All posts in Product Launch

Successful and FREE Press Release Sites

We’ve been taking the time to create press releases meant for online publications about the recent live events we’ve done using our Twitterface tool, with some good results. 

Lisa began this practice while at LightThread using a variety of paid and free online PR channels and trackingresults. She experienced the best results from prlog.org, obtaining front page search results within 24 hours of release and months later continuing to get front page search results. Prlog also makes it easy to link on your Facebook profile in addition to bookmarking through Delicious.

The benefits of doing this are:

  • Backlinks to your site helps SEO with search engines. You will get linked to from the press release sites and anyone who picks up the story and posts about it from their site.
  • People find you and your offer that might not have, otherwise… we’ve seen pretty significant results with this about the Chip Foose-John Deere event we did (they are a big brand after all so that helped) but with every release we’ve sent out, we’ve been surprised at the number of blogs and sites that have found it and posted the information or linked to the release or our site from theirs.
  • It formalizes your operations. Last week Lisa zipped off a list to our team of all we have accomplished in the last 8 weeks. It is surprising how far we have come in only the past 2 months since she came on board. These press releases help us see our progress over time and give us a list of “News” items we can refer back to each year to see some of the highlights of what we’ve done.
  • It’s free, save a little bit of time writing the release and posting it to the press release sites. Though we will do more formal and traditional paid announcements at various times, using this approach we’re only spending the time it takes to write and polish the release, and it’s well worth it.
  • It adds credibility to your small business. Let’s face it… times are tough. Capturing quotes from happy customers and tooting your own horn in a non-pushy way can only help your efforts to sell products or services in a buyer’s market. Every little bit of promotion helps add to the overall number of people who hear about what you’re doing!

In fairness, we have not tried prweb or prleap so do not have comparative results to share. Additional sites that produced front page results upon release were pressreleasepoint.com and prurgent.com.

Keep in mind the free sites take a bit of time to set up your profile but once you use them the first time they are much easier to use again in the future. Please feel free to leave your favorite press release site in the comments section!

Live Nude Events… Behind the Scenes of Like Minds 2010's Online Event

We had an interesting Thursday/Friday last week. For those who don’t know, our product Twitterface has come out of beta and is now a paid product. Pricing is still being finalized. We have a new feature that allows video on the page, as you can see by clicking the image, and the Like Minds conference held Friday in Exeter, UK was kind enough to partner with us on our first ever debut of this offering, to show their event live online while it happened in Exeter.

Twitterface-likemindsWhat we learned, was more than we bargained for. Things blew up. We had to make adjustments, there were issues and confusion. And of course, all of it happened in front of everyone watching… talk about exposing yourself! It’s a bit nerve-wracking to do these experiments in the social space where things could go horribly wrong and people may jump all over you about it. But it gave us so much real experience, and mostly worked well, so I am thankful we are offering this now. I wanted to recap what was going on behind the scenes of this fantastic conference and tell you what we’re doing to make these events better in the future.

The Twitterface page for Like Minds had the aim of using an assortment of services, and whenever you combine technologies, mayhem often ensues before you get it totally right. Our goals were:

  • Live Streaming of the Conference
  • Watching Real-Time Conference Conversations
  • Tweeting from the Page
  • Links to Conference Information
  • Delivering Live Blog Feeds
  • Providing an Online Experience that Extended the Live Experience

Live Streaming

Our partner and developer Joe Taylor did an amazing job of coding the video feature for Twitterface pages so that it’s easy for someone to embed a video on the page. It is super-easy to use the embed code from Ustream, YouTube or anywhere you have embed code offered and put it on the video page. It’s not as flexible as it hopefully will be in the future though – the pane that shows up beneath the video, does not automatically adjust to fit the video width, so we need to work on that. However, we can adjust that pane width after the chosen video (or service you will use) is added, to make the page look more polished. So that’s a minor inconvenience for now. Overall, I was thrilled with how adding a video and changing video codes work.

