Stories about Software


Offering Client Trials: Prototypes vs Auditions

(Editorial note: I originally published this one over on the Hit Subscribe blog.)

Do you offer a trial?

I’ve run Hit Subscribe’s sales for five of our seven years of existence.  And this is by far the most common question I field at some point during discovery.

The simple answer to the question is “sure, we can do that.”

We don’t bother to set any minimums on the amount of content you can commission.  We’re not selling automobiles; economies of scale on content are marginal.  You can buy as little as a single blog post if that meets your needs.

In fact, if you read our client bill of rights, you’ll see that we encourage you to de-risk.  If you’re worried about doing something at scale, I view it as our obligation as a vendor to help you prototype success ahead of a large-scale commitment.

Where things get nuanced, however, is around the question of which risk you’re minimizing for when you ask about a trial.  And that’s at the core of what I want to document here reference for future prospects.  We’re happy to start small, but there’s a good chance we don’t think of a trial the same way you do.

Auditions vs Prototypes: What Risk Does Each Reduce?

To get specific about this, we view small batches as prototypes, and, importantly, not auditions.  Consider the difference.

Auditions and Prototypes

  • An audition is a subjective evaluation that de-risks against the judge having a large commitment to something they don’t care for.
  • A prototype is an objective evaluation that de-risks against an engagement not achieving a goal or outcome.

A simple, if mundane, example of an audition is a wine tasting.  Before purchasing an expensive bottle of wine from a winery, it makes sense to run a trial (audition) of “do I, the judge of wine, like this wine?”

In a professional context, auditions tend to, or at least should, move beyond simple aesthetics.  The judge of a piece of content (ideally) isn’t evaluating whether they personally like it but rather acting as a proxy for others’ opinions or perhaps as some kind of designated expert in the medium.  But the subjective, “do I approve of this” evaluation remains at the core.

A prototype, on the other hand, involves a measurable big-picture goal and a smaller experiment designed to provide fast feedback on an initiative’s ability to achieve that goal.

For instance, let’s go back to the winery.  But this time, let’s say you have a goal to fill your small wine cellar with 200 bottles of wine, for less than $5,000, with wine that you feel good about serving to guests.  Here your tasting becomes less important in favor of concerns like whether the bottles are in an acceptable price range, will fit in the cellar’s slots, and will appeal to unknown people.

In this world, a prototype might involve buying five bottles of wine within your budget, then confirming they fit in the cellar and guests seem to like them.  If the run of five goes well, you can scale up your buying from the winery.

Sampling and Risk Reduction for Auditions and Prototypes

Let’s look in more detail at the risk reduction profiles for each of these activities.

With an audition, you’re treating the trial work submitted as representative of a larger body of work that the vendor will submit.  The risk you’re mitigating is thus the risk of having a large batch of work that you deem unsuitable.  And this holds up so long as the audition is, indeed, representative.

Auditions are generally quite effective toward this purpose but rarely act as a de-risking activity for any kind of business goal.

That’s the contrast point for a prototype.  A prototype treats the measured result of a small sample as representative of what will happen at scale and it de-risks against it not working out.

Returning to the wine examples, here are the risks mitigated by the respective trials:

  1. The wine tasting mitigates the risk of buying a bottle of wine and not enjoying it.
  2. The prototype wine-buy mitigates against the risk of bulk-buying wine that isn’t compatible with your hosting needs.

Why an Audition of Hit Subscribe’s Fulfillment Isn’t Instructive or Valuable

With that explanation in the books, here are two reasons auditions with Hit Subscribe aren’t valuable:

  1. Requisitioning content you enjoy is a trivial (though not always easy) problem to solve, so you don’t need risk mitigation.
  2. Auditions don’t teach you much about Hit Subscribe’s fulfillment at scale.

Let me explain a little more about each.

Requisitioning Content You Like Is Simple

I’m going to try to explain the simplicity of content requisition without sounding flippant.  But when you get down to brass tacks, it really is fairly trivial…though, again, not necessarily easy.

The simplest way for most people to have content they like is to write it themselves.  But let’s assume that isn’t on the table, probably as a matter of resource constraints.  In this case, the only question becomes whether budget is a significant factor or not.

If you have a relatively healthy budget, then you can simplify identify content about relevant topics that you enjoy.  Then ask the author of that content to write for you and keep incrementing the amount of money you offer them until they agree.

If, on other hand, you have hard budget constraints, you fix the per-unit rate in place.  Then you create a req on Upwork, specify the rate, word count, byline, and other scoping details, ask for writing samples, and sift through submissions until you find some you like.  Then, run an audition. (Auditions can be useful; more on this later.)

This is genuinely all there is to it.  If you want good content, you need to write it yourself, spend generously, or be patient sorting through Upwork entries.  No PhD required.  But more importantly, no kicking the tires on a service business required, either.

(As an aside, this might seem like I’m trying to talk Hit Subscribe out of business.  And I assure you I am.  If your main criterion for content is “I want to think it’s good,” then Hit Subscribe is too expensive and complex an option for you.)

The Uber Eats Fulfillment Model

The second problem with auditioning Hit Subscribe is less about vendor non-fit and more about what you learn.  Or, I should say, what you don’t learn.

