Recruiting Prospects and Customers for Marketing Interviews on a shoestring budget

I recently wrote a post on why it's good to talk to your customers, and someone left a comment asking a simple but important question: How do you actually get people to talk to you?

Before I get into the details of how to find people and how to get them to agree to an interview, I wanted to point out two things you need to think about upfront:

Establishing a goal

There are many reasons why you may want to talk to a customer. I have found that it helps to think ahead of time how you are going to use the customer insights. This doesn't mean the conversation has to be highly scripted, but it will help you spend more time talking about things that matter for that particular exercise.  For example, are you trying to understand how a customer is using your product today and where they are getting "stuck" in the user experience, or are you trying to learn why a prospect switches to using your product from what they were using before?

Establishing a goal is not just helpful in the interview process, but it also helps select the right people to interview.

Selecting the right pool of interview candidates

Based on the goal you have for your interviews, make sure you are recruiting from the right pool of candidates. This may sound obvious but it's surprising how often I've seen people overlook this.  Sam Ladner, an ethnographer working at Microsoft, has put out a great primer on sampling methods that is worth reading.

Bottom line:  Make sure the interview candidates are a representative sample of the group you are trying to understand.

Recruiting interview candidates

So, you've decided you want to talk to your customers, but you don't have a big database of emails to draw from. This is probably the hardest part of doing customer interviews for early stage startups.  How do you find people to talk to when you don't have an established customer base and you don't have a budget to use a recruitment firm?  Some grassroots tactics that have worked for me:

  • Work your professional network. LinkedIn is a great tool for this as you can search for candidates by a number of criteria  -- e.g. Content Marketers in tech companies in New England -- and then work backwards to see how you are connected to them.
  • Post in relevant LinkedIn groups.  The key here is to be upfront about who you are and what you're trying to do.
  • Work your social networks.  Ask your friends and family, post on Twitter and Facebook - you'd be surprised at how many people you can reach through word of mouth.
  • Go to a Meetup or talk in the area where your target customers gather.  Again, be upfront about what you're looking for - no one likes a bait and switch.
  • Partner with a company or organization that has access to the customers you are interested in.  What's in it for them?  Offer to do most of the legwork, and write up findings in an e-book or Slideshare that they can share with their sales and marketing teams.
  • Put a call to action on your website. The only caution I'd give here is that choosing people who have heard of you is adding some bias over a general pool of target candidates.  You may still gain valuable insights, but make a note that allows you to separate these candidates from a general pool.
  • Do a limited paid search through Facebook or a sponsored post through a 3rd party whose audience aligns with yours

Writing the recruitment message and offer

The jury is still out on whether or not you should offer an incentive for people to participate in an interview. I've read research advocating for and against and there is no conclusive opinion even within the market research profession. I've done both. In my own experience, a monetary incentive was not helpful when interviewing people who valued their time a lot higher than any incentive I offered - e.g. a senior executive.  But it definitely helped in some circumstances, like when I had to interview customers who had stopped using our product.

As for the recruitment message, I always include a few key points, whether I am recruiting in person or via email:

  • Explain who you are and why you are doing the interview. Being personal really helps here - I get much better response rates when I'm asking as an individual person i.e. Amrita Chandra, Head of Marketing, than when I am writing on behalf of a team or company, e.g. RocketScope Marketing.
  • Be upfront how much time you are going to need. There is nothing more frustrating to the interview candidate than agreeing to a certain amount of time, only to find out that the interview required more.  Err on the side of being conservative.
  • Make it really easy for the person to schedule the interview - offer to go to their office or do a phone interview, be open to doing interviews outside of business hours, and send a meeting invite to ensure the interview and all details are scheduled in their calendar.  I use TimeTrade to schedule my interviews, as it avoids a lot of back and forth with the interview candidate.

Sample recruitment emails

Here are two sample recruitment emails I've used that worked well for me:

This first one is one I've used with existing customers where we had a large group of candidates to choose from.

Hi XX,

I hope you are having a good Monday.

I'm emailing to see if you would you be willing to participate in helping us learn about how you chose [redacted]?

To do that, we need about 20-30 minutes on the phone with you to talk about your experiences in a little more detail. You won't need to prepare anything but we will ask you to recall some details about deciding to sign up for and use [redacted].  The call will not be recorded but I will be taking notes to share with our executive team.

If you are interested and available to speak in the coming 2 weeks, you can choose your preferred day and time using this link. 



VP Marketing, [redacted]

p.s. As a token of thanks, we will be sending you a $25 Starbucks e-card upon completion of the interview.

And here's an example of one I wrote for an early stage startup that was relying on introductions through LinkedIn to recruit their interview candidates.

Good morning [redacted], 

I hope you had a good holiday break.

A friend of mine is interested in speaking with a senior marketing professional to gain some insights for a new [redacted] tool his company is bringing to market.  He would like to talk to a VP of Marketing who leads a team that includes content marketers, and I thought of you.

I was wondering if you would have an hour available for a conversation in January?  Again, I wanted to be explicit in saying this is not a sales-related inquiry, it is purely for market research purposes.

Thanks in advance!

-- Amrita

My final tip is that you have to do what works for you and there's no way around actually doing the work.  If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

If you are interested in learning more, I'll be a guest on Jobs to Be Done radio this coming week, talking about my experience using their interview techniques and what I've learned doing customer interviews over the years.

The Biggest Myth About Talking to Your Customers

I have to get something off my chest. I love Apple products. I was inspired by Steve Jobs like millions of others. But there is one thing he said that is driving me crazy.  Actually, it's not what he said, but how people interpret what he said.

I'm talking about his famous quote about how it's not the consumer's job to know what he/she wants.

The reason it's driving me crazy is because I constantly hear people interpret this to mean that smart marketers don't need to talk to their customers.  And then they go out and send marketing emails or create campaigns that don't resonate with anyone and wonder what went wrong.

The thing is, there's a difference between asking your customers what they want and understanding who they are.  Talking to your customers can be a great way to understand their environment - you can learn what keeps them up at night, what is a headache for them, what other products they are buying that they may be comparing your products to, and the list goes on.

I recently interviewed a guy about buying a mattress, as part of some great training I did with the folks at 37Signals and The Re-Wired Group.  At the beginning of our conversation, the guy mentioned that the first mattress he tried was $3,000 and that his initial reaction was to say he would never spend that kind of money on a mattress. Never! Yet 5 days and a dozen mattresses later, that's exactly the one he ended up buying.  Some of the best clues I got about what made him choose that particular one was through his body language - he'd relax and smile when he was recalling certain details, and frown or tense up around others.

If I had just surveyed him prior to buying the mattress, I would have gotten lots of data, yes, but it would have been the wrong data because what he thought he was going to do was different than what he did.  If I had just looked at our mattress email open rates, click throughs and conversions, I'd be guessing at what messaging and triggers would help me get better results. I'd get there eventually (hopefully) but it would take a lot of trial and error.

When you talk to your customers, think of yourself as a detective, not an order taker. You should listen to them to get clues about how they inform themselves, what sorts of beliefs get them to act in a particular way, where they gather, and who they listen to.

I also interviewed a bunch of people who recently subscribed to Netflix.  It turned out that many of them decided to subscribe after seeing it in use at a friend's house.  But there was a big gap between when they decided they liked it, and when they actually decided to buy it - sometimes weeks or even months.  It made me think about what Netflix could do inside their product so that if you were at a friend's house and you loved Netflix, your friend could sign you up right then and there without you having to go to their website.  The people I interviewed didn't ask for that feature, but there were clear patterns around a particular friction point that was prolonging their decision to act.

If you are selling a product to people *exactly* like you, you may have a head start in understanding who you are selling to.  But in many cases, people are marketing products to customers who are nothing like them, yet making assumptions about them based on their own behaviours.  Even in cases where you think you are like your customer, you may be different in some important ways, or there may be multiple types of customers, of which you are only one.

So, stop reading this blog post.  Get up and line up some conversations with customers and let me know what you find out as a result!