Watching Real-Time Conversations

A lot of people like to read and watch conversations without joining in, or they like to hop in and participate. We wanted this to be easy and so we added an auto-refreshing of the panes feature to Twitterface a few weeks ago. In reality, something we did not anticipate was our product producing api overage errors. We are going to have to work with Twitter to see what we can do about that. When an unknown number of people are hitting the page, and panes are refreshing every 20 seconds (or longer) it caused our limits to be hit quickly. I didn’t really know we had limits, as Twitterface is a whitelisted product, so to see this happen as the conference opened, at 4 am our time (Joe and I were up to make sure all went smoothly) nearly caused us a heart attack. What was frustrating is that we had tested this on Twitter the night before and this never happened – of course, there weren’t as many people hitting the page. Doh! We figured out that having a profile name up, instead of searches, would give tweets and not api errors so everytime we saw the api errors happening, we switched to a profile name. We’d like to thank @thebrandbuilder and @adders for being such great live tweeters as they saved our necks because we put their profiles on and still had some coverage.

Tweeting from the Page

Our product has its own login (it does not use oauth) and is meant for one person to use, like your Twitter account on the web works. But we wanted people to be able to send tweets from this page without having to leave it, and we wanted it to be secure as possible and use Twitter’s oauth mechanism. So hooking that up, in conjunction with our tool being architected like it is, was a hurdle we had to get over. With the help of our developer Tom Jenkins, who now has a dayjob but graciously did work for us in his spare time on this, we managed to get a working oauth widget on the page, and though it had a few display bugs (the page had to be refreshed if the widget box didn’t work right) it worked and you could tweet from the page.

Links to Conference Information

One of the initial features of Twitterface was links to real sites in the footer, to make navigating to other places easy. The conference organizers added their schedule, a link to ways to participate, a link to add photos to a Flickr pool and links to their sites at the bottom of the page, and we used that Schedule link constantly to adjust the page settings… we put the speaker’s name beneath the video as they were about to speak and changed that pane when they went to lunch to keep people in the loop about what was going on in Exeter.

Delivering Live Blog Feeds

Like Minds had two official live bloggers using a service called CoveritLive to do real-time coverage of the day. Our dream was to drive these feeds, since they had an RSS feed, into the page but we needed a way to do it. The awesome @dlvrit service saw my pleas for help on Twitter and gave us the PERFECT solution. I was so happy. Unfortunately, you can’t test CoveritLive without them going live, so what we did not know was that our solution was not going to work. Until we were Live and in front of thousands of people, of course. The RSS feed produced only some sort of timestamp, not actual coverage, so later in the day we discovered @adders was blogging live, and tweeting also about his live posts, and so we switched to his tweets and it helped so much. We love http://dlvr.it and will work with them in the future on live event feeds though – they supported us above and beyond what we anticipated and their tool is excellent.

Providing an Online Experience

Despite all the technical problems and glitches, one thing we seemed to actually deliver on was providing a great online experience for virtual attendees. This is important, because Like Minds and we at Fresh ID want to come up with ways to do paid attendance to certain events in the future. So a good experience is very key to this working at all. Throughout the day, attendees watching the Twitterface page seemed to have good things to say about it – like they felt like they were in Exeter, that they loved watching it online, that it was so good to be able to watch it live they felt they could cry. In reality, you can go to Ustream and watch a live event. And of course you can set up hashtags and things in your own Twitter client and keep an eye on things that way. But what we wanted to create was an extension of the Live Event, and that means branding. That means attention to detail, and focused conversations, and cutting out the noise. So I think what worked for people, and the reason we’ve created the product, is that they were attending a branded experience online, because they couldn’t be at the real event in person, and they felt the connection because it was planned, branded and constantly monitored to ensure a smooth experience and really, the best one we could give them despite technical issues that gave the Fresh ID team headaches all day long.

