The Mailbox Velvet-Rope: Don’t Try This At Home

I am a lucky beta user of Mailbox, the new email app for iPhone designed and engineered by the team that built. Orchestra, which was one of my favorite products. For the past few days, as Mailbox has moved out of beta and is now fully available in the App Store, Twitter has been lit up because of a novel marketing tactic brilliantly leveraged by the company, with a little twist. The marketing has been so good, in fact, that it generates even more as people who have to wait in line for their free app discuss it on Twitter. Any way you slice it, this has been a masterful campaign, and my hats off to the team for not only creating a fun and useful product, but also for staging this slow release out of beta and reservation system for fulfilling orders by making people wait.

Mailbox has been so successful with their system, in fact, that my concern is other app makers will try to resort these tactics. It’s just a matter of time. But, I would add a word of caution to those who consider it — in order for this typed of gated-entry, velvet-rope marketing to work and sustain, (1) there needs to be an app that is truly incredible, something entirely new and significantly better than the nearest substitute or alternative; (2) there needs to be a tight alpha where all the bugs are worked out and a “buzzy beta” that releases the app (using Hockey and an enterprise account from Apple) where specific influencers are allowed to use the app and show/share it with people to gin up more excitement; and (3) the company needs to have a well-thought out system for handling incoming requests and fulfilling those via email and/or SMS in a matter that is reasonable.

The harsh reality is that most apps won’t have all of the three attributes listed above, but their parent companies are under great pressure to gain distribution on an operating system that makes it very difficult for audiences to discover new apps in a crowded store. Mailbox deserves credit not only for their product (which I use daily), but also for architecting this marketing campaign to help hack mobile distribution. I know others will try to copy this, but I don’t think the results will be pretty. ”People in front of you” and “People behind you” is the new followers and following :-)

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus