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To Pique Interest, Start-Ups Try a Digital Velvet Rope
Demand for Google's new social networking service, Google+, has been intense since its debut last month in a limited test mode. To get in, you must be invited by someone who is already a member, so Facebook and Twitter are peppered with requests for invitations to the service, and they have even been sold on eBay.
Google's secret? Knowing that people usually want what they can't have.
These days it can be hard for a new Web site to attract attention. Dozens of start-ups unveil their lovingly built sites each day, but most people already have their fill of social network profiles to update and friend requests to weigh.
That has led many companies, from small start-ups to giants like Google, to try creating a sense of exclusivity by putting up a digital velvet rope.
Typically companies parcel out the initial sign-up invitations to a select few, asking that they kick the tires and offer feedback on any lingering bugs or flaws in the software. In exchange, the members of that group get the bragging rights associated with being the first ones inside the latest new service. The invitations often go to people who have a sizable following on blogs, Twitter or other social services.
"Invitation-only services create a halo of privilege and exclusivity for those early adopters that gain access," said Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "They get to convey that they were somehow chosen, and that gives them status in their social circles."
Those who enjoy playing the invitation game liken it to knowing about the next hot D.J. or cool speakeasy before the masses find out.
"It's almost like having a V.I.P. pass to the Internet," said Andrew Mager, a Web developer at a start-up called SimpleGeo in San Francisco.
Mr. Mager said that he swapped invitations to sites with others using services likeInviteShare. "I've run across a lot of people that want an invite just to say they have an invite, even if they could care less what the Web site is," he said.
On some level the exclusivity approach flies in the face of logic. Wouldn't a start-up want to sign up as many new users as possible?
But entrepreneurs generally have a bigger goal in mind: winning over the early adopters in the hopes that their glowing reviews will attract more mainstream users.
When Justin Kan was gearing up to release his second start-up, SocialCam, a mobile app that lets people share videos with their friends, his company plotted out a tiered release of invitations. "We started with a core nucleus of users that we thought would spread it to everyone," he said. Those users could then invite others.
The company attributes its early success - surpassing one million users in four months - to its strategic approach.
"From a buzz perspective, we did exactly what we set out to do," said Mr. Kan.
Even services that already have some name recognition, like Spotify, the much-promoted music streaming service, look for ways to generate excitement around their products.
When Spotify, a European service, came to the United States last week, it did not immediately fling open its doors. People have to get their hands on an invitation to use the free version of the service, which is supported by advertising. However, they can have immediate access if they sign up for the paid premium version.
Having an early preview phase to smooth out any rough edges is particularly crucial for social networking start-ups, said Susan Etlinger, a consultant at the Altimeter Group who advises companies on how best to use technology. Negative word can spread quickly online, bursting a start-up's bubble even before it has a chance to get off the ground.
The danger lies in "setting a high expectation that can bite them later," Ms. Etlinger said.
In Google's case, the company says limiting access to Google+ is necessary while it works out kinks in the service and tries to keep it from buckling under a crush of new users.
"We came up with mechanics to bring our audiences in in stages, and allow us time to refine it and bake it before it hits the mainstream," said Bradley Horowitz, a vice president for product at Google who helped orchestrate the introduction of Google+ and other social services at the company.
Google introduced the service in several stages, beginning with an internal test phase called "fish food," a play on the code name for the product, Emerald Sea. Shortly after, all 24,000 Google employees were granted access for several months.
Then, Mr. Horowitz said, the company decided to begin what it is calling its "limited field trial," which involved inviting a small group that was selected using a set of criteria that he declined to discuss. Most were journalists and prominent bloggers. Eventually the company opened up windows during which those users were allowed to invite others.
"Invites were on and off at various times," Mr. Horowitz said. "We were letting people trickle in and throttled the limit based on capacity."
At this point the service is far from an exclusive club. Larry Page, chief executive of Google, said on Thursday that more than 10 million people had joined and were sharing a billion items a day.
Mr. Horowitz acknowledged that early traction did not guarantee long-term success. What matters, he said, "is to transcend that early adopter crowd and learn how the late adopters will use your system."