Discovery Research Case Study:

How Guerilla User Research Helped Cision Generate a Product Strategy

When you have no direct access to the customers you want to interview, sometimes you need a lucky break — and an opportunistic mindset.

Challenge: No Direct Access to Customers for B2B User Research

It was around noon on a spring Friday. The following week, our report with research findings and recommendations was due to an e-commerce VP at a business unit of Cision, a PR software company with offices in 24 countries. Cision’s platform of products is used by over 100,000 PR and communications professionals around the world.

In the previous couple of weeks, we had done all the research that was scoped for the project. We had solid analysis and recommendations ready to send. But there was one problem: we hadn’t talked to a single Cision customer.

* * *

For one of its products, Cision was considering a strategic shift that would focus on several vertical markets. The team had called Marketade to conduct user research and present research-based ideas for how to penetrate those markets.  And they wanted it quickly.

We told Cision that we wanted to interview target customers within a variety of companies in their target verticals, both those using the Cision product as well as non-customers. “Can you provide a list of customers?”, we asked.

In the meantime, we went to work recruiting and interviewing non-customers. We also reviewed 3rd party research about those industries.

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 Cision 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 as our timeline ticked away.


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Solution: Rapid-Fire Cold Calls & User Interviews

By that Friday, with the deadline looming, we’d given up on talking to Cision customers. We had enough other strong research findings and recommendations, we told ourselves.

Then, by chance, one of our researchers hopped over to a Cision web page which included a live feed of their customers’ press releases. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular.

Suddenly it hit him.

At the bottom of the release were 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

We 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 this Cision service in the last day or two.

We picked up the phone and called the first one. “Hi this is Rachel.”

“Hi Rachel, I’m working with a team at Cision on a research project. We’re trying to understand how people like you use their press release 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 we hung up, thrilled at how much we’d learned in one call.  We opened another release and called the number. Success again! PR people actually pick up their phones!

We cleared our schedules and spent the rest of the afternoon calling customers. Around 4pm Eastern time, our hit rate slowed, so we 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, we spent the next day analyzing our 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, and product strategy.

* * *

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

“This is really good,” she said.

“You know,” we 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.”.

“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. But what we did that Friday remains one of our favorite stories — a lucky discovery that we took full advantage of. 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.

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