Guest column

Here's what Houston's innovation community is missing out on when it comes to messaging

Don't miss a messaging or communications opportunity for your startup. Photo via Getty Images

By definition, companies throughout the innovation ecosystem have a purpose-driven story to tell. As communication strategists who specialize in purpose-driven clients, we wondered if influencers of Houston's entrepreneurial community see any recurring communication challenges getting in the way of companies successfully securing funding, acquiring customers and even recruiting talent.

For two months we interviewed investors, accelerators, industry customers and entrepreneurs themselves, asking for missed opportunities they may be seeing in what and how companies are communicating. Below are our findings, with corresponding recommendations organized into four key points of action.

Distinguish yourself from your competition

"They may have an incredible concept, but terrible messaging," was a surprisingly common response to our investigation of communication obstacles.

Many innovators think that simply describing the inspiration for their company, perhaps the illness of a loved one or an observed struggle, is enough for explaining the Why of their story. In fact, investors, potential customers and even employees are looking for something more substantial.

First, what distinguishes your company from others like it? Regardless of how pioneering the solution you offer, it will be compared to whatever else is currently available to address the need, including nothing at all. Simply explaining how what you provide works is not enough. Our research substantiated the need for also addressing your company's relevance and differentiation. Characterizing the unique essence of your company is an important distinguisher from the competition that helps cut through the noise.

When formulating a client's organizational messaging we not only examine their purpose, we study their values and culture so that it is reflected in language the company uses to describe itself. Potential customers we interviewed said the compatibility of company cultures and values weigh heavily in their considerations for partnering. So, you're overlooking a key distinguishing strategy if you think target audiences are only interested in the nuts and bolts of what you do.

Speak the language of different audiences

More than the fundamental act of communicating, messaging is language specifically tailored to articulate an organization's unique purpose, significance, values, and culture. Messaging delivers the greatest impact when it functions as a tangible asset. In other words, a formal document of composed language that ensures continuity and is utilized as talking points for investor presentations, content on the company's website, themes reflected in digital advertising, etc. However, it should not be viewed as one size fits all.

Information with universal relevance, known as organizational messaging, is essential, but so is audience-specific messaging that addresses the unique perspectives, priorities and concerns of individual groups. The need for companies to recognize this important distinction was another of our findings.

While both investors and customers are interested in the viability of your company's technology or services, they each have very different needs and priorities. To motivate desired action, you must speak each audience's specific language, which means getting out of your head and into theirs.

If you're a B2B2C company, you may even need to speak the language of your customer's customer. Several research interviews expressed how companies shoot themselves in the foot when they don't take the long view of an audience's needs. If, for instance, your customer is having difficulty explaining to their patients how your innovative medical device works, composing instruction language and even producing patient education tools may be an added deliverable necessary for you to retain that contract.

Not recognizing employees as a key audience and overlooking the importance of strong internal communications was also identified as an obstacle to success. Clearly, attracting funding from investors and business from customers is a core objective of effective communications. However, employees should also be considered a priority with messaging that keeps them informed, inspired and on track. Afterall, they're the team that will take your vision over the finish line.

Connect on an empathetic level

Research participants emphasized the need for factoring in a discovery phase that not only involves learning how to speak an audience's language, but gaining an appreciation for the challenges, goals, protocols and culture of those they're approaching as well. It requires assuming a level of empathy and understanding, rather than a singular focus on "sales," that ultimately culminates in rewarding, long-term relationships.

Effective communication is not a one-way exchange. Listening is critical. When what you've discovered is reflected in your marketing materials, that demonstration of a genuine commitment to connect is reported as being even more impressive.

Avoid costly consequences of poor communications

Companies operating without a Strategic Communications Plan risk the expensive consequence of functioning in a chronic reactionary mode with scattered results and lost credibility through inconsistency.

Yes, flexibility is important, but the research we've conducted reveals a clear advantage for those who recognize the importance of effective communications, particularly growth-stage companies that have gained their initial footing and are ready to build on their brand. The key is putting a blueprint in place that connects the dots of what you offer and your distinguishing essence, with the needs of your targeted audiences, by speaking their language. If not, you risk missed opportunities for securing funding, acquiring customers and attracting the best talent.

Changing the world is your passion, helping innovative entrepreneurs effectively communicate that passion is ours.

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Kelli Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., where she leads a talented team of marketing professionals advancing the success of their purpose-driven clients.

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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