So, the net result of the day was pretty positive, both at the event, and on Twitter from what we could tell. Here are some things we’ve learned, that will affect our product offering and future events:

  • Events must be monitored every single minute, by someone. I got up at 4 am because in the UK they were going to start around 10 am. Joe had stayed up – it was 2 am his time in California, and thank goodness we did get up/stay up because the api limit issue would have made this page unusable had we not started making changes to refresh times and adjusting pane settings to not display the error when it happened. The opening of Like Minds was smooth and fun there it seemed, but it was a nightmare for us and drove home the continual monitoring issue, which we had not planned for. I’d had two hours sleep because of getting the page finished Thursday night, so though I didn’t plan to stay up, it wasn’t optional. My team was also not around – Joe eventually went to bed and Lisa and Matt were en route to meetings and the office. So during their lunch, I got ready very quickly and drove to my office to continue monitoring until Matt got there, and then he took over the rest of the day. We will be offering this as a service to companies who need it, but people who do not hire us to do this DEFINITELY need to plan to have a person attending the page and making constant adjustments to keep things flowing.
  • One of the things Like Minds did to us was use video from two different ustream channels, which I sort of figured out on my own. LOL! We did not have a member of their web team on a phone speed dial or even Twitter.  I mostly worked with Scott Gould to set this up, one of the founders and event organizers, and I didn’t want to bother him because I knew he was busy at the event. Fortunately, I happened to notice he had streamed from both a LikeMinds and a ScottGould ustream channel, so if one went off-air we checked the other to make sure we weren’t missing something. But we needed communication with a member of the tech team there – it would have helped us know what was going on and when they were going to stream or not stream.
  • We have to talk to Twitter directly about these api issues, and we’ve never worked with them directly. Fortunately for me, I am making that Lisa’s job. Haha! I hope we can get that improved, but if not, we know how to get around it during an event.
  • The official hashtag for Like Minds is @wearelikeminds, but no one tweeted from it all day and we needed it when we had to switch from a search to profile views only because of api issues. I really recommend that you assign someone to tweet from the official account – even if you have to ask a participant to do it and hand over the login temporarily. For people wondering what is going on, that would make a big difference and it would have solved some of our problems doing this live offering also.
  • The presentations could not be viewed behind the presenter, but with some adjustments they could have been. We are going to design a combo video/slideshare page I think, but it would have been very nice if the presentation had been dropped down behind the presenter (almost even with his feet) so online viewers could see the slides and hear the person talk at the same time – in fact, that would totally rock!
  • Organizing the remote event team, with the team on the ground, for fast communication via skype or twitter makes sense. We will make sure to do this in the future. I actually think it helps for the remote monitoring team NOT to be at the event, to minimize distractions. It is too easy to have to put out fires at the event and lose track of monitoring this page – for us, our sole job was to watch the page, fix issues and keep things flowing online, and we were not hit up with other issues that took focus off of that task by being in the building where it was happening.
  • When Like Minds broke for lunch, there was no Ustream feed for at least an hour and a half. I think we lost some online viewers then. I know that in the future Scott wants to enable video at the lunchtime talk sessions – that would have helped, or even having an event take place on stage (maybe one of the lunches is done there) would have helped not break the momentum of online viewing. I loved the lunch idea though – they had numerous mini-sessions over lunch at different restaurants around the city! Such a cool idea. Attendees got to choose the type of food, speaker and type of conversation they wanted to have.
  • One of the things I noticed, was that this conference WAS very pleasant to attend online. When I got up at 4 am I was still in bed. So here I was in my jammies, comfortably propped up on pillows in the dark, while everyone in England was looking dapper and had makeup on and their hair done. Yet I was learning the same cool information they were – it was REALLY pleasant! And watching the tweets from people actually there, plus being able to tweet without leaving the page was very nice. This is an experience I would want to repeat at tons of other events… not just conferences, but musical events or education of some type – it really did work like I envisioned it, aside from our little issues (which we will find a way to make better!)

We were very pleased with the analytics behind spreading the word about the event Twitterface page. One thing we did at the 11th hour was a press release, informing folks that this would be a live event online. We definitely want to do that earlier than midnight before the event, next time. LOL! Because that press release was picked up by numerous sources – Lisa has the exact count. We’ve had over half a million potential tweet impressions of the twitterface.com/likeminds2010 link, and 75o of the aggregated bit.ly link for that url, and it was mentioned online in blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook in more conversations that I don’t have a number count for. We had over 660 people watching the page it seems, from Google Analytics. That number is important, because only 300 people or so could attend the actual event in Exeter before it was sold out (and it was sold out.) So they increased attendance twice over in online attendees – pretty cool!!

