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Social Studies Podcast: Getting Your First 300,000 Users with Ricky Yean

Social Studies Podcast is a talk show produced by TINT about marketing, social media, and technology through the lens of the industry’s most innovative minds. Hosted by Nathan Zaru (@YES). In this episode we welcome Ricky Yean, CEO and cofounder of Crowdbooster. You can find him on Twitter @rickyyean and tweet us with comments and requests @TINT.

Nathan:          Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Social Studies podcast. Today our guest is Ricky Yean, CEO and founder of Crowdbooster.com. Ricky, welcome to the show.

Ricky:              Hello. Thank you.

Nathan:          Stoked to have you on, man.

Ricky:              Thank you. It’s good to see you.

Nathan:          Always a pleasure to hang out with you, man. We’ve known each other for several years now, right?

Ricky:              Mm-hmm (affirmative). Probably 5.

Nathan:          5 years.

Ricky:              5 years.

Nathan:          Crowdbooster is the name of the game and I think I was an early user, right?

Ricky:              Yeah, you were probably first 250. Something like that.

Nathan:          First 250.

Ricky:              You were right there. I think Britney Spears was around user 80. I think L’il Wayne was around user 100. You were not quite at their level.

Nathan:          I’m not quite Britney Spears’ level.

Ricky:              You’re not quite at their level, but you were close.

Nathan:          I was in the first few hundred users of Crowdbooster in the history.

Ricky:              Yeah, you are.

Nathan:          Holy moly. Well, honestly, listeners, I’m learning this for the first time. I think Ricky might have been informing me otherwise when I first met him, but here we are now. Crowdbooster, 5 years old, doing really well. Where to begin? Let’s give our listeners a quick background as to who the heck you are and who the heck Crowdbooster is.

Ricky:              Great. Yeah, well, I’m Ricky and I started the company, started Crowdbooster right out of college and we basically built the smartest social media analytics solution. The whole idea is that marketers should not spend time in an analytic system. They shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be looking at numbers all day trying to interpret what’s going on. Marketers should be out there. They should be out there. Especially with social, they should be out there in the community with people. What we wanted to do was sort of like Google. Google, you type in a search query, it takes you away to where you want to go. It helps you get the job done. With Crowdbooster, we wanted to do the same thing, build really simple ways to present data to the customers, make it easy for them to get the reports and insights they want out of it, but most importantly make recommendations for them to get better at their jobs. That’s the whole premise of the system we built. 5 years later, I moved across the street from you in San Francisco.

Nathan:          We just figured that out today as well.

Ricky:              Yeah, we’re serving several thousand customers, brands and agencies across the world, and working on something new that I can’t say too much about but we can talk about a little bit.

Nathan:          Once you launch that, you promise to come back on the show?

Ricky:              Of course.

Nathan:          Okay. It’s interesting that we have Crowdbooster in here. Social media analytics and social media publishing and we have Tint, which is social media display and community, bringing it together, very much complementary products, right? We are not competitors.

Ricky:              No. Not at all.

Nathan:          No. Anyone using Crowdbooster could be using Tint, anyone using Tint could be using Crowdbooster.

Ricky:              Yes. Yes. You should use both.

Nathan:          I think we should use both. Absolutely. Maybe we should put together a special. I think today, you gave me a sneak peek as to what you’re going to talk about, but I think it’s something along the lines of getting to your first 300,000 users.

Ricky:              Yeah.

Nathan:          Wow, talk about insurmountable. People starting companies, 300,000’s a big number.

Ricky:              Yeah, and especially if you … I get asked this question a lot. What do you buy your users? What kind of paid channels are you using? Honestly at the time, I could honestly tell you, we had no paid campaigns. We had no paid efforts.

Nathan:          No paid efforts?

Ricky:              No paid efforts. Either that’s a testament to the strength of the product and people tell each other about the product, which is true. It’s also a testament to the strategy, which sort of happened organically. We weren’t [inaudible 00:03:39] enough to know what to do to acquire users, but it sort of happened and we noticed it happening and so we can talk about it more.

Nathan:          Let’s dive into it. I know, it goes without saying, Crowdbooster is a Y Combinator funded company.

Ricky:              Sure. Yeah.

Nathan:          How significant, that was your first few months of life, right? How did that set you up for success?

Ricky:              It set me up because it set me up to meet you. We used Y Combinator’s brand name to get in the door with our early customers. Including yourself, the first 250, 300 customers, we talked to almost on a daily basis. We built products based on their feedback. We got in there mostly because of the brand. They didn’t know if we could deliver. We ended up delivering, so that was instrumental in just making sure we built the right product. What happened after that, how do you grow from the initial set of customers that gave you early feedback to real traction …

Nathan:          To 300,000.

Ricky:              Right, and that’s the hard part.

Nathan:          Walk us through it. Spare no details.

Ricky:              Yeah, well the story was we stumble into this product and working with our first few hundred customers, we were able to refine it and get to something that we’re confident about. However, the software wasn’t designed to scale. We had to put it behind a wall. We had to put it behind a email sign-up list, so everyone who wants it … Our early customers were telling people about Crowdbooster, so people were signing up for the email list every day.

Nathan:          Word of mouth.

Ricky:              Word of mouth.

Nathan:          As a marketer, how do you get word of mouth? Obviously it’s great to have, but how do you engineer it?

Ricky:              Yeah, how do you engineer it? Especially if your product maybe is not something that people talk about. Even if it’s good, people might not talk about it.

Nathan:          Totally.

Ricky:              Social media lends itself, social media analytics lends itself to people talking about it just because it’s social, so that’s a really good advantage to have. What we ended up doing … The wait list became, we saw this reaction from people. People are really excited about something they can’t have. It’s not that we were shutting them out on purpose. We really cannot handle all the demand, so we started letting people in and we started becoming more strategic about the way let people in. Obviously when we look at the list of people that signed up, we would see that some are obviously have a digital footprint that’s something like an influencer.

Maybe you might be [Mara 00:06:23] Smith, who is a Facebook marketing influencer, has a massive Facebook page, maybe a few million likes and she just basically gives out tips. If she signs up for your product, we would let her in over some other people who are on the list. That’s really interesting, but then we would let her in in a way that we would say, “Well, use it. If you like it, let’s strike a deal.” We would offer her something for her audience, so she can talk about it and then she can offer invites. She can let 100 more people in herself if she uses this particular link that we give her or this particular code that we give her.

I think it was just a special link that we gave her. Anyone who signs up through this custom link that [Mara 00:07:18] Smith put out there to her audience will be able to come in early. That worked like crazy. That worked really well. Every influencer we tried this with, we would have 100 sign ups, 100 conversions and then she would run out in minutes and then she’ll come back to us and be like, “Can we have more?” Then we realized this whole gating factor. Letting influencers be gatekeepers and letting them decide, letting them offer something of value to the audience …

Nathan:          Their audience?

Ricky:              Their audience, was a really effective way to engineer the word of mouth. This is something that just happened by accident.

Nathan:          To be clear for our listeners, the website at the time, there was a wait list. It was closed.

Ricky:              It was closed.

Nathan:          Out of necessity.

Ricky:              Yeah, it was out of necessity. There was not even the number … Later on we saw the Dropbox email app, what’s it called?

Nathan:          Mailbox.

Ricky:              Mailbox.

Nathan:          That went crazy. That was a few years ago. Gentry Underwood.

Ricky:              Mailbox had this strategy where every time you download the app, you log in, give them all the information and then they’re like, “You’re number 5000 in line.” We’re just like, “That’s brilliant.” Because that actually sounds very similar to what we did. Of course, first you got to have that value proposition. The value proposition has to be there.

Nathan:          Let’s be clear. 2009-10, no one knew anything about social media analytics.

Ricky:              Right. Right.

Nathan:          People were just big like, “I’m tweeting, on Facebook. What is going on?”

Ricky:              Right.

Nathan:          Enter Crowdbooster.

Ricky:              We had the promise of an answer. Then they started seeing their influencers, which is other social media mavens, start talking about Crowdbooster because they had access to it because we gave them access to it. Then we’d strike arrangements that would give them the ability to invite their audience. What happens is, here’s the interesting part. Because we have a wait list of people, we would tell them, “Hey, Influencer A has 200 invites. Go read her post and you can get invites from her.” From the influencer’s perspective, they’re like, “Holy crap. Every time I write about Crowdbooster, I get so much more traffic to my blog or I get so many more Likes.”

Nathan:          Wow, so you’re cross-promoting between people who have …

Ricky:              I’m cross-promoting.

Nathan:          Holy moly.

Ricky:              Between my list and my influencers and later on, the press itself. We did the same strategy with Masterball, TechCrunch, all these traditional media outlets. First of all they read about us again, because of Y Combinator. Then secondarily, they would look at … Before they read about you they would probably Google you and then they see all these influencers [inaudible 00:10:07] and they’re like, “Okay, I’ll write about you.”

Nathan:          Social proof.

Ricky:              Then you’re offering the same thing. For TechCrunch readers, 200 invites. Now again, same thing. You send your people to TechCrunch, and when they write more people join the wait list because not everybody can get the invite, so your wait list is ever expanding.

Nathan:          It feed the beast.

Ricky:              Right and then you’re sending the wait list to these people with invites, driving traffic to their properties. Then, here’s something that I don’t think most PR people do, we take a screen shot of our Google Analytics and how much TechCrunch traffic drove to us and how many customers converted through the invites and then we send it to them. That rewards the writer. That closes the loop for the writer. The writer took a chance on you to write about you or promote you. In TechCrunch’s case it’s just to write about you, like [inaudible 00:11:06] analysis or nearest whatever.

