This chapter is a free excerpt from Make Something People Love: Lessons From a Startup Guy.

The internet might have changed how we connect with people, but it doesn’t change how we connect to people. Just because you’re communicating online doesn’t mean you should act any differently than you would in person.

Let me give you a specific example: shortly after we launched hipmunk, I spent a Friday night with my girlfriend stuffing envelopes with little hipmunk luggage tags, signed postcards, and stickers.

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The internet might have changed how we connect with people, but it doesn’t change how we connect to people. Just because you’re communicating online doesn’t mean you should act any differently than you would in person.

Let me give you a specific example: shortly after we launched hipmunk, I spent a Friday night with my girlfriend stuffing envelopes with little hipmunk luggage tags, signed postcards, and stickers.

Swag

Now why was I spending a Friday night doing this, and the subsequent Saturday morning going down to the post office? Well, we had been collecting mailing addresses from all of hipmunk’s early adopters. These are people who had commented on our Hacker News post announcing our launch, who had written constructive, helpful or funny tweets, or written feedback emails. Basically, they were the people who had gotten excited about our product when only our moms were.

Sidenote: You would be amazed at how willing people are to give out their mailing addresses to random organizations on the internet, but fortunately for them, we weren’t weirdos. We just told them we wanted to send them a little thank youand there I was Friday night, stuffing envelopes, hand-signing a bunch of notes to mail them out the next morning.

Now why would we do this? Really, how important is it?

Remember what I told you about your first hundred users? We wanted to take an experience as miserable as travel search and build a community around it, because people don’t expect to get a little mailer full of random luggage tags and stickers and a hand-signed thank you note when they leave feedback on Twitter for a random website with a silly name. Right? But that’s what we did. We surprised and delighted them. And within days of our mailing, we started getting tweets back with photos. People were wearing our advertising!

Swag: so very useful, but so often trivialized—something I personally find very frustrating. What is swag? Well, it’s asking someone, some random person who is already doing you the favor of being one of your users, to wear your logo, to wear advertising on their torso all day long. If you could put a value on that, it would far exceed the cost of making that t-shirt. So yes, pony up for the good quality t-shirt, because people don’t want to wear uncomfortable clothing. Make your swag attractive and give a damn—make it pleasant for your users to help you.

And continue looking for opportunities to treat your users well. If they’re willing to take the time to give you constructive feedback (even if it’s negative) then they are interested in seeing you succeed. So why not thank them? Why not thank them extravagantly? Why not make sure that every single person in your company has the ability to surprise and delight your customers? If it costs less than $20-$25, why not make someone’s day?

Let’s say you’ve already started giving a damn about everything: you’re monitoring Twitter for your brand, for misspellings of your brand, for all those important basic things. Good. Now do more: Why not also keep tabs on people who are tweeting about particular problems they’re having? Let’s say they’re taking a trip to New York and looking for a restaurant recommendation. Rather than being annoying and self-promotional, i.e., “Hey, have you checked out hipmunk.com?” why not just be helpful, and send out a tweet saying “If you’re into sushi, you should try eating at the bar at 15 East?” That’s all you need to do.

Don’t be shameless about it, just step away from it. If you provide them with something useful, if you engage them in the way they are seeking help, you’ve made yourself a part of the community. And they’ll say “Oh, who is this @thehipmunk who wrote this helpful tweet?” and maybe they’ll see that you’re a travel search website and maybe they’ll use your travel search website. You have just made a connection with another human being through Twitter by being helpful. That’s it. Just be helpful. Imagine that these people are actual people you know in real life and treat them like a friend asking the same questions.

At hipmunk, our strategy of being helpful has had tremendous success thus far. In fact, if you look at the amount of buzz and attention that the first year of hipmunk generated compared to the first year of reddit, it is overwhelming. While it took months and months to get people talking about reddit (in spite of all my diligent stickering), at hipmunk we saw that kind of activity in days. And only so much of it had to do with Steve Huffman and my credibility with the geek community or Adam Goldstein’s flight-search-ninja-skills (though, that helped in a number of ways). What it really came down to was that users were simply impressed by two things:

1) We built a product that was finally fixing something they thought was always going to be broken.

2) We went above and beyond to show our users that we really, really gave a damn in everything we did, from the design of the product all the way down to the pixels of the mascot.
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