When it comes to capturing the public’s imagination, few works of fiction have ever done it as well as the movie Jurassic Park did almost 25 years ago – I couldn’t believe it’s been that long either. The special effects were insane for the time, but even more amazing was how the way they resurrected dinosaurs seemed so scientifically plausible. Silly as it was, the Mr. DNA sequence showing how the scientists in the movie extracted dinosaur DNA from fossilized mosquitoes and then used frog DNA to complete the gene sequence kind of makes the entire movie work.
“Frog DNA” is a concept I return to every now and then with my colleagues. If the reasoning behind a feature hasn’t been validated somehow through user feedback, it’s frog DNA. That is, it ought to be right, but we made a few logical jumps to get there. We all do that from time to time, especially when we don’t have the contacts or the time to vet ideas with potential users. But it’s a dangerous thing to add to your product.
As the product manager survey results that we published on Mind the Product suggested, listening to the market doesn’t happen enough among enterprise software designers. So in the absence of a Rolodex of contacts, you’ve got to take it upon yourself as the product owner to use all of the means at your disposal to capture feedback on an idea and understand the pros and cons of each.
Join Sales Calls
This is probably the most common means of gathering market feedback by product managers, and with good reason. I try to listen in on at least one sales call every day just to hear what problems the prospect articulates and how they react to our pitch. It’s a great, low-cost way to learn. Just be aware that your sample is biased in favor of those who are already in your pipeline – the ones who presumably feel a pain already. That’s only a tiny sliver of your addressable market. You’ll have a harder time learning from sales calls how the other 80% of the market survives without your solution today.
Talk to Existing Customers
The biggest advantages of getting feedback from existing customers are the fact that they know your product already and so you can skip right to the new idea you’ve got. The downside is that this sample is even more biased than your sales pipeline. Existing customers have a stake in your product supporting their existing work flow. Customers may value predictability over enhancements, which gives you false signals about where the value lies.
In my experience, conferences have been better for gathering competitive intelligence and looking to the horizon than getting cold, hard feedback on your product (especially if networking in ballrooms doesn’t come easily to you). Still, the right conference can be a great way to meet contacts if you have the budget and time to attend them. When you add up flights, hotels, and conference fees, the cost-benefit ratio can get out of whack quickly, so choose your spots carefully or you’ll blow through budget without much to show for it.
Recruit a Panel From a Traditional Expert Networking Firm
Depending on how specialized your product is, expert networking firms can be a great way to acquire industry knowledge from people with rare expertise. These services usually aren’t geared toward helping you find everyday users and buyers though. And at anywhere from $8-12K to recruit a focus group, the cost puts it out of reach for many small and mid-size projects. However, tools like Zintro offer a more cost-effective alternative for finding consultants who can help you with market research.
Survey the Market
If you have a website that gets significant traffic, website polls can be a great way to get quick feedback on what the market thinks, and there are lots of free web polling widgets out there. If you want to talk to people who aren’t your customers yet, or if you’re targeting a more general population segment, Google consumer surveys lets you spin up a survey fast and collect results for anywhere from $0.10 to $3.00 per completed survey. Getting a few hundred data points is better than nothing at all, and the data can be helpful for planning research interviews later.
Cold Email People
To my surprise, I’ve actually found cold-messaging people on LinkedIn worked best for setting up market research interviews. It gets me outside my current users for a reasonable price. The big drawback is time. It can take days just to compile a list of good interview candidates, then you have to reach out to those people, wait for responses, set up the calls or meetings, and do the interviews. You need to make panel recruitment your job for a little while before you actually collect any useful information.
The pros and cons with the different market research mechanisms for product managers are what led us to create UserMuse. Getting feedback and market validation is the part of this job that’s more about hustle than smarts.
In the movie, the frog DNA backfires when it enables the dinosaurs at Jurassic Park to procreate –much to the scientists’ amazement and horror. You never know what dangers lurk in your untested assumptions.