As the CEO and co-founder of BrandYourself.com, Patrick Ambron’s experience, he says, is the exception, not the rule in the world of startups. Even the most successful startups, like Facebook and Instagram, have to compete for the attentions of audiences active in an increasingly fragmented and digital disruptive social media environment.
“In today’s marketplace, where consumers’ attention spans continue to shorten and new companies launch every day, gaining traction requires careful planning and execution,” says Ambron.
The reality is that in order to be a success, start-ups must cut through the considerable of amounts of digital clutter and focus on promoting (hopefully useful) products and on understanding why it is that said product matters to people, says Ambron. In the case of BrandYourself, recently named one of the Top 100 Young Startups in the U.S. by The White House, its creators devised an easy way for users to take control of their own Google results. The free platform allows individuals to improve their own Google search results, a “do-it-yourself” SEO process.
Ambron says that his experience building BrandYourself, which drew more than 100 thousand active users within its first month, has taught him a great deal about gaining and maintaining momentum. Ambron advises first and foremost concentrating on your product’s story and the story that your product tells.
As mentioned in a previous post, Why Storytelling is Critical in a Digital Disruptive World, storytelling is a powerful device, especially in business. A captivating story can make the difference between a product or service that succeeds and one that lies dead in the water.
“We started BrandYourself.com when my co-founder, [Pete Kistler], couldn’t obtain a college internship because he was being mistaken for a drug dealer on Google,” Ambron explains. “We created a free product that simplified the SEO process for users, so people wouldn’t pay reputation management companies to do it for them. By concentrating on Pete’s story, people could easily understand what our product does and why it’s important.”
It is also important to keep in mind that to a great extent, the story you tell for your product, is ultimately out of your hands. Once a message is out in digital form to the masses, you can guarantee that others will give their interpretation and share what they think. Ambron says its okay to allow and even creatively facilitate audiences telling and retelling your story for you.
“No start-up hits critical mass through press alone. You need to incentivize your users to sign people up on your behalf. For some, this “viral coefficient” is easy to figure out because the product is naturally social. Draw Something, the Pictionary-based mobile game that grew to 9 million users in nine days, is only fun if you play with others, so the incentive to invite others is obvious.
For others, the solution needs to be more creative. While DropBox isn’t naturally social, the company did a brilliant job of evangelizing users by awarding free space to users and their friends for every friend signed up. It’s a win-win, turning every user into a marketing machine for the company.”
Another valuable piece of advice Ambron gives is to be strategic about your product launch. It is important to build a brand or product’s reputation and demand well in advance of its official launch. Part of creating that pre-launch buzz is reaching out in a genuine way to members of the press. You don’t want the first time a journalist hears about your product to be the day it launches, says Ambron.
“I reached out to people who covered online reputation, consumer Internet and the job search space, and I asked them all for feedback. I gave them previews before the product came out, offered special codes they could provide to their readers, and worked in their feedback. I created genuine relationships instead of just pitching them a story.
By the time we launched, instead of drafting long press releases that would go unread, I had a list of writers who knew exactly who I was and what our product did, and as a result, we received coverage in a wide range of popular publications.”
Once you have created demand for the product and ideally generated some pre-launch buzz with members of the press, Ambron says it’s critical to “harvest demand while you build.” Let your audience know when the product is launching and what it is all about, keeping the storytelling part in mind.
“Just because you haven’t launched doesn’t mean you can’t start finding customers,” Ambron says. “Find a way to let your audience know what you’re building, and let them sign up to be notified when it’s ready.”
The way that BrandYourself did this was to inform its users during the month prior to the launch about how the platform worked and attracted those users to their waiting list. Before the launch, they allowed a few hundred people into the platform a week.
“If users wanted to increase their chances of getting chosen early, they could share a link to us with their friends,” says Ambron. “By the time we were ready, we had a list of over 15,000 people signed up to try the product.”
Ambron recommends trying to maximize your pre-launch coverage through strategic timing. “Figure out when you can get press attention and tie that into follow-up events,” he says. “While most new start-ups enjoy a day in the spotlight, we had press for three weeks thanks to smart planning.”
By avoiding a launch during major conferences and events, when most journalists are swamped, your product can build upon the press it generates, so that by the time your product is ready, it already has had coverage. “For example, instead of launching at SXSW, we launched the week before,” says Ambron. “Since most companies were waiting another week to make announcements, we were able to get great coverage, which garnered even more attention there. By doing this, we were able to leverage our success at SXSW to create more coverage after the conference.”
With smart and advanced planning, by the time your product launches, it can already benefit not only from the press exposure beforehand, but also from having active and enthusiastic users ready and waiting. However, once your product has gained traction with the press, keeping the momentum up is key. “Keep the ball rolling with new product releases,” says Ambron. By building a relationship with the press throughout the planning process, it should be relatively easy to maintain regular contact with the writers who covered you for follow-ups.
Ambron says your brand or product should have at least one significant release per month, be it a new feature or an important milestone, because, “the more somebody hears about your product, the more likely they are to try it.”
Heather Turner is a writer based in London who has worked in the fields of print and broadcast journalism, PR and film. Turner moved to London in 2009 from the rural Ozark Mountain region of Missouri to pursue a B.A. in Mass Communications and to gain more hands-on experience in film and marketing. She currently writes about trends in digital media and maintains a blog in her spare time on subjects including politics and media criticism.