Note, This is the uncut, unedited version of my TechCrunch post, “The Big Conference Launch: How to Stand Out from the Crowd.” I’m also running this version to provide a deeper understanding of how to rise above the noise with at least 124 other tech companies/products competing for mind share at TechCrunch50 and DEMOfall.
Disclosure: I am not affiliated with TechCrunch50. If you are a participating TC50 company, resident TechCrunch PR expert Sarah Ross is available to share and review the public relations guidelines with you. It is important to work directly with Sarah to ensure you are in compliance with these guidelines to maximize your PR opportunity while also avoiding disqualification.
With TechCrunch50 and DEMOfall 2008 around the corner and over 120 companies debuting at both events, I thought this would be a good time to stop talking theory, refrain from bashing PR stereotypes, and start talking about how to successfully create visibility for startups, specifically at events that will command a global audience.
Even though some A-list bloggers and high profile entrepreneurs have publicly implied that any good product or eloquent and outspoken CEO will easily traverse the roads cluttered with inferior startups to quickly rise to stardom simply by existing, the reality is, you really do need some-level of PR. Let me clarify that statement. You need intelligent, informed, objective, and highly connected PR, which is very different than the typical Public Relations you may have experienced or frequently read about. You also need a strategic launch plan and a polished, professional, and creative demonstration that will resonate with attendees and compel them to positively react.
Allow me put a few things in perspective for you. September is a busy month. TechCrunch50 is surrounded by some of the industry’s most anticipated, attended and watched conferences including Office 2.0, DEMOfall, Web 2.0 Expo, and BlogWorld Expo (I’ll be at all of them by the way). Whether you support them or not, they’re still competing for mind share and they are attracting influential attendees and spectators who will report their experiences and observations. In those two-to-three weeks, we’re expecting over 200 companies to launch and vie for attention and precious blog and media real estate.
This isn’t the time to leave your company’s future up to chance. This is the time to seize your opportunity to demonstrate why your startup should garner the attention you believe it deserves.
Let’s start with the obvious. Your story, as wonderful as it is, will need help rising above the flurry of news that will jockey to reach the ears and eyes of bloggers, press, customers, investors, and partners. TC50, and DEMOfall will give startups a huge boost. Let’s take this time to reel everything in to make sure you’re on track.
This advice may seem 101, and in some cases it is. Nonetheless, it’s an important refresher for those companies who are using TechCrunch50 to debut their company or new products.
For those lucky 52 handpicked companies, there is a clear and prevailing rule to participate and it will make the difference whether or not you launch to accolades or you’re dis-invited from the event. You have to introduce your new company or product, for the first time, on stage TC50.
With that said, there are also a few additional directives that presenting companies must abide by which may present a challenge for PR. Don’t let it tempt you into cutting corners or trying to bend thing to work for you. These points are critically important, as they’re not open to interpretation or negotiation:
– Until your presentation on stage, you must keep your site password protected with only limited private access provided to a trusted group of alpha or beta users for testing purposes.
– You CANNOT demo your product to the press for publication in advance of the conference, even if it’s under embargo. Pre-briefings are not allowed.
– You can’t announce that you were selected as one of the TechCrunch50 companies until after TechCrunch announces the list on Monday, September 8. As proud and excited as you are, remain patient.
– No screenshots or video demos of your product can be shared on the web in advance. There is a great deal of interest and speculation and other reporters and bloggers are actively seeking clues. Uploading test videos and images to your Website, YouTube, or Flickr, run the risk of discovery and public dissemination. Just wait…
– Information regarding your new company or product can not premier on online, including your corporate or product Website, until after the stage presentation.
Although these rules are highly debated, they are what they are. So, let’s explore a few other ways that PR can safely leverage this event.
What’s Your Story?
So many startups forget that there’s more to the story than the technology that powers their new product or service. It’s absolutely imperative that you demonstrate how it will be used in the real world, by whom, and why it’s truly better than anything else out there.
Let’s start by determining who your customers and users are and where they go for information and insight. Identifying these groups will humanize the process of crafting your st
ory. It forces you to adapt
what you’re introducing specifically to the people you’re hoping to reach.
The next step is to summarize not only what you’re introducing, but distill the value, benefits and extraordinary features that differentiate you from your competition and also highlight how you’re solving real world problems and challenges. This process will impact your press materials, your stage demo, your pitch, and ultimately the perception that conference attendees form.
Get it in Writing
After you’ve run through your messaging exercises, document the story in a convincing press release, product/company overview, and unpublished blog post that officially announce the product or service (do not publish or share them until after your stage presentation).
Make sure that the solution and the value is upfront.
