Imagine you ran a coffee shop with great coffee, a cool vibe, comfortable seating… and no customers. Not an uncommon problem, and the classic solution promoted by social media experts would be something like:

“Create a Twitter handle and offer discounts to customers who follow. Broadcast weekly events and promotions via Twitter and engage with your audience to encourage them to come and bring their friends. More discounts to people who get their friends to follow. Create a mailing list; Tumblr; Facebook page; etc, etc.”

It’s an alluring prospect, that no matter where you are, using online social media tools you can tap into a global audience, create a network of influencers, and drive people to your coffee shop in droves. The only issue? I frankly doubt you’d get even a single customer out of it. It’s all reasonable, common advice. I just don’t believe it would work. My advice?

“Stand outside your coffee shop, up the block a bit. Watch the people who come by. When you see someone who looks like a potential customer, approach them and ask in a friendly, non-confrontational way: Why didn’t you come in?”

I wager in the first hour you’ll get at least one real customer, dozens of potential customers who are much more likely to stop by in the future, and a hundred tangible ideas on what you can do right now to attract more business:

  • Did they not like the vibe? Redecorate!
  • Did they doubt the quality of your coffee? Emphasize the roaster’s brand to demonstrate quality!
  • Did they just not notice you? Put an A-board out front with an arrow pointing at your store!
  • Did they not want to go to an empty place? Promote free coffee whenever you’re empty to anyone who comes in and sits for an hour!

The problem with “social media” is that you actually don’t care about a global audience: whatever you are, you want a very, very localized audience. The most important audience of all are the people who stopped by, checked you out, and walked away. Just ask them why, and let that guide you. Granted, I’ve chosen a physical example of a coffee shop to illustrate this idea, but as I imagine is obvious: the principle is exactly the same for your website. The fact that “the internet” has billions of people is irrelevant to your service — the handful of people who actually visit your site are the ones that matter the most. Again, everybody would agree with this, but what would the classic social media advice be? Probably to use the same sort of bland strategy the fictional coffee shop owner would follow — and probably with the same (lack of) results. Instead, my advice to you would be:

“Do everything you can to talk with your visitors. Put a giant sign up button on the homepage requiring nothing but an email address. If that doesn’t work, just have it open directly to a chat window with you logged in ready to talk. Ask them why they came, what they’re looking for. You’ll be amazed what you hear.”

It sounds so obvious. It’s so easy to do. Yet, nearly nobody does this. Luckily, we did, and I count as one of the most important techniques we ever used to get real world customer feedback. I literally believe that had we not done this, Expensify simply wouldn’t be here today. Our initial assumptions about what people cared about were so far off, in so many directions, that had we not a tool like this we simply wouldn’t have survived the first year and never become the leading brand we are today. Despite this being such a hilariously obvious technique, I’m almost embarrassed to say we only stumbled into the technique by accident:

  1. Our first homepage had a big sign up button on it that required only an email address. (This is common now, but at the time it was really controversial: What, I don’t need to create a password? *mindblown*)
  2. Immediately after sign up, you’d get a fancy stylized HTML email with a bunch of information nobody would ever read, and a validation link that most people would never click.
  3. However, we had a system that every hour, would email everybody who signed up in the past hour.
  4. This system ran on whatever increment in the hour that we started it, so if we started it at 1:17, it would run at 2:17, 3:17, etc.
  5. Furthermore, this system only sent plain-text emails, and only using my actual email account (“David Barrett <>”)</>
  6. And the message, contrary to all marketing best practices, was extremely open-ended with no actionable link to click:



From: David Barrett <>
Subject: Welcome to Expensify!
Hi there! I see you just signed up for Expensify, welcome! Can you tell me about yourself? Namely, what sort of work do you do, how big is your company, how do you currently do expense reports, how did you learn about Expensify, how do you hope to use it — that sort of thing. Thanks!

Founder and CEO of Expensify </>
<><>Follow us here:



A good response rate to an email like this is 2-3%. A great response rate is 5%. But this email got a 12% response rate. And not just any responses — pages and pages of thoughtful, priceless feedback, from people who genuinely wanted us to succeed. We were floored. Not only was the feedback inspirational and motivational, but it created long-term relationships with our champions that have stayed with us for the many years since. As for why it performed so well, I have a few theories:

  • It came a random duration after you signed up, on a random minute in the hour, so it wasn’t obviously an automated message.
  • This was reinforced by the fact that it was a simple text email. Let’s be honest: nobody “real” writes well stylized emails with a formal greeting and logo — all it does is mentally flag you as spam.
  • It was written by me, and sent from my actual email address. Hitting reply went straight to me, not some obvious mailbox. (Many responses would start with “You can’t have actually just emailed me for real, so I doubt you’ll actually read this and I’d be shocked if you actually replied, but since you asked here are my thoughts…”)

And most important of all:


  • It came on average 30 minutes after signing up. This meant that you received it right after your first interaction with the product, while it was still on your mind and your initial impressions were on the tip of your tongue, just waiting for someone to ask.

I can’t overstate how helpful this was in shaping the company, and building us into the responsive, user-focused company we are today. Clearly, this gets harder and harder to maintain as you scale — when I send out our newsletter to my millions of closest friends, I get a lot of responses. It takes a long time to go through them all, but I do because “social media strategy” isn’t about the media, and it’s only loosely about strategy. It’s really just about being social, talking with the people who like you (and those who don’t), and being responsive to those who matter the most to your business: customers, users, and those who might be some day.