Selling Unicorns

Whether your company is in the products or services business, it is a good idea to routinely engage in the exercise of defining your ideal customer.  Who will purchase from you regularly and why?  What’s their core need that you are serving?  How does your offering improve their situation?  For years consumer goods companies have made a science of this with no stone left unturned when it comes to packaging, shelf position, pricing, etc. for everything from cereals to toothpaste.  In my formative years in the publishing world, any new (successful) book would have a clear niche audience—faculty looking for a positive psychology spin for their intro course or a collective action perspective on American Government, for example.  Sometimes, the ed tech space seems oddly devoid of this kind of commitment to understanding and catering to a well-defined customer segment.

There are lots of examples out there of flashy digital tools that do not fit within the typical curriculum, i.e., a gamified experience that takes weeks for students to complete but that corresponds to only a week’s worth of the typical material assigned for the course.  Other tools require such a heavy commitment to learning how to use them that they seem to assume that all faculty do is teach one course per term.  What is even more troubling than these types of examples are those instances where a company had a well-defined target customer population and then through (often incremental) change(s), strayed away from serving that population or any other.  Think hypothetically about an e-book producer that originally offered its books at 75% lower prices than a comparable printed textbook.  Initially, the ideal customer population was most likely value conscious faculty and students.  Over time, that producer started adding lots of bells and whistles to its core product, raising the price with each successive iteration until the gap between its offering and a print book was closer to 30%.  While still a more inexpensive option, chasing those segments that wanted more than just a straight, more affordable alternative meant losing many of those initial customers as the price differential shrunk. 

As you consider changes to your offerings, take the time to evaluate who your customer is today and who your customer would be after making those changes.  Are they the same?  If not, are you confident there are more of the latter than there are in your current customer base and that you will be able to capture them?  Who do you compete with today and will that change if you change your offering?  Are you making the change to better serve your desired target customer population, or are you making the change to serve your own internal needs?  If it is the latter, be careful that you are not creating a product with a customer base that exists only in theory or your imagination!