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Why groundswell is critical to building successful online products

Posted by on March 27th, 2013

Why groundswell is critical to building successful online products
One of the big problems I see when people launch new online products is they haven’t done the groundwork prior to launch. Even worse, you will often see people ship a new product out of the blue because they have been too scared to reveal anything before everything has been polished.

In order to create sustainable interest, you need to create a groundswell of attention long before you launch. Your work prior to launch is usually just as important as the work you do to your actual product.

In this post I will be looking at the importance of groundswell, where the problems lie, the opportunities it creates and how you can go about generating groundswell before you launch your new online product too.

Symptoms of the problem

New products are launched on the Internet every day and a good percentage of those have completely neglected groundswell. I think there are three main reasons why some teams chose this path.

1. Scared to show an unfinished product

The main reason I think people are scared to reveal anything prior to launch is that they don’t want to show an unfinished product. This could be for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a lot of people are scared to ship creative work. Putting creative work out into the open is nerve racking because you are putting yourself out there for criticism. When you create art, the protective side of your brain will try and keep you out of danger. This leads people to keep putting off launching a product or revealing themselves for criticism. You need to put yourself in a position where you are constantly shipping creative work. When you reach this stage, you are free from the shackles that hold the majority of people back.

Secondly, it’s a common assumption that if you put out unfinished work, someone will come a long and copy your idea and beat you to market. Honestly, if you think someone can beat you just by copying your idea, you have much bigger problems! Ideas are worthless and execution is everything. Even if someone was to copy your idea, your project should be much more nuanced than what can be revealed with a groundswell strategy. Just don’t worry about it. People can copy what you have done, but they can’t copy what you are going to do.

2. It’s not a job you want to do

The marketing side of launching a product is probably not one of the core strengths of the early team because it feels like it should only be thought of once the product launches. When your team is made up of designers and developers, it’s likely that no body wants to take on the role of marketing and business development.

When you don’t have a dedicated marketing person, it should be the responsibility of everyone on the team to contributing to creating an audience and a list of potential customers. Designers should reveal parts of their work on community sites like Dribbble and Developers should build up reputation on sites like GitHub by open sourcing components or talking about the technical challenges of what they are working.

A company blog is extremely valuable for building an audience and so everyone on the team should contribute to it. Startup blogs look terrible when it is the same person writing all the entries because it shows that none of the rest of the team really care or they are not allowed to talk about their work.

3. It’s hard work with ambiguous ROI

Starting out with building a groundswell can be tough because literally no one will care about you or your company. For a long time you will be talking into the ether and there won’t be much social in your social media. It’s also pretty hard to justify the Return of Investment in even spending time attempting to build an audience when it seems like nothing is happening.

The thing is, reputation and respect does take a long time to build. In order to earn a credible voice, you need to consistently turn up and put yourself out there. It’s never going to happen over night and there aren’t ways to supercharge your efforts without becoming a slime ball.

You just need to keep faith that incrementally building an audience will pay dividends in the future when you come to launch your product.

Importance of groundswell

Building groundswell prior to launch is incredibly important for a number of reasons. Neglecting to do the work is really just delaying the inevitable so you may as well launch your product running rather than having to try and build momentum once it’s been released into the wild.

Here are the four most important reasons, in my opinion, why you need to start building attention as soon as possible.

1. Start earning revenue from before day one

If you are serious about this project then hopefully you have ambition to make money from it. A company that is not self sustaining is not a real business, no matter how much you talk it up to people at networking events.

From the moment you launch your product you should already be in a position where you can start earning money. On day one you should have already built up enough attention so that you have a steady stream of inbound requests and conversions.

If you launch your product out of the blue, it’s likely that you will get people in your social circle who already following you to check it out, but that is no where near enough to create a sustainable business.

An even better approach to this is to encourage people to sign up before launch and pay you for the privilege. If you can convince people to sign up just by describing what you are building you know you are on to a winner. An important caveat to this is you need to actually take their money. Signalling intent is completely different to money in the bank. If you can’t find people who are snapping your hand off to get this product, it’s probably a cannery down the mineshaft telling you that either you are not solving a big enough problem or there simply isn’t market demand. Always ensure you do your Customer Development before you start actually building your product.

