This blog series stems from a variety of discussions I have had with my friends and family on firstly what it is I do and secondly, how to go about creating, building and selling an online product that converts into real sales.

My perspective on this above question is centralised around a recent product I have been working on which has the objective of increasing preference for members to shop on Trade Me.

It is with this in mind that I must acknowledge that the learnings I will share in this series are biased towards those looking to build or launch a product online. If you are looking for ideas and strategies that work for the offline space, the concepts in this series should still be applicable to your situation, however, are most effective in the online world and in particular for the New Zealand market.

Testing the appetite for your product idea

The first stage of product development that we will talk about in this series is also likely the most overlooked part of the whole process.

You’ve just spent hours, days or even weeks, researching market trends, deep diving into your data, consuming metric tonnes of coffee and brainstorming as a team to come up with your killer product idea/feature. You’ve built a small prototype of how this product could work, and you’re feeling really good about the progress you’ve made to date. The only issue is you haven’t actually gone out and asked the end user (the person who will be consuming your product) if it is something they would find useful. As a result, you quickly slap together a questionnaire and hit the streets or email list to ask for feedback.

Because you have invested so much of your time coming up with this idea, you’re naturally going to look for positive affirmation that you were right in your thinking and quickly tick the box on ‘engaged with customers’ in your company’s product one pager template.

We as humans also find approaching people for feedback an extremely daunting experience, often resulting in us rushing through the phase (or just not doing it at all) and collecting only a small sample of feedback. In extreme cases you may only ask friends and family for feedback, which in my opinion is a really bad idea when done in silo, given they won’t normally give you their 100% honest opinion to avoid hurting your feelings (I have been guilty of doing this myself in the past).

While doing your own research is good and looking at your data (assuming you have access to it) can help to boil up some opportunities backed by strong empirical evidence, communicating directly with existing and potential customers add the extra kick you need to really prove your idea has legs.

The first real step towards validating your idea should be to first work out who it is this feature/idea would appeal to the most and outline one or more personas that this product aligns well with. This will help in your initial recruiting efforts for customer feedback. Secondly, it’s a good idea to know what it is you hope to find out from your end user. Although this sounds relatively obvious, you’ll be surprised at the number of times I have seen people conduct feedback sessions and then not know if the feedback met their success criteria to continue pressing forward.

When I’ve thought through what the product looks like and come up with a good enough prototype to get feedback on, I have found these four methods to have the highest return on investment (from a time invested perspective).

These methods are to:

  • Hit the streets in your local area to quickly gauge reactions
  • Get on the phones and cold call existing or potential customers and subject matter experts in your target market
  • Perform onsite customer interviews to gain deep insight
  • Create a pre-market landing page conversion test

 

There are obviously a lot more ways to gather feedback, but I have found these four approaches to have the greatest return on investment at this early stage of the development process.

Onsite customer interviews are great for deep diving into the problem you are looking to solve and are best done by getting the customer to run through some scenarios that you have artificially created, which tests the usability and interest of your product.

At Trade Me, we had members run through the flow of purchasing an item on site (something that these target members did relatively frequently). We had put placements for our new product in the purchase flow and wanted to test if members firstly noticed the placement, and then if they understood what the offer being presented to them was all about.

Our goal with the onsite interviews was to ensure the product we had prototyped was useable and easily understood so that when we went to conduct further feedback to a wider audience, we knew that the messaging was right and we could then test the actual appeal of the offer itself.

But how should I go about recruiting members for these sessions?

As mentioned before, having a well-defined target demographic will allow you to leverage social media platforms such as Facebook through ad targeting based on the interests and behaviours of your ideal participants. If targeted ads isn’t an option for you, then using your existing email list to contact customers directly is a great and cost-effective way of finding participants. People don’t like doing things for free so ensure you incentivise participation with an appealing reward that targets your demographics interests. If you’re stuck for what to offer, grocery and petrol vouchers tend to have the widest appeal/success rate for recruiting members.

Pros

  • This method of gathering feedback is great for getting deep information on how a user is reacting to your product in real time. It allows you to better empathise with your end users on their experience with the product and allowed us to quickly gauge the usability of our product offering.
  • After approximately 5 of these interview sessions, we felt we had enough information to work with and immediately began adding in some key changes and messaging we had identified as confusing to users.

