You’ve probably heard the cliched phrase “If you build it, they will come.” More importantly, I would like to counter that with an even more important cliched phrase “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In the web and entrepreneurship community there’s this misconception that “launching” a product ensures long term success. It doesn’t. Launching is really just a small period of time where a lot of initial attention is drawn to the product. You should certainly be proud of getting yourself to the point of launching to the public, but the real battle is won before and most certainly continuing the marathon race for years after your initial launch. Just because you’ve built an app does not mean they will simply come and keep on coming. The following is a good overview of some of the things entrepreneurs should be doing before, during, and after their product launch.
Customer development - From the very first day that you decide the idea will become a reality you should immediately start doing initial customer development. This makes sense for building the right product, but it also gives you a strong list of customers to go to when the product launches. The early potential customers that you talk to will also be some of your warmest leads at first due to their input into the product, which means it may be a very good fit for them when it launches. Think about it this way: if you talk to 50 potential customers before you launch, that automatically gives you a close relationship of 50 people to talk to at launch who will also help spread the word.
Build in viral loops from line 1 - Most startups don’t have a large custom acquisition budget, if any at all. It usually amounts to PR, business development, and things with a dollar value that is close to zero. One of the greatest results of the social web is the ability for viral loops to transform customer acquisition to a dollar amount that approaches zero. Perfecting your viral coefficient and viral loops isn’t just adding in a few share or like buttons, it’s a pretty in-depth process that requires commitment from day one. It’s a significant multiplier to your other customer acquisition efforts such as PR. Think of it like this: X = initial users drawn in from your first press launch and other efforts and Y= your viral coefficient. By having the right viral hooks in place, you can heavily multiply your initial efforts. Note: this usually applies to consumer startups way more than SaaS.
Build a relevant audience- This might be through your company such as what Mint did with its Mint life blog + I want my mint badges. It might also be through the brand of one of the cofounders such as what Kevin Rose did with Digg by giving it a showoff on TechTV. Numerous other web personalities have done this such as Joel and Jeff from Stack Overflow. Even if you’re not thinking of doing a startup right now, start building an audience for yourself by writing and interacting. Odds are the domain expertise you build up over the years will translate into some startup in that sector, and the audience you’ve built will be highly relevant. If you are a current startup, you should be actively teaching+sharing some knowledge that is relevant to your market.
The slow reveal - Start showing off teasers of the product before you launch it. It might just be a piece of a screenshot, but it has to be something. If you’re building an audience up and talking to the world about your super wonderful startup, you need to keep the faith that the product isn’t just Vaporware. The slow reveal will help the world believe that you’re delivering on time and continue to get them excited. Bungie does this very well with their games by revealing levels, features, and more every few weeks.
Beta user testimonials- Aside from initial customer development, your product has hopefully had contact with a fair amount of beta testers. That number varies from startup to startup, but it should certainly be > 0. Hopefully, these beta testers will give you testimonials that you can use as social proof when launching.
Build an email list- You know my obsession with email from previous articles. Email is permission marketing in its greatest form. With all of the early customer development, blogging, product revealing, etc. that you do, always try your hardest to capture an email address. Don’t let it be an afterthought. Think of it this way:
-100 people talked to for customer development
-500 beta testers
-4 hot articles per month netting 100 email addresses each for 3 months before launch (1,200 total)
-Your design is inspiring, so the slow product reveals net 1,000 more email addresses
2,800 relevant users on day one without doing any press.
Actual Launch Period
Segment your press list - All pitches were not created equally. You can’t be lazy when it comes to pitching and what works for the tech press doesn’t work for the mainstream press. Your product probably has some additional niche aspect to it. It might be Apple press since it’s an iPhone app or it might be the education press since it’s an education application. Spend time on your pitch emails, be personal, be concise, and send enough resources for the writer. Videos are great.
Have a date nailed down in advance - You should have a date nailed down for when the app is a golden master and you should have a separate date that is a little bit further in the future for doing the actual press launch. Don’t just say: we’re done developing+testing, let’s pitch some press. Have a set day to work towards and give yourself enough breathing room to execute well. Also check your calendar for any other major upcoming events. New apple product launching? Major conference with 50 product launches? Wait a few more days.
Embargoes Will Be Broken - You have an embargo? Aren’t you special. Guess what? Bloggers have pageviews to earn and breaking the story gets them more of them. Once the embargo is broken by one, then it’s just an absolute free for all. Make sure you are rock solid and ready to flip things on before pitching journalists. The embargoes usually stay quiet enough in advance, but things are fair game 24 hours beforehand, especially a few hours beforehand. Embargo breaking highly depends on how important, special, and hyped the product is. If you did the things listed in the pre-launch section, bloggers will want to break your embargo.
