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Inside Square’s Winning PR Strategy

By doing their homework and making friends with the press, Square turned their small business into a catalyst for other entrepreneurs.

Inside Square’s Winning PR Strategy
[Photo: via Square]

When Pam Turkin quit her job as VP of marketing for a major merchandising firm, people were shocked to hear why: She was finally turning her passion project into a business by opening a cupcake shop in her hometown of Detroit. Today–after testing numerous flavors on her family and accepting credit cards with Square–her shop, Just Baked, is a chain with several locations.

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It’s stories like these that grab Khobi Brooklyn’s attention. As director of product communications and marketing at Square, part of her job is to surface amazing anecdotes to amplify the company’s marketing efforts to an extremely broad audience–i.e. everyone who sells things.

This is what makes Brooklyn’s job so hard: She needs to get Square’s products in front of everyone from farmers market sellers to surfing instructors to barber shop owners. In this exclusive interview, she shares her tactics for marketing a product to extremely diverse audiences–including those that don’t care about what’s hot in Silicon Valley.

Define Your Audience

Because Square’s audience is so massive, it needs the help of a very diverse press–countless publications focused on niche trades and topics. Most startups are consumed with getting coverage in major publications like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. But smaller publications in local markets can have a compounding effect and actually allow a startup to get closer to their potential customers.

“We strive to build products that anyone could use at scale, because Square started small too,” says Brooklyn. “Everybody should have access to this type of tool, no matter what they’re selling or how much.”

But when there’s no easy way to appeal to everyone at once, it’s important to define a core group to speak to directly so you can pick up adjacent customer segments along the way, she says.

Find and divvy up your core customers.

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You have to start somewhere, and it’s always wise to go with what you know. Because Square’s roots are in tech and the Bay Area, it initially started out marketing its card reader to local merchants and people who would immediately understand the technology. Not only was the barrier to entry lower in this region, but the customers they landed were also fairly influential (and social media savvy), helping to spread product awareness to others.

Wherever your company starts, Brooklyn advises capitalizing on what you know about the people around you. What are their habits like? Where are their pain points? How can you get your product in front of them in a way they’ll be receptive to? Once you figure this out and have a strong local customer base, you have social proof to work with to market to others.

For Square, focusing on Silicon Valley couldn’t go on forever–the company’s ambitions to be an essential tool for vendors everywhere meant going global. To make this larger audience less overwhelming, Brooklyn suggests breaking it into verticals and observing what happens in each. “With verticals, you can determine which type of customers are making the biggest impact, or where your products resonate the most.”

For example, Square has verticals for the fashion industry, sports and recreation, food service, and many more. This allowed Brooklyn to notice that beauty shops were one of the company’s fastest growing customer bases. Now, whenever a new product feature launches that could support this vertical in particular, she’s sure to make the rounds with the press specific to their line of work. When Square launched its appointment management tool, Brooklyn gathered testimonials from salon owners that use Square about how the feature has become a cornerstone of their business. This is a powerful strategy when appealing to prospective customers.

“Telling our story by showing how our customers are actually using the product is extremely effective–it shows how valuable Square is,” she says. “Instead of saying ‘this is how it works,’ we’re able to show it, and that’s how businesses start to identify with how they could use the product too.”

Meet the Press

“The media isn’t just one thing. It’s made up of a lot of different channels. So, before you even begin, you have to take a step back, look at your product announcement, and then figure out why it would be important to the reporters you want to reach,” Brooklyn says. “The number thing you need to do is help the reporter understand why it’s going to be valuable for them to tell their audience.” Use this as your guideline to figure out which reporters to reach out to.

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With this in mind, Brooklyn suggests three techniques that can help you achieve broad media coverage:

1. Meet customers where they live.

Business owners read a wide variety of publications from local newspapers to business-specific websites. All of these outlets can be used to your advantage, you just have to identify which publications are the most popular and influential within each of your verticals—starting with the ones you’d consider core to your business.

“If you’re not in that world, beauty trade magazines like Hair Salon Today or Nails Mag might seem abstract, but people read them–a lot of people,” says Brooklyn. “You need to immerse yourself in each of these areas and figure out who people are listening to. That’s the only way you’ll get their attention.”

