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Build anticipation

Selling to people who actually want to hear from you is more effective than interrupting strangers who don’t.

Seth Godin

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when launching something is expecting that once people know it exists, they’ll immediately get in line to hand over their money. Sure, a few will do this–but most won’t. It takes a combination of trust, repetition, and motivation for someone to give up their hard-earned money.

Even if you have a huge list of people vaguely interested in what you’re going to launch, you have to stir the pot a bit. Agitate them a little by addressing specific pains of theirs that you’re going to remove. Share with them ahead of time. Remind them how your product will solve their problems. Show them how life will be better with your product.

Whatever you do, don’t send an email that is effectively: “Hey my thing is live. Come give me your money.” They can’t be excited about your product if the substance of your message is just that the product exists. Every product in the world has teasers. Movies have trailers and posters so you know what to expect. Car companies reveal new models at shows and do tons of marketing leading up to launch. Technology companies showcase and promote upcoming products months before you can buy them. All of this adds up so people know whether they want to buy or not once the product is available.

Even if you don’t have an audience waiting, you still have to warm people up. They might visit your website half a dozen times before they start seriously considering a purchase. When launch week rolls around, you can’t expect to put out a couple of announcements and have people jump at the offer. You have to give them reasons to care, and mere availability isn’t a reason.

When you’re launching, don’t forget that most people signed up months ago, and they absolutely do not remember what your product is or why they signed up to your list. The first step in warming folks up is reminding them why they were originally interested in your offer. Make sure you tell them what your product is and what it does.

Have a plan to send a few emails over the course of your launch week giving people information and easing them into the sales pitch. Answer questions. Offer solutions. Do the same on social media and on your website.

Those first customers are taking the biggest leap of faith because there’s zero social proof that your product works. They’re going to be the hardest sales you ever face. Recognize that you have countless objections to overcome for them to give your product a chance.

I’m often asked, “How did you get your first customers?” I can’t offer a simple answer. The short version is that I spent years blogging and giving things away. That helped build an interested audience, but even that was only part of the equation.

In all the years after launching Sifter, I never found a miraculous way to win new customers; from what I can tell, it’s been some combination of hard work, regular blogging, a bit of advertising, and a lot of luck.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is what people want to hear. One of the most common excuses I encounter is, “So-and-so was able to launch something because they had thousands of Twitter followers–I can’t do that.” That’s a pretty shortsighted way of looking at it. Yes, they have thousands of followers, but that’s usually after years of work. It didn’t happen by accident. More importantly, a following may help get the ball rolling, but it rarely translates to sustained growth.

If you think there’s a chance you want to launch something two or three years from now, you should start blogging and sharing today. Contribute to open source projects. Give away information and build an audience. When you’re ready, you’ll be in a better place to have a jump-start yourself.

Of course, it doesn’t happen overnight–it takes time, but it’s not impossible. If you don’t want to do that, plan on spending a significant amount of cash just on your marketing. Depending on the size and quality, I’d guess that an engaged audience amassed through years of blogging could easily stack up against $40,000–$50,000 in advertising. It’s up to you.

Whenever someone asks this question, I get the impression that they’re hoping for a response like: “We bought a hundred-dollar ad, and we had more customers than we knew what to do with.” Leading up to our launch, I had been blogging on and off for years, had a moderate following on Twitter, and had spent a little bit of cash on generating awareness. I was also blogging specifically about Sifter for about a year before launch. It wasn’t always captivating reading, but it definitely resonated with some people. Those individuals became the springboard for launching Sifter.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my whole process of designing Sifter was building anticipation. I started writing some blog posts about some design concepts for a bug tracker. It was entirely on a whim, and I wasn’t really sure whether I was ever going to do anything with it. At that point, I had about 6,000 subscribers to my blog and about 2,000 followers on Twitter. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough. Those people became interested. So I continued sharing. People became more interested. I was building anticipation and I didn’t even know it.

The blog posts began circulating among the right groups of people, and before I knew it I was starting to learn just how many people were interested in these mock-ups. After giving it a lot of thought, and talking with friends, I decided to build Sifter. We put up a placeholder page to collect email addresses from people who were interested, and over the course of about eight months almost a thousand people signed up for the announcement. That really helped.

On launch day, about 50% of our visits were from people visiting the site directly, and another 17% of visitors found the site through retweets of our announcement. A few months after our launch–after having added a few additional features like file uploading and searching–we sponsored the Daring Fireball RSS feed for $2,500, and it brought us another spike almost equivalent to launch day. Within a few months, we were making several thousand dollars a month. It wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was more than enough to pay all our bills and still have a fair amount left over.

I hope I’ve provided some context to help you set your expectations and plan your launch. The short version is that there’s no silver bullet. It takes ongoing effort and planning to reach your first customers. Spend time planning how you’re going to reach people throughout the process of building the application. This isn’t Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come” is a poor strategy.

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