The efficacy of the PESO Model© as the bedrock for effective, scalable startup marketing communications cannot be stated strongly enough. As search engines became more sophisticated and social media exploded, communicators were the first to take advantage of the convergence between formally siloed functions of communications (PR, crisis communications, media relations, internal communications) and marketing (demand generation, brand, SEO, digital + display advertising, etc.)

But make no mistake: the biggest brands understand the model’s power to drive strong business results, where revenue, reputation, and brand grow together.

Then why is there a disconnect in early-stage companies when it comes to making early marketing hires who throw all of their budgets into paid ads for lead generation and then depend on failing old-school sales techniques like cold outreach to “sell” the product?

Buyers Are In Control

It takes an increasing number of touchpoints to create interest. Funnels are broken, and customer journeys are increasingly complex and unpredictable. Many top SaaS marketers think that MQLs are officially dead. Buyers are 60-70% through the journey before they are ready to talk to a salesperson. 

Knowing this, it’s more important to rethink your startup marketing approach, which delivers value first and foremost. What does value look like? It means helping your buyer. Deliver value, and you will be rewarded with their interest and ultimately be able to influence their buying decision.

Approaching buyers too early is inefficient at best. Add up all the hours your salespeople spend on the phone, the calls that are never returned, the time writing emails that are never read, and the time needed to update their activity in your CRM. And when you chastise them for falling short of quota, they will happily show you all their “activity” as evidence of their productivity.

Approaching buyers too early (say, after one promoted download) will also alienate them.

Today’s buyers do not want to be sold to. 

Perhaps that’s one of the main reasons the PLG motion has been so successful.

The Value of the PESO Model 

The PESO Model comes from the land of intelligent, nuanced strategy where each of the components—Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned—are recognized for the unique advantages they contribute to the overall strategy and the amplification they give to the other components. 

Diving into Paid media too soon is often a self-defeating exercise, especially for unknown brands. 

If interested, most buyers will see an ad and then navigate directly to your website and social channels. and perform a Google search to find out more before clicking your ad. If nothing valuable is there, or if it is badly executed, guess what will happen? That’s right, nothing. 

If you think filling your G2 with fake reviews from friends and family will fill that void, think again. Buyers are smart.

Instead of injecting their product too early in conversations, brands should invest in a better buying experience using the PESO Model. If they have done their research carefully, defined the problem they are solving, understood how the customer will likely understand their position, and used the language their customers use, they can create powerful experiences that educate and persuade.

Storytelling Reigns Supreme

We sell to human beings. Despite our best efforts (at least in our professional lives) to pretend otherwise, we are emotional creatures. Stories that elicit emotion influence our buyer journey. Developing customer empathy will help us know the emotions and stories that will resonate the strongest.

Who tells the best stories? 

Hint: it’s not the person who is a fantastic performance marketer or the social media marketer. 

Don’t get me wrong. These are essential elements of a high-performing startup marketing strategy. Still, the people who are expert in these functions don’t typically have the skills to tell a great story about your product, company, or founder—all of which are critical to the success of generating buyer interest and leads.

Stories are best created by communications-led marketers who are masters at creating Owned media (website content, blogs, brand journalism, internal communications). Not surprisingly, they also have the same skill set as those in charge of Earned Media (media relations, investor relations, influencer relations, review sites, etc.).

Many founders having just secured funding think they are experts in storytelling because of countless funding pitches. This idea needs pushback. In fact, founders would see earlier success at funding if they were to seek help with storytelling before pitching. Post-investment stories need to persuade buyers not investors, a different audience altogether.

Without a good story, you cannot pull an emotional lever.

Without pulling an emotional lever, selling is much, much harder.

As my father rightly taught me, buying is an emotional decision.

Old School Marketing Is Old School

Despite their sophistication in product development, investor pitching, and cap tables, early-stage founders are often blind to the fact that marketing and communications have converged. They think of PR and communications in one bucket and marketing in another. It may also be that they just know more marketers. Marketers have been slow to make the convergence, while the reverse is true of communicators, leading to the term marketing communications.

Those who identify with marketing communications are much more likely to be well-versed with the PESO Model or, at the very least, the term. 

More than 200 universities now teach the PESO Model in their undergraduate curriculum, and students who learn the official curriculum become PESO Model certified before they graduate. These students have a big advantage over similar graduates without the certification when they graduate in terms of being more attractive job candidates and being better prepared for marketing communication roles. 

Agency professionals with years of experience are also increasingly becoming PESO Model certified and able to provide more sophisticated services to their clients.

Surprisingly, MBA programs are behind the eight ball, still teaching many outdated methodologies. Are you impressed with an MBA in marketing from an Ivy League or other university? Don’t be. As soon as the curriculum is created, it is outdated. 

On the other hand, if someone is PESO Model certified, they are likely paying close attention to every update to the model and updating their certification yearly. The PESO Model Certification© curriculum was created and continually updated by Gini Dietrich, one of today’s preeminent thought leaders in marketing communications. 

