This is one post/chapter in a serialized book called Startup 101. For the introduction and table of contents, please click here.

The three steps to building an online brand are:

1. Look good,

2. Get noticed,

3. Build trust.

In the long run, only the last one matters. Enron’s logo was just fine, and it got noticed, but on that last count, well…

Look Good

You need to do many things on the cheap. but there is one thing on which you should spend as much money as you can afford. Spend for it in cash if you have it. Spend for it in equity if you don’t. Do it yourself if you are brilliant at it. If you are lucky enough to have a friend who is brilliant at it and will do it for free, well, good for you (but the fair thing would be to give her or him some equity).

The thing we’re talking about here is logo design. Your logo will set the theme of your site’s design. It will visually key off the story that you tell in words.

Yes, you can re-design it later when you have the money. But when you need to get noticed and you need those first impressions to be good ones, a great logo really does matter.

Get Noticed, Part 1: Don’t Rely on PR Mechanics

When you are established, you can be a “PR mechanic” and do the basics, such as:

  • Send emails to bloggers,
  • Announce news via wire services,
  • Send press releases with embargoes.

Those mechanical tasks are fine when you are big and established and well known. But they are totally pointless when you are working out of your garage and no one has heard of you. You can do these things yourself — they don’t cost much time or money — but just don’t rely on them for results.

When starting out, you need to be a PR artist. You need a bit of magic to get noticed. You cannot delegate this. You or your partner have to do this because, first, you cannot afford to hire a PR person yet (at least not a good one) and, secondly, anyone who picks up on your story will want to speak to the person who was passionate enough to build the service.

You have to begin with an insanely great Web service. PR artistry won’t help a poor site. Some people might take a look, but then they will ignore it just as fast.

If you have a great service, then getting noticed is very easy. You tell someone, who tells someone else, who tells someone else… That happens fast in a networked world.

Get Noticed, Part 2: Study the Networking Science of PR Artists

Magic is merely a science you don’t understand yet. The magic of PR artists is understanding how networks of influence work and getting into those networks wherever they can.

If you are a serial entrepreneur and your last venture was a roaring success, simply contact a few mega-hubs of influence. They will surely listen to you and get the word out, even if your new service is rubbish (in which case, it will die after a short burst of hype).

But for you, the first-time entrepreneur, who doesn’t know anyone famous, just getting anyone to listen to you is a small victory. Luckily, today you have a couple of amazing social media tools to traverse those networks of influence. The one you choose depends on your service:

  • Twitter for a consumer service,
  • LinkedIn for a business service.

Some fans may be annoyed that I left out Facebook, but there is a reason. Facebook is designed to communicate with your friends. Those friends may or may not be able to help you. If they can, that is probably a coincidence. And relying on coincidence to build a business is not good.

Twitter is the easiest way for your consumer service to get noticed because it is so open. Find experts in your area; it’s not hard. Google around until you find some people who write intelligently about your market. Then find those people on Twitter; they are probably there, but if not, don’t worry: plenty of other experts will be.

Following those experts does not mean that they will follow you back. But you can look at who they follow. Choose the ones who are experts in your subject, and follow them too. See what hash tags they use, and put out some tweets using the same tags. Re-tweet some of what they say; they will notice it on their wall of vanity.

If one of the people they follow mentions you, your target expert may notice. If two or three mention you, they certainly will.

This is certainly much, much easier and more effective than cold calling, cold direct-mailing, or cold emailing.

Similar techniques are possible on LinkedIn. But by the time you read this, they may be overused, ineffective, and regarded as spammy, and LinkedIn or Twitter may have put in place controls to block certain techniques.

So, as you look at the current social media world, just remember:

  • Everything is a network. Traverse the network until you find some entry points, and then start from there.
  • Everything social revolves around conversations, and conversations often start with a story and move on to a question.

Get Noticed, Part 3: Tell a Good Story and Ask a Question

Now you have a great site and a great logo. All you need now is a great story. All three have to be in harmony. You need to be able to get that story across in:

  • One sentence in an email. 140 characters is as good a limitation as any.
  • 30 seconds verbally, at any F2F event when someone is in front you. (If you are lucky enough to trap them in an elevator in a tall building, you may have plenty of time. But you will more likely be at a cocktail party after a conference and have far less time.)
  • One page, or five minutes, once you have the person’s attention.

People have been telling stories ever since they have been hanging out in caves, and all stories tend to have these characteristics:

  • A beginning, middle, and end. Being a startup, you can tell only the beginning. But you are claiming to know how the middle and end will play out. You are spinning a science-fiction tale.
  • Protagonists, tension, good vs. evil, with good winning out in the end.

Corny? Sure. Effective? Definitely.

Whatever you do, though, don’t waste a good story-telling opportunity with bland corporate-speak, PR-washed, yawn-inducing, click-away drivel. Ask any journalist or blogger friend to send you the most cringe-inducing examples of this to scare you straight. Keep the story human and real and simple.

Once you’ve told your story, have a question ready. That is how you engage in a conversation. The questions come at strategic points in your flow. When you have finished your 140-character, 30-second story, ask a question. Ask another question once you have finished your one-page, five-minute version.

Here is the golden rule of questions:

Questions must be open-ended.

A closed question invites a “No.” You make it too easy for the person to walk away. Basically, the question should be something along the lines of:

“Well, what do you think?”

No, this won’t work every time. It won’t even work most of the time. You will have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince.

Build Trust

Once you get noticed, you will have to build trust. In the end, a brand is simply a representation of trust. You trust Red Bull to keep you awake without damaging your system too much. (Okay, maybe not. Not everyone trusts every brand.)

With a website, you are promising four things:

  • This is not a scam.
  • We will not abuse your privacy in any way at all. Period.
  • We will not waste your time with buggy code, clumsy user interfaces or long-winded articles that promise more than they deliver.
  • We will give you something either useful or entertaining (or better yet, both, which would be magic but is not imperative).