The ultimate guide to early—and scrappy—customer research
You hear it all the time: The key to success is customer obsession. Simple, right?
Sort of. Building a profitable company is an infuriating process because it’s both complex and simple.
It’s complex because so many moving parts need to work well together during implementation. Great ideas live and die by thoughtful execution.
But when you boil it down to its essence, building a successful company just means you’ve built a product that solves a real problem for a specific group of people. To get it right, you just need to talk to the right people … right?
Right. But you likely already know you need to talk to your customers to keep your product on track.
The real question is, What do you do in the early days, when you have no customers or very few of them?
That’s what we’ll teach you in this article. We’ll walk you through some of the basics of market research, but we’ll focus on the scrappy stuff—the tactics you can use when you have next to no resources and can’t invest in consultants, expensive tools, or focus groups to give you insight.
Because if there’s one problem you don’t have, it’s access to information. We’re obsessed with sharing our thoughts and opinions online—everything you need already exists somewhere.
The real problem is knowing where to find valuable information and how to engage with it. When you learn that, you can avoid this:
Market research basics
When people talk about market research, they’re talking about several types of research. Here are some common types of market research:
- Competitive analysis: Knowing what your competitors are doing
- Pricing research: Knowing what products like yours usually cost
- UX research: Uncovering solutions to problems through design
- Brand awareness research: Understanding how people perceive your brand
- Buyer persona research: Gaining a deep understanding of your ideal customers
- Market segmentation research: Categorizing your buyer personas into different groups
For this article, we’ll be focusing on buyer persona research. Once you have a solid understanding of your buyer personas, you’ll want to delve deeper into market segmentation research—but you’ll likely have customers when you get to this stage.
When you’re conducting research, there are several ways to get the information you need:
- Primary research: Interviews and surveys
- Secondary research: Information from public sources, like trend reports, statistics, social media, etc.
For this article, we’ll be focusing on secondary research from a wide variety of public sources. But keep in mind that you can still conduct primary research in the early days of your company. You may just be talking to friends and family or other people in your network who share some of the characteristics of your ideal customer.
A scrappy way to define your ideal customer
Real talk: You may not know your ideal customer until you’ve been selling your product for a while.
Sometimes the market surprises us, and you need to be willing to adapt when you notice that certain types of people want to buy what you’re selling—whether you were targeting them or not.
Whom you thought was your ideal customer could turn out to be someone completely different than what you first envisioned for your product.
But you need to start somewhere. Answer these questions to start defining your ideal customer and where to find them:
- What are some common characteristics of people who quickly see value in your offer?
- Which customer verticals have actually been attracted to your offer so far?
- What are some common problems between people who quickly see value in your offer?
- What are some misconceptions someone may have about your offer?
- Where do people seek advice when they’re trying to solve the problem your offer solves?
When you start to feel confident about your answers to these questions, you’ll begin to know where to start your research.
Reddit for unfiltered conversations
Why it’s great: Reddit is semi-anonymous and people vote on the quality of posts—so you’ll get a lot of honesty with curated results.
How to use it: Use Reddit to understand how people talk about topics relevant to your product. Assess whether or not proposed solutions to problems resonate with a large group of people.
The catch: Reddit is a beast to navigate. Subreddits don’t adhere to standard naming conventions, and you’ll need to perform extensive research on relevant subreddits for your brand. Better get used to spending time on the platform.
Here are three ways to narrow down your search for subreddits:
- Make a list of educational topics surrounding your product and find subreddits for each.
- Use Redditlist or r/findareddit to help you uncover relevant subreddits.
- Use SEMrush to find out what other brands are doing on Reddit.
In this example, there’s a clear problem and a suggested solution with some reactions. If you’re selling products in the lawn care space, you know that some people are willing to put in the time and energy required for a brand new lawn—some people think it’s “worth it”.
You would need to do a lot more research to validate this specific claim, but after a while you’ll start to see some trends.