Auditioning Hit Subscribe by subjectively evaluating a blog post we fulfill is like evaluating Uber Eats on the basis of whether you like a burger they deliver you.  It’s an understandable impulse, but it’s sampling the wrong thing.

Uber Eats is actually a fairly good mental model for Hit Subscribe’s fulfillment.  We have and have had hundreds of authors writing what are essentially guest blog posts, and our fulfillment model acts more as a brokerage and not as a normal agency staffing model that assigns people to your account.  In the same way that what you really learn in the burger scenario is whether or not you like that restaurant’s burger, what you really learn from an audition of Hit Subscribe is whether you like specific authors writing against specific content models.

And this really reinforces my point above about “this is good” being a simple problem to solve.  In the same way that Uber Eats, if they wanted to, could probably locate you a burger you like, we can observe your reaction to content and identify a model that suits you (through HS fulfillment or bring-your-own-authors).

How to Structure and Evaluate a Meaningful Prototype

So if an audition isn’t going to help you evaluate our suitability as a partner, what will?  How should you structure a prototype with us to meaningfully reduce the risk of an engagement at scale?

Well, the first thing to mention is that you’re not on your own here.  We are happy to help with both our onboarding process and a general policy from our bill of rights never to force you to pay for deliverables you can’t use.  Thus what I’m offering here is really more of a preview of our collaboration than homework for you.

What we really need from you is a goal.  SMART is a great framework for organizational goal setting, but for our purposes, we really just need something with the S and M: specificity and—crucially—measurability.  This might be something like building traffic to 100K visitors per month or qualifying 100 new leads.

From there, we’ll work together on a scale hypothesis.  If we model that you’d need 100 blog posts to get to 100K visitors, then what should we expect to see from four blog posts, both in terms of traffic and leading indicators of traffic?  What, generally, would cause us to say, “after these four posts, we have every reason to believe we can ship 100 and those 100 will do what you need?”

How to Evaluate a Hit Subscribe Trial

Once we’ve worked backward from your goal to a representative prototype, we execute, measure, and then retrospect on the prototype with you.  Following that, here’s what to ask yourself about Hit Subscribe and what we’ve done together to evaluate whether we make sense for you as a partner.

  • Do you have modeling and feel confident that scaling up the prototype will result in you achieving your goal?
  • Have we furnished you with a fulfillment plan that feels achievable and can scale to your goal (whether or not fulfillment involves Hit Subscribe)?
  • Did you find the Hit Subscribe client experience to be something you’d want more of in your life?

If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then we’re probably a good fit for you as a partner in some capacity. How and through what models we collaborate are now simply implementation details that we can work out and adjust as we go.

Auditions Do Have Their Place: Situations That Call for Auditions

I mentioned earlier a belief that auditions can be useful, even if I don’t think they’re a useful way to evaluate Hit Subscribe as a vendor.  I’ll elaborate on that a bit.

Auditions make sense, generally, when the roles of producing and reviewing are relatively fixed and intended to be longstanding.  Here are some situations where auditioning someone for a role like content creation tends to make sense:

  • When you’ve nailed down your strategy and staffing model and you have a clear picture of the persona that you want in the execution roles (i.e., auditions are good for roles below the brief).
  • When you want to establish a subjective quality floor as a counter metric to true-north funnel goals.
  • When you want a small stable of trusted authors to put on a glide path to less editing over time.
  • When, for better or worse, you have a non-negotiable subjective reviewer.

Notice that these are all situations where the audition really does mitigate risk, at least at a tactical level.  All of them involve casting a reviewer as a high-touch, ongoing judge of the content being produced.  So a focused initial evaluation by that reviewer, in the form of an audition, is a prototype for an efficient and non-miserable relationship at scale.

Inaction Is the Biggest Risk

I’d like to close out with something I’ve observed over the years.  And that something is that the biggest risk to your content and broader marketing goals is something you likely don’t perceive as a risk: indecision and the inaction it causes.

I can’t recall ever seeing a business shut its doors or lay off its marketing department en masse because “bad content” threatened their existence.  But I can recall plenty of both of those situations that follow a complete lack of content—and the complete lack of down-funnel business drivers that results.  This is why I talked about funnel goals as true north, and I spoke of subjective evaluations only as a countervailing metric.

But philosophically, if you’re reading this, you’re likely tasked with scaling content and the business outcomes it creates.  And in this mode, you probably perceive risk in producing the wrong content, substandard content, or maybe ineffective content.

And what I’m saying is that the much bigger risk you face is simply not producing enough or any content.  The bigger risk you face is that you’ll form a committee that is collectively massively indecisive about which keywords to target, which vendors to use, which freelancers to audition, whether AI should be part of your content strategy, and 100 other concerns that really just serve as a productive-feeling form of procrastination.  And as you nail down all of these details, the opportunity will pass you by.

So as you pursue scale, by all means, de-risk.  But do so with eyes wide open about all of the risks you face.

Interested in More Content Like This?

I’m Erik, and I approved this rant…which was easy to do since I wrote it.  If you happened to enjoy this, I’ve recently created a Substack where I curate all of the marketing related content I create on different sites.

Totally free, permanently non-monetized, and you’re welcome to sign up.

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