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Archive for December, 2012

Converting Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 18, 2012

tractor-pullJason Lempkin has a new post out about gaining traction after your product ships.  He says it’s hard, much harder than building the 1.0 product which was already hard, and he makes some concrete suggestions on how to go about gaining traction:

-  Finish hiring your core team.  Presumably you’ve left the sales and marketing until post-1.0?

-  Get attention for your app:  “Whatever you can possible do.  Go to every conference.  Speak at any possible event you can, no matter how small.  Win every award. Try to get every blog to write about you.  Reach out to anyone and everyone in your space.  Be respectful, but totally, utterly, shameless here.  Do whatever you can possibly think of here.”

-  Hit the pavement and get early customers and partners

-  Lavish attention on every single customer and lead

-  Plan your next release carefully–it may be your last

Wow, put that way, the job seems really tough!

After reading the account, I do have memories of startups that had to solve the traction problem through brute force and shoe leather.  They were painful and very scary.

The thing is, success is about being prepared (with a healthy dose of luck, though chance does favor the prepared mind).  As I tell my kids, “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the other guy already did the homework and knows the answer while you’re still trying to figure it out, he looks smarter.”

So it is with achieving product traction.  This is why I wrote my earlier post about achieving what I call “Content-Audience Fit” to tell Founders it has to be their first priority, even ahead of building a product.  Possibly even ahead of knowing what product you will build.  I say this for two reasons.  First, if you don’t know your audience, you can’t build a great product anyway.  While you might think you know your audience, how can you be sure until you have Content-Audience Fit?

If you have Content-Audience Fit, the following things are true:

1.  There is a reasonably large audience that is steadily growing and is consuming your content.  They care about what you have to say in the market you’re interested in.  They are subscribing to your mailing list, following you on Twitter, liking you on Facebook, or whatever other Social Medium works for your market.  Consequently you know what Social means to your market.

2.  You are part of the Conversation taking place on the web for your chosen market.  You are posting in their online communities.  You’re on the blogs of the key influencers (you do know who they all are, don’t you?) commenting.

3.  You are so familiar with the commercial players in the market that you’ve helped the Market Audience understand some of them better.  You’re commenting on their blogs too.  That establishes you as an agnostic authority in the market.

4.  Because of your participation in all the right conversations, and because of the quality of the content you’re producing, Key Influencers will recognize your name.  You are beginning to get folks asking you unsolicited questions as a recognized Expert.

There is a not-so-subtle difference between this Content-Audience fit and “Get attention for your app”.  It’s because you’re getting attention for your content.  You’re establishing yourself as an expert, not a guy shilling your products and company.  Because your content is very high quality and it’s being given away freely, you’re invoking the principle of reciprocity, which is a powerful force when marketing and selling.  You’re laying the groundwork to present your selling proposition from a position of strength, after your prospects have already decided you’re the expert.

Imagine being able to validate your product vision, and eventually early versions of the product with that kind of Audience insight.  It’s invaluable.  It should be a requirement.  Yet so many companies build the product first and consult the Audience afterward.

Second, you need a strategy to make this business of gaining Product Traction easier.  I love the definition that strategy is what you do to make winning easier.  If you ever needed a strategy, it is when you launch your 1.0 product!

So how do we convert Content-Audience Fit to Product Traction?

Back up.  Let’s get the timing right first.  You don’t want to start trying to achieve Content-Audience fit after you’ve built Product 1.0.  That’s way too late.  Here’s a mini-case study:

I took Helpstream, a Social CRM startup, from being invisible to having a successful blog that had achieved Content-Audience fit in about six months.  At the end of the six months, the key influencers knew who we were and were starting to write about us.  For example, Paul Greenberg, the “Godfather of CRM”, wrote a short passage that perfectly signals good Content-Audience fit:

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with fellow Enterprise Irregular Bob Warfield, who is the EVP of Products for a company called Helpstream. I have to admit, when I saw Bob’s rather cogent commentaries on the Enterprise Irregulars site, I became curious as to what he did and what the Helpstream company dealio was. I asked him and we set up a demo and a conversation between me, Bob, and Anthony Nemelka, the President and CEO of Helpstream and a long time industry veteran.

