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We’ve come a long way now in our series on launching a startup, starting from an idea and going through the steps of refining the idea, recruiting a team and developing your first product.
Now it’s time to launch.
Generating buzz is vital for the success of a startup. With more than half a million new businesses launched every year, you need to stand out from the crowd. A successful launch can help you build a user base rapidly, giving you strong social proof and improving your chances of long-term growth.
In this tutorial, you’ll see some examples of successful launch strategies, and also get an insight into the steps you need to take before launch. How can you build up an email list, generate buzz on social media, and get press coverage? You’ll learn all of that here, so that by the end, you’re ready to embark on day one of your new startup.
Step 1: Build Your Email List
Well before your official launch, you need to begin getting people signed up to your email list.
Why email? Well, social media is great for sparking conversations, and we’ll cover that in Step 2, but we’re starting with email because it’s by far the best way to keep people engaged and convert them into customers.
Consider this recent research, which found that the conversion rate for email marketing was more than 3%, while search came in under 2% and social media less than 1%.
In terms of your launch, it’s so much more powerful to be able to email people directly with the announcement than to post it on social media, where many of your followers will miss it among all the other noise.
For now, a couple of key things to do as you prepare for your launch are:
Optimize Your Website for Signups
Even if all you have is a basic “Coming Soon” page, you can use it to generate interest in your launch and entice people to sign up. It’s about giving just the right amount of information to grab people’s attention, but leaving an element of mystery to pique their curiosity.
Also consider offering a special bonus for early subscribers. Have a look through the some ideas on how to set up a popular launch page. Don’t forget to test your page using A/B split testing, to find out which configuration gets the most signups.
Start to Communicate Regularly
Many people focus on getting signups, and forget about engaging their audience immediately. You don’t want your first email to be about your launch; the danger is that if it’s been weeks or months since they signed up, people will have forgotten who you are and why they were interested. They may even have forgotten that they signed up at all, and treat your email as spam—not a good way to start a relationship.
So send out emails regularly, and keep offering people something useful with each message. That way, they’ll stay signed up, and will be primed to respond positively to your official launch. Email programs like AWeber and MailChimp let you set up “autoresponder” sequences so that you can automatically send people a particular set of messages after they sign up.
The iterative product development strategy that we talked about in the previous tutorial can tie in perfectly with this. If you’re gradually releasing small parts of your eventual product on a regular basis, that’s the perfect way to stay in touch. You’re giving people something they can use and see the value in right away, and building up their curiosity for the main launch.
Step 2: Use Social Media
Although we started with email, social media also offers great options for generating buzz around your startup.
The first step, obviously, is to set up profiles on the major sites like Twitter, Facebook and Google+, and begin engaging in conversations both with potential customers and with influencers.
But also think more broadly. Personal blogs were the original social media, and many of them still have large and devoted followings. Mint.com grew an email waiting list of 20,000, in part by finding small blogs with passionate readers and sponsoring them. This approach allowed Mint to build relationships with influential writers, while also reaching a broad audience.
Think about integrating social media with your email marketing too. A good example of this is restaurant app Forkly, which launched in 2011 with a system that used social media to boost email signups. When people signed up at the launch page, they were offered special priority access if they recruited three friends via social media.
The strategy had a double benefit: not only did it turn one email signup into four, but it also began spreading buzz on social media, as even people who hadn’t been invited began to see all the tweets and Facebook posts and look up Forkly to find out what it was all about.
If you want to get attention, giving away something valuable like an iPad often works well too. If you can run popular contests, or create fun and shareable video content, then you’ve got a great chance of garnering followers before launch. Even people who don’t sign up will at least have been exposed to your company, giving you some level of name recognition.
Step 3: Don’t Forget About Traditional Media
If you think print is dead and it’s all about social media now, think again. Eyeglass company Warby Parker achieved explosive growth in its early days, despite spending absolutely nothing on marketing and advertising when it launched in 2010. Its strategy instead was heavily based on traditional media.
The company managed to get two well-placed editorials in Vogue and GQ around its launch date, generating so much interest that its site crashed. Within two weeks, the firm had sold out of 15 styles of eyeglasses, and had a wait list of 20,000 customers.
An article in a popular publication, or a spot on the TV news, can have a huge impact on a startup’s growth, as Warby Parker’s example shows. Not only does it get you instant attention from thousands of people, but also it gives you that precious commodity in the world of startups: credibility. Long after the article has come out, you’ll be able to impress potential customers by saying “As seen in The New York Times,” or wherever you were mentioned. Even with smaller publications, media mentions count for a lot.
