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Inside Buffer

Fast Customer Development: How We Use Twitter to Build Products People Love

At Buffer, we’ve recently made a big change to how we build products and use the Lean Startup methodologies much more closely.

It followed what I’d call a phenomenon that Hiten Shah, one of our closest advisors mentioned to us in a mentoring session:

At Buffer, we have always taken a lot of pride in thinking that we were following the Lean Startup methodologies very closely. That’s why this line from Hiten hit me like a brick. We weren’t really being lean and avoiding waste if we weren’t doing extensive customer development.

From that day a few months ago, we started to double down and put almost every single assumption or hypothesis of our business through customer development interviews first. And I believe it’s been one of the best changes we’ve made recently.

I’ve personally never felt closer to our customers and their problems.

Setting up customer development interviews faster

One particular way we do customer development is through Twitter.

After picking up a copy of Cindy Alvarez’ latest book “Lean Customer Development,” I discovered that there’s a whole science behind getting interviews with customers right in order to learn about their problems. I can’t recommend this book enough.

One of the things Cindy and Hiten mentioned to us is that doing these interviews can be very time intensive. For various reasons, it’s recommended to get a targeted email list of your customers, email them, and set up calls. That by itself would take me about 1-2 days of work every time I wanted to do some interviews.

I still believe that this longer method is very powerful and maybe even superior. At the same time, I’m a big believer in Facebook’s mantra that “done is better than perfect.”

So instead of taking half a week emailing and scheduling calls, I wanted a way to get immediate customer insights. So I sent a Tweet through our Buffer account to see if any customers were available for a Google Hangout. I tried my best to target customers and let them self-select based on our requirements:

Within a few minutes I was chatting with someone and learning about their problems sharing articles on social media.

Here is one of my highlights: When trying to learn more about how people set up their times for social media sharing, someone had printed off a cheat sheet for their best times to share. There are few things that validate a feature hypothesis more than something like this: Just like that, I was able to have 4-6 amazing calls with customers within 1-2 hours and then give some valuable feedback to the product team. That means I cut the time down that it’d normally take to do this (about 3-5 days) by over 90%.  

An iteration to be more organized: Google Calendar slots

Rodolphe, who is doing customer development together with me on other parts of the product, took this method and improved it a lot further. Instead of jumping on calls right away, he would schedule them back-to-back for the next day:

This turned out to be less stressful and much more organized than my original method, although it would take slightly longer.

I like this newer method from Rodolphe a lot, and I believe I might make that the default for my next few sets of calls, too.

A few considerations for Twitter customer development

Right off the bat, I believe that there are some limitations to this method that I wanted to point out.

  • With Tweets, it’s hard to be as targeted as an email outreach might be in comparison. Sometimes we want to only speak with Buffer for Business customers that have signed up in the last week, for example.
  • Another pretty obvious one is that you’ll need somewhat of an established and engaged audience. If I were to guess, you might need about 10,000 followers to begin with.
  • Another thing that Cindy stressed in her book is to have sufficient time in between calls to organize your thoughts and put summaries together. With this method, where you optimize the amount of calls, it might be harder to be as organized as Cindy recommended.

Even with these limitations, I still believe that you’ll get 80% of the results by doing far less than even 20% of the work.

With this process, I feel that we’re gaining a deeper understanding of our customers that will make us more able to solve their social media challenges and save them time. (Ready to save time with social media while driving more traffic and engagement? Try Buffer for free!)

I’m really excited to share more about our newfound love for customer development and other elements of the lean startups. Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or things I can write about next.

Interested in joining Buffer as we get to know our customers and work hard to make products they’ll love? We’re hiring!

  • Jason Ephraim

    Thanks for the great post! I saw one of these the other day from Rodolphe and it’s really cool to read about it’s evolution -cue monolith-

    • LeoWid

      Hey Jason, awesome and yup, it’s a lot of fun to have multiple teams attack multiple problems at the same time! :)

  • evanish

    Leo,

    Glad to see you guys are getting more customer driven!

    One thought: You could also go the flip side: Search Twitter for intent around what you’re working on and see if you can get someone who just tweeted about what you’re doing, the problem you’re solving, etc. People like to complain on Twitter so it can work in your favor to search for that.

    I’ve had a lot of success in the past doing that to get calls soon thereafter (same day or scheduled like Rodolphe did) and this doesn’t require really any following beyond your account not looking sketchy.

    Thanks,
    Jason

    • LeoWid

      Hey Jason, awesome to see you here on the blog!

      Yeah, it’s been fun to be a lot more customer driven these past few months. Excited to share how it impacted our metrics as we see the results in the next few months/weeks.

      Love that idea! I think that’s really great, we’re hearing a lot about different problems people have on Twitter, starting from there seems like a great way to do it. Will keep you posted on what we find here!

  • The first tweet in the article was a bit more specific targeting “buffer extension users”, but the second tweet is very open. I can’t imagine the chats with such an open topic would be as effective as being more specific.

    At any rate, have you ever thought about using a good forum software for your customer/ user community? If you did, you can have a very direct and much more “documented” and efficient customer feedback loop. Chat discussions are lost. Forum discussions aren’t.

    Scott

  • Hey Leo—wanted to share some ideas we’ve been using/learning: might be fun to recruit testers by inviting them to be part of a group that you guys can go to for feedback on an ongoing basis—whether it be via Twitter lists of private Facebook groups, etc. Maybe you could also recruit using targeted banners for various demos on the site (like you do with the hello bar) or via your Happiness Hero emails (like your P/S messages you guys use currently) to build a tribe of dedicated and opinionated (like myself, ha) folks that want to help Buffer shine its brightest. And using Usertesting.com, we’ve found that we can “favorite” testers and be able to reach them directly, which gives us feedback in a matter of hours (to 24 hours or so). Also, Ethnio is helpful for recruiting folks who are visiting your site too. I think you’re right on to be taking testing so seriously. Makes a huge difference and we’re building it into each design/dev round for our clients. It does take more time and money (depending on the test), but seems to be a wise investment worth making. Cheers.

  • Ting Ting Wang

    Very helpful article, thank you for sharing, Leo.

    As an UX designer for a startup in Taiwan, we use mostly Facebook to do customer development, like sharing articles or product information (we sell travel products); however, we never think about using it to get feedback for our website development, as it seems not to be the right place to put something not related to marketing…. but maybe it is worth to give it a try lol

    Thanks!

  • Piotr Koczorowski

    Being customer driven is really important. Getting feedback from customers even more so! Doing it isn’t always that easy, though, at least for me. I have a source which is really great for getting the right questions that you can ask your customers or users in order to solicit actionable feedback from them: http://get.usabilitytools.com/49-questions/

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