That second sentence telegraphs where we’re going and why Content-Audience fit is so critical to a product launch.  Because of my “cogent commentaries”, Paul asked us for a demo.  Imagine Content that is so good, the key influencers are coming to you, rather than you going to them hat in hand trying to get a meeting.  I would budget a minimum of 6 months and perhaps as long as 12 months to achieve your Content-Audience fit.  Sounds like you need to get started at the same time you start the Product, right?

This is an insight that is missing from many startups.  In fact, many want to do a stealth launch and keep everything secretive.  Feel free to keep your product aspirations a secret, but you’re nuts if you’re not belting out super high quality content for your audience from Day 1.  That means as you sit around the table with your fellow Founders, and you ask the question, “Who is spearheading our drive for Content-Audience Fit and who is writing all that content?”, there had better be a good answer.  That marketing guy you partnered with who has never actually done a blog, he has just simply hired people who did blogs?  We might be past the evolution in how marketing is done for that to be a good idea.  First question I ask any marketing candidate at any level is, “Show me your blog?”  If the response is, “Huh?”, the interview is not going to go well.  It’s no different than asking any question about marketing deliverables.  Would you hire someone who had never had any contact with advertising of any kind?  Content marketing is so critical to small companies, how can it be an afterthought?

As an aside, I recently came across a bootstrap business called, The Wirecutter.  The Founder achieved Content-Audience fit before they ever started this little company by writing for Gizmodo, Wired, GadgetLab, and MaximumPC.  How about grabbing one of the big name bloggers in your space as a co-Founder?  How about at least as an advisor to help you get to Content-Audience Fit?  Have them brutally critique your content until you get it right.

BTW, people like Paul Greenberg have extremely high standards.  There is a reason they get nicknames like the “Godfather of CRM”.  They are trusted and they didn’t get there by being dummies or shills.  If your content doesn’t have something really meaningful to say, you’ll get nowhere with this strategy.  But if you get the meeting because your PR firm pounded hard enough on doors, and then in the meeting you still have nothing to say, you’re going nowhere anyway.  So:

It is critically important to do the work of achieving Content Audience Fit!

That’s it.  Full Stop.  End of Sermon.  Don’t.Mess.It.Up!!!

Okay, now imagine you’ve got that fit, as defined by the 1,2,3,4 list above.  Let’s use it to produce traction.  This is done in the following ways:

The Audience that’s ready to Jump Now is ready.  Invite them in.

There are always those influencers who get an edge by working harder to learn than the others.  Always those prospects who are ready to buy now and want the new new thing.  If you have achieved Content-Audience Fit, all you need do is announce the availability of a product and any of these people in your audience will be likely to check in.  Start with  your Beta Test.  You can keep it as controlled as you like, but put the announcement out through your content channel and be sure to communicate at least your value proposition well enough so people will want to jump in.  If you don’t have a big enough audience yet that having 5% of them answer your invitation, you don’t have Content-Audience Fit.

Give the Early Adopters an Amazing Deal and Make Them Heroes

You don’t need revenue yet, you need credibility.  You put out the call to action, and the right people have self-selected by coming forward.  They like you or else they wouldn’t have come forward.  They’re active in the online world or else they’d have no idea you existed.  They’re raising their hands to tell you they care.  Make it easy for them to feel like that was the best decision they ever made.  Focus your spotlight of attention entirely on them.  Save your bandwidth so you can give them completely unreasonable amounts of it.  Make them heroes and they will make you a star.

You need to charge them a little bit or it isn’t a real transaction.  Give them the best deal you will ever offer in your corporate history and make sure they know that in the nicest possible way.  Give them attention and services that will never be available to others in even a year’s time.  Plug every member of your team into the success of these early customers.

