The ICO Marketing Mistakes All Tech Startups Are Making

Don’t take a disruptive technology and put people to sleep. Your marketing needs to share the excitement of your vision.
Don’t take a disruptive technology and put people to sleep. Your marketing needs to share the excitement of your vision.

Anyone not living under a rock for the past year knows that cryptocurrency — like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, etc. — is now a thing. A BIG thing. Heck, even Paris Hilton knows about them.

Over the past month, I’ve been diving deep into the industry, looking particularly at ICOs, or initial coin offerings. ICOs are an alternative to venture capital or private equity funding. They’re basically a crowdfunding mechanism to raise capital for startups in the blockchain/crypto space, where investors receive currency or “tokens” in the company in exchange for cash.

It sounds kind of shady, but according to the Wall Street Journal, in 2017, 200-odd startups raised over $4 billion via ICO.

What I’ve noticed as I’ve researched ICO startup after ICO startup is how many things they’re doing wrong in their marketing. And while those mistakes may not hamper them when everybody and his dog is lining up to throw money at them, there will come a time when they have to market, and they have to market well.

A White Paper Only Gets You So Far

After working as first a journalist and then subsequently a PR rep, marcom specialist, and now a communications strategist for technology companies, I see most startups making the same mistakes. They float on the market high, whether it be for dot-coms in the late 90s or mobile apps, gamification platforms, or e-commerce sites more recently.

But then when the helium leaks from the funding balloon and investors actually expect companies to make some money, they don’t know what to do. They’re surprised that having the letters “e-” or “i-” in their name or a white paper on their site isn’t enough to bring the customers/users/clients flocking.

And that’s where I step in. I help companies craft the messaging and positioning to drive their communications and, basically, all their other marketing.

Here’s the thing: I’d much rather work with companies well before they’re feeling the pressure. And as hot as people are to throw Benjamins around like confetti at anything with “crypto” in the title, there’s a lot you can do BEFORE your company starts raising money to make you even more attractive to the investor pool and to your prospective audience.

Do This, Not That.

Here are three mistakes pre-ICO companies are making, and that your tech startup might be making, too:

1. No one wants to read a white paper. I know, I know... white papers are almost a currency in and of themselves in the tech space. But you know what? Virtually no one wants to read them! And even if you HAVE to have one because it’s an industry standard for tech fundraising, you can still do better.

First, make it readable. Forget all the corporate jargon and buzzwords. Strip all that crap out and just tell your story simply and directly. Don’t dumb it down, but particularly in the overview and executive summary, don’t use complex terminology where simple phrasing and short sentences will do.

And for the love of Pete, spellcheck the darned thing. Have an editor (a real editor, not your co-founder’s sister who got an A in English one year...) read through it. You’re trying to raise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Throw a few bob at a professional and make sure your prose is clean and there are no embarrassing grammatical or spelling errors.

2. Don’t stop there. Your white paper should not be your sole piece of marketing content on your site. Chances are, you are trying to reach various audiences and constituents: Potential investors, tech partners, future employees, prospective customers/clients/users. Maybe .02 percent of the visitors to your site will actually download and read your white paper.

For the other 99.98 percent, you need other collateral. It could be videos, blog posts, reports, infographics, fact sheets, case studies... anything that makes your business accessible to them. This isn’t 1995. You’ve got multiple media channels. Use them.

3. Speak English. I don’t mean that in a nationalistic sense. Substitute “Korean” or “Tagalog” or “French” or whatever your audience’s language is. But don’t speak geek.

At least, not all the time.

If your goal is to connect with people, you’d better be talking in a way they can understand you.

You know those different audiences I talked about above? You need to know what THEY care about, and be able to explain what you do in a way they get it. You need to find the intersection between your business’s goals and the goals of your audience(s). And it’s up to you — not them! — to figure out why they should pick YOU.

There are a lot of other ICOs where investors can put their cash.

There are a lot of other startups that a blockchain engineer can work at.

There are a lot of other companies promising to revolutionize the way I do business.

Make me want YOU. And that starts with speaking MY language.

What Are You Trying to Do?

Your goal as a company is to move people to action.

You want investors to give you their money.

You want talented people to want to build your products.

You want partners to recommend you.

You want users to USE you.

Tell me why I should care.

I read this beauty on a site just today: “XYZCyberCoin is a highly scalable & permission-less hybrid blockchain platform based on proof-of-work and Byzantine fault tolerance consensus. The design goal of XYZCyberCoin focuses on achieving the apex of scalability, decentralization, and commercialization viability.

Wow! That’s something that’ll get me up and into the shower every morning... NOT.

I sincerely hope your mission in life goes beyond “achieving the apex of scalability, decentralization, and commercialization viability.” Heck, that won’t look good on anyone’s tombstone.

It’s incredible that something as beautiful and as potentially revolutionary as blockchain technology has been turned into techno-speak boring enough to make Stephen Hawking yawn.

Inspire people, don’t put them to sleep. Tell them a story they can’t wait to be part of and share.

What about “Our mission is to leverage technology to give everyone on earth equal access to information.”


“XYZCyberCoin helps you do blockchain better.”

Now that’s something that’ll get me out of bed.

Lain Ehmann is a Stanford-educated marketing strategist who writes effective copy and content for technology startups and entrepreneurs. She doesnt own any Bitcoin... yet. Reach her at

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.