Why Mechanical Turk is the greatest market research tool you never thought to use

mTurk is awesome for customer discovery

(note: Since writing this, I started working on userinput.io, which makes it way easier to get surveys posted to Mechanical Turk, if you don’t want to fool with learning the system yourself)

I feel like a Mechanical Turk evangelist sometimes. Having lunch with my father and one of his partners the other day, I found myself telling them the wonders of Mechanical Turk (mTurk for short) in not just automating tiny tasks, but also in market research. That morning, I had put 97 names on mTurk, names of experts in a certain industry, for which I needed to find the Twitter account, email address, and LinkedIn profile. Sure, I could have dug those up myself, but instead I paid fifteen cents per name, and posted the HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks, as mTurk calls the jobs) before breakfast. By lunch, the vast majority of the information had been dug up for me. I paid about $16 total (remember that Jeff Bezos and his pals make 20% to 40% on top of what you pay the Turkers) and saved myself hours of work. It’s wonderful.

But I’m not here today to preach the gospel of mTurk for tiny tasks like that, no sir. Today’s sermon is about something you may not have tried or even contemplated with mTurk, and that, my friends, is market research.

Mechanical Turk can be glorious for market research and customer discovery

My background is having a custom screen printing company, but I’m much more in the startup world now, and I absolutely love it. Not to be too basic, but I feel like a startup has three major life stages (some of which can and should overlap):

  1. Figuring out what you need to solve for the customer and whether they will pay you to solve it
  2. Building the damn thing
  3. Getting traction and converting customers so that you actually make money

mTurk isn’t good for item #2, but it can be very wonderful for #1, and help with #3.

You would be amazed at who you can find on mTurk seemingly working for peanuts. I have a startup that will help train pilots for FAA written exams, and I wanted to learn from student pilots what the hardest part about studying for these tests are, and what if anything they would pay for the service I am imagining building. Now, you won’t find professional airline pilots on mTurk, but student pilots are often quite broke, as flight lessons are very much not cheap. I used Survey Monkey to put together a short survey, and listed it on mTurk, targeting only student pilots in the USA. Within 24 hours, I had gotten surveys filled out by 15 student pilots, letting me know exactly what they would want from the service, and how much they would pay for it. You will always get people who say “I don’t need it”, but over 75% of respondents wanted to use a system like mine, and most who were willing to pay, were willing to pay as much or more than I planned to ask. Validation!

Surveys on mTurk allow you to validate an idea before you build

My previous startup provides critiques of online dating profiles. Initially, not a lot of people visited the checkout page. So I put a survey on mTurk trying to find out what exactly people were most afraid of when it came to online dating. I changed the copy of the home page based on the feedback I got, and saw an 800% increase in traffic to the checkout page. It may sound evil to research your customers’ fears in order to improve your copy, but it’s not evil, it’s effective.

Surveys on mTurk allow you to find what scares your customer and build that into your copy

At my screen printing business, we love when we get a customer who is a professional graphic designer, because they know what they are doing when it comes to giving us artwork that we can actually use. Also, graphic designers want their design to look good on a shirt, so they tend to recommend high quality shops to their clients, and we focus on quality printing with soft inks and fit nicely into that category. It’s a match made in heaven. I want more graphic designers for customers, so I know I should write articles that appeal to them and put them places that graphic designers tend to read articles. The issue, however, is that I don’t know what they want to learn about or where they go to learn. The solution is simply a survey asking the appropriate questions on mTurk.

Surveys on mTurk allow you to find out what your customer wants to learn about and where they go for such information

That information is a content marketing dream. And it can be yours for fifty cents a survey.

How do you know your customer segment will be on mTurk? You would be surprised. All my examples here are groups of people who may turn to mTurk in lean times to get a little extra money. Student pilots may fly airplanes and helicopters, but they’re still students, who are generally a bit strapped for cash. Graphic design can be a hard way to make money, so between gigs they may look on mTurk for something to do. And something like 40 million Americans do online dating, so you know a bunch of those will be on mTurk. So while you won’t find attorneys on mTurk, you could find out of work paralegals who could give you insight into that industry. Doctors won’t be on there, but nurses might. You’d be surprised. And if there aren’t people to fill your HITs, they simply won’t get filled, and you won’t lose any money, just perhaps waste a little time. I’ve never had a survey not get taken as many times as requested.

One tricky thing about mTurk is setting up the HITs themselves. You need to know a little HTML code. But I’ll include the very basic version I use:

<h3>Please follow the link for the survey</h3>

<div class=”highlight-box”>
<p>Please feel free to be as long winded and verbose as you want to be in your answers in the survey when there is a comment box! The more we learn, the better we can improve.</p>

<p>This is a survey about being a graphic designer.</p>

<p>The survey consists of just six questions.</p>

<p><strong>You need to be or have been a professional graphic designer to be able to accurately take this survey.</strong></p>

<p><a href=”https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/XXXXXXX">Take the survey here</a> and then enter the code that you receive after finishing the survey into the text box below. Thank you!</p>
</div>

<p><textarea cols=”80" name=”comment” rows=”1"></textarea></p>

And that’s it. Make sure you set your HIT title to only draw in your target audience.

See how there is a comment box? Here is how you don’t get ripped off on mTurk by jokers who don’t actually take your survey: Split your survey into two pages. On the first page, have your questions (up to nine questions for free on Surveymonkey!), and on the second page, have a comment box that says “Hey, thanks for taking our survey! Please enter code “BANANA” in the comment box.” That way, when you go back to approve the HITs, you know that anyone that entered BANANA actually finished the survey, and anyone that entered anything else is trying to pull your leg. Reject those HITs, and approve the legit ones.

A lot of startup folks say phone interviews are better than surveys. I could argue it either way, but I personally like surveys. Both have their own positives and negatives. Since mTurk is sort of convoluted to use, a friend of mine built Customer Discovery Ninja, which makes it super easy to get turkers to call you to talk, and then you can ask those questions that you would otherwise survey, and lead into a conversation and learn what you can to improve your service or idea. His service records the conversations too, so you don’t have to worry about scribbling notes the whole time, and can instead just talk. Brilliant.

Don’t want to fool with Mechanical Turk yourself? Try userinput.io, which will do everything in this article for you, but easily.

Stuart Brent is a free range micropreneur, founder of Vacord Screen Printing (they want to make your custom t-shirts and hoodies), and Ignite Your Match (they want to tell you how to improve your online dating profile so you can find love), userinput.io (an easy way to get on demand feedback for your app, idea or website), and StartupResources.io (a list of the best tools for your Startup). When he’s not glued to his laptop, he enjoys traveling, eating sandwiches, and trying to find decent espresso throughout The South. Follow him on twitter at @vacord.

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