Customer discovery: Further thoughts and first insights

In a previous post, I wrote about beginning to do customer discovery. Again, I note that I scraped together an education in this process by reading a few articles; in the future, I would love to see how a real professional conducts these interviews. This is a challenging step in the ideation process. I’d much rather skip all of it and go straight to building—however, in the end, it is well worth knowing that you’re working off of hard-earned data from real people, rather than just going off of assumptions and what?—Reddit? At any rate, in real life, we learn the skills we need to learn by doing. I’m very sure I’ll be doing more of these in the future, and that I’ll also learn as I go.

In this first round, I interviewed ten people. I used a combination of video calls, phone calls, and email. Calls are probably the best by default: it’s easier to ask follow-up questions and dig for more detail; but if you’re not careful, it’s also very easy to get derailed. However, I did not truly see a difference in the quality of responses I got between phone and email, but this is probably because I knew everybody I was interviewing to some degree. These are all people in an industry that I know well; I had a good context for each of them. I knew who would be thoughtful in writing, and who would be better off speaking spontaneously. In my non-expert opinion, it’s more important than any particular medium that your prospective customer is comfortable with that medium.

I also had a good idea of the kind of people I wanted to talk to. I went with a variety of creators, mostly but not limited to musicians. What they all have in common is that 1) they are all independent as artists, that is, not under professional management (whether they work non-creative day jobs or not); 2) are actively performing, producing content, or otherwise making a discernible effort; and 3) have the ultimate goal of working full-time as artists. Furthermore, all might be described as squarely “middle class” in terms of the creative economy—that is, they are not “stars” even though they are all very highly skilled and credentialed.

The following are some preliminary insights I’ve gleaned from these interviews as a whole:

1. Separation of concerns between building a following and converting it to an income. These are quite different tasks—the first one does not necessarily lead to the second, although it enables it, and some of the skills required of both overlap. At this time, I’m more interested in the first.

2. Clarifying following or audience. I observe two different senses in which these words are used. Nowadays when social media is ubiquitous, a following or audience is usually seen in terms of a number of followers or subscribers in any of the common platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. There is usually a large component of strangers, or people an artist encounters online by chance. The main problem is that a large number of followers does not necessarily translate smoothly into an income. Rather, what it truly provides is a powerful kind of social validation, as well as a way to extend one’s reach beyond personal contacts.

In my observation, a smaller number of artists are rather suspicious of social media and don’t really bother much with them beyond casual personal use. Instead, they define their audience in terms of personal contacts which they build organically and over time. Usually this applies more to performers where “work” is much more defined—for example, an organization hires you for a specific one-time or short-term job. This kind of audience or following is not necessarily measured by headcount, but by reliability with regard to finding and securing work. The upside is that these relationships tend to be of a high quality. The downside is readily seen during times of disruption, such as the current coronavirus pandemic, when work dries up and an artist suddenly finds that their means to expand their reach are limited without social media.

3. Instagram is very popular. By far, nearly all of the people I interviewed favor Instagram, or otherwise are planning to use it more actively. Instagram is much more outward-facing than Facebook, more focused than YouTube, and it lends itself well to spontaneous connection with strangers. The concept is also very simple and the app is very easy to use. Among my interviewees, the one who has the most experience with Instagram also had the most to complain about: the app has changed a lot over the years, and has become much more unfocused. It has a lot more new features now, and continues to grow far beyond what it was originally intended to be. So it is going the way of Facebook (which acquired it many years back) in some ways; one no longer gets the sense that they are getting authentic updates from their friends and contacts, but rather just targeted content designed to get clicks.

4. The available tools are fine, but require initiative. Of course, this is true with anything in life. Many artists see the work it takes to build a following as a chore—it consumes a lot of time, and also most artists are not really trained to be businesspeople. They are unable to think of their audiences as customers. But no one tool can really do all the work of building someone else’s following. Instead, I think we have to think of facilitating the process instead, and making it a little smoother where we can. That said, there are some artists who do enjoy the business aspect of things—such as data analytics, coming up with strategies, etc.—even though it is only a secondary interest next to creating. How can we make all of it more interesting and encouraging to the average artist?

5. By far, the one thing most artists really want is more time to create. Related to the previous point, this is pretty consistent across everyone I spoke with. Time spent promoting work or doing business tasks means less time creating. Creating art or producing content in itself takes enormous time and is often not very efficient. No work is ever really “finished.” But to an artist, creating is the whole point of anything—many dream simply of the freedom to pursue and hone their craft, not necessarily to become wealthy or famous, but to inspire, connect, and cultivate good relationships with others.

Beginning customer discovery, and a self-interview

I’ve just started doing “customer discovery” interviews. According to one source, customer discovery is a “customer-centric, scientific process that puts evidence behind an assumed product-market fit.” My education in it consists of reading only a few articles in the last two days; but in less technical terms, as I understand it, it is a method for discovering where the problems are that might need solving, straight from prospective customers. The crucial thing here is to test one’s assumptions without imposing them on anyone. Hence, the interview questions are rather broad and open-ended, designed not to lead anybody to answer in any particular way.

At a first pass, with lots of help from the resources I consulted, here’s what I came up with :

  • What do you do?
  • What tools do you use to get people to follow your work?
  • What do you like about these tools?
  • What do you not like about these tools?
  • What’s the ideal outcome?
  • If you could come up with an instant, magical solution to get what you want, what would it look like?