When that fire has caught, you can ask them for a favor.  You can ask them to help you get the word out.  At the very least, you need them to be a willing and able reference.  Next step up, you need them to be a case study.  Grand Prize:  you need them to be a source of referrals.  Try to discreetly make sure when you sign them up that they’ll be able to do some of this, at least serve as references.  You can’t ask for that favor up front, but you can find out if they’ve ever been involved with early software, done references, yada, yada.

Earn the Right to Raise Your Price and Sell Bigger Deals

The company I mentioned earlier, Helpstream, had nearly every marketing automation company as customers for our Customer Service Social CRM product.  I remember calling each of these CEO’s, who were all entrepreneurs like myself, and asking them what Helpstream could and should do going forward.  Phil Fernandez, CEO of Marketo, shocked me by telling me, “Bob, I don’t know if I should be saying this, but you should raise your prices.”  Even more shocking was that Phil wasn’t the only one to tell me that.  So we did, after carefully making sure to grandfather existing customers with appropriate agreements so that they were taken care of.  There was virtually no pushback whatsoever, and it helped the business tremendously.

What had happened is we had earned the right to raise our prices by delivering on our promises and raising our credibility.

The ability to price higher comes most from credibility.  Sure, you might have the world’s greatest product, but nobody knows that if you don’t have the credibility.  Can you see where having good Content-Audience Fit is the first step on the credibility journey?  Beyond that first step, it is your conduit for telling your customer’s stories and continuing to build that credibility.

The next step is being able to tell your Early Adopter’s stories.  In terms of closing business, there is nothing like being able to have a prospect talk to a customer that gushes about your product.  At Callidus Software we used to invite prospects to our User Conferences precisely to maximize the exposure to that kind of sentiment.

Startups are enaged in earning the right to raise prices and to sell bigger deals throughout their history.  Successfully getting your first 5-10 reference accounts is just the first rung on that ladder.  Each company you sell to would like to know that they’re not the largest deal you’ve ever sold.  Raising the size of your largest deal earns you the right to sell even larger deals.  Accumulating this asset of referencibility is your primary deal closing accelerant until you’re large enough to point to being the market leader or perhaps to being a public company.  Gordon Moore’s Chasm Crossing can largely be seen as the process of establishing the credibility needed before those who are not Early Adopters will buy.

All along your journey, your Content continues to establish your company’s expertise in its chosen field.  You never walk away from that–you just keep building on it.  If your references are your Sales Accelerant, your successful Content is your lead generation accelerant.  Establish your web properties as the go-to spots to learn about what your customers care about.  All the best marketing startups like Hubspot, SEOMoz, Marketo, and Eloqua are working this way.  Maybe that’s a clue for the non-marketing startups that this is how marketing is done these days?

Lead With Content for Competitive Skirmishes and Insights

Competitors are great for startups.  If you’re the only one in a market, you have to undertake to grow that market all by yourself.  With competition, the cost is shared and the market can grow much more quickly.  In addition, picking a fight is a sure way to add passion to your content and help drive more traffic.  You can’t agree with everybody, but you need to agree with the position your key audience want you to stake out.

Take advantage of that with your Content strategy.  See which conversations your competition are dominating and wade into those conversations with your own viewpoint.  That viewpoint has to carry substance, but when it does, if you win the audience’s hearts and minds who are watching the conversation, they will come your way.  You can’t win them all, but this is where you start stacking up the different value propositions.  This is where you carve up the market into micro-niches that are looking at things each a little differently.  Here’s where you find out which micro-niches matter, and which ones are dead ends best left to the competition.

Passive sonar gained by just passively consuming the content from your space is great, but so much more can be learned through active pinging of the landscape.  See how they respond to your messaging, analysis, and insights.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of work required to achieve traction.  But, if you subscribe to my Content-Audience Fit idea, you’ll begin that work Day 1 at your company.  When you’re ready to enter Beta Test, you’ll have a lot more going for you than your sales guy’s contact lists and willingness to burn through shoe leather.  You’ll have an audience that wants to come to you, embrace your product, and help you spread the word.  FWIW, Helpstream wasn’t my first or last experience with Content-Marketing Fit.  My bootstrap company, CNCCookbook, thrives on the notion today.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, saas, strategy, venture | 2 Comments »

