Recently I’ve been thinking startups are like building a machine. There’s parallels to board games like Settlers of Catan, Power Grid and Dominion (aka Euro Games or Designer Games). These games feature sparse resources and tough/fun choices.
Fair warning – this is an epic (aka long) post. It’s something of a reflection on our learnings this far.
Each of these games are simulations, where you make a resource generating machine to pit against other players. You put a series of actions into effect and as you play the game those decisions compound on each other.
The winner makes the most efficient machine. One where all your actions combine to create more good than bad, where your machine works better than your competitors.
- In Settlers you need to be able to gather Wood and Bricks to make roads, gather Wood, Brick, Wheat and Sheep to make settlements etc. There is a natural order to things.
- In Power Grid you are building your efficiently capacity to fuel more and more cities. There is extreme sparsity and some wonderful mechanics to help the underdog.
- If you’ve ever played Dominion you’ll totally get the idea of building a machine.
Building a startup is very much like this. There are always sparsities. There are always tough choices.
There is no sparsity of ideas, there is a sparcity of ideas being taken seriously. AJ Leon
To win you need to be taken seriously. AJ couldn’t have said it better.
You are seeking to build credibility/trust, a passionate user-base, engaging content, attention etc
Nobody is going to take your idea seriously if you don’t. To get people to make a leap of faith, leave them in no doubt of your passion. There is a shift when you can see a reflection of your beliefs being echoed by your community. Even better when your community picks up and extends your ideas.
The use of “@” and #hashtags are two great examples of how Twitter’s community drove culture and adoption.
I’m seeing this more and more on Listly, which I have to say, is a pretty cool feeling.
Guest blogging, local lists, blog post series, email newsletter lists are all examples of ideas inspired by the community.
When you see these actions it’s your responsibility to amplify and mirror these actions to your larger community. Sharing best practices and emerging ideas is one sure way to keep people inspired and engaged.
You just can’t assume people think about your platform like you do. Your job is to always be educating.
It’s All About the Content Machine
Listly, like so many startups, is building a content machine. The thing to remember while content is the outcome, what really matters is people, because people are your inputs. With no input there will be no sustainable output. If you are going to win, you need to build a self sustaining engine, not an engine fuelled by angel/VC cash or founder passion.
Real businesses are about tapping into a bigger self-refuelling energy source. You exist because lots of people want you to exist.
If your community can’t find the reason to create content and to return to create more content, you have a problem. That is the role of very early stage startups – find your value. Find your core and build from there.
You can very easily populate your site with auto generated content, but you will quickly become a content farm – you lack soul. The sterile nature of content farms shines through, even if people don’t know the term “content farm”, people can sense that the site isn’t thriving.
Here’s a list of 60+ content farms to share examples of what I’m talking about.
Thinking About Interaction
With Listly the actors in this game are:
- List Makers
- Lists Contributors
- Blogs / Bloggers
- Blog Readers
When you begin with no content, no users and no credibility, it’s a challenging game. You need to remember you are building a machine, where all the actors can interact. Interaction works like multiplication. Almost any interaction is good. The more everyone interacts, the more emotional commitment they have to your brand. Real community/engagement is harder to build, but once built, your machine will have a natural rhythm. It wants and needs to keep growing.
In the early stages networks need to focus more on personal utility, but as the network grows, the network itself becomes the bigger part of the value proposition. This is hard to gauge and how to judge how big a network you’ll need, but you will do better if you can create a density of connections in specific niches.
We’ve seen a lot of adoption in the education space, for example or in ITSM. Your key users fuel off each other if you can find and sustain multiple users in a single niche they will multiply.
To begin you perform the following actions:
- Leverage your connections and make new ones.
- Make your own content with a few fake accounts (everyone does it)
- Be welcoming and supportive of your new users
- Be very observant and analyze where things break (and people leave)
- Get lucky (and make your own luck). You need some luck and a lot of hard work
There is an art to getting moving. These are all inputs to the machine. You spend a lot of time creating inputs. Looking back I wish I’d had a clearer notion that I was building a machine. I wish I’d been on the lookout for that tipping point, when the outputs overtake the inputs. That’s definitely being one of my biggest learnings. Today I feel like I’m driving a machine or rather acting to manage and optimize a machine.