Recall once again that the problem I’m interested in is that of audience building. Here I’m putting many of my assumptions to the test about what creators are doing to grow their followings and the problems they face as they do that. My assumptions, of course, come from my own experience as a musician. If somebody were to come to me with these questions, as a musician, I would answer as follows:

What do you do? I compose music orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, as well as musical theatre.

What tools do you use to get people to follow your work? Mainly Facebook and Instagram.

What do you like about these tools? The level of potential engagement on Facebook is pretty good; it feels more personal because my network is mostly people I know or have met in person. Instagram stories are really easy to do; because they expire, it feels like you don’t have to make as much of an effort; and you can see who’s viewing your stories even if they don’t really engage. Although I don’t have any real strategy for getting more followers on these platforms.

What do you not like about these tools? Nothing about the tools themselves, I guess. I don’t like using them. I don’t really enjoy attention and would be much happier if I didn’t have to bother with these sites. In general it feels rather “salesy,” although there are rare moments that seem like genuine connection. On the whole, using these tools has not really resulted in a following around my work. One would would have to be using them constantly to get any real traction. Also, I find that sharing media on Facebook doesn’t usually get far.

What’s the ideal outcome? Ideally, there would just be enough interest in my work for me to be getting a steady stream of commissions, performances, etc.

If you could come up with an instant, magical solution to get what you want, what would it look like? A way to share or point to my work that doesn’t feel like it requires so much effort before getting any traction; or a way to make the whole thing somehow feel more human, and not just transactional.

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I wrote these answers down very quickly and without thinking about them too much, and later on I might change my mind about one thing or another; but, if prospective customers of our future product are anything at all like me, I would assume that they’d give similar answers; the thing to do now is to confirm these assumptions, or otherwise allow them to be challenged.

While all of this sounds rather simplistic, doing interviews in real life naturally comes with many challenges. In real life, people are much more dynamic and do not always give straight answers. Sometimes they overthink, and try to manufacture a “smart” answer, which obscures truth. Sometimes a conversation gets derailed, or veers off to unexpected places. I expect to learn a lot more about this whole enterprise as I get more practice. Talking to people strategically does not come naturally to me, and I suspect it is a stumbling block for many others as well. More than that, usually one would rather let their ideas run with reckless abandon and not have their assumptions challenged—but it’s the only way to get to the bottom of things.

Trends and opportunties: Beginning notes

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m interested in the problem of audience-building for artists or creators. There seems to be great opportunity in building off the current global trend of the booming creator or “passion” economy: middlemen between creators and audiences have largely faded away, creators have more control over what they produce, and audiences get to interact directly with their favorite creators. The subscription model and “micro-patronage” have become widespread and have been shown to work—we may find other useful models in the future, but the shift toward more direct relationships between creators and audiences has effectively facilitated meaningful human connection and is likely to last.

The dominance of video is also a current trend, greatly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many performing artists, notably musicians, have been driven to adopt video (Zoom, YouTube, Facebook Live, etc.) as a short to medium-term solution for performance, teaching, collaboration, etc. Given these trends, it becomes important to remember, what are audiences paying for? Quality of content itself remains important, but it’s also meaningful and effective connection, which technology attempts to facilitate.

Some parallel directions this could take:

Meaningful connection through in-person events. Video will continue to be vital for many creators (a trend that should not be cast aside), but I’ve observed that many creators have also begun to be more aware of its limitations—notably, that it can never replace the human aspect of live, in-person experience. This would apply more to performing artists: instrumentalists, singers, actors, dancers, etc. Hence, the opportunity to take an opposite route and encourage audience-building with a hyperlocal approach. What if we could have a platform that enables performers and audiences to find each other in-person through a map system, updated in real-time with all events currently taking place near a given user’s location?

Meaningful connection over the internet. This is more applicable to creators: composers, songwriters, writers, filmmakers, visual artists, etc. Could we have a platform that focuses on enabling creators and fans to find each other by highlighting quality work? Many of the current independent creator subscription sites such as Patreon, Substack, etc. do not have developed systems for either discovering new work or audience-building.

One possible approach is a more developed system of personalized recommendations. Perhaps a user, with each sign in, can be shown a page with a dynamic list of work that they might like and consider supporting. Any user can choose to highlight any work they find particularly impressive, which goes into the system that manages these recommendations. To make this meaningful, quality work would have to be emphasized. Instead of organizing or ranking recommendations by “likes” or numbers of supporters (which can be off-putting to artists who don’t already have large followings), perhaps there would be a kind of endorsement from someone in the community who has chosen to highlight it. This could be one way to incentivize community engagement—by correlating it with platform visibility and discoverability.

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In summary, my thinking is to build off all or some of the trends outlined above—the creator economy, dominance of video, the subscription model—while in parallel possibly resisting aspects of those trends that are negative—lack of meaningful connection, information overload, low-quality work, the concentration of success to creators who have large followings before they even get into a new platform.

My thinking on all of this is naturally influenced by my personal experience as both a performer and creator, and my ability to sympathize with the difficulties of audience building. I have a good sense of the conflicts many artists face: they are sensitive people who strive always for meaningful connection and quality work rather than pure numbers, balanced with the need to compete and sell in a winner-take-all environment. I think we can work on building a platform with a strong human element to it that takes these things into account, that will ultimately encourage more creators to take their careers into their own hands.