Tracy Osborn

loves to chat about entrepreneurship, teaching, design, development, and more.

Small-business customer acquisition for your freemium product launch.

This week, WeddingLovely launched our newest wedding vendor directory for wedding bakeries, WeddingCakeLove.com. I've launched five other directories so far (for stationers, planners, photographers, videographers and wedding venues) and have acquired quite a few tricks under my sleeves on how I onboard small businesses into the directory. This article covers pre-launch tactics—setting up a landing page, how to find small-businesses to contact, and how to email without looking like you're spamming. Part two on post-launch tactics coming soon.

WeddingLovely's directories operate on a freemium model—I onboard vendors for free and vendors have the option to upgrade to a premium account with more profile features, higher visibility, and more opportunities for promotion via our weddings blog.

I can't launch WeddingCakeLove without a initial subset of vendors in our directories, but it's fairly difficult to get someone to sign up for a new service which advertises their company information which doesn't even exist yet.

Set up a quick and dirty landing page to collect emails immediately.

I set up a landing page over a year ago using Kickoff Labs, announced it on our weddings blog, and then got distracted with other things. People still signed up (albiet slowly), so when I was finally ready to take the next step with WeddingCakeLove, I had a small list of vendors who were already interested.

It's a no-brainer: Set up a landing page to collect addresses immediately when you acquire a new domain.

Find small businesses to email.

The vast majority of my onboarding involves emailing the businesses directly. My goal when emailing vendors is finding people who will probably respond to my emails, and quite simply, people who are already signed up on other wedding vendor directories already know the drill and potential benefits of a directory. If I can pitch my directory as an improvement over the existing directories (being free, as well as integration with WeddingLovely.com, my online wedding planning service, and (soon) other services), then my returned email chance is fairly high. So, emailing vendors on competitor's directories, while perhaps slightly dirty, is one of my favorite ways to onboard new vendors.

Stepping away from existing vendor directories, Yelp.com is a great way to find small-business vendors within certain verticals. Compared to the above example where the vendors are used to the directory format, vendors on Yelp might be unaware and perhaps more excited about the idea of being invited into a new exclusive directory.

I've experimented with using Elance and paying someone a ridiculously low amount of money to collect email addresses for me, but the results were often extremely poor quality (you get what you pay for) that I ended throwing the list out and searching by hand again. By hand is much slower, but I can usually see the quality of the vendor through their website and I'd rather have less high-quality vendors in our initial batch than tons of poor-quality vendors.

Every vendor I collect, I'll add their company name, email address, web address, and date contacted into a spreadsheet so I can track the results of my onboarding. In previous rounds, I was able to get 40-50% of the vendors emailed onto the directory.

Be personal and friendly, don't be corporate when emailing.

I'm sure everyone reading this, especially founders, have dealt with amazing amounts of unsolicited spam in their inbox by other businesses. Obviously, when I'm sending out my own unsolicited spam, I want to make things look as unspammy as possible while still keeping the process efficient.

  1. First, I take the first vendor I'd like to contact and write an email directly to them to explain WeddingCakeLove and why they should join (more on the actual content below.) This email needs to be friendly and personal—impersonal and cold emails scream unsolicited mass email.
  2. Have good spelling and grammar, and be liberal but also professional with exclamation marks and smilie faces. Honestly, some of my emails I write will always end in either a smilie or a :). Unprofessional? Maybe. Do I look like a real human being excited to tell people about my product? Yes.
  3. Use the default font color/typeface/etc set in your email editor to send the emails—emails that have blue text/different fonts/etc. that are sent to me are immediately archived without reading since they're 99.99% impersonal spam by sales associates.
  4. Once the email is drafted up and proof-read, I'll generalize the email ("Hi NAME, I'm Tracy with WeddingLovely...") and set it up as a canned response in Gmail. (More on using Gmail efficiently and using canned responses here.) Obviously, do NOT forget to removed the generic information when you're sending emails. At this point, it's a simply copy/paste game—copy email address in, copy subject line in, choose canned response, fill in any generic details, and send.

Yes, I could send everyone a mass email using bcc, but it'll look like a mass email — same thing with using Mailchimp or something similar. Sending individual emails, yes, takes time, but it will be an email sent directly from my email with all the appropriate headers. I will also have the ability to personalize the email further using details from their website if I feel like something jumps out at me. But usually I don't personalize the email other than using their name, if that.

My email template I used this time around:

Hi there!

I'm Tracy, the founder of WeddingLovely — I built a network of vendor directories (http://WeddingInviteLove.com, http://WeddingPhotoLove.com, and others), and I'm about to launch WeddingCakeLove.com, for wedding bakeries. I love your dessert work and I'd love to have your company as one of our launching profiles with your permission! The profile is free and will lead to more SEO for your website and pageviews, as well as potential features on our wedding blog at http://weddinglovely.com/blog/. My goal is to create an awesome dedicated wedding bakery directory and would love to have your company with us!

If you'd like to join, I can create a profile for you and send you a screenshot for your approval before the launch, no need for you to do anything. :) Just let me know if it's okay.

Here's a screenshot of a fake profile so you can see the design! https://dl.dropbox.com/u/3118244/delete/wcl.png

Let me know if you have any questions, and I hope we can work together!

Cheers,
-Tracy

Test different email content and subjects.

The first half of the emails I sent to potential vendors to join WeddingCakeLove asked the vendors to send me their information: their preferred company name, description, etc. The template above was what I sent to the second half, after I realized that I would probably get higher conversion if I offered to do the work myself.

In the end, it actually didn't matter that much, and I got fairly similar response rates from either tactic. But I'd still highly recommend running basic A/B tests on the subject lines and content of your emails, since it can't hurt.

Launch when you hit the minimum number of customers.

Again, it's a lot harder to onboard small-businesses when your website technically doesn't exist yet. I waited until I had ten responses and launched the site. I'm very strongly in the camp of launching asap.

Overall, I only spend maybe a day on pre-launch acquisition.

For WeddingCakeLove, I spent about four hours on this pre-launch process to acquire customers. After launch, my process is a lot different—more on that in part two, coming soon.

Any tips that I missed for acquiring small-business customers pre-launch?

Tweet me at @limedaring or send me an email.

Posted on April 3, 2013