Amazon for product reviews
Why it’s great: You can do all the competitive analysis in the world, but nothing can compare to knowing exactly what consumers think of products like yours. When you use Amazon for market research, you’re basically making a list of features consumers care about the most—what triggered them to leave a positive review—and features that products consistently screw up.
How to use it: Narrow your search by Amazon department category. If you’re selling mascara, that means Beauty & Personal Care > Makeup > Eye Makeup > Mascara. Then narrow your search further using the left-hand menu to specify:
- Brand: If you know other brands that are similar to your own
- Price: So you’re comparing apples to apples
- New arrivals: Keep in touch with what’s new on the market
When you start browsing products, make sure to get sample language from five star reviews and one star reviews.
The catch: In 2016, Amazon made it against the rules to incentivize reviews—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Make sure to get a broad sample from a lot of sources to mitigate against disingenuous reviews.
In this example, you can see the consumer feels cheated by the higher price point and that they know it’s higher on Amazon—they’ve done their research on price. You also discover something a bit surprising: a feature that matters is easy removal of the product.
YouTube for understanding gaps
Why it’s great: YouTube is the how-to hub of the internet. It’s the second largest search engine in the world, and it’s where people go when they need solutions to a problem. YouTube creators are obsessed with their audiences because they’re rewarded for creating content their viewers like—so it’s pretty safe to say you can follow their lead when assessing whether or not a problem is real.
How to use it: Start with the phrase “how to” and put yourself in the mind of your ideal customer. What are they looking to learn? It could be as simple as “How to make a great cup of tea”. Check out the top results from creators, watch their videos, and make notes on how they present a solution to the problem. Then scroll down to the comments and note any counterpoints. Prioritize videos with a lot of views and comments with a lot of upvotes.
The catch: Keep in mind that YouTube contains a lot of paid promotion. Creators like to partner with brands they already like, so don’t let this knowledge detract from the authenticity of the content, but you’ll always want to cross-reference with comments.
True Food TV’s video on how to make a cup of tea is a partnership with Harney & Sons, and it’s as basic as you can get. No fancy gear, just a tea bag and some hot water. But you can see that people are passionate about what they put in their tea—one person loves honey and milk, while someone else thinks “Parisian raw sugar cane and half and half” is “pure luxury”.
Twitter Advanced Search for conversational feedback
Why it’s great: Twitter may be the closest avenue we have to reading people’s minds. Similar to Reddit but with a lot less anonymity, Twitter is where you’ll find out how people actually talk about every topic under the sun.
How to use it: Twitter Advanced Search is one of the most underrated features of the platform. With advanced search, you can look for specific search terms and specify that you want to see tweets with a certain amount of likes, retweets, or replies. And if you already have a list of people you respect, you can search for what they’ve said about any topic that interests you.
The catch: To say that Twitter is noisy would be an understatement. You’ll want to save your searches to a Google sheet and sift through them to find the meat of what will help you.
A quick search for “yoga leggings” with a minimum of 500 likes unearths some interesting sentiments about gen Z. It could be a sign that gen Z expects you to call yoga pants “flared leggings” and that your copy should reflect this if you’re targeting a younger audience.
Other channels to consider
- Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces: Drop in on real-time chats about your topic and use Otter.ai to record a transcript. You’ll get a word cloud of most frequently used terms and a jumping off point for further research.
- Five Second Test: Submit your website for a five second test and measure what users think you offer within the first five seconds of seeing the copy and design.
- Product Hunt: If you’re operating in the tech space, launch on Product Hunt and get early feedback from people who would use your product.
Final thoughts: Be careful with competitor research
Your market research wouldn’t be complete without a competitive analysis, but be careful—just because your competitors are doing something, doesn’t mean it’s right for your brand.
Know your competitors so you can learn from their mistakes, but don’t over-optimize on competitor research over customer research. Customer feedback will always win over your competitor’s shiny new offer that may turn out not to solve a problem after all.