Influence for launching start-ups – who do you go to?

July 6th, 2009 / 08:07 by Ross Dawson

One of the most important applications of influence is in launching start-ups. This is often a make or break situation – you have a great opportunity to get attention (and on the back of that revenue) when you launch a new company. If it doesn’t work and you don’t get much attention at that point, it doesn’t mean you never get another chance, but it’s going to be a lot harder when you’re yesterday’s news.

The New York Times has a long feature today about PR in Silicon Valley, which has brought an extended response from Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, bringing into focus the question of who the REAL influencers are when it comes to getting word out on start-ups.

The New York Times piece, describing the formation of the PR strategy for word-focused start-up Wordnik, says:

[Publicist] Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour that includes briefing bloggers at influential geek sites like TechCrunch, All Things Digital and GigaOM.

But Roger McNamee, a prominent tech investor who is backing Wordnik, is also in the room, and a look of exasperation passes across his face at the mere mention of the sites.

“Why shouldn’t we avoid them? They’re cynical,” he says, also noting his concern that Wordnik would probably appeal more to wordsmiths than followers of tech blogs. “That’s where I would be most uncomfortable. They don’t know the difference between ‘they’re’ and ‘there.’ ”

Without missing a beat, Ms. Hammerling changes course, instantly agreeing with Mr. McNamee’s take. “I love you for that,” she intones. “I’ll leave the tech blogs out. Let them come to me.”

Instead, she decides that she will “whisper in the ears” of Silicon Valley’s Who’s Who — the entrepreneurs behind tech’s hottest start-ups, including Jay Adelson, the chief executive of Digg; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; and Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo.

Notably, none are journalists.

Arrington, after showing multiple charts to prove that a start-up that launched on TechCrunch only is doing far better than Wordnik with its non-blog strategy, says:

I believe Brooke’s client have been better served if she stood up to McNamee and told him that Wordnik would have had a better launch if they hadn’t ignored the blogs that are interested in covering new startups. Instead she became a “yes woman” and told McNamee exactly what he wanted to hear.

Hammerling and her peers in the industry should help guide their clients through the minefield of journalists and bloggers, rather than simply avoid it entirely out of fear or ignorance. She isn’t in the room to drop names or “help get deals done.” She’s there to make sure the client’s news gets spread appropriately. In that they failed miserably, and the client suffered.

The key words here are “make sure the client’s news gets spread appropriately.” In short, who (or which channels) can get word out to the people who matter: the ones who will use the service and/ or pass on word to those who will?

That is why the field of influence – which will be explored in detail at the Future of Influence Summit – is so important. Influence is critical in how content and ideas are disseminated. In the world of start-ups, yes traditional media plays an important role (I bet Wordnik is getting plenty of attention it would never have got otherwise because of this New York Times article). Blogs such as TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb are absolutely central to how early adopters find and enthuse about new online services. The influencers mentioned in the NYT article themselves are not journalists, or in some cases even bloggers. But what they pay attention to gets noticed.

A related issue is who is best equipped to help clients navigate today’s borderless world of influence. Is it PR firms that have a background in media relations they are now applying more broadly to influencers? Is it the new breed of influencer marketing agencies that focus on non-traditional influencers? Can VCs and the extended network around a start-up best reach influencers through personal connections? Or are some of new players coming from a marketing and advertising background able to do this work effectivelyl?

We are overdue for a far better understanding of how influence really does work in a post-media world – including in the success of start-ups. We will be doing and publishing research on this over the next months – keep posted.

See also Robert Scoble’s response: Tech execs: how to reach “normal” users with PR and with TechCrunch/GigaOm et al