Let’s talk about how we turn an audience into a customer base. And let’s start with how we don’t.
To give some context, I’ll ask a hypothetical question. Once you’ve spent all the time it takes to ideate, build, and perfect your minimum viable product, would you then head out into your neighborhood, taking your MVP from door to door to hawk your wares like the vacuum cleaner salesmen of old?
Absolutely not. But oddly enough, this is how a lot of entrepreneurs target the audience that they hope to turn into their first customers, the digital equivalent of it anyway. Find a lot of like-minded people gathered in one place on the Internet, hit them with a singular pitch and price point, then sit back and wait for the money to roll in.
I know. I used to do the same exact thing. In over 20 years creating and launching dozens of products, I’ve had to learn the lessons of customer acquisition the hard way — a path littered with expensive and time-consuming rejection.
The goal isn’t how many customers we can hit at once, it’s how much can we learn from each customer we hit. The solution is to go after initial customers one at a time, then tailor the pitch as we move on from individuals to groups.
Here’s how we break down who they are and what they need, how we sell them our MVP, and what we can learn from each of them.
Don’t know they have a problem
When we throw our product out to the Internet — the advertising platforms, social media sites, LinkedIn groups, etc. — the vast majority of our audience doesn’t know they have the problem we’re trying to solve. This is why a lot of cheesy ads start with a question like, “Are you tired of…(insert problem here)?”
This is the worst MVP audience to go after, even though it seems like the easiest and cheapest to reach.
In reality, this is the most expensive audience, because even with all of the algorithms to filter demographics and psychographics and interests and browsing history, there’s probably not a checkbox to select the audience that suffers from the exact problem you’re trying to solve. And if there is, the problem you’ve chosen is probably too broad to begin with. Either way, we’re paying for a lot of misfires.
There’s really no good way to sell an MVP to this audience, other than to start with that cheesy question. From the response, we can learn how much of our prospective customer segment thinks that they’re impacted by our problem, but that’s going to be a noisily inaccurate statistic that’s expensive to obtain, and it doesn’t tell us much about the validity of our solution.
Know they have a problem and are willing to solve it
This is a great audience to have, but it can be a hard one to find. We basically have to look for complainers — those people who actually are tired of (insert problem here). Sometimes they’ll group together, but most of the time we have to work backwards, and go looking for them in the context of a similar problem.
An example: At my current startup Spiffy, we started out doing mobile car washes on-demand through an app. One of the discoveries we made from polling our customers was that they used us primarily because they enjoyed the convenience and time savings of not having to go to the car wash. So we asked them where else they hated to go, and they overwhelmingly told us they hated going to the oil change places. So we rolled out an MVP to change oil the same way we did car washes. Huge win.
Now, our MVP audience was already in our customer base, but we had to learn why they were there first. Had we assumed (mistakenly) they were using us because they just liked things really clean, we might have instead (mistakenly) rolled out an MVP for mobile house cleaning or pet grooming, and misfired completely.
Know they have a problem and are unwilling to solve it
This is a tough nut to crack, but super valuable if we can crack it, because this audience is going to be a big part of our sustained growth down the road. These are the folks who are living with the problem we’re trying to solve, and not willing to pay for a solution, either because the problem isn’t painful enough or because the existing solutions aren’t cost-effective or frictionless enough.
So this is where our competitive advantage will come from.
We usually find this audience virally, in the same places we find the audience willing to solve the problem. But we sell this audience by stressing our competitive edge and justifying why they don’t have to live with the problem any longer.
Again, I’ll use my current startup as an example: Anyone can live with a dirty car, some can live with a dirtier car than others. We made it so easy, so cost-effective, and the results so good that this audience realized they didn’t have to live with a dirty car anymore.
Furthermore, as their unwillingness to solve the problem melts, we’re learning all sorts of things from them: Scheduling, frequency, packaging, pricing, upgrades, messaging, and the list goes on and on.
Already using a free variant of the solution
This is an outlier audience in the real world, it happens with a lot more frequency in software as a service. There may already be a contingent audience using a low-feature version of our product for free. And it may even be a low-feature version of our own MVP.
Much like the audience that doesn’t know they have a problem, this one is tricky, because it seems like a gold mine of cheap-to-find and easy-to-land customers, but it’s really just a special subset of two other audiences: The ones that don’t know they have a problem and the ones that know but are unwilling to solve it.
The free version sets up a challenge. We have to sell the audience by both fortifying their desire to fix the problem while also offering a solution that is worth the time and money to transition from the free solution. This is complex, I mean, it took me a while just to write that last sentence, let alone execute on it.
But again, crazy important to learn from, because we’re learning where and how much value our MVP really has.
Already paying for a solution and unhappy with that solution
In the short term, this is a great audience to chase. It’s where we’re going to disrupt the market. These are people who know the problem, need a solution, and are unhappy with the solution they have.
These are our competitors customers, and they can be swayed on anything from price to innovation. Just know that if it’s the former, they’ll be difficult to keep, and if it’s the latter, we can’t rest on the MVP, we have to keep innovating.
My recommendation here would not be to sell them on price, because like I said, even if that gets them to switch, it won’t keep them around. And we need them around because we can learn more from this audience than any other, not only in terms of what our MVP’s strengths are, but where we should go next.
To put it another way, these customers didn’t become unhappy because the product became too expensive, they became unhappy because the product stopped being worth what they were paying. They can help us chase innovation and maintain that value proposition for all of our customers.
Already paying for a solution and happy with that solution
OK, this audience is the holy grail, if we can convert them, because landing these customers is the difference between being a market competitor and the market leader.
These are also our competitors’ customers, but they’re the ones who are totally satisfied with the solution they have, and the only way they’re becoming our customers is if we show them something they hadn’t thought of before.
If we can show that kind of value to that kind of audience, it means we’re reshaping the industry, changing the game, whatever you want to call inventing the next generation of our business. It’s what we set out to do when we first got the idea for our product, and it’s what drove us all the way through the MVP process. It only stands to reason that this is the primary audience to target when building our customer base.