I want to thank all of the people on Twitter who helped us test this page with a live ustream video of race cars in the wee hours Thursday night. I wish I could give you all a present – you helped us so much and we’re very grateful you took the time to test the tweeting and video watching for us.

We have had many inquiries about doing this for other events, including SXSW which is coming up soon. Contact us and let’s talk about hooking this up for your event! We’d love to keep experimenting with what we’re doing and perfect the kinks in the process.

In the coming days we’ll be hearing from someone who attended the event virtually (@brandguardian is writing a blog post) and I am eager to hear what others thought, so if you watched our Twitterface page during the event Friday and want to share your experience, please let us know in the comments!

How to Launch a Product 101 (for Tech Startups)

The focus was thrown onto the tech startups attending DEMOfall08 and TC50 this past weekend because of a post Robert Scoble wrote that pointed out many marketing weaknesses of the startup sites he visited. I have already added my comments to the fray about the problems he found, and now I’m going to address what you can specifically do, if you’re new to the aspects of the business that involve launching and promoting a new product. Let’s break this down into 10 very high-level tasks…

Task 1: Develop a product that will absolutely rock the world of someone.

Not everyone, because it’s doubtful every single person or company will need your product, but some particular segment must need in dire need of it, because it will either help them make more, do more, do less or achieve some other sort of revenue-oriented, business goal or address a personal need.

Task 2: Understand the difference between an alpha, beta, and a 1.0 ready-for-public-release product.

Do not, I repeat, do not dare launch with an “alpha” product or you are wasting your potential customers time. An alpha product is for internal release only. Meaning, your employees. And perhaps a few others, if it makes sense strategically. Business partners (though not ones you’re afraid of turning off.) Future customers who are essentially design partners, because part of what you’re doing is building a product to meet their needs. An alpha is not something to build a launch plan around. An alpha product should not have an invitation form on the home page, or anything inviting the public at large to it.

A “public beta” is the hot thing these days – but make no mistake… it creates a certain perception in the mind of people who use it. Will this product be around a while, if I take the time to use it and potentially fill it up with my stuff (profile, friends, financial info, images, videos, resume info, etc.)??? Should I wait to mess with this until it’s not in Beta anymore??? There are more people who will avoid even a 1.0 product than there are early adopters… the people who are used to the term “beta” and comfortable playing in that environment are who? Software people!! The general public does not live in an alpha-beta-ga (general release) world like those of us inside the software business do, so don’t anticipate potential users/customers will appreciate this term, or using a beta product.

You can launch with a public beta… it is the trend du jour. But if you want to shoot for something greater, go back to the old school of software development and at least attempt to do the alpha and the beta on your time and not your customers. And if you launch in beta, have a firm date by which you will be out of beta and functioning as a 1.x general release. The web, and its easy-to-change nature and agile development environment is nice, but there are good reasons software development used to take 6 months to a year or longer (and still does, for operating systems and heavy-duty software products like Apple, Adobe and Microsoft make.) Those companies follow software development processes that many of us doing web-based startups simply don’t bother with.

Task 3: Write the story of your product offering and company, as if it’s a movie that would entertain people.

You have to develop an entertaining, compelling, emotional marketing message about your product. Why??? Because you will need it to sell what you’ve made. The best salespeople are storytellers – when they’re talking, you don’t feel like you’re being “sold to.” You’re too busy listening to something interesting to think about that. You want to hear more. That is now the position you’ll be in, trying to promote your new product, so get out there and study the products you use or are interested in buying (offline, too) and think about how they made you want to plunk your money down, and why, and where the transaction took place and whether it went smoothly or was a nightmare. Then think about your users, customers, potential site visitors, and even random people you might meet on a plane or at an event, and how you will describe what you’re up to with enthusiasm. This story is the bread and butter of your marketing plan, and your staff, partners, friends and family must buy off on it to the degree that they’ve “drunk the kool-aid” and will, without thinking, sell it for you when they speak to people.

Key to the story is copy that speaks in plain, natural language to readers of varying degrees of computer skills or interest. This is a true tale: I was checking out the TC50 finalists, and presented with this description of one startup’s offering:

“Quant the News was formed to develop and deploy advanced textual sentiment analysis applications that leverage its unique, AI-based natural language processing and data mining technology.”

