Agile Marketing, Innovation, Product Thoughts, Startup

Now, generate 100 ideas


When I was in drawing class in college, my professor asked us to make 100 drawings. “Why would we want to make throwaway drawings?” we asked. The answer he gave stuck with me: “because you don’t know which ones are the good ones until you look back.”

A similar problem affects idea generation – which ones are any good? If you start with a framework for generating the ideas, then develop a criteria for evaluating and filtering them, and finally create a measurement or objective outcome to see the results, you have a pretty interesting idea funnel. Don’t worry just yet whether the ideas are any good: just make more.

The first step is to make a lot of ideas. In e my experience, a throwaway method is best: whiteboard, post it note, or freehand list. Because I am very visual I need to see the idea rather than just type it out. So the first step is to fill a whiteboard ;)

After you generate the ideas, sorting them and filtering them is a lot easier with a tool. Some people like more post-it’s and a physical Agile board. I like using a spreadsheet for this purpose because it’s easy to sort and move the data around.

Finally when you stack rank the list of ideas, it’s time to figure out what you want to get our of them, how you will instrument that progress, and how you will measure your success.

Some of your ideas will be lousy, and some will be quite good – just remember to generate enough of them so that the process kicks into play. You won’t be able to get a great idea with five candidates, but there are probably five great ideas candidates in your list of 100.

Agile Marketing, Customer Service, On Writing

Share some interesting things with customers every day

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Here’s something interesting I read today on the effects of smartphones on shopping. The article matters because it’s about a big trend (changing habits in shopping, especially in everyday environments like grocery stores) and has long-term societal implications. For example, what will be the next social habit that’s disrupted or changed by smartphones? You might wonder why an article on shopping and smartphones matters to our conversation.

I shared this link because I thought it was intriguing and could help you with your day. You might not have liked it if I shared a cat video, pictures of breakfast, or another Internet cliche (or maybe you would. Everyone needs a momentary distraction now and then). I believe that when the content is truly useful to you, it will make your day better.

When you share content with customers, you should make the same decision and thought process. What’s interesting to your customer? It might be something you care about deeply that’s related to serving the customer. It might be a piece of relevant information about your product or service that you feel they should know. And it might be an article about larger industry trends. In any of those cases, sharing to the customer should create value.

And value is subjective, so it’s not often easy to decide what to communicate. Aside from the obvious (be smart, and only share the things you would want other people to attribute to you in public), there are a few easy ways to share what’s going on in your industry, what you think the customer should know, and how to share what you care about in a thoughtful way.

First, start with the context – what matters about this item? For an industry-relevant post you could be sharing information about trends, market validation, and the “big picture” – the shopping article linked at the beginning of this post is a great example. The knowledge is relevant because it demonstrates how society is changing in long-run ways, and will change behavior.

Second, you should also share why you think this item matters to the individual (or to the class of customer). When you’re sharing product or service knowledge, if you present the information in a value/benefit statement it will be easier for the customer to see the value of the content. “What’s in it for me?” should be your mantra when viewing the content from the customer’s perspective – if there isn’t value there, perhaps you should share something else or not at all.

And finally, it’s ok to share things that matter to you that aren’t directly relevant to the customer – just make sure they are broadly applicable. Imagine the “how would this play on the front page of the New York Times” test and you’ll figure out pretty quickly what not to share (and if you don’t know, ask a friend first). When you share, focus on incremental improvement. Don’t be afraid to ask customers, employees, and partners: “how can we do better”?

Agile Marketing, Lean, Life Hacks

Make your idea simpler.

When you write out an idea it’s tempting to include everything. First, the part of the idea that was nifty; then the part of the idea that explained what you meant; and finally the words that convey the essence of the idea.

When you say that idea out loud to someone who’s never heard it before, you realize instantly whether that idea is any good. And you probably notice that you need to take out a lot of words before your pitch sounds more like how people talk.

Pitching is an art. When you’re at an event or a trade show, you get the opportunity to practice that pitch lots of times. The problem is that you can get comfortable with a pitch whether or not it’s a good one.

The best pitches sound natural – they are succinct statements of value that use the fewest words possible. They don’t sound forced, and they solve a problem for the customer.

Effective pitches are also transactional – you are trading value for attention so you had better be valuable. Here are a few things I’ve learned lately while sharing ideas:

1) be brief. What can you say in the first 10-15 seconds that will encourage the person to learn more?

2) be respectful – remember that you are often interrupting someone when you pitch. Even if they are in the mode of receiving and evaluating information, why should they care?

3) give to get – finally, offer something of value and be specific about what your delivering. Are you saving the customer time, money, or something else?

Good luck on your next pitch!

Agile Marketing, Customer Development, Lean, Product Thoughts, Startup

Your first MVP is Wrong

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This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

It would be awesome if your first iteration of a minimum viable product (MVP) perfectly addressed your target market segment, delivered great value to your customers, and you never had to change it again. However, that’s not what happens. Your first MVP iteration is the beginning of a build-measure-change cycle. When done right, you’ll deliver the product your customer wants to use for the job they want to get done. So how do you figure out how to find that customer, understand what they want, and deliver that product to them faster?

