There are two ways you can launch.
Launch in a rush.
Panic. Spam everyone you know with Tweets, Facebook updates and emails.
Hope and pray that you’ve got enough pre-launch traction, generated enough “buzz” to get users to sign-up and start using a product you’ve spent months building.
Or you can build a community. Before Ryan Hoover launched Product Hunt, he wrote a lot, blogged, had guest articles published, hosted brunches and created a startup-focused email newsletter. As he explains in this blog, those relationships, connections and subsequent online audience “became the seed of the Product Hunt community.”
Without an audience, a growing community, “Product Hunt would have been DOA.”
The social media sharing app, Buffer was the same. In the first six months after an MVP was launched and they got a handful of paying customers through another community - Hacker News, Buffer Co-founder, Leo Widrich wrote over 150 guest blogs, which generated enough traffic and revenue for both to work on Buffer full-time.
Although every product is different and not all can/will create a community before launching, if you are serious about a successful launch, then there are a few steps you can take and things to remember.
Five steps to building a community
#1: Know your users/customers
Users are not metrics.
New products and apps attract users when they solve a problem they experience at work, home or another aspect of their lives. Users are people. We respond to a wide range of emotional needs, which means getting the right message out, using the right words, phrases and graphics to resonate and connect with them.
It doesn't matter if that message is a little rough around the edges. In the early days, no one expects flawless videos, carefully thought-out blogs, or unique GIFS that go viral. Just start talking. Reach out and start talking anyway you can (just don't spam people: that kills a community before it even gets off the ground). Find smart ways to engage potential beta users, those you know are having a problem that your product/app solves, to find out more, gain feedback and invite to engage with you on social media, in email lists and blogs.
Make sure you are building something they want; otherwise all of this effort is for nothing, and you don't have a startup; you’ve got an expensive hobby. Getting a clear picture of your audience before - or in the early days of building a new product - is essential before you can cultivate a community.
#2: Make an online home for your community
Every community needs a home.
Bloggers and Vloggers establish communities across a wide range of platforms, usually Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Having a Blog, YouTube channel, or an email newsletter usually helps.
In the startup community, if you are keen to attract tech early adopters, Facebook, Slack, Twitter and Medium are some of the most popular platforms to establish a community. You don't need to concentrate on one, but at the same time, it’s useful to establish one as the “home”, even if that is split between working hours - Slack - and Facebook, for after work.
Most of the time, this approach works. A combination of content, community engagement and slowly spreading the word in a non-spammy way, can encourage people to join who could become beta users and, in time, paying customers. It won’t work every time, unfortunately. Some products and apps need to engage with specialist communities, which can take time, or requires invitations to piggyback off another groups audience and engage potential users and customers.
#3: Start building in plenty of time
I often hear the question, “When should we start building?”
In answer to that, I’ve heard “It’s too early” way too many times. And you know what? Bull#$it. There is no time or a magic metric which says when you need to start. Start as early as possible, especially if you are still building the product. What if, after speaking to potential beta testers and customers, you are creating a solution for a problem that doesn't really exist? What if the demand isn’t there?
Speaking to people, getting out of the building, as Paul Graham (Y Combinator founder) encourages founders, is an invaluable aspect of Lean processes. Building an active pre-launch community can make all the difference between launching a successful app, or spending six months on a pointless product.
#4: Beta test and compile a mailing list
Once you have an audience interested in the product and a product to show the audience, it’s time to engage them. Let them beta test the product. Encourage them to give feedback.
At this stage in the post-launch process, most founders start getting twitchy for metrics and positive feedback. Take a breath and remember that not every metric or piece of feedback is going to be positive. You won’t have an amazing finished product at this stage; it should be rough and ready, but ready enough for users to test and assess your product.
With the feedback, iterations should start happening more quickly. Plans and launch timescales should start swinging into action. Getting a landing page setup - if you’ve not got one already - and mailing list is essential for keeping beta users and those interested in the product engaged before the launch.
There are a few ways you can do this. Popular tools, such as MailChimp and Launchrock, along with other software in the background to help coordinate a team and manage a range of workflows are useful. Another tool, which integrates landing pages and email, is Ship by Product Hunt, which we’ve found so easy to use for several app pre-launches already.
#5: Coordinate the community: Pre-launch
Now that you’ve got an engaged community, made changes after beta testing, have a mailing list, you should be ready to launch. No launch is ever perfect. No product should ever be perfect - even after beta testing - but the only way to know whether you can fly is to take off. It can be tempting to keep building, keep making changes, keep adding new features, but all that does is delay the moment when you test theory against reality. Which shouldn’t be too scary, not after months of interacting with potential users and listening to what they need.
Once you’re committed to launching, set a date and ensure the product is ready, including ready for release on app stores. Don’t start spamming people. There are a few ways that work and don’t work, as we’ve learned from releasing dozens of apps into the wild:
Send more than one email. Even go so far as create an automated drip email campaign, so that you’re sending one - two at most - emails per week in the build-up to the launch.
Include content and feature release updates in those emails, which could also introduce people to the onboarding process for when they start using the product. This way, they’re already educated about how to get the most out of it once it's downloaded.
Be mindful of brand voice, images, videos and other content: Make sure everything is aligned with the message and how you’ve been engaging the community from day one. Don’t switch to corporate jargon speak, or taking an inauthentic tone after months of friendly conversational engagement.
Push notifications are also useful, especially if you’ve already got beta users or people have given you permission to send an SMS before the launch (include the right download links in this for the device).
Don’t be tempted to throw away money or other incentives on giveaways. You could end up with the wrong customers, who aren't really interested in buying or staying loyal.
Ask for help spreading the word, but if you are using Product Hunt, go about it the right way. Thunderclap and other tools aren't very useful. All they do is make noise and don't engage your audience or add any meaningful new metrics. Use the Product Hunt Upcoming Pages and when you are ready to launch, don’t ask people for upvotes.
Engaging an audience months before launching is the most effective way to take off successfully. Instead of appearing on the market out of nowhere, people are already sharing your content, telling others, beta testing and providing feedback. Creating a community first is the best way to find out whether you’ve got an idea worth pursuing, instead of spending months building an idea no one needs.
It’s true what they say, that you need 1,000 fans before launching.