“In a sense there’s just one mistake that kills startups: not making something users want.” Paul Graham, 18 Mistakes that Kill Startups.
After the rise of The Lean Startup, everyone and their startup cousin started talking about the need to “get out of the building.” In other words, the need to talk to your customers (or potential customers) about the problems they have and how you can (potentially) solve them.
Like dieting and exercise, talking to customers is something startups know they should do, but rarely do it. Even if you do decide to speak to your customers, it’s tempting to just to send a Google Form to your email list, analyze the results, and call it a day.
But if you want meaningful results, you need to get on the phone.
Look. I’m not here to sell you customer development services. I won’t be hurt if you choose to ignore my advice and just send a survey. I’ve got waaay too much on my plate scaling a data-driven content agency for SaaS.
But I want to share with you ten things I learned talking with less than 25 potential customers.
1. You find out you’re doing just about everything wrong (so you find out how to correct it).
It is said that entrepreneurs and marketers jump off a cliff and build a plane on the way down. Building a plane on-the-fly rarely works. This is what typically happens when entrepreneurs try to build a plane on the fly:
A more accurate picture is they get the plane built, then realize the brakes don’t work and the landing wheels are jammed soon after take off. So even though I felt prepared, it wasn’t until I got airborne that I discovered something was wrong.
You see, people like you and I have a problem of accurately predicting the future. So I should not ask a question about the future (e.g. “Would you buy a product which did X?”). Instead, I need to root the question to the past (e.g. “What happened the last time X came up?”).
So rather than getting a bunch of crap-tastic survey results, I changed my questions with each interview to get better answers.
2. You learn more about who you are serving and whom to ignore.
Look. You know I love click-bait headlines as much as the next marketer.
But even though you may be seeing results from your content, that doesn’t mean you are speaking to the right person, in the right way, at the right time.
When Cara Hogan was at InsightSquared, her team was focused on the sales department. At one point, they discovered leads were decreasing. After doing a deep dive on their content, they found they should target those in sales ops.
Initially, I thought all content marketer would be potential customers. And they may be a potential customer. But now my hypothesis is that SaaS content marketers and blogging teams of 2-4 people will be my best customers. I could be wrong, because I don’t know the future.
But getting on the phone helped me to discover this faster and interview more people like them.
3. You learn what your customers’ true problems are.
There’s a gap between what you read online (or in a survey), and what you learn talking to someone.
Chances are if you’ve been a blogger for a while, you’ve come across Buzzsumo. If not, you’ve probably heard of their clients: Expedia, CapitalOne, IBM, Oglivy, Seer Interactive, and the National Geographic.
So can you imagine my surprise when I talked with Steve Rayson, and he said, “I’m the marketing department?” Naturally, the challenges Steve faces are entirely different than a content marketing agency with 10-15 people.
4. Your writing becomes 10x better.
Have you noticed how I write compared to other content marketers? Does it feel personal and real? Or rehashed from the last 25 articles trying to rank in Google?
The reason my content might stand out is that it’s chock-full of real life examples. When I started my e-commerce content series, I talked with Tracey Wallace of BigCommerce on Slack. After a few messages with Tracey, I learned that many e-commerce owners hate how many examples are from “sexy” tech startups. So I borrowed her words and empathized with their pain.
By talking to my customers, I got more copy direct from my target audience.
5. You build new relationships.
With this one interview, I became deeply aware of the struggles many SaaS content marketers face. It’s hard to know the ROI of a relationship. But I believe that interview with Kate saved me hours of research had I only sent a survey.
6. You build deeper relationships with old friends.
Aside from meeting up in-person, phone and video conversations are the best ways to deepen your relationships. I’ve also noticed they are faster to give and receive value.
The last time I talked with Len, GrooveHQ was in the process of launching a content marketing course. I asked him how the course went and what their goal is in the coming year.
After some chit-chat, Len asked to interview me to talk about influencer marketing for their next course update. So for any of you keeping score, in less than 60 minutes:
- I got customer data from Len. Len gets an opportunity to share his challenges, which I may solve.
- Len introduced me to Kate, who introduced me to two other content marketers. Introductions strengthen each of our networks.
- Len will interview me for Groove’s course. Groove gets valuable insight on influencer marketing for their students, I get in front of a new audience, and we both deepen our relationships.
The majority of this was NOT either of our goal going into the conversation. But that is the value we’ve both received so far.
7. You notice patterns and solutions faster (even solutions for problems you didn’t realize you had).
After one week, I now have six products I want to build (and dozens of ideas I rejected). I’d wager I would be lucky to discover one solution from the survey responses alone because it’s harder to get into the nitty-gritty details of my customer’s problems.
8. You can make better asks.
90% of the people who referred me to someone else to interview came from phone interviews.
Why? I think for two reasons:
- You build a deeper relationship to make that ask.
- There is less room to be misunderstood.
9. You realize what marketing channels may be more efficient.
I get the impression that most SaaS content marketers won’t come from organic traffic for a long time.
To be clear, I’m not saying “SEO is dead.” It’s not. And if this tool is successful, I’m sure I’ll create blog content when the timing is right.
But consider these words when I asked content marketers why each of them rarely look for new tools:
- Alin Vlad of Cognitive SEO – “Since I’m in the industry, I should have known about [the tool] by now. I often check Product Hunt and recommendations from other marketers in Slack.”
- Jes Kirkwood of AutoPilotHQ – “Even though I’m a content marketer, don’t always trust the content that I read.”
- Jacob McMillen – “I never look for new tools. I trust people’s recommendations and Appsumo.”
So instead of starting with blog content, perhaps I need to focus more on Product Hunt and Appsumo and optimize for referrals. As always, you need to rigorously test your marketing channels.
10. The person who decides what to buy may not have the biggest pain point.
Sid Bharath of Thinkific works at a large SaaS company. When it comes to larger tool purchases, he makes the decision. However, Sid rarely creates content for the team, Tyler does.
If your SaaS has a sales team, appealing to Sid with the challenges Tyler faces won’t work. The content you’d create to target Tyler is different than the content you should use to target Sid.
It’s possible you could have discovered this in a survey, but as my survey was set up, I doubt I would have.
Ready to learn more from your customers?
Let’s say you are ready to talk to your customers. Now what? Here’s a quick, 3-step process for you to put into action:
1. Find out who your best customers are, based on how much money they’ve given to your business.
If you’ve found your best customers, why not build a persona and try to market to more people like them?
If you don’t have customers, send an outreach email to your list (I did this too). If you don’t have a list, find who you think is your best customer and email them.
I can hear it now: “Wait, I thought you said I should talk to my customers. Why should I include a survey?”
While phone calls are best, not everyone can make a call. By sending a form, sometimes you will get insight you might miss on the phone calls. There is a chance that someone who fills out your survey will introduce you to someone you can talk to. And if you choose to pre-validate your product, you’ve got more people to reach out to.
3. Email your customers, asking for feedback.
I used Mailshake for outreach because I love the simplicity and automating follow up. Here’s an email I used, feel free to change it to fit your situation:
Subject: your feedback?
I’m in the process of creating a content promotion tool that will help you to systematize and optimize your content promotion process and increase the ROI from your content.
I respect what you have done in the content marketing world and would love your insight to help me shape this tool.
Would you be willing to hop on a 20-minute call and answer some questions I have?
I do have a Google form, if that works better for you, just let me know.
– Jason Quey
I’d say my only regret is that I promised the call would only take 20 minutes and it often went 30-45 minutes. So you may want to tweak your email template accordingly.
Other than that, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Here’s the puck, now take the shot.