The queue to get up the Eiffel Tower

Photo Credits: BenJTsunami – See original here.

From time to time one of our portfolio companies gets to be featured on a prime time TV show (A Current Affair, Today Tonight…). This has obvious benefits for the business in terms of publicity, but it comes at a price for the poor servers that have to serve millions of requests in a very very short time frame.

In that context you can assume that your site WILL go down at some point (unless you’ve spend big bucks to build a very solid infrastructure which IMO would be a mistake in the agile startup context). So in this post I will list easy simple measures that you can take to make sure that when your site gives up, it does it in the nicest possible way for your business :)

Let me first detail the actual impact that coverage like this has on a website:
In the next 30 sec following the first mention of the site’s name, traffic will start flooding in. We are talking 3-5000 new visitors per… second. And that’s the whole challenge!

A traditional traffic increase coming from a mention on a popular blog, social news site or newspaper (Techcrunch, Digg, SMH…) brings you lots of traffic but does it quite gently. By that I mean that new visitors will come gradually across a couple of hours or even days and this is easily explainable by the fact that not everyone gets to click on your site’s link at the same time since readers would become aware of the story at a different time (as they read through their RSS feed, browse the blog, read the newspaper at the local cafe and then come back to their computer and enter the link).

On TV it’s a different story. When a show with an audience greater than 1 million drops your site’s name you get instant massive traffic as a large part of the show’s audience (the ones watching TV with a laptop on their laps raise your hand ;)) decide to have a look at your site in a very short time frame (under a minute really…).

See illustration attempt on this award winning piece:

Traffic surge illustration

Before the storm:

– Get your 503 page ready: Make a nice but simple error page (inline css, no images etc… ideally it should only take 1 request for your server to display this page).  Explain to your visitors what’s happening and tell them what to do next (no dead end).
Have a simple form where they can leave their email address (outsource that to Wufoo for example so that your database doesn’t die while recording 100.000 email addresses…).
Have links to your Twitter and Facebook pages where visitors can follow you etc. That will give them something to look at and a way for you to get back to them. So redirect traffic to friendly places (Twitter, Facebook) that have the infrastructure to deal with the traffic.

– Have a landing page: To ease the load on your servers prepare a static landing page in the same spirit as the error page. The idea is to spare your database and servers as much as possible. Greet your visitors and direct them to what has the most value to your business (if it’s sales then direct them to featured products, if it’s membership then collect their email address, if it’s downloads for your iphone app then give them the direct link to itunes straight away, etc. What’s important there is to go to the point, successfully convert their visit and… get rid of them! Next! ;)).

– Don’t do last minute changes / tweaks. If minutes before the program starts you decide to upgrade the database well… you are minutes from a disaster :)

– Have your whole team on standby: Often the large audience shows are on outside of the regular office hours (that’s why they have large audiences :)). So make sure that you are organised with your team so that you have everyone you need around you.

– Beware of collateral damages: You shouldn’t have your email application running on the same servers than your website but in case you do beware that your communication tools will go down with you site… Which would leave you with no live site and no way to reach your system admin etc… So as much as possible silo your tools so that when one goes down it doesn’t have a domino effect on your whole infrastructure.

During the storm:

– Watch the conversation happening and engage: Make sure that your team is ready and watches the Twitter, forum and Facebook conversations. Your competitors will certainly be there trying to collect the traffic and doing so by eventually damaging your brand name. So you need to be there and engage.

– Don’t panic: No live changes! And if the site is down so be it. Just stay calm and no, standing behind your tech team asking them “is it back?” every 2 seconds won’t make it come back faster :)

– Collect the data: Monitor the traffic and record everything you can for later analysis.

After the storm:

– Keep your eyes open: It’s current practice for shows to share footage across the network’s channels and the piece on your startup can be aired again the following day in a different show and at a different time. So beware of the second wave of traffic the next day.

– Learn from your mistakes :)

Is there anything that you would add to this list? Let me know in the comments :)

I’ll be curious to know what coverage in a show like Oprah does to your site… Apparently something in the lines of “ten months’ worth of average daily volume in one day”.

  • Loic Golliard

    Great post! Especially liked this part:
    “Your competitors will certainly be there trying to collect the traffic and doing so by eventually damaging your brand name. So you need to be there and engage.”
    Would be interesting to see the stats of people who left their email addresses and came back later on ;)

  • Josephine Sabin

    Reading: How to handle a tsunami of peeps to your startup website -like a pro- when prime time TV profiles your brand.#spreets#pollenizer