What makes a successful waitlist program + when does it even make sense to implement a waitlist?
Hello Frens 👋,
Happy Tuesday! I have wanted to write about waitlists for some time now, but I never really got the chance to until this week. I am excited! I even built a little Trending Waitlist tracker to ensure I never miss out on the next big thing.
My motivation for writing this piece comes from observing my own behavior; my reaction to a waitlist has always been extreme.
I either go crazy to get access to products during their invite-only phase. For instance, I donated $50 x 3 for a chance to “win” a Clubhouse invite, I wrote a handwritten snail mail begging the founder of a certain productivity app to give me access and, of course, did the whole referral thing, getting people to sign up to get earlier access...many many times.
Or, I swear off products completely cause of the mere fact they had a waitlist (I am looking at you, Amie!)
I took the time this week to reflect not just on why that is the case, but more importantly, study the extremely successful, kind-of-successful, and flops of the waitlist world.
My goal is to come out of this research with a better understanding of why I act the way I do, what makes a successful waitlist program and when it makes sense to implement a waitlist?
Why it works: The Psychology behind waitlists:
“Give me a product that a few people I know have or use, that doesn’t want me as a customer yet, and I’ll run through a wall to get my hands on it, just show me the way (: !”
- Ali Abouelatta
People take action when three forces collide:
Motivation (we must want the thing);
Trigger (something must happen to trigger a desire to get more of it)
Ability (it must be easy).
Waitlists play on all three forces to varying degrees. The motivation lever is obvious; people mimic the desires of people they look up to desire— oftentimes without a rational grounding. $13.9 billion was spent on influencer marketing last year alone.
In that context, the motivation for signing up to a waitlist changes from a personal need or a pain point to seeking a higher status or social capital from our group by being on the same new app as Marc Andreessen or using the same recovery tracker as Michael Phelps or wearing the same sneakers as Alexis Ohanian. I am guilty of all three.
Every time the same new hot app is shared by someone I know or respect — whether a friend, a mega-influencer or someone in between — I am reminded of my desire to belong to the elite group of people with access. The scarcer a thing is, the higher the status from being associated with it and the stronger my bias to action. I’ll do whatever it takes, and if you know me, I mean that in a literal sense!
The ability front is more subtle. For a waitlist specifically, the ability to access a certain product directly contradicts the motivation to sign up in the first place. The more access people, the less status is associated with having one. It is the typical “I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept Me as a Member.”
Waitlists are hard to pull off; make it too easy, and people lose motivation, make it too hard, and people also lose motivation. It has to be just hard enough!
When to implement a waitlist
During my many desperate attempts trying to get off waitlists, the answer I get when asking if I could get into the coveted group of early users is, “we are not trying to be exclusive; we want to ...”
And that is true. There are many reasons for implementing a waitlist beyond building hype or generating demand or whatever we are calling it these days. From looking into ~30 of the most successful implementation of waitlists, I found these 6 broad categories as being the main driver behind implementing a waitlist.
I talked to 4 of these founders, but the vast majority is driven by research. If there is anything I know for sure, what people publicly acknowledge is a clouded distorted version of reality. So as always, take everything I say with a grain of salt!
When it is costly to build an MVP, a landing page + waitlist is true, and tried strategy to launch and get quick feedback before investing more resources. I use the term costly a little bit liberally here. I don’t mean costly strictly in terms of capital, but also time and effort needed to deliver an MVP.
When entering a crowded space, the threshold for an acceptable MVP from a consumer perspective is vastly different from when operating in a new product category with a different business model and/or mode of operations.
Capture low intent customers / Top of the funnel.
Related but different to assessing demand is capturing low intent customers. This is the case when working in a domain that has a high price point, requires a high trust threshold and/or a meaningful investment in customer education.
For many companies that fall into one of those three categories, waitlists are a way to capture low intent customers and convert them by overcoming the main obstacle over time*.* Waitlists here run for many years!
Getting feedback and developing the right product experience is a commonly cited reason why a certain product has gated access. This is especially true for consumer products where losing 75% of the initial sign-ups is considered a good retaining product.
A waitlist, in that case, helps the team from getting pulled in too many directions or serving too many masters.
After the company finds product-market fit and has a sticky product experience in this category, the waitlist is often retired.