Assume that the people who will ultimately read your story are short on attention span, whether they’re a blogger, reporter, customer, partner, investor, or potential acquirer. Just because you’re selected to launch out of the hundreds of companies that applied, doesn’t mean your story is a guaranteed success.
In PR, writing usually follows an inverted pyramid format, which recommends that you pack all of the pertinent information at the beginning and conclude with the supporting details. In today’s highly competitive Web economy, solely relying on traditional press releases to tell your story greatly restricts its potential. Time and attention are precious commodities.
Find a way to tell your story as quickly and as compelling as possible. If it’s one thing that Twitter has taught us, it is how to say something significant in 140 characters or less. Twitter and the onslaught of emerging micromedia communities are reinforcing this process of sharing updates and insight through brevity and clarity. In PR and marketing, the study and practice of saying more with less online, is referred to as MicroPR.
With every sentence, description, or statement we verbalize or write effectively, we can earn the chance to open the next door. The goal is to continue to tell the story progressively, gaining momentum and increasing resonance along the way, and continue to open enough doors to tell our story completely. This methodology helps tell the story quicker and more persuasively. Just in case someone stopped listening at any point, the important information and market opportunity should have already been communicated.
Piecing Together the Puzzle
In addition to having a press release, overview, and blog post drafted, and ready to share after you the stage, also draft an “at a glance” summary supported by bulleted value statements to tell and support your story. This is usually shared in the form of email when introducing your company/product, as it tees up interest for the full press release, and can also serve as the outline for your demonstration and presentation.
There are other ways, beyond press releases, summaries and blog posts to break news. With Web video production and screencasting tools readily available, affordable, and easy to use, producing a visual demonstration will only help convey your story and fortify message integrity when you’re not present to personally explain it. Also, short videos and demos are shareable and embeddable to expand the story across the social Web.
While paper press kits are long gone, or should be, digital press kits are still alive and well. Pull everything together in one place, such as a USB key, a downloadable zip file, an online press room, and consider experimenting with a social media press kit or a social media release.
The Social Media Release (SMR) is an online blog post or socially-rooted Web page that centralizes your news summary, bullets, quotes, outbound links, as well as the supporting social objects that you create to support the news, including images from flickr, video from Viddler or YouTube, embeddable content from Docstoc or Scribd, widgets, delicious bookmarks, etc. For more on press releases, please read, “The Evolution of Press Releases.”
A Social Media Press Kit (SMPK) a.k.a. online press kit/press room is a dedicated, one-stop destination for your specific news event, usually hosted on a social platform such as WordPress, MoveableType, etc., but can also reside on a traditional Website – tethered to your corporate site. This landing page contains embedded objects that help reporters and bloggers assemble the news their way. It can feature an embedded version of the press release and all other related social objects, for at-a-glance viewing and also for quickly grabbing the necessary embed codes.
TC50 will attract some of the most influential people in tech and therefore requires a creative launch strategy to prevent your story from getting eclipsed by the other great companies who are also presenting. Again, just because you’re invited to launch at TC50, doesn’t mean everyone will cover your news let alone remember you the next day.
Last year, we launched a company at TC40 and opted for a public preview versus a public release. The site and the company went live during the event, but it debuted as an invitation only service. We provided all attendees with a special access code to access the product. We also presented press with invitations to share with their readers. While this strategy isn’t an effective option for every company, it hopefully inspires you to consider alternative approaches that may increase visibility over a standard public debut – all of which can’t take place until you take the stage.
Releasing a private beta is has its advantages. One, it provides the development team with some breathing room instead of rushing to finalize everything that’s necessary for a true public beta launch, which can sometimes compromise and potentially taint first impressions. Second, it allows you to harness and prolong the buzz, awareness, and credibility generated at TC50 through invitations, community participation, and word of mouth. After 30-45 days, you can earn a second opportunity to spotlight the service/produce when you eventually release in public beta, using the PR tools and processes to announce availability.
Your time on stage is well-deserved and you have an obligation to attendees and also to your development team to present your company in a way that makes people remember who you are and why you were invited to participate in the first place.
This isn’t a local meetup for startups. This isn’t just another opportunity to practice your everyday company pitch. This is a major production that requires an entirely new level of presentation, probably of the caliber that you may not have experienced previously. The world will literally be watching, sitting through 52 demos, so what are you going to do that will make everyone in the room stop checking email or updating Twitter, pay attention to your time on stage, and more importantly, remember you after the event – not to mention the ability to create enthusiasm and support in order to ignite referrals and potential word of mouth for being one of the hottest companies to debut.
