Want to Supercharge Your Startup’s PR Program? Get Your Customers Talking

You’ve probably heard a million news stories that start with the personal story of someone who was affected by the larger trend or event being covered. For example, a recent NPR piece about creating a frozen bunker for helpful germs begins like this:

“Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello had just moved to New York when Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic and buffeted the East Coast. She heard that the labs at New York University, where she was working – and its freezer – were losing power. So she ran to the failing freezer, took the microbiota samples she'd gathered as a researcher in Puerto Rico over the past 14 years and stored them elsewhere.”

This is a classic reporting tactic because it works: as readers, we relate better when we hear real, concrete stories with compelling emotional stakes.

It’s what creative writing teachers mean when they say, “Show, don’t tell.”

In the context of a startup’s PR program, first-person stories from your customers are one of the most powerful tools you can use to improve your results. If you’re IBM, everyone knows you, so a customer’s story may not be required to prove your worth. But if you’re a startup, happy customers can help build your credibility.

Here, we’ll take a look at an example of a customer story fueling PR, hurdles you might come across as you ask your customers to speak, and tips for overcoming those hurdles to supercharge your PR efforts.

Customer Stories in Action: FedEx and Our Client Jellyvision

In this Fortune article, reporter Heather Clancy tells the story of how our client Jellyvision’s “virtual assistant” helps people pick the right health insurance plan. Her reporting includes insight from Jellyvision CEO Amanda Lannert, but because this is Fortune, as in the Fortune 500, she needed to speak with a large company using the virtual assistant.

That’s why she also interviewed Jennifer McCarthy, who manages health and wellness communications at FedEx, about her company’s experiences with Jellyvision.

McCarthy told Clancy, the reporter, that she was “surprised and astounded and shocked” by Jellyvision’s impact in helping FedEx employees make better choices about healthcare.

That’s a powerful testimonial – and it means a lot more coming from a big-name happy customer than it does coming from, say, a PR representative or Jellyvision executive.

Ready to get your customers talking to boost your PR? First, let’s look at some reasons they might not want to.

Why Your Customers Might Not Want to Talk

There are plenty of reasons – both valid and not – why your customers might not want to vouch for you by speaking with a reporter.

Here are some common objections we come across:

  • They want to keep their coverage options open at the publication in question. If you’re a B2B company, your customers may be doing their own PR. Working on a placement for you might impact their future ability to get a story for themselves. In fact, they could be working with a different reporter at that same outlet, meaning your request would possibly jeopardize their opportunity.
  • They consider working with you a competitive advantage – and they don’t want to spill the beans. Again, in B2B situations, your customer may consider the goods or services you provide them to be a secret weapon they don’t want to divulge, thinking that if they do, all their competitors will turn to you and they’ll lose their edge.
  • They’re too busy. Who can argue with that?
  • They’re worried that the coverage might make them look bad. While I’ve never actually seen coverage that makes customers look bad, I have seen our clients’ customers think: “If it doesn’t help me, it can only hurt me.”
  • It’s just not the right time. Your customers could be traveling abroad. Or maybe they just had a kid. You can’t overcome bad timing – sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
  • Their contract prohibits it. In some contracts, there’s boilerplate that essentially says you’re not allowed to tell anyone you worked with a certain customer. To overcome this, check for this language during the contract review phase and ask if you can remove it or temper it – for example, so it says that you can’t talk about the relationship without explicit permission.

But not all objections come from customers. In some cases, your own sales team may push back against requests to leverage customers in PR. Maybe they’re in the middle of renewing the contract and don’t want to rock the boat; maybe they just hit a rough spot with the relationship; or maybe they just hired someone new and they want time to build the relationship before asking. These can all be legitimate concerns, but don’t assume they are. When they come up, push the request up to a senior exec or even the founder before accepting them.

How to Coax Customers to Talk

So assuming your customers are allowed to talk about working with you and your sales team doesn’t raise any objections, how can you start the conversation? Here’s what we usually do.

First, any time you ask a customer to talk to a reporter, your goal for the story should be to make it as good for them as it is for you. In the Fortune piece above, the FedEx exec ends up looking like a rockstar because she improved health and financial outcomes for the company’s employees.

In short, a piece featuring a customer should leave them as excited as you are.

Okay. You’ve made it this far and you still think it’s a good idea to bring in a customer to your startup PR efforts.

To get them on board, follow these steps:

  1. Identify good fits. This usually means looking for customers with whom you have a good relationship, customers who have seen great results from working with you, or customers who have written glowing reviews for you online. Reporters often like to hear of tangible results, so err on the side of those with great metrics to show your impact.
  2. Reach out via email. We usually say something along the lines of, “We regularly talk to reporters, and from time to time, they ask to talk to our customers. We’re really proud of the work we’ve done with you – would you consider speaking to a reporter?” Mention here that this is just to gauge their willingness – you would never share their name without explicit approval about a particular opportunity.
  3. Confirm interest when you have an opportunity. When a reporter asks to talk with a customer, find the right one from those who  who expressed openness to an interview and get their permission to make an introduction.
  4. Proceed with caution. As we said, customers are a powerful piece of the startup PR puzzle – one you have to use with care. Be as targeted as possible in whom you introduce to a reporter, as there is always a risk that a reporter will talk to your customer but not use their commentary, which can be disappointing.
  5. Prepare your customer and the reporter. Make sure the customer knows what to expect from the interview, what kind of questions are likely to come up, and how long it will last. Make sure the reporter knows what the customer is prepared to talk about and share.

It’s ideal to have a few customer interview candidates before a reporter requests one, so you may want to build a database of a several customers ready to share their story.

Looking for more tips on how to get a PR program off the ground? Check out our guide to DIY PR for startups and early-stage companies looking to spread the word about their work.