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DIY: How to Build Buzz For Your Beta

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By Tom Vander Ark and Sarah Cargill

You've got a great idea. Coders are turning it into reality--at least an early version. You're about ready to release a beta version of your new learning application. How do you create buzz that promotes rapid adoption? We asked a dozen experts.

Planning
David Waxman, a Los Angeles investor and entrepreneur gives three suggestions:

  1. Define your goals and target audience. Do you want to build investor awareness, attract talent to your team, or get consumer/customer buzz? In my opinion, new startups often spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy pursuing Silicon Valley buzz when they really should be focusing on customer awareness. SV buzz has its place for fundraising and hiring, but it's easy to forget that the size of you're A round isn't likely to be very interesting or relevant to your customers.
  2. Take the time to really work on messaging and positioning. Frequency counts. If people hear the same message about the company from multiple sources, it creates the illusion that the company is 'everywhere.'
  3. Build a strong board of advisors. I always tell startup CEOs to think of an advisor "dream team" and to go try and get them. It's often surprising whom you can get to be an advisor, but the leading expert in your field can't say yes if nobody asks him. Not every advisor needs to be famous--usually you get less time and attention from them--but having at least a few name brands can be invaluable in creating credibility and buzz.


Jason Lange at BloomBoard advises: Invite users into the vision. Building fantastic new technologies is never an overnight process. But by using Lean UX methodologies and iterative prototyping with simple online tools (Invisionapp, Axure RP, Mockingbird, etc.) you can show users the vision of what you're building and invite them to provide feedback along the way. Then, if you're keeping good lines of communication open with those initial "UX testers," you can launch the live beta and create excitement around how they helped shaped the product. Educators love to feel like they've had a part in making the system better and they are sure to tell their friends when they do.

Product & Pricing
Mick Hewitt at MasteryConnect says: Build something that's worth talking about. Have a product that already has 100 teachers that signed up for it through word-of-mouth, Pinterest or other social media traffic. If what you've created already has some grassroots behind it, it's easy for people to start blogging, tweeting, and talking about.

San Kim at ShowMe adds: We want to use feedback from real users to build the product, and we want to do it as soon as humanly possible. By giving out an early draft of the app (i.e. beta) before it's ready for prime time, we can learn from our beta users and make sure we're building the best app for them. We wanted to put the beta in the hands of the most influential people first, who could not only use the app, but tell a whole bunch of people about it. So, instead of first come first serve, we based the order of beta invites on how many people each person referred.

But that wasn't all. We also wanted people who would create lots of interesting lessons using the app - not just people who would flip through it and never use it again. So, we created a signup process that 1) asked people to tell us about themselves and 2) gave them priority access to the beta for inviting friends to sign up as well. If you go to the ShowMeApp.com home page and fill out the email box you'll see what I mean.

Leah Osterman at StudySync says: Solve a problem. Be clear what your product is going to do for teachers and administrators. Educators have a lot on their plates. No matter how beautiful your product may be, it needs to solve a critical problem and address pressing educational issues for teachers to take the time to implement it. Be clear about what challenges your product can address and infuse your messaging with the ways your product can help.

Toby Rowland of Mangahigh contributes: Buying customers is often uneconomic and ineffective in the edtech industry, and good companies tend to acquire customers virally. Educators are enthusiastic and viral champions of products that have a valuable and perpetual free offering, rather than just a time-limited trial, so spend time thinking about the structure of your freemium offering. Identify what valuable feature you can provide for free, and then complement it with a paid offering that becomes more compelling over time. On Mangahigh, small adjustments in what we gave away for free led to a massive increase in our virality.

Rob Waldron of Curriculum Associates concludes: Find an excuse to delight your customers at every part of the customer experience. It may seem obvious, but customers are always happily surprised by our ability to look across the entirety of the customer experience to ensure all things big and small "make it easy" for them. This includes simple things like having a single point of contact for any and all questions, larger structural things like measuring speed of customer issue resolution, and actually implementing customer feature suggestions. These all sound like logical things to do, but in time-oppressed educator world, delighting customers with big things and small details often means the difference between implementation with fidelity and just "checking the boxes." Being delighted by service is the thing that customers talk about to peers at conferences and cocktail parties. A new product, no matter how high its quality, won't be successful without it, and, unfortunately, this relentless focus on customer service is absent from so many providers.

Osterman adds: Provide easy entry points for teachers and administrators both in terms of free trial and entry-level pricing.

Support
Leah Osterman says: Invest in customer support to guide folks along the adoption path. It's not enough to get them to log in or give your product one try. Prospects often need encouragement and support to make full use of the product. If your support people are educators or former educators, all the better. People with classroom and/or administrative experience earn instant credibility with other educators and can often provide support a pure technical person cannot. Make the user experience as seamless as possible, and demonstrate that ease-of-use in multiple ways and through multiple media - including print, video, and online demonstrations (WebEx).

Team
Eric Westendorf from LearnZillion says: We're big believers in starting with your team. We've built a community among our Dream Team of 123 teachers who created the 2,000 Common Core State Standards lessons. They're our biggest evangelists. They've made these amazing lessons and they're proud. They know they're a part of something bigger and, as a result, they want to share and get other teachers involved and excited. That's the energy we want turned into buzz. We got them all business cards so they could represent LearnZillion in their schools and districts.

