How to Mobilize your Microvertical

tempRecently I wrote about the connection between successful innovation and a strong MicroVertical. Today I’ll outline a 5-step plan for finding articulate, qualified early adopters who can help you bring your project to life. I  affectionately call this  Operation Find & Delight.

Step 1: clarify your product/business goals and constraints

Take a look at your product vision, business focus, revenue model and team skillset. What audience or demographic are you best setup to serve? What are the technical and/or access requirements for using your product – especially early on?  Who do you NOT want to serve for regulation, liability or revenue reasons?

As you answer these questions, potential Microverticals that fit your product, business, and team strengths will start to emerge. You’ll also gain focus by ruling out  people that you DO NOT want to target. For example, I have a client who’s building a digital service around the science of happiness. The techniques embedded in this service are proven, powerful and potentially life-changing, so of course we wanted EVERYONE to have access. When we sat down to identify our intial Microvertical, we decided to focus our early research and play-testing on tech-savvy parents (mostly women, some men) who were mentally healthy, accustomed to spending money on self-help programs, and eager for a happiness boost.  For liability and outcome reasons, we decided NOT to target clinically depressed people at this stage – even though we felt our service could be very helpful for them,

Focus is a beautiful thing – especially for startups doing innovative work.

Step 2: Create a testable Microvertical Hypothesis

Once you’ve clarified your goals, ruled out certain audiences and broadly focused on who you’re serving, it’s time get specific. Given the market space, tech platform and audience you’re targeting, ask yourself: who NEEDS your product the most and is likely and able to use it?  Who’s already doing something similar – or using similar products? Who would find it life-changing in a meaningful way?

Remember, you don’t have to KNOW the answers at this stage – you’re creating a hypothesis that’s specific enough to test and learn from. Your job is to create a description of a PERSON OR GROUP OF PEOPLE who you think are likely to be valuable early  enthusiasts.  In this description, include details that are relevant to when and how they’ll use your product, such as technology platform, behavior patterns, use of existing services,, etc.

A great way to frame your Hypothesis – and cut to the chase – is to write a recruiting ad for people that fit those characteristics. For example, here’s an early recruiting ad for the happiness service mentioned above.

We’re looking for tech-savvy parents 25-55 who own a smartphone, have purchased self-help books or programs in the past, and are eager to learn and practice daily habits that are proven to boost your happiness . 

Based on early interviews, we decided to target people who’d already invested time and money on self-help programs, because we wanted to set the expectation of a paid service right from the start. We also recruited a broader age range than we’d initially planned, because we wanted to understand how our core value prop reasonated with different age groups.

Here’s a different ad – this one recruiting for an app that turns your iPhone into a smart driving assistant.

We’re looking for drivers 25-45  who own a iPhone, commute  to work on weekdays, live in the SF Bay Area, and have used Google Maps, Waze, or other driving apps to get traffic info while on the road.

For this app, we recruited in a particular location  because in-person meetings were necessary. For technical reasons having to do with building a quick MVP, we also targeted regular commuters rather than freelancers with flexible schedules. 

 Step 3:  Test and refine your Hypothesis with customer research 

Now that you’ve generated your Microvertical Hypothesis, it’s time to recruit people who fit that profile and test your value prop with subjective research methods like surveys, interviews, and field studies.

If you’re short on time (and who isn’t?), you can kickstart this process by doing Screening Interviews, a guerilla-style research technique that can quickly and iteratively help you identify  your Microvertical. Heres how it works in a nutshell:

  • Use your MicroVertical Hypothesis to recruit 15-20 subjects for paid research (which come at a later stage)
  • Conduct 15-minute screening interviews to learn about their lifestyle, habits and attitudes relating to your product (I’ll write a separate post about how to construct effective screening interview questions)
  • Summarize the patterns you’re seeing, and how those patterns support or challenge your hypothesis
  • After you’ve completed the screening interviews, select a subset for paid research, based on feedback quality and  “fit” with your value prop, business model, and schedule.

Step 4:  Update and circulate your validated Hypothesis within the team

The purpose of Customer Development is to focus the entire team on building things that people actually want. It’s important to keep your  team in the loop as you’re doing  early research – but people are busy, and realistically only a subset of your team will be doing hands-on research. 

This is where you get a big payoff from having a concrete Microvertical Hypothesis. You can inform the team about your intial Hypothesis, collect their input, do  Customer Development research, and then cycle back with the team and communicate the research results as a set of changes and/or confirmations to your Hypothesis.

Doing this will generate powerful customer insights – but beware, it’s not always easy to digest the results. For example, my driving app client wanted to target daily commuters – but our initial research strongly showed that freelancers have a  more acute need for the core value prop than commuters do. That left the team in a tough place, because for technical reasons we couldn’t  build out the feature set  to address freelancer needs in a reasonable time frame. (We ended up looking at the problem from a totally different angle, but I’ll leave that story for another post)

Step 5: Build an ongoing Microvertical feedback loop and private community

As a product creator, one of the most powerful resources you can develop is a network of pre-qualified players who can give you early feedback on new features & systems. Recruiting and vetting people takes time and effort upfront – so once you’ve identified them, it’s smart to  keep that relationship alive and reap the benefits of play-testing with known players throughout your MVP process and beyond.

There are many ways to create a Microvertical communit (AKA Player Advisory Group): you can setup a private mailing list, forum, FB group, G+ Community, or whatever communication platform works for you. The key is to have a space where you can communicate with your early adopters, and they can  communicate with EACH OTHER too. The connections built within your Microvertical will help those people stick around and stay interested in your project.

You can kickstart this community with the paid-research subset you identified from the screening interviews. Do some user-testing: walk them through a prototype, first playable, or even concept mockups, and get their feedback. Make sure you reward them for their time – it doesn’t have to be a lot, but it counts for building credibility. Then invite them into a private community  where they can connect with other early adopters,  stay in touch with the product creators, and continue to contribute to the project via user-testing and ongoing discussions.

A connected community of early adopters can dramatically increase your chance of successfully launching innovation.

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