Please do not write this way. This sort of techno-speak is not going to help you sell or sign up anyone. If you don’t have the funds to invest in a copywriter, you will have to buckle down and learn how to write to sell yourself. Visit Copyblogger regularly and learn from a pro. Follow his instructions and craft copy that sings. The process you should employ (as a non-writer) is something like this:

A. Write some copy describing your features.
B. Go to Apple, pick a product (any Apple or Mac product) and intensely study their copy approach. Pay attention to the simple, easy-to-comprehend language they employ that is a characteristic of their brand.
C. Rewrite the copy describing your features.

Task 4: Find a way to bring your story to life.

This is where you have to get graphical, visual or audible. You may require help from a skilled expert… don’t balk at spending something to help you illustrate your story, because it and this creative thing you now have will be your tools to communicating how great your product is and why people need it.

Scoble and Garyvee love the medium of video, but they are masters at it. If that appeals to you, find ways to do it on a low budget and weave it into the personality of your company. (Study Wine Library if you don’t know what I mean.)

Other people excel at audio. I like Jillian Michaels a lot, and she has a gig on Sundays with a radio station that lets local listeners hang out with her for a couple of hours. Brilliantly, those two-hour sessions are available free on iTunes as podcasts, so her message is spread much further. If you’re a speaker or author, podcasts can be an invaluable way to promote yourself.

I am a visual person, so I’m always thinking of how to communicate something with visuals and graphics. I’m not an illustrator though, so I find art and manipulate it to help tell stories for my clients. Think about how you can use graphics to give your story impact and make it unique among your competitors.

This task is critically important, because it directly leads to the next task…

Task 5: Define your unique brand.

You have competitors. What do they look like? Go to their sites, print them in living color, and hang them on your wall. Get their products and sit them on your desk. These are the people you must best, to succeed. Even if you have an absolutely brilliant competitor whose brand you admire and you’re not sure you can best them, use them to inspire you (not to copy… yawn.) Now, when you have looked at their good and bad attributes, defined your story, found some inspiring visuals and tools to help you sell it, it is time to create the masterpiece that will be your product and company brand! You can use Adobe’s freaking awesome Kuler palettes to help you find an original color scheme if you haven’t found it yet.

Your product is an extension of your brand, not separate from it. I will expect it to carry the same themes, graphics, tone and feeling of your corporate site and marketing collateral, which brings us to…

Task 6: It’s time to create a company site. And it must be good.

Not just a blog… a real site, that is going to sell your product, with well-written copy and nice imagery and your tools of choice (audio, video, presentations, flash demo, product tours, and more.) Your site is not an afterthought – it is the first thought that will occur to the vast majority of people who hear you have something to offer. Your domain name, site appearance, unique branding and usability of this web site are part and parcel of selling a tech product. If the tech product is some sort of social site, you will still need nice words and visuals selling people on signing up and participating… and not just the ubiquitous SIGN UP NOW! shiny badge.

About that sign up now button, badge or form. Don’t offer it prematurely. It won’t do you any good. If you offer it without giving someone a reason to sign up (meaning, you haven’t sold them yet) they will roll their eyes, toddle off and never give you a second thought. You don’t want your users feeling condescending and superior because of a lame marketing attempt. You don’t want to force yourself down someone’s throat, either. You want the right person for your product or service to want it, and then that sign up button is a welcome sight.

The right time in the lifecycle of product development to get your site online, with meaningful information in it, is now. As long as you intend to ultimately release the product, no time is too early to promote your future offering. You can ask people if they’d like to be notified when you launch, but engaging them via a frequently updated blog, or something fun on your site is better. You want to start putting your site, your personality and your brand in the heads and hearts of the few people that might find you or tell someone about you. If your bff is bragging about you at a party, you want them to have a short ‘n snappy web url to point people to, and a business card or brochure to hand out. If your site needs beta customers to be viable, print some invitations on postcards for your friends and family to pass out, and mail them to target businesses to try to get people on board.

