This is part three of a series. You can read the previous installment here or start at the beginning.

Can you market it?

Just as important as having an audience is being able to reach them. If you’ve designed a brilliant new system for long-distance consultations between doctors but don’t know anybody in the field, you might have a rough time marketing it.

Again though, that’s not to say that the idea is bad; you could always get in touch with them later. There just has to be a plan for how that’s going to happen. Everyone expects their new product to go viral, but the chances of that happening are basically zero. If your plan is to ‘just use social media’, you should know that’s almost never sufficient.

For example: you would definitely have a much tougher time getting users for a “Therapy Finder” app than an “Ice Cream Finder” app. Marketing is a very real obstacle, especially for a startup. Even with a huge marketing budget, it’s astoundingly easy to spend millions on completely ineffective campaigns. A product that’s easy to market can seriously help to alleviate some of those problems.

It is of paramount importantce to truly understand just how many great apps are out there that nobody will ever see. Is your potential product one of them? How will you make sure that you’re reaching your audience, now that you know who they are? The web is a big place, and adage “if you build it they will come”, strictly does not apply.

Social media is overblown

Social media alone is not going to cut it. Yes, social media plays an important part in our lives, and can be a successful means to amplify visibility, but you still need to build a solid user base in order to have any success with it.

But what about all those startups that “went viral”? The danger with virality is it’s very susceptible to confirmation bias. That is to say, every time you see something “go viral” you don’t see all of the thousands of startups that didn’t.

Because of this, it’s easy to assume that a high percentage of very good ideas will go viral. This is a very dangerous assumption to make. Fortune 5000 marketing companies have spent massive sums of money attempting to determine exactly what makes something go viral, and you know what they’ve learned? There is no one thing. It just happens. And while it may happen to you, that cannot be your only marketing plan. Doing that would be akin to expecting to be “discovered” for a modeling career on the street. Sure it happens, but it would be foolhardy to rely on that alone.

They're more likely to be tweeting adorable cat pictures than about your new app.

They’re more likely to be tweeting adorable cat pictures than about your new app.

So how much can social media really do? Well, it can do a lot or it can do very little. Mostly it depends on who your audience is and which industry you’re in. Here’s a breakdown of what people share on social networks. The good news is that if what you’re selling is cool and exciting, social media may have a big impact. Unfortunately, if your idea is a cool new twist on the todo list, it’s not likely to get much social engagement.

How much will social media help? Not very much in the beginning. Again, this depends on your audience and the product you’re selling, but generally you should not expect that social media will help to publicize your brand or product in it’s infancy. For financial reasons this is when most startups really need it to work for them, because it’s free. Unfortunately, social media is a much more effective tool for a startup that has existing momentum than for one that’s just starting out.

Why isn’t it a good starting tool? It all comes down to amplification. While it’s impossible to apply a rule of thumb to amplification, consider this: 10% growth is great for an app with a user base of 100,000 people, but for an app with only 50 users, it’s not going move the needle.

And that’s the biggest mis-estimation that we’ve seen startups make. They expect social media to “snowball” their audience, and it actually does to some degree, but it starts off too slowly. Think of it like compounding interest. If you put a good chunk of money into the bank it’ll grow significantly over time. But if you start with only a few hundred dollars, it’ll take you a decade before that interest gives you significant returns.

While social media should be an important part of your launch plan, do not over-estimate its effect on growth in those first few hard months. Your overall launch plan needs to include a way to attract an initial user base. Once you have that user base, depending on the product it may begin to snowball, but starting with social media alone is just waiting for lightning to strike.


Does your marketing strategy align with your app’s requirements for success?

Depending on your app, getting that snowball rolling ASAP can be what makes or breaks you. Many ideas fall into what we like to call the ‘clearinghouse category’–that is, apps which provide a space for buyers and sellers to meet (think eBay, or Etsy). Similar to a clearhouse are the ‘social meeting’ apps, which need to hit a certain tipping point (usually in terms of user numbers) before they start to be truly useful. Facebook is the classic example of this: Without your friends, Facebook becomes essentially worthless. It’s a catch-22 that can be impossible to overcome, even with billions in marketing and direct access to your audience (hello Google+). If your idea relies heavily on social features like Facebook does, you’ll need to have a plan for reaching that tipping point before your audience loses interest.

We see these types of ideas often because successful ones are highly publicized. Most ‘billion dollar’ apps are based on humans interacting in one way or another, but they’re also the hardest to develop as viable businesses. The reality of marketing ideas like that is that you simply must have a million dollar marketing budget. You’ll want to have a launch event and make a big deal about your release because you need as many users as you can get NOW, or your user-base will quickly move their attention elsewhere. Not to rag on Google+ too much, but their strategy of easing slowly into the market didn’t work out so well for them, even with the considerable capital and leverage over their audience at their disposal. They had everything in their favor and are still, years later, trying to get G+ to take off.

What we’ve found is that the very best ideas tend to offer value both as an individual, isolated product, and as a social one. This strategy is what allows there to be so many apps that do similar things but seem to co-exist successfully. These apps tend to have something specific in common: They have value for the user regardless of whether or not anyone else uses the app. If your app is one of those, you’ll be able to get by on a much lighter marketing budget. Your focus can be more on steady, sustainable growth without having to worry about your product’s usefulness being dictated by the number or quality of people actively using it.

Successful marketing campaigns have specific goals for what they’re trying to achieve and a plan for how to accomplish them. Make sure you have an idea of how popular your app needs to be to turn into a sustainable business and a strategy for how to get it there. Budget is often the biggest consideration here, and it’s much easier to begin by focusing on offering a product with intrinsic value rather than one whose value comes from its user-base.

There are ways of solving these problems: clearinghouse websites can sometimes leverage an existing group of sellers, so you only need to worry about the buyers. Tipping point websites can make use of guerilla marketing or start invite-only to pique people’s interest. Nobody thought email needed any improvement, but when gMail was released it was invite-only, and suddenly everyone wanted an account. Marketing is still going to cost money though, and you should not rely on social media and word-of-mouth alone.

If your idea targets an audience that’s easy to reach and has intrinsic value, you can do it on a shoestring. But if you need to build a large user base fast, and you don’t have the budget to put up billboards and buy facebook ads, your idea isn’t going to succeed no matter how good it is (see Part 5 for thoughts on funding). If the first time you went to Etsy there were only three things for sale, how likely would you be to list your stuff?

Next: Part 4 – Scoping a Minimum Viable Product
Previous: Part 2 – Know Your Audience

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