How do you know when your website is really ready to open its doors to the public? Here is a three-step launch strategy that will reduce your risks and increase member loyalty.
As a first step, we suggest inviting, or coercing, your colleagues and friends to become members and create as much content as they can. This is a low-risk way to do some initial user testing and fix bugs before exposing your website to the public. And it is a way to get some early user content and avoid a website that looks too empty.
When you're ready to start bringing in "real" members, we suggest beginning with a soft launch. This means that you invite a small group of users to try out the website in beta, or test, mode. Many new websites explicitly include the word "beta" near their logo during their first months online. If you label your website as a beta product, users will be more tolerant when everything isn't working perfectly. You can create a communication strategy that gives these first users a sense that they are getting an exclusive advance opportunity to try out your website and makes them feel involved in the product development. Actively seek out their feedback and treat their comments with care. Not only will the users appreciate it, but you have a wonderful opportunity to test your product on your target population.
Achieving Critical Mass
After you've implemented relevant feedback from your first group of users, you can start recruiting on a large scale. For most community models, you will need to achieve a critical mass of members and content just to get things off the ground. This rule is circular in the way of the saying "you need money to make money," or the idea that nobody wants to go to a party unless there are plenty of people there. A community with only intermittent activity is no fun for your users. And the possibilities of what you can do with it are much more limited. "On the Internet, it's not the volume of production that matters; it's the volume of users," explains François Derbaix of Toprural.com. "The more users you have, the better the service you can provide, and the stronger your position in the market."
Even if you hope to rely on passive recruitment in the long term, you may want to budget some money in the beginning to get things started. You can invest in advertising and coregistration campaigns and even pay members for desired actions such as referrals and content generation. In the next chapter, we'll talk more about member incentives. The more members and content you can get, the more you will be able to depend on viral recruitment and search engine traffic to give your community a momentum of its own.