The startup world loves failure: “Fail early. Fail fast. Fail often.” is something of a golden rule. The basic premise? Release new technology in its most rudimentary form — i.e., minimum viable product (MVP) — and then: learn. Rather than rely on hunches or projections, tight cycles of real user feedback enable companies to iterate rapidly and create products that customers actually want.
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In tech, adherence to this process removes the cost of traditional failure and replaces it with what Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, calls ‘validated learning’:
“Validated learning is the process of demonstrating empirically that a team has discovered valuable truths about a startup’s present and future business prospects. It is more concrete, more accurate, and faster than market forecasting or classical business planning. It is the principal antidote to the lethal problem of achieving failure: successfully executing a plan that leads nowhere.”
Mainstream B2C eCommerce has yet to apply these principles to its own product-creation process. After all, you can’t release minimum viable shoes, cookware, jewelry, mattresses, or consumer packaged goods. Physical products are just that: physical.
Or can you? The key to unlocking ‘better failure’ lies in a term few eCommerce companies have embraced.
Product Marketing in eCommerce
What is product marketing? For technology companies (whether B2B or B2C), product marketing is the overall process of launching and optimizing a new feature, offering, service, or entire product. Product marketers guide products to market by serving a single master: the customer.
Drift’s now-famous Venn diagram and Paul Connor’s ‘lines of communication’ offer two good starting points:
Drift’s Venn diagram places product marketing at the center
Paul Connor’s diagram makes product marketing three lines of communication
In the case of eCommerce, a better representation — to highlight the centrality of customers as well as the role of both marketing (pre-purchase) and sales (post-purchase) — might be:
Before, during, and after launch, eCommerce product marketing answers two fundamental questions, each of which focuses on the customers.
Product: Do Customers Really Want This?
The problem with “successfully executing a plan that leads nowhere” is that it always begins with the best of intentions. Independently, product teams seek to create new or superior offerings. But that creative process can be a double-edged sword. On one side, it’s far too easy to develop in isolation, divorced from your customers. DTC brands rarely have the kind of budget for traditional focus groups or full-scale UX testing demands.
On the other side, asking customers directly, “What do you want next?” leads to notoriously ineffective product creation. Whether you prefer Steve Jobs’ one-liner — “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” — or the old Henry Ford quip — “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — the point is the same. Until someone actually sees a product… all bets are off.
How can you answer that question in eCommerce? You fake it.
This doesn’t mean creating sub-par products or using ‘bait and switch’ tactics. It means taking new products to market before you create them. A few places to begin:
- Social media polls with paid promotion (particularly on Instagram) featuring design questions or new products mocked up visually
- Social media ads leading to coming-soon landing pages aimed at email collection in exchange for launch updates and discounts
- Full product pages with mockups promoted through email and social (targeting current customers) with pre-purchase options
- Micro-crowdfunding campaigns for higher-cost products to test beyond engagement and get people to vote with their money.
Image of /Nyden’s influencer-led campaigns for H&M using Instagram polls to find new product opportunities and avoid unsold inventory (via Adweek)
Emily Weiss, founder of Glossier, has famously said, “One of the things that we really rely on is our customers as co-creators and sort of co-conspirators of our company.” That commitment has led Glossier to establish a closed Slack group for its most ardent fans where they reportedly “talk beauty all day, organize meet-ups, and share feedback on products new and old.”
Marketing: What’s the Customer ‘Aha!’ Moment?
During and after launch, product marketers optimize for product-market fit. This means determining the core (or ‘must have’) value within a product. Rather than focus on quantitative metrics alone, core value goes deeper into the qualitative ‘why.’
In Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success, Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown describe it as the ‘aha moment’:
“This is the moment that the utility of the product really clicks for the users; when the users really get the core value — what the product is for, why they need it, and what benefit they derive from using it. This experience is what turns early adopters into power users and evangelists.
“An aha experience is a necessary ingredient of sustainable growth because it is one that is simply too remarkable not to value, to return to often, and to share.”
More than, “Is the product selling?” this question looks for specific features that serve as gateways to increased usage, adoption, and retention.
Once again, this is difficult in eCommerce, where usage data isn’t readily available. But it’s not impossible. Start out with the following actions:
- Immediate post-purchase surveys to determine the tipping point that made a first-time customer buy
- Social media ‘listening’ (read: monitoring) for brand mentions, product names, and even associated keywords
- Post-purchase sequences via email and Facebook Messenger that culminate in review, rating, and user-generated content (UGC) requests
- Review mining to find common characteristics — both your own as well as your competitors
Look for positive and negative experiences. Pay special attention to the little details. Don’t expect your customers’ ‘aha’ moment to match your own. And aim to make it as concrete as possible. In fashion, for instance, feedback like “I love the way it makes me look,” is nice, but worthless for determining value. Descriptive and emotional reviews like these, however, are priceless:
If patterns emerge, reverse-engineer your marketing so that prospects can begin to experience those same ‘aha’ moments before they even buy. Seed those statements throughout the words and images used across your marketing.
Fixing ‘Bad’ Failure and Creating Better eCommerce Products
Great marketing with a poor product won’t win loyal customers. And having a great product without an effective way to build your business is equally doomed.
So if your product and marketing teams are working in silos, merging them may be just what your business needs to bring these two critical departments together, to fail better and avoid “successfully executing a plan that leads nowhere.”