Get the newsletter · Featured · Recent

10 obvious strategies to ruthlessly acquire users

Every consumer internet company needs to think about user acquisition, even if the site is built to be viral. You need to bootstrap user base, content, and all the other neat effects that kick in when you hit 50k+ users. This is obviously true in the case of social media sites that depend on UGC content.

I’ve been looking for a list for how people go about acquiring users, and I haven’t found a great one. So here’s a group of obvious, standard strategies to acquire users, and details about a couple of them.

10 (obvious) strategies to acquire users

  1. Email/IM features for invites and content
  2. Blog/MySpace widgets
  3. Auto-invite for email, social networks, etc
  4. Auto-embed for blog widgets
  5. A/B tested signup pages
  6. Smart adwords buying
  7. Viral referrals
  8. SEO/landing page generation
  9. Push through RSS/Email, etc.
  10. Reduce user “drag” through the entire funnel

Let’s drill into more details.

#1 – Email/IM features for invites and content
It’s obvious that you need to make it very easy to share content, invites, and other things for your site. So anything that might be an e-mailable article or detail page, put an “Email this to a friend” link there. Same for invites. And don’t have it just be e-mail, remember that lots of people use IM and you can use “aim:goIM” as a prefix to make it easy to send it to a AIM buddy.

#2 – Blog/MySpace widgets
Another super obvious feature is to widgetize the most core content on the site, and allow people to embed it into their blogs. They might do that because your site is solving something they want for their site (music-sharing/chat/slideshows), but it might also be something to help them make the site more sticky or content-rich (popular links, interesting news, etc.)

#3 – Auto-invite for email, social networks, etc
This is not new, but requires a bit more work. In the case of Flixster, after you sign in, it recognizes that you’re a hotmail.com or gmail.com or whatever user, and asks you for a username/password for that e-mail service. If you agree, it’ll go through and invite users from your address book and folks you’ve corresponded with. Annoying, but a great way to blast several hundred people all at once.

#4 – Auto-embed for blog widgets
Same for blog widgets – why trust users to copy and paste when you can get their MySpace credentials, save them, and make it a 1-click experience to add your widget to their spaces?

#5 – A/B tested signup pages
Using one headline versus another can create a 5x difference in signup percentages. If you want to make sure you’re not using a bad one, make sure you A/B test your signup pages. Try different value propositions – focus on Free versus Sharing versus MySpace versus whatever Web 2.0 proposition you have. Try them out, and keep a hidden field in the signup on the source. Then track them over time to see what works.

In fact, before you even launch your product, you can build a landing page through something like Survey Monkey. Then, drive traffic to it, and see how people respond to differences in layout, headlines, copy, and others.

Offermatica is the king of this kind of stuff. If someone would like to build a long-tail version of this used by bloggers and such, that’d be a great business.

#6 – Smart adwords buying
Once you start getting content, you can get a lot more creative on search keywords buying as well. A lot of people don’t know what keywords to buy, but you should realize that you want to buy literally 10s of thousands of keywords. If you’re a music site, obviously you want to buy things related to “music” but you also want musical genres, artist names, CD names, etc., etc. In fact, once you get some content from your users, you’ll want to take that data and process it for keywords. If you were a fashion site, you want to be buying fashion brands, celebrities, genres, item names, etc.

The folks at comparison shopping engines are complete masters at this, since it’s not easy to score what keyword combinations are the best, and which ones drive the best ROIs.

A good place to understand where you should start is to look at Google referrals and what keywords people are already coming through as.

#7 – Viral referrals
Why should people invite people to your site, other than the fact they love your content? Well, people create these incentives in a couple ways – if your site is invite-only, then people give each other value through the invites, regardless of whether or not the sites are good. If your site is like LinkedIn, and it provides a way to manage contacts, that’s another great inherent way to generate e-mails. One interesting vector on MySpace, from people I’ve interviewed, is oftentimes their experienced friends set up their accounts so that they have a way to keep in touch more easily. A lot of thinking can be put into the viral nature of sites.

#8 – SEO/landing page generation
When it comes down to it, every site is really divided into two groups – first, you have the sticky audience that is there because they are part of your core userbase. Then, secondly, you have newbies that are coming into your site because of Google. Often the latter is much bigger than the former.

A great question to ask, then, is the following: How do you create more landing pages and opportunities for people to stumble onto your site?

For that, you need to make sure that the titles of your pages reflect the item you’re viewing detail on. You also want your URL to do the same. You want to add links to other sites when appropriate, and syndicate interesting content. Another SEO tactic is to actually generate landing pages that may not even be user-accessible, but rather, just for bringing in folks from Google. This is yet another deep area where you can spend a lot of money.

#9 – Push through RSS/Email, etc.
Obviously, another great way to create stickiness is to offer RSS feeds and e-mail subscriptions for everything. This makes it so that people can disengage from the site, and weeks later come back. Emails also offer the great artifact that people will forward them on to friends, if you offer enough content.

#10 – Reduce user “drag” through the entire funnel
A bunch of the above points have to do with how you squeeze more people into the top of the funnel, but a final point is that it’s important to optimize (and A/B test) across many different points in the funnel. For example, if someone’s password is too short, you want to alert them immediately, not once they hit submit. If your login forms are multi-step, it’s better to hide the optional stuff and ping them slowly later on. Once they’ve signed on, give them something to do so that they are immediately having fun, rather than leaving the site since there’s nothing to do.

The above is a pretty basic list! Feel free to add additional strategies in the comments.

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.