How To Pick a Target Market For a B2B Startup: Part 3

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This post is Part III in series called “How To Pick a Target Market for a B2B Startup.” To start at the beginning, click here.

Marketing guru Regis McKenna once wrote, “marketing people should be on the road half the time–meeting customers, talking to people, building relationships, and seeing where the next product is going.” You know, actually speaking to live, flesh-and-blood human beings. Crazy.

While that much travel might not be feasible for everyone, his point was clear: understanding your market is key to successfully selling to it. As convenient as research and surveys are (which we discussed in Parts I and II) they simply cannot help you know your market really well.

That’s why interviews are the final (and most important) part of selecting a target market for your B2B startup.

In this post, I’ll explain why you shouldn’t rely on survey data to make a decision, I’ll illustrate why interviews will give you more insight into your audiences, and I’ll lay out some tips for conducting them successfully.

Why Survey Data Sucks

Survey data is fine for eliminating the least desirable options from your list of potential target markets. But it won’t help you make the right decision; surveys simply don’t give you enough insight. Consider these shortcomings of surveys:

  • Interpreting data is extremely subjective
  • Responses are only as good as your questions
  • There’s no opportunity to hear about things you haven’t asked about
  • You can’t pick up on any emotional feedback (and yes, B2B buyers are just as irrational as consumers)
  • It’s difficult to know which responses to ignore since you know very little about a particular respondent

Interviews aren’t going to give you neat reports that can be turned into pretty pie charts. I know, I know, all those classes in business school about statistical significance now feel like a waste.

But think about it this way: if you were hiring someone for your team, which would you place more emphasis on, the resume or the interview? If done properly, interviews will give you a strong “gut” sense of who’s going to be the best fit.

Combine that with the quantitative data you already have and you’ll be much better equipped to make a good decision.

There Are No Reasons Not To Talk To People

If your interview process doesn’t change your choice of a target market, you’ll still end up with a far better understanding of the people you’re trying to do business with. That alone is invaluable.

Did Bruce Willis ever do target market research?
There’s no substitute for talking to people. But try to smile every now and then. (source: Die Hard Wiki)

Furthermore, you’ll have developed some connections that could ultimately lead to new relationships or even sales. Either way, learning more about the people you’re planning to sell to by talking to them in person is an absolute necessity. And if you end up making a wiser choice in the process, even better.

Finding The Right People

Outside of the obvious factors, like making sure your interview subjects work in the right industry, keep these considerations in mind too:

  • What’s the nature of the business they work for? Is their company successful or struggling? An innovator or a laggard? How does it make decisions?
  • How much industry experience do they have? A veteran will probably give you more insight on how an industry works than a noob.
  • Are they junior or senior? Talk to people at multiple levels to see if issues are described consistently within a company.
  • Include people in related departments. See how their views differ from the decision maker. They might kill a deal if their concerns aren’t addressed, so knowing what they are ahead of time is crucial.

Deciding What To Say

If you remember one thing from this section, make it this: be sure your interview subject knows that you’re not going to give them a sales pitch.

Two reasons for this. First, it greatly improves your chances of getting their time. Secondly, you’ll get more useful feedback because the subject is more likely to be direct and honest.

Actually, a third reason; if you’re a marketer, you probably suck at sales and you’re going to blow it :).

Beyond that, here’s what I have found is most valuable to ask about:

  • Focus on understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. How does this person describe the problem? How much time, effort, and money are they willing to put into solving it? What solutions exist today, and what are their shortcomings?
  • Find out what words, phrases, and concepts are used to describe the problem. Every industry has its own lingo. If you can use words that your audience is familiar with in your messaging, your marketing will be much more effective.
  • See who else is involved in making decisions around solving this problem. You might be talking to the primary decision maker, but they might have to “sell” your product internally before they get the final approval.
  • Try to approach the problem you’re asking about from different angles. The subject may not realize they have the problem you’re asking about, or they make look at it from a completely different angle. Help them see the light.

Finally, be careful about pitching the solution you’re developing unless requested. No one wants a sales pitch they didn’t ask for.

You’re Ready To Pick A Target Market – What Now?

If you asked the right questions, your instinct will tell you which market is best to pursue. That feels weird, doesn’t it?

In an age we have so much data, going with your gut might seem unnatural. But if you’re not personally excited about the market you’re going after, no statistical report is going to change that.

Where do you think you’ll do better: a market that’s not perfect on paper but you feel really comfortable with, or an “optimal” market that you just can’t get very interested in?

You know the answer. Now go build your business!

Have you had experience interviewing people to find and understand a target market? What’s worked well for you? Let me know in the comments.

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About the Author

John Rougeux

John Rougeux is a Partner at Category Design Advisors. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Get the newsletter that will help you become a better category designer.

About the Author


John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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