How to Find Early Adopters in B2B – The Complete Guide

If you can’t find early adopters, you can’t build a business.Trevor Owens, Lean Startup Machine CEO

In previous posts, we talked about how to spot early adopters and covered a few tactics to find them:

Now, let’s talk about how we can use expressed needs – problems early adopters are aware of and are actively seeking a solution for – to find early adopters.

As Lean Entrepreneur Author Brant Cooper said, it’s important to understand that being an early adopter isn’t a personality type. Your product’s early adopters will be uniquely-related to the business problem you’re addressing.

Let’s dig in.

Finding the Watering Holes

A watering hole is where your prospects or early adopters gather for pleasure or for work. It can be a conference, tradeshow, seminar, restaurant, bar, hotel or professional association networking event.

It can be offline or online.

To find early adopters using expressed needs, you have to go where they look to find solutions to their problems. In other words, where do they go to learn, complain, exchange ideas, leave/read reviews, ask questions, etc?

Catching The Signals

The watering holes will be completely different from one problem set to another. You need to find the right channels and right platforms where prospects seek solutions to their problems.

You can start by going through:

  • Forums & Communities: One of my close friends works in the airline industry. Everyday, he logs into Airliners.net. Chances are, you’ve never heard of this forum, but if you work in aviation, that’s where you ask for help.
  • Quora: Quora is part forum, part social network. It’s true gold for user research. I’ve used it many times before when I was seeking solutions. It’s very easy to message users there.
  • Groups: LinkedIn and Facebook groups are great ways to find expressed needs. VarageSale founder Carl Mercier discovered local groups of people buying and selling items on Facebook. He created a better product for them and actually managed to convert them to his platform.
  • Blog posts: If you can find blog posts on the topic you’re investigating, you can find early adopters. Maybe the author experiences the pain? Maybe the people sharing the posts? Maybe the people writing comments? How-to posts are clear expressions of needs. Comment threads are usually a good starting point.
  • YouTube: YouTube is the home of How-to videos. The same model applies on there. Except, you’ll probably find even more people on YouTube!
  • Personal ads: Craigslist or even personal ads in newspapers are great places to find expressed needs. AirBnB notoriously used Craiglist to find early adopters. Many others followed in their footsteps. Enough that, investors called it the unbundling of Craigslist.
  • Reddit: Reddit also had its own unbundling. Many users visit Reddit seeking advice or looking for solutions. You can find early adopters on Reddit (ProductHunt, HackerNews, etc) just by reading through the comments.
  • Twitter: People share things on Twitter that they would not share on LinkedIn or Facebook. Maybe communications feel more spontaneous there? No matter the reason, pains and problems are more likely to be shared on Twitter. Setting up a few “Saved Searches” is a good way to passively find early adopters.
  • Amazon: Although this might apply more to B2C, Amazon and specialty e-commerce sites are great platforms to find expressed pains. Through comments, reviews and reading lists, you can find early adopters. I’ve never used it myself, but maybe Alibaba is also a good platform for B2B entrepreneurs.
  • Related problems: If you have a good understanding of the problem space, you can find early adopters through related apps or services. For example, if you’re exploring problems around translation, perhaps companies that implemented international payment gateways have related needs. The best part of this is that, case studies often tell you exactly who to speak to. :-)
  • Open Customer Service: Websites like Get Satisfaction or feature request boards are great places to find unmet needs and hone in on early adopters looking for solutions. This is actually what analytics startup Amplitude did to outdo the competition.

Finding Early Adopters – An Example

Suppose you’re exploring a solution around A/B testing. You’d try to find where Data and Marketing people hang out. A community like GrowthHackers – focused on agile marketing – might give you access to hundreds of potential early adopters.

Looking at questions being asked on the site, a thread like this one would be a good indicator of someone with an expressed need:

How to Find Early Adopters - A/B Testing Question

From there, you can see that the question got traction; the question is not a random edge case. Other users might be interested in solving the same pain point:

How to Find Early Adopters - A/B Testing Followers

Looking at the comments, you can find other users interested in the solution:

How to Find Early Adopters - A/B testing Follower

And you can find influencers on the topic:

How to Find Early Adopters - A/B Testing Influencer

We can add all these people to our list and keep searching for more early adopters.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

  • As with customer interviews, you want to follow emotions. References to “Love”, “Hate” or other strong words are important indicators of pain. Prioritize those.
  • When scouring blogs, forums and communities, it’s important to differentiate the roles of participants. People asking questions and following answers are potential early adopters whereas people answering the questions are more likely to be influencers or (already) satisfied buyers.
  • It might not be easy in B2B, but threads with more comments are better. They’re good indicators of the problem connecting with many people.
  • It’s important to look at the date of publication. You’re looking for people actively seeking a solution. Not people who have moved on or have already found a solution.

This guide should be a good start to help you put together a list of early adopters. From there, we’ll look at finding the influencers and reaching out for problem interviews.

How to Find Early Advocates for Your B2B Startup

Early adopters are great for opinions, but they’re lousy for growth.

The best early adopters are also advocates or champions for your startup (“earlyvangelists” in the words of Steve Blank).

Advocates want to be first using a product and they like to brag about their discoveries. They’re in a position to benefit from fresh innovation and have the visibility and influence to bring your solution to attention.

Working with the right early advocates can substantially reduce the effort needed to sign your first customers, get case studies and convince other companies to follow.

Here’s how to find the influencers among early adopters:

At this point, if you’ve been doing your research properly you should have 50, 100 or more early adopters on a list and this list should look a bit like this:

A LIST OF EARLY ADOPTERS

Example of a list of early adopters

Since you’re looking for early adopters with the potential to become evangelists, you’ll separate the prospects that are setting the trends from the ones that follow them.

