3 little known (but effective) tools for understanding your user

(i wrote this post for Ventureburn recently)

If you’re like me, you’ve always been fascinated by startups but not sure how to go about actually starting one up. At the beginning of this year I noticed a gap in the online market and started working on filling it by creating an online novel-writing programme for people who really want to write a novel, but don’t know how to start it.
I’ve been working for a large corporate in South Africa and in the Netherlands, so it’s been fairly eye opening having to do things myself (not having a team of people to execute on things for me), as well as focusing on the user for requirements — not strategy that needs to be approved high-up and may not be particularly appropriate for the challenge at hand.
I have been trying to follow the lean startup and customer discovery methodology. In addition, I have been chatting to many people smarter than me, and spending an inordinate amount of time on startup blogs. In chatting to people I received three very useful processes that I didn’t see mentioned anywhere else, and I thought it would be good to share with you, so that you can ensure you’re building a product that your users want, rather than what you think is a cool solution.
1. Questionnaire design
We had an online questionnaire that we got people to fill in and I also conducted many in-person discussions with aspiring writers to try and understand what their problems were. Some of the most useful questions were things like:
“What are the most frustrating aspects of…”
“What is the process you go through today in order to…”
“Why is … frustrating?”
“If you had a magic wand to help you, what would it do?”
“How much would this magic wand cost?”
A great way to start is to ask people a question about the beginnings of their passion for this particular topic (e.g. When did you first start writing was our question). This loosens them up and makes them less skittish before you start asking them further questions.
2. Dump n’ sort
Once you have all of the answers above you’ll have a large amount of issues that people have with your topic. Individually look at these and write what you think their problems are on individual pieces of paper. I used post-its. Sit down in a team and then group them into sections. Isolate which are the most important/biggest problems that the users have. Then look at the features that support the solution of that problem. This gives you a small great nugget of a product (or MVP in the words of the Lean Startup).
3. Customer verification
Now you’ve been through the first two steps and you need to know if you’re on the right track. Write down (in the first person), what you believe the user’s challenge is. Then, write down what their desire is around this, and finally you put down your solution. Our summarised version looked like this:
Writing a novel is one of those bucket list things for me, I have to write a book before I die. It’s just really hard to find the time to get it done. Life is real busy, and finding writing time is difficult – especially with a project as big as this.
What I’d like is someone to hold my hand through the writing process. Help me find and finesse my idea, show me what structure I need and help keep me motivated throughout the process.
The Now Novel is an online novel writing course that helps you finally write your novel. It gives you the structure to find your idea, finesse the plot, character and setting and the motivation and guidance to write it.
Finally, sit down with your potential users and ask them to go through your document. They need to highlight what they agree and disagree with, and leave blank what they feel ambivalent about. This will then give you an idea of how you’re progressing relative to people’s desires and where you need to put more effort in. Then its back to the drawing board to begin the loop again if you have too many disagreements.

