To attract users to a new social network, prepare to show them why it beats the competition. Then determine where your consumers hang out online and reach out to them there
I recently graduated from business school and have since been developing a new social network that allows solo travelers to meet people in a new city and get recommendations for places to go and money-saving offers to use there. The service has now launched. Can you offer any tips as to how to best scale it up? —A.T., London It's an intriguing idea, but your challenge will be to break through the confusing din in the social networking space, where new applications seem to be cropping up daily. You'll need to achieve critical mass as well: If one of your users announces her arrival in a city and gets silence in return, she's unlikely to use your service again or recommend it. "You need to make your first impressions good ones, and that's always going to be a problem until you reach enough users," says Peter Shankman, a serial entrepreneur and consultant. You will also need to make the functionality of your network distinctive, perhaps by targeting a very specific demographic or offering something unique. Otherwise, you'll be competing directly against Twitter, Facebook, and other existing networks that already make it easy to meet up with friends or fans while traveling, he says. "Fish Where the Fish Are"
"Find a way to integrate this with Facebook. You want to fish where the fish are," Shankman says. Doing that will help with user acquisition, which should be your first priority. "As soon as the site has a lot of users, advertisers and funders will follow," says David Gorodyansky, chief executive officer of AnchorFree, a Mountain View, Calif., company that offers a service for anonymous Internet surfing. "To acquire users, it would probably make sense to get a good PR effort in place and perhaps to start a social networking campaign to get travelers to find out about the site," he suggests. Consider partnerships with travel tools and websites that already attract travelers, such as CouchSurfing.org or Gorodyansky's own security site for travelers, Hotspot Shield. For monetization, look into offering your service on a white-label basis to exclusive hotel chains and partnering with Globetrotting Digital Media, a provider of travel- and leisure-focused digital marketing programs. You might also look into a Google content campaign and consider advertising on travel websites, blogs, and Facebook sites, suggests Keith Kochberg, CEO of iMarketing, an online marketing agency in Princeton, N.J. Start Geographically, Then Expand
Think about where travelers seek advice and planning, and introduce your service to those "influencers," including hotel concierges, travel agents, corporate travel departments, and city visitor bureaus, says Larry Meltzer, principal at MM2 Public Relations in Dallas. "As a small business, you might start geographically, targeting five major markets and then expanding to additional markets, using the success in those first markets as a point of leverage," he says. In order to raise your company's profile, start conversations about it everywhere you can, online and offline, and encourage your customers to do the same—perhaps in exchange for free, lifetime membership. "As a serial entrepreneur, I can tell you this is going to be your life for the next 24 months," Shankman says. "Every conversation you ever have with anyone is going to start with: 'Hey, listen to this!'" Use comment and review sites such as FlyerTalk and TripAdvisor, at which people are already interacting about travel, to introduce your service in a transparent manner, Meltzer says. And build a following on Twitter, particularly with a relevant audience that fits your demographic and target market.