Early Adopters- How Products get Their First Users
Many product teams and startup founders buy into the theory of the Lean Startup, and want to “do lean” but don’t know where to start.
In this blog series, I will provide a practical guide on how to apply these principles.
In my previous post, I covered the reasons you need early adopters. Now that you understand the reasons, the next challenge is how to acquire those Early Adopters.
- Why is it so hard to acquire early adopters?
- What happens if you give up?
- How can you acquire early adopters?
- Practical tips- top 6 ways to acquire early adopters
Why is it so Hard to Acquire Early Adopters?
One of Steve Blank’s most well known quotes is “get out of the building”- it is incredibly easy for teams to become stuck in the echo chamber of their own thoughts and biases. To get real answers, they have to go on a search for potential customers.
Getting out of the building requires getting out of your comfort zone- employing a lot of sales skills that don’t come naturally to many technology and product professionals.
The difficulty in acquiring early adopters, especially in B2B, is incredibly understated- finding the “right” customers is a challenge on its own (there is an entire lead generation industry dedicated to creating leads for sales), not to mention getting their attention amidst the sea of competitors.
This is a game of numbers, similar to a typical sales funnel, and YOU are the sales person; be prepared to invest a lot of effort in this stage, with the key being persistence.
What Happens if you Give up?
I have, unfortunately, seen many product teams simply give up and move straight to development without validating any hypotheses, hoping that “if we build it, they will come”, an approach that often fails.
A large corporation I worked for a few years ago did exactly this- we worked on an integration with another product line. Despite investing significant effort in very creative ways, and having the advantage of access to a large pool of customers, we didn’t get any engagement.
We proceeded with development based on our ideas, coming up with all sorts of excuses for why we couldn’t acquire early adopters, and hoping they would come after the release. Unsurprisingly, this integration was a big failure and we ended up axing it after a lot of wasted investments.
We should have realized early on, that not being able to acquire any early adopters was a red flag, and actually meant we shouldn’t pursue this project.
How Can You Acquire Early Adopters?
The AIDA model is used in Sales and Marketing to plan outreach and create materials. The first three steps are identical between sales and innovation adoption.
In sales, the actual “action” is buying a product. For innovation adoption, the “action” is committing to be part of your feedback cycle and becoming an early adopter.
This model helps you to get into your potential customer’s head by identifying the stages an individual goes through during the process of purchasing a product.
By mapping out your messaging and engagement actions to each of these stages, you will more easily break out the learning into stages, and be able to improve your messaging where needed.
In a startup I worked for, we built this funnel by generating a list of 50 target companies that fit our market hypothesis. We used a variety of methods to reach out (more details below), and learned the following:
Awareness: We tried different phrasings of the problem we thought they had to learn which resonated more. (the more people responded, the more it resonated)
Interest: We wrote two blog posts quantifying the losses we believed were caused by not solving the problem. One focused on the monetary loss, one focused on the amount of wasted man hours. The market we were targeting had a massive skills shortage, and we saw there was a lot more urgency expressed by readers of the second post.
Desire: We described our proposed solution and potential benefits to potential targets. We learned that describing our long term vision at that point was key- while those customers we were engaging with knew our solution didn’t have everything they needed yet, by seeing that our vision aligned with their needs, they were much more eager to engage with us.
Action: after several iterations on what we were messaging in each stage, we finally made it to the finish line with a few potential early adopters who expressed interest in working with us.
Once you have a pipeline of engaged candidates, you will need to decide whether they actually fit into your target market and how valuable their feedback will actually be.
Steve Blank’s early-evangelist characteristics model is especially useful here. The higher up a customer is in the pyramid, the more they feel the pain of this problem. Those that feel the pain the most, are the best candidates for your early adopters, and those who you should engage with for initial feedback and sales.
In our process, we learned that the problem we were addressing was especially painful for the manufacturing industry. Several companies we spoke with had developed in house tools and very complex manual processes trying to solve it- running into these types of customers is a product manager’s dream. We decided to focus on that industry and expand to others after we are successful.
A common mistake that I’ve seen companies do at this point is to try and boil the ocean and go after several niches/industries all at once. This requires much more effort and can end up in what a famous Russian proverb describes as “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one”.
The Top 6 Ways I Have Found Effective for Acquiring Early Adopters
The order is based on the amount of effort (and therefore the speed) in which you can get to the right people.
1. Leverage your network
Do you already have investors? Get them to work and be relentless! Ask who they can connect you with. Scour their LinkedIn connections to be more proactive in getting that list. Offer equity and/or advisor roles to valuable people and key opinion leaders who can open doors for your.
2. Find the virtual “Roman Baths”
Virtual “Roman Baths” are the online places and people your prospects go to when they need to find solutions to their problems.
Places like Reddit, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, public slack groups, key influencers on twitter. If you can find people writing about the problems you are trying to solve, they might lead you to your early adopters. Reach out to the authors, as well as the people commenting. Be active and generate discussions yourself around topics you are researching.
Attend conferences, seminars, trade shows and meetups- wherever your prospects gather for pleasure or for work. Try and get attendee lists in advance, and reach out to setup meetings.
Sponsoring to get better access to attendees, could be a worthwhile investment. Focus on small conferences that allow you to have 1x1s with attendees. This will both allow you to get early feedback and test your ideas and messaging, as well as generate interest with the right people who may want to continue working with you. Grab a central location and bring an iPad with a survey or a prototype and incentives for filling it in with contact details (such as chocolates, gift cards, etc.)
The following 2 methods actually adapt lead generation strategies that are commonly used by marketers.
In my experience running product and marketing groups, I saw the strong value of using marketing strategies not just for building a sales pipeline, but also for experimentation and product research.
4. Paid advertising
Leverage segmentation capabilities of social media tools and creative campaigns based on the early evangelist model to find the buyers or users you are trying to reach. Use general surveys to go through an initial qualification for engaging and then gauge their level of interest/collect feedback. Offer relevant people an incentive for leaving contact details to do a more detailed interview.
5. Experiment using BDRs/SDRs (Business/Sales development representatives)
A BDR is a type of sales rep, who prospects outbound leads, using cold email, cold calling, social selling, and networking.
Early stage startups sometimes outsource this to an agency when they are ready to start generating top of the funnel. This tactic is also effective for finding early adopters and learning what problems resonate with them.
Try out several value proposition messages, and hone in on those prospects who respond. This will allow you to scale your cold calling efforts.
6. Cold call- using emails or LinkedIn InMails
Search for people whose titles match your defined personas. Be prepared to try more than once.
Send them a message where you:
- Clearly emphasize you are not trying to sell them anything and are asking for help in research
- Flatter them and talk about something specific in their background and experience that makes them very valuable for your research.
- Give a concise description of your area of research. If they are your early adopters , they will be aware and maybe even already looking for solutions in the space
- You may also offer something in that email- starting from buying someone lunch, to co-hosting a webinar with them, or quoting them in a white paper you will publish.
- Acquiring early adopters is hard! You have to be persistent and creative. Skipping it will lead to exponential costs later on, and essentially means you are operating in a waterfall manner
- Use proven marketing lead generation strategies not just for marketing a product you are trying to sell, but also for acquiring early adopters and learning.
Share your stories that could help others acquire early adopters in the comments below