How to get your first 1000 users

Suppose you’re an internet startup, you’ve built a prototype, managed to get people to visit your site and some of them have signed up. How can you create more visibility to scale up your user base by a factor of 10 or 100? You can’t just do the same things harder, you need some different tactics.

But first, revisit what you’ve done and make sure that it’s kept pace with your adaptations of your product. Do your website, demo video, and any other promotional material you’ve got out there still describe what you’re doing now? Do they address what your target market cares about? If not, make any adjustments that are necessary to bring them into alignment. Once that’s done, here are some ways you can turn up the volume.

Of course applying to a mentor-based accelerator (like StartFast!) is a great way to get noticed. The folks running the accelerator have an extensive network of contacts and will help you get noticed whether you get in or not. If you do get in, you will get all the visibility you could hope for, as these programs and their mentors are nationally and internationally renowned. Here are some other useful techniques for building awareness and your user base.

Natural Friends

Natural friends are groups of people that should like you and your product. If you haven’t already done so, create a Facebook page, a LinkedIn page, a blog and a Twitter feed for your company/product/service. Then search for individuals and groups that attract an audience you’re interested in. Join the group, follow the individuals and become an active participant tweeting and commenting regularly. Try to add value; don’t just pitch your product. Create a YouTube and/or Vimeo channel and post your demo video there. There are large communities of people you can plug into this way.

Don’t forget old-fashioned list-serves/bulletin boards and trade associations. These are great ways to reach people in your market if you’re not too salesy in your approach. Offer promo keys / discount codes to the first 100 members that sign up. Be generous with beta[1] access. These are the people who are going to help promote your business. Running a contest and inviting users to a launch party are two of my other favorite ways of creating additional buzz. Be creative, but stay within your budget!

Advertising

Getting results with paid Adwords and Facebook accounts can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. By all means experiment and if you are getting results  continue and expand your budget somewhat. However, if you haven’t cracked the code with paid advertising, then put this technique on the shelf for now. TV and radio spots are too expensive but sponsoring a podcast, vlog, or internet bulletin board may be within your budget. If there are specific groups that you can reach this way, ask the publisher about sponsorship opportunities. Craigslist is free and popular so put an ad for your solution there. DMOZ.com, the open directory project, is another free resource. Also check out BOTW.com (Best of the Web) which is not free, but still relatively cheap. There may be other sites specific to your target market that could be helpful to you and many offer basic listings for free. For example, in the content space, creativecow.com and behance.net offer a free listing.

Trade Shows

Trade shows can also be an inexpensive way to get the word out if you use a little guerrilla marketing. Check the upcoming tradeshows in your area and see if you can get an “Exhibits Only” pass for free. More and more tradeshows are offering these to increase the perceived booth traffic. Bring your application with you on your phone, tablet or laptop, along with some postcards with a screen shot and your value proposition along with a QR code (two-dimensional bar codes that can be interpreted by a mobile phone camera equipped with a code-reading app) pointing to your web address. As you walk around the tradeshow, ask people if they’d like a free demo or beta access to your solution. People love free stuff. You might pick up a hundred new users in an afternoon if the tradeshow caters to people in your target market. Get a QR code for your website or app store entry. Websites qrcode.kaywa.com, Qurify.com/en, Delivr.com/qr-code-generator, and Goo.gl will convert a standard URL into a Quick Response (QR) code. Once converted, you can download the QR image file and then attach it to your e-mail signature, upload it as a Facebook profile photo, print it on the back of your business card or post it anywhere you want.

Another way to gain free access to trade shows is by joining a partner in the booth that they’re paying for. Have the partner add you to their exhibit staff and you’ll get in for free. This has the advantage that you can set up meetings ahead of time and have your prospects meet you at your partner’s booth. Friendly tradeshow staff will guide your prospect to your location. And while you’re waiting, you can try out your elevator pitch on everyone that comes to the booth. Why would your partner do this for you? Maybe your app utilizes their cloud computing platform, plug-in or framework. So promoting your app promotes their solution too.

