9 Techniques to Promoting Your Social Web Application
This is a continuation from The Problem with Social Web Applications.
“web applications are created as social software where you have a friends list, collaborate on a document with multiple people and it is easily to share information and communicate. The downside is these networks consume a lot of attention and too much time is wasted building profiles and adding friends – for some of these sites building a profile and adding friends is the only utility they have.”
Putting the inherent problems of social web apps aside, how do you build a web app that has traction, gain users and hopefully explodes virally? I’ve been paying attention to this space for far too long and this is a round-up of the tricks and techniques successful and not-so-successful social web applications use to promote themselves.
I’m completely excluding any technique that relies on spending money. It’s a given that you can buy traffic and attention through various mean. Instead, I’m focusing on the self-powered techniques companies can use to build organic buzz and word of mouth advertising around their web application.
Technique #1: Beta Invitations
The easiest way to generate buzz for your social web app is to create an artificial scarcity for applications. You can email invitations to people every day and they won’t give you a second glance, but if invitations are hard to come by then the invitation becomes a valuable commodity instead of easily ignored spam. Gray market economies grow around beta invitation trading, even if the accounts themselves are seldom used.
Beta invite success stories: Gmail, Joost, Pownce
Gotcha: “Blog Friendly” Beta Invitations
The gray market beta invitation economy that you want to generate buzz is built off of the back of bloggers. Invitations are an easy way for bloggers to provide value (or the illusion of value) to their readers at no cost other than time. How bloggers feel about your beta invite campaign, and your application, will come from how easy you make it for them to send out invitations.
Medium lets me invite people by posting a URL on my blog. All of my readers who click on that URL can get into the Medium beta and are added as ‘friends’ with no effort on my part. Compare this to Joost invitations require a cut-and-paste of every email address into a desktop application. Sending a single Joost invitation will take me at least a few minutes because I have to load a desktop application. It could potentially take much longer if the desktop application needs to be updated.
Gotcha: Scarcity of Beta Invitations
One way sites screw up is by giving away too many beta invitations up front. If you are using manipulation to create buzz around your product then you need to create artificial value by implying that the people who have access to your service are more privileged. If anyone and their lolcat can get in then how do you create the false sense of hype that comes from people talking about a product you don’t have access to? It’s like the false economy around diamonds.
Technique #2: Social Engineering Trickery
A social engineering technique that works very well for getting people to accept their user account is to say “your friend created a profile for you!” It’s cheesy but it gets the invited user to sign-up. The easiest way to engage someone’s curiosity is to make it about them. People are always interested in themselves, and in what other people may have said about them.
Examples: Spock and Yahoo Mash
Technique #3: The Video Demo
A very effective technique for creating interest in your product before the doors are wide open is creating a video to promote the service and show how people can use it. The iScrybe calendar is a great example of a video that went viral and created a lot of buzz around a product that still hasn’t materialized (disclaimer: I’m a beta tester).
CommonCraft has created a business behind making videos that explain product in simple no-frill terms that somehow work better and remain more interesting than the flashiest demos.
Gotcha: Leaking Features to Early
The only problem with giving a video demo of a product doesn’t exist is you give your competitors that much more time to copy your features. By the time you release you’re competitive advantage might no longer exist.
Technique #4: The Press Release
I’ll let this video CommonCraft developed for PRWeb discuss the value of press release kits for generating buzz.
Gotcha: Spamming Bloggers with Press Releases
As a blogger, one of the dangerous of having your email address on your About Me page is the number of press releases you receive. I’ll reluctantly admit that I do occasionally write a blog post about a service that catches my eye. However, the method of contact has also made me ignore sites like CrossLoop.com that I later realized was very awesome and solves a problem I often have about how to fix someone else’s computer remotely. Why is your application different than any other of the many emails I have received?
Technique #5: The Address Book Import
Gotcha: Giving Out Your Email Password
Jeff very correctly points out that giving out your email password is ridiculously stupid, since a malicious site can hijack your login information for any website and potentially gain access to your credit card or banking information depending if you use the same email address for everything. There has also been more than one case of startups sending emails to your contacts without your permission (see SixDegrees.com, Quechup and RapLeaf).
Gotcha: Address Book Import with Custom Invite
If you are going to brave the address book import (admittedly I do it often) then it is imperative that the invite sender can customize the message to the invitees. Thanks to the wonder of “automatically add anyone you’ve ever had an email conversation with to your address book” technology, if you do full address book spamming you might be contacting people who have a very loose connection to you. LinkedIn does it right by giving the sender several precanned invitation messages that can be customized at will. Another technique is to limit the number of invitations someone can send at once to prevent spamming.
