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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Launching a site? Five tips to get you off on the right foot

Big news on the nonprofit journalism front: The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit dedicated to covering the Bay Area with $5 million in funding, launched today.

The site has gotten plenty of publicity over the last few months, most recently when it announced it planned to pay local bloggers $25 for posts, which bloggers can still also run on their own sites. Other publications are in the midst of similar experiments with local bloggers, including The Washington Post and its not-yet-launched local rival TBD.

The model could be great for building an audience and integrating within the community overtime. But it’s got something else going for it too: Pre-arranging partnerships with bloggers is a great launch strategy.

In recent years, startups have employed a variety of tactics at launch, with varying degrees of success. Here’s a list of some of the best ideas we’ve seen:

1. Launch with red meat

Run particularly engaging content on your first day. One of the best examples I’ve seen is Andrew Breitbart’s launch of Big Government, a conservative political site that debuted last fall. Breitbart had been on the hunt for the perfect story to launch his site. He sped up the launch when he got his hands on the infamous ACORN sting operation tapes. The footage spread across the web, into mainstream media, onto cable news, and culminated with Congress stripping all federal funds from the organization. Breitbart’s site hadn’t even existed before those tapes, but it went from unknown to a huge force in the news cycle instantly. Obviously not all site launches will call for undercover political opposition videos — but find the equivalent high-impact story in your topic area.

2. Court your favorite bloggers, have no shame

If you have an advertising budget and you’re launching into a space with established bloggers already in it, it’s certainly worth a shot to buy some blog ads. If they’re targeted well, they may drive some traffic — but it’s also a sign of good will in the online community you’d like reading you. If you don’t have the budget, a personalized note to select bloggers could be just as or more effective. Imagine what sites your future readers are already reading; a link from that blogger to your page is even better than an ad. Draft a friendly email explaining who you are and include a link. Keep it short, but be clear why you’re writing. The less it feels like a press release, the better off you’ll be. I’ve spoken with writers who worry about the awkwardness of marketing yourself this way, but if you’re sending a link that the blogger will find interesting, you’re not imposing: Sharing links is what the web’s about.

3. Create buzz over time

Don’t wait until the day of your launch to make your first announcement. Map out a plan to create buzz in the months, weeks, and days leading up to launch. Politico, Pajamas Media, TBD and others have used this strategy. Politico, which had a huge launch budget, ran ads in the D.C. Metro and all over the city. If you don’t have a mega-budget, there are still options. Pajamas Media set up a placeholder site and posted the bios of its hires as it brought them on. TBD is running a similar site, blogging about the site’s growth and seeking input on planning. The incremental approach creates multiple opportunities for coverage by traditional media and bloggers, which means more chances for potential readers to hear about you.

4. Plan for a disaster ahead of time

This tip is personal. In January 2008, I was managing editor of a startup called The Washington Independent. For our launch, we had strong content, bloggers were linking to us, and our traffic was looking great. Then our server crashed — right in the middle of the State of the Union address, which we were liveblogging at the time. What did I do? After a quick panic, I called the various vendors who helped us build our site. We were down for an unfortunate amount of time; it felt like an eternity, but was probably about half an hour. In hindsight, I should have had a disaster-plan in place of who to call, depending on the problem. Know who has the keys to your server. Keep that number handy. Server problems can happen at any time, but there’ll never be another moment with as many unknown unknowns as launch day.

5. Stay positive

Any launch today would certainly include a vigorous social media strategy. When you’re planning it, think positive. We’ve noticed at the Lab that upbeat tweets do particularly well, in terms of clickthroughs and retweets. As it turns out, some evidence supports our anecdotal data: Dan Zarella tracked 100,000 Twitter accounts and discovered that negative comments, sad, aggressive or morbid, resulted in fewer followers. When you’re framing the news of your launch, steer clear of the downside — all that gloom about the death of journalism, for instance — and focus on your exciting news.

                                   
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  • http://stdout.be/en/ Stijn Debrouwere

    While I can definitely see the advantages of a big fat launch, don’t forget that there’s a real alternative out there: start out quietly, and build up a loyal audience over time. As the 37signals guys tell us: you’re going to mess up when you get started, you’re going to need some time to learn, so launching quietly can actually be an advantage.

    At some point, that juicy story will come, or you will reach that critical mass and find your way into the public consciousness. There’s no reason why that has to be on launch day.

  • http://sixestate.com David Reich

    That’s a good point, Stijn. You’d also like visitors to stay on your site. If you don’t have a solid foundation of content in place when you make your push, they’ll check out that one story and then bounce — even if it’s really good.

  • http://www.anamericanlion.com/ Norman Rogers

    I don’t know if $25 per blog post is really enough, though. Shouldn’t you pay more if a fellow goes and sits through a city council meeting? Shouldn’t you pay by how much people actually view or read each story? Wouldn’t that allow quality writers to bury their competition and make some serious cash?

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    It’s advisable to a blog to have a content that people can interact or catches the people’s thoughts. What’s the point of having a blog if it doesn’t gives valuable information, right?

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    Thanks for the idea on how to launch a site in a good success rate. This would be helpful to my incoming site.