We’ve all dreamed of launching the next hot product. Stories like Facebook, which launched from a dorm room and is now worth $100 billion, and Instagram, which reached 40 million users and was a $1 billion acquisition in less than two years of existence, make us believe that all you need is good idea and an Internet connection.
Unfortunately, as any start-up will tell you, these are the exception, not the rule. In today’s marketplace, where consumers’ attention spans continue to shorten and new companies launch every day, gaining traction requires careful planning and execution.
Assuming you’ve built a useful product, there’s nothing more important than cutting through the clutter and gaining initial traction. Here are the most important things to do when launching your product, based on my experience building BrandYourself.com, which amassed more than 100,000 active users in its first few weeks.
●Concentrate on your story, not your features: Nobody cares about your product’s features; people care about your product’s story. Many companies talk about features, saying, “We’re the only dating site that connects to your social networks via AP!” Who cares? Who wants to read a tech spec? Nobody, that’s who.
Concentrate on the story your product tells. We started BrandYourself.com when my co-founder, Pete, couldn't obtain a college internship because he was being mistaken for a drug dealer on Google. We created a free product that simplified the SEO process for users, so people wouldn't pay reputation management companies to do it for them. By concentrating on Pete’s story, people could easily understand what our product does and why it’s important.
●Build key relationships with the press prior to launch: What good is a story if nobody tells it? Determine where your potential users hang out, and build relationships well before you launch. These people literally get pitched hundreds of times a day; you don’t want the first time they hear about you to be the day you launch.
I reached out to people who covered online reputation, consumer Internet and the job search space, and I asked them all for feedback. I gave them previews before the product came out, offered special codes they could provide to their readers, and worked in their feedback. I created genuine relationships instead of just pitching them a story.
By the time we launched, instead of drafting long press releases that would go unread, I had a list of writers who knew exactly who I was and what our product did, and as a result, we received coverage in a wide range of popular publications.
●Harvest demand while you build: Just because you haven’t launched doesn’t mean you can’t start finding customers. Find a way to let your audience know what you’re building, and let them sign up to be notified when it’s ready. While DropBox was in development, they released video demos, creating a waiting list of 70,000 people before their launch.
To attract users to our waiting list, we released blog posts teaching people how to improve their search engine results. In the month leading up to the launch, we let a few hundred people in every week. If users wanted to increase their chances of getting chosen early, they could share a link to us with their friends. By the time we were ready, we had a list of over 15,000 people signed up to try the product.
●Be strategic in your timing: Timing is one of the most underutilized strategy points. You see many companies launching at the same time as a major conference, when most journalists are slammed trying to cover everything.
You should try to find a time where you can maximize your coverage. For example, instead of launching at SXSW, we launched the week before. Since most companies were waiting another week to make announcements, we were able to get great coverage, which garnered even more attention there. By doing this, we were able to leverage our success at SXSW to create more coverage after the conference.
Figure out when you can get press attention and tie that into follow-up events. While most new start-ups enjoy a day in the spotlight, we had press for three weeks thanks to smart planning.
●Let users tell your story for you: No start-up hits critical mass through press alone. You need to incentivize your users to sign people up on your behalf. For some, this “viral coefficient” is easy to figure out because the product is naturally social. Draw Something, the Pictionary-based mobile game that grew to 9 million users in nine days, is only fun if you play with others, so the incentive to invite others is obvious.
For others, the solution needs to be more creative. While DropBox isn’t naturally social, the company did a brilliant job of evangelizing users by awarding free space to users and their friends for every friend signed up. It’s a win-win, turning every user into a marketing machine for the company.
●Keep the ball rolling: There’s a common principle in advertising known as frequency, which says the more somebody hears about your product, the more likely they are to try it. Once you get initial press, you want to stay in mind at each place. Keep a list of the people who wrote about you. Every time you hit a milestone or have a new release, let them know. Writers love doing follow-ups, so make sure you plan to have a significant release at least once a month.
Patrick Ambron is a co-founder and chief executive of BrandYourself.com, a platform that helps users manage their online reputations and search engine results.