Getting Users For Your New StartupBy Philip Kaplan
The most frequently asked question I get from new entrepreneurs is, “How do I get users?”
Here’s most of what I know.
Credentials (disclaimer: I feel like a douche writing these, but in case you landed here & were wondering who this guy is…really, I’m just trying to help)
I made a blog with 5 million readers, an ad exchange that reaches more people than Facebook, a book that was #12 of Amazon, and a bunch of other weird shit that pays the bills and is popular. I’m an angel investor & advisor to dozens of companies and one university. On several magazine covers, and this (note view count — and several comments from people wishing their “dad was as cool” as me, sigh, #35butfeel14).
The best sites seem to take off magically by themselves. Truth is, every site needs a little kickstart to get to its first 10,000 to 100,000 users. Consider this a list of kickstarters. But keep in mind the saying, “nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing.” You have been warned.
In April, 2000, I launched Fuckedcompany.com — a blog that chronicled the dot-com bust. It had 5 million readers per month, a lot of revenue, and I eventually sold it.
Marketing started when I joined a large online community of web developers, not unlike Hacker News. ”Hey, look at this asshole, what a jerk,” I wrote, with a link to my own site. This started a heated debate about the site. It seemed like hundreds were participating — much love, some hate. I gracefully ducked out of the conversation & watched 24,000 new registered users join that week. There’s a line between contributing and spamming — I think what I did was okay.
With Blippy.com, we also chose to go the controversial route. Instead of telling people “this is a good site to tell friends the restaurants you’re going to” (which Blippy can do), we went with a more controversial message along the lines of “broadcast your credit card statements.” This resulted in a huge amount of PR and attention (more on that in the “press” section, below).
Keep in mind that your product doesn’t have to be inherently controversial to stir controversy. If you’re an electronica music artist, hang out with a folk music crowd. They’ll hate you, which is good. If there’s one new user for every 10 haters, I’ll take it.
Almost anything can be controversial. If there’s nothing that can be controversial about your product, it might be boring.
Address book importers, auto tweets, “send this to 5 people and get special access,” etc. I’ve never been a huge fan of this kinda thing but it’s popular.
One of my sites, Fast140 sends a tweet the first time you use it (with disclosure that it’s gonna do that). Another one of my sites, Mobog.com, has an address book importer that lets you invite everyone you know to join. Address book importers stopped being effective around 2007, I should actually just get rid of it.
If you’re building Facebook apps or something using Facebook Connect or Twitter, these kinds of tricks can still be effective, though the window is closing on that.
Pay people a commission to send you users. This only works, obviously, if you’re running a pay site.
One of my sites, HitMeLater.com, has an affiliate program. It works a’ight. Running a successful affiliate program is more work than it seems. You can’t just put up an affiliate link & wait. Instead, you need to find affiliates, nurture them, run specials & promotions. The best way to get an idea of how a well-run affiliate program looks, is to join one like this or this.
It’s possible to find an affiliate manager who will work for you for commission only.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
The great thing about search engines is that you don’t have to do anything — if you have a good service or good content, Google will generally make sure people find it.
SEO tweaks can increase these numbers. But in the early days, SEO is generally a bad way to spend your time; gains will likely be insignificant.
My free email newsletter service, TinyLetter, is on the first page of Google search results for “free email newsletter” (see what I did there?). That generates a fair amount of business. All I had to do was give the site a good <title> tag & Google did the rest.
Press is one of the best ways to get users. The easiest way to get an article written about you is to tell a writer about a good story idea you have. Don’t write a press release. Don’t hire a PR firm.
Instead, think of a compelling story you would like to read. Pick a writer who you like, and who you think might want to write about it. Tell them your story idea in 2-3 sentences. Contact them via email. If you don’t know their email address, guess. Also ping them on Twitter and Facebook.
If the writer doesn’t respond, try a different one. But only one at a time — they won’t like you if you give the same story to their competitor.
Also, don’t just pitch stories about your company. Ingratiate yourself with writers by selflessly giving them scoops & ideas for stories unrelated to you. Karma.
Bad story idea: “I just launched a thing and you should write about it.”
Good story idea: “Facebook fucked something up. Oh and it happens to relate to my thing.”
Good story idea: “I just raised $20 million to launch a thing.”
Good story idea: “My competitor raised $20 million, yet my thing is better.”
Good story idea: “My competitor’s thing is unsafe and could possibly kill you.”
Good story idea: “I’m not sure if my thing is legal.”
Ask someone famous (real-famous or internet-famous) to use your site. Have them tweet about it or make a YouTube video.
Get in touch with them through their manager, PR firm, lawyer (a little Googling goes a long way), Facebook, Twitter, MySpace page (still effective), whois info, and so on.
Consider offering them some combination of nothing, money, and/or equity.
Get a bigger company to promote you. At Blippy, we got Sephora to promote us on their Facebook page to 1M+ fans for free, because we did a special Sephora thing on our site.
BillShrink got T-Mobile to say “if you don’t believe that we’re the cheapest, go check BillShrink.com, an independent third party.”
Think of something cool you’d like to do with a bigger company and contact someone who works there on LinkedIn, or Facebook via BranchOut, which is actually better and free-er for this (disclaimer: I’m an investor in BranchOut).
Throwing parties is grueling, but has helped launch a small number of companies successfully.
Offline events work best when your product has strong ties to the real world. Evite got started by throwing big parties around the country, with the catch that you had to RSVP using Evite. Yelp did something similar.
The majority of launch parties (and SXSW events) are not effective for getting new users.
Read about Twitter’s famous flat panel displays at SXSW.
I know a company that promoted a game called “Shrooms” by passing out bags of (innocuous) mushrooms at a gamer conference, almost getting arrested.
Richard Branson drove a tank through Times Square to promote Virgin Cola in front of a giant Coke billboard (actually not sure if that worked). Hugh Hefner bought a mansion in LA and invited celebrities to hang out with naked people.
Groupon does a boatload of ROI-positive online advertising (okay, not that creative but it works). YouTube let you embed semi-illegal content into MySpace pages. Facebook & Digg made widgets that got thousands of sites pointing back to them.
I hope you enjoyed this list of ways to promote your website. One final tip: As entrepreneurs, we obsess over our products. Try to forget about your product for a couple of weeks, and instead obsess over how to promote it.
Thanks for reading.
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