The day before launch we organized a conference call. We gave them a sneak preview of the site and then reviewed all the different ways they could get the word out via email, twitter, facebook, and pinterest. We encouraged everyone to wear their TeachFest t-shirts proudly. The t-shirts represented a grand finale from our summer t-shirt contest. We challenged Dream Team teachers to take photos of themselves in their t-shirt in the most outrageous places. Here's the link http://www.facebook.com/TeachFest/photos. We have entries from North Korea, the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the dentist office, the end of a bungee jump cord.

Bloggers
Mick Hewitt adds: Start your own blog early. When we launched MasteryConnect, no one knew who we were, but we kept putting out content and pushing our message and how we're different through social media. You need to get to critical mass of content and people reading what you have to say.

Jessie Arora who created the EdTech Handbook says: Join the conversation by following a few key authors and establish your own voice through consistent commenting.

Start blogging yourself. Use your own blog as a platform to share information about your product and progress, as well as general trends in a specific aspect of edtech. Choose 1-2 key areas (ex. STEM, Blended Learning, Mobile Learning, PD, etc...) and provide useful updates/tips on what's going on in that space. There are many great blogging platforms (Tumblr, Posterous) but teachers love WordPress and if your blog takes off a bit, this is another way to build community with educators through following and commenting.

Invite your early-adopters to guest blog. This deepens their engagement, provides an authentic voice (educators love hearing from other educators rather than product folks) and offers fresh content.

Social Media
Arora adds: Leverage social networks. If your startup has been around for more than 5 minutes, then it's likely that you already have a FB page and a Twitter handle. Social Media Marketing can be entirely it's own section (and we might create that) but for now the top tip is engagement matters more than the size of your community. On FB, this means looking at the number of people talking about your page rather than just the total likes. On Twitter, follow the Top Edu Tweeters and join the weekly chats (ie. #edchat) to share updates and get a sense of what educators are talking about. Lastly, Edmodo, striving to be FB for schools, also has a feature where you can create a community around specific content areas or tools/services and engage with the teacher and students who are on their site. With over 6 million users (now 9m) this is the largest centralized community of educators anywhere on the web and it's growing fast!

Tim Brady and Alan Louie at ImagineK12 advise: The power of twitter among the early-adopting teacher community is strong. Teachers, no surprise! They are best at sharing their faves. Simultaneous with top education bloggers and Twitter to get the word out.

Testimonials
Arora says: Another benefit that comes from early adopters are enthusiastic testimonials. Take time to develop these into case studies, even a couple one-pagers can be useful to spread the word about your effectiveness and build your brand. Remember, educators love hearing from other educators and case studies can help you capture the enthusiasm and results from your initial users. Want examples? Check out how LearnBoost has captured early user stories.

Osterman adds: Garner early accolades through awards and teacher testimonials. The awards can be expensive, but are often worth the effort. Seed accounts in key districts and find early evangelists who will embrace your product and push usage. Watch how these folks implement your product successfully and carry that story out to other users and prospects.

Rowland concludes: People are always hoping to identify the next big thing, so work very hard on your early testimonials and don't be shy of publicising, in-depth, any surprising results that you might record. You will find that beta offerings will get the benefit of the doubt, and that commentators will be generous and optimistic about your prospects.

Phone
Hewitt says: Cold-call some thought leaders in the space and see if they'll take notice. Most people are on the look-out for the "latest" thing that could be the next big one. Thought leaders often want to be the first ones to have discovered something great. If you have something good, they'll take notice.

Traditional PR
Waxman advises: Public relations (PR) is still the best bang for the buck. Hire a pro if you can afford it. It's hard to get into the big publications without one. Take the time to reach out to relevant bloggers, tweeters, etc. Treat them with respect and make them feel special (product preview, t-shirt, ask for their opinion). They can do a lot of good. Create news. Publish a study. Think up a story that's bigger than the product or company and offer yourself as a thought leader. Have your social media ducks in a row. Tweet, FB, Pinterest, accounts should all be managed actively.

Rowland adds: PR is important and effective during your beta / launch phase, but less so afterwards. At the beginning, your existence is news, and your product and perspective on the market will be of interest to the media. After launch, your news flow will tend to dry up for a while. Structure any PR relationships as a launch project, rather than an ongoing relationship, and pause PR activity after the first campaign.

Public Speaking
Arora says: The edtech scene is heating up and with that comes an increase of events and speaking engagements. Meredith Ely runs the monthly EdTech Meetup (first Thurs of the month in San Francisco) and often seeks to shine the spotlight on members, giving startups a chance to share their story. This is great practice for more formal speaking events and even pitching to investors. EdSurge, the weekly edtech newsletter, always highlights upcoming events (it's long so scroll all the way down) and reach out to the organizers to see if you can join a panel or even give a quick pitch.

Gimmicks
Waxman says: These can work, but they're unpredictable so do them inexpensively and make sure that they're consistent with the brand. Some great ones include the Dollar Shave Club promo video or AirBNB's cereal box campaign. Scopely, a Los Angeles startup, built a ton of buzz by remaining in 'stealth mode' and putting out an outrageous campaign to hire engineers based on the "most interesting man in the world" campaign. Once again, these kind of things are hit or miss, and the funny ones--which seem to work best--only apply if they are consistent with the brand you're building.

What Not To Do
Waxman warns: Skip the trade show. The ROI is usually bad. Everyone is trying to create buzz at the same time. Go as an attendee and set up meetings, but save your booth money for something else.

MasteryConnect, ShowMe, LearnZillion, StudySync, Mangahigh, and Bloomboard are Learn Capital portfolio companies where Tom Vander Ark is a partner. Curriculum Associates is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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