Pre-growth: selling to a cold audience

This end-to-end guide will help you create an actionable product and messaging strategy to win over a cold audience. If you’re an entrepreneur who wants to turn a B2B product into a viable business OR achieve lasting growth, this step-by-step guide is for you.

Positioning before marketing

Every battle is won before it is ever fought.

—Sun Tzu

Finding the right angle to win over a cold audience is an entrepreneur’s biggest headache. It’s messy. And because of that, most entrepreneurs ignore it by diving headfirst into things like copywriting, content, buying ads, and SEO.

But the battle for growth is not won by better copywriting, content marketing, or SEO. You can perfect every marketing tactic ever published and still hit a wall. The battle for growth is won or lost, as Sun Tzu says, in the decisions you make before you step on the field. That is before you invest your time or money in growth.

Before you invest in growth, knowing how to position and sell your product to a cold audience will simplify your growth strategy and make it more effective.

What is a cold audience?

Positioning and selling to a cold audience is a critical-but-often-overlooked milestone. I call it Pre-growth, because it comes after development (or ideation) but before growth.

Pre-growth is where you nail your positioning and messaging. So, when you invest time or money in marketing, copywriting, content, SEO, and buying ads, you can move forward with confidence.

Warning: Do not read this guide if you’re looking for oversimplified shortcuts, word tricks, copy hacks, growth hacks, or marketing stunts to convince buyers.

Systems. Not tactics.

Rather than saddle you with a one-size-fits-all answer, this guide will hold your hand and walk you through how to answer the most critical questions needed for your business to grow. It’s a system with an end-to-end process, worksheets, and templates.

You’ll learn how to answer:

Here's why those questions matter: answers to those questions will tell you what positioning and messaging will convert a cold audience in each of the following channels: personal outreach emails, your sales pitch, social media posts, email list building/lead magnets, posting in communities, SEO content, and buying ads.

Your outcomes if you choose to follow this guide

You’ll learn how to position and message your product to methodically build awareness, relevance, and earn the trust of your potential customers.

  1. Reach: You’ll learn how to define your target buyer and the channels to reach them.
  2. Convert: You’ll find out what problems your customers care about solving and how to position your product to solve those problems.
  3. Grow: You’ll know what actions you should take, and in what order, to grow your business.

By the end of this process, you’ll have a product and message that speaks directly to the problems your target market cares about solving. And, you’ll know how to position and sell your product to potential customers who have never heard of your solution.

Here’s how you’ll get there

This step-by-step guide helps you develop a hypothesis about what positioning and messaging will resonate with a cold audience. Then, you’ll learn how to test your hypothesis and eventually find the right message, without wasting valuable time or feeling like you’re running in circles.

And don’t worry, you don’t need an existing audience or thousands in cash to buy ads.

Table of Contents

  1. Write your zero-BS landing page (your hypothesis)
  2. Develop the right questions to test and further refine your message (create a discussion guide)
  3. Recruit potential customers to test your message (who will test your hypothesis)
  4. Talk to customers (test your hypothesis)
  5. Make sense of the results and take action (implement a plan)

Are you ready to turn your product into a lasting business? Then, start Step 1 now. If you get stuck, email me. I can help get you unstuck so you can keep moving forward.

Step 1: Write your zero-BS landing page (your hypothesis)

Create a landing page with words instead of building it with graphics and layouts. Don’t waste time coding a landing page this early in the process. Instead, write it out using plain headlines and paragraphs. If you already have a landing page, that’s okay. Re-write it using simple sentences and paragraphs. It’s simpler, faster, and forces you to think.

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why [writing is] so hard.”

—Dave McCullough

See this example of what a zero-BS landing page looks like (take a look!)

Write your landing page before you start building your product or soon after development. Not because you want to create a squeeze page to start getting leads, but because writing forces you to think clearly about who your product is for and why they should care.

“Most importantly, [writing] makes it impossible to hide any logical inconsistencies in the ideas that people put out there…”Jeff Bezos on long-form writing

Using plain and straightforward language, fill your landing page with your strongest arguments for why someone should sign up. Make it logical and a reflection of your customer’s goals and challenges.

