I’ve recently found myself in advisory capacities for a few projects that are in planning or development stages (none are launched yet). My background is *not* marketing, specifically, although I’ve been involved in a number of web projects’ launches or relaunches over the last 13 years. Having said that, I’ve found myself giving similar advice repeatedly, so I thought I’d recap some of that here.
The landscape has changed some during the last several years. I hate to sound buzzwordy, but the rise of ‘social media’ has changed how people learn about new services and offerings. Let me back up. It hasn’t changed how *all people* learn about this stuff, but how *early adopters* and *influencers* learn about new services and offerings.
“Social media” means different things to different people, but broadly speaking it encompasses media which enable and encourage discussion, conversations and instant communication. Most people tend to think of Twitter, RSS feeds and YouTube when the term “social media” is used, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Additionally, web forums and mailing lists (so web 1.0, no?) could be considered social media.
The rise of social media has paralelled (or followed?) the rise in simple data exchange technologies like blog pingbacks and RSS feeds. The informal standardization of these exchange protocols has resulted in massive spreading of information like we’ve never seen before. Five years ago, Google might take 2-3 days to have your web page updates indexed. Today, my own blog posts get indexed in to Google within 20 minutes of my posting. This isn’t *all* down to RSS – Google’s obviously got more computing power than they did years ago. But the tides are shifting. Strategies that worked years ago aren’t necessarily the right ones any more.
So, here’s a short list of steps I recommend people take who are starting a web project (new product web site, service offering, etc.). Feel free to modify as needed, but the bulk of these are already being followed by your competitors.
Get a twitter account for the project
Go to twitter.com and pick a short but memorable name relating to the project. The project’s name could be used directly, but might be taken. If you’re starting “Jim’s Pizza”, but that’s taken already, try “bestdamnpizza” or “pizzalishus” (yeah, it’s spelled wrong). Something memorable and easy to type is key here.
Put up a ‘coming soon’ page with email signup
Make a basic looking site with a logo, perhaps a small amount of information about what the project will do (just a small teaser). It doesn’t have to be too fancy. You can even be self-deprecating about it (“Yes, we know the site is empty – sign up to be notified when we launch on XX/XX/XXXX”).
For as much as people will claim email is “dead”, there’s still a surprising number of people who will sign up, and usually more than the number of people who will follow you on Twitter. My own last couple of product launches had roughly twice the number of people signup via email than the number of people who followed the project on Twitter in its prelaunch phase.
Put up a blog
WordPress is a great little system to get moving, but just about any blog system will do. This will give the people who don’t want to give you an email address or follow you on twitter something else to latch on to – namely, an RSS feed.
Blog about the project status
To the extent you can, keep regular project updates in the blog. Timelines, functionality and daily progress are great topics. The blog isn’t the place to write about too many project setbacks, but it’s not some place where you should try to hide all traces of bad news either. Blogging about your ups and downs during the project development will give your project a human face (or faces if there’s more than one of you).
As you blog about your progress, you may get comments from people about the project. While you may get a lot of “go get ‘em” and “you suck” comments, you will occasionally find a gem of a good comment which has real insight and value in to your process.
Engage people like this when you can. These will likely be your customers, or at least people who will remember the positive engagement you showed them, and may refer others to you. The referral may be word of mouth, a tweet, a blog post or general link back to you from their site. All of these are golden, and shouldn’t be ignored or treated lightly.
Search for people to follow on Twitter
Use twellow.com and search for terms that are related to your potential customer base. If you are writing a project management tool, search for ‘project manager’, then follow those people. Listen to what they say about their jobs, work and tools. You’ll get some good insight, both about their work directly, as well as the personalities of the people you’ll be selling to.
Ask for feedback on twitter and in your blog
Do not bombard people on twitter with a call for feedback in every tweet, but do ask occasionally. Post open questions on your blog about usefulness of functionality or features you’re thinking of building. Tweet about your blog posts to drive traffic to the posts. Again, take the feedback and mull it over. It’s not a good idea to dwell on the negative feedback of just a handful of people, but if the *only* feedback you get is negative, or you don’t get *any* feedback at all, it might be time to rethink the project.
Invite some testers to test the system
Remember that list of email addresses you were supposed to ask people for on your “coming soon” page? When you’re ready to start testing, invite a small group of those people to test the system. Keeping a test system closed for the initial rounds is good for a few reasons. It can limit the damage done if things really stink on your end. You’ll have time to fix things that are wrong, and you’ve only made a bad impression on a few people. If things go really well, you’ll have some buzz amongst those initial testers that can help build some interest in others who want to be part of the buzz. The exclusivity factor can work in your favor either way.
Whether from blog posts, twitter, emailing your list, your closed tests, or anywhere else, get feedback. Many people have said over the years – “release early, release often”, and that’s something I would continue to encourage. Weekly release cycles, or bi-weekly, will go a long way to keeping whatever small momentum you may have. Take people’s feedback and build on it. Take suggestions and either act on them, or decide *not* to if it doesn’t match your vision. Your project doesn’t have to be “all things to all people”, but it does need to be “something valuable to *some* people”.
‘Launch’ (open to public) when appropriate
At some point – after at least one round of testing, preferably a few until you’re comfortable – you’ll need to pull the trigger and launch. This should be announced on your mailing list, blog and Twitter at the very least.
Continue to monitor the project and feedback you get from visitors and users.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. For example, a YouTube strategy can make for viable project marketing as well as regular blog posts, if you have something worth videoing and sharing with people. You’d need to decide whether your target audience would be interested in YouTube or not.
Blog posts are still a must, in that the text will be indexed by search engines and repurposed by many blog aggregators in a matter of minutes, amplifying your reach beyond traditional web page posting by a large factor.
What are your thoughts? What publicity or marketing advice would you give people launching new web properties?
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