It used to be all you had to do is create a new startup, polish your Web 2.0 buttons and people would sign up for your service, and pay you. That was about 500,000 apps ago. Today with services like oAuth through Twitter and Facebook, getting visitors to join isn’t the issue – getting them to actually use your service and therefore value it and therefore pay for it is the nut you have to crack.

And emails (paraphrased to protect the guilty) like this one don’t cut it:

Dear Bob Walsh,

We’ve noticed that you haven’t logged in to your ACME account and we want to make sure you know how easy it is to get your support department set up.

We Know How Busy You Are
We want to help you see the value of ACME right away, so we’ve boiled it down to the quick steps you can do right now to get started with ACME:… (And another 7 bullets, 5 links and 399 words I [yes, I counted] I don’t plan to read.)

By the time I get this email, I barely remembered what this app did, let alone felt motivated to go to it. And while I’m sure the startup is trying hard with this missive to reconnect with me, sending me a long list of things to do is not the way to get me back. Such is the fate of startups who don’t sink the hook deep enough in this instant gratification, attention-starved world.

Prove your worth fast, earn your keep every day, and then I buy your app. Maybe.

Contrast that to an app like Buffer. What does Buffer have that a couple of hundred other Twitter-centric apps lack? Immediacy. As soon as I joined as a free member, I’d installed Buffer’s Chrome extension (could have done FireFox, Safari), hooked buffer into Twitter, and was using it. Like in under a minute, tops. That’s immediacy. And that’s why I started paying for the service.

So what can you do to give first time users of your app immediate value? Well,

  • Look at the value to your customers of your app. What chunk of value is quickest/easiest to deliver? Focus on that, first, then everything else.
  • Give them a sample data set so they can play with it, interact with it, screw with it, and see your app in action before they have to enter real data.
  • The next time you find an app you like and value, dissect how they did it.
  • Make a Chrome/FireFox extension that provides even just a taste of value in the app they are already using, their browser.
  • Send them a report – even if it’s based on dummy data – so they have some sense of what real value lies ahead.
  • Share a story about some other user (with their permission of course) who’s using your app and how.
  • Share something with them that gets them onboard before something else gets their attention.
  • Go through the process from first visit to actually getting value and count clicks and fields. Then think hard on how you delete, delay, defer or postpone each of those hurdles.
So what approaches, first use workflows and web apps deliver immediate value?