If there’s one thing I learned from my time as both a journalist at The Wall Street Journal and Forbes and, now, advising a global venture capital firm on communications, it’s that storytelling can make or break a company.
This is especially true the more complicated and arcane a company’s technology is. Stories about online-dating and burrito-delivery apps are easily understood by most people. But if a company specializes in making technology for hybrid-cloud data centers, or parsing specialized IT alerts and cybersecurity warnings, the storytelling task becomes much harder — but, I would argue, even more important.
Sure, a wonky company will still be able to talk easily to its customers and chat up nerdy CIOs at trade shows. But what happens when they raise a Series C or D round of financing and actually need to reach a broader audience — like really big, potential business partners, potential acquirers, public investors or high-level business reporters? Often, they’re stuck.
It can be painful to watch. When I was a reporter, I was amazed at the buzzwords thrown at me by some technology companies trying to get me to write about them. For fun, my colleagues and I would put some of these terms into online “buzzword bingo” websites just to see what indecipherable company descriptions they would spit out. (Example: “An online, cloud-based, open-source hyperconverged Kubernetes solution.”) Often, when pressed, PR representatives couldn’t explain to me what these companies actually did.
These companies obviously never made it into my stories. And I would argue that many of them suffered more broadly from their overall lack of high-profile press coverage; large business publications like the ones for which I worked target the very big-company executives and investors these later-stage startups were trying to reach.
Now, of course, I’m on the other side of that reporter/company equation — and I often feel like a big chunk of my job is working as a technology translator.
A natural-born storyteller
So why is this B2B storytelling problem so common, and arguably getting worse? Lots of reasons. Many of these hard-to-understand companies are founded by highly technical engineers for whom storytelling is (not surprisingly) not a natural skill. In many cases, their marketing departments are purely data-driven, focused on demand generation, ROI and driving prospects to an online sales funnel — not branding and high-level communications. As marketing technology has gotten more and more advanced and specialized, so have marketing departments.
As a result, many B2B and enterprise-IT companies are often laser-focused on talking about their products’ specific bells and whistles, staying in “sell mode” for a technical audience and cranking out wonky whitepapers and often-boring product press releases. They’re less adept at taking a step back to address the actual business benefits their product enables. Increasingly, this tech-talk also plays well with the legions of hyper-specialized, tech-news websites that have proliferated to serve every corner of the technology market, making some executives think there’s no need to target higher-level press.
One prominent marketing and PR consultant I know, who has worked with hundreds of Silicon Valley startups since the 1980s, says she is “shocked” by how poorly many senior tech industry CEOs today communicate their companies’ stories. Many tend to “shun” communications, considering it too “soft” in this new era of data-obsessed marketing, the consultant Jennifer Jones, recently told me. But in the end, poor communications and storytelling can create or exacerbate business problems, and often affect a company’s valuation.
So how do you get to a point where you can talk about your company in plain terms, and reach the high-level audiences you’re targeting?
One tactic, obviously, is to ditch the jargon when you need to. The pitch you use on potential customers — who likely already have an intimate understanding of your market and the specific problems you’re trying to solve — is not as relevant for other audiences.
A big fund manager at Fidelity or T. Rowe Price, or a national business journalist, probably knows, for example, that cloud computing is a big trend now, or that companies are buying more technology to battle complex cybersecurity attacks. But do they really understand the intricacies of “hybrid-cloud” data center setups? Or what a “behavioral attack detection solution” does? Probably not.
The David versus Goliath angle
Another tip is to put your company story in a larger, thematic context. People can better understand what you do if you can explain how you fit into larger technology and societal trends. These might include the rise of free, open-source software, or the growing importance of mobile computing.
It’s also helpful to talk about what you do in relation to larger, more established players. Are you nipping away at the slow-growing, legacy business of Oracle/EMC/Dell/Cisco? As a journalist, I once wrote a story about a small public networking company called F5 Networks that specialized in making “application delivery controllers.” But the story mostly focused on F5’s battle with a much larger competitor; in fact, the editors titled the story “One-Upping Cisco.” That’s the angle most readers were likely to care about. Journalists, particularly, love these David versus Goliath type stories, and national business publications are full of them.
Another key storytelling strategy is leveraging your customers. If your business is boring to the average person, try to get one of your household-name customers to talk publicly about how they use your technology. Does your supply-chain software help L’Oréal sell more lipstick, or UPS make faster package deliveries?
One of our portfolio companies had a nice business-press hit a few years ago by talking about how their software helped HBO stream “Game of Thrones” episodes. (The service had previously crashed because too many people were trying to watch the show.) You can leverage these highly visible customers for case studies on your website. These can be great fodder for your sales team as well as later press interviews, as long as they’re well-written and understandable. Try to get more customers to agree to this type of content when you sign the contract with them.
From “Mad Men” to math men
Finally, there’s the issue of marketing leadership inside tech companies. In my experience, most smaller, B2B or enterprise IT-focused startups have CMOs or VPs of marketing who are more focused on data and analytics than brand communications — more “math men” than “Mad Men.” This isn’t surprising, as these companies often sell data-rich products and have business models where PR and general advertising don’t directly drive sales (unlike, say, a company making a food-delivery app). The CEOs of these companies value data and analytics, too.
I encourage B2B tech CEOs to focus on hiring CMOs with some brand/communications experience, or at least a willingness to outsource it to competent partners who are experts in that area. After a couple of early rounds of funding, you should be outgrowing your highly specialized PR firm (if you even have one) that focuses on a narrow brand of trade publications, for example. These firms usually don’t have contacts at the bigger, national business and technology outlets that are read by big mutual fund managers, and the business development folks at Cisco or Oracle. Hiring ex-journalists — not technical experts — to write content and develop messaging can be a good idea, too.
In other words, start focusing on high-level storytelling earlier, not when you’ve already raised $100 million in venture funding and have several hundred employees. By that point, it can simply be too late: Your company has already been typecast by the trade press and written off by higher-level reporters, and sometimes even potential business partners, as too niche-y and hard to understand.
As a journalist, I learned that everyone has a story to tell. It’s up you to figure out what your company’s is, and how to tell that story in a compelling, understandable fashion. If you do, I’m pretty sure the business benefits will follow.