It’s jarring to think in 2014 -- as tech infuses every aspect of our lives -- the idea of tech PR is becoming less relevant. But the ubiquity is just the problem. Tech has become either a catch-all for a bevy of online transactions or relegated to the world of deep enterprise. We’re already seeing the ramifications of this as pure-play tech shops rebrand as lifestyle or consumer firms to sidestep the mounting consolidation and conflicts. This is, among many, trends we can expect from tech PR in 2014.
More tech shops are migrating towards diverse pieces of business, and meanwhile, general and consumer firms continue to chip away at tech RFPs.
“This is the year where we all ask ourselves: ‘what is technology PR?’" says Sabrina Guttman, Burson-Marsteller’s US tech practice lead. “Because, as technology – even the most complex enterprise tech – becomes increasingly mainstream, the stories we tell need to be increasingly audience-centric.” From an agency perspective, Guttman says, this is manifesting with increasingly blended teams where tech experts are paired with others, like healthcare, retail or public affairs.
Access founder/CEO Susan Butenhoff adds, “tech agencies have had to diversify because tech companies want agencies that understand the brand, market segmentation strategies and how to speak to customers about benefits and value, and not just speeds and feeds.” The Ketchum subsidiary itself has grown its consumer portfolio to include Leapfrog, Safeway, Peet’s Coffee and Annie’s Organics.
2. Personality Matters
Tech as a lifestyle story isn’t new. But, building on the previous point, mining emotional truths to tell stories is becoming essential to connect with audiences. Last year, many companies were just jumping into content marketing -- whereas in 2014 -- the bigger issue is standing out among an infinitely updated stream. “At the end of the day we’re telling stories,” says Hadley Wilkins, Hill + Knowlton Strategies’ US head of tech. “Stories need emotional resonance to remind us of what it means to be human and what human limitations we're going to challenge next.” With this, expect increased attention to a company’s overall corporate citizenship. In Silicon Valley, this has come to a massive head with Twitter, Google and Facebook becoming poster companies for the city’s ever-widening class divide.
With Silicon Valley amid boom times, tech companies are looser with purse strings -- but only doling out the extra cash with very clear objectives, says Richard Fogg, managing director at the UK-based CCgroup. “Agencies that can prove, rather than talk about, lead generation campaigns driven by PR are in a strong position,” he predicts. “Agencies that have a strong track record in positioning tech companies for trade sale will find themselves at an advantage as venture capital and private equity firms look for their exit.” On the agency side, this means firms will put more resources into ensuring they can capitalize on emerging paid opportunities with roles like account planners.
“That’s not the only thing that savvy tech PR agencies will borrow from their advertising industry counterparts in 2014,” Fogg adds. “I expect there to be a strong push from tech agencies into paid media (mostly digital and social) as part of sophisticated influencer and content marketing campaigns.”
4. Trend Convergence
The tech sector thrives on hype cycles whether that’s big data, cloud, mobile, social or, more recently, the Internet of things, gamification or wearables. Rather than view each of these through its own silo, in 2014, expect more stories that intersect across many of these threads to tell a holistic story around innovation. For instance, at CES in 2014 wearable technology stood out as a subset of the Internet of Things, says Scott Pettet, Lewis PR’s Asia-Pac VP.
“It seems like almost all tech companies have something to say around big data or cloud, for example. So, the challenge is how to stand out in such a cluttered, noisy environment?” he says. “The imperative for PR is to become more adept at story telling, which in turn is largely about greater creativity and technical innovation.”
5. Investing in Clients
In the 90s it became popular for PR firms to exchange stock options for service. While this practice has considerably scaled back, some firms are taking a more measured approach to investing in clients with bright prospects. For instance, Vijay Chattha, founder of VSC marketing communications, has launched a new division Wareness.io to help hardware startups pitch directly to consumers. The studio works with startups throughout the marketing process, drawing upon a $6 million fund. Chattha forecasts, however, independent firms have more flexibility to experiment with models like this.
“The long-term window on startups make for bad business in the quarterly earnings world of PR,” he says. “The industry views 2014 as a year to reap revenue and not sacrifice cash for some upside...but any form of investment must be strategic and drive towards a bigger goal of market ownership or penetration.”
Client Perspective: “This is a double-edged sword…” Frank Shaw, VP of corporate Communications at Microsoft
“2014 will be seen as a year where there was a huge proliferation of new and massively evolved media outlets around the world. Bloomberg continues to[caption id="attachment_1494" align="alignright" width="214"] Frank Shaw[/caption]
invest in reporting. The WSJ brought on a new stable of reporters. Mashable landed funding to drive growth. Re/Code kicked off. Yahoo Tech. The Information. All of these represent new opportunities to tell stories to different audience in different ways. This is a double-edged sword – on the plus side, more reach and more eyeballs than ever before, often in highly targeted ways. On the negative, there are times when we’ll have to work a lot harder to drive broad reach – most of the new outlets are audience focused, so the search for true broad reach awareness will remain dependent on great ideas and great execution.
The other key trend will be continued growth and innovation in the way companies tell their own stories, via social and other owned channels. Trusted brands have permission to self-publish, especially to amplify the kind of weak (but interesting!) signals that the media might not often cover. To truly be successful today, we have to tell our story ourselves – via our own channels. We need to get validation from existing media through more traditional communications channels like media relations. And we need to tell the story to and through our employees, with an emphasis on what we are asking them to do.”