2. Build momentum before you quit your day job

If you are building your online product as a side project whilst in full time employment, creating a groundswell of attention is incredibly important. If you are in the position where you need to be earning money then it’s probably going to be critical that you make the transition smoothly.

By building an audience and attention you make taking the leap of faith less of a risk. It can be difficult to leave a guaranteed pay cheque for the unknown of launching your own venture, but with the validation of an audience, the whole process can be a lot less stressful.

Furthermore, some business models require an inherent amount of investment. It can be extremely difficult to get this type of business off the ground when you are cash strapped or you are in a chicken and egg situation without an audience. By growing your audience whilst in full time employment, you can solve this problem without taking the risk of prematurely going it alone.

3. The drop off of attention

So you happen to have a lot of Facebook and Twitter friends and a lot of them are willing to pass on your big launch announcement to their network. Perhaps you even get some press coverage on an industry related media site. You’re probably thinking that you are glad that you didn’t waste time with a pre-launch strategy.

But what happens when the dust has settled a week later? The initial spike of traffic has died down and you now have no incoming stream of potential customers. What’s worse, you realise that all the traffic you got from your friends retweeting your launch announcement didn’t convert into customers because they were all just checking out what you have been up to.

Now what?

This is a common scenario when launching a product without a pre-launch strategy.

The big reveal is dramatic and full of suspense. But you are not Apple and it won’t work for you.

4. Sustaining growth

Instead of the dramatic reveal, you need to build sustaining channels of incoming traffic and potential customers. The big reveal might net you a big spike in traffic, but it won’t bring in a consistent source of new business.

Depending on what type of product or service you are offering, this will probably vary. Some products are naturally more social and benefit from interaction on Social Media. Others are better built through recommendations from industry or niche websites and blogs.

Guest blogging on relevant websites will bring in qualified high quality traffic. Writing high quality content on your own website will bring in constant search traffic when you target the right opportunities.

Don’t rely on the market being blown away by how amazing your product is, you need to start building direct paths and discoverability of your product as soon as possible.

An example: Building a mobile game

An interesting new industry that has developed over the last couple of years is mobile gaming. Success stories like Angry Birds, Temple Run and Fruit Ninja makes it seem like creating an amazing mobile game is a direct path to riches. However, the majority of all mobile games are no where near as successful as these outliers. Most mobile apps get closer to zero downloads and actually turn out to be a bad investment because they don’t return anywhere near what has went into the product.

If you are an independent developer or a small agency looking to build a highly successful mobile game, you’ve got a lot of work to do. Building an engaging and addictive game is one thing, but your marketing and distribution is something that you can’t neglect. Building an amazing product is pointless if nobody knows about it.

In order to get the kind of coverage that a mobile game requires to be successful, you need to appear on all of the major industry press outlets. You need to have an angle, and a story as to why your product is the next big thing. But, in my opinion, the most important thing is you need a community of people around you to carry your product through the early adopters and into the mass market.

There are many ways to build an audience and a community, and so I’ll cover them in depth below. The important thing to remember is, if you want to build successful products, your marketing and distribution will always be at least equally important.

How to build an audience

So how do you go about building an audience? Well, there is no step-by-step plan and there will be opportunities to connect with a tribe that are more important for some products than it will be for others.

Generally though, the following 6 things are the areas that I would look into. Conduct small experiments in each of these areas and see what works for you. It’s important to be able to understand what is working, but also recognise which variables of the experiment need to be further explored.

Remember, an audience takes a long time to create. You need to be persistent and consistently show up every day if you want to build a reputation of trust and good work.

1. Blog

The easiest thing to do is to set up your product’s blog and start writing. Writing a blog doesn’t require permission and you will significantly improve your ability to draw inbound traffic.

When you are setting up a blog, it’s easy to get carried away thinking about what you are going to cover, planning the sections, or obsessing over the design. However, none of these things will make or break the success of your blog. The only thing that matters is the content and your voice.

Start out with an out of the box theme and just start writing. You need to write consistently if you want to build an audience. Anything less than once a week will just get lost into the noise of the social web.

If you are going to build a reputation and audience you need to become a recognisable part of the consciences of your followers. This requires dedication to keep writing and keep publishing new work.

