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Why and how to do customer research for digital products

The modern consumer demands a brand that understands them on a personal level. Here are the steps to making sure your business and products do just that.

Think about the last time you were on a date that went really well.

It just felt like the other person ‘got’ you, right?

As if, before ever speaking, that person knew what you were thinking and was on the same wavelength as you, perfectly in sync with your wants and needs out of the relationship.

Now, think about the last time you interacted with a business that you love.

It was probably a similar experience. They seemed to anticipate your needs and have solutions before you ever asked, providing as seamless an experience as possible from the moment you found them to present day.

Sure, competitors might occasionally come your way with cheaper offers, but if you’re like 73% of people , the price point alone isn’t enough to tip your loyalty and get you to leave your tried-and-true brand.

No, you, as is the case with three out of four customers , are willing to pay more with a business that’s delivered consistent excellence over the lifetime of your relationship.

Are you wondering how to create that same sense of loyalty with your customers? Worried that it might be a secret art known only to the business elite?

Then take heart, because it's not.

It all comes down to understanding your customers better than your competitors, and it’s easier than you might think.

Today, we’ll talk about how to do effective customer research on a shoestring budget, but before we dig into that, let’s look at the stakes.

Why effective customer research sets businesses apart

Have you ever heard the phrase “it’s a buyer’s market”?

Typically used to describe real estate and employment, markets shift to buyer-centricity when the supply outweighs the demand of the product. In those markets, it’s the buyer, and not the business, that has their pick of the litter.

And in online commerce, it’s always a buyer’s market and your first step for launching a digital product .

After all, approximately 380 new websites are created every minute. There’s no shortage of competition vying for consumers’ attention, but while that might sound daunting, it’s actually a great thing.

For consumers, it means they don’t have to contend with poor experiences and poor product offerings. For businesses, it means they can set themselves apart from the sea of sameness by providing richer, more seamless interactions and engagement with customers.

And, if you do set yourself apart with stronger engagement, customers are eager to advocate for you , whether they’re in the B2B or B2C audience.

Unfortunately, as the chart above indicates, it’s not a mark many businesses succeed at hitting.

B2C businesses fare better than the B2B sector, but still -- 47% of consumers say brands could do a better job at improving engagement.

Alternatively, you could look at that same statistic as an indicator that 47% of customers in the B2C audience are open to new opportunities because that’s the reality: if you’re not actively working to retain your customers , you’re losing them.

In either case, it reveals a significant gap between customer expectations and experiences, and it’s a gap that can only be mended with effective customer research.

After all, can you think of any other way to meet the following demands without understanding the audience behind them?

  • 74% of consumers want you to treat them as individuals and not niches.

  • 33% of customers say a business has to anticipate their needs before they do.

  • 70% of your audience expects the personalization in your marketing messages to cater to them and only them.

These statistics aren't exclusive to customers in the United States, by the way, though they are the strongest in the U.S.

72% of consumers in the UK indicate they won’t consider a brand unless they demonstrate that they understand and care about the customer on a personal level.

So, bottom line?

No matter where they’re located, customers aren’t satisfied with businesses that treat them like generic invoices.

They expect you to understand them, empathize with them, and create products and promotions that meet their needs as individuals.

And the only way to do that is to dig in deep and do your homework on your audience.

Do that and you’ll stand apart from the competition.

Skip it and you’ll blend in.

As for getting started, there are a variety of methods for investigating your audience, but there’s one that you can’t skip.


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(The first, obviously.)

#1. Write down your research and marketing goals from the start

Documenting your goals may feel like a superfluous step, but it’s the foundation of your research, and while all other research methods can be mixed and match to suit your fancy, this one has to be your first.


Two reasons.

The first is a study from 2005 examining the relationship between goal achievement and whether or not those goals had been written down. Across groups that wrote down their goals versus those who kept it inside their head, the performance uptick was significant.

Check it out:

Interestingly, those who reported their goal progress to someone else -- aka, one of our strategies for overcoming perfectionism -- were the highest performing of all the groups.

The second reason for setting and documenting your goals is less about research and more about conserving your resources.

If you know what your goals are, you’ll shave off waste and narrow in on the most important information you need for understanding your audience and their marketing needs.

While if your goals are aimless, you’re more likely to expend time and money trying to filter through the vast ocean of data you’ll come across during your research.

