Thursday 14 March 2019

Five Signs Your Target Market is Too Broad

In some instances when an approach isn't right it impacts you immediately, in others there's no sign of problems until the consequences hit you much later. Sometimes, though, the signs of a flawed approach are there but it takes experience or learning to recognise them. Based on a healthy supply of anecdotal evidence I've read in product and start-up literature - issues aligning products to market often fall into this latter category, and in my own recent experience this was certainly the case

Five signs you've gone too broad

On the startup product development I was involved in during 2018 one of the mistakes we made from the outset was to target our product at too broad a market. As our work with early adopter customers got underway five symptoms emerged that provided me with clear evidence that this was the case.

1. You can't prioritise capabilities

The most obvious indicator to me that we were trying to target too broad a base of customers was that it was simply impossible to prioritise which features to deliver next. Every feature under consideration would progress one potential customer at the expense of the others.

In his excellent book on validating new products "The Mom Test" - Rob Fitzpatrick recounts a story where two founders were struggling to narrow a target feature set for a product targeted at "salespeople".

These guys weren't having 20 conversations with their customers. They were having one conversation each with 20 different types of customers. That's why the feedback was so inconsistent.

I can relate to this from my experiences growing a list of early adopters. Each company that we engaged with were looking for something subtly different - one wanted to manage a workflow, another to capture survey data, a third to communicate KPIs to resellers. Targeting any one of these would have restricted our ability to deliver to the others, turning prioritisation into a juggling act of getting just enough capability to each early adopter to maintain momentum in their adoption without making strong headway with any one. Being pulled in too many directions to effectively prioritize is a strong indicator of not targeting effectively.

2. You can't invalidate ideas

It seems counter-intuitive that one of the biggest problems you can face in building products is not being able to rule things out, but it can be crippling. One of the most critical aspects of guiding a product development is being able to maintain a clear focus on the value that the product needs to deliver and eliminate options that don't fit with that field of vision. It should have been a lot easier for me, for example, to rule out the need to support forecasting, but I wasn't able to as I couldn't say it wouldn't be potentially valuable for the next customer. The inability to invalidate options is an indicator of not having a strong enough target problem - potentially worse than not being able to prioritise what's important is that you simply can't rule anything out.

3. You can't target your UX research

One of the clearest signs of going too broad is that it isn't possible to effectively target your user experience research to a specific audience. With the high levels of competition in most software markets, providing a seamless and intuitive experience for your target users can be the only differentiator between successful and failed products. Having too broad a target audience stifles any attempt at targeted user research to provide the evidence on which to build a compelling user experience.

  • Attempts to create proto-personas will either result in a broad range of diverse personas each with conflicting needs or worse one weak persona that is so generic that it fails to provide any value in assessing potential capabilities.
  • It won't be possible to create an effective set of qualifying/elimination criteria for recruiting user research interview candidates. Recruiting user research candidates requires rigorous vetting to ensure relevant and valuable subjects, not having strong filterable criteria for who you are looking for makes this impossible.
  • Similarly identifying 'jobs to be done' will be near impossible due to the potential range of tasks to consider Effective user research requires building empathy through a strong understanding of your target user, if you're not clear on who that is it will result in watered down and ineffective UX efforts.

4. External agencies struggle with your brief

One clear sign that I encountered that we were going too broad is when we struggled to define our market enough to work with external sales and marketing agencies. Any organisation helping with sales or marketing efforts will want to establish a clear definition of an audience to target. Generating sales leads, creating and optimising websites for search terms and delivering targeted marketing all need clear focus on who they need to connect with. If you are unable to provide this then this will make external relationships very challenging.

5. Your development teams can't act autonomously

It's disheartening for a motivated development team when they are eager to add value but can't take the initiative to do so. One of the signs of an empowered self-organising team is that they can make their own decisions to take opportunities to add value for their customers. This relies on having a clear understanding of who those customer are and what they are trying to achieve. Having a disparate set of customers results in the development team not knowing how to progress on their own initiative as they simply aren't clear enough on the problem to solve.

While any one of these five symptoms in isolation might not give a definitive indication of the problem, the 'full house' combination of the five symptoms I've described here was a clear sign that we were trying to bite off too much to start with. It's tempting to think that staying very broad in your goals will help you with later plans of world domination. Looking into the history of some world-beating products, though, will often expose a heritage of very successfully solving a much narrower need initially, and incrementally building on that success by solving more problems using the technology and experience gained from the first. Don't run before you can walk

New role, new persona

Last week I ran a workshop with my current company to introduce more user thinking by establishing proto-personas. Being a marketing product it was inevitable that 'marketer' would be a key role, yet the persona that emerged from our session was a much better defined individual than simply a role title. There was a strong understanding of the size of company this person worked for, their level of technology and database skills and their goals. What was particularly interesting for me was that this target user had shifted from the original target market since the inception of the company. Even within the narrow field of marketing professionals it was necessary to differentiate between the original and new targets in order to effectively create a product that would meet the needs of one over the other.

It may be that on successfully addressing the needs of this persona we find ways to expand our horizons and tackle new roles or markets. Should that happen my experience will have furnished me with a keen appreciation of the warning signs should we try to take on too much, not least because I've written them down here.


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