If you gave a random person your product for the first time, do you think they will immediately become a loyal customer? Maybe not for most products but definitely for your product, right?
Creating demand for your product is more than just building a great product. People have to know about it, understand what it does and have a problem that it fixes. Every year thousands of fantastic products fail because no one (or not enough people) knew they exist.
Whether you are building a physical product, writing a new blog or starting a consulting company you start with an audience of zero. Building an audience for your product starts on the same day you start working on the product. In fact, building demand for your product is often more important than building the product itself.
So, how do you build demand?
Step 1. Recruit Your Customers
Even before your product is ready for use, you should start recruiting customers. In fact, whether or not you can recruit customers for your not-yet-existent product is a great way to test market demand (the Lean Startup methodology is built around this). If you have a hard time convincing people that they need the product then it might not be very valuable, but if people can’t wait for it to be ready you might be on to something.
Initially, you should have a guess as to what kinds of customers are most likely to love your product. You should test that hypothesis by going after a wide variety of customers, including the ones you guess will be your target segment, and using the feedback you gather to narrow your focus.
How do you recruit customers? Here are some examples:
- If you are starting a new blog you should try to build relationships with other bloggers and readers by commenting on similar blogs, joining topical conversations on Twitter and answering questions on Quora. Watch for who engages with you and what topics they are interested in.
- If you are building a new mobile application, you can easily set up a beta test where you distribute early builds to a few hundred people and watch their behavior using the app. You can also set up a landing page using LaunchRock (http://launchrock.co/) and run some test advertising campaigns to measure interest by how many email addresses you collect.
- If you are building a new physical product you can easily recruit people on Craigslist (example) for $20 or less to meet with you for 30 mins to test a prototype. I have even seen people set up tables at Farmer’s Markets or Flea Markets to do product testing live with strangers.
An important trap to avoid is recruiting customers only from your personal network. If you cannot convince strangers that your product will be valuable then your business will not succeed.
At the end of your customer recruitment you should have a list of dozens or hundreds of customers who are eager for you to launch your product, and a very detailed understanding of your target customer.
Step 2. Go Where They Go
Now that you know who your customers are, it’s time to figure out where they congregate. Yes, you could try to contact all of them individually but you will go out of business very quickly. Instead, you want to understand where and when your customers will be in the same place so that you can reach them all in that place.
The easiest way to figure out where they congregate is to become one of them (if you aren’t already) and go through all the motions they go through. Some common places customers congregate:
- Enterprise Customers (big companies) frequent trade shows and conventions. You need to understand what conventions are important for your target customers.
- Developers (engineers) love learning new things and will frequent topical Meetups and Hackathons. They also use forums like Stack Overflow.
- Consumers spend their time on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) and reading the news. However, standing out against the noise will be tough so try to find interest-specific forums and outlets where your potential customers are more likely to hear you.
Some customer segments, like small businesses, never congregate in the same place which makes reaching them very difficult. That is why Groupon spends so much on a tele-sales force to call them all directly. Knowing that up front will help you plan effectively.
Each congregation point you can find represents a channel for you to reach your customers. The more specific the better, so choose a popular topical blog over Facebook in your early days until you feel you have refined your message.
Step 3. Train Evangelists
Now that you have narrowed down your initial target customers and know how to reach them, you still have time before your product launches to make sure you increase your chances of reaching those customers. The most powerful channel for marketing your product will be word of mouth from customers who love what you do. You can’t be everywhere that potential customers will talk about you, but your existing customers can. The customers that will spread that word of mouth are your evangelists and you want to help them in every way you can.
Instead of just sitting back and hoping your customers will love you and spread the word, you want to create an environment where they feel rewarded for helping you. Since you can’t afford to pay them, the reward will have to be something else. Some common reward programs for evangelists:
- Let Them Inside the Velvet Rope – Setting up a preferred customer or early access program where you test new features and gather feedback from customers is not only useful for you, it’s a great reward for customers. They will not only have access to features not generally available but feel that they have a say in shaping the product.
- Make Them Look Smart – Everyone wants to look smart, and there is no better way to be smart than to know something interesting that no one else knows. Make sure your evangelists are up to date on your product, new innovations and upcoming events. Having an “insiders” newsletter that goes only to evangelists can not only help them feel smart, but encourage them to spread the news. Likewise, limiting access to invitation-only and giving your evangelists invites makes them the gatekeepers and the perceived insiders.
- Recognize Them – Evangelists are volunteering their time and reputation to spread the word about your product, the least you can do is recognize them for the effort. Always respond to them quickly and gracious when they contact you in whatever method they prefer. Give them chances to guest blog or cite their comments when you talk about your product.
- Give Them a Discount – In some cases it can make sense to provide a discount to your early evangelists. Be careful with this as it creates a strange dynamic to pay someone to spread the word on your behalf.
Identifying potential evangelists is easy, since they are the customers that are the most enthusiastic about your product and are the most active during your test period. Sometimes the best evangelists start out as detractors that you turn into evangelists through superior customer service and listening to their concerns.
Setting up your evangelists before you launch will give you a great network of people who will help you spread the word about your product.
Step 4. Measure, Measure, Measure
You still have not yet launched your product, but you have identified who your customers will be, how to reach them and how to incentivize them to spread the word. In the remaining time you have, be sure that you set up the right analytics to help you measure your customers when you launch your product. Everything prior to launch is a hypothesis and you want to be able to verify or disprove that hypothesis as quickly as possible.
Even after you have launched, you never want to assume that your customers are static entities that will be the same tomorrow that they are today. They will change over time, just like you will, and you need to be able to measure and adjust when that happens.
Step 5. Launch!
And then, after all that, you launch!
Yes, you did a lot of work to recruit, study and grow your customers before you even had a product. That work will pay dividends for the life of your product by giving it a much higher likelihood of success in the market.
This article was originally published at Sean on Startups, a blog about starting and growing companies.
Photo Credit: CC by wanderer