The art of seeking (and embracing) customer feedback
Why mean tweets and free users could be the best thing to happen to your business
Years ago, I got an especially mean tweet. It said something not quite as nice as “@Hootsuite your UI is a piece sh*t and it screws with my personal sense of well being. I’m out!”
This hurt at the time. Today, I see it for what it truly is: pure gold.
To be fair, our product wasn’t all that bad back then. But it did need a revamp. And this user took the time and effort to point that out, in ... well ... the most forceful way possible.
Hootsuite now has more than 15 million users. The majority of those use the free version of our social media management platform. They pay absolutely nothing. But they mean everything.
Too many companies overlook the value of “free.” But free users — like the friendly soul who sent the message above — are honest. They’re demanding. They stress test your product in every way imaginable. They jump ship at the drop of a hat. And they insist on the latest features.
All of this comes in handy when, as a business, you turn your focus to landing paying clients — especially the huge companies that represent the biggest deals. For other companies — selling software or something else — here are a few insights we’ve learned along the way on the power of free users and customer feedback.
KEEPING YOUR EAR TO THE GROUND WITH FREE USERS
We started in 2009 as a tool to help people manage multiple social networks at once. Our platform was easy to use and free, and we had tens of thousands of users in the first months.
The best disrupters — whether that’s Google or the Dollar Shave Club — learn to listen very closely to those initial users. In fact, they have to. Because the barrier to entry is so low — with no contracts or long-term commitment — users are always ready to jump ship to a better offering. The only thing keeping them tied to the product is its innate usefulness.
To keep and grow our user base, we had to develop a feedback loop with the people who loved our platform.
We set up forums and ambassador programs, and we held meetups around the world — both virtually and in person.
All this input was put back into our product. Eventually, we realized people would pay for a beefedup version, and a “pro” option was born in 2010, targeted to small and medium businesses.
THE B2B BLACK HOLE
This organic evolution may sound intuitive. But it’s actually the opposite of the approach traditionally taken by tech companies. Rather than catering to end users, they focus largely on satisfying the demands of IT departments and CIOs, the ones who are the buyers in large companies.
This leads to products with robust security and an encyclopedic feature set … that can also be terribly unintuitive and difficult to use. Companies sink huge budgets into sophisticated platforms, but they’re either difficult to use or not flexible enough to keep up with changing demands.
Eventually, however, the users themselves get fed up. Used to consumer-friendly apps and hardware at home, they come to expect that same at work. Clunky Blackberries are abandoned in favour of easyto-use iPhones. Gmail overtakes Outlook.
We saw this same phenomenon up close. In many cases, users at big companies were doing an endrun around their IT departments, ditching standard-issue company software in order to use our platform. It only made sense to try to level up our service and go after those same enterprises.
Our first “enterprise” version came out in 2011. Looking back, our initial efforts were scrappy … and maybe not quite ready for prime time. But just as with G Suite and Slack, there was a groundswell of demand from frontline employees.
STAYING HUNGRY (AND FAITHFUL TO FREE USERS)
It’s easy, even inevitable, for the pendulum to swing too far, however. The scrappy upstart becomes the industry leader. Instead of catering to end users, attention shifts to landing those huge deals.
There is an antidote, of course — staying obsessed with the free users. Google, not surprisingly, is a master at this. Today, Gmail’s billion-plus monthly active users dwarf the three million businesses who pay for G Suite. That won’t change anytime soon. But having a focus group that large ensures that Google is always miles ahead of its competitors. (Not to mention, lots of those free users will graduate to paid packages.)
Big customers now form the heart of our market. But I’d argue that the strongest competitive advantage is that we started with a small business focus and still have millions of free users stresstesting our tool every day — discovering flaws, demanding new features and delicately letting us know when our “product is a piece of sh*t.”
Although big customers now form the heart of our market, the millions of free users stress-testing our tool give HootSuite the strongest competitive advantage, says Ryan Holmes, CEO of HootSuite. The social media management platform now has more than 15 million users.