Build Your Market… One Customer At A Time

I was a little futuristic back in 1990:  I started O’Donnell Learn because I was convinced that technology would change education and that customers (including students, teachers and administrators) had to be front and center during this change. Well…I have had more than 20 years to perfect the practice of market development–working with customers to shape a solution AND build a cadre of loyal early adopters.

It’s a lot of fun.  You build panels of users who provide insights and feedback as you develop and launch a product or offering.  As a result, you end up with a solution to real, specific market needs and problems.   You create messaging that resonates.  AND you avoid costly mistakes.

Here are a few tips for you as you create the next generation of innovation…

  1. Get feedback on your concept before you build the product.  Make sure you get feedback from at least 20 potential customers right from the get go.  You will save yourself a lot of time and money!!  We use interviews to get in-depth feedback and focus groups  for brainstorming (virtual are less expensive).
  2. Listen don’t talk.  It’s really better for you to get someone else to ask the questions for you.  Most entrepreneurs can’t resist trying to sell when you really need to listen hard and tease out your customers’ objections.
  3. Don’t get discouraged.  The more innovative your offering, the more confusion and push back you can expect.  Teachers particularly are skeptical about change.  We have launched dozens of successful products.  The real game changers require more than one conversation. In the first one, your customer reacts to the idea:  what is exciting, and what are the red flags or obstacles.  Then, in a second conversation, you can get feedback on the actual product.  This two-step process yields a very high rate of customers!!
  4. Use the right tools.  Most people automatically turn to a survey.  Surveys are important—they help you figure out what to focus on first and how to spend your resources.  But, they are step two.  You have to start with qualitative research (interviews or focus groups).  By probing and listening, you shift your focus from what you think is important to what is important to your customer.
  5. Get your customers to shape your message. A few years back, we saved a customer a lot of $$.  They were praising their modular product—and this word had negative connotations for most customers.  By touting a flexible design rather than modular, they turned negativity into excitement!

Market development doesn’t have to cost a lot of money—but it requires some time investment.  You want to be sure that you recruit the right customers into your panel—decision makers at target accounts, not just any person who wants to talk!  Relying too heavily on social networking groups/sites tends to get you a panel full of talkers that aren’t necessarily decision-makers.

Think about your target audience and do some research to gather contact information.  Typically, you will need to reach out to about 10 target customers for every qualified panel participant. But, I guarantee that if you do it systematically, market development will save you from making costly mistakes and it will yield your first pipeline of customers.

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