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Startup Marketing Advice from Balsamiq Studio

First off, the title of this post is a bit pretentious for my taste, but I wanted to pay homage to Mike Speiser's excellent post on A/B testing using AdWords, and take advantage of his $10.87 investment while I was at it! ;). Mike is one of the brightest people I have ever met, and I highly encourage everyone to read his Laserlike blog.

I say that the post is pretentious for my taste because I hardly feel like I am a marketing expert, in fact I consider myself a beginner at most things. Still, I can't deny that Balsamiq has received a very good amount of coverage in the blogosphere: I am timing this post to coincide with the 100th review of Balsamiq Mockups (the full list is here), the website has received over 32,000 unique visitors and sales are exceeding all my expectations. For 6 weeks of operation, I can't complain. 😉

A few people have asked me to share how I did it, so here it is.

Follow The Advice of The Masters

The first thing I did when I was getting ready to launch was run Google searches on variations of "how to get a major blog to cover you".

The results was this list.

Of all of the tips contained in those articles, Marshall Kirkpatrick's articles were the most helpful (no big surprise there). After reading this article I decided to add this section to my company page and to tweak my "direct email template" (see below), and after reading this one I created an OPML file for Balsamiq's feeds, which in the end resulted in Marshall covering Balsamiq on ReadWriteWeb himself.

Aside from those articles, I read a bunch of books over the last few months which had something to say on the subject: Bob Walsh's excellent book and e-book are especially useful for coders like me.

Send Direct Emails

In preparation for launch, I sent maybe around 40 direct emails to bloggers I thought might want to cover me. I had a list of such blogs handy: most of the blogs I read every morning apply. (with the notable exception of TechCrunch, which I never submitted to since all they care about is VC-money-madness and I'm staying away from that, Balsamiq is a bootstrapped small business, not a startup in Paul Graham's sense of the word) [UPDATE: strikethrough after a lesson learned].

If you don't have a list handy, you can once again follow Marshall's advice to create one.

Once you have a list, forget your inhibitions and just email the blogger to their preferred email address (or submt to their "contact us" form, whatever they suggest).

Note that I also sent emails to "mavens" who didn't have a blog but maybe wrote a book that was relevant or are just huge superstars like Jason Fried or Guy Kawasaki - yes, I emailed them both, and they both replied, being the class acts they are. I am never washing my Inbox again! 😉

Here's the email template I used:

Subject

A tool you might be interested in: Balsamiq Mockups

Body:

Hi there.

[insert a paragraph thanking the blogger for their work]

[insert a paragraph in which you explain why you think this email is relevant to their blog]

I am preparing to launch a prototyping tool that you and your readers might be interested in, so I thought I'd share it and perhaps get some of your expert feedback on. Here's the info if you're interested: http://www.balsamiq.com - You can find info on Balsamiq Mockups and my company from there.

Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about it. I'd be happy to send you a license so that you can evaluate the desktop version better, if you'd like.

[optional] One note: I am still in stealth mode, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't blog about Balsamiq until June 19th.

Thanks!
Peldi
---------------------------------------------------
Giacomo 'Peldi' Guilizzoni
Founder, Balsamiq Studios, LLC
http://www.balsamiq.com
ph: +1 (415) 367-3531, Skype, GTalk, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed: balsamiq

If you are reading this and were on the receiving end of an email like this, forgive me for sending you a templated email...but I sent 40+ of these puppies and efficiency is a must for a one-man startup like mine! 🙂

What I like about the template above is that it's fairly short, informative enough, respectful (not begging), it includes a way for the blogger to contact me (look at the signature), and offers the blogger something special (a free license), which is an incentive to reply and start a conversation.

Just remember that bloggers are just people, sure they are insanely busy and hugely influential people, but still people like you and me. And they are always, always looking for interesting content.

I think I roughly had a 20% success rate with those emails (i.e. 2 in 10 resulted in a write-up), which I am very happy with.

I sent most of those right before launch, but I occasionally still send emails like that out once in a while if I run into a site that I like and seems relevant.

Inject Yourself in the Conversation

Another thing that has worked for me is what I call "injecting myself in the conversation". As I was looking for bloggers to contact, I found some posts/articles that were extremely relevant to what I was doing. In other words, these are posts that people looking for a tool like mine would find and read.

So what I did was add a comment like this one or this one. And I get a lot of traffic from my comment on this post.

The thing to note is that I only ever add a comment if I think it will be useful for the readers of that blog post, the last thing I want to do is spam (man do I hate blog spam with a passion!). If it's only mildly relevant, I pass.

Another thing I do to track relative conversation is make extensive use of RSS coupled with Twitter. Here's a post on Making RSS work for your micro-ISV I wrote on the subject.

