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How to Launch and Market Your Startup

April 30th, 2012

Marketing your startup happens before you write a single line of code. A successful launch is more than just building and submitting to blogs. You need to recruit an audience of advocates before opening to the public.

This guide takes you through each step of launching and marketing your startup.

Let’s get started by building your marketing strategy. Most startup will drive both awareness and sales, and rely on both paid efforts or non-paid efforts. You’ll want to attract users who are most likely to become customers. If web visitors are unlikely become customers, you’re wasting efforts and need to think about how to become more efficient.

It’s possible to launch a startup without investing a dollar into marketing. Ultimately, things like your business model, your connections to the community, and the industry’s saturation will determine how much you need to spend on marketing.

Choose Your Audience

Let’s answer a few key questions about your business:

  • Who will use our site?
  • How will we reach them?
  • How will we cater to their needs?

Focus on what your target does and some of their relevant problems/concerns. Are they established in their careers, just starting out, or are they students? Are you going after parents, freelancers or businesses? You want a specific image of who these people are and what they value in life. In many cases, a part of yourself could represent your target.

Once you figure out who will use your site, it becomes easier to brainstorm how you can reach them.

Web app developers have the benefit of knowing their users will be online. They can refine their marketing tactics to the web and skip other media with high out-of-pocket costs until after they launch.

Think about the different types of websites your users visit online:

  • News & Community Sites: Make a list of them and what your target uses them for.
  • Social Media: Make a list of them and how they use them.
  • Blogs: Make a list of them and why your target reads them.

If you develop strong answers to these questions, you’re on your way to a strong media plan.

Beta Campaign

We’ll come back and talk more about awareness and driving sign-ups later in this post. But first, let’s talk about your beta campaign. In order to have a polished web app for a successful launch day, you need people to test the app and drive initial word-of-mouth awareness.

A few months before your launch, let people know you’re working on a new app. Upload a logo on the site, and write a little post on your blog. Tweet about it across your Twitter account. Stay vague in exactly what you’re launching, but let your readers know something is coming. Collect emails on your homepage for people who are interested. You want to woo the insiders; folks on the cutting edge. Let them know they’ll be getting an exclusive sneak peak.

A few weeks before launch, start previewing features in a blog. Let people access the site (to a select few from your email list). Describe the theme of the product. Post screenshots. Post your principles/manifesto for the app to get people talking. Still continue to collect emails so you have a foundation for when you launch.

Qualify Your Beta Users
Not all beta users will bring the same benefit as others. Look at potential users as more than just n visitors, because they actually are the first candidates to try your product and become paying customers.

I cannot tell you how many times I add my email address to a web app’s beta user recruitment form. A few weeks later, a beta invite will pop up in my inbox, prompting me to register. What’s unfortunate about this scenario is that a young site has extended an invitation for me to play with their tool, without actually knowing anything about me. I could register, but the probability of me returning is low, much less the probability of me upgrading to a paid account. After all, I may not even be in their target audience. They’re playing a numbers game: extend invitations to enough people, and you will eventually find a user willing to pay. That’s not the smartest way to market your app.

Case Study: Chargify Qualified Their First Beta Users


Billing support company Chargify didn’t hand out invites to just anyone for their beta. Before users were invited, they needed to answer questions, such as, “How much do you intend to bill per month?” Users were evaluated first, ensuring high-value prospects received invitations. You can follow Chargify’s smart example with a bit of planning.

Web app developers should try to recruit users with the best opportunity to become profitable. That process begins by recognizing that some potential beta users are more profitable than others. It’s nothing more than efficiency; increase the percentage of people likely to purchase your service.

Qualifying potential beta users is incredibly easy. Many popular web survey options, like SurveyMonkey or Google Docs, already offer this feature. For example, suppose you launched a web app to aid small businesses. You could randomly or sequentially extend beta invitations to people from your beta email list. Or, you could go another route; qualify them.

When you are considering your next batch of beta users, send out a mass mail survey with a few questions. Just mention in the email that you are distributing a brief questionnaire and would love their feedback. The questions could be, “Roughly how many customers do you have at the moment?” and “How much does the average customer pay per month/transaction?”

These questions help weed out the tire-kickers, people who may not own a business, or those who may never upgrade to a paid account. Now, you have answers tied to email addresses. You see the applicants who may pay for the service, so extend them invitations first. As for the other people on your list, you always have the opportunity to reach out to them later.

Use Personalized Invite Codes

A lot of web apps still launch in beta, and they distribute invite codes to larger websites. Web app developers use these codes to track which websites are best at converting pageviews into sign-ups, which may help choose which websites you want to include in an advertising campaign.

Case Study: Web Apps Give Mini Sprout Invite Codes

Sometimes you come across an app review, and we offer an invite code for you to get started. In these instances, the web app owners reached out to us directly and provided a unique code for us to share with our readers. The code could be as simple as “minisprout.” This way, the site knows, out of all the sites that they’ve given invite codes to, which sources have the best conversions.

It’s best to give one invite code to each website, otherwise people will begin sharing invite codes across sites, which will make it difficult to verify the best performing websites.

Launch Campaign

Answers from “Choose Your Audience” will help you craft your launch campaign. Once you identify tactics to target potential customers, you need to start asking some nitty-gritty questions.

