This post is part of our Marketing Essentials blog series. Our previous post focused on lead generation, the practice of acquiring new customers, partners or users that use your site or service. This post is about PR, events, and emails. Morgan Friberg, Jon Silvers, and Jessie Curtner assisted in the writing of this post.

So far in this series we’ve talked entirely about web-based mechanisms for converting users to customers. Web-based marketing–videos, social marketing, SEO, etc–is only part of the picture, though. Public relations (PR), events, and email marketing are all effective forms of marketing that aren’t purely web based. Each of these practices influences the customer funnel differently, events and PR mostly driving awareness at the top, email touching several parts of the funnel. This post will walk through each of these three practices individually, ending with a bullet list of how you should spend five hours per week on marketing.

PR

PR is a very broad practice involving the communication of a message or brand to your market or industry. PR ultimately has to do with communication, typically in the form of blogging for us technology companies. Good PR improves the top of your funnel, driving brand and product awareness. A company with good PR will see lots of traffic and buzz around new product releases, announcements, or events. Buzz is created by clever campaigns, product releases, and good journalist coverage on blogs and other publications. A lot of companies, small and large, work with PR firms to help create a splash. PR firms have a broad network of bloggers and journalists, enabling them to connect you to well read journalism channels.

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Not surprisingly the internet is riddled with contradicting advice about PR for startups. Some folks are totally against PR firms, while others are for them. The value of a PR firm is in their network, which no doubt is a powerful asset. However, a startup or small team can get more bang for their buck with good social media practices and minimal PR effort. We recommend getting your feet wet in other marketing activities before spending money in PR.

In our lead generation post we talked about engaging in social media. The same advice holds from a PR perspective, too. For example, if you build and sell CAD software, you’re probably following all the articles about CAD and the industry in which the software would sell. Instead of just reading, you should start participating. When a journalist writes something, comment on the article, and take stand. Say why you agree or disagree. Be opinionated. Prove that you’re a subject matter expert, but don’t pitch. Journalists hate it when you say, “Great article, but why didn’t you cover my product?” Journalists aren’t shills for your product, they’re people who are trying to write the news and cover great stories. What you want is to start a relationship. If you comment intelligently, maybe even send short, succinct, and intelligent emails to them, then over time they might just start to get the message: that the next time they’re going to talk about CAD, they should ask you. Journalists like to talk with CEOs and founders, so make sure in all your correspondence and comments they know who you are. Lastly, don’t try to boil the ocean and comment on everything and everywhere. You have to pick your battles. The rest of the time you should be focused on building great products and offering legendary customer service.

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In addition to engaging journalists, you should also create a list of blogs, journals, or communities where you’d like to see your product releases and campaigns talked about. (More on campaigns later.) This list should include aggregate sites (Digg, Hacker News, etc.), blogs (tech, market-specific, geo-specific), social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), other communities (Wikipedia), and even just friends of yours that may be interested in what you’re offering. Consider this list your primary PR responsibility. When creating your press list don’t be discouraged by the likeliness of a certain blog or community promoting you. Sure, getting in contact with a popular blogger or getting on the top of Hacker News is challenging, but you should try anyway. Sending an email to a blogger and posting on aggregate sites take hardly any time, and critical mass can be more about luck than one’s network or excellence.

In general you’ll be able to create the most buzz around news: product releases, big customer wins, surprise hires, or anything else. Create a marketing news checklist to follow for each news update. Include contacting your press list mentioned in the previous paragraph, along with a blog post on your own blog. Improve and iterate on this list as you make announcements and release more product.

With each product release consider running a campaign complete with themed social media, paid advertising, and perhaps a competition. We wanted to promote Jira’s support for wallboards, so we ran a competition to find the ultimate wallboard. We fueled the competition with free shirts, tons of Tweets and blog posts, and some serious prizes. And the results were incredible. We saw a wild amount of traffic (50,000+ visits) to the competition page, lots of wallboard plugin downloads, 87 total submissions, and improved search engine results for keywords we care about.

Events

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Events such as conferences, hackathons, coding competitions, or anything with sponsorship also mostly affect the top of the funnel, creating awareness in audiences that would otherwise not know about your company or product. An event is a great way to network as well, arming you with more powerful relationships to help with case studies, product research, and anything else. Events can generate meaningful leads as you engage attendees, but most of what’s gained is awareness.

The best event bang for your buck is to speak at a conferences. Speaking is free and usually the strongest way to engage with an audience. Try to speak at conferences about interesting topics, not your products. If you decide to purchase a booth or sponsorship, we’d suggest attending the event first, to confirm the event has what you’re looking for, both in terms of audience and exposure. And be sure to do something unusual at your booth. At last year’s Game Developer Conference we sat Steve Wiebe of King of Kong at our booth with a Donkey Kong arcade game. The booth saw quite a lot of traffic :). Similarly, at our Atlassian Summit event last June, Gliffy, one of our most popular plugins, presented dressed as pirates and won our Launchpad event.

Email Marketing

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I expect most engineers think of all email marketing as evil spam. At least I did when I first switched into marketing from engineering. However, email marketing doesn’t need to be spammy–realize that your customers are visiting your website, signing up for your service, or evaluating your product because they’re interested. Emails that address a potential customer’s interest in a helpful way will be well received, so long as you provide value, ask permission, and protect the email address.

Web services such as Facebook send emails to bring people back to the site, driving views and ultimately putting more advertisements in front of users. These emails are useful and totally configurable. Facebook also sends emails to inactive users, attempting to re-engage and drive further ad views. Product companies such as Atlassian run “drip campaigns” for evaluators. A drip campaign is a series of emails that get sent over a period of time, each email building on the previous. We send a drip campaign to each product evaluator, each email containing useful information about our products. These emails are purely informative and generally well received. The middle of our funnel is helped with this type of drip campaign, because we more efficiently convert evaluating users to customers.

Here at Atlassian we also send email to customers due for a renewal, reminding them why and how they should renew, complete with a call to action to renew. These emails influence the bottom of our funnel, engaging existing customers to continue being a customer.

Email can certainly be used at the top of the funnel, but most of those emails are spammy and not well received. The only email we send that helps the top of our funnel is a newsletter.

A good rule of thumb when deciding to collect an email address or send an email is to only do so when you’re providing value. We send evaluator emails because they have true value for someone interested in learning about our products. Any email sent that doesn’t have value will be considered spam, and will only lessen your brand, especially when you’re a small company. And when you collect an email address you have a privacy duty, withholding email addresses from other companies. Seth Godin has a great article about permission marketing, which touches on the responsibilities around collecting an email address.

In terms of how to send email, use an email service that will let you track clicks and audience. We’ve used Campaign Monitor and ExactTarget and seen good success with both. If you have time, experiment with emails as you would with your website. See if longer emails perform better than shorter emails, or if emails with graphics do better than plaintext emails. In our experience we see better results with short, graphic emails.

Your Five Hours of Marketing This Week

Now for this week’s five hours of marketing:

  • Press list: create a list of places you’d like product releases promoted; contact these places whenever you release product
  • Release checklist: create a marketing release checklist, and consider running a campaign or contest around strategic product releases
  • Conferences: find applicable conferences and try to speak at them; if you decide to sponsor do something unusual
  • Emails: pick and implement one email strategy to help convert customers

Photo credit: xkcd, Critical Mass

Update: take a look at the conclusion post to get comprehensive marketing advice for startups and small teams.

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