Creating a web application is challenging enough, but the make-or-break hurdle is gaining an audience for it. How does a startup with very little money draw in an inundated and skeptical audience to use its service? The shift from agile, responsive technology delivery to a marketing promotional machine can be a jarring transition for small tech-focused teams, and an even greater challenge on the limited, the bootstrapped budget that startups often work with. Here are several lessons on how to start a business learned from companies that drew in the initial audience, and achieved enough traction to escape failure.
Friends and Family
Much like with early-stage funding for technology, one must look for humble beginnings and promote your product to any of your friends and family that will listen. The reality of marketing is that this is the group of people that will most reliably give your website a chance and visit if, if for no other reason than their relationship with you. Of that group that visits it, a fraction may find it useful, and those people may become your biggest evangelists and promoters, all free of charge. The first thousand users of your service are critical from both a success standpoint and for collecting data to find and adapt to your market. Friends and family should almost always be the first option.
Create the Content Yourself
Many of the most popular web applications rely on their user base to create the content, and thus the value of the service. These network effects create a virtuous cycle of value. However, that cycle can be quite vicious for startups, creating a chicken-and-egg problem of drawing an audience to a site with little content and value. The solution to this issue for a founding team is to create the content yourself. For example, popular content sharing service Reddit survived its initial months of life with the founding team managing hundreds, perhaps thousands of fake accounts, and posting content themselves to make the service appear far more popular than it was. In the heavily trend-oriented world of tech startups, very few people want to visit an unpopular site, so manufacturing this popularity may be the key ingredient for attracting new users.
Pull a Stunt
PR stunts are high risk, high reward proposition. They often come with some form of cash expense and have the potential to be highly misinterpreted by your market. Successfully pulling a PR maneuver takes a great deal of savvy and a significant amount of luck, but the payoff could keep a company alive. One example of such a stunt was accomplished by AirBnB, the now billion-dollar company. The founders, in response to the 2008 presidential election, created custom cereal boxes (AirBnB partly being short for bed and breakfast, after all) to commemorate both Obama’s and McCain’s respective national conventions. They sold the cereal for $40 a box and made enough money to lift the company out of debt while gaining national attention for their startup.
Engaging with a Niche
In addition to the approach of starting small with your audience, a critical opportunity is finding niche markets that engage with your service early on. Carefully observe the early traffic to your service and identify trends among the early adopters. If a picture of a niche market starts to emerge, one can use this information to increase engagement. Create a blog that engages with your niche, both to promote your application, but also to generally increase value with your audience. Offer guest blog posts on blogs that serve your niche. Look for feedback from this niche and incorporate changes and updates to your service to serve them. Creating a small but energized community of well-served users can be one of the biggest ways to create a tribe of evangelists and marketers with little financial outlay on your part.
Getting Early Press
Many tech startups fantasize about the feature in the prominent tech blog or website that will propel the service to viral success. While this is certainly an avenue that shouldn’t be ignored, it still carries the high risk to reward ratio that should be managed. Mitigate this risk by becoming press-friendly: create a clear, well-designed press page with graphics, media, and helpful release notes and info for the press to use. Look to be featured in lesser-known blogs and sites as well as the big players, as media is similarly trend-oriented and prone to snowball effects.
While these strategies are in no way a sure-fire formula to gain an audience, they can be a promising starting point for the tech entrepreneur that has exhausted their main capability in bringing a web application to market, and now must navigate the less familiar territory of building an audience and marketing.