Reading News on an iPad is Astonishly Bad UX

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 13, 2012

pravdaHi, my name is Bob Warfield, and I am a news junkey.  I subscribe to about 200 blogs in my feed reader.  I alternate between my Gmail, Google Reader, and Google News when I have a spare moment of leisure, looking for something new and exciting to discover.  I do this almost entirely on my iPad because it’s nice to get away from my home office desk where I spend most of my time working on my bootstrap company, CNCCookbook.  More and more, I am considering reducing the frequency of my access to Google News and primarily limiting it to my desktop.  The reason?  The User Experience reading news there is astonishingly bad.  Mind you, it’s only a little bit better on the desktop, but I find that accessing it with Chrome instead of the iPad’s built-in browser smooths the journey just ever so slightly, and it needs a Hell of a lot of smoothing.

Welcome to Smoothspan Blog, fasten your seat belts, and keep arms and legs inside the car at all times, because it’s been awhile, and it’s time for a good rant.

Before I go much further, let me give some absolution to Apple and the iPad, though the browser on the device surely could stand to be better.  Some part of what I am about to report is potentially browser related, but I do understand the iPad browser is more like an innocent bystander than the slavering maniac who is dishing out the BS causing my pain (sorry, a little of my inner monologue keeps slipping out when I’m angry).  I will also give partial absolution to Google and their News reader.  Again, it can only be partial, because just as Apple could build a more robust browser (you’ll see what’s needed shortly), Google could treat their news sources like they treat everyone else.  There’ve been SEO-related Google Search releases that heavily penalize sites that are too spammy, for example, but you don’t have to spend long accessing the literary giants like the New York Times via the Google News to see that those who are supposedly well above the commonplace web are offering a UX that has more in common with the worst days of America Online (AOL for you young ‘uns) than it does with their high falutin’ words.

With that aside, it’s time for me to explain what my problem is, and the good news it that it is simple.  When I open the Google News page, here is the sort of thing that happens to me more often than not:

I click an article only to discover I can’t really read it without subscribing due to the pay wall

For example, the Wall Street Journal has been doing this to me.  I’ll wind up on a page with a big giant Pay Wall notice and there is maybe one sentence of actual story text.  Of course Google got to index the whole story and placed it in their News Feed according to the full text, not the one sentence.  This is in violent contradiction to their normal webmaster guidelines where making the experience for Google differ from that of average viewers is strictly Verboten.  It is also in contradiction to their recent changes that heavily penalize pages that show much advertising above the fold.  Advertising?  Fold?  Hah!  On the WSJ stories I’ve been seeing there is nothing but advertising above the fold.  I don’t care who they are or what kind of national treasure their journalists may be, this is spam, served up steaming hot by Google and the WSJ.  Oddly, while this happened to me three times this morning on the iPad, there was no sign of it on my desktop.  I’m sure there’s some cookie or other thing counting off my accesses, and since I mostly read on the iPad, it gets dinged first.

BTW, NY Times, just because you let me see 10 or however many articles before your Pay Wall popup, I’m not any happier.  How about this:

Unlimited articles if accessed via Google News, and however many your Pay Wall allows if I go there via search, a referral link, or directly?

I click on an article and I’m immediately greeted by an offer to download their iPad app

Oh goody.  That’s just what I want.  Guess what guys?  You are needlessly and annoyingly delaying me on the journey to my reward.  I am reading from a feed that has God knows how many different news publications.  What are the chances I want to download an app for each and every one?  This is the Internet in the 2000’s.  There may be some people who want to sit at the breakfast table and read your waste of wood pulp cover to cover.  Leave them to doing that on the wood pulp and leave me out of it.  At least get the hint when I say, “No” the first time and quit asking.

I click on an article and it freezes and reloads multiple times.  Ultimately, it may just crash.

