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This article is #7 in a series about startup marketing. The first 6 (not required before you read this one) are available here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.
I’ve gone on and on about the subject of pre-launch marketing on my podcast, in my book, and even on TechZing.
After talking about this at length, I found myself again evangelizing it last week at the Business of Software conference. That’s when I realized I needed to sit down and create a permanent written resource for the topic. Then you don’t have to listen to me tell you about it – you can just ask for the URL.
So the intention of this post is to lay out the key details of why you should start marketing your startup (or product, or book, or anything else you will launch) months before launch day.
This may sound obvious, but given the number of times I’ve been asked about it (and the number of times I’ve seen people do it poorly) it’s apparent it needs further examination.
The two most common objections I’ve heard about pre-launch marketing are that:
- Someone might steal your idea
- You’re too busy writing code to spend time marketing
Let me address the fear of someone stealing your idea with the following: Wake the hell up! No one cares about your idea. Not even your mom (I know she said she does, but she was just being nice).
Anyone with the skill to clone your idea and the motivation to actually make it happen is way too busy with the 37 ideas they have every day to bother taking yours. And if someone does steal it before you launch, consider it a favor.
Having your idea stolen sooner saves you the hassle of building it, only to have someone steal it then. If it’s that easy to steal it’s going to happen one way or the other.
Remember, ideas aren’t worth much on their own. And these days with how easy it is to write software, your code isn’t worth much, either. This kinda hurts me to say since I’m a developer.
But myself and another developer could get together and clone almost any popular web application in a month or two. Or for that matter, we could simply buy a clone script. Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Groupon, and about 50 others are available for around $100 each.
No, these days even technical execution is mostly trivial (with a few exceptions for apps built around unique algorithms). Far more important is marketing execution. If you can out-market someone, you can make your Git repository public and still kick the crap out of anyone.
Ideas (and in many cases the code itself) are not worth as much as we think. It’s marketing that most often makes the difference between a successful and a failed startup.
Whew…now where was I?
Oh yes, the thought that someone might steal your idea is even more preposterous today than it was ten years ago.
For the other objection: you’re too busy writing code to spend time marketing.
Ummm…yeah. I suppose you’re also too busy to spend time compiling, using source control, or saving files to your hard drive.
If all you’re doing is building a hobby project then no marketing needed. You’re fine to just post it to your blog (30 uniques per month, baby!) and let it languish in obscurity.
But if you have any desire to sell your software, consider marketing a fundamental building block of the process. Without marketing, your product is nothing more than a project (something you build for fun, not money).
If you plan to sell your product, marketing is an absolute requirement. As critical to the process as saving code to your hard drive. Skip it and you’re doomed.
Reasons to Start Marketing Before Your Launch
Now let’s look at four reasons why you should start marketing the day you decide to move forward with your idea.
To give you a bit of background (that I’ll expand upon later), the goal of pre-launch marketing is not just to build buzz, but to get permission to contact people who are interested in your product. This is best achieved by building a launch notification email list, something fairly commonly implemented these days.
We’ll go into more specifics later on in this post.
Reason #1: Idea Validation
The day you decide to move forward with an idea there’s a lot of uncertainty. If you’ve ever made the commitment to invest 400+ hours, you know how mentally taxing this can be. Especially if you’ve made the decision based on a hunch with little data to support your decision.
This uncertainty makes the six-month slog that much more challenging. It’s hard enough to give up your nights and weekends for six months. Even harder when you’re not sure anyone’s going to care once you launch.
In 2-4 hours you can setup a landing page and begin collecting emails. This simple act (coupled with a small amount of marketing) can make the difference between having the confidence that you’re building something people want, and having no clue if you’re pouring several person-months of effort down the drain.
Don’t underestimate the impact that fear and uncertainty can have on your chances of success.
Imagine yourself three months into building your product. You have three months left. You’re tired because you work every night until 1am. Your wife tolerates it, but she’s not happy about all the time you spend sitting in front of your computer with no money to show for it. And you haven’t seen your friends in months.
In the above situation, assume you have 650 targeted email addresses you’ve compiled through some small marketing efforts and a landing page. Suddenly things don’t look so bleak. You have some sales waiting for you once you push the bits to your server.
And vice versa, if you’re three months in and you’ve received several thousand uniques to your landing page but only 6 sign-ups, you have a problem. Either your landing page stinks or your idea is a lead balloon.
