The majority of online stores fold because they’re unable to drive traffic.
For many new ecommerce founders, there’s a near single-minded focus when starting a business that’s almost entirely dedicated to finding and showcasing the right products.
The great ecommerce myth is that having the right products, a beautiful site design, and stunning product photography is all that’s necessary to get people to pull out their credit card and buy. Those are the table stakes—the cost of entry.
You might prove the exception if you’re launching your store to a group of people who are interested in what you’re doing in the first place. However, the majority of stores are launching to the wrong people, if anyone at all.
Starting on such an unstable foundation almost pre-determines a new store to become a mausoleum for products that will never find an owner.
This forces the founder to scramble to find buyers—heavily discounting products and creating marketing communications that sound more like begging and less like a confident, trustworthy brand that knows what they’re doing.
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Secure your audience before you launch
But what if we flipped this around? What if you built an audience and validated your product before going through the hassle of taking a million product photos and writing clever, search engine optimized product descriptions?
What if instead of launching your store and hoping people will come, you launched only once you confidently knew that 5, 10, or 20,000+ people will be exposed to your site on launch day?
Sound crazy? It’s exactly what Fab.com did before they went live.
And it’s what Harry’s Razors and plenty of other companies have done before going live.
The idea is quite simple: don’t launch the store until you’ve secured the audience. But how is that possible?
You may notice that each of these companies are using “coming soon” pages that ask for an email address. That’s part of it, but it’s not the full story. You might point out that some use a referral marketing program, and that helps, but that’s not where the real magic is happening either.
And even though Harry’s co-founder Jeff Raider has shared the exact step-by-step process they used to launch to 100,000 email subscribers in a week, even this case study is a little misleading.
Learn more: What is customer retention and why is it important?
If you want a pre-launch audience, start early
The real “secret” to collecting thousands of emails in a single week is hidden in plain sight in this paragraph (emphasis mine):
“Ahead of our launch, Andy and I spent a couple of months meeting friends, entrepreneurs and virtually anyone else who would listen to us talk about Harry’s. Whether or not they were interested in razors, we tried to interest them in our story. That list of people was probably a couple hundred long by our launch, and we created the campaign to help that group of people publicly share in the excitement of our launch.”
Jeff Raider and his co-founder spent months securing hundreds of people to talk about Harry’s well before their week long pre-launch campaign went live. Put another way, they built a list, that helped them build a bigger list. Turns out, they’re not alone.
The founders behind the Soma water filter started seeding the idea with their friends months before they launched their $147,000+ Kickstarter Campaign.
Tim Ferriss started building his base by sending out 1,000’s of screener copies and collecting pre-orders for “The 4 Hour Body” three months before he launched the book.
And in this article on Hubspot, Noah Kagan talks about his experience with Mint.com and how he started building his pre-launch list 9 months before launch.
Work backwards from a goal
In the nine month period leading up to the launch of Mint.com, Noah built a contact database with the top 25 most influential finance bloggers.
Having this allowed him to continually build relationships with them while he also worked on day-to-day marketing tasks, such as:
- Sponsoring smaller blogs with passionate readers
- Paid advertising
- Split testing landing page messaging to see which yielded the best result
- Using referral marketing mechanics to tap into friend networks
- Exploring customer retention and loyalty program tactics
Having nine months of lead time allowed Noah to introduce people with an audience to an unknown brand, explain the benefits, and leverage their contacts to build a pre-launch email list of 20,000 really excited people. And while Noah’s initial task was to have 100,000 users 6 months after Mint.com launched, the momentum from those initial efforts ended up securing Mint 1 million users in that same time frame.
For you, it’s important you determine how big that pre-launch list needs to be in order to have a “successful” launch. Avoid pulling an arbitrary number out of thin air, but instead use industry conversion rate benchmarks to reverse engineer the amount of people you need to launch to in order to have a profitable first day.
Secure your distribution channels first
What’s important to consider when you’re building your pre-launch distribution list—the first group of contacts that will bring you even more contacts—is a concept Tim Ferriss calls the “Minimum Effective Dose,” which is about applying no more energy than necessary to get the right results.
Image by Louis Chew.
For Harry’s, it was having a social network with the potential for a lot of spread. For you, it might be about being extremely savvy with paid advertising, your uncanny ability to hack the press, or a being friends with a very active niche-group of knitters on Facebook.
The idea is, once you have reverse engineered your goal, say a pre-launch list of 10,000 people, is to identify what can you do to get the maximum result from a relatively small amount of effort.
Noah Kagan recommends creating a spreadsheet to keep track of your confirmed distribution channels to help you build your pre-launch list. This spreadsheet will contain the traffic source with estimates of the traffic & conversion rates.
