How to promote a startup or a new product on a limited budget?
FOCUX GROUP
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The lack of a budget for promotion is a stopping factor for the effective and rapid development of more than half of the startups on our market. While focusing on ideas, hypotheses and developments, teams do not think about the fact that in the seething information space their ideas may not be enough, regardless of their level of innovation. Successful serial entrepreneurs know better than anyone else that any idea must also be sellable, and the more expensive the better. There are often cases when lack of promotion leads to the quick and untimely death of truly promising and interesting startups that no one ever heard of.
It is promotion, not marketing, that is of sacred importance for startups. After all, a startup is usually not a finished product aimed at immediate expansion among markets and consumers, but the expertise of the team and the potential of their ideas. Without proper promotion of the product, the team and their expertise, it’s impossible to increase the value of a startup and find serious investments. And without investments, the implementation of ideas and successful exit are impossible. It is media publications, the media presence of the team and general recognition that help a startup quickly grow out of short trousers, and sometimes even exceed its objective value.
But then you find yourself in a “catch 22” situation. How do you promote a fledgling startup or a new IT product if you are just starting your journey? If there is no promo budget, then there will be no sales, and if there are no sales, there will be no promo budget. This is a vicious circle. Remember looking for your first job, when, having received the coveted diploma, for the first time in your life you were faced with the harsh reality of the adult world? All employers would only consider candidates “with at least 2 years of work experience”, but it’s impossible to obtain this experience due to the same vicious circle effect. But hey, everyone still finds a way. And the same goes for promotion.
Obviously, promotion in the media can be paid or free. Paid promotion often means direct advertising: in digital formats, magazines, on TV and radio channels. People are usually skeptical of such advertising. Less commonly, it can be native advertising (ads that imitate opinions, editorials, reviews, etc.) created specifically to combat consumer skepticism. The cost of placing such advertising can be about $10,000 per publication, if we are talking, for example, about some federal media. “Where can a student get that kind of money?”
But you can get into the media for free. In short, there are four main areas to focus on:

  • Respond to journalist’s requests
  • Offer your materials to media editors
  • Self-publish your content on blogging and social media platforms
  • Participate in public events that have media coverage.

Let's look at some of the main ways to promote a startup for free within these areas, and also look at practical tips for using them. After all, the devil is in the details.
1. Editorial content
Editorial content is the presentation of material, in the preparation and editing of which the editorial staff of a particular media plays a key role. This role is often not limited to just the development and preparation of the main topic, searching and selecting speakers, correcting spelling errors and grammatical inaccuracies, but also working on the structure of the text, logic and even sequence of thoughts. When it comes to the format of editorial content, the best option for a startup is an interview or a product/startup review. Editorial content provides the highest potential value for a product. At first glance, it seems ideal. You don’t have to write anything yourself, journalists do all the work, the value of the material is the highest, right? Well, wrong. There are always “reefs” that you need to be aware of. The more powerful the media, the less leverage you have over the content they publish.

When you approach a publisher with the idea of reviewing your new development, be prepared for criticism and think through your responses in advance. A publisher is willing to post your material for free not because he sincerely wants to help you promote you / your startup for free, but because he wants his own profile to be promoted. In other words, this is a barter format: your product gets exciting and relevant content for free, and the author, in turn, gets a free mention.
But why do you even need leverage over someone? If you ask an editor to review your new project, be prepared for possible criticism, negative reviews, or some unpleasant information that journalists will dig up on the key people in your startup, for example, some dirt from their previous venture experience. If you’re doing an interview, at least be prepared for a clickbait headline that distorts the meaning of what you’re saying, since creating a bit of hype is many editors' bread and butter. As they say, “This is the Internet, baby”. So, here are some handy tips:

1. Be very careful and selective in choosing not just a media publication, but also a specific journalist who will review and post the material
2. Make sure that your project is truly ready for an objective and comprehensive review
3. Discuss / request from the editor in advance the possibility of preliminary proofreading of the final publication.

By following these recommendations, you can rest assured that the very first publication about your project in the media won’t become the funeral march for your startup. But other than that, it's really all positives. As a result, you get the desired material, prepared by the editors completely free of charge, and it’s far more credible than advertising articles with appropriate tags.
2. Press releases and guest publications
In our specific case, guest articles are the mailings and publications of your finished content (articles, product reviews, success stories, comparisons, market analysis, etc.) on third-party sources, when the participation of the editors is limited only to proofreading and minimal stylistic edits of the content you provide. But in order to prepare such material yourself, you need not only to be an expert in this subject, but also to be able to present it beautifully and concisely.

But there are some riffs in this, too. The main one is the global overabundance of content on the Internet. There is a constant supply of exciting material. ChatGPT-style AI chatbots speed up this process exponentially. And competition in the media market is enormous.
No one will write about you purely just because you / your team / founder / investor may think your startup is cool and outstanding. Believe me, any slightly reputable IT edition receives on a daily basis dozens and hundreds of announcements, press releases and guest publication offers from outstanding startups and companies like yours. There are no guarantees that the editors will even open your letter, let alone read it and respond. If they do this, editorial work will simply become a matter of analyzing correspondence rather than producing content. So, it’s important to get journalists interested, starting with a clear and relevant subject line, not to mention the presentation and the content itself.

