By Michael Frenkel, MFC PR
Having worked with dozens of start up companies in the hospitality space, I get the question all the time: How do you allocate budget the right way to accelerate the visibility of your start up, and reach critical decision-makers?
There’s no simple answer.
Here are some of the considerations that can guide you as your think about the shortest path to bringing your brand to the consciousness of the right hospitality audiences – to stoke sales and reach scale.
1. Have you raised money, or are you just setting about to do so?
The single biggest consideration is where you are in your fundraising cycle – Seed Round, pre-Seed, Series A or beyond – and not just because of the cash you have available to spend.
Cash availability reflects investor confidence and in most cases, how ready you are to bring your product to market.
That in turn should guide your thinking on how your marketing dollars should be spent.
Putting lots of money toward reaching decision-makers directly when you have no product to offer them may be premature. Investing in a Thought Leadership campaign when your product is not well defined enough to fit into a recognizable market category – or remake one – does not make much sense either.
The hotel industry has enough “experts” and pontificating talking heads.
Begin your budgeting process by asking hard, product-focused questions:
“Where is our product today, and where is it likely to be in six months, nine months, and eighteen months? How are we getting from here to there? Do we need to raise more money to reach the goal, or do we have enough runway to support a sales and marketing program that speaks to the entire industry? Do we need additional visibility to raise our next round – or is the primary goal pushing sales?”
Once you have a clear sense of your business plan, you’ll be better equipped to start thinking about promoting and publicizing your brand.
2. Who is your audience?
It may sound obvious, but to send the right messages the right way, you need to be very clear about who you are trying to reach.
Almost every start-up wants to be in the Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch. And you can be, if your story and circumstances align.
But in many cases, a series of productive articles in trade journals can be even more valuable in helping you reach potential customers and industry influencers. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool, and the right series of linkedin posts, written and timed the right way, can build tremendous attention and credibility.
Before you get to the “what,” be very clear about the “who” you are trying to reach in a visibility campaign. Once you know who, find out what they read – and start having the conversation.
3. Do I really need a speaking slot?
We have some incredible trade shows and conferences in the travel industry, and many of them offer visibility for start up CEOs who want to appear on stage – and are willing to foot the bill.
As part of a coordinated campaign to build visibility across multiple channels over the course of a couple of years, these speaking appearances can be valuable and productive.
Most start-ups don’t have the luxury of realizing ROI over the course of years. It’s about what your visibility efforts yield over the next couple of months.
I’m not saying that startup CEOs should not seek out speaking engagements, or accept them if they are offered to you (especially at a reasonable cost). But always remember that marketing budget is very much a zero sum game: $25,000 spent in one place cannot be spent in another, and as a start up, you always want to think about the short-term yield from your PR investment.
There are lots of ways to reach audiences with your message, and not all of them involve being on a stage in front of hundreds of people.
4. How much is too much?
We’ve worked with startup companies, some of them now “household names” in the hospitality industry, that invested mightily in PR and visibility from the outset, and continue to do so. There’s simply no substitute for having your name out there all the time, in as many publications as possible, to put your company at the center of the industry conversation.
And it’s simply not true that PR does not produce ROI in development and product sales leads. Of course it does.
At the same time, the ultimate task of the start up founder is balancing all the expenses needed to launch a product, company and brand, and apply spends at exactly the right time.
So if you have a yen for exposure and name recognition, go for it. And once you’re in the conversation, spend what you need to spend to dominate it.
But if you seriously doubt that spending on PR is the right thing to do given your company’s circumstances, sit it out for the moment. All the media outlets you now want to appear in, will still be there in six months.
5. Be Incremental
As every founder knows, the start up game is about making incremental strides in order to build the business day by day, week over week, and only then, year by year. A string of early victories is critical, the ability to toggle from challenge to challenge is key, and momentum is key.
Even Uber needed to rise above early challenges, hinge their bets on the next incremental move, and shift attention and resources from one target to another.
Think about PR and visibility the same way.
One type of communications effort may make sense for the first six months after your Series A Round. For the six months following that, you may want to shift more budget in the direction of trade shows, for example, and less in the direction of advertising or direct marketing.
One of our most successful clients has staked out ground by writing incredible Thought Leadership papers and market studies in house, and then letting MFC PR publicize them and use them to build industry partnerships.
Another prefers a straightforward program of press releases and announcements, believing that quantity of exposure is key for them at the moment – and leaving big industry issues for later.
The point is that each client is willing to revisit its goals and objectives every several months, and flow with the tide – depending on how their business is evolving and growing.
Above all, be flexible in your approach to industry visibility, staying open to new ideas and approaches – and remember that any communications program must be tied directly to, and responsive to, the core business objectives you have set for yourself and your start-up.