How to create a zero-BS landing page

Creating a landing page seems like a dark art to many. If that’s you, then use my model.

I started by answering these questions:

I created this model from my experiences and by adapting what I learned from the following books: StoryBrand by Donald Miller and Writing for Story by Jon Franklin. I continue to tweak the model as I learn more and use it, but it has the essential components that…

Use this worksheet for your startup. As you fill it out, use ELI5 language—explain it to me like I’m five—and be as specific as possible. Avoid fluffy words like seamless or scalable. Instead, be descriptive.

For example, instead of saying, ‘a seamless checkout experience for your customers’ say ‘reduce the time it takes to checkout from 2 minutes to 30 seconds.’ If you can’t make clear statements, something is missing in your product or your understanding of what your customers want.

The end result should be a clear articulation of what you know today about your customers’ goals, the obstacles that stand in the way, and how you can help.

If you’d like pointers for filling out your template and creating your zero-BS landing page, send me a quick email. I'll help you with whichever part you're struggling with.

Your landing page is a tool to test your hypothesis

You can’t look for something if you don’t know what you’re searching for. Your landing page acts as a stake in the ground—a starting point containing your best guesses about your audience and what they care about—which you’ll either prove or disprove. It will anchor you if or when you feel lost during the rest of this process.

Your landing page will either prove, disprove, or refine why your target market should care about your product and why they should buy whatever you’re selling. Your answers to those questions don’t have to be perfect, but they must be clear, logical, and written in straightforward language.

Without a zero-BS landing page, you won’t know what you’re testing or what questions to ask, leaving you vulnerable to being misled by your customers.

Make it about your customer, not your product

Notice that points 1-5 above have nothing to do with me or my product. Most landing pages are too product-centric. But the magic happens when you can write through the eyes of your customers and talk about what they think is right and what they care about.

No one cares about your product or how or why you built it.

Sorry, I had to say it. Humans only care about one thing—their own survival. If you can’t position your product in terms of what people need to survive, emotionally or physically, you will be ignored.

Most people won’t give a damn if your landing page only lists features, descriptions, numbers, and whatever benefits you imagined. Why? Because they only care about things that help them…

It’s that simple.

Here’s the journey your landing page should take your customer through:

As your customer, tell me how you’re going to help me achieve one of my survival goals and what my ideal state will look like if I listen to you.

Then, tell me why it’s so hard to reach that ideal state on my own and remind me of the other ways I’ve tried that haven’t worked and why.

After I believe that you understand my goals and the obstacles that stand in my way, I’m now open to hearing about a possible solution. Tell me how you can help me.

Now, I’m ready to hear the details of your product and how it works. In fact, the easier you make it for me to discover your product on my own, the more I’ll trust you. It shows me you have nothing to hide, and you have confidence in what you’ve built.

That’s called a narrative. Storytellers and moviemakers use the same technique to keep readers from putting a book down and keep movie-goers coming back. It’s a storytelling technique summarized from three books: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller, and Writing for Non-Fiction by Jon Franklin. I highly recommend reading these books.

The value of a narrative using zero-BS plain language

If you can’t use simple words to explain how your product will help and why it’s unique without hiding behind industry or technical jargon, you probably don’t have a business. You have a nice app.

A long-form landing page written using the template above forces you to get clear about your product’s value and protects you from wasting valuable time and money chasing the wrong thing. It forces you to do the hard thinking upfront and invest in researching the right areas.

Step 2: Develop the right questions (create a discussion guide)

It would be a big miss if you speak with a customer but don’t learn anything actionable from your time together. If that happens, you wasted your time scheduling, having the conversation, and more importantly, you wasted someone else’s time.

Even worse, customers can easily mislead an unprepared interviewer into thinking they’re providing valuable insight when all they’re doing is agreeing with every question. Startup founders often ask questions like:

Never ask those questions! Don’t ask hypothetical or future-oriented questions that are left to the customer’s imagination.

When asked such questions, customers almost always respond with yes, sure, or some vague answer. They rarely say, “No, I wouldn’t pay for your product.” That’s because most humans typically avoid telling a stranger that their idea is no good. Openly disagreeing with a stranger is something we usually avoid.

