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Updated by Nick Kellet on Nov 13, 2015
Nick Kellet Nick Kellet
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User Acquisition: What are key strategies to acquire first 100k users with zero marketing budget?

Acquiring the first 100K users is an art. The strategies you apply on products with network effects (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) are different from the strategies for product without network effects (e.g. Kayak, Fab). There's only so much that can be included here so I'll be linking to more detailed articles for further information.


Create tools of self-expression which are really easy to use

No matter what your platform does, users should be able to create something there which they would want to spread. A user may not want to spread the word about your platform but would definitely want to spread the word about what she created on it. E.g. Youtube grows everytime a video goes viral because users personally invest in marketing it. This is marketing that scales with adoption and super-effective. Kickstarter and allow users to spread their cause to the whole world. Users are vested in marketing it. Forget gamification, forget viral design... there is no bigger incentive for users than the ability to spread their creations, beliefs and causes in a manner that wasn't possible before.

Target a micro-market

Facebook's early users were at Harvard, Yelp's early users were the tech-savvy crowd of San Francisco, Quora and LinkedIn's early users were the VCs and startups of Silicon Valley. Find a micro-market which contains your early adopterss.

Be the first to get onto a new user acquisition platform

There is a window when a new channel launches when users are still gullible enough to be harvested. Yelp did it with SEO, Zynga did it with Facebook. The same tactics don't work when both the users and the channel get more sophisticated later on. A detailed analysis of this cycle at




There are a lot of niche classifieds and ecommerce sites that compete with Craigslist. Quite a few of them started off by posting listings on Craigslist and directing the traffic to their site. This article lays out a detailed process of how to succeed with that


Be shareable and embeddable: Facebook sharing was great but users have, over time, become desensitized to what gets shared on Facebook. Instead, ensure that what gets created on your platform can get shared where your savvy users want to share it, namely on blogs and niche forums. YouTube got traction because MySpace users (musicians) needed a way to share videos and Youtube offered them a solution.

Fake it till you make it:

When users come initially to your platform and there's nothing there, they see little value in using it. Platform usage requires investment; you set up a profile, you browse around... it takes time. Users won't invest if they don't see activity. Well, if there isn't any activity, create some. Reddit did it. Paypal did it. A lot of marketplaces do it. Once you create some activity, more users start coming over.

Piggyback on an existing network

Piggyback on a thriving network as long as your platform is contextual and complementary to that network.
StumbleUpon benefited a lot from being one of the first plug-ins on the Firefox browser. It was a natural complement to a browser which is essentially used to find information. It was one level of abstraction above Google's "I'm feeling Lucky" if i could put it that way.

Seed the community on standalone mode:

Essentially, a user should be able to derive value out of the product even when other users aren’t on it.
A product that has standalone value irrespective of the network is more likely to get traction among at least one set of users.

Design your product to align growth and engagement

E.g. when I post this answer on Quora, it allows me to broadcast it to my network. Posting the ansewr helps with engagement, the simultaneous broadcast helps grow Quora.

Provide a service for producers that enables them to interact with their consumers:

Provide a service for producers that enables them to interact with their consumers: This is so obvious, it's often ignored. Your producers already have consumers. There, that's the solution to getting in more users for free. Loyalty startups like Shopkick also do something similar. Get the producers, get their consumers on the network, cross-promote other producers to these consumers. RInse. Repeat.


Content marketing is amazing free marketing

Content marketing is amazing free marketing

Blog away like the guys at Buffer and Mint, and not about your product, just anything that your target market would want and that would make them want to explore the product.

SEO at scale

Ensure that whenever users create content, the permalinks are search-engine friendly. This is a great way to get users to market your product. Quora does this amazingly.

If you're building for user-generated content, ensure that users create good content and are appropriately motivated:

Usually, only about 1-10% of your community actively contribute content. To keep creating value, you need to ensure you cater to their motivations.

Create organic virality, a product that spreads every time it's used:

Create organic virality, a product that spreads every time it's used:
SurveyMonkey, EventBrite, MailChimp, and the original HotMail, are products that just have to be spread to be used. But even if your product doesn't fall in this category, you can create features that show this property.

For organic virality, ensure that there is a non-monetary incentive for users to spread the word. A guide to non-monetary incentives


Focus on superconnectors

Focus on superconnectors

Remember, Branchout gained rapid adoption the day Michael Arrington downloaded the app. He had a large following on Facebook.

Build an invite list before you join:

Nothing is as good as having a Launchrock-powered user base raring to hit your product on day 1. Here are the various ways you can build a market before you build a product:

Demonstrate immediate value for all users:

Often marketplaces never have value when users visit in early days. Groupon solved this by doing 2 things very well:
+ Solving for the buyer: Focusing on a specific transaction and attracting buyers to a current and live transaction rather than a (dead) marketplace with a potential for future transaction
+ Solving for the seller: Allowing the seller to back out if a minimum number of buyers were not achieved

Make the two-sided network one-sided:

Target a specific group which has both the consumers and producers of your service and where the lines between them blur. Even if they are two distinct types of users, the members of this group fulfill both requirements, or at least some of them do. This is important because the WOM required to spread the word among the producers simultaneously spreads the word among the consumers as well since they're part of the same group.
This is what worked for Etsy. People who make crafts typically like to buy from other craftspeople. This really helped them target exactly one group and spark transactions within that successfully before branching out.

Provide access to new production infrastructure that the user would use even if the network was a ghost town:

When Youtube started off, users didn't care if there was a network of potential users, early users were happy enough to have a facility to host a video easily and embed it on their sites.

Be exclusive but be smart about it:

Try starting with an invite-only beta. However, this is not a one size fits all as what worked for gmail didn't work for google wave.

Don't try to change behavior for both consumers and producers:

Consider the strategy of NFC players vs. Square. NFC is trying to change behaviors at both ends by making the user pay with his mobile phone and making the merchant accept payments on a new terminal. In addition to the logistical challenge of proliferating terminals and getting NFC chips out, the chicken and egg problem becomes more difficult to crack as there is a barrier to usage for both parties. Square, on the other hand, introduces new behavior for SMBs (accept payments using your phone) but the consumer behavior remains the same (pay using the credit card). This was one of the reasons Square disrupted retail payments when everyone was expecting NFC to.

Get a marquee player or seed your own content:

An extension to the above point, sometimes, signing up a top-notch producer can help draw consumers in, especially if you serve as an exclusive channel for that producer. Once consumers come in, other producers can be signed on and the network grows.

Remove barriers to product usage:

Also known as "Build a great product". Create a product that makes something that people want to do, but currently can't do, extremely accessible to them.

Convert consumers to creators:

Converting consumers to creators creates a nice feedback loop and keeps building value on the product.