In our ongoing exploration of how people actually implement Lean Startup methods in their workplaces, we’re asking practitioners to share their techniques. We’re starting here with a conversation about content with Stephanie Hay, the leading voice behind Lean Content, which she describes as “finding the ‘right’ words to acquire customers before building products.” Her advice is the kind of nuts-and-bolts information you’ll find at this year’s Lean Startup Conference, which will feature in-depth sessions on the how-tos of Lean Startup—including a session lead by Steph.
Steph has incredible energy, as you’ll see in this video of her 2012 Lean Startup Conference lightning talk, where she discussed testing language that “helps people find you, understand you, and choose you.” When not at CrossFit, Steph tests content at Work Design Magazine, which she co-launched in 2010. She has also mentored at 500 Startups, co-organized the DC Lean Startup Circle, and co-founded FastCustomer. We asked her five questions about how, exactly, clear content gets created. Among her answers is a simple test for assessing whether your company has a content problem.
1. How do you iterate on the content side without confusing customers, or seeming as if you lack focus, commitment or are just plain flaky?
Steph: Segmentation and timing. Work Design Magazine has 5,000 email subscribers who comprise a variety of audience types within the commercial architecture and design industry. So we segmented the list by audience type, and secondarily decided which ideas we were going to circulate when and to whom.
For example, we decided to test whether a print edition was feasible. The assumption was that architects and designers would pay a premium for a beautiful, high-quality journal full of the most popular content from the previous quarter, complete with tons of high-resolution images. A secondary assumption was that furniture manufacturers would want to advertise in that journal.
We segmented the audience between likely readers and likely advertisers. We created eight different versions of "sell" content—describing different value propositions of why they'd want to subscribe to receive it (or advertise in it), what they'd pay, and when they had to decide (a deadline).
Within a month, we learned that both audiences were lukewarm on the product. So, essentially we saved time and energy associated with the massive overhead of printing a publication—not to mention the risk of keeping it going—and punted on it for now.
The next month, we tested the ideas of events taking the same approach—and it turns out, this was a big revenue source. Readers pay to get tickets for high-quality, in-person content (panel discussions) in cities around the country, and manufacturers and other vendors pay to be associated with that content.
I think the hardest part for any startup is to rein in the desire to "throw shit against the wall and see what sticks" versus being more strategic in their focus and truly iterating. A content-first approach is a lower-cost, lower-risk way of achieving the same.
2. How does lean content integrate into the rest of the lean product development cycle?
Steph: For me, it leads. If you create a Google doc that describes a small chunk of an interaction—the language you'd use to "sell" an upgrade from a premium model, for example—and you circulate that to some power users, what do they say? Do they ask questions? Do they want to sign up?
Same thing with the email; if you send an email "selling" an idea, and you see the open rates are super low, that means people aren't interested in what you have to say (or at least, your subject line isn't compelling).
I try to make the content focused on what I can learn from it. Normally, that means including two possible conversions: (1) "learn more" and (2) "get on an email list." If people go straight to (2), that's a great sign.
If they open it but don't click, that's a sign your content isn't hitting.
If they click through more often on "learn more," I direct them to a page with more "sell" content. And that page of course includes a conversion to "get on the email list." If the user lands here but doesn't convert by signing up, I expect the content isn't compelling enough. The sell isn't there.
I iterate on the email content and page content over a course of time, maybe one to two months, usually based on the number of people in my test group and/or uniques on a landing page.
You can learn a lot before even sketching wireframes, and you should, because the layout doesn't matter if the "sell" doesn't hit.
Content needs to "sell." The words need to resonate. Once you nail those, it gives the team wind in its sails to keep moving forward.
Plus, UX designers and developers love it when they already have the "right" content done. It makes their jobs easier to not have to think about what to say—so ultimately they can run faster, and what they create is then more effective right out of the gate.
3. What do you need to know before you create content that is able to be found, understood, and helps you get chosen? How do you go about collecting and analyzing this data?
