Kristina is a senior User experience strategist and writer based in seattle. She also edits the online magazine

So you hired a prostitute: lessons in startup marketing

Let me paint you a picture. You're all dressed up, so classy and held together. A nice dress, shoes that acually match, and you smell awesome. Good for you. Problem is, you don't have a date. No one seems to be interested, but you're looking for connection.

Your friends pick on you, in what they think is good spirits. You haven't had sex in so long, and they think that's hilarious. Poor thing, you. It seems they're all happy, with their relationships and one night stands and whatever else. But you. You're just sitting there in your classy dress. You smell awesome. And no one's there to enjoy it.

This is an app without users. It's all prettied up, hopefully functional, and so damn ready for users. "Please come engage with me," your app says quietly to itself.

Just like you can't sit around your house, smelling all awesome, waiting for a date, neither can you expect users to magically flock to your app.

Obviously, it's time for marketing.

So you hired a prostitute

If you're looking for something special, you're most likely not going to find it with that man-of-the-night with the sweet six pack and black wavy hair. That transactional sex is just that‐a nice feeling for a fleeting moment that means nothing tomorrow. And worse, it could usher in disease.

Traditional marketing "experts" are still paying for sex, and then rocking back and forth in their sweatpants the morning after, wondering why that fancy gigalo didn't call them back. They spend thousands (upon thousands and thousands) of dollars on things they don't understand. They buy into snake oil salesmen that masquerade rather loudly as "Social Media Experts" who make ridiculous guarantees like "I'll get you 100,000 like, totally legit Facebook Likes in a week." Or "Let's sponsor a Twitter party and give away expensive gadgets. Look! It'll make the party hashtag trend, and people will totally pity-click to our app page!"

Come. On.

I assure you this right now: if you think you're going to find value in 100,000 purchased Facebook Likes, you're doing it wrong. But hell, you'll have a hell of a new vanity metric to show your board.

Which I suppose leads to an important question: what is it that you're looking for? Are you after those vanity metrics after all, just to pad your numbers? Looking for social proof to makes others believe you're awesome? Are you looking for engaged users?

Here are things prositutes are really good at:

  1. Sex
  2. Collecting your money
  3. (Potentially) making you look like a badass to others

Here are things those marketing tactics above are really good at:

  1. Traffic
  2. Sapping your budget
  3. (Potentially) making your product look desirable

Neither thing is good for a connection, though. And if you're not trying to attract people to engage with you, and instead need only big numbers to sell ad space, that's great.

That prostitute doesn't love you

So you spend $10,000 on a really classy prostitute. The day after, your lady parts love you. Maybe the feeling lasts two days. Your brain is flooded with endorphins and happy juices. But three days later, you're still alone in your sweatpants, craving more.

Want to spend $10,000 on Twitter and Facebook? Hire a smart and intuitive person to drive your social media efforts and actually engage with your community of users, potential and otherwise. Sure, it won't happen overnight, and maybe you'll never reach that 100,000 Likes mark, but 20,000 genuine Likes are 1,000-times better than 100,000 empty ones. And no, that math wasn't calculated. I used it for rhetoric.

Looking for engagement? There's no magic bullet.

Well, that's not entirely true. You know how they say that in order to be happy in a relationship, you need to be happy with yourself?

There's the magic bullet: MAKE A VALUABLE PRODUCT. You know who hates hearing that? Those who know, deep down, that their product just isn't very useful. It's a tough mirror to look into.

And now you've got a disease

Instead of continuing on with what could be a very disgusting simile, let's just get straight to the meat of it.

When startups rely on such archaic, instantly gratifying-yet-empty tactics to market their products out, they're screwing over their teams. And themselves.

Here are the various types of Marketing Trasmitted Diseases (MTDs) that spawn up and infect startups:

  • Blindness. When you can pay for traffic and show off your fancy big numbers to others, it's all too easy to ignore large, systemic problems such as poor usability, lack of engagement, financial viability, and more.
  • Audience ignorance. Between Facebook ads and various other traffic-or-acquisition-promising entities, the world appears to be at your fingertips. Why focus on a single audience when you can focus on ALL THE AUDIENCES!? This is a delusion that will veer you off course faster than you can say "but we have so much traffic." Your traffic is nearly useless if not producing engaged users.
  • Team frustration. Developers, designers, and community folks want to work on products that people use. If instead of giving your team users, you're giving them a bunch of valueless traffic or one-off signups, you're shooting yourself in both feet.
  • Poisoned mailing lists. So you paid for a bunch of new signups, and now you're wondering why your mailing lists are suddenly performing so poorly. If you pay for a bunch of new signups, there's a very good chance that your email lists will be functionally useless. All the users who signed up because they saw value in your product will be virtually indistinguishable from those you bought, unless you segment your lists by signup date or source.
  • Desperation. When you have all these new users/email addresses, you're going to want to take advantage of them. "RELEASE THE [EMAIL] HOUNDS," you shout to your team. Surely sending email after email after email to "engage" or "activate" these new signups will result in success. Surely, right? No? Send them more emails then. Still not working? Let's ask them why they don't like us. No answer? Ask again. Thus begins the downward spiral of desperation.

Ask the hard questions

Being honest with yourself sucks sometimes. I know that, you know that, prostitutes know that, marketers know that. It's painful yet necessary for growth.

Marketing isn't what it was 15 years ago. And no marketing degree means what it used to. Marketing should be closely associated with user experience concerns at your company. Bite the bullet and ask yourself the toughest questions.

  1. Why aren't people using my product? Is it because we're not focused enough? Not driving conversation in the right communities? Not providing enough value to people? Not communicating our message clearly enough? (Hint: the answer isn't "we're not spending enough money on Facebook ads.")
  2. Do my marketing efforts devalue the user experience? Are you adding marketing screens to your iPhone app? Writing in all caps in your subject lines? Talking about yourself too much? Have tacky ads all over the place?
  3. Who is our target user? It can't be everyone. I promise you, it can't be everyone. You are not MacDonalds or Coca-Cola. You are a startup, and you can't speak to everyone.
  4. What can I do to make my product more useful to that target user?

Do yourself and your team a favor: don't become susceptible to MTDs. You don't need to pay for sex, mister or madamoiselle marketer. You and your product are worth more than that…hopefully. And if the product isn't worth more than that, well, it sounds like you've got some more important questions to ask yourself.

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