Ditch the Powerpoint presentation. No one wants to see bulleted lists that say what you do and or endure a series of slides that detail your professional credentials and career experience. They want to see what you do and how it was selected over the hundreds of other companies that were hoping to make the cut. Quickly explain the pain that your solving, make us empathize with it. But, get to that demo as quickly as possible. Show, don’t tell. You may need help and coaching to become an incredible presenter to maximize your time on stage and that’s OK. It’s how we become more incredible public speakers.
As TC50 co-founder and co-host Jason Calacanis has recently emphasized in his email newsletter, companies need to attach their brand to a movement, a trend, something bigger than just the next shiny new object, search engine, widget, or next new social network.
Have charisma. Express your passion. Speak clearly with authority and confidence. Move around the stage as you demo your product. Get someone to run the notebook and don’t lock yourself in that comfort zone behind the podium. Please don’t subject us to a dry demo of you staring at you notebook screen, clicking buttons and talking monotonously.
Ensure that portions of the demo canned so that we can breeze through the frontlines and get into true value of what it is you’re launching. We don’t need to see the registration process. We don’t need to endure the discomfort of watching you fumble through typos as you enter unnecessary data to support your presentation.
Have everything ready to go and have it rehearsed and polished. You don’t need slides. You don’t need 3×5 cards. Connect with the audience. Grab and hold their attention. This is your baby and you know it better than anyone. Passion and enthusiasm are contagious and we want to be amazed!
We’re there for you, so it’s your job to not let us forget who you are.
– Show your product within the first 60 seconds
– The best products take less than five minutes to demo
– Leave people wanting more.
– Talk about what you’ve done, not what you’re going to do.
– Understand your competitive landscape–current and historical.
– PowerPoint bullet slides are death
– Show Don’t Tell
– One driver, one navigator
On Site Briefings
Many of the industry’s most influential bloggers, analysts, and reporters will attend TC50, with many more observing and reporting on the event highlights from all over the world. It’s in the best interest of your company and your personal brand to judiciously meet with those who truly cover your industry and ultimately affect your markets.
Every reporter and blogger is different in their preferences for contact, requests for briefings, etc. After your company is announced as a presenter, realize that most of the reporters and bloggers on the pre-registered media list will receive inbound requests from the other attending companies for on site appointments almost instantly.
Nothing beats a handshake and an in person introduction. This is about building relationships that you carry and cultivate throughout your career. Press and bloggers are open to meeting companies and many of them are more than happy to discuss your company – albeit briefly. Introduce yourself as one of the presenting companies and ask if they have a moment to talk now (as in during the event) or see if they’re scheduling slots for briefings during or after TC50.
For example, last year, we (bub.blicio.us) scheduled on site interviews with everyone who asked and also made a compelling case for us to do so.
One thing to keep in mind however is that this event is a major production and it can be overwhelming, even for the most professional and experienced journalists. Following up after the conference with all of your key reporters and bloggers is always a good idea. Meet them for coffee, take them to lunch, or simply schedule a short teleconference or screenshare session to give them a deeper look at what was introduced.
At any major industry event, there are always scores of people who don’t have passes who want to participate in the can’t-miss excitement and action and also promote their agenda. This adds a new layer of dynamics to an already incredible environment. When combined with the onsite PR and marketing activity of the TC50 presenters and also those in the Demo Pit, it also creates an additional possibility to promote your company among those networking in the event lobby.
At TC40, PowerSet served delicious “branded” shots in test tubes to attendees as well as the huge contingent that formed the unofficial lobbycon. Other promotional items and clever memorabilia were also freely distributed all in the hopes of striking a chord with attendees and rising above the fray.
Make no doubt that there will be an influx of companies competing for attention, whether or not they’re part of TC50. You do need to offer something that helps you stand out. So think of this as your chance to
create and distribute something m
emorable that also correlates with your brand so that attendees not only remember you after the conference is all said and done, but are also reminded to test, and hopefully use, your product.
TechCrunch50 is going to be an extraordinary event and it’s up to you to make it the most successful debut possible. There’s still plenty of time to get things right and to ensure that you indubitably stand out against everything that will transpire over the course of three days. Make sure to follow the rules in order to properly and effectively leverage your PR opportunities on site and after the conference. And, prepare (and also rehearse) the most compelling and amazing presentation and demonstration of your life.
Other Voices on the Subject:
Rafe Needleman of CNET, A user guide to following DEMOfall and TechCrunch50
Robert Scoble, Startups: your web site sucks
Daniel Terdiman, Are Demo and TechCrunch50 fragmenting their audiences?
Additional Resources on PR 2.0:
PR for Startups Now Available as a Free ebook