Robert Scoble, outspoken but respected geek extraordinaire, is talking about the startups launching new products at Demo this weekend and has touched on a subject near and dear to my heart, which is the promotion and marketing of a tech product and company. He has visited the Demo finalists sites, and made the unpleasant-to-hear proclamation that they suck. As a person entrenched in the tech industry and Managing Director of Fast Company TV, his opinions should be noted by every one of the companies that fall into the category of “sucking” because he’s not the kind of person that wants startups to fail. He always seems to be on the lookout for cool new technology and if something seems out of order here, it likely is. His complaints are definitely worth considering, and I hope tech startups (and even those who’ve been around a while) will learn from his complaints.
You might want to read his post about this now, and then come back here for my breakdown and analysis of his chief complaints.
Complaint #1: Scoble wants to know what your company does – immediately.
Adapx has this problem. They open with an interactive industry-centered ad, but you don’t yet understand what they do or what they’re selling. Lower on the page is this sentence: Capturx enables designs, maps and forms to be printed on ordinary paper and marked up with a digital pen, which digitizes the handwriting and integrates the data directly into Microsoft™ Office and leading GIS and CAD systems. That may be a little wordy, but opening with that type of statement would let users know instantly whether they have a need for this product or not.
Blue Lava also misses the mark with immediate understanding of what they’re selling. Even after looking at this site for a while, I have no idea why I am looking at rotating photos of landscapes. They also suffer from the company name vs. product name promotion problem, which can be a real issue and one I have struggled with myself, as a brand manager of sorts. I think what they are actually selling is called “I Love Photos” but don’t have an immediate grasp of HOW they are fixing this problem for me: “Instead of spending hours organizing your media, you’ll spend hours enjoying it.”
UGA Digital really bothers me, because I feel they have been lead astray by the idea of “white space” or something. They have on the home page, a giant 3D logo, and some abstract swirlies, and nothing else in the primary focal point, and the text is sort of small and you’d have to read through most of it to uncover what they actually sell.
Complaint #2: Scoble thinks you can create a better, more compelling pre-launch splash page.
And he’s right. Apparently there is Demo rule that to participate you can’t launch prior to your Demo announcement time. I don’t know enough about this conference, so that is my interpretation of what one of the demo participants said, but here is Scoble’s point: don’t just put the “launching at Demo” banner on your page. This isn’t enough to make someone who is curious about you NOW come back after you’ve launched. Otherwise, you’ve potentially lost a lead because you didn’t hook them. I will give you some ideas about how to make a pre-launch page exciting in my next post.
Complaint #3: Scoble wants to know what you uniquely bring to the table.
In his words, he’s aggravated by “Mushy marketing and I still don’t know what they do, the value they bring, the pain they solve.” Boy, this one is hard. I’m quite certain I’ve participated in both creating the mushy marketing and trying to de-mush the marketing messages of many a company. Sometimes it’s hard to explain what you can do for people, but you know what? You have to, or people will leave your site as quickly as they arrived.
Complaint #4: Scoble doesn’t like “lame” stock photography.
With the advent of cool Ruby on Rails development, and “Web 2.0” look and feel, which seems more high-tech in comparison to the site styles of old, people like Scoble who are inundated with new companies, products and technologies are probably fairly sensitive to the branding. But this is a concern worth noting, because of competitive advantage. Brands have to evolve alongside trends and changing technologies to stay relevant. Since these are startups, launching now in 2008, they have to come out of the gate looking and feeling new and appealing.
Sometimes, tech tricks done on a web site create an annoying experience for real users, which is why user feedback and testing is so important. Paid Interviews has a logo with jagged edges and the giant graphics and headlines on the page don’t go anywhere, instead you have to click a “Read More” link that pops up a box with little text in it. The idea, I’m sure, was to prevent people from having to leave the page – I get that. But the execution is irritating.
Complaint #5: Just like any other user would, Scoble gets confused by strange things done to your site simply because of launching at Demo.
It appears to me that a number of sites that already existed chose to simply disable links, or pop the same form onto all the pages, rather than redesign or give visitors real information regarding the launch activities specific to them at Demo. I find the Demo rules around this perplexing, because they have inadvertently cut startups off at the knees in order to assure they have some sort of compelling reason to draw visitors to their conference. All of us in business have to be careful about doing business with others, and to me this is a serious drawback of launching at Demo, rather than at an industry-specific conference or tradeshow. Most startups are getting the word out any and every way they can, and someone telling you to pony up $18,000 and not to spread the word about yourself until then should be closely analyzed and researched so that the lack of promotion prior to the event is worth the cost. I know nothing about this conference’s effectiveness… I’m just saying you should research ALL your possible options when determining when and where to launch, because this is a strategic decision.
Some folks have made negative comments over on the Sobleizer’s blog about the harshness and possible unfairness of his complaints, but I thank him for them. I am a person who helps startups market themselves and make products and sites better, and as evidenced by this long post I think he’s nailed down some problems we have to acknowledge and learn from.
One of his first comments was that few of the startups are using video or know how to effectively utilize it. I can see the use for it, but haven’t had the budget or skills in-house to produce something professional enough for client sites, but I want to mention his point. He points to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library site as an excellent model for marketing and promotion. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s worth looking at, for a glimpse of Gary’s personality (which is part of the brand) and marketing ideas. He has this graphic on the site right now (which I have borrowed for as an example – hope he doesn’t mind) that is exactly the point Scoble was making about generating excitement and giving information to visitors that will make them WANT to show up for your launch. Check out his announcement page while it’s still there…
In the next few days, I will specifically post some concrete advice for launching a product or company. You can follow me on Twitter or subscribe to this blog’s feed to make sure you don’t miss it.