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.