12/17/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

How to Acquire Your First Users Without Spending Money

Thanks to stories of wild user growth at companies like Facebook and Instagram, which are far from the norm, many people seem to believe the old phrase, "If you build it, they will come," and that if their product is good enough, they won't have to do any marketing. While I do believe that the best marketing in the world can't help a bad product, and that a great product will make growth a lot easier, user acquisition tactics will probably always be necessary, especially when first launching.

This post will outline how to acquire your initial user-base while on a tight budget. Before using any of the tactics below, you'll want to first understand the specific demographics of people who will absolutely love your product and provide a product that they will love -- because if you're on a budget, you can't afford to spend time or money acquiring the wrong users or acquiring users to the wrong product. Check out my previous post on customer development for more advice on this topic.

1. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's un-paid search results. Find out what your customers are searching for and create copy, landing pages and content that answer their queries. But be aware that if/when Google changes its algorithm, your traffic can change considerably. To learn more about SEO, check out SEOmoz's The Free Beginner's Guide to SEO.

2. Referrals

Referrals can be a valuable source of user growth because people are more likely to convert when they have a recommendation coming from a trusted source. Some tactics for encouraging referrals include:
  • incentivizing users with premium services or content
  • allowing people to brag about their accomplishments
  • allowing users to create content that they want to share with friends
  • making their experience better in some way by having more friends use the product

It's important not to force referrals, and instead have it be a natural use of the product.

3. Press

Getting covered in a major publication that your target market reads can lead to a lot of traffic to your site. Some tips for getting press include:

  • When reaching out to journalists, keep emails short and personalized and have a differentiated subject line.
  • See who's writing about your competitors, reach out them, and differentiate yourself.
  • Be a thought leader in your space -- reporters will reach out to your for data or your opinion.
  • Position yourself as part of a trend that media companies are frequently covering.
  • Use LinkedIn to see if you have mutual connections with the reporter you want to get covered by and ask for introduction.

4. Hit the Streets

Call your friends and family -- if they're in your target market, ask them to sign up. If they're not, ask for introductions to people who are. Figure out where your target market hangs out and go there with an iPad and ask them to sign up. This is obviously not scalable, but it can be a great way to get your very first users. If your product relies on any kind of network effect, you wouldn't want to drive in traffic without at least an initial base.

5. Content Marketing

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to engage potential customers. Become a thought leader in your space. Offering something of value will drive customers to you. Quora is a great place to reach many target markets and get recognized for it. By asking questions, people are taking a proactive approach to consuming content marketing. Tweeting something self-promotional is annoying, but tweeting something interesting or valuable will get people to engage with you.

6. Strategic Partnerships

A distribution or other strategic partnership with companies or organizations that serve your target market can be helpful in driving user adoption. Identify those companies and organizations and find a way to make a deal mutually beneficial. Partnerships are usually structured as a fee per acquisition or revenue share -- revenue share is lower risk.

7. Split Testing

Split testing, or A/B testing, compares the effectiveness of two versions of a web page, marketing email or the like, in order to discover which has a better response or sales conversion rate. Examples of tests on a sign-up page include length of the sign-up form, types of fields in the form, images, display of privacy policy, etc.

8. Scaling Up

Don't dump too much money into user acquisition until you've confirmed a positive ROI for a given channel. Or before finding product-market fit, because you don't want to drive people to the wrong product, or drive the wrong people to the product. Use cohort analysis to determine where your best users are coming from. Your best channel is not just the one that drive the most traffic... it's the one that drives the best users.

I tried to keep this short and practical -- it's not an exhaustive list, and I don't cover each tactic in detail. Each tactic could probably have an entire book on its own. What's worked for your startup? Let's discuss in the comments section.