Stories about Software


Conducting Market Research Calls to Identify and Validate Niches

Recently in this series, I wrote about how you don’t “pick” niches.  Rather, you discover potential niches, form a niche hypothesis, and then validate them.

I also recommended two pretty dependable ways to validate (and, if needed, tune) them:

  1. Creating valuable content around the niche hypothesis.
  2. Conducting market research.

Today, I’d like to focus on this second concern.  Let’s do a deep dive on scheduling and conducting market research calls.

Understand the Lay of the Land

Before I go into detail, I want to establish some ground rules to help you not be awful.

When people help you with your market research, there’s extremely limited upside for them.  Basically just the opportunity to have someone interview them and express interest in their opinions.  But that’s really it.

So make no mistake.  This is a one-sided exchange and they are doing you a favor.  As such, the least you can do is walk in the safe middle between these two extreme behaviors that will make them low-key hate you:

  1. You claim to want to pick their brain but, bait and switch by begging them to pay you to do something.
  2. You truly want to pick their brain, but have no focus or agenda, so you turn the call into undirected career advice and therapy.

Veering toward either one of these danger zones is a veritable blueprint for how to suck.  You need to stay in the middle by having a focused agenda, but with no expectation beyond the meeting itself.

And the easiest way to do that is to recognize that either one of the danger paths involves making the conversation about you and your needs.  This conversation is, instead, about them and theirs.  If you keep that top of mind, you’ll do fine.

Identify Potential Buyers, Decision-Makers and Influencers

Alright, now that nobody can claim that I sicced you on them without telling you not to be needy, let’s get to actually conducting the research.  The first order of business is figuring out who you want to talk to.

If you’ve been following this series, recall that in this post I talked about the different buyer roles that you encounter.  Given the nature of what you’re doing here — market research — you obviously don’t yet know who your buyer is.  The task at hand is to talk to as many people as possible who could be your buyer.

Now, let’s be clear about something.  This almost certainly means that you should NOT be lining up conversations with software developers.  Unless you’re going to sell them something they’ll buy with their own money for their side projects, these are neither buyers nor serious influencers.

Understand that you’re trying to talk instead to executives, directors, and managers.

With this in mind, you’re looking for the intersection of people that you know or feel comfortable reaching out to and people to whom you could see offering value.  I’d err on the side of the former, myself.

You’re in exploratory mode here, so even if you don’t necessarily picture yourself offering stuff to VPs of sales, hear them out.  They may have expensive problems that you can solve with automation or other tools at your disposal.  I’d suggest only skipping contacts that you know you wouldn’t want to serve (e.g. if you’re a pacifist, perhaps don’t talk to a director at a defense contractor).

Define What You’d Like to Learn

Once you’ve identified people for a conversation, you have a bit of work to do before you reach out to them.  This is to avoid the danger of an unfocused conversation that comes off as you fishing for work.

Define what you’re looking to learn.

Now, this isn’t the same thing as defining what questions you’ll ask.  We’ll get to that shortly.  This is a broader definition of what you hope to get out of this conversation.

That’s what’s going to serve as true north for the discussion and determine what you ask.

Here are a few concrete examples of what you might want to learn.

  • You’re at the beginning of market research, so you’re just looking to understand what kinds of pains and challenges people have.  A productive conversation would give you a list of those and arm you to look for patterns with future conversations.
  • You have a handful of pains and expensive problems that you hypothesize might apply to this person.  You’d like to learn if you’re correct.
  • Maybe you’ve identified a potential niche and are zeroing in on an offering.  You’d like to learn whether this person would purchase or not, and what hesitations they’d have, if any.

Hopefully this gives you an idea.  You want to be able to fill in the blank with “I’ll consider this meeting a success if I learn _________”

Create a List of Questions to Steer the Conversation

With the broad goal in hand, you want to brainstorm questions to ask during the call.  The reasoning for this is twofold:

  1. Asking the right questions will help you fill in the aforementioned blank.
  2. Having a bunch of questions in your back pocket helps you steer the agenda, avoid awkward lulls, and not make the person feel you’re wasting their time with a lack of preparation.

Personally, I’ve developed a kind of corpus of market research questions that I have.  So preparing for these conversations for me is less a matter of ex nihlo brainstorming and morel like working from a template.

For this section, I’ll just list a bunch of them.  Hopefully this gets your own creative juices flowing and helps you seed your own list to pick from.

  • Of everything going on at work right now, what’s the worry that’s most likely to randomly pop into your head and ruin your dinner?
  • What do you hate most about coming to the office?
  • What’s the most tiresome task you have that you’d love to outsource, but just can’t seem to?
  • If you had a magic wand that you could wave and change one thing about your day-to-day, what would it be?
  • If you’re looking back a year from now and celebrating wild success, what is it that you’ve achieved?
  • I don’t have this solution, but, if I did, would you pay, say $X for Y to be a solved problem?
  • What would be your biggest hesitation in paying for X?

These, and more, are the kinds of discussion questions I keep in my back pocket.  If you have some in yours, you can grab a handful of them for your conversation.  Now, you’re prepared not to waste their time.