2. Build relationships with the right reporters.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is blindly calling a reporter. You have to do your research–first on the media outlet, and then specific journalists. Ask yourself:

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  • What is this outlet’s focus?
  • How wide of a net does it cast? How big is its viewership or readership?
  • Does it cover any other topics that are relevant to your company? Can you use that to your advantage?
  • Do people rely on the outlet for advice or decision making?

If your answers to these questions make the outlet a worthy target, focus on finding the reporters that work there who have the highest probability of covering what you do. Make a spreadsheet where you can capture their names, their contact information, and any articles that they have already written either about your company or similar companies, subjects, or markets.

You want to word your initial contact (ideally over email, reporters hate getting called out of the blue), so that it sounds like you’re helping them. You know they like writing about your subject area. As a result, you know their audience probably likes hearing about it. The reporter wants a larger audience–play into that.

If you’re reaching out to a reporter who you haven’t worked with before, don’t forget to explain where you’re coming from. Tech startups have a tendency to assume that every media outlet will be interested in what they’re doing. But local papers and broadcast stations don’t cover tech with the same interest as TechCrunch. They don’t care how much VC money you’ve raised or recognize executive names. You have to convince them that you’re relevant and useful to their viewers or readers.

“Sometimes you have to start at the beginning, then hone in on why this is important information for their audience to have,” says Brooklyn. “You want to constantly demonstrate relevancy throughout the conversation. Every piece of information we share needs to be paired with why it’s relevant. This isn’t just a piece of technology, for example, it’s a tool for beauty and spa owners to increase their revenue.”

When you keep this idea front and center, you have a much better chance of cultivating friendly, mutually-beneficial relationships with reporters who will then want to work with you when you have news to share.

“When reporters are behind schedule with 50 unread messages in their inbox, they’re going to prioritize the ones that make their day that much simpler and help them do their job,” says Brooklyn. “Always ask yourself how you can help.”

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This could include providing executive quotes, customer testimonials, screenshots of product features, and related statistics (Square often shares data about small businesses, for instance). If you package all of this up for a reporter who already has a demonstrated interest in your field, your chances of getting a positive story are vastly increased. You don’t have to be afraid of journalists or assume an adversarial posture.

“There’s this funny stigma that PR people are just spinning a story, but we’re not–we’re telling a story, and reporters want to do the same thing. That’s why they appreciate it when you can help them tell a better story,” she says.

After you’ve wrapped one story with a reporter, don’t just let the interaction die. Follow up with them to see if they’re interested in any other angles, or even if you can selflessly help them another way.

“Ask them, ‘What are you interested in? What are you working on now? Are there any facts you’re still looking for?’” says Brooklyn. Not only will this help you build a durable relationship, it’s actually a learning opportunity. “Reporters are out there talking to a lot of different people from a lot of different companies. They might know something you don’t that could be really relevant to your business.”

Plus, when you catalog a journalist’s interests, you can become a better resource for them on future projects. “It doesn’t have to be transactional. It doesn’t have to be, ‘I have this piece of news and I need you to help me get it out.’ It should be, ‘What is going on in your world, and how is what I’m doing relevant to what you’re doing? What is happening that your audience wants to know about, and how do we fit in?’”

3. The local approach.

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Don’t underestimate the power of local newspapers. “Every town across the U.S. has a regional publication that hundreds or thousands of people read over coffee to get the news,” says Brooklyn. But the relationship you have with these types of outlets needs to be different that those you have with beat reporters who cover technology.

“If I was going to do this, they’d most likely say, ‘I don’t know who you are and why I should care. We’re dealing with a light post that fell across a major intersection.’ Click.”

To break through this wall, you want to research the geographic market you’re targeting. Just like you’d look into a reporter’s background to see if they’d be right for your story, you want to gather information about the local economy, area trends, demographics, other recent news stories. Can your product hook onto any of these? For example, if small businesses appear to be shuttering in a certain part of the country, there’s a story Square can tell about helping local merchants boost their margins.

That said, the best way to get the attention of local outlets is to give real-world examples. Pitch a human-interest story about an existing local user, and use that as a springboard to talk about why more people should check out your brand or product.

