Thanks to a booming economy, small and medium size companies are thriving. Entrepreneurs everywhere are taking advantage of the digital economy and global supply chains that are providing unparalleled opportunities, the likes of which the world has never seen before.
Yet, statistics remind us of a sobering number. Among new companies that manage to attract outside funding, whether from a bank or elsewhere, around 70% never make a profit. Over half of all companies don’t even make it past their 5th year.
So how do you beat these miserable odds?
The answer is that it’s not simple. You need thick skin, a strong mind, a lot of determination and not just a little bit of luck. But you can greatly increase your odds by creating an awesome communications strategy and narrative.
By strategy, I simply mean the purposeful use of communication to fulfill your mission – the right message/content, to the right target audience, at the right time using the correct medium/messenger. Done right, it will inform investment decisions, win over potential clients and investors, and position a company for long-term growth.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not. Most companies have a business plan, a financial plan and even a basic marketing plan to establish an online presence. Very few have a sound communications strategy mapped out.
Most small and medium size companies will also do most of their communications and marketing in-house. After all, they can write, sell and know their product better than anyone. Thanks to a wide variety of new digital tools, everyone also has access to inexpensive solutions that help you build a website, post blogs, send mass emails, or do basic marketing.
Being an entrepreneur naturally means they should take advantage of these new tools.
But there is a reason that large, successful companies spend hundreds of millions on communications and marketing, and smaller companies would do well to adopt some of these same lessons.
So here are 6 of my favorite lessons that I learned while working at a fortune 500 company, that could benefit any company, large or small:
Any idea worth its time should be told in a natural way, in plain English, in less than 15 seconds. It’s more difficult than you think. For most, this will mean forgetting all the technical language they are accustomed to. It also means forgetting that 100 other companies make similar claims.
Too many companies try to unnecessarily differentiate themselves through complex wording or technical capabilities, just to prove that they are special.
My advice: differentiate yourself through the way you fulfil a need and address a problem for a segment of the market, in a way that a prospective customer would easily understand.
Most companies will have been advised to start with why (thanks to Simon Sinek). It’s a good start, and better than only talking about what you do, but it’s not enough.
The why is only part of the ‘context’ – which should include why you exist, what problem you are solving for your customers, what gives you the authority, and, implicitly, ‘who’ you are targeting.
Tell the story of how and why you were founded. If you can, try to make an emotional connection in the delivery, it will make for an audience that is a lot more engaged. Extra bonus point for telling the story of how you are helping your customers achieve success.
A great business plan will benefit enormously from a great communications strategy.
That means that if you need to find software engineers to power your start-up, you need a strategy to boost your brand with the local university. Go give a lecture, a seminar, or sponsor a hack-a—thon.
It means that if you’re trying to get teachers to use your product in the classroom, you need the right language, the right content and the right medium to reach them. Partner with a teaching website or school district to give your company message.
It means that if you’re taking on a dominant competitor, be provocative – you don’t use ‘safe’ language that a multinational would use. Stand out by differentiation, and by not being afraid to ruffle some feathers.
I could go on, but you get the point.
While a company ‘boilerplate’ with standard messaging is a great tool to have, you’ll need to adjust your messaging depending on the audience. One size does not fit all.
Building on point 3, identify your top 5 stakeholder groups that are critical to your growth and write down the key message points and language you would use to communicate and win over each audience. Once you’ve done that, you can identify the channels/materials in which you can best reach these groups.
This again sounds like a no-brainer, but the discipline of this exercise will help everyone stay on message.
Many companies will look for a silver PR bullet. A write-up in a newspaper, a listing on a top 100 of hot start-ups, a mention on TV. Great – this may work for you if your story is new or interesting, or you developed something truly newsworthy. You could develop a strategy to do this, but it will take time and effort to truly stand out and receive ‘earned’ media.
Most companies are better off first building their brand in the ‘owned’ space. This means writing blogs in a medium that you own; it means building a kick-ass website and content across different social channels; it means writing a regular newsletter and industry content for trade magazines. It also means investing some resources to rank online, so that you can easily be found by prospective customers (a company press release is a great tool, so are new & innovative blogs)
Often overlooked is the physical space – most companies own assets. You can also consider ‘shared’ media; using your content in partner owned channels can be a win-win.
Point is, start-ups have many options other than selling their story to journalists or buying advertising.
Audiences smell bull-sX#! from a mile away. In a world where we are bombarded with information and polished content, presenting the real, authentic you is a competitive advantage. Make sure you tell your story in a compelling way, with proof points that are real and relatable. Remember to include a vision that is purposeful and that has meaning.
The company vision is where communications strategy and company strategy really meet.
Why does your company exist? What is your ultimate goal?
The most obvious and easy answer is, of course, to sell more products & services, but try and dig one level deeper and think about this in terms of benefit to society. It will help not only help focus your company, but it will help motivate your employees, attract investors and ultimately help improve your sales.
After spending years working with some of the biggest brands in the world, I love helping smaller companies achieve their goals and vision. It’s one of most rewarding aspects of my new role after leaving the corporate world behind.
That’s not to say they don’t have their own set of challenges; many don’t have big revenue streams, lack good time management, have strong opinions, operate on limited budgets, and present solutions in search of a problem.
Yet, despite all of this they’re still my favorite clients (with apologies to my corporate clients). Quite simply, having a great communications strategy can make the difference between failure or success – it’s that critical.