Dodge the pitfalls I just outlined by creating a well-designed discussion guide, which helps you uncover your customer’s high-level goals, needs, and challenges. And, it makes it easy to turn your findings into concrete actions and messaging that will grow your business.

Create your discussion guide

Use the discussion guide I created as a starter template. Replace the screenshots from my zero-BS landing page with screenshots from yours. Or, if you prefer, use this more open-ended discussion guide. The choice is yours.

To help you, here are two more discussion guides (example 1 and example 2) I’ve used for real clients.

Whichever discussion guide you use, keep these principles in mind:

Zero in on past behavior: Focus on learning what actions your interviewee took to solve the problem your product solves. Ask for real-life examples of what they did when they experienced a particular problem. What did they do next? And why? Don’t be afraid to ask why as many times as necessary to understand the most fundamental reason behind someone’s past actions.

Use your landing page (from step 1) as a guide: Pay attention to the section of your landing page where you explain the challenges your customers face as they reach for their goals. Listen closely to each interviewee. Are they raising the same challenges? If they don’t, that’s okay. Look for patterns across four, five, or more interviewees.

When patterns emerge, you’ll know that you’re getting closer to the right problem and the underlying cause. Make sure your product and messaging don’t ignore these problems or discount them because they’re too hard to solve—that’s a recipe for failure. Don’t ignore the inconvenient truths your customers tell you about their lives.

Leave your product demo until the end: Sharing details about your product too early will poison your interviewer. Knowledge of your product will affect everything they say if you start talking about your product too soon. You won’t learn the truths about their life, workflows, and challenges. You’ll miss out on hearing their top priorities or whether they care enough about the problem your product solves.

You’ll know you have a home run when you can honestly score yourself a 100% on the following three questions:

  1. Have you found the right goal that your target market cares about?
  2. Have you identified the right challenges/problems that hold them back from achieving said goal?
  3. Does your product fit well with how your target market wants to address those challenges to meet those goals?

Showing your product too early won’t help you answer those questions. You can answer those questions by taking an intrinsic interest in why people do the things they do and by understanding how they make decisions.

At the end of your 30 or 60-minute discussion, leave 5-10 minutes to reveal your product and how it works. That’s a good time to record their reactions and any specific questions they have about the functionality.

Feel free to shoot me an email if you’re trying trouble developing a discussion guide for your product. It’s crucial to get right and it can be tricky for some products!

Step 3: Recruit potential customers (who will test your hypothesis)

People don’t generally give up their precious time to talk to strangers. But it is possible to successfully ask and get a few takers. I started recruiting interviewees on a Wednesday and was able to schedule and complete 14 interviews by Monday (5 days).

You can use numerous tactics to recruit potential customers, starting with defining your ideal interviewee.

Targeting the right kind of interviewee

Speaking with the right people is critical. Asking the right questions to the wrong people will result in bad data. Again, let your initial landing page inform who you should speak with.

For example, if you’re building a solution for email marketing, assess whether you should speak with the user of the product, the buyer of such services, or both. In many cases, they may not be the same person. If you’re building a website plugin, think about whether you should speak with the web marketer who decides the website’s strategy or the web developer who chooses technical solutions.

Defining the right kind of interviewee also makes it easier to find them. You may have a list of prospects or existing customers that you can leverage to schedule calls. With a clear definition of who you’d like to speak with, you can also target the right online communities including Facebook groups, subreddits, Slack communities (to name a few).

Be willing to pay people for their time

I budgeted $300 to find the right people to test my zero-BS landing page for this newsletter. You should be prepared to spend $200-$500, but if you can’t, I get it. I offered people $50 for 30 minutes of their time and, as expected, received many responses to my requests in online communities.

Usually, 8-10 interviews are enough. I had only budgeted for 6 interviews but ultimately had 14 interviews because 8 people refused to take money from me. They either gave me their time at no charge or asked me for feedback on a project they were working on. I can’t say if that will happen for everyone, but I’m truly grateful because speaking to 14 people made such a huge difference. To all my 14 interviewees, if you’re reading this: Thank You!

Why bother investing money this early?

