Go from teaser to preview to launch
If an app launches in a forest and there's no one there to use it, does it make a noise? The point here is that if you launch your app without any pre-hype, people aren't going to know about it.
To build up buzz and anticipation, go with a Hollywood-style launch: 1) Teaser, 2) Preview, and 3) Launch.
A few months ahead of time, start dropping hints. Let people know what you're working on. Post a logo. Post to your blog about the development. Stay vague but plant the seed. Also, get a site up where you can collect emails from folks who are interested.
At this stage, you should also start seducing mavens and insiders. These are the folks on the cutting edge. They're the tastemakers. Appeal to their vanity and status as ahead-of-the-curvers. Tell them they're getting an exclusive sneak preview. If a site like Boing Boing, Slashdot, or Digg links up your app, you'll get loads of traffic and followers. Plus, your page rank at Google will go up too.
A few weeks ahead of launch, start previewing features. Give people behind-the-scenes access. Describe the theme of the product. For Basecamp, we posted screenshots and highlighted reminders, milestones, and other features.
Also, tell people about the ideas and principles behind the app. For Backpack, we posted our manifesto before launch. This got people thinking and talking about the app.
You can also offer some special "golden tickets" to a few people so they can start using the app early. You'll get the benefit of having some beta testers while they'll feel that special glow that people get from being early adopters.
And again, encourage people to sign up so you've got a foundation of emails to blitz once you launch. By the time we launch our apps, we have thousands of emails to ping which is a big help in gaining traction.
It's release time. Now people can actually go to the "theater" and see your app. Get emails out to those who signed up. Launch your full marketing site. Spread the gospel as much as possible. Get blogs to link to you. Post about your progress: How many people have signed up? What updates/tweaks have you made? Show momentum and keep at it.
The Road to Launch Day
As soon as we knew Blinksale was really going to happen, we began floating some teasers to our mailing list. These are people who have asked to receive information from us about our projects. These are our fans, if you will. If you already have permission to talk to a group of people, they are the best place to start.
The second thing we did is get permission to talk to more people about our product. About six weeks before the Blinksale launch we put up a teaser page at our website that proclaimed the coming of an easier way to send invoices online. The page gave just enough information to build excitement and suspense, without giving away sensitive details that needed to remain confidential. Prominently displayed on the page was a newsletter subscription form, requiring nothing but an email (keep it simple) so that those interested could be notified when the product launched.
We spread the word to a dozen or so friends and colleagues that we felt would be interested in the product as well, and they began to spread the word about the teaser page through their blogs and websites. Within a few days, we had thousands on our mailing list. These were extremely important people — people who are asking to learn more about our product and who wanted to know when we launched.
Finally, about two weeks before we launched, we invited a handful of friends, colleagues, and industry mavens to help us beta test Blinksale. This allowed us to get the product in front of people we felt could benefit from its use and who could help us spread the word about the product when we launched. It's important to note that we didn't force anyone to use or write about the product. We simply wanted it to be seen and wanted people to talk about it when it launched. In the end, if you're going to build buzz this way, you better be sure your product can deliver. Otherwise, it's like clouds without rain.
When launch day arrived, we sent an email to our mailing list, notified our blogging friends, and encouraged our beta testers to speak their minds. And to our great delight, the effort paid big dividends. Shortly after launch tens of thousands had visited our site and thousands of those had signed up to use the product.—Josh Williams, founder, Blinksale