“Do the legwork to show examples of how customers are already using your product to do something important–for us, it’s boosting local economies,” says Brooklyn. “The point is to surface information that the reporter doesn’t already know and then make it about the customers, not your product.”

Landing Amazing Customer Stories

Square’s marketing team focuses on seller stories because their success means success for the company too. It’s invaluable proof that the product works, people love it, and it’s already made a difference for someone who is relatable to the audience.

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“We often work very closely with our sellers when putting together communications materials, because the success of small businesses is what the Square brand is all about,” Brooklyn says. Not only does the company push these stories out through their social media channels (and a lot of video content), but Brooklyn often connects them directly with reporters so they can share their experiences completely unfiltered.

One risk involved in telling customer stories is that you might overshadow the people with your product. Don’t.

“At Square, our role is to address the pain points of running a business, and then make it easier wherever we can,” says Brooklyn. “If we can take some of the challenging stuff out of it so that business owners can focus on other things, like diversifying their inventory or their own marketing efforts, then that’s a win. That’s our story, not the product itself, but the idea of giving people the tools they need to be more efficient.”

In this spirit, a lot of the marketing material Brooklyn and her team produces is geared toward helping Square customers thrive. This includes blog posts full of tips about how storefronts can use different features on Square register, tweets about trends relevant to this market segment, and a lot of content that doesn’t have anything to do with the companies’ products at all.

“We might run a post about how sellers can get more out of their social media, or what they can do to retain existing customers. If you can be a resource without constantly trying to sell, you can build a long-term relationship with people.” When you do, those customers are more likely to spread the word to their communities.

Brooklyn admits that the ROI on this kind of content can be hard to track—it’s pretty impossible to figure out how each new customer decided to convert. But you can and should track engagement.

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“You can see how much of a post typically gets read, if something gets shared, how many people clicked through to watch a video or read more,” she says. “Use these metrics to try new content styles, see what works, and modify what doesn’t to maximize how many people are seeing your content.” More eyeballs mean more clicks, which translate into more buys. For any startup that’s hesitant to invest in marketing or content, Brooklyn says it’s well worth the effort. Your payoff will be valuable, long-term customers.

“It’s important to show how much you value your customers. We try to take every chance we have to celebrate small business owners because that’s core to who Square is.”

Cultivate New Audiences Further Afield

When Brooklyn first joined Square, the company’s marketing and communications focused on two areas: corporate communications (big hires, financial announcements) and product communications (new features, launches). But in order for the company to grow, she knew they had to focus more on communicating directly with even more stakeholders.

To build this kind of strategy, she offers four steps:

Identify your different audiences: “You’re not just speaking to your customers. You have to market to your investors and prospective employees to keep your company growing. What is your most immediate need? Which audience do you need to speak to in order to fill that need?”

Tailor your message: “Your company should have one core message that all of the messages you send can roll up into. At Square, this message is that the company can help people manage their businesses better anywhere,” says Brooklyn. “But for each of the audiences you’ve identified, you need to figure out a way to tweak your message to answer their questions, fit their needs, or resonate with them in some deeper way.”

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Be on the lookout for new audience opportunities: “Building out your audience is a progression. With each new product or feature you introduce, you need to think very carefully about how it might change people’s impression of the brand, how you tell that story to make it consistent, and what people will want to know about it to feel good about it.”

Try to reach as many different audiences as possible with each announcement: “You can’t expect one story on TechCrunch to do all of your work for you across all of your users,” says Brooklyn. You have to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and really psychologize what they would want to hear in order to take action. “If I’m an investor, I want to hear something very different than a writer for Glamour.” One of the most helpful tips she’s discovered is visualizing the headlines you want for each of your audiences before you even launch your PR strategy. If you can hold this in mind, your chances of sending that message are much higher. Knowing the headline you want can also help you choose which media outlets to focus your energy on.

Reaching more and new audiences is just as much about varying your content type as it is about mixing up your message. While many young, early-stage companies can’t produce slick videos, visual content doesn’t have to be elaborate and can really extend your reach. Photos are by far the most shared type of content on Facebook, for instance, and that doesn’t take more than the camera on your phone.

