries, it’s not a matter of if — it’s when.
With the increased adoption of Software as a Service products in the workplace, the proliferation of social platforms, the emergence of voice-controlled connected devices in our homes and the rapid acceleration of direct-to-consumer E-commerce businesses, the pace of technological disruption is unprecedented. If you don’t believe me — or your own audit of your daily IT habits — believe the markets. According to renowned VC and technology oracle Mary Meeker, tech companies are becoming a larger part of U.S. businesses, accounting for 25 percent of U.S. market capitalization in April of this year. They’re also transforming legacy industries, taking a growing share of corporate R&D and capital spending.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '18 Technology PR Magazine
As communications professionals working in an industry with an increasing number of clients building, selling or being impacted by technology, it’s critical that we understand how high-growth technology companies operate, the pressures and opportunities that shape them and, most importantly, how to communicate what it is they’re doing. Which is not an easy task! I’ve often joked that my career in-house at high-growth tech companies running growth, performance marketing, investor relations and communications can be summed up in one sentence: I translate nerd into human.
Why does PR matter for high-growth technology companies?
Working alongside some exceptionally brilliant entrepreneurs building the marketing communications functions within businesses experiencing rapid internal and external growth, I’ve navigated the various stages of a high-growth company’s lifecycle. From ideation and go-to-market expansion through to the seismic shifts in strategy that an acquisition, IPO or capital injection create, the role of public relations at each stage is nuanced and vital.
A successful technology company does one thing: it offers a real solution to real problems faced by real-life people. Once an entrepreneur has identified a pain point and created the product or service that addresses it, their primary focus turns to growth. Whether your tech client is a startup or rapidly approaching an IPO, they’re chasing a specific medium-term growth goal and hoping to achieve their long-term goal, which for many remains that billion-dollar status.
No doubt, many tech and PR professionals have at some point had the argument with a founder or CEO about the value of PR for a tech company. So, it’s important to educate tech execs on how PR supports growth, and most importantly, sustains growth.
PR legitimizes a company. A profile of a company, a spotlight feature on their technology or a news cycle surrounding a funding announcement do more than just populate the pages of Google, they bring credibility and begin building a sphere of influence for a company and its executives. PR helps tech companies articulate their vision, a thing which for a high-growth business looking to recruit or attract investment, needs to be clearly — and loudly — established across all communications channels. Having raised significant capital, I can’t stress enough how valuable a piece of coverage in a reputable outlet can be to the process. As opposed to just saying “believe me,” you can point to the words of a respected reporter instead.
PR is an important piece of the growth function. Taking a growth hacking approach to marketing is essential for high-growth companies, but it doesn’t mean that PR should fall by the wayside. PR lets you talk directly to customers, analysts and influencers who play a critical role in shaping buying behavior. It also provides your growth marketers and salesforce with powerful content to put dollars and effort behind leveraging the article’s SEO value and external validation factor, while ensuring more eyeballs see it. PR is a paramount component of a holistic growth strategy that should not be overlooked.
PR is what will build a brand. As Sir Richard Branson said, a good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front-page ad. When you’re working within a tech company laser-focused on growth, the pressures to achieve that euphoric hockey stick growth graph are intense, often meaning that many marketing strategies are focused on short-term gains, not long-term brand building. Brands that have failed to clearly articulate what value they offer, haven’t created a relationship with their customers or positioned themselves in the market as a leader may hit their short-term numbers but will fail to stand the test of time. A brand tells a story that’s bigger than the product or service that it sells, and to build that brand, publicity is absolutely critical.
Run your PR practice like a tech company. A PR team, whether in-house or agency, should be an extension of the business. It should have the same organizational operating norms, to remove points of friction, it should drink from the same Kool-Aid and it should anticipate the pressures and opportunities that lay ahead. Having moved to an agency environment after more than a decade running the MarComs function in-house, this transition has re-emphasized to me how important it is for a tech PR team to think and operate like a tech company.
Lean and agile aren’t just buzzwords engineers use, they’re an important business approach that works for PR. These methodologies aim to shorten the time needed for product development cycles, so that changes to a product or business model are rolled out in an iterative fashion, giving a business time to quickly assess if they positively or negatively impact the growth of the business and pivot accordingly. Plan, test, iterate, validate and build: this approach should apply to building a communications program. Pitching bite-sized, sharp and actionable stories gets rapid results that all ladder up to the overarching business narrative. When a tech company is moving in two-week sprints and seeing rapid growth, they expect the same energy and cadence of results from their PR team.
Solve a pain point. If this is touted as the most important piece of a successful tech company’s DNA, then why isn’t it the most important piece of your PR program? When pitching media, the impact of the product or service you are touting should shine through with every story angle. You must learn how to quickly and clearly make every person reading your pitch, no matter their knowledge level, know what your client’s value-add is.
Transparency — a.k.a. no B.S. — is key when communicating with an entrepreneur. Don’t PR your clients. Work together to set clear expectations from the start. While they live, breathe and believe in their technology, as PR professionals, we know that often it requires a lot of education, creative positioning and persistence to land coverage. Don’t be afraid to be real with your client; push back when necessary, but always offer alternative solutions to get results. Also, if a particular program isn’t working, let them know early and pivot.
Get $h!t done. I have this sign lit up in my office and it’s a way of life for tech companies. Labeled by BOX CEO and Founder Aaron Levie as one of their core values, high-growth tech companies “take risks and fail fast,” allowing them to run at the pace needed to scale rapidly. PR people need to keep up. To run a successful tech PR agency, it’s critical to operate at the same velocity as our clients.
Working alongside entrepreneurs, engineers and businesspeople to help articulate their vision makes the tech sector one of the most exciting and rewarding areas for marketing and communications pros to work in. The PR adage that “no day is the same” couldn’t be truer when working with hyper-growth companies, as the business they are today may be drastically different from the business they’ll be in a month’s time. And when you start working with a unicorn, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride, because you’re about to water ski behind an aircraft carrier.
Nikki Parker is VP of technology and corporate communications at 5WPR.