Nathan:          They have to.

Ricky:              For influencers they’re actually putting their [crosstalk 00:11:10]

Nathan:          Their personal brand and reputation.

Ricky:              Personal brand on you and then you tell them, “Look, it actually was a fit. You actually delivered something that your audience wanted and here’s the traffic to prove it.” This is true. [Mara 00:11:26] Smith’s Facebook page drove way more conversions than TechCrunch. The invites …

Nathan:          A Facebook page. Wow.

Ricky:              Right. A Facebook page drove way more people redeeming the invites to get access to the software than TechCrunch did. That goes to show you how much … That’s another topic, right? Influencers versus what we consider to be traditionally …

Nathan:          Traditional media, yeah.

Ricky:              Yeah, media that we get influenced by. We actually tentatively, probably underestimate how much we listen to other people.

Nathan:          Yeah. This is basically a massive gamification play almost with these indications to what are business to business paying customers for a SaaS product. You don’t typically see the implications in this way but you were doing it effectively in 2011, whatever it was.

Ricky:              Yeah. 2010. I wouldn’t even know, 2010, 2011. I think there’s some gamification component. There’s definitely that positive feedback system where more invites, more influences generate more people on the wait list and then generates more excitement about getting invites.

Nathan:          Excitement. People care about it. You have to get people excited in order to actually sign up. You can’t just get someone a little bit interested. That’s not enough.

Ricky:              Yeah. I think this comes with a prerequisite. You must be solving a problem that people care about. Once they come in and they use the product, it has to deliver on the promise.

Nathan:          If you had to launch a product like Crowdbooster in 2015, how would you go about it? Similar way? What do you know about today’s digital environment?

Ricky:              Well, one thing that I would do today is I still think the influencer marketplace is underutilized. Undervalued in general. I would focus on them and maybe de-emphasize traditional media

Nathan:          De-emphasize.

Ricky:              Yeah. I mean if you had to choose, I would choose influencers or the traditional media, what they’re able to do is give you some social proof. If you’ve been written about by the New York Times, obviously that’s a huge thing to throw on your home page and that’s a huge thing to tell your customers. It has other benefits like that, but in terms of actually measurably driving specifically performance, it’s not as effective. Just dilute it.

Nathan:          Correct me if I’m wrong. If I tell you, “Hey, Ricky, you really got to check out this new product.”

Ricky:              I would do it.

Nathan:          Versus any company telling you to do it.

Ricky:              Right. Right. Yeah, I agree. I think I would focus on influencers. One thing that also has changed is the landscape of digital media in general, is that these influencers are, a lot of them are increasingly charging and being okay with co-creating concept with a brand. In the beginning we had to actually build a relationship. We had to offer them something meaningful to their audience. We had to give them something that they could write about. We had to kind of finesse this whole relationship thing. I ended up, I would talk to these influencers on Twitter, through private message on Facebook, through email. I would have to build that relationship in order to get them to do all the things I had described before.

Now, the relationship can be bought, which is very interesting. They still have the same concerns. They still want to make sure that they only work with advertisers, because now you’re not just a company that’s collaborating with them for free. Now you’re an advertiser because you’re paying them to create a piece of content. Maybe it’s a blog post, a YouTube video, a tweet, you can pay for a tweet, whatever. What’s different is they know that if they sell out to their audience, they won’t be able to hold on to that influence much longer.

Nathan:          Right. They have to keep the cred.

Ricky:              They have to keep the cred, so they have to be very selective about …

Nathan:          With the products they choose.

Ricky:              With the products they choose, advertisers they choose, and the way you present it. You can expand your universe of products that you collaborate with and you advertise on your blog if you don’t do product reviews, if you don’t say, “Yesterday I tried this, I don’t know, vacuum, and it was great.” That’s a personal endorsement. Today, I would work with more of them because I can pay them and I would allow them the creative freedom to basically come up with ways to present what we do in a way that she thinks would be meaningful content for the audience to consume.

One thing that I might do with Crowdbooster, let’s just assume people are still clueless about how to measure social media effectively. I would basically ask the bloggers, the influencers, to write about how they think social media should be measured, give them some data that we, from Crowdbooster, can produce, and then ask them for a shout-out just because we’re paying for the spot. I would do that and I would scale that effort even more than before because now I can pay. I can pay, so it’s more scalable.

Nathan:          Yeah. Find influencers and give them something that’s relevant for their audience?

Ricky:              Right. Yeah, exactly, and today now I can pay them.

Nathan:          Now you can pay them.

Ricky:              I can now do that with more influencers.

Nathan:          All right. Marketers should be out there, direct quote from Ricky Yean.

Ricky:              Ricky, thanks so much for enlightening us today.

Nathan:          Thanks. Thanks for having me.