Finding people to talk to you when you don't have any users





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Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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You know you should validate your ideas with people. But, uhh, slight snag—what if you’re building something new and don’t have any users to talk to?
How exactly do you find people to talk to?
A couple of years ago, I was in a graduate statistics class. The professor ran research consultancy, and that night’s class was on quantitative research methods (be still my heart). I asked him how he found people to conduct interviews with, and he said he runs LinkedIn ads. Sometimes those ads could be $100 per participant, which he thought was a good deal.
I suppose it is compared to hiring a research firm, but you can do better. Where?
Places like subject-area specific subreddit and Facebook Groups are great places to observe people’s frustrations and workarounds to find ideas. (Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman talk about this in their course on how to start an internet business, and so does Arvid Kahl.)
This issue is about going beyond internet ethnography – a valuable activity – and how to find people to talk to you. I recognize you may not be comfortable with that yet (I hope you will be at some point in the future! My goal is to get you there) – so if you’re not quite there yet, that’s okay, and you can throw this one in your pocket for later.
So, let’s say we’re ready. We’ve got an idea that we’re jazzed about, we’ve squeezed out the underlying problem from the “idea” solution we’ve wrapped around it, and we’re ready to understand how real people experience and solve this problem with existing tools and processes.
Here is your recipe for finding people to talk to you on Reddit.
You’ll need:
  • A budget of $50-125
  • A list of niche-relevant subreddits to post to
  • Copy for a recruitment post
  • An interview script
  • Approximately 10 hours of time (Up to 5 hours for interviews, plus 5 hours for planning/follow-up)
1) Determine who you want to talk to, and who you don’t.
The more specific you can be, the better. Let’s say you have a calendar scheduling app. Do you want to talk to administrative assistants, solo founders, business coaches, consultants, therapists, etc? Pick one audience to start. (This is a whole topic unto itself, and for the purposes of this post, I’m assuming you know this – but we’ll talk about that in a later issue.)
2) Research subreddits for that topic.
There are subreddits for EVERYTHING, even professional fields – something that often takes people by surprise. It’s not all cat pictures and betting on mall stocks (though if you’re reading this, I’m betting you’re a card-carrying member of The Interwebs, have several Reddit accounts already and know it’s more complex than the caricature painted of it.)
For a research project I did a few years ago, I needed to talk to data developers in the healthcare industry. Turns out there is a subreddit devoted to HealthIT with 5,000 members. Score!
3) Check that the post you’re about to make is allowed by that subreddit.
Some subs may forbid this. Even if it isn’t explicitly forbidden, your post will want to tread lightly. Extinguish any urge to use this as a sales or marketing opportunity.
4) Write your post.
I suggest creating a new Reddit username for this to keep everything organized.
Go for a casual tone of voice. The points you want to hit on are:
  • You’re looking for people to help you for research
  • Describe the problem you’re looking to understand
  • Who you are looking to talk to
  • What people will be expected to do
  • How they can contact you if interested
  • The incentive they’ll receive if they participate
See my example below.
For our calendaring app, this post might look like:
Looking for people to talk to about the complexities of scheduling meetings – $25 Amazon gift card if you participate!
Hi! I’m a software developer and I’m looking to create a product that would reduce the complexity of scheduling meetings. I’m doing some research with people before I start building and I’m looking to talk to virtual assistants about the process they go through to schedule meetings.
It would be a 30-minute phone call and I’m looking for 5 people to talk to sometime in the next two weeks. All calls will be kept confidential.
If interested, please DM me your email and a little bit about your work background.
An example from my own recruitment is at the bottom of this email. My friend Nate has used a similar format with good results, too.
5) Sort through applicants.
You may decide to post to one subreddit, or cross-post to multiple if you’re only able to find small communities.
Remember that HealthIT subreddit I mentioned with 5,000 members? It’s not a particularly large subreddit, but I still got ~70 replies back. But you don’t need to talk to that many people! Jim Kalbach in The Jobs to Be Done Playbook recommends talking to a minimum of five people, and a maximum of 15-20. I usually aim for five people, though the real rule is “stop when you start hearing the same things over and over again.” (If you hear completely different processes and tools on each call with limited overlap, the scope was too broad… we’ll talk all about numbers for research projects in another issue.)
From that 70, I whittled it down to people who best fit who I needed to talk to, and set up calls with them. A few people might not get back to you, so I would try to set up calls with 7-8 people to start. This might look something like:
Hey, thanks for your interest in talking to me about meeting scheduling! I’d love to hear about your experiences. I’m available on Mondays from 3-6pm Eastern,Wednesdays from 8-10pm, and Saturdays from 11-11 – what would work best for you for a half-hour call?
Make sure to include both a weekend window, an after-work window, and a weekend window. I’ve rarely had weekend calls, but some people may not be able to swing it during the work day.
For people you don’t select, make sure you message them back acknowledging their message. This might look something like:
Hey, thanks for your interest in talking to me about meeting scheduling. I already have the number of participants I need, but if someone falls through I’ll let you know!
Once you have the calls scheduled, comment on your post that you have enough people for now so people who come across the post in a few days/months/years know you’re all set.
6) Conduct the calls.
This is a whooooole topic on its own – basically the topic of this entire newsletter. So we’re just going to gloss over this for now, but rest assured, we’ll get into script development and how to talk on the call.
One thing I’ll note here is that I strongly recommend conducting customer interviews over the phone or audio-only. I’ve found that people are much more open when it’s over the phone – it’s easier for the interviewee to forget there’s a person on the other end, and it removes the stress of monitoring your facial expressions. Make it very clear in the calendar invite that it’s an audio call.
7) Send the gift card while you’re on the phone at the end.
This person doesn’t know you and is talking to you to be helpful, but also for the incentive. Trust is tenuous. I would suggest closing the call by saying “Ok, to wrap up, I’m going to send you the gift card now via Amazon. Can you confirm when you receive it?” and wait for them to confirm.
Why is this SO important? Because you might need to come back to this sub for more research later, and you want to leave a good impression – even if it’s all anonymous. If you don’t send it promptly, people will post. You want to end up with a comment like
“Just FYI, I talked to this person yesterday. They were super nice and it wasn’t a sales pitch, and I got the gift card. Not a scam!”
rather than
“They never sent me my gift card! BEWARE!”
8) Send them a follow-up thank you note within a day after.
It’s important to also write a personal thank you – even after you’ve thanked them on the call and sent them the gift card. This might look something like:
I just wanted to thank you again for taking the time to talk to me yesterday about meeting scheduling. It was helpful to hear about the different steps you go through and all of the tools you use for this, and the different challenges that come up. I learned a lot from you.
Thanks again,
Your name
Reddit is only one place to recruit. Depending on what you’re doing, Facebook Groups or listservs could probably work, too. Colleen recruited from military base Facebook Groups for an idea she was exploring a few years ago. Regardless of the venue, the steps above will apply, just swapping out the location in Step #2.
Back on the professor’s strategy of using LinkedIn ads, I think that’s a good strategy, but the part that chafes for me is that if you’re going to use your limited (read: probably previously nonexistent) research budget to recruit users… spend that money on the people themselves, rather than giving money to ads.
I’ve found that $25 is a good number, but $10 or $15 can work, too. (If I recall correctly, Colleen did $10 Target gift cards for her military moms project.) $50 or $125 is a lot of money… but it’s a lot cheaper than spending several months building something only to launch to crickets. Your time is not free and it has value. And the disappointment and demotivation that comes from launches like that has a cost, too.
Spending a little bit up front to avoid spending a lot of time in the wrong direction is money well spent in my opinion.

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Screengrab of the post here:
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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