Pandora and "Real" Market Research

Someone asked me the other day how their company should go about conducting market research before the next release for their social media website.  How did I feel about blanket surveys, they asked. 

It surprises me how many companies don't conduct any market research when they develop their products.  It almost seems as though the concept is too abstract and clich√© for some companies to bother with.  So what is market research anyway, and why would you want to do it?

According to NetMBA, "In marketing, the term market refers to the group of consumers or organizations that is interested in [your] product, [and] has the resources to purchase [your] product...".  According to Entrepreneur.com, a target market is "A specific group of consumers at which a company aims its products and services".  In other words, markets are groups of people.  In my opinion, this means that if you are planning on conducting market research, you should make every effort possible to actually talk to people.  Ideally, you must talk to the very people that you want, hope, and expect to buy your product before you get too far down the line developing hard to use, rarely used, or even irrelevant features into your product.

I have seen passionate founders and engineers rapidly build and release products and services that make them wild with delight.  Yes, the founders and engineers are elated at the features they included, but scratch their heads when users don't find the functionality nearly as delightful.  It is so easy to create your product in a silo, and get so deep into the development that you forget to perform a reality check with the outside world.  And let's face it, a start-up with resources already stretched to near breaking point usually has neither the time nor the money for fancy usability labs and focus groups.  That's ok.  Just start by identifying 3-5 unbiased, objective users to run your ideas by before you start to build. 

Really, that's it.  You would be amazed at how much information you can get by just talking to a handful of people about your plans for features, GUI design, or roadmap prioritization.  In my experience, you very quickly start to hear users repeating the same frustrations, concerns, requests, or enthusiasm about the product and features when you take the time to ask and listen.  Casual conversations with as few as three dedicated users can help you identify trouble spots or confirm that you are on the right path. 

For prioritization and potential new features, find out who your most active users are, and ask if they have a few minutes to meet with you or speak with you on the phone.  For usability testing, recruit some friends of friends that are far enough removed from the product that they can be true "new user" test subjects.  For product improvement and competitive research, reach out to a few users who have reduced their engagement and ask them why.  To get in the door with large corporate clients, tell them you would love their feedback on a new service you've designed to solve their critical business challenge.

The hardest part about talking to your users is being able to take the feedback.  Make sure you have someone who is capable of just listening and absorbing what your users have to say without feeling the need to explain or defend the product.  If you can, get permission to videotape the conversation and the user interacting with the product so you can show the gang back home.  People always "get it" and believe the feedback more when they see it with their own eyes.

If you want to build an extremely loyal following while gathering priceless user feedback, take a lesson from Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora.  For as long as I can remember, Tim has hit the road on a very regular basis to listen to Pandora users at his "town hall meet-ups" at universities and other cool locations throughout the U.S.  Check out the roadtrip archives on the Pandora blog to see evidence of how Tim conducts "real" market research.