“The biggest myth ever perpetuated in the design field is that good design sells itself.”
Someone smarter than us said that the enemy of those who create things is not piracy, it’s obscurity. Very few people will discover your products serendipitously; it is up to you to put them in front of their eyes.
Both of our Kickstarter projects went off without a dime spent on advertising. We were fortunate enough to get some fantastic blog coverage, and both projects spread virally across the web.
Having a Kickstarter project is a lot like having an app in the App Store: that fact, in itself, does not make it interesting. The novelty of both has for the most part worn off, and the quality and originality of the product is what needs to stand out.
This chapter will discuss methods for promoting your product. When you are running a Kickstarter campaign, it’s a bit weird to be spending money on advertising when you are trying to raise it to make your thing, but there are plenty of ways to get “free” publicity. The paid examples in this chapter apply to products that are already established.
One of the most valuable (and humorous) classes Dan took while in grad school at Parsons was called Internet Famous. It was taught by Jamie Wilkenson, James Powderly, and Evan Roth, no strangers to the Internet fame game. The goal of the class was simple: to try to get noticed on the Internet. As silly and narcissistic as that sounds, it provided an invaluable exercise in attempting to understand what makes the web tick, and more specifically, how to get traffic without spending money. The key lesson, in a nut shell, is to be proactive. The bloggers will rarely come to you; it is your task to make their job easier by seeking them out and providing the pertinent information.
If you are looking to promote your project, it likely falls into a niche category that is covered by an influential blogger, and you probably already follow and are huge fans of them. Send them an email, but not just a blanket, copy and pasted PR statement. Write to them directly. Make it personal. Keep it short and sweet, but try to convey why you think that writer, specifically, might be interested in your project. It is often a good idea to reference something they have posted in the past, by way of explaining why your project is a good fit for their blog. Some bloggers also like for you to include a handful of screen resolution images, thus saving them some legwork.
If a writer posts a link to your project, send them a short note of thanks. Use those manners your mother taught you.
The Gruber Effect
John Gruber is a man of exquisite taste who writes for Daring Fireball, a website focusing on technology and design through the lens of Apple products. He has an enormous following; anyone with more than a passing interest in Apple likely subscribes to his RSS feed. Remember back in the 90’s when Oprah would add a book to her Book Club and it would immediately become a best seller? Gruber has that type of influence in the tech community.
We had the good fortune of having a modest rapport with John, as he had linked to Dan’s blog a couple of times in the past. The day we launched the Glif campaign, we sent him an email with a link to the project page, and offered to send him a prototype to check it out early.
On the morning of October 4th, 2010, John Gruber linked to our Kickstarter campaign on Daring Fireball. The post was innocent enough, only 167 characters. 1 hour and 25 minutes after the post went live, we surpassed our funding goal of $10,000, and finished the day with over $25,000.
The point of this anecdote is not to tell you to email John Gruber so your project will be successful. Don’t do that, in fact, as we’re sure he’s inundated with Kickstarter related emails at this point. The point is, communities often have “tastemakers” that set the conversation. Malcolm Gladwell refers to these people as “Mavens.” For all things Apple, that person is John Gruber, but there is likely someone similar for the community to which your product belongs. These individuals are often more influential, in this context, than larger publications like The New York Times. Three cheers for the Internet being the great equalizer.
Traditional web ads are often seen as the bane of the internet. Several browser plug-ins exist to block obnoxious and obtrusive ads, and services like Instapaper are created partially to remove such clutter. However, there are some examples of web ads being tastefully done, notably The Deck Network, run by Coudal Partners. This ad network has a highly curated selection of webpages that your ad will appear on (some of the best websites on the web), and only one ad is ever displayed on any of these webpages at once. Other ad networks, such as Fusion and Carbon Ads, use this same method. We tried The Deck for a month to advertise the Glif, and liked the results we saw, although it can be hard to gauge the value of an “impression.” Google Analytics cannot track how many brains subconsciously absorbed the content of the ad. Yet.
We have only run a couple small ad campaigns, so our sample size is small. But our impression is that it is simply not as effective as other advertising methods we have tried.
That’s not to say it won’t work for you, especially if your product is better suited for this type of advertising. Our goal for the ads is to make a direct sale, rather than simple brand building, so one explanation for the tepid response is our ads were shown in places where people are not in a “buying” mindset.
As an experiment, we also tried a short Google Adwords campaign, but the results were disappointing. We have learned to trust much more targeted approaches.
As part of the Kickstarter survey we sent out to obtain our backers’ mailing addresses, we included an option for backers to add their email address to our mailing list. Likewise, we offer this option as part of the checkout process in our online store (opt-in, not out). Having a mailing list is not a new concept by any stretch, but we have found it to be a very useful platform for announcing new products, so it’s worth mentioning. It’s the most direct way to announce something to your most dedicated fans, shy of calling them on the phone or visiting their homes, which we strongly advise against. We use Mailchimp for our email campaigns and we’ve been happy with them.
Also, always make your mailing lists opt-in (the “checkbox” should be unchecked by default). C’mon, don’t be a dick.
This is our favorite method of advertising. Essentially, popular blogs offer the opportunity for a company to sponsor their blog for one week for a set fee. In most cases, a post about your company will go up at the beginning of the week and will be seen by the site’s RSS subscribers, generally the most loyal readers of the site. Daring Fireball, Swiss Miss, The Loop, and many other blogs, large and small, employ this type of sponsorship. If you are a bit gun shy, try sponsoring a smaller blog, which will only set you back a couple Benjamins.
