This is a guest post from Ivan Kirigin, CEO of YesGraph and formerly product and growth at Dropbox and Facebook. While a lot of effort has gone into building Dropbox’s Twitter following and marketing machine over the years, Ivan was kind enough to share a quick summary of one campaign that was particularly successful, generating over 58,000 retweets.
Before I started YesGraph, I was helping Dropbox on their growth team. I ran a quick campaign on Twitter for Dropbox that produced the most successful single tweet ever published from the @Dropbox Twitter account. Here is a quick story behind the tweet, and why it worked so well.
A Tough Product Challenge
Dropbox is in an interesting position. It solves problems many people don’t know they have. It does so magically in the background, so you don’t really think about how you use it. People love it and tell their friends about it, and they can earn extra storage space that way.
But because the product is so magical, it lacks the same surface area of other products. This makes messaging about features hard, including about how to earn that extra space. Those reading this post might find it hard to believe, but many users don’t even know there is a referral program.
Part of the effort of boosting usage was just getting the word out. This campaign was part of that effort. We wanted to blog about how to get more space because that helps users and Dropbox’s growth. The tweet was a prize attached to sharing a tweet that announced that post.
People love promotions and contests. I personally find it odd, but it proves to be incredibly effective at driving some kinds of behavior.
Like building a ship in a bottle, running a promotion over Twitter requires fitting a lot into a very constrained space. In this case, we promised some free space to someone that retweeted it. If we just published the tweet about the blog post and then mentioned the content in the blog post, it would not have worked. The message of the contest was shared within the tweet. This is a subtle but important difference because Twitter is an information network. If your message isn’t self-contained, it isn’t propagated.
It was also short enough to be manually retweeted. You need to leave room for a short comment plus “RT @username.”
Also, note that the official Twitter retweet stats don’t cover retweets in this format: “oh gimme!!! RT @dropbox A guide on how to get more free space with Dropbox! http://bit.ly/twQLKP Retweet for a chance to get +100GB!” This means there are many other retweets we weren’t even seeing.
Using bit.ly, we found that this campaign earned over 133,000 clicks with the URL bit.ly/twQLKP+
[Tweet “Dropbox’s most successful tweet ever received 58,000 retweets”]
Rabid Fans to Generate Initial Traction
Another reason this works so well is that Dropbox is an amazing product with a large number of devoted fans. That kind of adoration means people will help spread the message and want to tell friends about Dropbox.
Dropbox also has a precious resource with their bonus space. The amount in this prize (100GB) was the highest amount of space you could buy at the time, and many fans couldn’t afford it. This made it really, really desirable.
In other promotions I helped run, we chose to give away 1TB of space, which is far more than 100GB. In this case, I was worried that people wouldn’t know what “TB” meant: terabyte. (I’m always shocked every time I hear a stat on how little tech jargon normal people understand.)
Picking a Winner
It turns out that picking a winner wasn’t simple. At the time, Twitter’s API didn’t return all retweets. They literally returned a random subset of 100. It didn’t even tell you the number of retweets on the front end, just that it was more than 100. It wasn’t until they fixed this that I even knew the tweet did as well as it did.
So, to pick a winner, I wrote a quick API client that pulled those 100 random retweets again and again. I let it run for a few hours, collected 2,000 retweets, and then picked randomly from that set to award the winner. While I would have preferred something more complete with the full set of retweets, I guess the randomness of the Twitter API was just part of the game.
Effort vs. Reward
How much effort went into this? Well, I already had the structure for a script pulling those retweets, so that was a bit complex but still quick. Composing a tweet isn’t all that hard. But it was a nice little boost. More campaigns should be like this for marketing and growth — quick little wins are really satisfying for your team too.
Could Dropbox run the campaign again? Probably. At the time @Dropbox had 400K followers. Now it has 3.62M, though no tweet since has even come close. I bet if they ran it again today, it would do at least 10X better. (They should probably just link directly to the referral program too, rather than to a blog post announcing a contest.)
Hell, they could probablyk do this monthly.
[Editor’s note: There are several major takeaways for seed-stage startups. We’ve posted those below.]
1. Play to the psychology of the specific promotional channel.
As Ivan states, Twitter is all about information sharing, not just driving clicks to links. Because of that, Dropbox and Ivan used overt language (“Retweet for a chance to get +100GB!”). This ensured the call-to-action and the value to the reader were all right there in the tweet, without requiring an extra click. Think about how quickly you scroll through your Twitter feed — and how easy it is to click the retweet button. Combine those two behaviors, and you’d be foolish not to include as much information in a tweet as possible to catch the eye and allow a user to click that button quickly … before continuing with their frenetic scrolling. So, whether you’re using Twitter or another social network or marketing channel, don’t just share the same thing everywhere. Tweak your approach for how users prefer to engage and interact on a given channel.
2. Use your existing fans to grow reach.
While it’s true that Dropbox had already built a formidable Twitter following prior to this campaign, they still understood the need to use an existing audience as more than just a list to convert to users and customers but as another arm to bring in new audience. Despite the presence of a link, the main call-to-action was to retweet, which is subtly brilliant — Dropbox was using its existing following to market their product and find new users, which was the entire goal of the referral program found in that link. So whether you have an initial email list, subscriber base, social following, or offline network as an entrepreneur, use it to reach NEW people. They’re your existing fans and believers and are more likely to act on your behalf.
3. Look for traction through low-barrier experiments first, then scale.
As Ivan mentions, this was a big win for Dropbox, but it didn’t require much upfront effort. He goes on to recommend that the company scale this type of campaign, perhaps even trying one contest monthly. It’s been a few years and this might not stick, but the point is valid — startups need to poke down different avenues for traction and, when the data comes back positive, push on it harder to see if more results shake out.
4. Don’t just buy attention — get creative.
Along the same lines as #3, startups can and should be creative in their approach to gaining attention and conversions. In many cases, companies that secure funding will put some capital to work on paid acquisition, which can absolutely be an effective approach. However, like Dropbox, seed-stage startups can and should find sneaky ways to grow that don’t involve brute force (read: budgets). If you’re just starting out and could benefit from a step-by-step blueprint for startup marketing (with startup-friendly hacks and Q&A), we created this content marketing Growth Guide here at NextView Ventures. (You’ll also find notes from a workshop we held for our portfolio linked from the same page. It features HubSpot, Wistia, and Price Intelligently representing three stages of startup growth and how they each approach modern marketing.)
Disclosure: NextView Ventures is an investor in YesGraph.