Getting People to Wait in Line for Your Products

Touring websites for valuable information

I was waiting in a long line (or queue) last week for a special sneak preview of a science fiction film called “Another Earth” that opens later this month. When another film let out next to us, many of the passers-by inquired to what we were waiting in line for. When told, most were a bit jealous.

“Wow, that’s very cool.”
“How do we sign up for these things?”
“When does it open for us?”

Similarly, whenever I pass a line outside a restaurant, I think that I must be missing something good. Okay, if it’s too long a line I won’t wait. But I will come back. I often wonder why more restaurants—or other businesses for that matter—don’t incentivize people to wait in line. It would certainly build interest.

Well, online businesses have started to create their own digital version of this scenario. Google+, Google’s new social networking service, was just rolled out in a very exclusive way. Says the homepage: “Right now, we’re testing with a small number of people, but it won’t be long before the Google+ project is ready for everyone. Leave us your email address and we’ll make sure you’re the first to know when we’re ready to invite more people.” In other words, don’t call us, we’ll call you.

According to a New York Times story on Sunday, you must be invited in to Google+, so Facebook and Twitter are full of requests and “they have even sold on eBay.” The article attaches a name to building this new sense of exclusivity—“putting up a digital velvet rope.” You may have done this already, but the drill goes something like this. The next time you come out with a new product—a hot white paper, a webinar on a new legal code, a fitness program, a new recipe book—try inviting a select few to check it out. “In exchange, the members of that group get the bragging rights associated with being the first ones inside the latest new service. The invitations often go to people who have a sizable following on blogs, Twitter or other social services.”

The article also quotes Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania: “Invitation-only services create a halo of privilege and exclusivity for those early adopters that gain access. They get to convey that they were somehow chosen, and that gives them status in their social circles.”

Two companies, one from the U.S. and one from Europe, are cited as examples. SocialCam, a mobile app that lets people share videos with their friends, surpassed one million users in four months after using this let-others-spread-the-buzz approach. For its coming-out party in the United States, Spotify, the popular European music stream service, floated hard-to-get invitations for their free service. Or customers could pay for access to their premium version.

In a way, this is an offshoot of a strategy that other successful marketers recommend—including Josh Bernoff who told SIPA Conference attendees last month: “Find your word-of-mouth influencers.” The digital velvet rope strategy just emphasizes the exclusivity part a little more. And by phrasing it softly, the way Google+ did, it doesn’t come off too mighty and high, just enough to suggest that you’re missing out. In fact, the testing that they mention is probably true. It is particularly important for social networking start-ups to get it right quickly before possibly turning many people off.

Google+ started with access for the 24,000 Google employees, then went to limited field trials of journalists and bloggers, and then allowed those folks to give out invitations. And now there are more than 10 million users. The scale for SIPA members lands quite a ways down from that. But the concept of letting people see a line form early on might work for a company of any size—it’s certainly worth a try.



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