The user acquisition strategy Path should have used

User acquisition is a weird problem that’s not fully addressed by the majority of startups, I think. On one hand, we like to say, just make the product awesome and people will tell their friends about it. Or, just hire a great PR agency and people will hear about us.

I think, the best user acquisition is highly related to the product, and cannot just be a layer of marketing smeared on top. That said, both PR and partnerships are great strategies that work. But right now I want to focus on how the product itself will impact how many and what kind of users you will get.

What Path did in initial user acquisition was interesting – it started as a photo sharing app. There was a lot of attention around it because of who was leading it/backing it, but still was odd because we really did not need another photo sharing app. But as it turned out, Path was reimagining the social network for intimate groups, so launching a simple social app actually is a great way to build a basic user base so you have something to start with when you do the real thing. We did something similar at Flud – our first product was a visual news reader and we planned to build it out with different functions/products yet staying focused on news, and an existing userbase kept us from starting over.

But the issue lies in what kind of userbase you want to have. Who people are connected to will dictate what they share more than any feature. Look at Facebook – since it started out as being a network to only use within your college, the friends people added and the activity on the site revolved around meeting new people and sharing personal things. It continues to be that way – I still add people from “closed” networks like work, grad school and work-related groups.

Since Path wanted to be the place you share personal stuff (“I just woke up”) with family and close friends, why not start as an app you would use with those people? What gets me to call up my mom, or my best friend, and say, hey, let’s use this app!

Two options: A free texting/voice texting app, like Voxer, or a gift idea app, like Elfster. The interesting thing about both of these apps is that I heard about them from my non-tech blog reading friends (same girls who told me about Pinterest, ftw). The reason these apps are winners is that they don’t work unless your friend signs up. In a photo sharing app, you’ll probably push the pictures to other networks anyway, but to split up the family for Secret Santa, or to hear a voice message, your close friends would have to download the app, too.

This is important because there’s no social network without people in it. Path is utterly useless if my close friends aren’t on it (noted on PandoDaily as well). I would never ask my mom to download Path, she doesn’t even have Facebook. It wouldn’t make sense. How do I make the case for a “better social network” to someone who doesn’t use one? But if we used Elfster together, and then it offered an update that let me make a profile, and I was already connected to my family there, I might continue posting links to gifts I want, or a picture of my weird looking homemade dinner, because my mom’s one of few people who cares that I’m eating well.

The issue with Path is that it had an easy route to user acquisition – because the founders and the investors were well known and that makes for great PR in the tech press (as does the incredible design). It easily got people inside the tech bubble using it but never expanded outside. This is an issue all tech startups face – do you want to be the sexy new “next great thing” app, or do you actually want to attract the right users? By being this next great thing in tech circles, Path attracted networks of early adopter industry friends. These are the people who will drop it for the next great thing just as easily. It’s a case of “targeting the influencers” gone wrong (which may be the same purgatory Google+ is in).

How you start out is crucial to growth. When you’re intentional about what kind of network you have to be, you must be intentional about the design and what actions you want your users to take (which Path did) and intentional about who you want your first users to invite to use the app with them. That boost from being a Silicon Valley “insider” is great but in this case, it seems it came at the expense of real long-term growth.