Should your hardware startup invest in PR?
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Intuitive Robotics's ElliQ. Photo Credit: Gabriel Avner / Geektime

Intuitive Robotics's ElliQ. Photo Credit: Gabriel Avner / Geektime

These four tips can help you decide

Jackson Wightman, Allison Aitken, and Borjana Slipicevic are partners at Proper Propaganda, a PR firm that helps technology companies get noticed.

Hardware founders tend to be a bit masochistic. Sky high rates of failure, the immense headaches that come with initial production runs, and the need to spend tons of time on airplanes are evidence to this.

Being more than a tad headstrong and confident are prerequisites.

One byproduct of this delectable witches brew is a view that media coverage of a startup, its goings on, and/or its product(s) are all but guaranteed. This is dangerous and tends to get expensive once resources are poured into PR, that most fickle of marketing channels, where agencies employ by-the-hour billing models that put all risk on clients’ shoulders.

Reality, when it comes crashing down, tends to bring limited coverage, low return on investment and plenty of shade thrown at the agent or agency who failed to meet expectations

The truth is that media relations is hard, resource intense, and extremely risky. As a channel, certain pre-ordained factors greatly increase the likelihood of success or failure. Here are a few points to consider before you go betting the farm on PR.

1. Category matters

Though the tech media aren’t a monolithic block, they are susceptible to caring about specific categories at specific times. If, in a relative sense, your category has previously received a lot of media attention and now does not, it’s probably because media have become less interested in it. In this instance, in order to get coverage you need to be revolutionary or extremely newsworthy. You probably aren’t. This is especially true if you’re in a crowded space.

If startups don’t always realize the importance of category, service providers do. Some PR firms (including ours) have policies about rejecting clients from specific categories. We do this because we know they aren’t likely to get media attention and will probably have skewed expectations. This doesn’t mean these startups won’t be amazing or highly profitable companies; it just means they are not likely to get tons of coverage.

2. Feature-bombs and marginally better copycats don’t get much press

Adding a bunch of random features to existing tech does not mean you’ve built a better mousetrap. It’s amazing how many startups misunderstand this. Among the first questions tech journalists and reviewers tend to ask are ‘How is this different?’ and ‘Why is the needed?’ If your product isn’t substantively different and doesn’t address real pain points,  you aren’t going to get covered. This is particularly true if you’re trying to dethrone big brand competitors.

3. You need a working prototype.

Established hardware players can get significant media attention on rumor of a new product. If sketches of their designs leak, there is often a torrent of coverage.

Newer hardware startups don’t usually get these breaks. Given the myriad crowdfunding flame outs, media have a healthy suspicion about early stage companies making big promises. Assume you will need a working prototype (“looks like/works like”), and that you will have to demo it in front of sentient human journalists in order to get media coverage.

4. Timing.

Too often startups spend money on PR at the wrong times of the year. It boils down to myopia about their news relevance. Say you make gardening tech. Cranking up an expensive PR campaign, targeting short lead tech websites in December is a recipe for making dollars disappear. Obvious, right? Maybe. Still, it happens a lot.

Founders need to understand that there are times of the year when they’re more newsworthy and times when they need to avoid pouring too much into PR.

The views expressed are of the author.

Geektime invites global tech and startup professionals to share their opinions and expertise with our readers. If you would like to share your point of view, please contact us at [email protected]

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