If while defining the brand and designing the site, you have changed something visually, take it back to the product and make sure the two stay aligned. Create a standards document as you proceed with brand definition and product development to ensure that all your staff, and anyone you might outsource, are on the same page when it comes to promoting your brand. Standards and guidelines are one aspect that separates the professionals from the amateurs when it comes to launching a product. Be rigorous with your guidelines and don’t let them fall apart as you create more and more marketing fodder over time. Seeing them in black and white will help you stay on track.

Task 7: Create a Launch Plan document, with dates, schedules and events.

Your launch plan should be driven by decisions you make, and not necessarily outside factors like being part of a startup conference. I have nothing against these conferences, but you need to compare involvement there with other options. Being one of many “cool” stories is certainly an ego booster, but research the real benefits vs. launching yourself at an industry-appropriate venue and through other methods. Write down all your options, and weed through them until you have drafted a viable launch plan that makes the most sense for your company. Hunt for words of wisdom about companies similar in size and funding to yours, who have already gone out. What did they do right? What worked and what failed? What was an utter waste of time, effort and money? Try to learn from other people’s mistakes and save your resources.

While its true you “only launch once” that is really more a technical term than a fact. The truth is, you may launch 10 times if you are reaching a significant number of people who never heard of your previous nine launches. I usually try to launch products at some sort of tradeshow or conference, but that is really just the kick-off of what I refer to as the “launch phase” (which is a real period of software development that is often not singled out.) During launch phase, you have to get the word out using a variety of media… and your goal is to get as much coverage as you can, from any or all of the following:

  • Tradeshow or conference appearances
  • Direct mail (actual snail mail, yes!)
  • Opt-in email promotions
  • Ad banners or other online advertising
  • Reviews from industry analysts
  • Press releases
  • News articles (fact-based, by pro journalists)
  • Blog mentions (opinion-based, by enthusiasts)
  • Link referrals from tweets, tags, emails and the like

During the launch phase, in addition to coverage, you must gather user feedback from direct email communication, blog or forum participation, and try to keep it organized in one spot because you will use it for future requirements and bug fixes. (An aside… I wish someone would make a product that assembled and organized all the user feedback a company gets! It can be a royal pain.)

Personally, I always advise a soft-launch, meaning, you have the web site and product for sale online prior to your official launch to work out any kinks. It is disastrous to plan a giant splashy event, only to have broken links, or a server down, or a broken payment system, or not be prepared for the visitors you might get, etc. Soft launching is equivalent to something done in the restaurant & retail industry called a soft opening, where you actually open for business without formally announcing it to make sure all systems are working for a few before having to cater to the many. This goes against the policies of launching at these startup conferences, which is why my advice is to thoroughly research it as one option and make sure the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.

Task 8: Your launch plan involves time, people, money and scale. Do you have enough to cover your plans?

Make sure your plan includes answers to the following sorts of questions:

  • Who will attend conferences?
  • Who will speak to potential customers?
  • Who will answer emails from people who’ve heard about us?
  • Who will handle support questions?
  • Who will write press releases and submit us to news outlets?
  • Who will give us referrals and how can we ask for those?
  • Who will design our marketing materials to hand out or mail?
  • Who is mobilizing all these people, making sure they understand the guidelines, making sure the copy is written in the right tone, etc?
  • Who will serve as the “Director of First Impressions” for your launch and the days and months that follow it? (Thanks for the title reminder, David Petherick.)

If you don’t have the people to pull off a major launch splash, that does not mean you can’t succeed! One of my favorite business persons of all time (thanks to his customer service dedication) is Peldi Guilizzoni, owner of Balsamiq. As Peldi describes, he is well funded, has low expenses, became profitable 3 weeks after launching and reached $10,000 in revenue in less than six weeks. Don’t have much money, but think you have a great product idea if you can just get it out there? Study Peldi and his road to success so far!

There are always multiple options and ways of doing things. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to follow in the footsteps of other startups or competitors you see around you. Make your own path, and bring people along with you. Which leads us to the next task…

Task 9: Your personal power will be tested by launching a product. Develop it and seek guidance from people who motivate and uplift you.

