WFH, Stranger Interviews & the Neutral Tug

With so many software companies asking employees to #WFH to slow the spread of COVID-19 (strong endorse!), I thought I’d share a WFH move I’m currently modeling for/coaching a client on: how to solicit great positioning input from non-customers. 

Research interviews with strangers/non-customers are a key part of great positioning, since they let you hear from real people how *they* describe their businesses and their challenges, without the distortions that can come from current users’ and customers’ relationships with you. 

WFH Research? Yes, please!

And research interviews work *better* from home than from the office. A person who doesn’t know you will be more open in a one-on-one setting, even more if they can see a human, real-world (tidy!) environment behind you in the video. Both factors make you and the situation feel more human, safer, and people will be more forthcoming. 

Research interviews are also now easy, fast, and cheap. They used to be $20K-$50K with a research firm, with a formal recruiting process, lots of project management overhead. They took weeks, and therefore were often used for only the biggest questions. These formal projects are great, by the way. Sutherland Labs is someone I’ve done great work with recently on personas, Socratic for packaging and pricing, and Peerless Insights is another great firm around brand awareness. 

But today, for any positioning question, you can now roll your own. Using or, it takes just a few hundred bucks, and you can recruit people, run 5-10 interviews, and have new insights in a week or less. Pretty powerful!

Do the Right Job with the Tool

Stranger interviews are most valuable when used to ask questions about your potential buyer’s business and daily workflow, and about the specific problems your company is trying to solve, without ever mentioning your company. 

Stranger interviews are less useful for getting feedback about your products and your pitch/positioning. An hour is a short time, so get them going on the area of expertise they don’t need to ramp up on: themselves. Don’t ask about your company, your product, your positioning. It will be hard not to (we’re egomaniacs). But resist!

What You’re Looking for

Hold on. Why are we, as PMMs, doing these interviews? We’re looking for gold. Words, phrases, analogies, and metaphors that we can then borrow for our own positioning/marketing. When your research subject says “it’s like I’m an accountant asked to get the books reconciled every day, but I’m not given any of the data” – that’s a phrase you can use as-is, or to stimulate your team to think about more powerful ways of explaining your value. Diction matters. A lot of our value as PMMs is finding the most compelling word, that strikes the right emotional balance, without triggering distracting associations. Your research subject is your savant in this, since she’s the person who you’re trying to connect with in your positioning.

Structuring a Stranger Interview

The easiest way to get someone talking is to first ask about her. 

  • Icebreaker: What does her company do? What is her role?
  • Emotional Activation: What are her challenges? What’s her day like? What’s fun? What parts are annoying or boring? Spend a lot of time here
  • Pain Your Company Addresses: What role does X challenge play in her business? Spend a ton of time here as well, ask the same question different ways, and use the Neutral Tug 
  • Fire the Competitive Juices: Even if she’s already talked about competition, ask it again. How does her company stand apart from the competition? How are you different?

Getting the Good Stuff with the Neutral Tug

There is a deep art to research interviews. Your UX team is likely the most skilled at this, so make nice and ask for their help. Reading a blog won’t make you an expert 🙂 And there’s a lot of best practice your UX folks can help with.

Today I want to focus on one key skill every PMM should have: what I call the Neutral Tug.

The Neutral Tug is a tool to respond to an answer to a question in order to tug out out additional insights without closing the conversation down. You want to get her to talk more. You want to hear as many of the different words and phrases she uses. So how do you do that?

When she answers a question, don’t just scribble her answer and move on. Get her to answer the question again, and again, so she reveals more gold to you

  • Columbo/Playing Dumb: I’m not sure I understood that. Can you explain it a different way? Telegraphing your humility will engage her more. And show that you care.
  • Distant Analogy: I think you’re saying your company is like a premium airline and the competition are budget travel companies. Or is that not quite right?
  • Empathy; That sounds frustrating. What do you do when you get frustrated by that?
  • Out-of-Body: Wow. How do other people in your company deal with that?

Notice that I’m not asking her for more factual detail. That doesn’t matter. Notice that I’m using *distant* analogies = not from her industry, not trying to directly reflect what she said about her business/job. If you lock her into getting more detail or sticking with her exact answer/situation rather than analogy, she’ll cling to the first way she answered the question. Not as useful in terms of tugging out additional words and phrases. 

Putting Interviews to Work for You

And while you’re doing this amazing work? Communicate! Don’t wait til the end. Send an email or a slack after every interview with one or two interesting phrases you heard. Ask your team where they’ve heard that before? Ask if there are additional questions they’d like you to be asking. By putting the unassailable voice of the ‘market’ back in ‘product marketing’, you’ll shift how people see your role, and you, as a strategic advantage for the company.

Happy interviewing, and wash your hands!

The Front Porch
Moss Beach, California

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