Paid Marketing “Skip waitlist.”
Sometimes waitlists are implemented for purely tactical reasons. This is the case for companies that leverage waitlists to improve conversion and, subsequently, the unit economics of performance marketing.
I found community-based advertising (advertising on podcasts, newsletters, Facebook groups, slack communities, or even influencer marketing) being the most common avenue for this kind of “Skip the line because you are one of us” messaging, although it was still present on more traditional channels as Facebook, Instagram..etc.
Sourcing Supply is another common avenue for implementing a waitlist. For bootstrapping liquidity on a multi-sided marketplace, waitlists effectively capture demand and sourcing supply as needed to allow the demand and supply side of the network to grow in lockstep.
Increase Word of Mouth
And finally, the most dangerous of them all: implementing a waitlist to increase word of mouth. I am yet to find a product that exclusively implemented a waitlist successfully to generate word of mouth. However, I suspect that people were at least partially motivated by the virality potential of successful waitlist product launches: the Gmail(s), Dropbox(es), Robinhood(s) of the world.
One does not have to go exclusively one way or the other. For instance, HMBradley — the digital banking platform that develops programs to reward savers— shifted to a waitlist model to control user experience after seeing a strong market pull for a new product. A few months later, they shifted their marketing to “Skip the waitlist” and have since used waitlists to test demand for new products. There is no reason not to extract the tangential value from implementing a waitlist. It is the smart thing to do!
Growing a waitlist
The straightforward way to grow a waitlist is to have more people on the waitlist. This is clearly problematic. During my research process, I found a few interesting ways to get a waitlist off the ground.
From Indie Hackers
Waitlists are a great way to garner attention and find customers pre-launch, but making people sign up via a form is a missed opportunity. Nurture prospective customers by requiring that they email you personally to join the list.
Instead of filling out a form to get on HEY's waitlist, those who wanted access had to send them an email. Seeing HEY's overwhelming success with this approach, Alex Hillman of Indy Hall decided to give it a shot with his new book, Tiny MBA. He put out a few posts on social media inviting people to email him if they were interested in the book, and within 24 hours, 90 people had contacted him requesting a pre-sale link. That's 25-40% of the people who liked his posts. In addition to creating demand, this made it easy for him to nurture his relationship with each potential customer, increasing the likelihood of conversion. And then there's all the time he saved — he didn't even have to build a landing page.
Friction works in mysterious ways. On the one side, the more steps users need to go through in a checkout flow, the higher the chances someone drops off. On the other hand, the sunk cost fallacy tells us that people are more likely to follow through on an endeavor if they have already invested time, effort, or money.
Introducing a little friction to the waitlist can increase its perceived value and make people more motivated to get their hands on the product.
Videos are one of the cornerstones to generating buzz. And product demos are a good starting point.
I found two particular kinds of demos that successfully broke through the noise and generated interest in a products waitlist, although I am sure other formats would work just as well.
The Demo that shows too much
This is the kind of demo that hypes people about a world where the product exists and how it will make the world better. This is for the technically impressive, never seen before kind of products.
PianoVision, an Oculus AR Piano learning app, is a great demonstration of this concept. Developed by an Indie creator, Zac Reid, who barely had any following before releasing the video on Twitter.
The video generated 30,000+ views and bootstrapped the waitlist for the new app.
The Demo that Shows too little
The demo that shows too little is on the other end of the spectrum. It works by creating a mystique around the product in question and tapping into our reptile curious brains to learn more (i.e., join the waitlist).
The example I use here is from Rift Finance. The video does not demonstrate anything about the product or literally anything to that extent. It captures the essence of what Rift is trying to accomplish in a manner captivating enough that the bet is people would go to the website to learn more.
The waitlist hit 25,000 members in 24 hours. There are many forces at play here, a passionate discord community, high-profile prospective customers..etc. However, I like to think the video had a thing or two in the smashing success of the waitlist launch.
I am just scratching the surface here on how to build and grow a waitlist. Admittedly, I did not spend much of my time here, but I thought these few examples were worth sharing.
For part 2 next week, I am doubling down on building and growing a waitlist. How to get a waitlist from 0→10→1000→🚀🌜.
Send in your favorite examples 👇🏽. I will feature the best ones!
Until we meet again 😉,