Difficult to believe but yesterday we were back in the Guildhall City Business Library for our fourth Entrepreneur Academe event, this time looking at the intertwined worlds of Sales, PR, Marketing and Social Media – this last one being something of a subset of the others yet something new and separate, too. Once again, after some scene setting by Sarah, we had a Q&A session with our expert panel followed by networking and the chance for our entrepreneurs to seek out some one-on-one advice.

As I say, the panel was extremely experienced, and from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds:

The discussions that took up the bulk of the afternoon were wide-ranging and highly discursive, so rather than try to capture it here in any detail, I’ll present you with some of the themes and observations that emerged, along with some of the pithiest quotes.

  • The first thing to say here is that there really is no one-size-fits all to any of this; everyone is going to have to tread their own path. That said, it is possible to make some useful generalisations.
  • PR, Sales and Marketing are undoubtedly intertwined, but they each have their own flavour and processes. On the whole, PR is all about seeking support from some kind of thought leaders; marketing is there to to drive the message home with customers. Ultimately, both are there to support Sales, of course – that’s their whole point. But in the world of social, in particular, a hammer-and-nails approach doesn’t necessarily wash.
  • Overwhelmingly, the message was: know your audience! That goes for B2B and B2C.
  • Authenticity and personality: if there’s one thing social has changed in the world of marketing, it’s the need to be authentic. Identify your company’s personality, and build a system to reflect this – mood boards and persona exercises are good examples of effectively free “tools” for doing this. But remember: if you’re inauthentic, expect to be rumbled.
  • Related: “Turn your product’s feature sets into stories”.
  • Which leads us to “brand”… “There’s so much brand bullocks out there.” Quite – but of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t vital. Brand encompasses many things: from specifics like name, tone of voice and visual through more conceptual areas like identity, vision, purpose, values and DNA. But establishing your brand need not mean staggering agency fees and years of research. Again, it’s all about understanding your company’s personality, and what it might mean to potential customers. (But again: do you know who they are, do you understand the lives they lead?) Ultimately, “brand is simply the perception of who you are in the mind of your customers.”
  • Ambassadorship: your customers should be your chief ambassadors (whether you’re B2C or B2B), so think about ways to enable their cheer leading (and that’s where social can really hit pay dirt). Everyone in your team – and your growing company – needs to take on that role too.
  • And then, of course, bloggers can be your ambassadors, too. But beware: getting to the right ones and getting them on board takes time and effort. Furthermore, the rewards might not be immediate – and even in the long run it will be difficult to build hard stats to assess a campaign’s significance. In general, bloggers may be more important to you if you have a niche product; they become less important the more mainstream your product is.
  • Of course, approaching bloggers and print journalists alike is only ever successful if you do your homework on the journalist in question. Remember: “If the story isn’t relevant to a journalist, it’s just spam”. And if you’re tracking an opinion former on social media, really get to know and understand their social network. This is about building a campaign.
  • While we’re on the topic of blogging, it’s worth noting that regularly updating your own company’s blog hugely benefits its search engine performance, or “Google juice”.
  • Even for cash-strapped start ups, it can be very worthwhile getting some support. This might be in the shape of an intern, say, to look after your social media presence at a critical point. Or it might be a little more specialist than that: a data analyst to spend some time helping you understand what all your customer data tells you about your business.
  • Don’t be afraid of traditional marketing approaches: a direct marketing campaign or simply a well-placed poster might have more impact than a more fashionable social media initiative (both Nutmeg and Abundance Generation have used poster campaigns on the Underground recently with great results). But again, knowing the right approach will depend on knowing your customers.
  • You might also consider good old fashioned “things” to send to prospective customers – it’s not all about the virtual.
  • Remember that if your business is B2C, the sales cycle is very long. To be effective in this space your must really understand your customers’ buying cycle.
  • Think about incentivising online referrals – but think carefully about the timing and make it a campaign rather than a year-round state of play.
  • “Anyone can close [a sale] by dropping the price point.” But you’re smarter than that, right? Remember, if you sell at a higher price point without changing the product – that’s pure profit.
  • Finally, things go wrong in business, it’s inevitable. But while social can seem like the enemy here it can be a great tool, too. Again, the key is to be authentic. And more than anything else: be prepared to apologise. (I’m minded here, however, of a line in 37signals‘ book ReWork: don’t say “we apologise” – say “sorry”, like you would if you spilled a cup of coffee over someone.)

A couple of resources were mentioned:

Courtney Boyd Myers‘ excellent slide deck PR and Marketing for Startups:

And Eric Reis’ indispensible The Lean Start Up.

So that’s it for this month; but there’s not much let up – we’ll be reporting back from our next event on September 16th.