I also have an RSS feed of a Twitter search for prototyping OR "UI AND design" OR wireframe OR mockup OR UX which is a great read in general, and useful for finding people who are looking for a tool like mine: here's an example, and here's another. In those cases, I send a Tweet back like this one. Again, only if I really think my tool will help them, relieve them from the pain that brought them to vent their frustration on Twitter in the first place.

This incredibly direct way to advertise has been very successful, resulting in multiple reviews and sales.

It basically allows you to contact people who are looking for you, moments after they expressed their need for your solution (i.e. when they need you most).

In other words, if you are a PR firm and don't have a Twitter strategy, it's time to get one, fast.

Give stuff away!

This is really a case of "the more you give, the more you get".

Give to bloggers

Everyone likes free stuff, but you have to be careful, as giving free stuff to journalists can be considered a form of bribery.

The way I deal with it is to make it a company policy, clearly stated on my website. If you are a blogger, you get a free license. Period. You have no obligation towards me. I have no control on what you write: in fact, a critical review is sometimes more useful to me than a glowing one.

Also, by its nature the demo version is limited in functionality, so a full license is required to fully evaluate the product in order to write about it.

Give to bloggers to give away

Bloggers love to give away free stuff, as it makes their blog more popular. In preparation for the 1.1 release, I emailed all the bloggers who had requested a license and offered them an extra license key to give away to their readers, as a promotion.

The July Sharepoint Buzz Giveaway is a great example of what I mean.

Give to do-gooders

I am SO happy to be giving away so many licenses to non-profits and other do-gooders in the world. I don't have much to give, but somehow managed to create a tool that people find valuable. So I am extremely happy and proud of the fact that all these do-gooders use my software to do good in the World. It gives me motivation to keep going.

For the more cynical of you, giving away to do-gooders is also good for business: first of all, most non-profits are poor and chances are they wouldn't be buying your tool if they had the money (they'd use it for something more important), so it's not like you are "spoiling" a potential customer. On top of that, non-profits have lots of contacts in the for-profit world, and are good for your company's image. But none of this matters to me, the World needs more do-gooders and I'm happy to help them in any way I can.

Give to everyone!

I offer a free version of Mockups on this site or download a demo version of Mockups for Desktop. Sure they are limited in functionality and nag you every five minutes, but they are still useful for the occasional mockup. You can export your work as XML and save it to a text file if you want to continue working on it later or create more than one. So in other words, they are fully functional versions, just not super-convenient versions.

I give these away because I believe people should have access to my tool if they really need it and can't afford it, and to allow people to try before buying.

The fact that these versions exist gets mentioned a lot in the blog reviews, as bloggers like to help others find good free stuff.

Make it fast!

I give away about a dozen licenses every day, so I have to make it as fast as possible. I wrote a little application that allows me to send someone a license with only a few clicks. All I do is select the person's name (from their email), copy it, paste it in the application, click "generate key", and what I get is not only the key, but a pre-populated email like this one:

Hi there, here's your license info:

Download URL: http://www.balsamiq.com/products/mockups/desktop#download
Organization name: test test
Serial Key: [redacted]

I have some assets you can use here: http://www.balsamiq.com/company#forbloggers if you'd like.
I'll add test test to my Customers page in the next few days.

Enjoy Balsamiq Mockups and thanks for the good you're doing in the World!
Enjoy Balsamiq Mockups and thanks for spreading the word, I am looking forward to reading your review!
Peldi

The app automatically puts that email in my clipboard, so all I need to do is go back to gmail, hit reply, paste, delete the lines that don't apply and hit send.

The whole process takes me about 15 seconds. Efficiency is everything! 🙂

Blog Blog Blog

The chart above shows the number of visitors to balsamiq.com since launch. The two highest peaks happened the day after two blog posts, both about Balsamiq's financial results. The second post resulted in the RWW review mentioned earlier. Some of my blog entries get a lot more traffic than other site pages, and I suspect this post will as well.

In other words, blog, blog blog! 🙂

AdWords? What's that?

So far I have spent exactly $0 on marketing (I don't even have an AdWords account). Sure I have put some serious time into the website and the marketing efforts described above, and given lots of free licenses away, but out of pocket, I have spent nothing so far. I might explore it when I need it, but so far it hasn't been necessary.

Conclusion

Again, I feel a bit uncomfortable passing the above as advice...take it for what it is, a description of what I have done so far. Implement at your own risk! 😉

I really feel that the Internet has kept its promise: anyone can reach a very wide audience, all it takes is a computer, an Internet connection, some readily available know-how and some old fashioned elbow grease. 🙂

If you are reading this because you are about to launch a new product, good luck to you, and don't forget to have fun with it!

UPDATE: once again this post sparked an interesting discussion on Hacker News. Read it and learn about my prejudices and insecurities (bad) and lessons learned (good) 🙂

UPDATE: I have revisited these tips one by one as part of this Uncommon Interview over at the "A Smart Bear" blog.

Peldi for the Balsamiq Team

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