Brian Casel
Brian Casel

A product positioning story

by Brian Casel · Subscribe

Positioning a new product feels like an art.

Squishy, feely, gut-instinct kinda work. The kind that leaves you with a nagging suspicion that you’re drawing the wrong conclusions and making the wrong changes.

Today I want to share some notes about how I try to take that mish-mash of insights, patterns, and sometimes conflicting messages that I hear in responses to my customer research questions, and turn those into hard, conclusive, and most importantly, actionable data.

I found that positioning a product is like a compelling story. It builds and builds, revealing new and interesting plot notes, twists, and turns. Near the end, all the pieces fall into place and a lot of that early tension has been resolved.

It goes something like this…

Early Idea

The first action I take with a new product idea is to put it out there.

I start by writing a short manifesto about the problem, why it matters, and my vision for a better solution.

I ask for people’s email addresses. Then immediately show them a questionnaire with a few free-form fields (not multiple choice). I prefer free-form so that I get their chosen word choices, phrasing, and often lengthy insights.

My questions are designed to help me learn how they identify themselves, how they resonate with the problem I presented, and what they’re currently doing about it.

My goal at this stage: All I can hope for is a general sense that people resonate with the direction I’m going in. Nothing firm yet. Gut instinct, with some outside confirmation from others is enough to keep going at this stage.

Pre-launch building

I read every single response to my questionnaire. I save the best ones (the ones that wrote the most or seem like the best fits) and I invite those people to calls with me.

I hold calls before I start building. I hold calls during the build process. I keep holding calls after launch. And more after that.

Customer research calls are the kinda thing that get better and more valuable over time. Things you learn in early calls inform how you’ll tweak your questions in later calls, to gain even more learnings.

My goal at this stage: Match my vision for the product to the things people seem to resonate with the most. Use what I learn to decide which aspects are most important to build first (or not build at all).

Mentally, this is the toughest phase to get through. I’m hearing vague insights, trying to build something. But nothing is clear cut. I continuously misprioritize as I try to make sense what’s truly most important. I just try to follow my gut, while keeping a steady pulse with ongoing user conversations (I never want to build in a silo!)

Minimum viable product

Now that my product is far enough long to be somewhat useable, it’s time to gain insights from real users.

In reality, it’s hard to expect many people to use my MVP in their real-world production work. A few super-early-adopters will, but most people simply aren’t the early-adopter type. Even if they say they’re interested, many won’t actually put an incomplete solution into real-world use.

I accept this reality, but still push ahead and offer my product as if it’s the full solution.

My goal at this stage: Guage their response to my offer to try the (incomplete) product today. Will they even give it the time of day? What, exactly, is preventing them from actually using it, for real?

Early conversations alone couldn’t give me this knowledge. Customers often don’t know how to articulate what they would or wouldn’t use in the real world.

That’s the point of offering a semi-built MVP product: To see, first-hand, how far away I am from a more complete solution. It also helps me get clear on which things to build next (or scrap from my original roadmap).

Paying customers

I have built enough of a product (that people want) that a handful of folks have begun paying for it. Awesome!

By this time, I’ve had quite a few customer calls, and figured out a thing or two about what customers care about. My own knowledge of what my product is and how customers perceive it starting to crystalize (but still a bit fuzzy).

I think this is a good time put together version 1 of my product’s marketing website.

In other words, I’m leaving behind the message that this product is “just an idea, coming soon!” and moving into a world where “This product is here. Ready to try it?”

My goal at this stage: Establish a baseline for how the product performs in the real world (not in a “coming soon” fantasy world). Much of the site and messaging is still based on my gut feel for my market. But it’s a starting point for me to iterate on.

Even though the front-page is fully designed, the flow to get customers into the product should still involve hand-holding. I continue a combination of question forms and calls to onboard them into the product.

There is still much to learn. With the marketing site in place, now I can learn how and why casual visitors convert to active paying customers, and more importantly, why many don’t.

Traction

My product is coming along nicely. It feels like it’s continuously hovering around 75% “complete”. Many valuable features are there. Some are missing. A few highly popular requests. I have a clearer sense of what’s left to build, and in what priority order.

My marketing site has been out in the wild for a few months. I’m building up valuable data points, including:

  • A few hundred trial accounts
  • More questionnaire responses
  • Steady flow of calls (now they’re called “demos” or “consultations”)
  • A small percentage of people who’ve converted to paying customers.

But that trial to paid conversion rate is lower than I’d like. Most of the people entering my funnel aren’t perfect fits for the product. But some are.

This is the time to get to the bottom of that. I take a hard look at these questions:

  • What did the paying customers do that the unconverted didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t?
  • Who were those paying customers? What types of businesses do they run? What do they have in common?
  • What is the most common use case for my product? Literally, what they are using it for?
  • What happened in their world recently that caused them to take action to find a product like mine?

My goal at this stage: Answer those questions not using my gut instinct, but with actual evidence. Then draw conclusions that inform specific actions I can take to dial in my product’s positioning. Ultimately, this should help attract more perfect fit customers for my product, and it should help the product evolve to be a perfect fit for them.

So here’s what I do:

First, I look at each of my paying customers’ accounts, one-by-one, and take note of how they’re using the product. I also look back at the questionnaire they had filled out prior to using the product. I jot down what I find in a spreadsheet to help me spot trends.

Then, I look at the hundreds of questionnaires I received, and normalize those free-form answers into a tidy buckets. I group the same sentiments together, so that I can start to make sense of the trends.

I look at the data in the spreadsheet. Turn it into graphs. Present these to my mastermind groups and/or advisors, and get their take.

Then I draw hard conclusions in the form of statements. For example:

“80% of customers are from this industry.” “75% use it for this purpose.” etc.

Now I put these into action in the form of positioning work. That includes:

  • Re-writing key headlines and copy throughout my website to speak to my target customer (now that I have a better understanding of who they are)
  • Emphasizing key use cases, and facilitate onboarding to these jobs to be done.
  • Continue to align the product’s features around my refined positioning.

Slow, steady, methodical, work…

Nobody said this was easy!