Driving Awareness:  Non-Paid Media

Non-paid media is a favorite of a web app developer, mostly because any budget can support it. We’ll cover the basics below:

  • Press Releases:  Distribute press releases regarding your launch to major web app and social media websites (don’t forget Mini Sprout). Also focus on websites that feature your industry. For example, if you launch a bookkeeping app, you could promote your new service to web app directories and accounting websites. Make a list of which websites will be included when you send press releases.
  • Blog Posts:  Update both your personal account and your company’s blog.
  • Social Media:  Create a Facebook fan page and Twitter account. Encourage people to register and keep the conversation alive.
  • Email Marketing:  Encourage email sign-ups via your homepage and new user registrations. In many countries, users must first opt-in before they can receive your newsletter. Also, in the United States, users must be given the option to unsubscribe with one-click at the bottom of each email.

Driving Sales & Sign-Ups:  Paid Media

New web apps may receive the majority of their press coverage within the first week of their launch. It’s really up to the developer to keep customers signing up for their services. One option, which is definitely among the most effective, is using paid media.

Paid media is media that you pay to run, like how you may pay to run an ad in a newspaper. That doesn’t mean non-paid media is free; press releases are considered non-paid media because you don’t pay news organizations to run them, even though you may pay a freelancer for writing.

You have plenty of options, but let’s focus on a few digital options:

  • Display/Banner Advertising:  If you’re planning on advertising on websites, which websites are you selecting? Would your message resonate well with each websites’ visitors? You may also consider a premium ad network that targets web app audiences. Some websites may give you the option to sponsor their content. Keep in mind that sponsorships are usually great for driving awareness of your app, but you may not get many sign-ups from your sponsorship directly. If you use a sponsorship tactic, use it to balance out a heavily sales-focused campaign.
  • Search Campaign:  If you are using a search campaign to drive sales, determine which keywords and ad messages you will use. Search is best used for driving sales and sign-ups, so they may be able to offset your other initiatives that drive awareness.
  • Retargeting Through an Ad Network:  Retargeting is related to banner advertising, but we’re calling it out separately because it’s a relatively unused tactic with web app developers. For many websites, people will visit your site and never return. If you’re running an efficient marketing campaign and only driving potential customers to your site, you lost a sale. Retargeting campaigns place a code on your site that assigns a browser cookie to each of your visitors. Then, if a person leaves your site before signing up, he or she could see ads for your service across other websites. Users who leave your site have already demonstrated they’re aware of your service, so you can use a retargeting campaign to focus on driving sales by offering a 30-day trial. Any buys with ad networks usually require a minimum spend level (often between $10,000 and $15,000). For some, it may be best to focus on smaller efforts until you can afford to pay an expert to design your retargeting campaign.

When you launch, send emails out to those who signed up for beta, launch your full marketing site, and spread the word. Get blogs to link to you, post your progress (how many sign ups), what tweaks have you made. Overall, show momentum.

Sustainability Campaign

After initial buzz, how do you keep attracting and retaining users? Maintain a blog, and update it at least once a week with tips. A blog will make a company look alive and human. Include things like,

  • FAQs
  • How-tos
  • Tips and tricks
  • New features, updates and fixes
  • Buzz/press

Highlight the best blog content in a monthly newsletter to your opt-in customers and fans. For examples of some email marketing campaigns, we profiled a free email newsletter showcase called Emailium during one of our Mini App Round-Ups.

Focus on Your Vertical Markets
Advertising on web-focused blogs is a good first step for your web app, but those traffic sources are really nothing more than spikes. You’ll see a high bounce rate, especially if their audience does not align with your target. Your next step is to delve deeply into the industry that supports your app. If you built an invoicing web app, it’s time to look at the accounting and bookkeeping industry.

Case Study: Bootstrap Networked and Reached Out To Vertical Blogs

Back when Bootstrap, the online bookkeeping web app, launched, its founder identified blogs in the same industry. Then, he emailed each blog directly with a brief, concise summary. He opened his email simply with, “I was reading your blog post today and thought you might be interested in a new web site.” Then, he quickly touched on what made his service standout. That was it; simple and targeted.

Enter into these communities (if you haven’t already), and have a strong, supportive and straight-forward voice. These people are likely to be your best customers, so treat them like clients.

Measure Everything

Once you launch, you’re blind because you have no idea what’s going on with your app, like why people upgrade or cancel their accounts. Determine what data will you need to make business decisions, such as how many pageviews convert to signups. Use analytics, how many people actually sign up, how many people actually login (measure by recording how many people login at least twice), how many people are actually paying to use your service. Compare non-paying visitors with paying visitors to determine how much traffic is needed to drive to your site, which will help you determine if how much to spend on marketing. With this info, you can know make business decisions and determine whether to invest more in marketing or improve your product with additional features.

Record users’ last login. For those who have not logged in over a 30 or 45 day period, send them an email to bring them back (not so much that we miss you; more like tips you can use to improve your workflow/business/self). Otherwise, you’ll likely lose a customer.

Telecommunications companies use business intelligence software to identify the few thousand customers, among millions, most likely to switch to another cellphone carrier. They then create marketing messages specifically for them. For your startup, identify characteristics of a customer most likely to leave, such as has not logged in after n days. Make a list. Then track them and follow up with them through an email campaign.

Wrapping Up

We covered a lot of details in this post. Just remember to begin thinking about your launch and marketing strategy before you begin working on your app. Building a great product is crucial for your web app’s success, but a great product alone won’t succeed without support.

If you have any suggestions, questions or case studies, leave them in the comments.

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