If you were to tell any startup founder or marketing executive that they’ll need to do 1,000 things to boost their visibility, they’d probably shoot you in the eye with a spitball (or wish they could).
Focus, we hear, again and again. You must focus on just one thing and excel at it. And that’s true. You will live or die by achieving that level of focus when conceiving and building your product or service. Don’t solve five trivial problems, solve one real one.
Things get far more complicated when you begin to try to get the word out.
Getting the word out today means navigating countless platforms and competing with a precambrian-like explosion of media. And new formats and channels arise every year (if not faster). There was a time, I can remember it, when a link from slashdot could cripple your servers (that was a time, too, when they were your servers, not Amazon’s). More recently, some mainstream media coverage together with smart use of SEM was enough to establish your brand and reliably build your user base.
Today, it’s rare to find a single tactic that can scale without getting hideously expensive. And the “free” stuff—social + content + earned media—is not at all free. You must staff those efforts and/or contract outside help and then execute brilliantly. Plus, impact can be hard to tease out, except over months and years. Here at x.ai we can see that in aggregate, media coverage translates into both brand recognition and user growth, but any individual story has only a marginal impact.
We live in a world in which you must do 1,000 small things rather than ten big ones to gain, and retain, visibility. It works something like this: Our CEO/Founder Dennis R. Mortensen speaks at a small event; there he meets a reporter who mentions us weeks later in a piece on AI, which a podcaster discovers and then invites Dennis onto her show, which leads to a conversation on Twitter, which leads a curious professional to come to our site and sign up for the beta, which leads him to share on social, and so on. And there are infinite variations on this web of exposure and interaction with our brand.
Some start with a piece of press, others with a piece of content that we’ve published on LinkedIn. But it’s clear that the smallest of gestures we make—whether that’s a 15 minute phone chat with a blogger in South Africa or an empathetic response to a confused customer on Twitter—can add up.
So what’s a startup to do? How do you tackle or even understand which 1,000 things to do? How do you manage so much stuff? There are no easy answers. Instead, I offer some guiding principles.
1) Before you embark on any campaign for visibility make sure you have a good story to tell. That sounds pat, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing, I wouldn’t work for any company whose story I couldn’t map out powerfully and plausibly from the outside. If you can’t imagine why Cheetos will be the best halftime snack ever, then knowing the recipe won’t help you. That doesn’t mean you won’t tell the story differently once you know more, but the overall narrative arch should be clear to you. In an ideal world, developing the customer story (and testing it in a non-scalable way) should precede product development. x.ai did exactly that. (You can read about that here.)
2) Talk to anyone who wants to talk to you and treat anyone who’s interested in your product like Kara Swisher or Michael Lewis (i.e. as if they could make or break your reputation). Do not expect your favorite tech outlets or mainstream media to care about your product or company right away. Don’t even bother with them. Spend your time talking to the bloggers and nerds and seemingly random people who find you. Show them love and kindness. They will share their good experiences and eventually, if you are good and diligent and a little bit lucky, those other outlets will pay attention.
3) Have a strong and consistent social presence. You can pick just one channel, if you need to. But be sure you develop a distinctive voice and engage with your fans and your detractors, respectfully and, if possible, with some humor. Part of x.ai’s early success arose from Dennis’s accessibility on social media. Back story: he had built several enterprise software companies and was used to knowing his customers personally. That’s impossible for him in a consumer facing company. Instead, he uses Twitter to connect with customers and participate in important conversations.
4) Resist the temptation to create content just because.If you don’t genuinely care about what you’re creating, no one else will. We often develop story ideas around gaps in people’s understanding about what we do (How do you build an AI personal assistant, anyway?) or the landscape in which we operate(What does Apple’s recent announcement about Siri really mean for me?). And don’t be afraid to get super-technical at times. Some of our most effective posts have been built around advanced data science.
5) Finally, every detail counts. Pay attention to these. Tone matters. Grammar too. Clarity and compassion must rule. Far better to get those details right, even if it slows you down as you do those 1,000 things.