The Signal & the Noise

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Signal & NoiseIn the customer discovery phase of a startup, the startup team typically encounter a phenomenon called the signal and the noise. The signal answers the question whether your startup is genuinely gaining traction and generating viral user growth. The noise shrouds your vision with all the drums banging about the promise of your startup. Both signal and noise constituted both marketing and public relations (PR) portion of a startup. How do you build a proper marketing and PR plan while relentlessly focused on delivering the minimum viable product? I shared some insights on working with users, media engagement and crisis management with the JFDI 2013b class.

The first step: Build a media plan that is integrated with product development & customer discovery

Always start with a plan. Every startup typically starts with a group of founders building a minimum viable product with a set of features that are tested against a set of hypotheses requiring customer validation. In the majority of my encounters with startups, they are either too obsessed with product development or getting media attention. Either extreme is not appealing because it does not achieve the objective of what they really want: solving the pain point for the customers who will pay for your product/service.

As a former media outlet owner (, here are the two types of messages which I have often received from entrepreneurs:

  • “We have launched our product X. Can you cover us?”: This is the classic case where the team has completed the first launched version of the product and expected people to come to them. Of course, it gets worse when they expected to be covered and that comes to my next point.
  • “We sent an email to journalist X from your outlet and he/she has not responded to us. Can you help us?”: Of course, I put up the politically correct version of the question. You have no idea when I get nasty emails from entrepreneurs demanding to be covered because they are the next big startups and also intimidating us that he has already gotten coverage from our competitors. When I receive such emails, I would typically nudge journalist X about customer service and collect the data about the entrepreneurs. It turns out that Journalist X is really busy and have to write four stories a day to satisfy their key performance indicators for the media outlet. Not to mention, their calendars are filled with meeting startup founders who may pitch new stories to them. Nine out of ten cases, the entrepreneurs often engage journalist X in the eleventh hour and expect to be covered.

Only a few entrepreneurs have heeded my advice in how they should engage the media for press coverage, for example, the founders of RedMart. The first question I often asked them, “What is your story?”. The variant of that question is, “what is the angle that you want the media outlet to cover you?”. I am going to share the secret sauce here as I have done with all the entrepreneurs who I have met. The way to do this is to plan your media coverage way ahead in time. Typically, I tell the entrepreneur to create a spreadsheet with the following fields:

  • Day Number/Date/Time: Starting from the first day of your startup all the way to the 100th day and the first year. This is to set your timeline and milestones for product development, customer discovery and media engagement.
  • Product Development: Note down which day on this column when you will launch product X, feature Y, a strategic partnership. Make sure that you tie your team to delivering on the dates with each milestone.
  • Team addition or important milestone: Note down an important hire who would be joining your company. Make sure that you have at least one week before letting the world that you have joined.
  • Customer Discovery: You should make sure that the product development sync with your customer discovery work. Ensuring the hypotheses for customer validation are also implemented in the same stage.
  • Media Engagement: Making sure when you are ready to get media to promote the story.
  • Once you have that spreadsheet built up, the first thing you want to do is to write the next press release documenting the story you want to tell. This press release should only be known to your team who has to deliver the product to the story you want to build. Of course, there will be changes to the product and the story, but the media plan helps the team to stay focused to their goals and objectives.

    The last tip I want to offer is to engage the journalists early and not late. At least, get to know them before you engage them for a story. Their work schedule are pretty hectic and often they have to visit a couple of leads per day. Like any endeavours in a startup such as fundraising, you should make sure that the journalists are in your network fund and you are constantly checking in with them such that when you pitch the real story, they are ready for you.

    The Noise

    Generating awareness for your startup is not an exercise for customer discovery or validation. It’s easier to call it “noise” and I do not mean it in a bad way. Although it does not generate real bumps for the business objective, it is a process to get your startup “show-roomed” by investors or people who are looking for technology ideas to clone. The common misconception is to lump PR and marketing in the same bundle during the startup phase, but they are actually different things.

    Here are some rules to help you with engaging the press to generate “noise”:

    • Journalists are divided into friendlies, neutral & offensive: Start to build a relationship with journalists. Be friends with all of them, but make sure that you distinguish the friendlies, neutral or offensive. The friendlies tries to cover everyone in good light. The neutral cast their opinions in either direction. The offensive is to challenge your startup’s market position, find glitches or customer complaints or put tough questions to your interview. To be honest, you will encounter all three. So, learn to live with it. It’s alright not to answer questions which you do not want to. My advice to entrepreneurs: please prepare yourself to be ready for all kinds of questions. One integrated approach is to answer questions the same way which investors would throw your way to you and have a story ready on your finger tips.
    • Learn to Engage on a friendly terrain during crisis management: I have also advised entrepreneurs who need help in crisis management. The typical situation comes in the following forms: (a) your company is featured in negative light, (b) a glitch in the product, (c) your company not doing well, (d) people quitting your company or ex-employees dropping a bombshell for you and etc. My advice to entrepreneurs: (a) never engage on the media outlet if they do not allow you to put your side of the story, (b) don’t be defensive and confront the situation head on by putting up a statement, (c) don’t blame the media outlets or journalists for putting these crisis situations in front of you and (d) learn how to turn the crisis into a positive. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” or I will paraphrase, “Good or bad PR is better than no PR.”
    • PR does not translate to customers: Please make sure that this line is in your employees & your DNA. Getting featured on a prominent technology blog has no impact to your startup getting real customers. That’s the most important thing. Once your startup is out in the open, expect competition and random people popping by your side to check out who you are. The intangible benefit from the noise is that you can use it as a tool to attract potential investors, employees or people who might get the word out that you exist.

    The Signal

    The signal is important to your startup because it creates the blood flow (in the form of revenues) that will keep it going. While you can read up everything on customer discovery, learning how to market your startup to customers is extremely important. With these three rules of thumb, it is important to focus on the signal, which is to map the marketing plan to discover, gather and convert customers to paying customers:

    • Learn everything you know about SEO, social media and online ads and make it happen: Whoever is going to be the hustler, they better start to do the following: learn how to do basic search engine optimisation for your site, create facebook page, pinterest, twitter and any relevant social media page for your site, and try out google, facebook and twitter ads to create the funnel to lure customers who are interested in what you do into your site. On your site, you need to track accurately the user sign up rate or the user dropout rate. Don’t just do all these in one day, but making sure that it’s a continuous and iterative effort similar to your product development.
    • Content marketing via your company blog, good copywriting on your site and help/tips to educate user: Use the blog to write about the trends and the industry that your start up is in, focus on tips and how-tos on educating the user or generating awareness to how users can maximise their returns on your site, and make sure that you continuously edit the marketing language on your site so that customers can understand your value proposition. All these helps to generate customers by pointing them towards becoming one. Teaching your customers from step one to close the loop is an important endeavour and do not assume that they understand every button and purpose in the site or app.
    • Updates not in the form of spams: You can have your mailing lists and send latest updates to your customers. The best way to generate customers is not to spam them, but to make your advertorial look like content or tips to enhance your service. Be sparring in how often you email your customers, and figure out how to retain them as your customers.

    Marketing as Signal & PR as Noise

    Bringing it all back to you, the signal and the noise are synonymously linked to two functions for the startup: marketing and PR respectively. Learn to focus on the signal and be less reliant to noise is how you can navigate the terrain out there to make your startup successful.

    Photo credits: iStockphoto

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    Bernard Leong

    A Pragmatic Idealist