So how do you go about getting them? Well, you could start with the steps we went through in our recent tutorial on getting journalists to write about your company.
For startups specifically, it’s good to return to the kernel of your original idea, the compelling problem that you’re solving, and learn to state it as clearly and simply as possible. If you’re truly offering a new solution to a problem that plagues a publication’s readers, you’ll have instant news value.
Make sure you have some kind of demo to show, or that you can provide beta access to the product you’re developing. The journalist will want to take your product for a full test drive, so that he or she can feel confident in recommending it.
Also make it easy for journalists to find what they need—a simple press page with high-resolution images, videos, contact information and basic details about the company is a must.
Step 4: Plan the Launch Event
Of course, a great way to get attention is with your actual launch event. This gives journalists a news hook, provides people on social media with images and videos to share, and if you’re creative or have a great story to tell, it can create a big splash.
There are two basic schools of thought around launch events.
1. Launch at a Major Conference
Launching at a prestigious industry conference makes a lot of sense. You get a large, ready-made audience, including plenty of journalists, investors and influencers. The conference organizers also handle all of the details of the event to make sure everything looks professional.
For tech startups, some of the big events are:
Some major companies have launched at conferences, such as Foursquare at SXSW 2009. Twitter also got a major boost from being featured at SXSW 2007, although it officially launched slightly earlier. The DEMO Conference claims a long list of launch success stories, including E-Trade, WebEx and TiVo.
2. Avoid the Major Conferences
There is a school of thought, however, that says it’s better to avoid the major conferences and arrange your own event.
The advantage of this approach is that you can target people more effectively, inviting a select group of key journalists and industry insiders. Your audience may be smaller, but it will be more engaged. You can offer exclusivity, which will make people more likely to write about or talk about your event. You’re in control of it, so can set your own tone. And unlike the conferences, you don’t have to compete with dozens of other hopeful startups. The microphone is yours.
Bug Labs, for example, launched with a deliberately small event—dinner with four carefully-selected people. Robert Scoble, one of the people invited, called it “the best product launch I’ve seen in recent memory.” He added: “It made us feel emotionally connected with the product in a way I don’t feel for many other products.”
Either strategy can be successful—it depends on what you want to achieve, and what effect you’re going for. If you do decide to plan your own party, here are some tips on doing it right.
Step 5: Launch!
If you’ve prepared well, then the launch itself should be a success. You’ve got a base of eager users on your email list and on social media, and have already been communicating with them and feeding them sneak previews of your product. And a well-organized event, either at a major conference or on your own turf, has given you some extra buzz.
So when you flip the switch over from “beta” version to live, officially launched software, you should have good traffic and usage from the start. You can use those customers’ feedback to refine your product and continue developing it, as we covered in the previous tutorial.
It’s important to be hyper-connected right around launch date. An influx of traffic is a wonderful thing, but it may also uncover problems or glitches that you hadn’t noticed in the earlier stages. So you need to stay on top of everything, tune in to social media, listening carefully to what people are saying to you—and saying about you. Then you can try to fix any bugs, or tweak anything people are finding confusing, as soon as possible.
You can also try to squeeze extra publicity out of your launch after the event itself, in the brief window you have before it becomes old news. If you’ve got some good coverage, try to use that to convince other outlets that they should be writing about you too. Suggest different angles, so that the blogger or journalist has a fresh story to tell.
So you’ve followed all the steps in this series on launching a startup, and you’re now on day one of your new business. Congratulations!
By now, you should have generated a solid idea for a business that solves a real problem and meets a real need. You’ve tested it extensively and refined it as necessary, and you’ve recruited a talented team to run it with you. You’ve developed your first product using the principles of agile product development, and you’ve built buzz and excitement around your launch. You’re off to a flying start, with a growing customer base and plenty of media attention.
The hard work, of course, is only just beginning. A successful launch doesn’t guarantee a sustainable long-term business. There are plenty of companies that generated huge buzz in the early days but then quietly folded a year or two later (read the $41 million cautionary tale of Color Labs, for example).
After launch, your startup enters a new phase. It’s no longer just about developing a product and signing people up to use it. It’s about developing a sustainable business plan, managing your staff, pricing your products effectively, giving good customer service, financing your growth, and a whole lot more.
you’ll leave the “startup” label behind, and become a regular company. So read
more of the business tutorials and courses on Tuts+ to learn about the strategies
you’ll need as you run a fully functioning, profitable business.