In a great, older book called Secrets of Self-Employment, Sarah & Paul Edwards talk about personal power. To give you their definition:

“Personal power is a source of power that comes from knowing who you are as a person, not from a job title or a role. It’s the power that comes from believing in yourself and your talents… personal power arises from the confidence and assurance that, despite any difficulties, life will work and respond to us. Personal power is also called charisma, which is more powerful than any other source of power.”

Most people think I am outgoing, because I talk easily to all sorts of people and am fairly social. But I can be terribly shy, and dread meeting new people for irrational reasons, and as a business owner and startup founder (I am developing a job board with a partner) this limitation of mine is something I myself have to work on. A lot of terribly talented geeks and tech people who want to create products are shy and rather introverted, but if you’re in the position of launching a product, work to overcome that. That’s why the story of your product and how great it is, is so crucial to your launch plan and success. You have to be able to speak enthusiastically about what you’ve created and what you’re selling. A strong story can help you when talking to strangers. So can having a role model to lead the way… one of mine is Guy Kawasaki. If you are a startup and haven’t read The Art of the Start, you might want to grab it and learn from one of technology’s most fearless, yet humble and conscientious promoters.

Annoyingly, no one EVER believes I am shy, but I really am. Seriously! :-)

Task 10: Launch the product!

Yes, you need a plan. Yes, you need the product to be at near 1.0 release readiness. Yes, you need people to support it once you start going public. But use the plan to define a drop-dead date by which you will launch your product. That’s partly why an external event like a conference can help force the issue. But even if you don’t have an event to attend, circle a date on the calendar that makes sense and execute the launch. My graphic design teacher a million years ago taught me that “Art, in the commercial sense, is never finished. It is merely due.” The same applies to your product.

A software product by nature is never done. There will be improvements to make, bugs to fix, complaints to address and gross errors overlooked and caught later. But make a development plan for your 1.0 release, define the features and launch them. That’s why you see so many public betas. But be wise – customers don’t want to fix your problems FOR you. You must provide them good service and something of value right out of the gate, whether your model is free use or paid use.

Best of luck and may all your startup dreams come true.

Do Tech Startups Know How To Launch Products?

Robert Scoble, outspoken but respected geek extraordinaire, is talking about the startups launching new products at Demo this weekend and has touched on a subject near and dear to my heart, which is the promotion and marketing of a tech product and company. He has visited the Demo finalists sites, and made the unpleasant-to-hear proclamation that they suck. As a person entrenched in the tech industry and Managing Director of Fast Company TV, his opinions should be noted by every one of the companies that fall into the category of “sucking” because he’s not the kind of person that wants startups to fail. He always seems to be on the lookout for cool new technology and if something seems out of order here, it likely is. His complaints are definitely worth considering, and I hope tech startups (and even those who’ve been around a while) will learn from his complaints.

You might want to read his post about this now, and then come back here for my breakdown and analysis of his chief complaints.

Complaint #1: Scoble wants to know what your company does – immediately.

Adapx has this problem. They open with an interactive industry-centered ad, but you don’t yet understand what they do or what they’re selling. Lower on the page is this sentence: Capturx enables designs, maps and forms to be printed on ordinary paper and marked up with a digital pen, which digitizes the handwriting and integrates the data directly into Microsoft™ Office and leading GIS and CAD systems. That may be a little wordy, but opening with that type of statement would let users know instantly whether they have a need for this product or not.

Blue Lava also misses the mark with immediate understanding of what they’re selling. Even after looking at this site for a while, I have no idea why I am looking at rotating photos of landscapes. They also suffer from the company name vs. product name promotion problem, which can be a real issue and one I have struggled with myself, as a brand manager of sorts. I think what they are actually selling is called “I Love Photos” but don’t have an immediate grasp of HOW they are fixing this problem for me: “Instead of spending hours organizing your media, you’ll spend hours enjoying it.”

UGA Digital really bothers me, because I feel they have been lead astray by the idea of “white space” or something. They have on the home page, a giant 3D logo, and some abstract swirlies, and nothing else in the primary focal point, and the text is sort of small and you’d have to read through most of it to uncover what they actually sell.

Other startups with this issue:
Alerts.com
Awind
Creately

Complaint #2: Scoble thinks you can create a better, more compelling pre-launch splash page.