Try to coordinate with an event- This could simply be a conference you’re speaking at or something bigger like a TC Disrupt, DEMO,etc. Hell it could simply be a tech meetup that 100 close people from the tech community will be at. Doing your launch on stage in front of as many people as possible creates way more attention than sitting by yourselves in a room. Just make sure the logistics of the team are taken care of beforehand. Whoever makes sure things stay stable through the influx of traffic, shouldn’t be worrying about delivering a talk.
Giveaways- People love free stuff and those with a hungry audience love to give stuff away even more. Identify key influencers and give them samples/invites/premium accounts/etc. for your product to give away. It’s a win win situation. You get users and they get to give their audience something valuable.
Release Often- Yay! You launched your product and things are going well. That Techcrunch bump and spike will start to die down though. Hopefully your attention to viral hooks have allowed the userbase to grow nicely since then though. Get prepared to go through the whole launch process all over again every quarter, but on a smaller scale. Keep releasing new improvements, features, and reasons for people to talk about you. Twitter is the extreme example here, but every little change they make is tracked by the press. If you listen heavily to your customers they will also heavily market your new releases ie- “OMG Widget Corp added that new feature we’ve been waiting forever for!” Apple does this almost to the point that it’s evil. They could have put Copy and Paste in version 1.0 or 2.0 of iOs. The hardware was capable of doing it and I’m sure the engineers knew exactly what the solution was. Why did they wait though? Simple. It gives them a major expected feature for their audience to anticipate and talk about when they launch it.
Analytics reveal new markets- Starting to notice your userbase consists of a lot of women between the ages of 24-32? Never expected that, eh? That’s okay and actually awesome. That means you should now start trying to gain some press and do some business development deals that attract more of that audience. It’s like a silver platter of growth. Your analytics show this market segment makes sense and now all you have to do is target them specifically.
Business Development- Biz dev can be the eternal sandtrap that never delivers anything. That’s best left for another post. What you should do is take the traction you’ve now hopefully gained to prove you’re legit and find those who have a similar audience yet not competitive. Keep the deals simple and easy to execute. In short, find other companies that have users that you would like to also be users of your product.
Integrate Affiliate and Partner Programs- Either build it yourself or use Cloudomatic(flow). It’s not just a software problem, but also a time problem. If you integrate an affiliate program along with a referral system, you need to constantly promote it and monitor it. People will game it, try to cheat you, and more. With that said, it can account for a serious amount of revenue. Just ask GetClicky, which reveals the power of their affiliate program on Mixergy.
Platform Expansion- The iPhone has been the largest source of growth for Pandora, which was already a hot startup before then. Don’t worry about getting your app on all platforms before your first launch. Gradually start expanding how people can interact from your app on different platforms (iPhone, Android, iPad, Boxee, Blackberry, Desktop app, Facebook, Twitter,etc.)
API - If it makes sense, which I hope it does, making an API available for your app can do wonders for growing your userbase. People will start tying your application as a value add. If 100 apps each with 20,000 users integrate your app via API, you have now been exposed to 2 million new potential users. I’ve been seeing the dropbox API integrated into every iPad/iPhone productivity suite as of late. I have a hunch they are going to grow heavily with the introduction of their API.
SEO/SEM/Social Advertising is your friend- Advertising might not make any sense for your company. You might not be able to do it with the proper scale due to cashflow issues. With that said, your other argument might be “Oh, but my app is viral. Advertising is a waste” Zynga is viral, right? Guess what? They are one of Facebook’s largest advertisers. Groupon is viral right? They’re also another large advertiser on Facebook. Even if you’re not a content or consumer play, SEO is still your friend. Patrick explains this well in a recent presentation Bonus: Patrick left a great comment here on HN with more advice. Read it, he knows way more than I do on this specific topic.
When I started writing this post I had an intro, pre-launch, actual launch, post-launch, and closing h2 tags. I filled in the different points in between, and quickly realized the list for pre and post launch far outweighed those for the actual launch period, which seems to be about right. The real work isn’t that short launch period, but the work beforehand + continued work afterwards. These are just some of my initial thoughts. I’m just over 2,000 words and only scratching the surface. Someone could literally write a book on the topic.
ps- speaking of a launch, you should probably check back in here tomorrow afternoon for a small surprise.