This happens constantly and is the robustness issue I hold Apple partially accountable for.  Apparently, in order to enact their diabolical Pay Wall, Advertising, and Privacy Subversion schemes, the newspapers have to run such wretchedly abusive Javascript, that the browser just can’t handle it smoothly.  I don’t see this in Chrome on my desktop, but it is constant on the mobile devices.  Something comes up.  You start reading.  You might even get one little scroll in.  Then the screen repaints and you’ve lost your place.  Or it freezes and you can’t scroll further until the diabolical machinations have completed.  This may go on through two, three, or even four cycles before it finally settles down.  On any of the cycles, there is a finite chance that the browser evaporates completely due to a crash and you’re left staring at the desktop.  Now you have a question to face, because that newspaper has just asked you in true Clint Eastwood fashion, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”  If you do, you’ll reload.  If not, you’ll demurely return to Google News and look for some other story to read.  After all, you were probably not worthy of the high quality journalism and you mercifully just missed seeing that damned pay wall or an offer to download an iPad app.

Here’s a news flash, if you’ll pardon the pun:  you newspaper guys should fire your IT departments that write this stuff and pick up a nice copy of WordPress.  I never see these problems reading the 200 blogs I subscribe to.  Never.

And gosh, you might save enough to invoke the Pay Wall less often.

I click on an article and it is video.  Worse, it is video that can’t be played on an iPad.

Yes, Steve Jobs can still reach out from the grave with his hatred of Flash and stop us in our tracks on his sacred iDevices.  Excellent.

I don’t tend to like video at all on my iPad.  Playback is often painful, buggy, or nonexistent.  Yet, there’s no way for me to tell in advance that I am headed into a video-only story and that worse, it won’t even play on my iPad.  Sorry Google, I gotta blame this one on you, and yes Apple, you too.  Silly buggers, why did you think this was a good thing?

After I get done reading an article and go back to Google News, it insists on repainting

Hey, love the real time spirit.  But if you spend half your time waiting for repaints either in the news story or Google News, a lot will change and you’ll never even see it.  You Google guys are supposed to be algorithm experts, how about a little algorithm here?  How about if the story isn’t that big a deal, if it is just a rehash of something you already showed, you don’t refresh that more than every 10 minutes or so?  Gimme a chance to get to the bottom of the page once anyway.  If some amazing thing happens, and I’m trusting your algorithm mightily to understand and be reasonable about the definition of “amazing”, then feel free.  But don’t just do it every time anything at all has changed on the front page.

Okay, how do we fix this crappy User Experience?

I could go on for quite a while in that vein.  The UX here really is pathetically bad.  I spend literally hours on the net and never experience anything like it until I get started reading News stories.  That ain’t right.

One approach is for Google to penalize the egregious and Apple to fix their darned browser so it doesn’t crash so much (I have to laugh about the claim Flash accounts for most crashes on Apple devices, pretty sure it is this browser which crashes more than anything I run on my iPad, Flash/AIR apps included).  That’d be nice, but Apple being Apple (“we don’t need no steenking Google Maps and we’ll ship whatever we please whenever we please”) and Google being Google (“honestly, we don’t mean to be Evil, we just are”), that might not happen.

How about just putting some Social voting into Google News?  This way Google can point to real facts from users if the NY Times wonders why it is getting less traffic?  Or, they can point to real facts when Bob Warfield is on a rant and tell him to sit down, users clearly don’t agree.  I believe a lot of good comes of group curation.  Unfortunately, I am just not sure Google cares a lot.  It’s pretty hard to tell what they do care about these days.  Google News might just be something they do so as not to leave an exposed flank and they don’t need to do it particularly well before moving on.

Or, how about counters?  Imagine if each story told what % of the time it was crashing your browser, what % of the time you’d have to go through some full page ad for mobile app or other, the average time it would take to load (another thing Google penalizes everyone but the newspapers for), and, well, you get the idea.  Heads would roll.  Things would get better.

I do find myself wondering about Yahoo.  I used to read their news before I became a Google Guy.  Unfortunately, they’re the people who will constantly log me out of my stock quotes to force me to type in my password expressly so they can sell a full page ad on their login page.  Do I think they will offer a better UX?  Nah, probably not.

