Let’s face it, necessity is the mother of invention. Often products are brought to market after being created first by an enthusiastic inventor type who only considers marketing or selling after finishing the prototype.
As a customer, I love these kinds of products due to their innocent creation story--born from their creator’s passion for making the previously unthinkable achievable.
But marketing finished products can be far more challenging than marketing products born through Lean Startup methodology where the business model has been proven. That said, life happens and great products deserve great marketing. Here are a few ideas on how to market products made before marketing was invited to the party and possibly catapult them to success.
Cutting My Teeth
Ableton Live, now loved by musicians and producers around the world, was not originally created for a mass market. Two electronic music creators saw a need for live music performance with computers and couldn’t find a commercial application on the market, so boom: Ableton Live was born.
This was also my first experience marketing a product after it was conceived and was especially memorable. I was living in New York playing music and writing software reviews for music magazines and happened upon the software at a trade show. It was the solution I had been looking for all my career: Ableton Live. First, I was a customer of the product, a few months later the lead evangelist and in just a few years, a director at the company tasked with marketing and selling the product to a highly segmented and experimentally minded customer base.
As a company, Ableton was full of bright minds and innovative professionals when I arrived in 2003, and I was not alone in the task of bringing Ableton Live to market. Our team learned a lot of powerful lessons about how to integrate customer feedback, educate the market, and ultimately reshape the product from a niche tool to one of the primary world-wide application for music composition, recording, and performance.
While Ableton emerged uniquely successful, many startups mistakenly wait to involve marketing and sales teams until it’s literally time to sell the product. This is a problem I have encountered often, and the following recommendations have proven to be an effective way to approach marketing and selling a product that was pre-baked long before the product marketing folks showed up.
First, it’s critical to make sure the company/management’s goals are aligned and metrics for success are mutually agreed upon. Does the inventor have realistic expectations of market adoption? Are they willing to work with the marketing leaders and team on the risks and challenges for a product that has only a few customers?
I recommend writing these goals down and printing them out so they do not change for the first iteration of your go-to-market plan. I will cover this more in future posts [subscribe here]. After the product’s top line sales goals are decided, it’s critical to think carefully about the target customer and all the implications of the customer pain or gain you are delivering to the market.
Here are the steps I have taken with clients to help them know their customers better:
Define The Target Market
Often, the enthusiastic inventor is Customer #1, and he or she may know a few other early adopters excited about the prototype. This is great on one hand because you have some genuine love and passion for the product. On the other hand, it is incredibly biased, so your first job is to carefully interview the early adopters about all that they like about the product. What pain does it solve? How is it different than everything else in the market? What is the key innovation?
Develop A Persona
Once you get out of inventor mind, your job as a marketer is to determine if Customer #1 is part of a larger customer set. Marketers categorize these customer sets into one or more personas which help the company focus on common traits and ways this group of customers can be reached (the foundation for your customer acquisition strategy). Hubspot publishes a free template of “How to Create Detailed Buyer Personas for Your Business” if you want more of a formula. Creating the right amount of key similarities and also nuance in a persona takes practice, but here are some tips I’ve gleaned along the way.
Interview First, Then Survey
Ideally, you can interview 3-5 typical customers to develop your core customer personas. Make sure these interviewees are not already brainwashed and recruited into loving the product. I like to interview 2-3 fans and 1-2 detractors or customers that are in the market for the product but select an alternative. Listen actively to the responses and be careful not to ask leading questions that create further confirmation bias. For critical details such as value proposition of the product, repeat the customer’s words back to them and ask them to explain again to learn more insights into why they feel the way they do about the product. You are looking for the “pain” your product or service alleviates or the “gain” your product delivers.
As you interview, you will begin to hear some common themes and benefits in the voice of the customer. These themes will become your go to market hypotheses. After interviewing, you will want to survey a larger group of the customer subset you’ve identified as your “target market” to test your theories of what’s most important to your customers. Less is more when you are developing these essential details. Your customers are complex, and it will be tempting to include every positive attribute about the product and every use case. Be disciplined. Stick to the top 1 or 2 aspects to connect more clearly and easily with your customers.
Imagine the competition and even competing alternatives. For example, a car manufacturer targeting a customer who commutes is not only competing with other models in its class, but also competing with buses, trains and other forms of transportation.
Other important factors you will want to uncover as you research your persona are the background and “day in the life” aspects of your customer:
- What industry is your customer in?
- Typical job titles or hobbies?
- What common pain or gain does he or she discuss related to your product/service?
- What events in the customer's life might encourage them to seek a solution or to better understand a problem?
- Are there important channels to target your customer?
- Specific trade shows or trade publications?
- Favorite blogs or website authorities?
- Social media preferences?
- Preferred sales channels?
- What competitors or other solutions are available?
- What price feels fair for the value you are delivering?
- What terms, phrases or words does the customer repeatedly use? These can often be quite different than the vernacular used by the development team or inventor.
A few starter interview questions (make sure you customize to your product/service):
- What are the biggest challenges for your business?
- What keeps you up at night?
- Describe a recent win or success (related to your product/service).
- Describe a recent challenge (related to your product/service).
- How do you typically evaluate a product/service like ours?
- How often would you use our product/service?
- Describe the purchase process to buy/rent/lease a product/service like ours.
- What qualities do you look for from a vendor (like us)?
- How can we make you a happy customer that refers us to others?
- What trade or industry events will you attend this year?
- Are there any industry awards or certifications that are important for us to know about?
- What is the key to your success in the past? Follow up: Is that changing in the future or staying the same?
- How do you use social media for your business/personally? (depending on nature of product)
- How did you hear about our brand/product?
Keep in mind, your customers may be busy and you may not be able to get through all of your questions. You are searching for the most important factors and most significant motivations. You will refine and test later as your marketing process matures.
Once you have a composite sketch of what the customer looks like, make sure the team and management agree with the resulting work. You will need their buy-in and support to build your go-to-market plan. The summary should fit on one page and should be simple to understand. If your persona is tough to relay to a salesperson, it will be tough to explain to a customer. Go back to the drawing board. Make sure the persona feels authentic and general enough to inform your customer acquisition plan. The value proposition needs to relate to the customer.
Next steps vary widely based on the results of your persona discovery, but this customer understanding will be the basis for all marketing and sales programs or initiatives that you develop. I’ll cover additional steps on how to develop your go-to-market plan in the future.
I’m not saying it is okay to invite marketing late to the party. Doing so hampers marketing and sales efforts, requiring harder work and reverse engineering the go-to-market strategy. When companies design products and develop solutions before involving customers, they have already made thousands of tiny choices that are often irreversible or at least very expensive to change. Please make sure to invite marketing and sales early into the product kitchen. The good news is that this same methodology of defining and getting to know your target customer will help you survive version 1.0 imperfections and create an extremely successful 2.0.
Good luck with your product launch and feel free to get in touch if you would like to learn more.