Comms essential to Web startups

A strong PR strategy is important for all organizations that are part of the Web 2.0 movement, especially as some tech insiders speak about a downturn.

A strong PR strategy is important for all organizations that are part of the Web 2.0 movement, especially as some tech insiders speak about a downturn.

Though venture capital money is still pumping through Silicon Valley, the Web 2.0 boom is showing early signs of cooling. With the price valuation of startups reaching exorbitant sums, with tried ideas being spun as new, and as even the phrase "Web 2.0" takes on a hackneyed hollowness, some feel the Valley is echoing eerie signs of the bubble. It's too early to say whether the industry should brace itself for a turn in fortune, but startups - especially those most buzzed about - are becoming mindful of inevitable backlash stories as skepticism sets in.

The most successful startups are able to build a general audience to show they are more than a fledging Silicon Valley novelty act. But even though the most promising startups often have technology that is more nimble than their established counterparts, the public (excluding the tech savvy consumers) can be resistant to change.

Pageflakes, the personalized homepage startup that works with Consort Partners, is positioning itself as tapping into the success of big players, yet still footloose enough to be cutting edge.

When the Europe-based startup lured Dan Cohen from his post as an executive at Yahoo to serve as the company's CEO earlier this year, it launched an extensive US media tour touting his experience.

"There is some irrational exuberance going on," says Cohen, who has also worked for Google. "In our case, I definitely like to focus on [my career history]. Look, I jumped from Yahoo to a startup, so there had to be something there. I wasn't doing it for fun, or to raise venture money, and flip the company tomorrow."

Because Cohen is doing much of the same work at Pageflakes that he did at Google and Yahoo, the PR tactic was inviting comparisons between Pageflakes' product and the equivalent offered by the tech icons. But Cohen says there was no fear such coverage would set expectations too high.

"We welcome the comparison; they are our competitors," he says. "Silicon Valley is about people who leave companies like Google and Yahoo and form better mousetraps and have better ideas with better and faster execution."

A fickle press
But having been through the first tech wave, Cohen knows that while Silicon Valley media can create the buzz swirling around a hot startup, they turn increasingly critical when the company is overexposed and readers show fatigue.

"We carefully tow the line between getting the publicity and exposure that we want to get from Web 2.0 and new technology," he says, "as well as being the mature, stable business that is going to survive all the trends."

Six Apart, a Web publishing company founded by a husband and wife team that launched following the downturn in 2001, has already enjoyed longevity by Silicon Valley standards, and now includes such platforms as TypePad, Movable Type, LiveJournal, and Vox.

Anil Dash, the company's VP of evangelism, says much of its early press focused on the love story between its founders. Yet, eventually, the company became wary of startup novelty stories that put too much emphasis on a company's synchronistic beginnings or big-personality CEO.

"Is that really the most salient bit information about the company?" Dash asks, noting the company has since shifted its message to focus on the product.

A good way to stand out among hype is to successfully weather turmoil that would damage unstable startups with clumsy crisis strategies. Following a major power outage in 2005, Six Apart responded with the popular method of letting customers choose their own refund policy that ranged from zero to six weeks. When the company was faced with another, less-severe outage this year, customers were patient because the startup had already proven that it could handle setbacks, Dash notes.

"The number-one thing we try to do is to really listen to what the community is telling us," he says. "It's a very intuitive thing, and it has to be a part of the company's organizational culture."

Daniel Bernstein, the self-proclaimed "marketing dude" at Meebo - an instant messaging startup - says the company isn't at risk for overexposure backlash yet, but won't work with reporters angling to write "bubble" stories.

"[If] it's a headline [with] something like, 'Silicon Valley companies, awash with cash throwing wild parties,' we don't want to be in the story," he says. "A bubble story is about frivolous spending; it's about having more money than you know what to do with; and it's about not running a business that is trying to be sustainable. And we're none of these things."

Avoiding excess
Additionally, the company, which works with Three-Forty Communications, steers clear of publicity stunts that can seem desperate - another sign of a flash-in-the-pan startup.

Yet unlike some startups, it updates business reporters about its technology every several weeks, but mostly to establish an innovation trend - and even emphasizes to reporters that it doesn't expect a story on each release, Bernstein says.

With backlash against Web 2.0 brewing, Meebo avoids being in that cluster of startups that have over-the-top valuations or an unclear revenue plan. But the changing media landscape means startups sometimes have to focus on getting their brand out there, despite the risk of overexposure.

"This time around, there is less print journalism and you don't have 300-page tech magazines writing about every startup under the sun," Bernstein cautions. "It's a very limited set of bloggers that are relevant and covering companies, and so you have to try and get the attention of those guys."

Getting the right type of coverage

Keep in mind that the public grows tired of over-hyped words. Rather than promoting a startup around overused terms from the Web 2.0 movement, come up with a new turn of phrase.

Remember that startup stories are often cyclical. Watch for coverage trends; The best time to pitch a startup could be after there has been a saturation of backlash stories.

When there is a major M&A in a sector, reporters and analysts will most likely conduct an industry-wide assessment. This is a chance for startups to be positioned in an industry trend story.

Watch the established players in an industry. If a big- name competitor is announcing its earnings, the media will probably put forth stories about the general state of the sector - another chance to establish a startup as an industry player.

Keeping the public and media updated about product launches and company milestones establishes the startup as a growing and evolving organization.

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