We love this method of advertising because it targets a very specific audience we are going after: tech enthusiasts, designers, people who know what RSS is, etc. It’s the best bang for your buck. Even if your product is not tech related, you always want to be targeting the most dedicated and passionate subset of any group.
Podcast sponsorships have been surprisingly effective as well. We sponsored Dan Benjamin’s fantastic podcast network 5by5 earlier this year, and were blown away with the results. We assumed podcast sponsorship would not be as effective as blog sponsorship, given that people often listen when it is not exactly convenient to buy a product (like in a car or on the subway). What we didn’t account for, however, was the human element. Having your ad read out loud is quite different than having it displayed as text on a webpage. It also helps when a guy like Dan Benjamin is reading your spot—he’s an excellent pitchman.
We are fortunate that our products fill a niche that is easy to target with sponsorship advertising. What if your product has more of a mainstream appeal? That’s a bit out of our wheelhouse, but we think the strategies discussed here are still sound. Target the most passionate, early adopters, and they will become the evangelists for your product.
Daily deal sites are another potential avenue to promote your product. We have limited experience in this area, but we did do a 3-day flash sale for the Glif on Fab.com.
Fab is an invite-only flash sale website that hosts well made, “designy” products. The products are offered at a generous discount, and the sales typically last 24 to 72 hours. Fab collects the orders and then passes along the mailing information for each buyer when the sale ends. The seller is responsible for order fulfillment; this arrangement is known as a drop shipment. You determine a set quantity to sell in advance, and a lot of the times the product will sell out before the sale ends.
The buyers on Fab were definitely the kind of people we want to target, but we question the usefulness of utilizing the site as a promotional technique. Our sale went well and we sold out of our allotted inventory, but we are unsure if the amount of people who discovered the product as a result of the sale made up for the steep discount at which it was sold. That said, we certainly didn’t lose money on the deal, so there’s no harm in experimenting with your own product to see how it goes.
We have attended the Macworld Expo (now known as Macworld | iWorld) for the past 2 years. As the name implies, this is a conference for those interested in all things Apple. We rent a tiny booth that sits in the “Indie Showcase” section, a small area in the back reserved for independent developers.
There are various reasons people set up a booth at a conference. A lot of times it is to promote a product and to be introduced to various resellers and distributors who might be interested in selling that product in their stores. We take a slightly different approach and consider Macworld a great way to set up a little retail shop for 3 days. We pride ourselves on keeping our operation small and doing things ourselves, and it’s a nice opportunity to meet our customers face to face.
Running a booth at a conference like Macworld takes quite a bit of preparation. The booth itself needs to be designed, after all. Last year we used a gridded tile design, which made assembly and teardown pretty painless. We also screen printed Studio Neat shirts for ourselves and printed business cards to hand out.
If you plan on selling directly on the show floor, you’ll need to ship the inventory in advance, and have a plan for what to do with unsold inventory. Some sellers intentionally bring an amount of inventory they know they will sell out of, so they don’t have to worry about that. We like to make sure we have more than enough, and then ship the unsold inventory back to our warehouses. You will also need to obtain a seller’s permit for whichever state you’ll be in. Also important, you’ll need to figure out how you will accept payments. We use Square for credit card payments, and it works wonderfully. We also accept cash, of course.
Conferences are a great opportunity to meet bloggers, press, Twitter friends, etc. in person. It’s always nice to connect a name to the face. We were able to meet John Gruber in person when we first attended Macworld, and it was nice to be able to thank him for essentially launching Studio Neat (he’s a tall drink of water, in case you’re wondering).
To that end, we also attended WWDC (Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference) this year. The keynote and informational sessions at WWDC were worthwhile, but the true value of the conference is the chance to hob nob with notable people in the Apple community, and to meet all of the people whose work we greatly admire. We will definitely be back next year.
We saved the best for last. Sometimes the best way to promote your products and your company is to simply be active online. Do stuff. Make things. Say things.
Here’s one example. 37Signals runs a company blog called Signal vs. Noise. This blog is not simply a PR machine for their products; rather, it’s a place to talk about things they’ve learned, behind the scenes insight on products they are working on, and general links to cool things on the web. It’s open and honest; the language is conversational rather than stilted and PR-y.
Additionally, they have published two books, Getting Real and Rework, which are both short and punchy takes on unconventional ways to run a business, gleaned from their own experience. The books certainly generate revenue, but more importantly, they are great promotional tools for the company, and a great way for customers to learn more about, and as a result, feel more connected to the company and its products. Hmm, writing a book about how your company operates. That’s not a bad idea.
Another example is Marco Arment, who created Instapaper, an iOS app and website for bookmarking things you encounter on the web to read at a later date. On the side, he writes a blog at Marco.org, and does a podcast with Dan Benjamin on the aforementioned 5by5 network. As a result of these two things, Marco has built quite a following. To a lot of people, Instapaper is now more than just another faceless service, it’s an app with a real human behind it. People feel a connection and relationship with the service.
We try to maintain side projects as well. Our blog, The Russians Used a Pencil, began as Dan’s blog about simplicity. While it maintains that same spirit, it’s now positioned in a similar manner as the Signal Vs. Noise blog. We use it to experiment with ideas, and to share interesting things we find. The impetus for the Cosmonaut design actually started out as a blog post, exploring the right feel for an iPad stylus. Our most viewed video to date, with over 400,000 views, was a little Smart Cover hack for the iPad 1 that we did for fun one weekend.
What all of this really comes down to is building a fan base. By putting things out there, consistently, you can form a relationship with your customers. It allows them to see the person behind the products. You are not a faceless corporation, so why act like one?