Either way, you need to put coding on hold and figure out the problem.
Reason #2: Instant Beta List
I’m not a fan of open betas, but whether you’re going to release your app to 5 or 500 beta testers, you have to find those people. And this is a lot harder than it sounds.
Gathering interested prospects over time allows you the flexibility to instantly email 5 people – even months before launch – and ask their opinion about a feature, design choice, or any decision better made by a potential customer than by a vote between you and your mom.
And once you’re ready for get beta testing it’s a slam dunk. It reduces your time to find testers from a few days to a few hours.
As an aside: unless there is a compelling reason, opt for a small beta (5-20 people), and offer a heavily discounted or free version to participants if they contribute opinions and bug reports.
If you decide to go with a large beta (and you’d better have a good reason for this), don’t give your software away to everyone who participates. This first group of prospects is a critical source of early sales.
Reason #3: Launch Day
If you’ve ever launched a product without a mailing list, you know it’s painful.
After hundreds of hours of development your big day arrives. You email everyone you know, flex your networking muscles, issue a press release, and end the day with three sales at $20 each.
60 bucks. Wow…how will you ever deal with such a massive influx of capital?
If you haven’t started marketing, your launch day is your halfway point to having a successful product. Building it was the easy part.
Contrast that with a mailing list of 650 interested people who visited your landing page and decided your offer was compelling enough to provide their email address. You’ve been greasing the marketing wheels for months to get here.
You send an email letting them know you’ll be launching in a week or so, then an email with a nice discount that expires after a few days. Your conversion rate should land between 5 and 40% depending on how long you’ve been collecting emails, the interest level of the prospects, and how compelling you make your offer.
At 5% you’ll sell 32 copies. At 40% it’s 260.
I assure you: selling 260 copies of your app (or garnering 260 sign-ups for your SaaS app) on launch day will do wonders for your morale.
Reason #4: Building Links Over Time
The final advantage is the ability to build links over time. Nothing fancy here – it’s common knowledge that search engines look more favorably on a website with a “natural” link profile, part of which involves receiving links organically over time rather than receiving a zillion of them on a single day.
While Google won’t penalize you for receiving a stack of links at launch, you will tend to rank higher for a longer duration if you gather those links over time.
Ok, I said this would be a “why” article, but I hate talking so much theory without giving actionable advice. So let’s take a quick look at the details of getting setup to start pre-launch marketing. There are many variations, but here’s the simplest approach:
- Buy a domain name and point it to your web host
- Setup a landing page. Keep your copy really short (and punchy). You need to pique interest, not convince them to buy.
- Collect emails on that landing page
Using GoDaddy for step 1, one of the approaches I’ll mention below for step 2, and MailChimp for step 3, this should take no more than 2-4 hours from start to finish.
Once this is setup the major task is driving traffic, which is beyond the scope of this article (but I wrote about it inStart Small, Stay Small, and I’ll continue talking about this topic both here and on my podcast).
So let’s look at the best approaches for setting up a landing page:
Approach #1: WordPress with LaunchPad
This is my approach of choice. Install WordPress and install the LaunchPad theme. Edit the copy, add your subscribe form. Bam – you’re done.
Elapsed time: 2 hours.
My most recent use of this approach, for my book, yielded a conversion rate of unique visitors to emails of just under 50%.
Here’s a screen shot of the landing page:
This is all the text that appeared on the page. It’s just enough to pique your interest.
Approach #2: Static HTML
I know you can hack HTML. But please don’t design a landing page yourself unless you are a designer. A crappy landing page (like something I would hack myself) will have a visitor to email conversion rate around 5-10%. A well-designed page with good copy and targeted visitors can do upwards of 20-40%.
A few landing page examples from which to borrow inspiration:
Approach #3: Unbounce
I haven’t used Unbounce, but they’re a SaaS solution to this landing page issue. At $25/month for the cheapest plan it’s a bit pricey for a developer who can use one of the options above for little or no cost.
And although I like their selection of landing page layouts, I wish they had more look-and-feel choices (they launched a few months ago so I imagine they are working on this).
With that said, Unbounce is a good choice if you’re not a developer, or don’t have any time to tackle one of the other options I’ve listed.
Download this Book
If you liked this essay, it’s the namesake of my second book Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding. If you want to download that book for free, scroll down and enter your email – you’ll receive the 170 page book in PDF and ePub formats.