There are two aspects to this:

  1. Personal influence — how many people can this early adopter influence?
  2. Company (or employer) influence — how many companies can be influenced by a case study from their employer?

For each early adopter on your list, you’ll look at:

  • The number of followers they have on Twitter;
  • The number of followers of their followers on Twitter;
  • The number of contacts they have on LinkedIn;
  • The rank, role and network size of their contacts on LinkedIn;
  • Their activity level in groups on LinkedIn;
  • The number of articles or publications they have;
  • The number of talks they gave (# of SlideShare presentations);
  • The number of blog posts they’ve written;
  • The popularity of their blog (comments, shares, etc.);
  • Their visibility on search engines (# of links on Google);
  • The number of times other people have quoted them (e.g., Google search “James McCarron”);
  • Their Klout score;
  • The word-of-mouth in the industry; etc.

Although Klout scores are not a perfect measure of social influence, they capture a lot of these metrics for a fast assessment.

You’ll assign a grade from 1 to 5 to your early adopters, ranking them by their personal influence level. The more reach, visibility and references your prospects have, the higher their grade should be.

You’ll also highlight the most influential companies on the list. The actual grading is not as important as the priorities you assign to your prospects.

A PRIORITIZED LIST OF EARLY ADOPTERS

Example of a prioritized list of early adopters

Armed with your prioritized list of early advocates, you’ll be able to focus on recruiting from the right companies for problem interviews and get the right influencers to work with you.

How to Go From Targeting a Market to Finding the Buyers

Startups are often selling too low… they get to people who live the pain they solve, get lots of feedback, but the people they try to sell to don’t understand the needs of the whole department and don’t end up buying. Try to target top down or middle out.Jeff Ernst, SlapFive Co-Founder and CEO

Target markets are good, but they don’t tell you whom you should speak with first.

Even if it remains just a hypothesis, you must narrow down the kind of customers or buyers you want by defining an ideal customer profile; you can’t just talk to anybody in the organization.

You have to identify the customers you’d like to sell to, approach them and take it from there.

The ideal customer is someone that:

  • Has a problem;
  • Is aware of the existence of the problem;
  • Has already tried to solve the problem;
  • Is unhappy with the current solution to the problem;
  • Has a budget to get the problem fixed.

But, how do you find your ideal customers?

Steve Jobs famously said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. But, if no one knew what they wanted until others started using it, how would new solutions get traction in the first place?

In 1991, Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm introduced marketers to the five customer groups that constitute any market. Although Steve Jobs was right in saying that most customers won’t know what they want until it becomes popular, two of these groups will.

Crossing the Chasm

Early adopters and innovators know what they’re looking for. They can see the value in an incomplete solution and have the potential to help you find product opportunities in the enterprise.

As leaders, early adopters have a great understanding of the technology landscape both inside and outside of their company. They also have a higher tolerance for risk and a greater ability to see the potential of new technology than most of their colleagues.

Working with the right early adopters can substantially reduce the effort needed to sign your first customers, get case studies and convince other companies to follow.

This is why early adopters are your first lead into finding the buyers in an organization.

How To Contact Early Adopters For Customer Development Interviews

Customers don’t care about your solution. They care about their problems.Dave McClure, 500 Startups Founding Partner and Investor

As you prepare to engage with early adopters to validate your target market, it’s important to remember that you need their help and, not the reverse.

To be successful, keep in mind that:

  • It’s about them – You need to speak to their ego and make them feel smart and esteemed. It’s about their expertise and interests and it’s on their terms.
  • Their time is important – It has to sound like it’s a short meeting. Twenty minutes means half an hour and 30-40 minutes means an hour.
  • You’re not selling – You have to build a relationship before you attempt to sell anything. Think how much you like receiving cold emails from random companies…
  • It’s not for them – You’re solving the problem for other members of the industry, not directly for them. It also has to be clear from the start that you’re not in the business of creating custom solutions.

At the time of reach out, early adopters will do some kind of background check on you as a person and your company.

If you haven’t done so already, you should build a smoke screen site or a landing page that contains, at a minimum, your value proposition and a way to get in touch with you.

Sophisticated landing page tools like Unbounce and LaunchRock have options to capture email addresses, manage social sharing and score referrals, but at this point, a simple landing page should do.

If you have professional and personal social media accounts (you should) on LinkedIn, Twitter or other websites, you should also make sure that they are up to date.

The critical thing is to make sure that the story, profile and messaging you tell early adopters is consistent with what can be found online.

Why Research Matters in B2B Customer Development

For any of the markets your startup will explore, you’ll need to do enough preliminary research to 1) figure out whether the opportunity is worth pursuing and 2) be able to have engaging discussions with the people working in the industry.

Your objective is to avoid one of these quick dismissals when contacting prospects:

  • This has never been a problem for us (problem is too specific).
  • We don’t need to do that (company doesn’t fit the identified process or doesn’t exist).
  • You don’t know ABC Inc.? They do just that (comparatives and competitive landscape not understood).
  • With the current freeze on expenditures, we don’t have the budget for new technology (timing and company reality not understood).

These dismissals are the signs of insufficient research, or that the problem you’re trying to address doesn’t exist.

With LinkedIn, Twitter, industry-specific databases and analysts at your disposal, doing a minimum of research on a prospect’s market is expected.

Markets can be understood from the outside in three ways:

  1. Reading up on secondary research (e.g., surveys, reports, etc.)
  2. Understanding the competitive landscape (who does what)
  3. Meeting with third-party analysts (Venture Capitalists and industry analysts )

Do your research or you might never get a chance to truly validate (or in-validate) the market you’re exploring. You need to get through the door first if you are to succeed.