This process from end-to-end will either cost you money or sweat. If you’re not willing to do the homework before pouring weeks or months into building a product and marketing it, why bother in the first place? Getting in front of the right people helps you understand if there’s a real market and if your solution matches how real people want their problems solved.

Use this message template

Here’s the message I used to recruit my interviewees. Feel free to swipe it. I used that message to post a message on Indie Hackers and a private Slack marketing community that I am a part of. I chose those communities because they are frequented by my target audience (i.e., indie developers and growth marketers).

If all else fails, use a paid service

If you’re targeting a difficult-to-reach audience or you’re not willing to do the legwork to hunt for interviewees, use a paid service. Check out User Interviews or Respondent, where you can easily recruit from a pool of hundreds of thousands of vetted professionals or consumer end-users.

Step 4: Talk to your potential customers (test out your hypothesis)

Finally, you’re ready to have your first customer interview—get excited and be ready to get the most out of every interview!

Pro-Tip: Practice your interview with a friend or family member before your first interview. Ask someone to act like a potential customer and use your discussion guide to interview them. It may feel uncomfortable, but your first dry-run is always the worst. So, it’s a good idea to get it out of the way.

Want to learn from a real-life customer interview? If you’d like to see recordings of real-life customer interviews, email me. I’d be happy to send them your way.

Step 5: Gather the results and take action (implement a plan)

I interviewed 14 potential buyers/subscribers using my zero-BS landing page from step 1, wanting to find the problems that plague my target customers and how I can position myself to help them solve those problems.

A summary of what I learned

I spoke with two groups—growth marketers and solopreneur software developers, who are also known as indie developers.

Here's what I learned…

My message was a stronger fit with the indie developer segment

Initially, my first landing page said, “Groundwork is a newsletter for founders, indie developers, and marketers.” After each day of interviews, I found a natural fit between my message and the solopreneurs/indie developers I spoke with. Indie developers were the ones who said, “You’re speaking my language! That’s exactly what I need.” I could also tell they reached the aha moment quickly once I revealed more of my messaging.

“I’m not sure what the connection is between the word Groundwork and your value prop.”

Without me asking, the interviewees kept telling me they didn’t understand what Groundwork had to do with my headline “Learning from real-life situations how startups grow sales using customer insights.” In my mind, it was clear that business growth is based on customer insights. But that didn’t resonate with everyone, so it needed to change.

Phrases such as ‘grow sales’ and ‘customer insights’ were not meaningful enough.

The phrase ‘grow sales’ doesn’t help a potential subscriber decide if this newsletter is for them. Is this newsletter for startups that have already gained traction or startups that are trying to gain traction? Is it targeted to VC-funded startups or bootstrapped? Those were just some of the questions I heard.

Also, as mentioned above, I learned that the connection between customer insights and startup growth isn’t as straightforward as I imagined. When I found myself having to explain it repeatedly, I decided that if I decided to create such a newsletter, I would have to abandon the customer insights angle from my positioning strategy. I still strongly believe that customer insights are essential to growth, but I can’t use that in my pitch. It’s not a natural fit with how people think. If I’m right about the value of customer insights, I would have to prove that later in my product experience.

“I often find myself trying random tactics to grow my business, and they usually don’t work.”

Despite the countless blog articles and courses on growth that are freely available, not a single interviewee said they have a playbook for growing their business. When I asked how they had tried to grow their businesses, I heard, “I often try what I read online but then get discouraged when it doesn’t work. Eventually, I abandon the project and move to my next idea.” Or, “I don’t know what to focus on from one day to the next. I find growing a business is a very different muscle than building a product.”

The most valuable insight

I realized that most startups feel lost when faced with growing their business. They’re not concerned by a steep learning curve, by having to work hard, or even at the prospect of having to spend money on growth. Instead, they worry that they can’t see the learning curve in the first place, they don't have the time, and that the opportunity which they feel so strongly about might pass them by. Unfortunately, courses and books that say “find out what worked here and apply it there” rarely bring lasting tangible results.

It’s your turn

You now have a process, worksheets, and templates to find what problems your target market cares about solving and test your way into finding the right message. Take the first step by starting your zero-BS landing page. If you get stuck, reach out to me and feel free to ask me a question.