Editor's Note: This story contains one of our Best Business Lessons of 2014. Check out the full list here.
"Imagine you’re sitting across from a reporter at lunch. You’re telling them what you do, your story, why they should care about your product. You have to convince this reporter to not only write about you, but that what you’re doing matters. That you’re going to be successful."
This is Caryn Marooney, head of technology communications for Facebook. But before that, she co-founded OutCast, the elite PR agency that worked with one-time startups Amazon, Salesforce.com, Netflix and VMware. She’s seen firsthand how hard it is for young companies to capture press attention when they have zero brand recognition and limited resources.
Most founders set out to create something iconic but don’t know where to start. At First Round’s recent CEO Summit, Marooney boiled down this massive challenge into an execution plan and guidelines for startups to craft an image that will resonate with the public and the press, launch on a strong note, and build momentum as they grow—regardless of size and resources.
A message succeeds when people remember it—when it sticks. This is crucial not only to get press, but to raise funding from the best firms, hire the best people, and attract the best advisors. Getting strong press feeds all of these needs, too.
To develop a compelling message, Marooney advises running it through the RIBS test (will your story "stick to your ribs"?). In short:
Who is your audience, and is your company solving a problem that they care about? What matters to them about that problem? Why does your solution deserve attention? "It’s hard to get attention and it’s hard to be relevant," says Marooney. "Fight for greater relevance. Make it a priority in your positioning."
When Salesforce.com first started, it could have launched as an online CRM solution. It’s true and it’s interesting. But to be more relevant to a larger audience, Marc Benioff came up with the "End of Software" campaign. This made the company instantly more relevant to a bigger market and audience. At the time, people were having bad experiences with software; it was massively expensive, time-consuming and prone to failure.
With Marc Benioff declaring the "End of Software," it raised the relevance of the company to appeal to all those who buy, follow or care about software. The conversation went from feature checklists, "contacts" and "leads" to how an entire industry would change.
You want people to feel that whatever you’re developing is inevitable. This is like having a gust of wind at your company’s back. "If you can convince the reporter at lunch that whatever you’re doing makes intrinsic sense and that they can see it realistically happening, your journey to relevance will be that much shorter. That’s what gives you momentum." If it doesn’t seem like whatever trend or movement you’re a part of will eventually come to pass, you’ll be fighting against the wind.
Mark Zuckerberg has often said that even before he founded Facebook, he believed that a technology company would help connect the world; he just never dreamed that he would play such a defining role. The idea of connecting the world seemed inevitable, it just wasn’t obvious that a group of young people were going to be the ones to do it.
"You can be relevant, and your product may even seem inevitable, but you still may not be believed." You have to convince people that your company is the one that can make it happen—that you’ll be the ones to carry the ball over the line. ?
"At Salesforce.com, when we went out there saying this was ‘the end of software,’ sure it was relevant and seemed inevitable," Marooney says. "But most importantly it was believable that Marc Benioff could pull it off. He had come from Oracle and knew software and all its issues. Even with that background and credibility, it still took us years to establish true believability."
"People are torn in so many directions these days—they’re on Facebook, checking email, trying to balance work and friends and family. Somehow you have to break through, and the way to do this is to keep things simple."
End of software. Three words.
"Take your messaging and edit it down," says Marooney. "Get it to its essence. What is the one line you want people to remember? You only get one."
Let’s say your early messaging passes the RIBS test. What’s next? How do you execute a communications plan?
"So many people confuse short-term and long-term goals here," says Marooney. "You need both. You need that long-term vision that inspires people. But if you don’t make things happen in the short-term, no one is going to care."
One of the biggest mistakes startups make is treating launch like the be all end all. "It’s like if you just launched, dropped the mic, and said peace out, we’re done," Marooney says. "You’re not Bono. Don’t do that."
You should only launch if you already know what your second move is going to be. "This is a journey, and you need to be continuously putting points on the board. To do that, you have to know where you’re going next."
And while you do have to think in terms of short-term milestones, you can’t lose sight of your overarching message. In everything you do or say and every piece of news you release, you have to keep beating the drum about your vision for the future—whether it’s the future of reading, the end of software, or one platform that connects the world. "This is what will elevate whatever you’re doing in the short term to the next level. And the more short-term points you rack up, the more believable the long-term message becomes."
The key to staying in the game after launch is having a strong, magnetic brand. Applying what Marooney calls a "brand lens" can be tremendously helpful in focusing your identity early on.
"The brand lens exercise is designed to determine your company’s personality," she says. "It also really helps you figure out what to do and what not to do. You have such limited resources at the beginning and everyone is telling you that you have to do different things. What really belongs at the top of your list?"
Here’s what the brand lens exercise looks like, starting with the center circle and working out:
Circle #1: Tagline
"At the center of the circle, that’s your tagline," says Marooney. "For Salesforce.com, it was the end of software. For Google, it’s to organize all of the world’s information. For Facebook, it’s giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."
If you don’t have a tagline, simply write your company’s name in the middle circle. "This is meant to be a really simple branding exercise," says Marooney. "It can be incredibly helpful, but I’ve also see it turn into the vortex of hell—especially if you decide you need a tagline and don’t have one. Don’t waste time on it."
Circle #2: Attributes
Much more important is the list of adjectives and attributes that describe your company. "If you don’t assign them to yourself and acknowledge them early on, other people will assign words to you," she says.
At the same time, it’s easy to write down qualities like "smart," "innovative" and "trustworthy." But they carry little meaning.
"Mark Zuckerberg has often said that in order for these words to have meaning, you have to be able to argue for them," Marooney says. "You can argue that moving fast is good, but you can also argue that moving fast is bad, and there are lots of successful companies that move slowly. The point is that moving fast is specifically important for what we do at Facebook."