I had a shock this weekend when I sent Yahoo Mash invitations out and my custom email invitation was never sent — instead they were given that spammy ‘engtech created a profile’ message. I went to the trouble to explain why I was sending the invite, what Yahoo Mash was about, and linked to a TechCrunch article about the service. This is what they saw instead:
Success stories: LinkedIn, Plaxo
Failures: Yahoo Mash, Quechup, RapLeaf, sms.ac…
Technique #6: Leverage Existing Success
In all aspects of life success can breed success. Would Paris Hilton have been in the limelight if she wasn’t the heiress to a ridiculous fortune? When larger companies launch a new web application they need to leverage the success of their existing sites. A common complaint when Google or Yahoo launches something new is that it doesn’t integrate well with their existing portfolio of web applications. Use the success and lessons learned from existing applications to slingshot your new web application into stardom. This is much easier to do when it is the same small team developing the application.
Success stories: 37signals
Technique #7: Corporate Superstar
One of the easiest ways to get buzz about your web app is to hire someone who is well known in the industry. This can be a detrimental factor because their involvement can overshadow the product itself or bring too much attention to a product before it has had a chance to mature. However, I think there is always more of a positive factor because it is easier to improve a product than it is to build the kind of buzz these people bring to anything they are involved with.
Examples: Jason Calcanis, Guy Kawasaki, Kevin Rose, Marc Andreessen, Joel Spolsky, Aaron Swartz
Technique #8: Send Out the Bacn
Social sites try to keep you interested by sending ‘tickler’ emails whenever any little action happens related to your account on their site. These emails are functionally useless, but they drive you back to the site. It’s not spam, it’s bacn — useless emails from a website that you’ve given permission to contact you. It’s the worst form of permission marketing and smart sites will set a sane default where they only contact the person once a day at the very most. Stupid sites will quickly see their emails detected as spam since clicking the ‘Report Spam’ button is often much easier than creating an email filter or finding out how to unsubscribe or change notifications.
Very few sites get that if you’re going to email someone that they have a message, you might as well include the message with the email. Even fewer sites understand that people should be able to respond to the message directly from email. Improving the customer experience always trumps increasing page views or any other metric.
Sites that get it: Twitter, StumbleUpon
Sites that don’t get it: Facebook, Yahoo Mash
Technique: Don’t Require an Account to Try It
(update because I forgot it the first time around)
One of the absolutely best ways to promote your app is to let people use it without requiring an account to sign in. OpenID hopes to provide a universal account that you can use anywhere, but other sites like Geni and JottIt bring you directly to the application and only prompt you to create a user account when you want to store your information.
Technique #9: Solve a Problem
The easiest way to build buzz around your web app is to solve a real problem. Many “web 2.0″ sites are repeating what has been available in desktop software for decades. For the ones that do something original, it often serves no real purpose. Messaging friends? I have email and instant messenger programs. Writing documents, spreadsheets, calendars? I have office suite applications. Translating desktop software gives decreased performance with the ability to easily collaborate and access documents from any location that has Internet access.
There are very few web applications that solve a problem that desktop software never did well. They add real value to a user’s life in a way that is new and innovative. Desktop software never handled music discovery (last.fm) or photo sharing (flickr and now Facebook) as well as their web counterparts. Too many web applications are social for no reason or offer solutions without a problem to solve. As my blog friend Steven says:
Adding value to one’s personal pool of knowledge or giving to another’s doesn’t depend on vast numbers of useless contacts. Value comes from one to one communication and then following whatever paths that come from that conversation.
Bonus: The Yahoo Mash Report Card
Last weekend I had a chance to check out Yahoo’s “we were too cheap to buy Facebook, let’s get that egg off of our face” entry into the social platform war with Yahoo Mash. The experience inspired this post. How did Yahoo Mash rate?
+1 point for creating approximately 2 hours of ‘I want a beta invite!’ buzz
+2 points for convincing me that Mash invites had some value and I could earn some social capital by sending invites to everyone on my address book
-10 points for refusing to send my handcrafted invitation that explained what Mash is and why I was sending out invitations
-20 points for sending that ‘engtech created a profile for you!’ spam instead of my custom invitation
-3 points for being ugly
-2 points for not having any utility beyond creating a profile
+2 points for the ability to edit other people’s profiles — something different
-4 points for not leveraging all the other Yahoo services I use
+5 points for introducing me to Yahoo Avatars — much cooler than Mash
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