And this isn’t just supposition, by the way.

Setting and documenting your goals, processes, research, and the strategies that arise from those are critical to the modern product’s success. Marketers who set goals are 429% more likely to report success than those who leave their goals to the wilds.

Which is probably why among businesses hiring marketers , the top skills that a prospective hire can demonstrate include project management, data analysis, and the ability to derive insight from customer information.

As for how to set those goals, the SMART framework continues to be the go-to solution for framing and testing your goals.

If you’ve never heard of it, here’s how the acronym breaks down:

Let’s run through a quick example.

Say that your starting goal is to understand your audience. While that meets the first metric -- specificity -- it’s not measurable, time-based, or attainable without further details.

So going back to the drawing board, you might amend your goal to something like this:

You’ll understand your audience’s top three pain points with digital products on marketing before developing your newest ebook.

This is a great goal because it helps us:

  • Narrow down the scope of what we’re looking for in our research

  • Identify the relevance of the research to the business need

  • Select a time frame to complete the task

  • Quantify the data meaningfully for creating new products

All of which answers the questions posed by the SMART system by supplying specificity, measurability, achievability, relevancy, and time constraints.

If you prefer a more visual approach, the graphic below is a great overview of the individual sections and things to think about as you run through your goals.

OK. Now that you’re armed with your goals and understand why customer research is so important, it’s time to move to the next step.

Spying on competitor products.

#2. Spy on product reviews to get high-level summaries

Product reviews and testimonials are excellent marketing strategies for creators to build their street cred with hesitant audiences, but they’re more than that:

They’re also insights into the audience that interacts with those products and an easy way to source validation for your digital product ideas .

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s suppose that you’re considering creating an ebook to help novice designers learn the ropes of user experience.

If you want to learn more about the audience that would benefit from those books, look to existing products in the marketplaces. Specifically, look at products that excel in the same niche to find valuable qualitative data .

Here are some of the reviews for a book with perfect ratings on Amazon, UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products that People Want . At a glance, see if you notice any themes in these reviews.

Here’s what I noticed:

  • All of the reviews mention how accessible it is for newcomers.

  • Two out of three of the reviews highlight how the examples and demonstrations relate to real-world situations.

  • Each review gives the nod to the depth of the book and the detail level of the concepts within it.

Based on this, I might guess that the audience for a similar book is looking for something that’s accessible to new readers, relates concepts to real examples, and is detail-rich.

Let’s see if that holds up when I check out another book in the same vein with a comparable amount of reviews, The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition .

From these reviews, we might notice:

  • Customers are critical of this book's layout and organization. Several users highlight its poor (if ironically so) design choices, which might point to organization issues for newcomers.

  • Whereas the first book’s reviews highlighted the author’s use of insights and real-life examples, reviewers were less receptive to the same in this product.

  • The lack of attention to detail damaged the author’s credibility in the eyes of customers.

The second point is especially interesting as it gives us an opportunity to dive deeper -- provided it aligns with the goal we set -- and compare products. Why did one book excel while the other did not?

And, moreover, how can we make sure our products land on the right side of that spectrum?

At this stage, we don’t have enough information to start generating any materials since all of our data is purely interpretive, but we have a good idea of what to look out for when we’re putting together our products and a great supplement for when we do find quantitative data.

Which is, incidentally, what we’re doing next.

We talk a lot about the value of SEO , and that’s as true today as it was the last time we brought it up, but keywords can do more than help you land on the search engine results page.

They can help you connect to people and understand your potential customers by analyzing the volume and click-through-rate (CTR) behind keywords.

There are a lot of free tools to do it with, but the better tools will cost you. Personally, we use Ahrefs , which is not for the faint of pocket, but definitely worth a spin.

They’ve helpfully put together a graphic that displays how they rank against comparable SEO suites , and while anyone recommending themselves should generally be taken with a grain of salt, I can corroborate my experiences with all of these tools and their respective ratings.

So, why is keyword research a good way to get customer insights?

Because volume tells you how many people are interested in it, and phrasing tells you what people are looking for at different stages of the buyer’s journey, the most common questions they have about the subject, and what kind of content resonates well with them.

All of which helps you create an excellent content plan for them when you move onto the promotion stage.

In the meantime, however, there are two things you want to keep in mind with keyword research:

Rankbrain is a trustworthy source of information because it measures keywords the same way we were measuring reviews: based on the satisfaction of the user .

