Best small-budget campaign: The Dialog Lab finds clever hooks in startup campaign

by | Aug 28, 2018 | Public Relations

Enterprise software is a crowded and commoditized market, and it’s not easy for startups to launch and attract customers or investors—they need to build credibility first. When software-as-a-service vendor management company Meta SaaS (now Flexera) announced seed funding and its launch out of stealth, it sought to quickly demonstrate credibility for its leadership and new SaaS-tracking platform, and retained The Dialog Lab for its new PR campaign.

The Dialog LabThe firm agreed to support Meta SaaS with a solid understanding of the challenge ahead, realizing they would need to find a way to make an enterprise tech story compelling for media, prove Meta SaaS’ value to an audience of potential customers, tout the founder’s past startup successes to attract new investment and employees, and drive linkbacks and SEO, all on a shoestring budget of less than $10,000.

“Enterprise tech doesn’t often make for thrilling stories, and Meta SaaS’ relatively small seed round ($1.5 million) wouldn’t normally attract the attention of top reporters,” says Aaron Motsinger, partner at The Dialog Lab. “Making matters even trickier, Meta SaaS wasn’t a known entity with existing cachet or credibility in the media—they were a total enigma emerging from stealth.”

Read on to see how The Dialog Lab met and exceeded those goals, earning valuable media coverage and critical visibility for its client—and earning a Silver Award in the “Best Campaign on a Shoestring Budget” category in Bulldog Reporter’s 2018 PR Awards.

The Strategy

Seed funding and out-of-stealth announcements are less likely to attract attention from major news outlets because dollar amounts are low, products may still be in development and, particularly in enterprise software, the ground-floor business benefit isn’t exciting to the average reader. Meta SaaS faced these same challenges: Their seed funding was just $1.5 million and the value proposition—software to monitor how a business uses other software—isn’t exactly “sexy,” but rather compelling only to a tightly-defined audience.

FlexeraHowever, several customers already using the product were willing to be publicly named, boosting its credibility as a solution to a very real problem. Several investors were also relatively high-profile on a national or regional scale. The Dialog Lab recognized that the potential impact of Meta SaaS’ platform in terms of cost savings and IT security would resonate with business decision makers, customer references would help evidence the product’s viability, and investor advocacy would bolster corporate credibility.

“We knew we needed to add newsworthiness to make this unknown story more than a startup with a small pile of cash to burn, so we highlighted founder Arlo Gilbert’s pedigree as a serial entrepreneur, his doggedness and ingenuity in landing investments from high-profile venture capitalists and his success in convincing large companies to try Meta SaaS and share their early results,” Motsinger relates. “We balanced human interest story threads with data that showed the business impact Meta SaaS had for existing customers who were fighting a problem common to almost every modern business.”

If dollars are endorsements, then Mark Cuban serving as lead investor for Meta SaaS’ funding round spoke volumes to top reporters on a national stage. Other key investors included IT security giant Barracuda Networks and Brett Hurt, a well-respected serial entrepreneur in Texas technology circles. The campaign team helped Meta SaaS present a clear PR strategy to each of those investors, shaped their involvement (whether they provided quotes or were offered as additional sources for media), and fully leveraged them as noteworthy third-party advocates.

Capitalizing on these strategic narrative elements raised the profile of the announcement from a ho-hum new business launch to one that attracted the attention of customers and more high-profile investors with the promise of clear business impact. In addition, marquee reporters at target outlets like VentureBeat, TechCrunch and more were paying attention.

The Execution

Gilbert was keenly aware of the challenges facing his company’s out-of-stealth moment, but that wasn’t going to limit his expectations. He was adamant that a PR campaign deliver both a high quality and quantity of coverage in top-tier business, technology and venture capital outlets.

Matt Isaacs (left) and Aaron Motsinger from the Dialog Lab campaign team,

Matt Isaacs (left) and Aaron Motsinger from the Dialog Lab campaign team,

To gain a holistic view of Meta SaaS’ value proposition, progress, goals and competitive landscape, The Dialog Lab team interviewed Gilbert and thoroughly mined investor pitch decks and customer demos. The team worked to determine messaging priorities: coverage should include details about the platform’s extensive integration list so that customers and prospects understood where Meta SaaS would save them money, and should highlight Gilbert’s projections for growth, to pique the interest of potential new investors and prospective employees.

