Many startups get obsessed with press. Not just CEOs, but also employees, friends of employees, and investors. Press, like paid acquisition, can be a drug though. I’ll talk about some of the ways the startup ecosystem perceives press is bad, what it is actually good for, and some outliers.
First, let’s talk about some of the abuse of press by startups in the past. Business insider has a great recap of some of the issues Evernote faced in the couple years before their CEO stepped down. I’ll highlight this quote in particular.
“There was a feeling that we were working on the wrong priorities,” a former employee said. “It was clear the motive was to just continually drum up press. They had no idea how to optimize and improve growth.”
Startups frequently correlate press with growth, and think that they need to create new stories to drive growth. Then they start changing their entire product roadmap to drive press instead of value to customers. Startups should not look for PR to drive growth. PR doesn’t usually drive growth. And when it does, it’s a bump, not an engine. In startups, you want to build growth engines.
This is arguably a better problem than the second way PR drives bad acting in the ecosystem: founders getting addicted to the attention of press. It feels great when there’s a picture of you in the Wall Street Journal and your mom sees it and your dad’s friends. And founders frequently want to create that feeling. It’s as if appearing successful is more important than being successful. This can be a dangerous pattern.
Another problem with press is that it helps competitors understand exactly what you’re doing. I’ve talked in the past of the advantage of being a silent killer and why seeking press attracts unneeded competitor attention. I won’t repeat that here.
What Press Is Good For
A common refrain I tell startups is that press is good for three things: investor interest, employee interest, and links for SEO. I’ll break those down a bit, and talk about why they matter. First, let’s talk about investors. Very few businesses make sense for venture capital, but when they do, they increasingly need larger amounts of it. The venture business has extreme cases of FOMO. One deal can make all the difference. So investors rely on a lot of signals, and the tech press is one important one they look at not only to find new business to research, but to also get comfort in their interest in certain businesses. When Grubhub was raising its Series C from Benchmark, we got written up about our iPhone app on Techcrunch. For Grubhub’s growth, it didn’t matter at all. But it looked great for our fundraising.
Likewise with investors, potential employees rely on press to hear about potential new places of employment and to feel comfortable they are making a good move. Recruiting outreach will have a lower conversion rate if the person has never heard of your company, or if the person’s network hasn’t heard of you when they ask around. This can be overcome, especially if you’re well connected or can tout amazing metrics privately (like WhatsApp), but my guess is WhatsApp always had a harder time recruiting than Snapchat.
Lastly, press is very helpful for SEO. SEO is about relevance and authority, and links from press are a great way to increase authority in the eyes of search engines. Not only can press drive a quantity of links, but the quality of links are probably the highest most startups will receive. So many people link to news publications that they have among the highest domain authority on the internet. Now, getting one of these links won’t make you rank #1, but it’s part of a healthy SEO strategy.
When Can Press Be an Engine of Growth?
Now that I’ve set an argument that press doesn’t usually drive growth directly, I want to talk about some outliers of when it does. Press can drive growth if a certain story about your startup is self-perpetuating. Then, the volume of articles written about you happens in such a regular cadence that readers eventually act on it. I have seen this happen in two major startups over the last ten years in Twitter and Uber. With Twitter, it received such a tremendous uptake from journalists that they kept writing stories about it. This drove their readers to try it, and it became a sustained vehicle for organic acquisition (unfortunately with a low activation rate, but that isn’t press’s fault, but the product). Uber’s growth via press was a little more sculpted. They were able to create a story about the business of Uber fighting against corrupt incumbents and governments that were preventing a better product from succeeding. It was almost a movement. For years this created a headline about Uber almost every week as they faced this resistance in almost every city in which they launched.
I want to highlight that these are anomalies, and it’s unlikely you will be able to create sustained growth directly from press in your company. But that doesn’t mean press is worthless. Just remember what it’s good for, and make it work for you for those interests.