This can also be modified to include potential email list size, RSS feed, social network sizes and any additional distribution that comes from each source. It’s important that this sheet only includes sources that are guaranteed to help you spread the word about your idea.
Depending on your existing network, this distribution list probably won’t be built in a day, and that’s OK. It is worth taking an inventory of what you are able to do fairly simply, then build a plan that expands your distribution on top of that.
Mike Del Ponte’s Hacking Kickstarter is essential reading for your launch process. In it he shows you some of the quickest ways to find influencers, as well as how to identify, rank, and properly pitch relevant bloggers and journalists that will provide the most impact to your campaign.
Here’s just a tiny fraction of the advice he gives:
Other suggestions include:
- Work with a virtual assistant
- Write your outreach email templates ahead of time
- Create detailed dossiers of your top 10 media contacts
- Ask friends for help making contacts
- Segment your own personal email list
This is one of the hardest, most time consuming processes, so be patient.
Using Mike’s advice and templates, you can easily see which parts of the process can be outsourced to a virtual assistant in order to focus on building the relationships with the people who will have the most impact on your pre-launch and launch campaigns.
Why bother building a pre-launch list?
Your estimated conversion rate is something to consider when you’re building a brand new store. Given your projected profit margins, how much traffic would you need to make a 2-3% conversion rate profitable for your store?
More realistically, what does that number look like if only 0.1% - 0.5% of your traffic converts? This is often the case for brand new stores, so when setting your targets, it’s better to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.
Now also take into consideration the rising cost of pay-per-click, Google’s ever changing algorithm, and the increasing restrictions around organic distribution on social media.
Shopify Support Guru’s are constantly being asked “How do I get my site to show up in Google?” While it’s true you should be optimizing for relevant long tail keywords, the truth is, it can be really, really hard for a brand new site to rank. This doesn’t mean you should ignore SEO best practices, but rather, not let your company’s success hinge on whether Google deems your website worthy or not.
Even though building the pre-launch list means additional work on the front end, you end up owning two really important lists:
- Influencers who are willing to share your ideas with a larger group
- Early adopters who are interested in your idea
Because you own these lists, these distribution channels are largely unaffected by the whims of Google and can become a real asset any time you need to share anything related to your store.
How to leverage a pre-launch list
As you’re building your pre-launch list, take the time to get to know the people on the list, and share exciting developments about your progress.
Mike Del Ponte shares some ideas with what they did with their earliest contacts:
- Ask for (and listen to) your friends’ advice. We asked for feedback on everything from our name to product design to pricing.
- Offer them “sneak peaks” that no one else gets. We showed our friends product renderings, pictures, and our Kickstarter video long before we released them to the public.
- Throw a launch party. Having a large group of people in one room, all excited about your project, creates a united energy you can’t create through emails, phone calls, or one-on-one meetings. Invite over 50 motivated and influential friends, show them your Kickstarter video and make a speech telling them why you need their help and exactly what you need them to do.
The idea is to make your earliest adopters feel special, that they have some ownership in what you’re doing, and to motivate them to share what you’re doing organically.
Depending on the products you've developed, there’s also room for including periodic game mechanics (Harry’s gave free product away if you referred a certain amount of friends) or early VIP access for those who can’t wait to get their hands on what you’re selling.
When launch day arrives
The payoff of building this pre-launch list and media list can be felt when reading Charlie Hoehn’s case study on launching The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss.
From the media list perspective, seeing the massive amount of coverage the book got leading up to and post launch is absolute madness. Whereas the payoff of sending out over 1,000 screener copies of the book was over 200 positive reviews on day one (there are over 3,200 now!).
This, combined with the massive amount of pre-orders generated from Ferriss’s pre-launch campaign, signals Amazon to rank the book highly which drives more sales, and for book dealers to order a ton of inventory to anticipate demand in the store.
The result of all of this was a debut at #1 on the New York Times best seller list and maintaining a top 3 position for 3 weeks. It was also #4 on the Wall Street journal and USA Today lists, and was in the Top 5 Amazon best sellers.
The takeaway you can apply today
I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right, you’re not Tim Ferriss.
But remember that for Soma, Mike Del Ponte’s water filter company, using a similar strategy meant raising $100,000 in 10 days.
For Harry’s, this meant launching to over 100,000 people, which eventually allowed them to purchase the old German factory where their blades were manufactured and raising an additional $122.5 million—all within the span of 10 months.
For Mint.com, their 20k pre-launch email list helped propel them to over 1 million users in 6 months, and a $160 million dollar acquisition by Intuit.
What could building a pre-launch list mean for you?