So marrying its suggestions with the insights we gained from the product reviews is the best of both -- organic and inorganic -- minds.

Combining your qualitative insights with Rankbrain’s quantitative insights isn’t just a simple way to work, by the way, it’s also a data-driven form of marketing.

One that achieves two of the most important objectives -- providing you with the ability to make more decisions based on data and enriching the completeness of the data -- for professional marketers.

As for how to conduct keyword research, you can find a detailed step-by-step guide in our previous article about blogging and SEO with free tools. To use Ahrefs specifically, we recommend checking out this awesome article by Tim Soulo.

No matter what tool you use, though, the key is to look for patterns in the data and derive insights from it based on the qualitative information you gleaned in the previous step.

If, for instance, users are consistently looking for free solutions to the problems you’re trying to solve and complained about price in the product reviews, the niche may not be lucrative enough for you or you may need to overcome more objections to get them to pay.

Conversely, if they’re regularly looking for easy solutions and praised competitor products for their convenience, you may have an opportunity to provide them with a similar solution -- at a fee -- with a well-designed product that meets their needs.

We recommend using a passion-profit matrix to sort your opportunities and findings as you see below with online course ideas. You can grab a blank template from our online course guide .

Of course, there’s only one way to guarantee your marriage of quantitative and qualitative data are a match made in paradise after you’ve put them together, and that’s with this last tip.

#4. Use surveys and real conversations to finish it off

Everything we’ve done to now has been about building and validating assumptions.

This last step, however, is about breaking them and challenging them.

Put simply, if you want to go deeper into your audience research -- and you should -- there’s no substitute for real conversations and interactions with them.

Surveys, fortunately, take some of the stress off by collecting the data in one place for you and are one of the easier and higher-value means to have those interactions.

Technology companies know this better than most. According to Research Now, now Dynata , 76% of tech companies say insights gained from survey research were extremely or very valuable to their projects.

They’re not just great for customer research before product development, by the way.

Surveys and polls are recommended by experts to keep customer engagement high after you launch, too.

You can read more about how to use surveys in our article about expert tips for running membership websites , but here’s the gist:

  • They demonstrate that you care.

  • They provide insights that no other form of research can.

  • Simply asking for feedback makes people more likely to stay loyal to your brand.

Other notable benefits of using surveys for market research is the ability to measure consumer sentiment, create lead-generating original research, and measure the market need for your products.

Just make sure that your surveys are short and to the point. As a best practice, a survey for market research should take no longer than 15 minutes , and the shorter you can make it, the more likely you are to have people complete the survey.

Better yet, if you really want to take your research to the next level and get higher completion rates, don’t send a survey over email.

Do it in person or over a web meeting. The average response rate for in-person surveys is almost double the average response rate for email and online surveys.

This is beneficial for a few reasons, but perhaps the most significant is that by asking over webcam or in person, you’ll be able to pick up on cues you’d otherwise miss in a static online survey.

After all, only 7% of communication is dictated by the actual words spoken. The other 93% is from nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Plus, by having someone face-to-face, you’ll have the opportunity to dive deeper into their concerns and feelings than a short answer box would allow.

And the deeper you go, the closer you’ll be to understanding your customers as individuals -- which, if you’ll recall -- is no less than what the modern consumer demands.

So research them and then talk to them.

There’s no other way to satisfy their -- and your business -- needs.

It’s a long road, but a worthwhile one

Understanding your customers is the key to building a business that outshines the competition and delivers better experiences.

But while it’s not a quick process, it’s not a complicated one, either.

The steps are pretty simple, actually:

  • Start by determining your goals and documenting them. This step matters a lot more than people give it credit for.

  • Look at product reviews from competitors to identify themes and sentiments around your potential customers.

  • Turn to keyword research to learn what people look for in your industry and how they look for it.

  • Then, use surveys to discover why they look for those same things. The more direct information you get from customers, the better.

  • Better yet, top it all off with real conversations. You’ll get more insights, higher response rates, and that much closer to understanding your customer.

Sounds easy, right?

That’s because it is, which makes it a wonder why more brands don’t capitalize on customer research.

But then -- their loss is your opportunity.


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About the author

Lauren Cochran is the former Director of Content for Podia. She still drops in to say hello and share cat pictures from time to time.