I do still create a lot of inputs, but they are sometimes hard to connect to outputs.
The other big learning for me has been how long some content takes to seed itself as a source or input for organic search. In this sense your inputs are hard to measure. Some content succeeds, some does not. I’m still learning why that is. I guess my work on creating content is always experimental. This is perhaps different than a typical business user.
The Game That Never Ends
To keep with the gaming metaphor, it just takes lots of turns. It’s a game that never ends, until you run out of money or belief. For the few, there are positive endings, but for most it’s about enjoying the experience, you’ve got to build a real business.
When can see/sense the natural rhythm of your machine, that’s when you know you can focus on refining the machine. More inputs = more outputs = more growth = more value for your community.
It’s easy to begin with too much money, too much initial exposure (the Techcrunch and Mashable post) , too many connections and too many ideas. All these do is give you false feedback, because they don’t create natural rhythm. Once you have rhythm and a repeatable process you can seek to infuse cash and more media coverage.
Diffusion of Innovation
People take time and repetition to trust and believe in your ideas. This means people try your tool multiple times. Perhaps 1st time they were just exploring. Perhaps second time they tried, but didn’t see the value. Perhaps 3rd time they came back a little more determined to make it work. Everyone is unique in what they are seeking from your platform and how frequently they will return.
You can’t worry about the people who leave, focus on the people who stay. You’ll get another chance to keep them next time. Your current active users will do two things
- Attract new users
- Entice older users to return and retry.
Each time they return they have a little more faith, you also have more users, more traffic and more content. All these aspects become inputs to the machine.
There is no shortcut to building real community and real engagement. Trust takes time. Attention is in short supply. It also takes time to build a product people want to use frequently.
The more interactions you can create the more people will want to come back – these are social networks after all.
Social networks have taught us to expect emails which act as calls to action. This is our social norm.
To build your engine you need to conserve your resources and seek out early contributors and users who have energy /commitment and passion for your project. The real magic happens when you find compelling use cases and case studies that are shareable and repeatable. People find it easier to connect to stories than to features.
People can translate how other people use your product into their world and their words.
I’ll be sharing more of these examples in future posts. I mentioned some in last week’s newsletter (issue 13)
Metrics of Choice
When it comes to building your content machine, you need to decide which metrics you really want to drive.
There is one thing for sure you will be overwhelmed by metrics. You need to learn by experimenting which other actions and metrics feed your chosen metric. With Listly our metrics of choice are embeds (which leads to views) and also engagement (which leads to more users).
In the last month we’ve seen 49% of our traffic coming from embeds. We have almost 3000 publishers and over 6000 list creators, people’s willingness to adopt and implement Listly has changed dramatically in the last 6 months. In reality that progression and perception change has been gradual.
We’ve seen a strong correlation between our weekly newsletter and people’s action and during the past 14 weeks since we began the newsletter we have seen strong growth in the list creator and publisher base.
We’ve been able to use the newsletter as an input to drive the machine. I owe Chris Brogan a big thanks for sewing that seed.
Every new input that is of value can trigger more people to return more frequently.
The Building and Leaking of Intention
It’s both a blessing and a curse to know that at any time there are many people who’ve seen or heard of your service who intend to return and explore it further – some intend to write a review. All these intentions exist, but you can’t bank them. You have to believe you are creating more such intention every day.
Per my earlier posts, these intentions leak. You can do nothing to deal with an individual case, but simply create more awareness and more urgency to tip these people to action.
Each action leads to more inter-action, in the same way each action shared via Facebook’s social graph can lead to more awareness and more actions.
Today we live in a world where we prefer to share content over reading it, this can be discouraging. You can’t let this dissuade your convictions. It’s better people are sharing your ideas than ignoring them.
