Beautiful people, bright lights, free-flowing drinks, glitzy performers-the latest Hollywood premiere? Not exactly. At least something seems different, as evidenced by the big screen above the crowds, where you might expect to see Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow or the latest Santana video. Instead, it glows with a different kind of debutant, the newest Web star wannabe hoping to stake its place on the dotcom landscape.
Welcome to the Internet launch party, a phenomenon that has fast become modus operandi for venture-capital-infused Web start-ups from coast to coast. It's an event where left brain meets right, as conservative engineer types in company logo shirts and investors in pin stripes hobnob with flamboyant artists in sequins and pearls. All are gathered here with one goal in mind: to put this start-up on the radar screen and transform a simple URL into the "it" site of the year.
"In San Francisco, you're not part of the culture unless you have a launch party," says 32-year-old John Bracken, co-founder of Evite.com Inc., a site that creates online invitations. "In fact, it's competitive now. People say 'We have to do it better than the other guy.' It generates word-of-mouth, and people are always looking forward to the next party."
Evite.com knows all about shelling out big bucks for a launch party. The 3-year-old San Francisco company dropped $70,000 on its launch bash last year, an event that attracted more than 700 guests. Bracken says it was money well spent. "It was the perfect marketing vehicle for a company like ours because we're all about throwing parties," he says.
While a party may be a no-brainer for an invitation site, Web companies with all kinds of business models, from click-and-mortar product sites to online directories, are getting in on the act. In fact, throwing a big bash to announce one's "arrival" and to celebrate other major events in a site's lifecycle has almost become expected in Internet circles.
Once considered the domain of big Hollywood studios, today's large, lavish parties are the work of burgeoning dotcoms hoping to generate the buzz that will send an impressive volume of traffic careening toward their pages. With more and more invitations hitting e-mail servers every day, the events have become firmly embedded in the cultural fabric of major tech centers. "The goal is to put a very important public stake in the ground for the dotcom," says consultant Murem Sharpe, whose Bloomfield Hills, Minnesota, firm, 24x2, helps Internet start-ups shape their business strategies.
That stake can be quite expensive, usually ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, says Sharpe. Not to say there's a limit: The bill for a recent San Francisco launch gala exceeded $200,000, a fee that covered everything from champagne to circus performers.
"The head count will be at least 200 to 300 people, and the food alone will be $50 to $100 a head," says Sharpe. Most companies overdo it with refreshments, she adds, and skimp on the good giveaways, like T-shirts, hats and other tchotchkes with the company logo. "That's where many companies fall down on the job-they spend a lot on the food but don't bother to spend a little more on the giveaways that will solidify the brand."
Launch Party To Beat The Competition
Ironically, as the size and expense of dotcom parties continue to escalate, big Hollywood galas celebrating movie premieres or new music releases appear to be on the decline. Adam Rymer, a strategic planning executive for Universal Music Group, says promoters started opting out of big parties because they didn't prove to be the most effective way to get press for entertainment acts. Rymer, who used to work for the digital music site Webnoize, believes this is also true for dotcom parties, but he says these events serve another purpose.
"I don't think the [dotcom] parties are all that effective at generating a buzz, but it seems they are something you have to do," Rymer explains. "Somebody's going to have the party, and it's either going to be you, or it's going to be your competitor. For every dotcom, there are five other ones competing for the same space. Odds are, the one that is spending the most money for the party is going to win out."
The company that throws the party may influence the market space, Rymer adds. "People connect [the market] with you."
James Marciano, 33-year-old founder of TheSquare.com Inc., a networking site for Ivy Leaguers and alumni from other top schools, agrees that big parties are critical to getting a Web business noticed. However, he disagrees that a company needs to spend big money to throw one. TheSquare attracted more than 1,300 people to its recent relaunch party at a New York City night club. Guests included industry executives, marketing professionals, members of the press and investors, as well as site staff and members. The event, which Marciano claims was one of the largest Internet parties ever held in New York City, only cost about $5,000. His big secret: a cash bar.
"When people spend hundreds of thousands on a party, we just think it's a waste of money," says Marciano. "You can achieve the same effect without spending that much and by having people pay for their own drinks."
The dotcom buzz around Marciano's party started as early as the invitation process, which took on a viral nature itself. "My marketing director put out three or four e-mails to some of her friends from her old job at an Internet industry trade group," he recalls. "Right after we announced it, she called me and said, 'James, we have 350 people signed up today.' By the next day, we had 850 people, and we hadn't even invited our members yet."
In many cases, a party's ability to generate talk depends on the marketing prowess of the people hosting it. Sherri Foxman, a Cleveland corporate events coordinator who has attended several West Coast dotcom bashes, says branding skills appear to be sorely lacking in many of the events. She notes that one recent launch party she attended didn't even have the company's name on a welcome sign.
"It was basically a lot of food and a lot of alcohol, like those electric lemonades and things like that, but there was absolutely nothing there that said 'This is who we are; this is what we're all about,' " Foxman recalls. "I was shocked. I could have just as easily been at a Friday night bar."
Foxman, who provides a profusion of party ideas and products on her site, Party411.com, can easily rattle off a number of ways to help guests remember what your party is about. These can range from organizing games around the theme of your Web site to handing out keychains embossed with the company logo. "Then, the next day, guests won't be saying 'Oh there was so much food and liquor at that party.' Instead, they'll say, 'Did you know that company does this and this?' " she says.
Evite focused heavily on themes and entertainment-oriented activities, such as a golf cage and a casino. They also hired a zany, 1970s-style hair band called the Cheeseballs. "All this fit our image perfectly," says Bracken. "We're about bringing people together and having fun; we help people organize all kinds of social events. The party was a way of communicating to our customers what Evite is all about."
Evite.com's efforts to create a buzz have not been limited to its parties. The company comes up with all sorts of ways to get noticed, including driving around town in the multicolored Evite VW. "You need to create reasons for people to talk about you," Bracken says. "That's why people go to a site-because it was recommended by their friends or it piqued someone's curiosity." Evite's tactics have apparently met with some success: The site recently won a coveted Webby award, the Internet's version of an Oscar.
Just as Evite has activities to keep the site high-profile, TheSquare.com has networking events throughout the year. Marciano says that's the way you "rise above the noise."
The launch party should not be an isolated event, Sharpe points out, but rather part of a PR plan that takes the company from seed funding and early development through its IPO and beyond. A party's success is determined by whether it is consistent with a company's brand strategy and whether the company follows up afterwards with contacts made. "If the money is spent wisely, the party is a very good investment in brand development and relationship building with the partners, the investors and the press," Sharpe says. "The only time it's not a good use of money is if it's not done well."
Some ideas for making an impact with your party:
Be selective about your first invites. Try to find influential members of the press, investment community and industry. Then invite these people to bring friends.
Put something at the party entrance that screams what your site is all about. Put your URL on a huge welcome banner.
Put changing screen-shots of your site above the party floor.
Only hire celebrities if they fit your theme. Most of the time, celebrities are overrated, and sometimes, they don't even show up.
Plan activities around your theme. If you have a sports site, set up a mini basketball court.
If money is tight, consider hors d'oeuvres rather than a smorgasbord.
Get sponsorships from partners. They may pick up the food tab, for example, if you put their logo on one of your banners.
Put out a bowl for business cards, and ask people who are leaving if they'd like to be on your mailing list for future events. Be sure to follow up.
Julie Vallone is a Northern California business and technology writer who has crashed dotcom parties throughout the Silicon Valley and beyond.
24x2 LLC, (248) 540-5711, firstname.lastname@example.org.