Cons

  • Recruiting users for testing, setting up the sessions and collecting and analysing all the information takes a lot of time and can be hard work (especially if you are a relatively small company). Leveraging the power of social media is your best weapon for reducing costs with this method and to give you an idea on costs, our recruitment drive and customer sessions only set us back ~$250 NZD.

Although the effort is the greatest of the four suggestions, I still believe it is the best tool for gathering real-time reactions to your product offering in a setting which gives enough time to go deep into the users thought process.

Street testing is likely people’s most daunting form of feedback gathering as it involves approaching people in the street and then asking them to give up some of their time to provide feedback on your product idea (both of which are not typical activities you do on a regular day).

Street testing, however, is a great way of quickly gauging feedback on your idea and allowed us to rapidly gather feedback on if the direction we were heading in was worth pursuing further. Again offering some form of reward in exchange for a moment of their time, helps to soften the initial awkward interaction.

A technique which has been successful in the past was to organise with a nearby café to pay for people’s coffees in exchange for 5 minutes of their time. People are generally more than happy to sit down and answer your questions while they wait for their coffee to be made, and at the average cost of $4.50 NZD, it’s a cheap and effective way of collecting feedback.

Another effective option is to offer a cold drink or block of chocolate during the lunchtime rush, which tends to nicely compliment whatever it is they are having for lunch.

Once you overcome the initial fear of being told ‘no’ by someone, street testing can be a fun and engaging way of finding out what people think of your product.

Pros

  • Great for quickly collecting a wide range of opinions and questions on your product idea to test the overall appeal.

Cons

  • Information can be bias, (particularly if you have just offered to pay for their coffee) so be cautious and try to dig out key themes from across all your collected feedback.

 

Getting on the phones and calling both general customers and experts in the field, is great for identifying strengths and weaknesses in your product. I find this to be a less intimidating form of collecting feedback and normally works best when calling after lunch.  Monday mornings are quite possibly the worst time to call a customer so avoid that at all costs (personal experience). Have a script prepared with prompts on questions to ask members and ask a friend or colleague to take notes while you’re on the phone.  The purpose of the calls should be to answer any questions you may have around the problem you’re looking to solve (to validate the problem actually exists) or if your product is already being used, to understand if it solves/fulfils the need for the customer.

Pros

  • You’re likely to gather more honest feedback as people feel more comfortable talking on the phone than in person.
  • Allows you to gather feedback ‘across borders’ where you can make both local, national and international calls.

Cons

  • Customers get inundated with phone calls from companies trying to sell products and services to them which makes them easily irritable and hard to provide feedback. I have found it best to quickly call out that you’re not looking to sell anything and are simply seeking feedback on an idea you are wanting to explore from the onset. This has helped reduce the amount of “no” reactions I have received when making phone calls.

An increasingly popular approach to gathering feedback and one I have personally had success with is to create a simple landing page to test your product idea.

This landing page should outline the product or service you’re looking to test and offer customers the chance to ‘register interest’ or pre-purchase.

Combine this landing page with a targeted social media campaign for wider reach and you have yourself a quick and easy way to test interest in your product/service.

When testing our product at Trade Me we allowed users who visited the landing page but weren’t eligible for the trial to register their interest for future trials. This ensured we captured the interest of all members and not just those who were part of our initial test phases.

Pros

  • Easy to set up and a great way of reaching a wide range of customers.
  • Allows you to test whether users would pay for your product or service.

Cons

  • Depending on your level of technical skills, this method can be relatively costly for testing. I recommend using tools such as leadpages, instapage or pagewiz for quickly testing the idea without investing heavily in development. These tools allow you to choose from a wide variety of customisable landing page templates that you can connect with a social media ad campaign.

Now you’ve well and truly tested your product idea and been able to use the information to decide if it is worth pursuing this further.

Relating this back to the example at Trade Me, once we had collected what we believed to be enough customer feedback. We began creating experiments to understand what financial levers and benefits we could control when scaling our product out to a larger group of members.

In the next episode, we will explore what an experiment is, why they’re important and how to design effective experiments that make sense to your technical and business-minded teams.

 

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