Targeting Matters!

Giff Constable marketing, startups

The other day, Cindy Alvarez (product manager at KISSmetrics and author of a great blog), wrote a post called “Anybody, As Long As It’s Not You” , saying:

“Who should give you feedback on your early-stage product mockups/demo? Anybody, as long as it’s not you. OK, sure, there’s probably an “ideal” audience to show your product to.  But it probably doesn’t matter.”

demographicsOn Twitter, I commented about the importance of demographics / targeting, and Cindy responded that many products are not very specialized, so anybody’s feedback is a useful first step.  I won’t disagree with her — it *is* a useful first step. Still, I need to bang on a few points.  I touched on this the other day with my thoughts on product-market fit, and find myself hung up on the line “it probably doesn’t matter“.

First, most startups cannot design for ‘everyman”. Instead, you usually have a particular problem (or form of entertainment) in mind, which usually means you have a particular kind of customer in mind, even if broadly defined.  This is especially true with enterprise products (how big? what industry verticals? how high in the organization?), but it applies to a ton of consumer applications as well.

You might be creating a product that the whole world could use, but the reality is that you are going to start with a group of early adopters of one kind or another.  As a startup, your marketing resources are going to be limited so you need to focus your energies, otherwise you will waste time with an ineffective (and possibly expensive) shotgun approach or simply play a “hit and hope” game praying for viral adoption and media buzz. #notgood!

So yes, talk to lots of people, but categorize and filter your feedback based on what kind of people they are.  You are not just testing your product, you are also trying to answer the questions: who are my primary customers? who are my very first customers?

If you can even roughly answer these questions, you can figure out how these people learn about new products and structure your customer acquisition strategies accordingly.  Yes, it all needs to be tested and measured, but you want to pick a smart place to start. #focuswin!

I’ll pick startup examples out of a hat: Stardoll needed to test their product with teenage girls, not 40 year old men.  Smartbear needed programmers, not marketers.  Gilt Group needed fashionable urban women, not midwest farmers. At the start, Facebook cared about college kids not baby boomers. KISSMetrics wants Internet entrepreneurs, not retirees.  Foursquare needs social media geeks and young urbanites.  There are exceptions to all of this, but I bet you find it harder to think of them than the opposite.

As Steve Blank says, “get outside the building” and test your assumptions for success, but do not focus exclusively on product and forget about customer acquisition.  Your need to pivot might come from the problem you are trying to solve OR your product design OR your expected demographic. You need to test all of the above!

PS. where I see demographics being a little less important is usability testing. Yes, you want to test your primary customer, but watching *anyone* get confused as they try to use your software is painfully illuminating.

Final note: I’m not trying to put words in Cindy’s mouth because she *was* just talking about a first step, not ignoring this stuff.  I just felt the need to pound on the topic, perhaps not unlike the apes at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey.


I’m interested in gathering other opinions on the topic, posting them here, and seeing if I can’t advance my own thoughts.

  • Eric Ries: my $.02: targeting is something you discover, not something you decide. it’s important, but not if it keeps you in the bldg” andI’ve literally been the situation of: To customer: “get out of my way, I’m trying to talk to my target market””
  • Jason Cohen of A Smart Bear: “maybe you don’t know the perfect customer, but you can cut out a lot of folks, and that’s important.  It’s a similar argument to listening to feedback from people using the tool for free versus paying for.  With freemium you have many more people using for free than not, and usually that means their feedback overwhelms the others.  But frequently those willing to pay have different needs, and those are in the end the most important ones.”
  • Cindy Alvarez’s response, “Wait until your idea makes sense, then start targeting