(End of Rant)

Wishing you all Happy Holidays and be sure to check out the Geminids meteor storm tonight.  It is happening at a quasi-reasonable hour even.  FWIW, I hit many of the worst problems described above trying to find the details on the Geminids and that’s what drove me to the keyboard.  Sorry for the interruption, and please return to your normally scheduled activities as I will mine.

Posted in apple, business, mobile, user interface | Leave a Comment »

The Very First Thing a Founding Team Needs to Do: Achieve Content-Audience Fit

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 10, 2012

Audience3DA lot of entrepreneurs,  when faced with the question, “What’s the most important thing to do first?”, would answer, “Build a product.”

Big mistake.

The most important thing to do first is to find an audience.  It may be that building a product is an integral part of growing your audience, but you’re not ready to build a product or grow your audience until you’ve found the right audience to start with.

How will you know you’ve found your audience?

There are some important signs.  For example, you can participate in their communities and be well received.  An even better test is you can get their communities to consume your content.  Before you’re going to have much hope of achieving Product-Market Fit, you’d better achieve Content-Audience Fit.  When you have that fit, when traffic to your web site is growing steadily and you’re starting to get some big spikes in traffic from particularly compelling content, you’re close.  When you can measure growth in the audience’s commitment to your content, for example, when your mailing list for your blog is growing and people are clicking through the weekly digest to get to the actual articles, you have achieved some degree of Content-Audience Fit.

Content-Audience Fit is a surprisingly high hurdle.  It is higher than getting a bunch of random people to sign up to try a free software product, for example.  The reason is that there is less value being offered by the content.  People actually have to be willing to spend some of their attention on your content simply because it is that good.  They do it because you’ve demonstrated you understand what they want and that you have something worthwhile to offer.  There are tons of people that will play with some free piece of software for a short time, and you’re probably not even set up to measure how hard they played with it yet.

With Content, all you need is a blog to deliver the Content from and Google Analytics to measure its impact.  Maybe augment that with a MailChimp account so you can actually start to aggregate some followers to your Tribe and use the Analytics there to tell how committed they are.  Anyone who is willing to undertake the hard work needed to consume your Content and decide they like it well enough to want to keep consuming it is a valuable member of your Tribe.  The more you can grow the Tribe, the more voices there will be to help you get your message out, to tell you what problems they need to have solved, and to guide you in the next phase of your journey:  achieving Product-Market Fit.

To be a successful Bootstrapper, you’re almost certainly going to have to be a Content Marketer anyway.  Advertising is typically going to be too expensive before you get some capital and a following.  So do yourself a favor.  Forget the product for a little while.  Focus on achieving Content-Audience Fit.  When your past striking flint and blowing on the tinder, you’ll have a little fire glowing.  It’s a big accomplishment.  So far it’s just kindling, but soon you’ll be ready to throw a real log or two onto that fire.  That’s when you build your product, as soon as the Content Kindling has caught and you can see some actual flames.  The timing will be perfect, because your costs will go up and your available attention for producing product and content will go down as soon as you ship your product.

You can’t afford to be just starting to look for Content-Audience Fit after the product is ready to ship.  That’s too late.  And it’s a terrible time to discover your market has no passion for what you’re trying to do.  That bit of news was tragically knowable with a lot less effort if you had only started out finding an Audience.

Extra Credit Note to Investors:

If you find a team that knows how to create a product, we both know that’s not enough.  You’ve raised the bar on that some time ago.  But if you find a team that has achieved Content-Audience Fit, they’ve demonstrated a critical marketing skill.  At the very least, you know that this team can present compelling content that draws a significant audience.  Combine that Audience Insight and ability to compell the Audience with a decent Product and that’s the essence of a startup that will grow.  I am surprised every time I walk into a startup and ask who in Marketing is a hard core blogger and hear back that basically nobody is and they’ve outsourced that task to technical writers of one kind or another.  Those startups are proceeding on a wing and a prayer that they actually understand their Audience.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy, venture | 8 Comments »

 
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