Steph: I do a ton of research in the Google Keyword tool. Seeing monthly search numbers for organic searches is revealing of the kind of language people use—and the kind of possibilities (numbers-wise) for specific markets.
For example, for Work Design Magazine, do people search for "work design" or "workplace design" or "workspace design" or "designing for work" or … you get it. I put all of the terms into the Google Keyword to better understand the lexicon of my target market, which of course I can then work into H1s, title tags, and even subject lines or blog-post headlines. This is all catered toward trying to speak the user's language.
Using the "top content" tab in Google Analytics helps me understand what qualified visitors are looking for. When they come to the site, let's say through organic optimization, do they stay and read more articles? I'm focused on the ones who do. They see something intriguing. So I want to write more of the kind of content people are finding and staying to read.
Getting them to "choose" requires the kind of strategic, iterative approach to learning what content "sells" as described in the first two answers.
4. You've spoken about the fact that people on the inside of a product fail to explain it clearly to others. Why do you think clarity is so difficult and how can people start to recognize that they're being unclear?
Steph: Clarity is difficult because we know how it's built (or what we want to build), and we have motives for how we want things to go (really well, blowup style).
So naturally, we say too much that the prospective customer doesn't care about, or we don't say enough of the "right" words that they need to hear to arrive at the "aha" moment.
But this is where the notion of "lean content" comes into play. Before you have a product, it's possible to find the language that "sells" the product. It's the minimum amount that needs to be said in order for a person to say, "Holy shit, why didn't I think of that?" or "How do I pay for this?" or "Where do I sign up?"
Those are a-ha moments. They're ready to buy.
Responses like "Interesting, good for you," or "Cool, email me more information" or "I'll get back to you" are lukewarm, non-committal responses. There's no urgency, specificity, or indication of action. They indicate you either haven't sold the real value or you're selling to the wrong person.
It's a challenge to hear these not as compliments (and false optimism that there's a business behind what you're saying) but instead as signals that you're not communicating value obviously with the "right" prospective customer.
But with awareness and discipline, you'll only arrive at the real language (and buyer) faster.
It means humbling yourself to really hear what people are telling you, politely, rather than hiding behind the lukewarm.
5. What tests can people run right now to decide if they have a content problem?
Steph: One lightweight test is to print out the content you've got on your website, probably your homepage and sign-up page. Then call your mom or friend and try to have a conversation—a natural conversation—using your own content. See how that works.
If you find that the conversation is one-sided, or that the person you're talking to can't understand what you're promising/asking/selling, then you have a content problem.
The mistake startups make is thinking they need a copywriter who can "polish" their words. Great content effectively sells; the only way to write effective content that helps build businesses is to tie content to conversions. Most startups don't get this. They think it's the layout of the page or the function of the product. Of course, these are important, but they assume someone understands your words enough to sign up in the first place.
Have any startups failed because they've had too many people scrambling to sign up?
So as another test, go out on the street and find anyone willing to listen. The person doesn't have to be your target audience -- you're just trying to test if you can be understood when selling your own product.
If you tell people what you do in 10 seconds and ask them, "Would you need something like that," and the person says, "I'm not sure I understand," then you have a content problem.
If the person says, "I don't need it," then you *might* have a content problem (of pitching the real value), but at least the person understands what you're selling.
If the person says, "Tell me more," then you *might* have a content problem of pitching the real value quickly enough, but at least you're heading in the right direction.
If the person says, "OMG I NEED THAT," you're winning. Stick with that.
Then the job shifts to discover only what you need to say to keep the conversation going and to direct it to a conversion that grows a business. Inherent to this is then also to begin discovering who the market is that understands the conversation and converts quickly and at the highest value. This naturally refines the messaging over time.
(Notice that both of these tests require no code. Just conversations with friends and strangers. Imagine if everyone started here and decided which businesses to build based on their ability to explain them in the first place.)
Learn more from Steph and other practitioners at this year's Lean Startup Conference. We sell conference tickets in batches; when one batch sells out, the price goes up. We've got a new batch on sale today, so register now for the best price.