Futuristic city

As Saudi’s startups eye the world stage, good PR is essential

A futuristic megacity straddling the border between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. A long-term plan designed to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. A growing community of high-tech startups clustered in the kingdom’s major cities.

These are aspects of Saudi Arabia that still remain largely unseen outside its borders. A great many overseas observers perceive the country solely in terms of its massive oil industry. And for the still small, but ambitious startup community, that creates a challenge. In the 21st century, scaling a technology company is usually a global – or at least a multi-national – undertaking and that in turn requires founders and managers to build a profile beyond the borders of their domestic marketplace. A Saudi startup stepping onto the international stage may well find it hard to get its message across to customers in the face of competition from companies based in better-established clusters. Good public relations can play a vital role in helping businesses break through this barrier.

An Economy in Transition

It should be no surprise to anyone that Saudi Arabia – with the full backing of the Kingdom’s government – is developing a vibrant tech sector. At a Macro level, the country’s economy is the largest in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region and that in itself means there is likely to be a significant domestic market for technology products. Equally significant, the Kingdom has the highest level of internet penetration in the Gulf, a fact that creates a strong foundation for the development of digital services.

Against that backdrop, the government – working alongside business leaders, universities and global investors – has set about creating an ecosystem in which an innovation-led economy can grow and thrive.

The creation of Neom City

Envisioned as a place where “new thinking” will flourish, it is designed to attract overseas investment and technology entrepreneurs while also providing an environment where founders from within the country can build the world-leading businesses of tomorrow.

Neom is just part of a bigger picture. Under the Vision 2030 program – a medium to long-term roadmap for economic and social development – the government has pledged to support SMEs and startups, not least by encouraging more funding from financial institutions. Separately a $1bn “fund of funds” has been set up to back innovators.

For a range of reasons – and not just the support offered by the government – the number of startup companies in the Kingdom is rising, as is VC funding. Some of the deals have been significant. For instance, payments company, Paytabs has secured $25 million in equity finance, video producer, UTurn has signed a $10 million deal and $5.6 million has been channeled to roadside assistance app, Morni. That’s the tip of the iceberg. There are currently around 40 incubators developing new companies.

Arguably Saudi’s nascent tech companies are ideally placed geographically to penetrate new markets, given that the country sits at a crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe. But that brings us back to the challenge of building a profile and gaining traction internationally. Asia, Africa and Europe – along with the US – are key markets and that means they are a focus for the marketing efforts of VC-backed tech contenders from all over the world.

So, what steps can a Saudi company take to stand out?

Above the Noise

Paying for space at trade fairs is one step. Increasingly, there is a perception that clever marketing via digital advertising and social media provides a means to put a young company on the radar screens of potential customers and partners. Channels, such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google AdWords are particularly useful and cost-effective.

But advertising and social media will only get you so far. Because a company that pays an agency to mount a campaign across social media will be vying for attention with dozens and perhaps hundreds of similar businesses doing precisely the same thing.  Some of them will already have a high profile and their tweets and posts will stand out from the rest. Unfortunately, it is often established brands rather than newcomers that are most successful on social media.

Mainstream Media

That’s why coverage on mainstream media is essential. A product review, an interview with a founder, a comment from a CEO included as part of a feature on a particular sector – all of these will hugely improve the chances of a company rising above the background noise in its chosen market. Independent media coverage confers credibility and validation. This is something potential buyers and investors pay attention to.

It goes without saying that outside of “advertorial” content, coverage in key publications such as the FT, Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the Economist can’t be bought. And that’s where PR professionals come into their own.

A good PR company knows the media landscape and will have developed good working relationships with key journalists, often over many years. The PRs know what writers are interested in and can, therefore, pitch stories about your company in the most effective way. For instance, some writers are interested in funding announcements, others aren’t. The PR will pitch the news of your company’s VC deal to each writer based on the angle most suitable to them. And by talking regularly to press contacts, the PR is likely to know about upcoming feature articles that require expert opinion from startup founders. Thus, a trusted PR is ideally placed to say to a journalist or editor – “hey I know a great company that would be perfect for your feature.”

Regular appearances in newspapers, magazines, online publications – and on broadcast media – are essential for building a profile. Importantly, they not only complement but enhance any parallel social media campaigning.

The most effective means to secure coverage is to hire a PR firm that knows the media landscape.




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Rodney Goedhart

Rodney Goedhart is an advertising expert and sociologist which regularly contributes to researches about tech, business and new marketing efforts. He is a PR manager at Innowire Inc.

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