3 Online marketing tips for startups/cheapskates

If you’re like me, you’ve always been fascinated by start ups but not sure how to go about starting one up. At the beginning of this year I noticed a gap in the online market and started working to fill it, by creating a custom-made online novel-writing programme for people who really want to write a novel, but don’t know how to start it. We’re just launched NowNovel and acquiring users has been another interesting part of the story
Having left the comfortable home of Naspers, and their larger budgets, I have been contending with marketing budgets that are self funded, so I need to keep my cost per acquisition low and  user quality high.
I’m going to outline a couple of tips that I’ve found that can drive you cheap users;
1.     smart Facebook advertising
2.     Stumbleupon
3.     Content marketing
Our challenge is that we’re focused on a female US audience who has on their bucket list that they want to write a book. One of the more contested audiences to acquire on the internet. However, knowing your tight targeting is an advantage as you can then acquire users who are more likely to convert.
1, smart Facebook advertising
Facebook is  great platform (especially according to the abovementioned targeting).  One trick that I gleaned was to use highly targeted ads, with highly targeted copy. To take our example;
Our target was women, aged 25+, who had an interest in creative writing and writing in Texas. Our headline was “want to write a book in Texas”, we talked about product benefits (not features) in the ad copy and then had a strong call to action.  The fact that our copy is targeted to a specific geographic area jumps out at people and makes them feel like it is more relevant. In terms of images, try and aim for something orange (very different to Facebook’s blue), make it a person’s image (pretty girl’s always work) or make it a zany picture that grabs attention.
2. Stumbleupon
Stumbleupon has very cheap clicks for targeted traffic; we paid $0,10 for females of a certain age with an interest in literature. They also bounce a lot more (because they’re a casual user), but we got some committed users. You also have the ability to have your content go viral, which happened with us (to the tune of 14,000 free global stumbles, extra server requirements and Friday night chaos). I think it was because of our good design  and logo/icons that triggered the sharing.
3.content marketing
 Content marketing isn’t a secret, essentially what we’re looking to do is create great content in interesting formats that users will enjoy. Its what you should be doing online and not creating spammy, keyword stuffed content for search engines. If you read any of the exhaustive content on copyblogger, the kissmetrics blog or seomoz you’ll get the idea of the content you need to create (and you’ll get some good guides from the same destinations). Its relevant content that is useful for the target audience (and coincidentally search engines) When the user is thinking of converting they’ll think of your site because you are a knowledge leader in this area. We haven’t created this yet, (because its a lot of work) but watch this space.
What else have I left out that works? Let me know in the comments 
(this is a crosspost to a post that i wrote for Bandwidthblog)

Now Novel

Since i left DSTV/Naspers I have been focussing my efforts on developing Now Novel. Now Novel is a guide to writing a book; essentially a “WordPress for novel writing”. It’s a step-by-step guide on how to write a book; with an overview of how to find your idea, hone your idea till you like it, and then develop the character, plot and setting around it. It also provides you with the motivation and structure to plough through the tough grind of getting your book written.

The initial idea came from my sister who wrote a novel a few years back and had it published here and in the US. People kept on harassing her on how she did it and she created a pdf guide on how to write your novel. From this basis we’ve been creating a course that seems like it will be useful.

We’ve been following the lean startup methodology, to try and verify as many assumptions as possible before we build version 1 of the product. We’re so lean in fact that in addition to my sister and i doing the product work, i have enlisted my wife to do the development (unfortunately my kids are still too small for customer service…)

We launch version 1 in June, watch this space for more updates

Big Brother Africa

Big Brother Africa is one of the larger “own productions” in the DStv product suite. It has a Facebook fan base of 650,000 people who are extremely committed about the show. Our brief was to add some interactivity through gaming to the show.

What we did was create a suite of Big Brother themed games (Bubble Popper, spot the difference, crossword, find word and quiz). We also created bespoke avatars and accessories that you could theme for the Big Brother experience.

The coolest part was the competition that we constructed around it; we had a tiered competition; the more points that were scored on each of the themed games the more beer and fast food that went into the house for the Saturday party. Players also got an opportunity to win cool Samsung prizes.

the results;
time on site increased by 40%
new players +20%
return visits +17%

milion pound drop

I’ve been investigating the overlap between tv and games at the moment (more on the reasons behind that in the future). Nickolodeon and the BBC are doing some pretty interesting things. Mostly not to be monetised, but more as a supplementary service to their tv campaigns. For doctor who on the bbc they created four episodic games that correlated to the tv program. These were played over 2.4 million times.

This is cool, but to get an authentic second screen experience . I like the example of the million pound drop. The million pound drop is a new tv series from Channel 4. Essentially what it is is “who wants to be a millionaire” upside down; you start with a million pounds in cash, and get asked 8 questions, each time you have to guess and put a cash amount on a number that you think is the right answer. You can hedge your bets by putting it on numerous numbers, but every question that has a wrong answer has a trapdoor below it that your cash disappears in. this makes it more exciting for people watching because losing money is more tragic (and more entertaining) than winning it.

