How To Pick a Target Market For a B2B Startup (Part II – Surveys)

This is Part II in a three-part series about finding your ideal target market. Click here if you’d like to start from the beginning.

In part I of this series, I showed you how to use brainstorming and a bit of research to build a short list of potential target markets for your B2B startup.

Now it’s time to narrow that list even further.

To do that, we’re going to use surveys to ask polarizing questions and find out even more about our targets.

Why Mess With Surveys?

Pretend it’s 1993.

A since Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes haven’t been invented yet, we can safely say that finding a target market is a lot like buying a CD. An old-school, shrink-wrapped, don’t-scratch-it-or-you’re screwed compact disc. The kind you’d purchase for $16.99 + tax by having your mom drive you to Tower Records after mowing lawns all weekend.

At the store, do you simply buy the first album within reach? Oh no no. This is a major commitment, and there’s going to be some planning involved.

Having been impressed by the copious amounts of distortion and flannel displayed by the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, you’re ready to go with an album from either band.

But you still have some work to do. Flipping through stacks of plastic jewel cases, you discover that Pearl Jam’s albums have cooler artwork, so you’ve narrowed it down to Ten and Vs. Oh, but which one?

With the 7 minutes you have left before your mom comes back from Sears, you nab of a set of headphones to preview each album. After listening to Alive again, you’re confident that Pearl Jam’s first release speaks to your teenage angst slightly more. Ten it is. Whew…

Pearl Jam Ten
A big decision indeed: once that shrink-wrap came off, there was no turning back.

That may have been an overly dramatic illustration. But my point is this–picking a target market is a huge decision. Rush into it and you’re bound to make mistakes. Spend some time learning about your options and you’ll be much better off.

Yes, surveys are a bit time-consuming, but they are a key step in narrowing down your list of potential targets. Ultimately, you’ll want to do in-person interviews to make your final decision. But you probably don’t have the time to interviews dozens of people in multiple markets. Surveys help you narrow your list so that you only spend time interviewing the most promising opportunities.

Let’s get started, and I’ll share the process I’ve used to conduct surveys with my own team.

Start By Pre-Qualifying Your Audience

This may be the most important piece.

Pre-qualifying means asking a test question to see if a potential survey taker is actually someone you want a response from. Data from anyone else is a waste of your time. Pre-qualifying questions should ask for any information you think is relevant: industry, job responsibilities, use of certain software, or perhaps a ranking of Kenny G songs, from worst to most worst.

You can usually set up pre-qualifying questions so that anyone who gives a wrong response is removed from the survey.

Choose The Right Questions With These 3 Tips

I’ve written some good survey questions and plenty of bad ones. Here are four things I try to keep in mind that have helped me write better questions:

  1. Only ask questions that are actionable. Eliminate those that are merely interesting. If the response to the question won’t affect your decision to pursue a target market, then toss it.
  2. Your respondents can only handle so many questions. Ask too many, and they’ll start giving unthoughtful answers just to finish the thing.
  3. Don’t shy away from open-ended questions. Sometimes it’s hard to know what response options to provide. Using open-ended questions can help solve this. While they can be a pain-in-the-ass to sort through, open-ended questions let your survey takers provide whatever information they think is most relevant.

Get Your Wording Right Or The Whole Thing Is A Waste

Frame your questions the wrong way and you’re better off not doing your survey at all. Leading questions or ambiguously worded ones can actually give you misleading information about your potential target market. Here’s an obvious example to help you get the idea:

What is your favorite Michael Bolton song?

Sounds innocuous right? But it implies that the survey taker enjoys listening to that bronze-skinned tenor in the first place. He may try to give you an answer (“I guess I sort of like them all…“) but you probably won’t find out what you really need to know–that you couldn’t pay her to listen to even a single one.

Here are three resources to help you write better questions:

– Qualtrics: 10 Commandments For Writing Outstanding Survey Questions
– Hubspot: How to Write Survey Questions: 7 Things NOT to Do
– Grammar Girl: How to Write Good Survey Questions

“I guess I sort of like ’em all…”. Whether you’re talking about Michael Bolton or your list of potential target markets, either way, it’s not the right response.

Two Easy Ways To Get People To Take Your Survey

Now the real crux of the process: finding the right people to take your survey. The more specific your audience, the more difficult it will be to find them.

You have two options.

  1. Use Facebook’s detailing targeting tools to build an audience that closely matches your target. Then set up a Facebook ad that links to your survey. Like all Facebook ads, you’ll have to pay to get those clicks.
  2. Use a third-party research service like TapResearch. Not only will a service like this help you find the right people, they’ll do it incredibly quickly. This is my preferred option; in fact, we use Tap Research so often that they even wrote a short case study about us.

What To Do With All That Data?

Now that you’ve amassed enough data to rival a burgeoning record collection, what do you do with it all? Outside of the obvious (read it), there are four things we always do with our own survey responses:

  1. Make sure data is statistically significant. That’s just a fancy way of saying “get enough data so that if you ran the survey again, there’s a very high chance you’d get the same outcome.” To figure out how many responses you need, check out this calculator from SurveyMonkey.
  2. Look at how responses vary based on answers to other questions. For example, let’s say you’ve asked for “years in business.” If you look at the responses from people who’ve been in business less than 5 years vs those who’ve been around longer, do you see a difference? This data might help you refine your target market further.
  3. Throw out the entire response of anyone who’s given bogus answers. You don’t have to get many people taking a survey to get responses like “asdfasdf” or the classic, “your mom.” Discard every answer from these survey takers as they probably weren’t taking your questions seriously.
  4. Read through every single open-ended answer. Some survey services will show you a word cloud that highlights the most commonly-used terms. But they’re not very useful. Instead, read each response individually and you’ll get a much better sense of what people are saying.
A massive record collection is like having a ton of data about your target market
Hopefully, you have a similar look on your face after organizing all your survey data.

