If you’re building a product – whether it’s a consumer app, or a SaaS, it’s very tempting to focus only on development, especially if you’re an engineer. You start to wonder how to scale it so a million concurrent users can use it. Or you dream about how you can incorporate cool technologies like MongoDB, Node.JS, or Voldemort.
There’s many reasons why people fall into this trap. We’re uncomfortable getting feedback from potential customers. We worry a potential competitor might move faster. And let’s admit it: developing and scaling a product is FUN. Finding customers, or getting feedback on the other hand, is abstract, fuzzy, and daunting.
I fell into this trap multiple times in prior side projects, and I vow now to make those mistakes again. For me, I strive for 60% time devoted to development, and 40% to marketing. While that may sound like a lot of time dedicated to marketing, marketing risk often trumps technical risk. It’s rare to find a product fail because the technology was too hard to implement. However, there are countless cases where a product failed because it couldn’t get enough users.
Building buzz before a launch is critical, but how do we do it? Most experts usually give obvious recommendations such as starting a blog, or building a landing page with LaunchRock. I tried to go beyond these. Here are 5 creative ways you can build some buzz before you launch.
1) Build a small product that you can give away for free.
This idea is perfect for those that prefer to hack. Build a small product that you can give away for free. It can be a supplemental product, a micro-version of your product, or even an ebook or guide. The point isn’t to build something that you can sell (although you can if you want), but something you can share with others.
What do you do after you build this? Promote it of course. There are many ways to do so, and it all depends on your target audience. If you’re building a SEO tool, SEOMoz is a great community to promote it to. If you’re targeting hackers, write a show HN post in Hacker News. If you’re building an app for moms, CafeMom and iVillage are your best bets.
And of course have a way for people to give them your email address. When you launch, you can go back to them and email them. Since these people used your free tool, they most likely are interested in your launch as well.
2) Ask bloggers what they think about your idea.
Yes, ask bloggers what they think. Your first instinct might be “I can’t tell people my idea! They’ll steal it from me!”. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to fall in love with ideas, but ideas are cheap. In fact, if you can convince others to steal your idea, that’s proof you’re building something others want.
This was a technique I used as to help build SlimKicker‘s pre-launch mailing list. A year before the product was complete, every day, we would send 50-100 emails asking bloggers what they thought of our ideas. I didn’t mention the URL, nor did I make it into a sales pitch. As a result, nobody thought I was spamming, or trying to sell them something. When they responded, I simply told them thanks, and gave them the URL where they could sign up if they wanted to be notified when the app launched.
The percentage of people who responded was actually fairly decent at 10%. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up. Watching your prelaunch mailing list gradually grow does wonders for your morale. As you get closer to launch, you can say to yourself: “Wow, we’re gonna get a thousand or so users as soon as we’re done.”
Where do you find these bloggers easily? WordPress and Tumblr often show the most newly updated blogs for certain tags. For instance if you want to view bloggers who’ve blogged about fitness, you could go to http://wordpress.com/tags/paleo or http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/paleo. If you’re ambitious, you could even write a script that iterates through all of these blogs every hour and compile a huge list of bloggers you can manually contact.
3) Interview potential users and get their contact info
If you ever read anything about the Lean Startup methodology, you’ll know the importance of doing customer interviews. Interviewing potential customers gives you insight into what their biggest problems are, and how much they’re willing to pay for a solution.
That’s great, you’ll say.. but how the heck do I even get these potential customer’s attention? What if you’re a nobody, have no social proof, and can’t afford to give them compensation? That’s where you need to get creative, and think about basic psychology. If you got a blog, you can consider doing an interview for a blog post, and linking to their site at the end. Don’t got a blog? Consider doing a guest blog for a related blog that accepts guest posts. If you’re a student, leverage that, and tell others you’re doing a research project that requires you to do some interviewing. The point is to think of win-win situations where you can offer them something in return for their time.
Interviewing potential customers gives you 2 things: someone you can contact again when the product is done, and valuable insight on their problems.
4) Comment on influencer’s blogs regularly
Of course, we all want to be featured in publications like Techcrunch, Mashable, or LifeHacker when our app comes out – who doesn’t? But if you’re planning to pitch to these people on launch date, prepare to be disappointed. More than ever, it’s important to establish a relationship with these people months before you need them.
One of the most underrated ways to do so is by commenting on their blogs. Not just where they write (ie LifeHacker), but their personal blogs too. Why? Because their personal blogs usually don’t get as many comments. Thus you’re most likely to get their attention. I know if someone commented on almost every single one of my blog posts for a few months, I’d definitely remember his/her name.
Of course, you can use Twitter or Facebook or Google+ for this purpose, but I specifically recommend blog commenting first. Sending someone a Twitter message takes little to no effort. And you’ll probably be ignored. Leaving a quality blog comment takes much more effort, and the blogger will appreciate you for that. Remember to comment regularly, and don’t post something lame like “Great post!”. Actually write something of value. The point is to cultivate a relationship where you can actually help the other person in some manner.
5) Real Life Networking
This is something most people ignore since it’s often viewed as a waste of time. But networking in real life is the best way to establish a relationship. I’m not talking about being sleazy, and handing out business cards to random people. But actually helping others by giving them advice, or telling them stories. It goes both ways too – don’t be afraid to ask others for help. In many cases, people are flattered when you ask them for advice or recommendations. Of course, you can mention your product if it’s appropriate, but don’t try to make every encounter a sales pitch.
Look for opportunities to present your product, in beta form in front of an audience. Even if they’re not your target audience, it’s a great way to get feedback and get the word out there. If you developed a cool technology, consider attending a meetup and showing it off there. Afterwards, tell everyone “Hey, if you’re interested in learning more, visit my blog or sign up for my mailing list here: <INSERT URL>”.
So those are some ideas I have for you that go beyond creating a Facebook page, or a blog.