Needing attention, new websites put up velvet ropes

By Jenna Wortham
New York Times / July 18, 2011

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NEW YORK - Demand for Google’s new social-networking service, Google+, has been intense since its debut last month in a limited test mode. To get in, you must be invited by a member, so Facebook and Twitter are peppered with requests for invitations, and they have even been sold on eBay.

Google’s secret? Knowing people usually want what they can’t have.

These days, it can be hard for a new website to attract attention. Dozens of start-ups unveil their lovingly built sites each day, but most people already have their fill of social-network profiles to update and friend requests to weigh. That has led many companies to try creating a sense of exclusivity by putting up a digital velvet rope.

Typically, companies parcel out the initial sign-up invitations to a select few, asking that they kick the tires and offer feedback. Members of that group get the bragging rights associated with being the first ones inside the latest new service. The invitations often go to people who have a sizable following on blogs, Twitter, or other social services.

“Invitation-only services create a halo of privilege and exclusivity for those early adopters that gain access,’’ said Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s almost like having a VIP pass to the Internet,’’ said Andrew Mager, a Web developer.

On some level, exclusivity flies in the face of logic. Wouldn’t a start-up want as many users as possible? But there is a bigger goal: winning over the early adopters in the hopes their glowing reviews will attract more mainstream users.

Even services with some name recognition, like Spotify, the much-promoted music streaming service, look for ways to generate excitement. When Spotify, a European service, came to the United States last week, it did not fling open its doors. People have to get their hands on an invitation to use the free version supported by advertising. They can have immediate access with the paid premium version.

Having a preview phase to smooth out rough edges is crucial for social-networking start-ups, said Susan Etlinger, a consultant at Altimeter Group. Negative word can spread quickly.

Google says limiting access to Google+ is necessary while it works out kinks and tries to keep it from buckling under a crush of new users.

“We came up with mechanics to bring our audiences in in stages, and allow us time to refine it and bake it before it hits the mainstream,’’ said Bradley Horowitz, a vice president.

At this point, the service is far from exclusive.

Larry Page, chief executive of Google, said last week that more than 10 million people had joined Google+.