I am writing this article after a few people asked me to put down the things I spoke at the April Startup Saturday in Hyderabad about Zero Budget Marketing and PR in writing. I am not a PR professional, I have however, experience trying to get free publicity for the startups I have started or have worked with over the past few years - GoUNESCO, Mojostreet and the Hyderabad Marathon. These were the projects on which my team and I had good success. While GoUNESCO and Mojostreet was covered by general media, for Hyderabad Marathon, we were able to increase the number of registrations by 150% in the second year.Then there have been projects where I did not succeed in marketing/PR - tripnaksha.com and hitchhikingindia.com - I have learned from these too. In each of the successful projects I mentioned, the objectives and target audience was very different and hence the approach we used was different too.
I like to say that when you don't have money, you are forced to get creative. It is not very hard to hire a PR professional or a marketing agency, but most of the projects I was involved with have been bootstrapped where money was in short supply and there always was a more important purpose for the money we did have. Make no mistake though, free PR/marketing does not mean free of time or effort, or as one of my favourite authors says - TAANSTAFL (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch). It is always a good idea to evaluate what you have less - time or money, and decide which you can afford to spend.
If you are a company with customers across the world and hardly any local customers, you would be better off concentrating on online activities. Online is generally cheaper too.
1. Own blog and Bloggers
Starting a blog is easy, maintaining it is not. But having an active, meaningful blog can be extremely beneficial. The trick is to not sell your product all the time - people are easily put off by that. Instead talk about the industry you operate in, write case studies of how your customers benefitted by using your product, talk about other products that complement your product and so on. Take the example of wmpu.org - this site is related to wpmudev.com which sells wordpress plugins, themes, etc. The blog frequently talks about plugins other than their own and their posts are often at the top of Google search results when you query for plugins for a particular purpose.
Another way to keep your blog active is to publish interviews with other folks/startups, etc related to your work and vice versa. Not only are you now reaching a new audience, you are also building traffic to your website. You also make good connections in your industry.
Most people think twitter is good only if you engage with people and talk to them. True. But it also takes a lot of effort and dedicated resources to maintain an active twitter profile. As a scrappy startup, you can partly solve this problem with an automated feed - setting it up will require careful thought though.
Twitter is also a great way to make connections. If you already have an active profile on twitter, use it to talk to people. These days, everyone is on twitter - celebrities, editors, journalists, PR professionals. Talk to the people relevant to your field of interest, this way you don't force yourself to tweet inanities and not look like a spammer. Also, please don't stalk, it's not cool.
3. Customers and Clients
One of the best kinds of publicity is when your customers talk about you. When I started GoUNESCO, there were less than 10 participants. These folks wrote about the challenge on their blogs and the next few people joined after reading these blogs. Although I would have preferred having all the experiences of the participants on the main website, I did not discourage participants from writing the main article on their blog and then linking to it from the GoUNESCO website. The first newspaper article came through because a friend spoke to the reporter she knew.
This will work great even if you are a B2B player. Ask your happy customers to write you a testimonial and put it up on their website or blog. That speaks many volumes more than a testimonial you put on your website.
4. Linkedin Answers, Quora, Forums
It is surprising how few people use Linkedin to its potential. Linkedin is not just a place to add connections, it can be a very powerful way to build your personal brand. Linkedin Answers especially is an incredibly powerfull way to build reputation in your industry. For a B2B startup, this can be one of the most powerful tools available. Think about it, you have a whole bunch of professionals and decision makers in one place and you get to solve their problems. Also, display the depth of your knowledge and insights. This can be the start point for building new partnerships and even getting customers.
I believe Quora can be used in a similar fashion, but I cannot comment on it as I have never used it much. For folks purely into technology (not just startups but developers too), contributing answers to Github, StackOverflow, Serverfault can be a great way to build reputation. Contributing to open source software also proves your technology prowess. You do not need to look far for an example.
Agiliq, a tech services startup I know in Hyderabad does not even have a sales team, their entire team tech gets them all their sales leads – because of their contribution to free and open source software.
5. Social Sharing
You might have noticed that I have not mentioned Facebook at all till now. While I truly believe that enabling and encouraging social sharing is great, I am not taken by the number of fans a brand's Facebook page has. Many brands spend time, money and effort building an audience (getting likes) and then end up paying more money trying to reach this audience (noticed the promote your post link on FB admin pages?). And for what - sending traffic to Facebook? I would rather have customers share links to my website on their walls and get people to come to my website. This word of mouth, in my opinion, is much more valuable than a brand pushing silly updates on their wall and hoping they will be like or shared by people.
It feels great to see your picture or a mention about your startup in the newspaper, doesn't it? Newspapers are great if your target audience is local and are regular people. If your audience is more specialized, you would be better off getting written about in industry specific or technical publications. Many publications and newspapers publish email addresses of the authors, you can start by noting down the contacts of the folks whose articles are relevant to you. Trust me, everyone is looking for interesting content - the quality of silly news being covered (especially t.v) should give you a good indication of that.
Write to these folks and see if they would like to mention you or write about you. You cannot control what the reporter writes, it is your responsibility to make sure they understand what exactly you do. Try not pitching your product or trying to hog the limelight, instead talk about the effect your product has had on your customers, give examples, testimonials and share contacts of your customers. Media wants a human angle in everything they publish, and rightly so - give it to them.
Once you have appeared in enough publications, you can hope that you will be asked for opinions, quotes about issues relevant to your industry. This is free publicity too.
An endorsement by a stalwart or an established person in your area can go a long way in helping you gain trust of your customers. For GoUNESCO, I was lucky to be endorsed by folks very active in heritage and conservation, even celebrities like Swanand Kirkire. Of course, you have to give them enough reason to and they should really like or be convinced of your idea. Celebrity users works very well too, as you would have seen in the case of twitter.
3. Awards and Recognition
Industry awards and recognition help building your brand and can gain customers' trust. Keep on the lookout for relevant ones and apply. It does take some effort, but many times is worth it.
Everything you have read till now can be superceded if you have the right connections. Most of us are not born with the right connections, but we can work towards getting to know the right people. This may mean staying active socially, joining activity groups, and so on. You can use Linkedin too to reach the right person you should pitch an idea to. In my experience, helping someone before asking for a favor works most times. Always be ready to help, and stay good.
What are your tips to get PR and marketing done on the cheap?
About the author:
Ajay Reddy is the founder of the GoUNESCO Travel Challenge. After an Electrical Engineering degree from NIT, Jaipur, he worked at Infosys Technologies for 4 years before starting on his own. He is a long distance runner and loves adventure travel too.