At some point enough exposure will lead to real action and usage of your platform.
The more inputs and loopbacks your can create the more you will crank up your machine.
The Timing of Content
You could write the most compelling blog post ever, but simply because you aren’t famous or trusted or visible enough your ideas will go unheard by many. Most of your content will be written too soon. For each piece of content you output, you should never give up. Each piece of content’s big day could be tomorrow. You never know who will read it and feel inspired to comment or quote you or recommend you to someone who has more influence or power or perhaps simply access to a bigger stage. Every post has its day. Your efforts accumulate over time.
Visibility of Your Platform in Action is the Best Validation.
We’ve recently seen an acceleration of user signups signifying more people are more willing to participate and vote. Users who have voted become prospects to be users who create lists. List creators become candidates to embed lists on their blog. That’s the cycle that fuels the machine.
Most people discover Listly via organic search. Most people discover a list, presumably in a space that interests them. At some point they are enticed to engage and participate and to do that, they need to signup.
The machine has got to the point where it self-generating new inputs. New content is triggered from existing content and the human engagement to create this participation in many cases has dropped to zero.
The Long Tail of Your Content Machine
Exploring our analytics this week, I was happy to discover 500+ lists got 100 views or more in the last month. These 500+ lists had over 500,000 page views in the last month, with the classic long tail distribution.
We know from experience that once a list gets a daily hit of say 50 organic searches that that number is likely to grow. Content takes time to become established, so having so many lists reaching 100+ hits per day is an awesome predictor of future growth.
Building a content machine never ends. There’s always more to do. In many ways that’s the incredibly motivating thing. There’s so many places we can enhance the existing experience. The machine has lots of options for tuning and refining.
So What Next?
There’s lots of tricks we haven’t used yet. We’re exploring:
- Suggesting which friends on other networks who’ve joined listly
- Sharing who has how many followers and cross promote and recommend lists and people to follow
- Implementing leader boards and automated weekly “best content” emails.
The best trick is to try different networks and see how the call you back to the platform. With so many networks there’s a lot of ideas that you can draw upon.
I’m excited to be able to compare the ramping of views of different lists launched at different times. I’m super exited to give people the analytical tools to create better lists in less time involving more people. The science of engagement is not precise, but there are many simple rules to follow.
As the software gets better the community get better at using it too.
We’re also adding more actors into the mix as we roll out our API. Lists can play a roll in so many applications. There is an undeniable allure for automation in all things marketing.
One idea we’re exploring is the option of synchronizing your Twitter and Listly lists – I mentioned that in last weeks’ post.
We’re close to releasing Listly for Teams which will enhance collaboration and bring more people back more often.
Overtime you can change people’s perception of your app as being something you use monthly to weekly and better yet daily. Habits are most easily formed if we do something daily. The best machine become habitual. Like any good game, you want people coming and playing daily.
Shortening the return cycle for your users is one sure way to accelerate your machine’s growth.
Here’s a collection of interesting posts on building user engagement and your active community over time.
I’ve also been collecting ideas and tips. Feel free to add your suggestions to the list and vote on your favorites.
Tips for Building Your User Community to Drive Return Visits
Give more feedback to your users - report on their progress
Reward what you view as the best activity and content is perceived to be most valuable
Connect users with the existing friends
Unveil something new every day/week (content, features etc) - Think serialization
Maximize the on boarding experience / give more insight / extract more learning
Segment users and target messages based on specific behaviours
Connect users with other similar minded users
Encourage users to signup and connect their social networks
Rollout a progressive application / progressive learning strategy (keep it simple for beginners)
Celebrate sucessess and mention people
Connect your users and get them talking
Encourage people to share content and mention/include others
Make you users look/feel good about their time investment
Don't assume people think ab0out your network - always be educating
Building an engaged community is challenging but fun. It’s certainly highly rewarding. Who do you think is doing it well?
Which is your favorite newsletter? Which network has the most engaging calls to action?
PS if you haven’t played Settlers, Power Grid and Dominion I highly recommend it. Play could become habitual.