You will get invited to trade show parties by other vendors. These are business/social events so it is expected that you’re going to tell people about what you do. Go, have a good time and be prepared to hand out your postcards and talk about your app. Be respectful of the fact that the party host is paying for the event and don’t disrupt their marketing mission.

Trade association professional meetings and other industry events will often put out requests for volunteers to help out with the meeting. By volunteering some of your time, you’ll get to attend the entire conference. Don’t pitch during the sessions, as these are purely educational. However, during the breaks and meals, everyone you meet will ask, “What do you do?” That’s your cue to tell them how you and your startup are going to change the world and their lives.  If they’re interested, offer them access and ask them to invite their friends or blog about their experience.

Press

Now that you have a prototype to put in the hands of editors and bloggers, you have a chance to get noticed. Make sure your demo video is up to snuff before you start and that your site is ready for a couple thousand new users. Put up a Press page on your website where anyone can download for free a high-res version of your logo or icon, screen shots, founders’ bios, and 50, 100, and 300 word descriptions of your company, value proposition and product or service. You’ll be surprised how much traction you get just by making it easy on the media.

So how do you get covered by the bright lights in the blogosphere like TechCrunch, Digg, GigaOm, VentureBeat, Wired, TUAW, New and Noteworthy, LifeHacker or other opinion leaders? Perhaps there are publications that are even more specific to your market that you’d like to get coverage in. Here is how you get your product or service noticed and hopefully written about in someone else’s blog:

  1. Read the blogs you want to appear in to get an idea what the authors like to write about, their style and how they like to tell a story. Try to understand their worldview.
  2. Comment on the blogger’s posts. Give some thought to the comments you make and don’t pitch your product. The idea is to become someone the blogger knows and respects. Believe me, they read your comments. Next start tweeting the blogger’s posts out to your network, or use LinkedIn or Facebook if that is more your style. Link to their blog from yours. If you meet socially, spare them your elevator pitch. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but there is a point. You are making deposits in the relationship bank with that blogger. You will earn interest on those deposits later.
  3. Draft your own story, to the best of your ability, in your chosen author’s voice and style. The better (interesting, engaging, concise) the story, the more likely someone will want to tell it. Make sure there’s some drama in the headline, and make sure you are truthful. You could refer to a large company missing the boat ala, “The opportunity Facebook missed,” or how fast your company is growing, or the big customer you just won (get their permission first). Tie into trends that your targeted blogger has written about.
  4. So what? As you read your story, ask yourself, “So what?” over and over until you’ve rewritten the story into something that matters or means something. Example: “We’re launching a new social gaming site.” So what? Get specific. Change that to “Our users are tired of social gaming with bad graphics. We’re upgrading the user experience to the level of a game console so users can really get immersed.”
  5. Get rid of all the buzzwords like “killer”, “next big thing”, “new new thing” and clichés like “insanely good,” “radically better,” and certainly “the best thing since X.” Pop culture references are OK if they’re not too obscure[2].
  6. Make comparisons. Most people understand things more quickly when you can compare them to something they already know, and tell them what the differences are. For example, “MediaCloud is like DropBox for content professionals. It makes use of distributed cloud processors to accelerate uploads and downloads of big media files and takes advantage of HTML5 to provide a rich set of tools to view and manipulate all kinds of graphic and video content.”
  7. Include a list of your competitors and what makes you different.
  8. Get covered. Once you’ve done 1-7 above, there are two ways to get your company mentioned.
    1. Use the site or publication’s formal submission process, which is usually easy to find on the website. For example, for Techcrunch fill out the form at http://techcrunch.com/contact/, or
    2. Email the blogger, author, or editor directly.

You can increase your chances of your story getting picked up by giving the blogger of your choice an exclusive on your story, along with credentials to use your prototype. Always give free access in exchange for coverage. When you do get press, tweet it out, post it to Facebook and update your LinkedIn status with it.