Finding your customer is the first task to making your MVP less wrong. If you’re baking cupcakes, who buys them? If you’re making software, what is the general profile of the person who should need what you’re offering. And what problem are you solving for that customer? A good problem statement for baked goods might be: “I’m delivering a donut for an underserved market that has specific allergy needs for people who like breakfast snacks once a week.”

Now that you’ve made a statement that matches what you think your customer might want, you should ask them what they want. This action can take many forms, from informal surveying of friends to more formal methods like online surveys, usability studies and tests. You need to be able to answer the question: what does your customer want? You might find they want different things than you think that target customer wants. So ask the question “do you ever eat donuts?” And also the question “what sort of donuts would you like to eat?”

You can uncover a more nuanced version of this question by asking what your customer needs. Often this need displays as a pain or discomfort that the customer wants to avoid. For our baked good example, a customer allergic to nuts might have very strong physical symptoms when eating a product with nuts – in fact, the decision could be life-threatening to some. Consider how strong that statement is: what does your customer need? Customers will display needs differently than wants, so make sure you watch what they actually do in a given situation rather than just asking them how they feel. Then, after you observe the need in action, ask them how they would feel when that feature/attribute/product is taken away. (Would they pay to keep it?)

If you can find a customer, ask them what they want, and uncover some of their needs, congratulations! You’re well on your way to developing your plan for an MVP. So why can you deliver this benefit better than anyone else? A suggestion: you won’t be able to deliver every benefit better than anyone else in the world. So focus on a small (a really small) thing that you can do better than anyone. And soon you’ll understand whether you picked the right small thing to focus on and whether your customer cares that you’re solving their problem.

You should also ask yourself – why is right now the time to deliver your solution? Try to answer the question: what’s the trigger for my customer to buy to relieve their pain by using my product? If you can deliver that benefit at the right time for the right customer better than anyone else, you’re getting closer. And if you have managed to avoid “boiling the ocean” by focusing on a small thing that you can measure, test, and learn from you’ll have an even better chance of making your MVP less wrong. At some point you also need to know whether the combination of the customer’s pain and the solution matches the set of things you can do at a reasonable cost.

How can you make your MVP better? Make sure you ask valuable questions of your prospective customers. Acknowledge their needs and their wants and respond by demonstrating that you’ve heard their needs and delivered something you believe addresses those needs. And build with the idea in mind that you will measure specific outcomes, learn from the actual behavior of your customers, and then change the MVP to make new experiments that get you closer to being less wrong, quickly.

This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

Agile Marketing, Customer Experience, Marketing Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

The Feedback Machine: How do you discover what people really want?


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This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

How do you discover what people really want?

People are not effective at self-reporting, or letting you know what they will do with your product when you’re not there to help them. Often, customers will tell you that they are going to take action or that they “like” something. And then it doesn’t get done. It’s easier to appease and give positive feedback (“it’s great!”) than to tell you it’s awful or give you specific, constructive advice.

How do you discover what people – and in this case, your customers – really want? To understand what customers want, you need to put a feedback machine in motion and continue to test what you learn over time. As the flywheel for feedback begins to turn, you’ll get more data, which will allow you to test and change faster.

Here’s what one feedback machine looks like: Ask, Observe, and Track.

What are the different ways you can ask customers what they want?

You can talk to customers, give them surveys, and hold focus groups. And each of these methods have caveats. Asking customers what they want is the core way you can find out what they really want – because some of them will tell you. Because customers won’t always tell you directly what they want, it’s helpful to ask them in a few different ways and then correlate the results to see if you hear the same things in different places. And make sure you keep the number of questions low so that customers balk at your survey. You also need to ask them the right questions. Asking a leading question like “given a perfect situation that matches my product perfectly, would you use my product” doesn’t help you or your customers. Zero in on the “I need” and “I want” statements to get closer to the true customer needs.

Surveys are another good way to get feedback. You can ask for preference using a multiple-choice or free-text survey. You can ask people what they think in a group setting using a focus group – this often spurs new ideas and can also induce “groupthink” – and learn more about many people at once. You can also ask people “what others would like” to try to remove individual self-reporting bias.

Asking gets you one result and Observing gives you a rich picture

Asking customers what they want isn’t enough. Observing what customers do is another key way to learn what they really want. Customers may show you non-verbal cues in a focus group that give you new ideas. And you can also learn a lot from in-person or remote usability studies. The key is to observe what people do without being prompted or providing instructions.

Focus groups provide you with a natural place to observe non-verbal reactions, though you may get some false signals when the customer is not in their natural environment. That’s why in-person and remote usability studies are really valuable.

Tracking behavior over time is the gold standard

Even if customers tell you what they think they want at the moment, the best way of knowing what they want and value in your product is to track their behavior over time.