2. Social

The next easiest thing to do is to create accounts on social platforms and start using them. Depending on your product, you will likely find that some platforms are better than others. You need to start building a reputation by following the right people and making conversation around related topics. Don’t push your product, just become an integral part of the discourse.

Social doesn’t always have to be just Twitter and Facebook. There will already be niche communities that are far more targeted to your product. It’s usually the case that a very niche forum will be far better than a Twitter account, but you need to find where your audience currently hangs out and go there.

3. Email list

Hopefully if you are writing good enough content and your product seems compelling enough you will be able to turn page views into opt-in email signups. Building an email list will be incredibly important when launching a successful product because you have the explicit permission to talk to your audience directly.

It is likely that your email signups will be your best customers and your most engaged audience members.

You should set up your signup form as soon as possible, even if your product is a while away from actually launching. Periodic communication over an extended period of time will likely be better than a very tightly controlled road to launch anyway. The slow build up allows you to educate your audience on what you are trying to achieve and allows you to get them in on your experiments so you can test your assumptions with real market feedback.

4. Guest blogging

Guest blogging is the most difficult strategy up until this point because it requires the permission of someone else in order to speak to their audience. There are really two types of blog, the highly valuable ones where the blogger cares about her audience, or the very low value ones where all they care about is maximising page views.

Obviously you only want to target the highly valuable ones and so this means being able to show evidence of your work as well as building personal relationships with the blog owners. Hopefully by the time you reach this point you will already have a significant body of writing to show the kind of high quality content you can contribute.

Guest blogging is a huge opportunity to connect with an engaged audience and to build your audience too. You need to really spend some time building relationships with bloggers and influencers to get the opportunity to talk to their following.

5. Interviews

Interviews are kind of like guest posts but it appears on your website. Interviewing prominent or respected figures within an industry is a great way of building traffic because it allows you to tap into that person’s following. When you see someone you admire has done an interview, it is naturally going to be something that you want to read. If you are able to produce a great piece of content from the interview and your product is relevant, then a percentage of the visitors are likely going to be interested in you too.

It’s important to target the right influencers. Targeting someone who has a large audience that is not very relevant to your product is likely going to bring a spike of traffic, but it won’t significantly grow your audience. It’s usually better to seek out the slightly unknown people who are producing amazing work, but have not really been discovered by a wider audience just yet.

6. Community

The holy grail of building groundswell is community. An online community is a self organised, decentralised group of people that have formed around a certain topic or interest. Community is the holy grail because it is no longer controlled by any single person, but instead the wisdom of the crowd rules.

Online communities are extremely powerful. By building the early foundation of a community you can create an environment where passionate people can come together and do great things.

Creating an online community is extremely difficult and is usually not something that you can fully anticipate from the outset. I believe you need to reach a high level of validation before even attempting to build a community. For example, you need to have built a product, or have done work in the past that can truly inspire a group of people who want to participate in a community. A good example of this is Open Source. It’s usually the work of a few developers that go on to inspire a passionate community around a project.

If you can build a community, you are well on your way to building a platform for launching future products.

Conclusion

I believe groundswell is an integral component to launching successful online products. The advice mentioned above is aimed at young companies but really, all of these things apply to individuals too. If you want to build and launch successful things, you need to find your audience.

Groundswell is an important strategy for just about every type of new online product. I think it is particularly important if you are trying to build a business that revolves around connecting the online and offline world. For example, building an online fashion retailer would take a lot of work and a significant investment in marketing, distribution, stock amongst many other things. To me, it seems like this opportunity is just too big for one person to launch in any type of short timescale. However, if you are interested in something like fashion, and you aim to create this type of business, there are many things you can do to preempt the opportunity. For example, if you are still at school, or you are currently in full time employment, you can build an audience that is passionate about fashion long before you need to take on the risk of actually building the business. By building the audience and the community first, your business is in a much better place for success.

So if you have ambition to build a successful online product, stop day dreaming about what it will be like, and start building your groundswell today.

Philip Brown

Hey, I'm Philip Brown, a designer and developer from Durham, England. I create websites and web based applications from the ground up. In 2011 I founded a company called Yellow Flag. If you want to find out more about me, you can follow me on Twitter or Google Plus.

  • charlasu

    Wanted to compliment you—this is a great article. I’ve read a dozen prior and nothing was as clear and succinct. Thanks for writing/publishing it!