What’s The Next Step In Picking Your Target Market?

The purpose of this exercise was to help you narrow your list of potential target markets down even further.

To do that, compare data from each target market. Did each group provide relatively similar responses? If so, you probably didn’t ask the right questions or word them the right way. Time for a redo–this time with some more polarizing questions.

However, if you crafted your surveys well, then you should now be able to get a sense of the most promising three or four target markets to go after. You’ll learn about each of those further in part III, where I’ll share some tips for conducting in-person interviews.

To receive an email when part III is published, provide your email below and I’ll send you a note.

How To Pick A Target Market For A B2B Startup (Part I – Research)

In a B2B startup, there are two questions that you must answer before your company gets very far: what is the product, and who are you going to sell it to? In today’s post, I’m going to focus on the second question, and show you a 3-part process you can use to find the exact market niche to focus on.

Before We Begin, Here’s What Not To Do

But, my friends – before we talk about how to do things the right way, let’s take a moment to reflect on the one thing you should not do. Have you guessed it already? It’s sell to everyone. 

It’s tempting, isn’t it? After all, your product idea is so wonderful, why on Earth would you want to restrict it to niche? The answer is simple: a product for everyone is a product for no one. Few products have a truly universal appeal, and I’m willing to bet yours isn’t one of them. Unless you can solve a specific problem for a specific audience in a really exceptional way, no one will give you their attention.

The Fisherman, The Psychic, And The Detective

With that being said, let’s move on to the solution to finding your market niche for your B2B startup. I’ve encountered three ways to go about it:

  • The “Fisherman” Approach: cast a wide net by offering your product to as a diverse group as possible, and see who bites. Then, focus there.
  • The “Psychic” Approach:  when you feel like you already know who the best fit is, and move forward based on gut instinct.
  • The “Detective” Approach: through research and interviews, discover who will be the best using empirical evidence and your judgment.

These are all legitimate approaches, and I don’t think you’d have to search too hard to find successful businesses have been started using each. However, the Fisherman and the Psychic approach present some risks that could actually slow you down.

With the Fisherman approach, the risk is that no one bites, because they didn’t feel you were speaking to them. With the Psychic approach, the risk is that you’re just plain wrong. Or more likely, that you made a merely OK choice but could have made a better one if you had done your homework.

Inspector Clouseau
Pink Pather’s Inspector Clouseau may not have had to do research market niches, but I like to think he’d be great at it.

If either of the Fisherman or the Psychic approaches don’t work out, you’ll end up starting over and going down the path of the Detective anyway. That’s why I recommend starting with the Detective approach. It gives you the best chance of finding the right answer the first time around, while only requiring a little extra time and effort

Become A Market Niche Gumshoe With These 3 Steps

So how does the Detective approach to picking your market niche work? It’s actually pretty easy. You can break it down into three steps:

  1. Brainstorm and research every suspect you can imagine
  2. Survey the remaining suspects to get a quick read
  3. Personally interview the most promising suspects

In the rest of this post, I’ll outline step one of the Detective process: brainstorm and research. You’ll find instructions for steps two and three in follow up posts. (To receive an email when those posts are published, just enter your email address below.)

First, List Your Suspects

I was going to start out by saying “imagine that you’re a real detective…“. But I don’t need to, because you kind of already are. Hopefully, you’re not looking for a murder suspect, but like a professional gumshoe, your first job is to gather as many facts as you can that pertain to your case.

Start by making a list of every single suspect you can possibly imagine. This means coming up with every market niche that might have a chance of doing business with you. For a B2B company, try to be as specific as possible. Don’t just say “small businesses,” list “dry cleaners,” “fine dining restaurants,” and “yoga studios.

Here are three pieces of advice for making the most of this process:

  1. The list doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. You can always group entries together or split them apart later on.
  2. Try not to be overly concerned with whether a niche would be a perfect fit at this point. Since you’re just brainstorming, bad ideas can be helpful because they’ll trigger other ideas you may not have come up with otherwise.
  3. Try to have at least a dozen entries to start with.

Next, Eliminate Anyone Who’s Not Viable

Now that you’ve created your list, your next job is to eliminate any entries that simply don’t present a viable opportunity.

This could present itself in a few different ways: (a) the market may not be large enough to be worth pursuing; (b) the market is so large that it’s likely to attract the attention of a larger and more powerful competitor; (c) businesses in the space simply don’t make enough money to afford what you’re offering; or (d) there’s some other circumstance about the market that makes in undesirable.

To answer these questions, you’ll need to do a bit of research. Here’s how we go about it on my team:

  1. Look up the market size, in terms of number companies within that niche.
  2. Find out how much revenue a typical company in that niche generates.
  3. See if the industry is growing or declining and if there are any geographic characteristics that would help or hurt you.
  4. Use Facebook’s Insights tool to see if there’s anything unique about people who work in that space and to gauge audience size.
  5. Get your hands on industry websites and publications to see if you can glean any relevant insights on companies in each space,

As you gather this information, cross out any opportunity that no longer looks remotely desirable. Ideally, go through this exercise with a few people on your team. If someone provides a new piece of information that helps you rule out an opportunity, that’s great! She just saved you a lot of wasted effort. Try to be aggressive, and eliminate at least half your list. And if you can, see if you can get it down to 5-10 options.

What’s Next? Stay Tuned

At this point, you should have eliminated the options that are least likely to get you early traction. With the obvious bad fits out of the way, you’ll now move on to the survey process, where you’ll begin to understand the nuances of each market niche in a bit more detail. That’s what we’ll discuss in the next post, and if you’d like to receive an email when it’s published, just provide your email address in the form below.