App Launch Strategy: Limited or Wide Release?

What is the best strategy to launch, and when is the right time to go public? Contrary to what engineers say, the world is not all binary.

As you know, the tech industry is now heavily relying on the TechCrunch effect, as product release articles published on TechCrunch are read by a million people interested in new technology products, driving tens of thousands of new customers directly within a couple of days. Most startups thus synchronize their product launch with their marketing launch: they announce their new product, kick off the PR campaign and engage in marketing activities at the same time, aiming at building buzz within a short time frame.

This Wide Release Strategy is particularly important for platforms that rely heavily on network effects to build content, and thereby increase the customer’s perceived value. Internet platforms also need to acquire the whole market they target, in order to maximize these same network effect. That’s why there is only one Facebook, one eBay, and one Airbnb. Blockbuster or die.

Consequently, there is much at stake when it comes to an app’s launch strategy — the viability of the product itself. It is essential to go public at the right time, and I am writing this letter to convince you, in opposition with conventional wisdom, not to synchronize product launch and marketing launch, not pursue a Wide Release Strategy, and not to rely heavily on the TechCrunch effect. By doing so, you will also dissociate the viability of the product from the effectiveness of its launch.

The TechCrunch effect: Save the Preciousness

TechCrunch is an essential part of the marketing launch, but requires a broader push to trigger indirect effects, which are essential for a successful launch.

Indeed, TechCrunch’s news are followed by 2 million Facebook fans, 4 million RSS readers, and 6 million Twitter users. The outpouring of attention results in tens of thousands of download for app releases, from everywhere around the globe. That explains why so many startup want to be covered. Yet, it is not easy to get the online magazine’s attention. The editorial team of TechCrunch receives about a hundred new product release pitches every day, and they publish up to 5 in the same day. So they will never publish us if we don’t beg them to do it.

A successful release builds on this unique opportunity to trigger domino effects, with more blogs and broadcasters relaying the message, in order to attract the million users necessary to “cross the chasm” and foster the platform’s position with great content produced daily. These indirect relay happen when a startup has already developed a network of followers, bloggers and press agents to relay the news, with additional materials about the product, such as case studies.

The TechCrunch effect happens only once. It is precious.

Product Launch with Limited Release: A Guerilla approach to growth

Assuming your PR strategy is strong, the product also needs to be right. You need to have a strong customer retention and a high virality coefficient (i.e. number of new users brought in by active user every month), which requires a good understanding of your customer base, and the only way to be sure about it is to test these metrics and iterate on a limited number of users beforehand.

The exclusivity related to limited release also drives user engagement. Early users feel ownership for the product and can thus pardon deficiencies on the platform, such as minor bugs or lack of content.

Put in place an invitation-only system in the early weeks to increase the impression of exclusiveness with early users to drive engagement. The Limited Release period should last between 6 and 9 month months.

In addition to enabling you to prepare a stronger launch, the limited release also permits choosing your grassroot users. With a limited release, you can target the users you desire to build a platform culture you wish to have on your platform.

Furthermore, the limited release will not suffer from a lack of network effects if you target one community at a time. The sales / marketing effort should follow a Guerilla approach to growth to build small network effects that will add up before a wider release.

With such an approach to growth, you are also building strongholds while competitors do not notice us. The Guerilla is an essential stage to prepare for a wider war before declaring it.

Marketing Launch for the Wide Release: Push Play

Synchronize the marketing launch with the TechCrunch effect once you have a first base of engaged grassroot users, and case studies of positive impact you had on a few communities.

With strong user metrics, you will have a stronger case to ask investors for a large investment in marketing expenses around the marketing launch. The large upfront investments related in advertising and marketing will not be a drain on our resources if you provide investors with market-tested metrics and a proven case explaining what we expect to achieve with our marketing launch. Expenses may include services from a PR agency, the production of a teaser video, and online advertising.

Drive a multi-channel release with intense marketing effort, just as Symphony did for Despicable Me 2 with the Comcast NBCUniversal network.

Because initial success breeds further success, a strong marketing launch will give current and prospective users the confidence that your app is going to last, and thereby worth the effort of downloading and testing on their mobile phone. Just as the film industry has a tradition of publishing sales figures weekly, the growth in the number of downloads on the App store and the subsequent hit list define the positive spiral of success down the road for the app.

To conclude, combining the best features of a Limited Release and a Wide release decrease the risks related to the App Launch. Startups are more and more relying on the TechCrunch effect as the key factor of success, because it is becoming more and more difficult to get this highly wanted prize. Yet, the prize comes only once, and running after it before being ready for it diminishes our chance to find a great market fit for our product. This strategy, mixing Limited and Wide release, is inspired by Lady Gaga’s 3rd album release which, after relying on grassroot fans for the first two albums, decided to launch with intense marketing effort as a Wide Release its third album. You are, in a sense, preparing for two product launches.

Adapted from a paper I published for the fantastic Harvard Business School course “Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries” taught by Pr. Anita Elberse