“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, 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.
The RIBS Test
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 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, 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.”
Being believable isn’t just convincing people you can win, it’s convincing them that they want you to win.
“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.”
If your messaging isn’t unbelievably simple, you’re missing the point.
Launch: What It Is and Isn’t
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.”
Launching is like the opening move in a chess game. It doesn’t mean that much.
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: