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Talk to your target customer in 4 easy steps

Answer this question honestly…
When’s the last time you spoke to your target customer? Like really talked to them?

If it’s been more than a month, then shame on you!

Consumer internet companies are often overly dependent on quantitative data like Google Analytics, but without understanding the qualitative parts – the consumer psychology that actually goes into making purchase decisions. It’s a good idea to balance out the data aspects, particularly if you are not your target customer.

If you haven’t finished developing your product yet, that’s no excuse! After all, there are many methods of doing qualitative user research without writing a single line of code. In fact, in many ways talking to your customer and understanding them great detail is often much more powerful before you even go through the product development process.

How to recruit target customers to talk to, in 5 easy steps
It’s very very easy to talk to people on the internet. You really don’t have to do much work. Here’s what I will often do, in order to get some opinions about a particular set of products, or to deeply understand user behavior (like gifting! or decorating), or to get a better picture of what people do day to day.

Step 1: Write a recruiting survey
First off, go to Wufoo.com or a similar site (Surveymonkey.com works well too).

The most important part is to title the survey “Get a $20 Amazon gift certificate for 1 hour on the phone” or something similar.

Make a survey that includes the following questions:

  • First name (text)
  • Phone number (phone number)
  • Email so we can send you a gift certificate (text)
  • Best time to call, morning, afternoon, evening, weekend (multiple choice)
  • Tell me about yourself! (textarea)

That is usually a good base, and you should make all the entries required. Then you also want to provide a couple questions that can help you screen or otherwise prioritize your questions. For example, for a Facebook app you might ask:

  • What types of games do you like (multiple choice) 
  • What kind of phone do you have? (multiple choice)
  • Why do you like game X? (textarea)
  • Have you ever spent money on a game? (multiple choice)
  • etc.

Anyway, you get the point. I usually try to keep these pretty short.

Step 2: Recruit your participants
Now that you have a survey set up, then you can take the URL and start getting people to fill it out. There are a couple obvious areas to recruit people, and I typically do the following:

  • Link the survey from your product (if it’s out there)
  • Buy ads on Facebook and send traffic to your link
  • Post your survey on Craigslist
  • Buy ads on Google Adwords and send clicks to your survey

For the ad-based solutions, I will usually limit the buy to $50 per day, and spend $0.50 or so per click. I usually find that it costs about $1-2 per survey completion. After I recruit a couple dozen, then you can start moving forward with the call.

Step 3: Do your phone interviews and learn something!
This where you’ll learn the most – you can just pick up the phone and start talking. I usually structure the interviews into a couple distinct sections, depending on what I’m trying to learn.

The first section I usually try to learn about basic internet usage:

  • Tell me about yourself
  • What’s your typical day like?
  • Tell me about your computer setup – what do you have? When do you use it?
  • What are your favorite internet sites? What sites do you use every day?

Then depending on the topic, I’ll usually drill into 3 or 4 different areas with a couple questions each. The entire point is to ask open-ended questions without leading them too much. I will do as many of these calls as makes sense until I am hearing the same information over and over. Then I’ll start tweaking things and changing the interview to adjust.

Also, I will usually not show them a product unless the entire discussion is focused on that – the point of these conversations for me is usually qualitative understanding, not usability. Having them thoroughly test competitive products can be interesting also. You want to use this information to drive product strategy, and not be reactive.

I guarantee you’ll learn something!

Step 4: Buy your interviewees a gift card
When you’re done, don’t forget to send your interviewees a gift certificate – $20 card from Amazon is a good idea – to thank them for their time.

One of the best things is that once you get some relationships going with the best interviewees, you can go back to them for updates or to identify some of the most extreme cases.

The point is, it’s easy to talk to people, and it’s this type of detective work that separates customer-focused companies from technology-driven ones. There’s even a fun tool to suggest a bunch of other methodologies like this also – the IDEO method card deck.

If you have other additions to this, please suggest in the comments!

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