Gini is not only an active practitioner herself working with B2B SaaS businesses but also runs a large community that constantly discusses new strategies, opportunities, and more—acting as a brain trust for the industry. In addition, she publishes extraordinary content on this blog, writing the majority of it herself and inviting industry experts to contribute as well.

Which has more value in today’s world of innovative early-stage companies? A decades-old MBA or a recent PESO Model certification? You choose.

Owned Media: A Case Study With Hubspot

At the beginning of their journey in 2006, Hubspot invented a new term, inbound marketing, and a corresponding GTM playbook. Founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah generated early interest in Hubspot by publishing two weekly blog posts while the product was being built. These articles created such interest that by the time they launched, there was a large demand for free trials, and their first 100 customers quickly converted. As you can imagine, their SEO was strong right out of the gate.

Significantly, one of Hubspot’s first hires was a reporter from The New York Times, undoubtedly for their ability to create strong Owned media and storytelling.

Post-launch, Halligan and Shah continued to build momentum by doubling down on their strategy—without a huge staff. When I visited their headquarters in 2011, Halligan generously gave me a tour and spoke about how they could do so much with so little. He ran an ongoing office blogging contest to see who could submit the most blog posts. In their lunchroom, a large scoreboard tracked the number of blogs submitted by each person. They also had a (small) marketing team, but make no mistake, the entire office contributed to blogging. It also helped that the founders set such a good example themselves.

I don’t remember what the prize was, but doubtfully it was “the prize” that drove the enthusiastic participation. Their culture cultivated the premise of nuanced expertise and collective goals. Certainly, not everyone felt comfortable writing at first. (What? Sales or engineers writing?!) But, like anything, practice bred comfort, and everyone seemed to enjoy contributing/competing.

Some call this blog-led growth. Essentially, it is the part of content marketing we now call Owned media, the foundation of the PESO Model and all high-performing marketing programs.

When we focus on well-crafted Owned media, we can:

  • Better understand customers’ challenges and communicate solutions
  • Develop nuanced messaging that converts
  • Create thought leadership on multiple levels.
  • Build authority on search engines through SEO
  • Create a strong reputation 
  • Be discoverable on AI platforms

Now that AI is becoming more widely adopted, the importance of SEO will surely diminish over time. AI extracts content from multiple sources, including our Owned Media. So investing time and/or money in Owned media is more important than ever and finding creative ways to fund it.

Encouraging (or requiring) your team to write blogs might be an excellent strategy. Everyone benefits from the practice of writing, and everyone brings their own expertise to the party.

Without strong Owned media, you will have nothing to share on social media, back up the claims you make on paid media, or pique a customer’s buying interest.

You will struggle to build reputation and thought leadership, get conversions, and ultimately close sales. 

Early Hires are Mishires 

The reality of early-stage companies is that they are either short on resources or trying to extend their burn rate. Much of their resources go into a CMO hire who has come from a big logo (usually with a big salary), and they use their budget mostly on paid marketing and sponsorships. 

There is a fundamental flaw with hiring people from impressive logos. Unless they were one of the initial hires, they aren’t nimble enough. Operating with a big budget and a big marketing headcount is very different from being able to use the budget creatively or, frankly, just be creative.

I hope by now you are considering hiring someone with the PESO Model Certification, or at least one very versed in it.

If you do, they will no doubt bring the following skills with them:

  • Strong writing
  • Storytelling
  • Create effective messaging
  • Leading with a holistic approach
  • Managing budgets more effectively
  • Maintaining brand consistency

Most importantly, they will keep the customer’s mindset firmly in view, creating stories that answer their questions, content that helps them, and opening up multiple starting points for their buying journey.

You will also have hired someone who can speak to reporters, effectively pitch speaking opportunities, and help you navigate which issues to comment on publicly and which to keep quiet about.

Your messaging will be aligned across every channel, and your sales teams will be well-briefed on effective talking points. In short, everyone will be singing the same song, perhaps even in three-part harmony.

Startup Marketing Results

We all want immediate results, especially when you are highly leveraged, and investors are anxious to see early and (often) unreasonable revenue numbers. I wish “fast” worked. We would have a lot fewer failed startups and happier VCs.

But buyers can’t be rushed, and they are in control. The buyer’s journey is complex. It demands that we become more sophisticated and patient.

This paradigm is not easy for most startups to accept.

My best advice is to hire your first startup marketing lead wisely. Hire someone who knows how to use the PESO Model and is preferably certified in the framework. And hire someone with experience at the same stage as you are now.

Lastly, learn more about the PESO Model yourself. You will be able to ask better questions of prospective hires and acquire deeper knowledge of the startup marketing strategy you are going to need to build a great brand.

Meg Crumbine

Meg Crumbine is the founder of HEARD, a growth consultancy for female-led companies. Her company uncovers challenges to growth and works collaboratively with business owners to realign positioning, product, and market strategy. Meg has served in executive and senior leadership roles at numerous B2B early-stage companies.

View all posts by Meg Crumbine