And he’s right. Apparently there is Demo rule that to participate you can’t launch prior to your Demo announcement time. I don’t know enough about this conference, so that is my interpretation of what one of the demo participants said, but here is Scoble’s point: don’t just put the “launching at Demo” banner on your page. This isn’t enough to make someone who is curious about you NOW come back after you’ve launched. Otherwise, you’ve potentially lost a lead because you didn’t hook them. I will give you some ideas about how to make a pre-launch page exciting in my next post.

Some startups with little to no info (right now) include:
HeyCosmo
BizEquity
ffwd
SpinSpotter
tetraBase

Complaint #3: Scoble wants to know what you uniquely bring to the table.

In his words, he’s aggravated by “Mushy marketing and I still don’t know what they do, the value they bring, the pain they solve.” Boy, this one is hard. I’m quite certain I’ve participated in both creating the mushy marketing and trying to de-mush the marketing messages of many a company. Sometimes it’s hard to explain what you can do for people, but you know what? You have to, or people will leave your site as quickly as they arrived.

Some startups who need to hone their messaging (and possibly their offering):
Trinity Convergence
Wild Pockets
Turn To
Unity Solutions
Zazengo
Open a Circle

Complaint #4: Scoble doesn’t like “lame” stock photography.

With the advent of cool Ruby on Rails development, and “Web 2.0″ look and feel, which seems more high-tech in comparison to the site styles of old, people like Scoble who are inundated with new companies, products and technologies are probably fairly sensitive to the branding. But this is a concern worth noting, because of competitive advantage. Brands have to evolve alongside trends and changing technologies to stay relevant. Since these are startups, launching now in 2008, they have to come out of the gate looking and feeling new and appealing.

Sometimes, tech tricks done on a web site create an annoying experience for real users, which is why user feedback and testing is so important. Paid Interviews has a logo with jagged edges and the giant graphics and headlines on the page don’t go anywhere, instead you have to click a “Read More” link that pops up a box with little text in it. The idea, I’m sure, was to prevent people from having to leave the page – I get that. But the execution is irritating.

Some startups that would benefit from a fresher image:
Radiant Logic
Family Builder
Fortressware
messageSling
Rebust Technology
RemoTV

Complaint #5: Just like any other user would, Scoble gets confused by strange things done to your site simply because of launching at Demo.

It appears to me that a number of sites that already existed chose to simply disable links, or pop the same form onto all the pages, rather than redesign or give visitors real information regarding the launch activities specific to them at Demo. I find the Demo rules around this perplexing, because they have inadvertently cut startups off at the knees in order to assure they have some sort of compelling reason to draw visitors to their conference. All of us in business have to be careful about doing business with others, and to me this is a serious drawback of launching at Demo, rather than at an industry-specific conference or tradeshow. Most startups are getting the word out any and every way they can, and someone telling you to pony up $18,000 and not to spread the word about yourself until then should be closely analyzed and researched so that the lack of promotion prior to the event is worth the cost. I know nothing about this conference’s effectiveness… I’m just saying you should research ALL your possible options when determining when and where to launch, because this is a strategic decision.

Some startups that have confusing site alterations:
Maverick Mobile
Tool Together
WebDiet

Some folks have made negative comments over on the Sobleizer’s blog about the harshness and possible unfairness of his complaints, but I thank him for them. I am a person who helps startups market themselves and make products and sites better, and as evidenced by this long post I think he’s nailed down some problems we have to acknowledge and learn from.

One of his first comments was that few of the startups are using video or know how to effectively utilize it. I can see the use for it, but haven’t had the budget or skills in-house to produce something professional enough for client sites, but I want to mention his point. He points to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library site as an excellent model for marketing and promotion. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s worth looking at, for a glimpse of Gary’s personality (which is part of the brand) and marketing ideas. He has this graphic on the site right now (which I have borrowed for as an example – hope he doesn’t mind) that is exactly the point Scoble was making about generating excitement and giving information to visitors that will make them WANT to show up for your launch. Check out his announcement page while it’s still there…

In the next few days, I will specifically post some concrete advice for launching a product or company. You can follow me on Twitter or subscribe to this blog’s feed to make sure you don’t miss it.