At Bluehost, we love small-business success stories, whether the business revolves around pies, food trucks, minimalism, life coaching, or graphic design. If you run a small business or are considering starting one, we want to help you make your business a success story too. For our “New Year, New Business” series, we’ll be providing insights, methods, and resources for building and growing a small business. So far, we’ve covered how to develop a business plan and how to DIY and delegate basic business tasks.
How to Conduct Market Research and Build Your Brand
There are two main ways to gain insights about your business: looking outward and looking inward.
Looking outward means understanding who your customers are; looking inward means understanding who you are and what your brand represents. Both types of insights are especially important for your business when you’re just starting out, so we’ll explore how to approach each.
Look Outward: Understand Your Customers
Why It’s Important
If you followed the first part of our series, you know that your business plan should be customer-focused from the start.
Still, a surprising amount of entrepreneurs spend little or no time actually talking to potential customers. But it’s a step you can’t skip, according to Noah Parsons, COO of Palo Alto Software.
“When you’re starting a business, getting to know your customers is one of the most important things you need to do,” he writes. “If you don’t understand your customer, you don’t know how you can help solve their problems. You don’t know what kind of marketing messages and advertising will work. You don’t know if your product or service is actually something your customers will spend money on.”
Tip: For more details on building a customer-focused business, check out these sections from the Big Idea Course: “What to Say in Customer Conversations,” “Validate the Solution,” “Discover the Customer-Buying Process,” and “Customer Interview Guide.”
Some entrepreneurs may be so excited about their product idea that they feel certain they’ll find a segment of customers who will be just as excited as they are. Other entrepreneurs may assume that market research is too technical and intimidating to attempt.
But the good news: market research doesn’t have to be complicated.
How To Do It: Conduct Market Research
Parsons suggests following four simple steps for conducting market research:
1. Identify Your Target Market
What are the demographics of your ideal customers or categories of customers: age, gender, income, and location? Identify their motivations or goals for buying your product or service.
2. Talk to Your Potential Customers
Online surveys are good, but it’s even better to reach out to potential customers to talk to them in person. You could use these customer interview questions suggested by the Big Idea Course.
3. Find out If Your Market Is Big Enough
Research industry databases to find out if your target market is big enough to sustain your business. Check out this extensive list of market research resources for ideas.
4. Document Your Findings
Look Inward: Define Your Business’s Brand
Why It’s Important
Your brand is important because it’s who you are — and how your customers perceive who you are. With a clear and compelling brand identity, you can show how you’re different (in a good way) from your competition. And when you communicate that brand identity consistently, customers are more likely to trust that your product and service will be consistent and reliable too.
Branding tends to bring to mind logos, color palettes, and taglines, but those elements are just a part of building your brand. Before you design a lovely logo and wordsmith some catchy copy, you need to decide what those elements will communicate to your customers about who you are and what value your business offers.
Branding consultant Margot Bloomstein points in her book Content Strategy at Work: “How do you know what to measure — and how can you even determine success metrics — if you don’t know what you’re trying to communicate? If you don’t know what you need to communicate, how will you know if you succeed?”
To determine what you need to communicate, you can turn to content strategy, a discipline that focuses on the planning, creation, publication, and maintenance of content.
Tip: Get more background on content strategy at Usability.gov, A List Apart, and GatherContent.
There are many approaches to content strategy, but two tools that will help you define your brand are a messaging framework and messaging architecture.
How To Do It: Define Your Communication Goals
In her book The Content Strategy Toolkit (which is packed with easy-to-use templates and tools), Meghan Casey suggests developing what she calls a messaging framework, which is as simple as answering these questions:
- First impression: “What first impression do we want our audiences to have when they interact with our content?”
- Value statement: “What do we want our audiences to know or believe about the value we provide?”
- Proof: “What will demonstrate that what we want them to know or believe is true?”
Branding consultant Margot Bloomstein defines a messaging architecture as “a hierarchy of communication goals that reflect a shared vocabulary.” The key step in developing a messaging architecture is a card-sorting exercise with your team (if you’re a solo entrepreneur, consider asking a friend to assist as a sounding board).
As outlined in Content Strategy at Work (find purchasing info and a sample chapter here), follow these steps:
- Prepare the cards. You’ll need a set of index cards labeled with adjectives applicable to your industry. You can purchase the set of BrandSort cards designed by Bloomstein, borrow from the list in her book Content Strategy at Work (see page 30), or come up with your own list.
- Categorize the cards into three groups: Who We Are, Who We Aren’t, and Who We’d Like to Be.
- Filter the cards. Are there descriptions that are redundant? Or contradictory? Or not important enough to include in your list?
- Prioritize the cards. Place the characteristics in order of priority. Then, use those characteristics as the foundation to create an outline of what you want to communicate about your brand.
Developing a messaging framework or architecture (or both!) is a great start to define your brand and guide any customer-facing communications you develop in the future.
Your Next Steps
Schedule some time to look inward and outward — conducting market research and defining your brand. Follow the steps above to learn about your customers. Then use the card-sorting exercise and messaging architecture steps to prioritize your communication goals.
Next week, we’ll cover how to get your business online and build your digital presence.