Asking for the Conversation

Having inoculated against the second way to suck — an undirected conversation where you come off as fishing for work — let’s protect you against the other one: the bait-and-pitch.

You can fix this entirely with how you ask for the conversation (assuming that you don’t, like some kind of maniac, completely undermine your own position in the live conversation).  Here’s an example of how I’d typically ask for a conversation like this via email.

Hey CMO of a dev tools company,

I have a favor to ask, if you’re up for it.

I’m thinking of opening up a new line of business, serving CMOs of dev tools companies, or maybe CMOs of tech companies in general.  I was wondering if I could interview you to pick your brain a little about the space.

Please know this isn’t a pitch — I don’t yet have an offering to sell you even if I wanted to try.  I’m purely in market research mode, looking to understand the space, and I feel like you’d have some insights that could be really valuable for me.

Could I prevail on you for half an hour of your time?

Assuming the person isn’t crazy busy, this will get you a conversation with someone you know way more often than not.  And even with coldish outreach, it works more than you might think.

People like giving interviews and having their brains picked.  I’m no exception, FWIW.  I probably agree to 1-2 calls like this per month, even from people I don’t know.

Having the Conversation

Alright, so they’ve agreed to the call.  How should you go about doing that?

Don’t Be a Scumbag

Well, first of all — and I can’t overemphasize this enough — DO NOT TRY TO SELL THEM ANYTHING under any circumstances.  This is the bait and switch that I’ve been warning you about, and it tells them two things about you, if you do it:

  1. You come off as pathetic.
  2. Worse, you come off as a scum bag, and the person talking to you will probably not only say no now, but resolve never to do business with you in the future.

But for the sake of maintaining an air of genteel decency on this blog, I’ll proceed, assuming that you’re not a pathetic scumbag.  Let’s talk about conducting the actual conversation.

Have a Genuine Back-And-Forth

First, make a little friendly small talk at the beginning.  I know, I know — if you’re an introvert like me, small talk isn’t your favorite.  Do it anyway.  It’s what people do in these situations.

If you’re doing the call over Zoom, I’d ask if they mind you recording it.  Don’t make this awkward and back off immediately if they don’t want to, but being able to review the transcript later might save you a feeling of needing to take furious notes.

Now, that out of the way, it’s time to ask questions.  You’ve got your list, curated with this person in mind, and you genuinely want to get answers.  But don’t treat the list like you’re administering an exam.

Ask a question, listen to the answer, and try to ask at least one spontaneous follow-up question to dig into what they’re saying.  This makes the conversation more human and engaging, and it forces you to listen and grok, rather than act like a secretary taking dictation.

Get through the questions you can, and gently steer the conversation if you can.  But let it go where it’s going to go.  Remember, your goal is to get this person talking about their life, their work, their pains, and their hopes.  This goes best when you let them drive.

Finally, be respectful of their time.  They’re already giving you a valuable freebie by talking to you, so you want to make it crystal clear that you’re not taking any more than they’ve agreed.

I personally do this by saying, with a few minutes left, “hey, I want to be respectful of your time here and we have only a few minutes left.  I’m actually happy to keep talking if you wanted to, but I’m grateful for what you’ve already given me and totally understand if you need to get going.”

Defining Next Steps

The last thing that I’d consider doing, though it’s not strictly necessary, is to ascertain next steps, if any.  Remember, this person is helping you.  So they’ll naturally want to feel as though this helped.

Obviously, you’ll want to thank them for their time, and tell them that it helped.  But, beyond that, I’d suggest offering to follow up and keep them posted on your progress.

This serves two purposes, both of which I’d argue are benign:

  1. It’ll make them feel good if, in a few months, you say, “hey, I launched my new site with X offering, and I wanted to let you know that our conversation was extremely valuable for steering me in the right direction.”  It’s a validation of their expertise and a clear signal that their time was, indeed, valuable for you.
  2. It lets them know that you have an offering that could help them.  But leave it at that.  Still don’t try to pitch them — they obviously know that you’re open for business and will inquire if they’re interested.

So as you wind down the call and say your goodbyes, tell them that you’ll keep them posted on what you wind up doing.  And thank them, of course.

And, remember, assuming that you’ve conducted yourself reasonably, this person is likely genuinely rooting for you to succeed.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

This is not a one time deal.  When you’re trying to identify a niche to fill, you’re going to need to have a LOT of these conversations.

One person talking about a pain is an anecdote.  Two people talking about it might be a pattern.  But you’ll need to get a lot of people talking about it before you can extrapolate and start to call it niche-validating data.

So do that as you work your way toward joy.  Try to schedule as many of these meetings as your schedule and personality allow.

And, beyond that, I’d suggest that you continue to schedule meetings like this even once you’ve landed on a niche and have a successful business.  The market and your buyers are constantly evolving.  New opportunities open up, fast followers will chase you, and landscapes eternally shift.

Market research isn’t just a business-hack for getting started.  It’s a tool for ensuring your relevance by ensuring that you understand your buyers.