Jul 182011

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 someone who is already a member, so Facebook and Twitter are peppered with requests for invitations to the service, and they have even been sold on eBay.

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

These days it can be hard for a new Web site 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, from small start-ups to giants like Google, 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 on any lingering bugs or flaws in the software. In exchange, the 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. “They get to convey that they were somehow chosen, and that gives them status in their social circles.”

Those who enjoy playing the invitation game liken it to knowing about the next hot D.J. or cool speakeasy before the masses find out.

“It’s almost like having a V.I.P. pass to the Internet,” said Andrew Mager, a Web developer at a start-up called SimpleGeo in San Francisco.

Mr. Mager said that he swapped invitations to sites with others using services like InviteShare. “I’ve run across a lot of people that want an invite just to say they have an invite, even if they could care less what the Web site is,” he said.

On some level the exclusivity approach flies in the face of logic. Wouldn’t a start-up want to sign up as many new users as possible?

But entrepreneurs generally have a bigger goal in mind: winning over the early adopters in the hopes that their glowing reviews will attract more mainstream users.

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