The team outlined and executed a strategy to amplify current investor voices and customer references, in pitches and a press release, to bolster credibility and attract coverage from larger publications with potential customers and investors in their readership. The Dialog Lab interfaced with those investors and customers, crafted the press release and collected graphics that expressed Meta SaaS’ value visually.

With those storytelling tools in place, the team undertook exhaustive research to identify media outlets with audiences likely to include software decision-makers, then compiled a prioritized shortlist of top-tier reporters to offer an embargoed exclusive, which would ensure a high-quality crown jewel of leadoff coverage without sacrificing much quantity. Ultimately, the perfect match for the exclusive was found in Bérénice Magistretti, formerly of VentureBeat. The team prepped Gilbert for an interview that added color and personality to the exclusive coverage.

On the day of the embargo lift and news release, the team sent personalized pitches to about 50 more business, technology and VC reporters while also distributing the release over Business Wire.

The Results

Cost efficiency was in Meta SaaS’ DNA, so The Dialog Lab was committed to transparency in planning, execution and results measurement. In the planning phases, The Dialog Lab reviewed rationale for their selected exclusive targets, so that Meta SaaS clients understood exactly how top-tier coverage was poised to reach potential customers and investors. The team also built a coverage tracker for the project so that Meta SaaS would have a full view of each piece of coverage earned through The Dialog Lab’s pitching and press release strategy.

The Dialog Lab By both the team’s measure and the client’s, the campaign was a rousing success. Results were tracked and compiled using TrendKite. The team delivered business, tech or VC-focused coverage via VentureBeat, TechCrunch, Axios, Fortune, Digital Journal and PEHub. Additionally, targeted pitching saw a nearly 50 percent return rate and, combined with press release pickup, procured another 71 articles featuring Meta SaaS in business or tech trade outlets.

Overall, the team netted a collective readership of more than 51.7 million and provided about a 20x return on Meta SaaS’ initial investment (in terms of equivalent advertising costs), further satisfying the clients’ desire for nimble, cost-effective PR.

“Meta SaaS’ out-of-stealth moment enjoyed such positive coverage because the team packaged a commonplace story in a way that broadened its appeal, plus we identified the perfect people to pitch,” Motsinger offers. “We’re proud that our research, instincts and thoughtful approach helped us deliver results without the luxury of a bottomless budget.”

In follow-ups, the team learned from Meta SaaS that coverage from the announcement directly generated promising sales and investment leads, the company was one of just three startups invited to pitch to a celebrity investor panel at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference, and it quadrupled employee headcount before being successfully acquired. These results show The Dialog Lab met Meta SaaS’ core goals: Establish credibility and hit the accelerator on growth.

“Startups and scaling companies can’t afford a 5-person team to execute an announcement like this, but this campaign is proof that our model makes PR services, brand awareness and business results accessible for the companies that need them most,” says Motsinger.

Creativity & Innovation

For all the excitement surrounding them, coverage of funding announcements tends to be all too formulaic. In today’s environment of sky-high valuations and blockbuster rounds, the dollar amount is often the central (or only) figure in the headline and story, shoving aside the other indicators of traction, product innovation, credibility and long-term vision.

With Meta SaaS, the campaign team was confident that the combination of founders, investors, customers and product made for a powerful contender and story in the enterprise tech arena, even if the funding amount was small. Many early-stage companies fear damaging customer or investor relationships by asking permission to publicly reference them in the press, but The Dialog Lab helped Meta SaaS navigate those waters and add a good deal of substance to the story with customer references and investor quotes and involvement, a risk that paid off in a big way.

Secrets of Success

Motsinger shares the following tips and insights that you can apply in your next small-budget startup campaign—demonstrating why The Dialog Lab was awarded a Silver in Bulldog’s 2018 PR Awards:

  • Think beyond the news hook: “It’s become increasingly difficult to rely on funding rounds occurring in a vacuum as a viable news hook. With so many companies in so many sectors getting funded by so many VC dollars on a daily basis, funding no longer guarantees impactful coverage.”
  • Don’t rely on dollars to do the talking: “Even if a funding event is the moment in time that you choose to rally around, realize that dollar amounts aren’t everything and don’t prove much. Remember what makes a story newsworthy and get scrappy to create a multilayered narrative.”
  • Take chances in offering your strongest hooks: “Don’t be afraid to shoot high and take risks when pitching for exclusives.”
  • Be ready to back up your claims: “Evidence reigns supreme in enterprise tech. Lean on the credibility check that customers provide and back up big claims with data.”

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter