Challenge: No Access to Customers for Product Research

It was around noon on a spring Friday. The following Monday morning, our product and marketing strategy was due to PRWeb’s VP of Ecommerce.

In the previous couple weeks, we had done all the research they asked us to do and more. We had solid analysis and recommendations ready to send. But there was one problem: we hadn’t talked to a single PRWeb customer.

***

This was years ago. PRWeb, a division of the public relations software company Vocus (now part of Cision), was considering a strategic shift that would focus on vertical markets, starting with two: internet retail and book publishing. The VP had called us to request product and marketing ideas for how to better penetrate those markets.  And they wanted them fast.

Marketade was young back then, and while we’d been doing usability testing for a number of B2C clients, open-ended user interviews were still new to us. So too was recruiting for research in B2B.

We told PRWeb that we wanted to interview target customers within a variety of companies in retail and publishing, both those using PRWeb as well as non-customers. “Can you provide a list of customers?”, we asked.

In the meantime, we went to work on recruiting and interviewing non-customers. We reviewed 3rd party research about those industries. We analyzed keyword data from Google. And we studied the PR Web product and marketing site.

A few days in, we’d made a lot of progress, but we hadn’t received any customer lists. We followed up. Days later, still nothing.

It wasn’t that the PRWeb team didn’t want to help us. They agreed that talking to customers was important. But as with many other companies we’ve worked with, it 1) felt less urgent than a lot of other requests overwhelming them at that time, and 2) required jumping through a lot of hoops; the Metrics & Reporting team had to pull the list, Legal had to approve the email recruiting message, Sales had to sign off on the calls, and so on.

And so the request sat. And sat.

Solution: Rapid-Fire Cold Calls

By that Friday, with the deadline looming, we’d given up on talking to PRWeb customers.

“It’s OK,” I told my colleague on the project. “We talked to a lot of non-customers. We conducted other solid research. And have some good ideas.”  And so we started wrapping up the report.

By chance I hopped over to the PRWeb homepage, which at the time included a live feed of their customers’ press releases. I opened one and read over it, just as I’d done plenty of other times before while working on the project.

Suddenly it hit me.

There at the bottom of the release was a name and a phone number. Not a general number for the company, but a direct number for the PR person. Our target customer!

bottom of press release

I opened up a few other releases from the feed and checked. All of them had a phone number for the PR contact. Of course they did! These are press releases, and they want reporters calling to do a story. And because they were on the live feed, we knew that these companies had used the PRWeb service in the last day or two.

I picked up the phone and called the first one. “Hi this is Susannah.”

“Hi Susannah, this is John Nicholson and I’m working with the team at PRWeb on a research project. We’re trying to understand how people like you use the product and how we might improve it. Have a few minutes?”

“Sure!” she said. And off we went, talking about her pain points, why and how she used the product, and so on.

20 minutes later I hung up, thrilled at how much I’d learned in one call.  I opened another release and called the number. Success again! PR people actually pick up their phones!

I cleared my schedule and spent the rest of the afternoon calling customers. Around 4pm Eastern time, my hit rate slowed, so I switched to calling only west coast companies, and continued into the evening.

By the end of the day, our understanding of the target markets, and the problems they faced, was transformed.

Energized by these customer conversations, I worked into Sunday night analyzing my call notes and reworking our recommendations. The work we’d done to that point was still valid and usable, but it became a supporting act.  The customer calls opened up completely new opportunities for positioning, messaging, design, content and acquisition channels.

***

Early the next week, I was sitting in the VP’s office to discuss the report and recommendations.

“This is really good,” she said.

“You know,” I said, “we decided that we really needed to talk to your customers. And we hadn’t gotten a list, so we just started calling the PR contacts on your recent releases.”

She smiled and responded “I figured you would do that,” as if we had passed a test.

She looked over the report some more.  “Can you come back later this week to meet with my boss? He has strong opinions on all this, but I think he’ll be receptive to your recommendations — especially because you talked to customers. I think he’ll really appreciate that.”

***

In the years since this project, we’ve done a lot creative, guerilla-like recruiting for user research. What we did that Friday seems obvious now, and rudimentary.

But it was formative experience for me. And once in a while, I wonder if we couldn’t find opportunities to do more of this. No recruiting emails or screeners. No scheduling. No incentives. Just picking up the phone and cold calling a lot of customers, all in one day.