“The important thing is that you use metrics to monitor which campaigns were successful and where,” says Brooklyn. “We’re constantly looking at how our content performs on different platforms. Did more people engage with a photo or video through email? Or on social? For our Facebook posts, do more people click through if there’s an image or a video?” She’s seen firsthand how beautifully-designed, fun, playful pieces of content drive greater engagement and sharing. “Making your content shareable is how you get in front of new people the fastest.”

The more chances you give people to understand your brand, the more people you’ll pull into your orbit. This is one of the major benefits of producing different types of content. “We’re all really busy people–small business owners are even busier—so a great image that communicates something in one shot is often very effective. People may not have the time to read an eight-paragraph blog post, but they’ll share a flow chart that says basically the same thing on Facebook.”

Taking people’s attention spans into consideration is most important when it comes to video.

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And, no matter what you do, don’t make a video simply for the sake of making a video. Just because other startups have one doesn’t mean yours needs one.

“It’s all about respecting your audience’s time. Yes, you want to send your message, but this respect should also be evident.” To make written content more digestible, Brooklyn suggests keeping your layout simple. Make sure there are images to draw attention, and strategically use bullets to make key points more salient. Maybe you bullet a story in a preview over email and allow people to click through for more information. You want to simultaneously give them the ability to understand your message quickly and choose to drill down for more if they want.

“You want to to avoid having a list of deliverables just because other companies do things. Not every announcement requires a press release, video, blog post, tweet, landing page, etc.,” says Brooklyn. “Really be conservative when you ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Now, what are the channels that you really need to nail in order to do that? Work backwards. Focus your efforts.”

She recommends answering the following questions:

  • What are you trying to do with a piece of content? Send a message? Make people share? Make people perceive the brand a certain way?
  • Who will engage with it, and who do you want to attract with it?
  • Is the content educational? Inspiring? Aspiring? How does this impact which channels you put it on?
  • Basically, at the end of the day, what is the point?

“If you don’t have strong answers for all of these questions, you probably don’t need to spend the time it takes to create that piece of content,” Brooklyn says.

Following this logic, Brooklyn decided to put together a photo spread to profile Just Baked, the Detroit cupcake bakery. She also worked with owner Turkin to offer quotes that highlighted how she used Square register in a unique way, and how it helped her expand her business. The company even featured her as a panelist to speak directly to prospective customers about her experience at an offline event.

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“It’s not always having 17 deliverables that will make the difference,” says Brooklyn. “Sometimes it’s just one thing–one core piece of content, one tweet, one conversation with one reporter.”

How to Scale as Your Company Scales

Once you’ve made an impression on your core audiences and have inroads to new ones, you have to keep going. You need to not only maintain traction with markets you’ve cracked, but increase it over time. Here are a few tactics Brooklyn recommends:

Grow with your customers.

As she does with Just Baked, Brooklyn checks in on the customers she’s worked with in the past to keep tabs on how their stories are unfolding. Not only does it keep them engaged, but it also helps her scan for new story ideas that could be good for the press or to share through another channel. “One of our sellers in Cleveland started a taco truck after he lost his job, and it eventually grew into a popular brick-and-mortar restaurant,” she says. “We promoted his success story as a way to connect with the Cleveland community, acknowledge the challenges in the economy, and demonstrate how Square can help.”

Look for new ways people are using your product. Brooklyn keeps her eyes peeled or Square sellers with businesses that haven’t typically used the products before. “For example, we found a fly fishing shop that uses Square, and that’s so unique,” she says. “With that we were able to reach out to new people, new publications, new reporters, and capture some really great photos and videos that drive home our main point–not that Square is great for fishermen, but that it can be used anywhere.”

Continually test new ways to campaign. Whether you experiment with locally hosted offline events, direct response TV, morning shows, or Internet forums, keep pushing the envelope to find new customers. You don’t know when you’ll luck into your next pocket of super fans. And as soon as a campaign works and nets a few customers, talk to them, learn their stories, and repeat them back to the same audience to get the flywheel spinning.

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“Always be thinking, ‘What’s the next story people will want to hear? Okay, now how do we get there?’”

This article originally appeared in First Round Review and is reprinted with permission.