Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Art versus Science of Web Marketing

Building a web business is a difficult task. Building one for the first time is even harder. I have written previously about the available information regarding the business of the web and the fact that the quality and amount of valuable information is amazing.

There is a group of writers that is a must read for students of web marketing or anyone attempting to build an audience and customer base.  Steve Blank,  Andrew ChenDave McClureEric Ries and Sean Ellis have produced a considerable oeuvre of marketing and customer development information that is saving millions of dollars for emerging startups by eliminating costly mistakes and promoting the fail faster mantra.

Recently I have had the privilege of meeting and hearing presentations by Eric Ries and Sean Ellis. Both speak on the topic of Product Market Fit, a concept originally written about by Marc Andreesen on his PMARCA blog. The takeaway from their PMF discussion is, the first major task of a start up is to create a product or service that people want. Until you reach that point, your company is not ready to focus on increasing traffic or user acquisition.

It was during Sean Ellis's talk a few weeks ago that I began to think about the Art versus the  Science of product marketing.

I am an avid follower of Sean's blog and have received much value from his writings.  He has crystallized his process into a logical formula that companies can use to push the accelerator and grow quickly once they have achieved PMF. What got me to thinking was when he said that he seeks out clients that have already achieved Product Market Fit, and prefers to not work with companies yet to reach the required user participation and uptake.

"We have discovered that most startups begin with an undefined period of time where they must hone their product for the right market.  During this period 12in6 can provide very little value and we encourage startups to limit cash burn and patiently engage potential customers until your product/market fit is right"

This lead me to the conclusion that there is an Art and a Science to building a successful web business. The above mentioned experts have given us a bounty of useful and actionable information. Together they have produced the Science of Web Marketing by distilling their methods into formulas and processes that can be duplicated and repeated by their followers.

What no expert has done is provide a scientific method to achieve Product Market Fit. They have given us formulas to determine if we have attained PMF and methods to test and iterate but there is no formula for how to build the product that successfully meets users needs.

The Art of Product Market Fit is the province of the entrepreneur. No formula or actionable metric will replace the creativity, execution and intuition required to build that one core user experience that becomes a successful product.

Product creation usually stems from one of the following scenarios. The creatorsneed, like in the case of 37Signals requiring a project management application. Domain experience where founders build on expertise gained from previous endeavors in their field, such as Another common means of finding the right product for the market is the pivot from the creation of a feature that becomes the principal offering of the company, by listening to users and building on the seed of customer positivity. Flickr started out as a gaming company and  PayPal originally was an app for electronic funds transfers between Palm Pilots, are two great examples of the pivot.

Did they ask their users what they should build? No, and the best illustration of that is a quote from Henry Ford, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

In most cases, there was no aha moment that led them to build their particular application, widget or feature. It seems the key is making the attempt. I think it is ironic that the light bulb is the cartoon icon for an idea or eureka moment, when in fact it took Thomas Edison thousands of attempts to create a working light bulb.

Art is usually associated with creativity and research has shown that creativity does not happen as a brilliant flash of intuition, but as a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea.

Therefore, the Art of building a web business is to generate a lot of ideas, build them and then winnow out the kernel of a positive user experience and execute on that idea until your users cannot live without your product.

Only the startup founder is in the position to do this. Without the aid of a formula, they must string together bits of intuition that add up to a product that people want. The Art of managing insight and execution becomes the primary function of the early stage entrepreneur and the ability to achieve Product Market Fit will determine the ultimate success or failure of the endeavor.

Before the Science of Web Marketing can be employed to grow a business, the founders must deliver the Art of Product Marketing and drive the timely execution of  iterations on ideas that are molded into a desirable product.

What do you think? Do you have examples that illustrate the Art aspect of product marketing? Do you have a formula that delivers PMF?

We all know ideas are a dime a dozen and building a web application is the easy part. What war stories do you have about finding the feature or product that resonated with your users and let you step on the gas of user acquisition.

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