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How to get the first 1,000 users for your app

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They probably wouldn’t have got as far as actually building something if they hadn’t put together a convincing story about why their Digiwidget would change the world. Some Angels (or family, or bank manager) have coughed up enough to get that grad coder in, and their cousin’s daughter can use photoshop. They have spent months drawing stuff on white boards or Post-it notes, and butting their heads against the reality of technical limitations and rapidly expanding business models. 

The feature set has gone from 50 to two (for MVP, which means “what we can afford with the cash we have”). The dreams of being profitable from day one have gone, as the ways of making money have slipped over the horizon “for the moment”. Conversations with funders start moving to “building a user base” and “secondary monetisation”.

There are those zealous evangelists who have such a deep love for their product, they struggle to get past the fact that not everyone will instantly fall in love with what they are making. For them, just putting it live is enough, and is probably all they have budgeted for. They bandy the words “viral” and “word of mouth”, meaning that they are pinning their hopes on someone stumbling across their masterpiece and spreading the word like some form of frenzied apostle. 

Then there are those big business converts who want to craft a proper campaign to drive sales of their vision. They will have budgeted for an agency to get stuck in and solve their problems for them, a budget that will quickly disappear as development costs spiral. 

There are the died in the wool Lean converts who want to push out the first cut of a product and use the five people that they can get to use it guide where they go next. They will be the ones chasing up initial users and getting excited when they get consistent feedback from the people who should be their fans saying ‘it doesn’t work properly’, and then despondent when the same people seem reluctant to try the product again.

So Digiwidget is ready to go. It has some features, not many bugs and an obvious place in the market. What now?

Well, the first thing to remember is that you have to make the product available. Obvious, right? …but wrong.

Create desire

Desire is a mixture of curiosity and restriction. Desire is, at its essence, unrequited need. From a business perspective, this means getting people to hear about how wonderful it is before they can get it, so when it becomes available they are tripping over themselves to sign up.

Get control

Get control of timelines, and the idea that launching something is not an immediate thing. It requires time to go through the gears of generating desire to an increasing audience, and then allowing that desire to be realised. This sounds easy, but when you have funders (or senior management) breathing down your neck demanding to see the product out there, and the sales starting to happen, it can be tricky.

Take advantage of your first audience

Those evangelists who would die for the product – and they are the easiest ones to get to, because they sit in your office. They are the people who have built the product, and they are the ones who totally get why it needs to be. They hold the answers to stages three and four.

Build the scenario

I was always impressed working with the really “together” brands that they had absolutely nailed the moment when their product is most needed. A vignette in time when it is the only choice. Heinz Baked Beans was that moment when the kids get home hungry from school. You want to give them something they will love you for, but there are so many other things to do. That is when the beans come out of the cupboard and the bread goes in the toaster. You need to create that moment for your product. It may be B2B, it may be mundane, but it is a moment in time that you need to own.

Caft the narrative

This is a simple phrase, with no acronyms or “industry speak”, that describes what you want to achieve with the product. Make it grandiose. Be proud. That is the story you take to the world. You can modify the story as time goes on, but you need to have confidence in the capacity for the story to match the product, and to believe in that story.

Preach to the converted

You can now move from your own four walls, with its own group of fanatics, to the next step. Finding those few people who simply cannot live without what you are doing. Taking what you are doing outside to the big bad world is scary. Many hide away for as long as possible to avoid the potential risk of rejection and failure. This is a huge mistake. These fanatics can give you case studies, valuable feedback and are the evangelists people will trust you when your “weasely words” sound too good to be true.

Find the “happy few” 

There will be a group of people that absolutely have to use what you create. It may not be a large group, but they exist. If there isn’t… you may have to go back and think again. Now go and find them. Find their Twitter accounts, their Linkedin Profiles. Be specific as hell. Create a targeted campaign – probably content lead – that hits their desire. Go out and present at every available opportunity. Anywhere. If you can get 100, that’s excellent. 50 will do. But LIMIT YOURSELF TO THEM! Don’t be swayed by demands to “get more numbers”.

Show them the love

No surprises, you want them to be your advocates. You need to be all over them. Go and see them. Show the benefits. Look after them. Get their feedback and act on it; and these people will have feedback. Listen carefully, and take on board what they say. This is your chance to get them to fully buy in to what you’re doing, and nothing works better than actually delivering changes they request. Then take advantage of them. Work with the most enthusiastic. Get them to be positive and spread the word. Gather case studies and quotes. Be shameless. 

You now have a product that has a small but fanatical following, or at least a group of people that will be positive when being asked about what you do. What next?

Find those influencers

There will be five or ten people who can swing your product. They may be bloggers or influencers in your market. Know them. Know what they like. Take your feedback from the few, and… tease them. Tell them about the scenario. Show them the feedback and the case studies, get them to see screenshots. They are busy people, so they may not have time to actually use it, but they can be persuaded if it looks like others love it. An easy mistake to make is to go to these people too early – before you have proof points they need to get interested. Remember that they get bombarded with stuff. If you say “my product is awesome”, they’ll probably ignore it. If you can say ‘these people think my product is awesome’, they are much more likely to switch on.

So, if you can get a couple of these influencers to talk about you, you can get interest going in the broader market through their reviews and posts. Take this chance to offer the chance to sign up for a limited number of subscriptions. This is also a great time to offer a ‘member gets member’ scheme. Make it just hard enough to get involved, so that those that do feel included. Give them something special. A secret event, special content. Let them feel part of the club.

Planning the broader campaign

As I mentioned last time, this campaign is less about the ‘advert’, and more about a pure path to engagement with your product. You need to plan the campaign across the channels you want to use, but focus on driving all of these to that point of engagement. Before you launch it, make sure you set up clear KPIs around viewing, interaction, sharing, engagement and sales. Don’t underestimate the power of personal engagement. Make sure people can talk to you if they want to. 

Then treat the campaign as you would your product, use the Lean model on the campaign itself. Stick to your core audience, and trial messages against them. Run AB tests on the campaign as you would do on the product, and listen to the answers that come back through the analytics. Then, once you get close to your desired KPIs (or the numbers start topping out), it is finally time to pour some money into the media funnel. As the campaign builds pace, you should also be supporting this with articles, videos and webinars – all backed up by your social media channels.

Ben Scott-Robinson is Ordnance Survey‘s head of interactive experience.

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