The gaming side is great because it taps into human behaviour around quiz shows. I always shout the answers at the tv, and this allows the same thing. You play along at the same time as the tv show, so you get to answer in real time. The presenter shares this during the show (i.e. They’d say you answered that as well as 50% of the playalong audience). If you at home keep more money than the person on tv you can play through till the end of questions (or until you lose). They’ve also partner with bet365 to offer betting games, which you can play to win money. This seems to really work with a maximum of 8.6% of the TV audience playing along.

viral loop

I just finished a pretty great book called viral loop.
We all want our product to have a viral loop and not have to pay any acquisition costs for getting any new customers. I liked this because it was a history lesson about which elements worked best to grow a large audience naturally. The case studies include tupperware, hot-or-not, ebay and facebook. It went into the viral coefficient, the levers that you can control to make your product viral and which products are more viral. Recommended!

social games prezi

i had to do a couple of presentations last week and i thought i’d do one of them in prezi

its a great presentation tool which uses a large screen instead of a slide and you bounce along through it. my learning curve was extremely steep (and actually too long) because; 1) i’m crap at powerpoint and 2) not creative with these kind of things it ended up pretty good though;

.prezi-player { width: 400px; } .prezi-player-links { text-align: center; }http://prezi.com/bin/preziloader.swf

my favourite app

I found an app the other day that i expect will be lifechanging for me. Its called runkeeper and basically what it does is approximate what a fancy watch will give you in terms of running statistics (distance, route, pace etc). i’ll look at this from two perspectives,; 1 the running dork, and 2 the digital marketer.

Running dork
This free app gives you a google maps overview of the route that you’ve run, on the go pace and distance information and your calories used at the end (less interesting, but still). Instead of buying an expensive watch, this does all of it for you and for free. It uploads it to a website where you can compare yourself to your friends, and show off/share through twitter and facebook.

Digital marketer
At first i thought they were giving away too much for the free version. You get all this functionality, and the pro version is $10, so its not an easy upsell. But after id used the product a little i found out it was a real smart try-before-you-buy model. You can’t change tracks on your iPod while the app is running (something i want to do surprisingly often), but you can do it with the pro version. The pro version also comes with specific programs that can be inputted and you can be coached through the headphones. I’m still debating whether i’m going to spring for it, but i’m motivated (hey time magazine had it as one of their top 10 apps). The other cool thing that they do is offer you reports on your fitness/weightloss etc. i read an interesting article in wired about how people start to get motivated by tracking their results, and i think this could tie nicely in to this (maybe they need to have a free trial of their measurements to get people motivated)

now have an android version too, so get running

ebookers fail

I got up at 5 this morning to go to the airport;
We had a day flight from cape town via London to Amsterdam, booked a hotel and schipol and then a flight first thing tomorrow with easyjet to geneva for snowboarding. Unfortunately there was no plane waiting for me this morning. Ebookers had neglected to send me an email to say that they were rescheduling the flight to this evening. Which means that my hotel and flight to geneva are currently wasted expenses. Apparently they mailed me four times in july and once in august (i checked to see if maybe i had a delusional month and didn’t remember this important detail), but they didn’t (and i’m sure ebookers ensures they’re on every email whitelist possible)

So this is an exercise in seeing how closely ebookers pays attention to social media. I’ve twittered about it, and asked my colleagues to retweet it, and this post is to compound that….
I’ll keep you updated if anyone contacts me to sort it out.

UPDATE So today i have spent 2 hours and 4 phonecalls with ebookers. They said they sent the mails informing me of the change and as such couldn’t do anything to help (even though they never rescheduled our connecting flights). Someone has got a hold of me from on twitter but hasnt got back to me yet.