Is Your Product Attention Deficit?

Recently Josh Kopelman, the founder of and Managing Director of First Round Capital, argued that simply building a product that people want is not enough to guarantee success. He believes that reaching your targeted customers is the REAL challenge in this information overload era. At his first company, Infonautics, his team failed to get any meaningful traction for a fine product after marketing it for 4 years. No matter what marketing channels they used (e.g. online advertising, direct mail, print advertising, email advertising…etc), people just didn’t want to listen to their sales pitch.

In a very crowded market, it is very easy to fall into the trap of being Yet Another SaaS App or Yet Another iPhone App. So what can we do besides spamming every blog writers and potential customers to get their attention? How can we get the word out quickly and still build a brand?

Since Josh didn’t mention any possible solutions, I did a bit research and found the following tried and tested lessons from other startups.

Be Different. No, Really Different.

According to the ideas of “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin and “Zag” by Marty Neumeier, besides making a remarkable product, we also need radical differentiation. Why? Because everyone pay attention to it, talk about it and tell their friends. Just look at Susan Boyle and Lady Gaga. Are they the best singers in the world? Probably not. But they definitely catch everyone’s attention in a short period of time.

Look at LittleMissMatched, it has grown into a US$35 million business in the past 6 years, just by selling colorful, unmatched items and encouraging children to express their individuality through “creative mismatching”. Do you regret throwing so many unmatched socks away now?:)

Like Seth Godin said, only products at the edge are worth talking about right now. Playing it safe will just lead to failure.

Making First Impression Memorable

The lack of human touch on the Internet sometimes make people forget the importance of first impression. Ignoring this is one of the biggest mistakes a startup can make (source: 37signals).

So who are doing great in this area? Everyone knows about Wufoo, Tumblr and Vimeo. How about CD Baby? Never heard of it? Me neither…until I’ve read the story about their famous customer service emails. It’s such an unique experience and their customers love it so much. If you are a returned customer, your order confirmation email will start with, “When the neighborhood kids heard you have come back, all their faces press against the glass…”. It’s just genius! No wonder the founder was able to sell the company for US$22 million two years ago.

Unique Personality

Many startups forget they are in the story telling business. Good storytelling let your customers understand your product’s personality. So build a story that you want your customers to tell others. All of the following sites are related to photo/media sharing but each of them have their own personality:

Flickr = Social, Innovative
Smugmug = Premium, Professional, Serious
Carbonmade = Funny, Simple
deviantART = Community
Photobucket = MySpace
Picasa Web Albums = Free, Fast
Twitpic = Twitter

So what’s the personality of your product? Establishing an unique personality for your brand can make your world/market smaller. If you want your story to appeal to everyone, it will just appeal to no one at last.

37signals: Your product has a voice – and it’s talking to your customers 24 hours a day.

Build Attention into Your Product

Sometimes with a little creativity and work, your product can get the attention your company desperately needs.

For example, there are currently more than 300 time management applications being sold on the market. It’s an extremely crowd space. However, Tony Wright, CEO and founder of, a time tracking and management startup, thought of a creative way to let his startup stand out from the competition.

He built buzz for his brand by using the anonymous data collected from its user base. From the data, he can share surprising real news like:

  • The average IM user shifts to an IM window 77 times per day (avg of 11.5 times per hour or once every 5.2 minutes).
  • Average number of unique web sites visited per day is 40.
  • 26% of time was spent inside a browser.
  • 61% of time was spent on internet dependent stuff.

Media love these kinds of interesting numbers. His company and product turn out showing up in New York Times, BBC, BusinessWeek, PCWorld and other major media outlets. Eventually, RescueTime closed their Series A round of funding for $900k in September 2008. Not bad for a two and a half years old startup!

Taking FULL Advantage of Your Users (aka: word of mouth)

When it comes down to it, it is very difficult to attract continuous attention unless you do it through your own customers. If you could convince thousands of passionate users to promote your products on their blogs and social network profiles, it will be the most scalable and cost effective way to get your customer’s attention.

However, this approach has not been without its complications. It is difficult because marketing through social media is a process, not an event (source: Seth Godin). Companies are good at events (e.g. putting up a trade show booth, working on freelance projects, open a Facebook page or Twitter profile) because it’s easier to manage.

On the other hand, social media marketing is a process. So is dating, losing weight, and building a company or brand. Events are for short term attention and processes build long term results.

Want a good role model? Take a look at Kogi BBQ which are two little korean food trucks serving tacos throughout Los Angeles. They drive around the city all day long and tweet their locations. So if you want to try their tasty food, you have to follow their twitter account. And then you will get a message like this:

LUNCH RUUUN! 12-3PM: *ROJA@Brentwood (Lot Behind Bldg, 12301 Wilshire Blvd); *VERDE@Market Lofts (645 W. 9th)

Brilliant!!! This new food truck is such a big hit that they even get praise from the famous venture capitalist, Fred Wilson. They not only have a twitter account but also a blog, Flickr account and Facebook Page. Most importantly, they are all ACTIVELY managed by this little company.

This is what social media is all about. It’s not about the medium or tool. It’s the conversation you generated with potential customers inside those media. Result: people often need to wait more than an hour for one of their tacos:)

Social media marketing can be both powerful and free for getting attention but you just have to earn it.

As you can tell, there is no one solution or one path that can guarantee your customers’ attention. Yet finding a way to continuously gain attention is a critical job that a startup needs to do to succeed.

Without attention, no one will know about how cool your product is. If it doesn’t connect with users, why bother building it in the first place?

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