Learning from Twitter’s and Foursquare’s successful SXSW launches

There are a couple of interesting threads on Quora where over the last few days people have been discussing tactics for launching a product at the SXSW conference in Austin.  As many of you will know, this is a hot topic because SXSW played a pivotal role in the early growth of Twitter (2007) and Foursquare (2009), and the conversation on Quora is high quality in part because the founders of these businesses pitch in with their view on how and why SXSW worked for them.

Ev Williams, founder of Twitter highlights two things in his answer which stood out for me:

We launched it nine months before — to a whimper. By the time SXSW 2007 rolled around, we were starting to grow finally and it seemed like all of our users (which were probably in the thousands) were going to Austin that year.

and

We created a Twitter visualizer and negotiated with the festival to put flat panel screens in the hallways. This is something they’d never done before, but we didn’t want a booth on the trade show floor, because we knew hallways is where the action was. We paid $11K for this and set up the TVs ourselves.

Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare has five points in his answer of which three are tactics for getting a passionate group of early adopter/evangelists before the conference starts.

There are a number of general lessons for product/company launches that can be drawn from this and which apply more widely than SXSW and social networking platforms like Twitter and Foursquare.

  1. Conferences are good for injecting growth into a small user base, not getting your first users – so launch before the conference, not at it.  This is Scoble’s number one tip for startups launching at SXSW 2011.
  2. Achieving local critical mass is the key to getting hype and growing from a small user base to a medium sized one.  Local can be defined geographically – Twitter and Foursquare worked well at SXSW because everyone was using their services to find parties – but it could also be a globally spread niche of some kind.  For B2B companies that is often a tightly defined industry segment – My SQL was great for web startups.
  3. Offline tactics are an important compliment to online distribution – the Twitter screens at SXSW got everyone talking and thinking about Twitter.  Be visible, different, and ideally extraordinary. 
  4. It pays to think carefully about the appropriate ‘venue’ for your launch.  SXSW is great for communication oriented services like Twitter and Foursquare because it is a sprawling conference with lots of parties and people need help figuring out where to go.  Size is an important factor in determining ‘appropriateness’ – it is hard to stand out at big events (as SXSW has become).  To put it another way local critical mass can be achieved with a smaller number of users at a smaller conference.  It can’t be too small though.  Another important factor is appropriateness of attendees for your product – ideally you want your customers and target customers there – as Ev points out.  I put ‘venue’ in quotes because it need not be a conference or other physical venue – e.g. it could be media related.
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