The best products create or augment habits – things that are done repetitively. They also create or react to triggers – natural behavior cues from their environment and emotions – to spur the customer to do something. And if they are easy enough to do the customer can learn how to do them with little effort until it becomes almost subconscious (thanks @bjfogg for your Behavior Model to describe these aspects of behavior.)

So tracking habits should be one part of your feedback machine to find out what people really want. You should also be tracking any changes in the Word of Mouth that surrounds your product. If your customers aren’t talking about you or your product, that’s probably a sign that you haven’t zeroed in on things that people want – and have not yet exceeded the threshold of what they expect. In an ideal world, everyone would be talking about your product in the right channel at the right time. Some products aren’t ideal for public sharing – but many are after you demo your product for the target customer and they “get it”.

In the real world, you need to find the people who like (or love) your product and then understand how to find more people like them. If you’d like to learn more about this, start by reading Kevin Kelly’s classic 1000 True Fans. You also need to learn how to extrapolate from the things those early adopters love to the things that later adopters will love, too.

The Feedback Machine of Ask, Observe, and Track will get you closer to the goal of learning what your customers want. But it won’t speak for itself – you’ll need to use the information you learn to have conversations with your customers and find out what they truly value.

This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

Agile, Agile Marketing, Innovation, Lean, Productivity, Startup

Here’s how to find Metrics that Matter

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Is there an Easy Solution?

The biggest challenge for most businesses is getting from “this is a nifty silver bullet” to “this service is an integral part of our business” I bet you’ve been there, either as the buyer or as the seller. You really really want to believe that whatever you’re selling or they’re buying is going to solve your problem without any work being involved. Occasionally (when accompanied by some masterful Sales Fu) this appears to happen, and most of the time there is extra work to be done to take the Lone Ranger’s Silver Technology Bullet and turn it into the Swiss Army Knife your business actually needed.

Finding Metrics that Matter

What should happen then? In a great essay on metrics that matter, Suhail Doshi points out that “Companies need to start using a new set of metrics that don’t simply make them feel good.” This is a perfect way to frame the question of the technology silver bullet, and to point out that you already know all of the attributes of the service that you need to succeed. The friction you feel when you try a new product and it doesn’t match up to the marketing (or your expectations, or to your initial impression) originates from the fact that you haven’t yet defined the solution that you want. Once you define that solution, you can match what’s available against what you need (and want) and make a more informed decision about whether you’ve found the silver bullet, or just another shiny object.

A great way to start finding the One Key Metric – the thing that really matters and “moves the needle” for your business – in Doshi’s parlance is to define success at the beginning of a project. Imagine what it would look like to look back at a successful project and be able to deliver for your business the results you were seeking from that shiny object so that it does become a valued part of your business. This process works much better if it’s concrete and starts with the real world results you want (e.g. go from an average of N views per post to Y views per post over a period of 4 weeks). Don’t be fooled into creating analysis paralysis: just pick some goals you can do today and some actions you can take to get started right now.

An example: increasing traffic to a marketing blog

It’s attractive to think that a simple goal – like increasing traffic to a blog – can be accomplished with a simple solution. There are simple solutions (write more, and produce great content), expensive solutions (use Mechanical Turk and pay people to visit), automated solutions (spend money on paid placement advertisements or send out an email blast) and many of these actions won’t be successful over the long term because they don’t define a hypothesis (what should we do) followed by a test (let’s do something) and a next action (how do we evaluate what we did and do we do anything to follow up that idea.)

What’s Next (Your Turn)

In this example, the end goal of “increasing traffic as an integral part of the business” needs to be supported by clear actions (make a pledge to write 3 posts a week for 6 weeks, and experiment with low cost ideas to publicize that idea) and next actions as the outcome. The best SEO or Email Marketing Packages in the world won’t bring you more traffic – they will simply give you increasingly more powerful tools that you can choose to learn as you transform your initial idea into reality. Just remember, silver bullets only work in the movies.

Agile Marketing, Customer Development, Customer Service, Productivity

What’s a Community Manager’s Secret Weapon?


About 18 months ago I wrote a post on generosity, the secret weapon of a community manager. And since that time one of the best places that has emerged for conversation about Community has been the Facebook Community Manager’s Group.

The conversation above is a great reminder of the power of community, of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) tricks of the trade that allow community-minded people to provide great service to their customers and to maintain their professionalism at the same time.

The suggestions from community managers (and like-minded folks) fall into two main camps:

  • Understanding and communicating with the people involved in a conversation;
  • And having a plan that extends beyond the hair-trigger time of clicking “send” or “post.”

Communication doesn’t involve just making sure the right words are in place; it also includes “listening”, “patience”, and “assuming good intentions.” I’d add to this list “placing yourself in the customer’s shoes” and “trying to look for the solution, not the problem.”

And tactics need to include something beyond what you’re doing at the moment. This group suggested “Planning”, “Work-from-home”, and “Strategy” as important tools in the Community Manager’s toolbelt.

So what’s the secret weapon for a Community Manager, really? The willingness of the community of other community managers to provide advice, friendship, and suggestions.