Why targeting the right customer isn’t enough

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Cellphone users in Jodhpur, India, where Google sent a researcher this week to get feedback about apps. Google is changing core products in India to use less data and work better on low-end smartphones. CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times

From Steve Blank, the dean of entrepreneurial education from where I sit, on down, we mentors and educators are constantly harping on the issue of targeting the right customer. And indeed segmenting a market and defining your customer is indeed necessary, but it’s often not sufficient for the holy grail of product/market fit.

The New York Times article Google Missed Out on China. Can It Flourish in India? is an excellent case study in how Google realized the one huge difference between customers in India and the West – the relatively tiny mobile data budgets and primitive mobile phones used by most Indians.

Many of the new Indian users have basic phones, which make it difficult for them to run certain apps or to store big files like videos. Data plans are limited, and despite a telecom price war that has cut the price of a megabyte of data by as much as 97 percent, some customers are unable to afford more data when they run out.

Google actually has a unit called Next Billion Users, dedicated to creating products for emerging markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia. Google has marshaled some of its best developers, designers and researchers to figure out how to adapt or completely rethink products like YouTube to serve the needs of mobile internet users with smaller budgets but big aspirations.

But instead of just dumbing down or shrinking its existing products to fit the low end mobile phones and small data plans, Google did extensive research into how people really use their phones, what needs are unmet, and how the company’s apps are received.

Google’s developers were actually, whether they knew it or not, acting as cultural anthropologists, quizzing Indians about their internet use, their habits, even how they commuted to work, collecting information to take back to the team.

One result of this research was the development of a new product called Datally, aimed at users with tight data plan constraints. Google also found that language has been a barrier to Internet adoption in India and now its voice-driven assistant is very popular, accounting for 28% of all Google searches conducted by voice.

As a startup there’s no doubt you only have a tiny percentage of the resources of a Google, but that shouldn’t prevent you from emulating their methodology for understanding their customers, their needs, and how they use their mobile devices.

And if you are beyond the startup stage and looking to expand into new markets, the lessons of how Google has approached its customers in emerging markets are even more relevant.

Product/market fit is shorthand. It leaves a lot out, like how the user experience fits the needs of the customer, what are the trends in the market, what changes are taking place in infrastructure and platforms that most developers build upon, and more.

The deeper you can go and the more you can learn about what devices, platforms and services your customers use now, which ones they aspire to use, and where you can fill an important gap, the more likely you will be to onboard a whole new cohort of customers.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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