This problem applies not only to guest publications, but also to press releases. A press release is a text document that a company or organization sends to the media for distribution, to announce important events, news, or products. The topic of a press release for a startup can be, for example, the release of an MVP, attracting new investments, strategic partnerships, awards and achievements, participation in events, etc. For the editors to be interested in publishing it for free, your startup should already be on everyone’s lips or be of genuine interest and value to the target audience of this particular media source.

To distribute press releases and guest publications, you can use specialized services that can be easily found using topical search queries, or you can create your own mailing database. I assure you, if you intend to break into the market seriously and for a long time, then it will be useful to you in the long run.
3. Expert comments
Expert comments in PR are opinions, analysis or information provided by an expert in a particular field of knowledge or industry. They don’t reveal your product, but are used in public speeches, press releases, interviews, articles and other materials to add authority, depth and expert opinion to a trending topic or event. Typically, they serve as an important component of a PR strategy, allowing to strengthen the image and attract audience attention to the product / company through the authority of an expert.

How to get the attention of journalists so that they turn to you for comments? Firstly, you can build your own network of loyal journalists, which won’t be difficult if you prove your expertise in topics that matter to them, such as AI, Computer Vision, Big Data, etc. If you're a seasoned conference and meetup attender or run popular profile pages in social media, this will make things even easier. You can search for journalists in specialized professional networks like LinkedIn, since they consider communication on professional topics in regular messengers to be in bad taste. Also, many media outlets publish journalists’ contact information on their websites or in social networks.

You can take the simpler route and use professional platforms designed to connect journalists and experts, such as Prowly for English-speaking markets. They obviously cost some money, but save a lot of your time on “cold” mailings and meetings. But even paid services can’t guarantee that your comments will be published, due to the same overheated market. For example, if a reputable federal or international media makes a request for comment on a current topic, then in the next couple of days it can collect more than 30-40 ready-made comments from experts. And they will choose only one. In an era where information rules the world, competition for publicity is enormous.
4. Self-publishing platforms
And, perhaps, one of the simplest channels for promoting your content is via the indexed web segment. These are self-publishing platforms and blogs. Their beauty is that they have the lowest entry threshold of all the methods listed above. You don’t need to have a seasoned copywriter or opinion leader on your team to get a post published on the page that you create yourself. Just follow the rules and editorial policy of the source, don’t publish garbage, and don’t insult spiteful critics in the comments.

The downside is that there is very little coverage, especially at the very start of the blog when your only fans are your own team. But if you blog regularly and frequently post interesting and relevant information, you can build muscle not only among subscribers, but also among journalists who will take note of you. But the most important thing is search indexing. Your startup will be indexed on the Internet, and investors will be able to recognize you in search queries. Which, in turn, will have a positive effect on the value of your project in their eyes.

Based on my experience of working with startups and young technology companies, I would recommend using these promotion channels regardless of the availability of other, more serious channels and services. They will only contribute to the faster development of your project.

There are many online platforms where teams can self-publish, such as Medium, etc. But you need to understand that the option of free publications on behalf of the company is not available everywhere by default. On some platforms this will be a paid option.
5. Social networks
And with that, we've reached the final point: social networks. Everything is quite obvious here, there isn’t much to explain. But I want to emphasize that social networks are the absolute must for promoting young IT projects. Firstly, for history and posterity. Secondly, to increase the value of the project. But make sure to manage them well. Because even if you create accounts on all existing social networks, but make only a couple of half-baked posts a month, neither contemporaries nor descendants will bother with your project. And neither will investors.

Strive to publish attractive high-quality content, develop sections and content plans, involve designers in creating visuals, skilfully play with hashtags and geolocations.

The choice of networks is not set in stone and can change dynamically depending on external circumstances, which, sadly, are no longer influenced by technologies. At the time of writing this article, the most effective social networks for products aimed at global markets are X (ex-Twitter), LinkedIn, and to some extent Instagram and Facebook.
6. Public events
These are competitions, awards, conferences and meetings. Startups focused on Western markets are also actively promoting themselves through participation in various awards, contests, classic conferences and meetups. Obviously, “rich” startups can afford to simply buy some kind of award like Best Catch of the Year, but if you have a really cool product, you, too, have a chance to win. And it gives you a great tool for mentions and quotes.

With conferences and meetups, things are even simpler: you don’t have to have a top product or work in Western markets. If you can give a great speech on the topic at hand, you can be invited to take part in the event as a speaker for free. Some large conferences even organize special competitions in advance and are ready to provide the winners not only with a slot for a speech, but also with certain freebies, such as compensation for accommodation and travel.

If conferences on your topic don’t publicly offer such opportunities, then it makes sense to send an initiative letter to the organizing committees, and this can also be effective. The “winners” receive not only a slot for a speech and an audience of present attendees, but also additional coverage, indexing and expertise through media publications that will write about the event. The method is really cool and highly recommended to start with.

As you can see, starting your self-promotion journey on a low budget is very difficult, but possible, and there are many ways to do it. Keep trying, experimenting, making mistakes and trying again. But don't expect quick results: they are rare even among professionals. PR is a long, painstaking and strategic work that will pay off in the long run. And as in any other business, it all depends on you!
Tell us about your project and ideas today, and we will figure out how to implement them to your benefit tomorrow!
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