Twitter Bowl 2009: A Ten Day Experiment in Gonzo (part 1)

Twitter Bowl is a Twitter mash-up that Adam Bossy (@abossy) and I (@derwiki) created in ten days for the Super Bowl. I'd like to share with you our experience and the lessons that we learned.

Day 1: Initial Conception and Working Prototype
This was the easy part. Coming up with the idea was inspired by a co-workers presentation about mash-ups, and a baseball mash-up he made. I had used TweetGrid for the AFC championship to see what the buzz was -- who the Twitterverse thought would be going to the Super Bowl. It was surprisingly entertaining to follow, but I figured the general public wouldn't want to play around with TweetGrid. Luckily, there's a TweetGrid widget, so I embedded two of those on a page with different keywords for different teams. From the time I opened Vim until I finished the first iteration, it honestly took two hours of work. I already had a Slicehost account, so I just threw it up on there, registered the domain, and set up the DNS records. It took all of 5 minutes to add Google analytics to the site and start tracking.

Day 2: Post First Iteration to Ask Hacker News
We didn't get as much traffic as I had hoped, and most of the criticisms weren't constructive: "your site design sucks", "do something useful", "solve a real problem", etc. By this point, I had gotten enough positive feedback from friends that I said fuck the naysayers cuz they don't mean a thang. They were right, but they didn't tell me how to improve it. There were a few good things that came out of this post, so it was completely worth it. Izak30 pointed out that there might be trademark issues using the term "Super Bowl" outside of the widget on the site, so we nixed that. He also wrote a blog post about our site and how we were soliciting feedback so early in the development cycle. I'd like to thank Evan Heiser (@sass9210) for the idea on making the new design. He pointed out out that the ESPN widget didn't really fit the rest of the site, but since it was unchangeable, we should make the rest of the site match it's styling. Brilliant!

Day 3: Snowboarding.
We talked about Twitter Bowl to people, but weren't able to really work on it. No regrets here :)

Day 4: Revamping the UI and Adding Inline Tweeting
With Bossy solidly on board, he plowed through some design mock-ups in Photoshop. We actually posted our ideas to Ask Proggit, but didn't get anyone to respond. We ended up just asking a lot of our friends and choosing the most popular design. As Bossy started chopping up the graphics into HTML/CSS/images, I started working on the inline Tweeting function. This was another recommendation from Evan, saying that it would make visitors feel more like active participants. There were some technical hurdles that I won't bore you with (cross site Ajax), but Script.aculo.us and a quick 'n dirty PHP script saved the day.

Day 5: Switching to GWT and integrating inline Tweeting
Amongst frustration with tables/CSS hell, Bossy started re-implementing the page using the Google Web Toolkit. In the meantime, we kept up our bastardized version that had basic inline Tweeting functionality -- but just didn't feel clean. I think it was this day that I also created the Twitter Bowl fan page on Facebook.

Day 6: Advertise Advertise Advertise!
I literally told anyone and everyone. I created a Twitter account, @tw1tterbowl, to announce to no one in particular about the site. My hopes were that people would search Twitter for things related to the Super Bowl and run across Twitter Bowl. We also posted to Reddit, and received a lackluster response. It was about this time that we realized web site + HN/Reddit/Digg wasn't going to be enough. At the recommendation of friend Ed Shelton, I started contacting every radio station in Pittsburgh who might want to talk about it and emailing people who ran Steelers blogs. No radio station that I know of said anything about it, but Matt Loede at Steelers Gab wrote an entire post about us.

Day 7: Implement Advertising
After still not hearing back from AdSense (wtf Google!) we signed up for AdBrite and put a banner on our site.

Day 8: Finished GWT Version
Bossy finished up the new site done with the Google Web Toolkit and we pushed it live.

Day 9: Snowboarding Again.
What can I say, I'm addicted!

Day 10: Super Bowl Sunday
We did a last minute blitz of advertising. We posted to Hacker News again, Digg, Twittered about it, and then sat back to watch the game. We kept a laptop open that was updating total/unique hits in real time. Just as anticipated, we saw a spike in both during the actual Super Bowl. That Sunday, we doubled the amount of traffic that our site had received in total. The next blog post will be a more detailed analysis of the traffic, but I will tell you that our total unique count is around 2000. That might seem paltry, but I don't know 2000 people, so I consider this a success.

That was a quick ten days! I was so happy to have something fun to program again, even if it wasn't technically challenging. What was challenging were the other aspects: incorporating feedback, advertising, and improving the user experience. And we learned a lot about that! Our major lessons:

Release as early as you can and start collecting feedback. This is the single most important thing I will take away from this experience. You, the developer, are creating the site/service for the user. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from using the community from the earliest stages. For Twitter Bowl, we had an idea, created a prototype, and launched. Everything we implemented after that, everything we tweaked, and how we advertised was a collaboration between myself, Bossy, and everyone else who cared enough to tell us.

Ask anyone for advice who you think might care, and don't get discouraged if they don't care. I asked everyone I knew for feedback almost every day (thanks guys!). My own personal Twitter account was non-stop about Twitter Bowl, and I asked everyone I knew for advice on how to improve the site -- especially the people who don't drink the Twitter Kool Aid (read: non-programmers/techies). But by the same token, I didn't get upset if people had nasty things or nothing to say. The good feedback/advice I got made all the crap worthwhile.

If you're going to post to Hacker News, Reddit, etc. asking for help, listen to the feedback! More importantly, take the time to personally thank everyone who responded with constructive criticism. They deserve it! But seriously, distance yourself from the project. Criticisms to the project are not criticisms of you. Every bit of feedback you receive is valuable and might help you realize a mistake you're making before it becomes a big mistake (this goes hand in hand with launching early and iterating quickly).

Don't re-invent the wheel. It's 10x quicker to consume existing solutions than to create your own. You end up wasting less time on details, and can focus more on the bigger picture. We used Google extensively: web toolkit for the page, analytics for daily updates, and AdSense to make 27 cents (seriously, that's it). TweetGrid provided a widget that provided the basic functionality; ESPN provided a widget that allowed us to legally put a Super Bowl logo on the page.

Don't advertise. I'm still really pissed at us for this one. We made twenty-seven lousy cents at the expense of putting up distracting and useless advertisements. If we had put up TipJoy and been tipped a quarter, we would have done just as well. Even with the modest goal of earning back the domain name registration ($10), we fell entirely too short and wasted too much time setting up and implementing advertising. I mean, it wasn't a lot of time -- but at a return of 25 cents, any amount of time was wasted time as far as I was concerned. On the other hand, this did confirm my suspicion that the advertising-based revenue model is total bullshit. If I ever do a start up that doesn't have a different revenue model... well, I just won't do that. This experiment cleared up any delusions that I might have had.

I'm going to conclude this post with a charge: if you have an idea, try it! This project was an invaluable learning experience, and cost very little. Maybe 10-20 hours of development time, and maybe 5-10 hours of advertising. That's IT. What's stopping you from putting your idea out there?


sass9210 said...

really good post about the experiment! Also Twitterbowl2009.com was a fun site! Keep pushing new sites out there, you never know what is going to catch on.

iamelgringo said...

Great job, guys.

From concept to launch in 10 days. That's amazing. Keep us in the loop with your next project.