Unsurprisingly, these attributes mirror a lot of the qualities of founders themselves, and are often reflected in office environments. At Google, one of the key adjectives seems to be "fun"—easily observed in the colorful, whimsical feel of its offices. Facebook, on the other hand, is still largely an open, unconstructed, constantly evolving space.
Circle #3: Differentiators
"These are the things that set you apart from the other companies out there in the space," says Marooney. "At Salesforce.com, our differentiator was that we were an online service, not a traditional software offering. So even when the dot-com bubble burst and absolutely everyone was telling Marc to remove the .com from the company’s name, he refused. It was too key a differentiator to abandon. Anyone could go to Salesforce.com and start using the service immediately. The name said it all. "
Circle #4: Action
"As you grow, there will be more and more things you have to do to communicate," Marooney says. "You start thinking about holding a conference or writing a blog or hiring a certain person. Whatever it is you think you want to do, run it through your brand lens. See if it highlights the words that you’ve chosen that are meaningful to you and that set you apart. If the answer is no, don’t do it. If the answer is yes, then you have to do it."
Taking action is also about separating internal priorities from external priorities. Inside the company, people are working on a lot of diverse projects, but not everything deserves the spotlight.
"Focus your external marketing on where you want to go as a company, where you have to go to succeed, or what inspires your customers most," says Marooney. "It might not be what you are selling or building today.’"
In her work, Marooney is guided by seven deadly sins of communications, and seven virtuous habits. They have helped her focus, save time, rally founders and companies around ideas, and more. And they’re influential enough to make a difference for companies of all sizes—whether they’re pre-launch or post-IPO.
Lust. "Don’t lust after someone else’s brand. Even if you love their personality and their traits, and you want to be just like them, comparing yourself is a giant waste of time," she says. "Figure out who you are as a founder, as a leader, as a brand. And whatever you are, be the best at it."
Gluttony. "Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’s ugly and impossible."
Greed. "A lot of money can make you very stupid—especially early on. A lot of attention can make you stupid. It can make you do a lot of things that aren’t the right things. Focus on what you need to do, not just what you can do because you have the resources."
Sloth. "Don’t be lazy. Don’t launch at a conference. You can use conferences to continue to get your product out there and talk about it, but actually launching at one is pure laziness. Don’t use buzzwords. People don’t read them. They sound like white noise." Sample buzzwords include: scalability, optimization, disruption.
Wrath. "Don’t get into fights with people or other brands." This includes reporters who may get tiny details wrong about your product, or competitors who say something disparaging offhand.
Envy. "Same as lust. Don’t envy other companies. This is so important, I have to say it twice," Marooney says. "The more you keep your eyes fixed on competitors, the less you’re doing to build your own company."
Pride. "You are never as good or as bad as the press says you are, so don’t buy into it too much." Good press can easily go to your head. And bad press can knock all of that down in one fell swoop. All of it can be a huge distraction.
Be Proactive. "As a founder, you know more about your topic than anyone in the world. If you’re talking to a reporter and you just answer their questions without telling them what’s important about your company, shame on you. Brand image is your lump of clay and you have to go out there and make it into something beautiful. Respond to their questions, but then tell them what’s important in every answer, because they don’t know, or even how to ask."
Begin with the end in mind. "What is the headline you’re shooting for? Chances are, you’re not going to get exactly what you want, but if you don’t know what it is when you start, you’re definitely not going to get it." One recommendation: When a reporter engages you, try to figure out what their story is truly about. "If you find out it’s going to be about the NSA and privacy, know what you want your place in that story to be before you say anything."
First things first. "You have to have realistic expectations," Marooney says. "I once asked a founder what success would be for him in six months, and he said ‘I want to be on David Letterman.’ Well, at that point in time, that wasn’t going to help him. He needed to think about what he could get now. What ingredients did he have to work with? Focus on those things because they are the building blocks toward being on Letterman. And now he could totally be on any show he wants."
Think win-win. "Reporters don’t work for you. So you have to think, what are they trying to do here? They need to sell copies or get clicks or sell ads. What gets them that? An interesting headline. News about a brand everyone knows about. Ticker symbols. You don’t have any of those things, so you have to figure out how to make your story interesting enough so they can achieve what they need to achieve."
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. "The best CEOs I have ever worked for are tremendous listeners. Mark Zuckerberg is the best listener I have ever met in my life—which can be disconcerting, because you can go a whole meeting and he won’t say a word. He takes everything as a listening opportunity, and then I’m blown away by what comes back from him because he’s really processing it."
Synergize. "Be very conscious of the company you keep." This could be your cohort of competitors, or companies in your broader ecosystem. You have the choice to associate your company with another brand or not, and it can be a very good thing if you choose wisely. "Associate yourself with the super giants, even if they’re not in your industry. If it makes sense, they can help you tell your story and gain relevance to land that win-win situation."
Sharpen the saw. You know you have deeply resonant messaging when it only gains meaning as time passes. Make sure as weeks and years pass, your message is only getting sharper, clearer, more impactful. "At Facebook, we just celebrated our 10-year anniversary, and it ended up being really emotional. That’s 10 years of trying to help people connect in ways that is meaningful to them. That was the messaging the company started with, and a decade later it not only works but turns out to really matter in people’s lives," Marooney says.
"It’s hard work, but 10 years from now, I’m excited to think that we’ll be saying the exact same thing and it will have even more meaning. That’s really cool."
This article originally appeared in First Round Review and is reprinted with permission.
[Image: Flickr user Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious]