Hi there! We’re an eCommerce business that’s been around for a little over a year. We wanted to share some thoughts on why it’s really important to prioritize research when you’re building a business, and how you can get creative with your research, even as a small business.
Before we get started, we feel obliged to admit that this article was mostly written by a researcher, who thinks that good research is the holy grail to everything. However, we assure you that it is an unbiased opinion of our entire team (of 4 people over time)- that research has truly been the backbone of our business.
And we’re excited to tell you why!
In 2020, we created a memory-keeping brand called Project Memory to empower people to celebrate their lives and preserve their memories through hands-on storytelling. To start, we designed a photo journal called The Chronicle - that puts a modern twist on the classic photo album.
We came up with our first idea in June 2020 and worked towards it over the next couple of months to launch our brand in December of that year. Since then, we’ve built a community of creatives, partnered with several other eCommerce businesses, created a growing line of products, and shipped our products to over 25 countries and every state in the US.
Our team put a consistent effort into conducting research every step of the way, from coming up with our initial idea to launching and marketing multiple products. And while we undoubtedly faced, and continue to face, a wide range of challenges, having defined research projects helps us understand who our customers are and could be, what their needs are, how they use or would use our product, and what the overall memory-keeping market looks like.
There’s often a perception that research can be too expensive or time-consuming, especially for a small business with limited resources and personnel. While there is some truth in that, we wanted to share our thoughts on how you can creatively conduct different kinds of research to get the insights you need, even with little to no resources.
We want to emphasize that the research we did wasn’t always perfect. Some of it was scrappy, some of it didn’t really produce useful results, and that’s ok. As long as you consistently and thoughtfully do it though, you're bound to get results that help your business.
Here’s some of the research we’ve done so far for different stages of our business and product development. For each of these, we’ll tell you what our research goal was, what we did, what it cost us, and what the outcome of it was. Let’s dive in!
Before Launching our First Product
Generally, during this time, our main goals were to
Get an understanding of people’s memory-keeping needs and behaviors
Learn about the memory-keeping products and solutions currently available in the market
Identify features people needed in a new photo album
Figure out who our potential customers could be
Here’s how we got some of the answers:
📝 Analysis of Amazon and Etsy Reviews
Goal: Identify features people appreciate, dislike, and wish for in currently available photo albums and learn about why people buy photo albums.
What we did: We floated around on Amazon and Etsy and read reviews that customers posted for currently available photo albums. We copied these reviews into a spreadsheet and identified common themes on what people like about the photo albums and what they felt was lacking. This method was great because the reviews were left by actual photo album customers but was limiting in that we could not interact with the people who left the reviews and ask follow-up questions.
Outcome: We were able to get a sense of what features we absolutely needed in a photo album and we identified potential new features that would differentiate us from the albums already on the market. It also highlighted different use cases for a photo album and helped us hypothesize several personas for who our customers could be. This analysis also gave us an understanding of what people are willing to pay for different kinds of photo albums and helped us price our own product later down the line.
📹 Mock youtube video exercise
Goal: Dive deeper into what people liked or disliked about the photo albums already available and learn if people's needs varied by use cases.
Cost: ~$150 (but we got to keep all the albums for our own personal use)
What we did: We bought a bunch of different albums ranging in size, binding, cover material, colors, number of photos, etc, and put them all together in a box. Then we asked multiple people to take a look at each album and share their thoughts as though they were making one of those youtube unboxing videos. We carefully observed how people interacted with each product and asked them follow-up questions to understand how if at all, they’d use the product in their lives. The advantage of this method was that we could interact directly with people and understand their needs in-depth.
Outcome: We gained insights into what different people value in a photo album. For example, a student may care more about price while a travel journaler may prioritize sturdiness. Someone who's buying a gift for their significant other may look for something more visual and may value the ability to write notes in their photo album.
As we continued our product development process, we realized that we couldn’t build a photo journal with every single feature requested. The insights from this research helped us make tradeoffs and prioritize the features that would be most valuable in our first product.
🕵️♀️ Going undercover
Goal: Understand what different kinds of people’s current memory-keeping behaviors are. How do new moms preserve their memories? What do travelers do? How about students?
What we did: Based on the research we did before, we came up with different personas for potential customer segments like the new mother, the photographer, the freshman in college, etc, and then joined a bunch of Facebook groups specific to those interests or people. We silently observed to understand the needs of these potential customers and every now and then, asked questions to learn more. Going in, we didn’t know if people would be responsive but they were so helpful, expressive, and happy to share! Here’s an example of one of the questions we asked:
Outcome: We gained valuable knowledge about how people preserve their memories today and how these behaviors differed across different groups of people. This helped us define our first product a little bit more, and also shaped how we marketed our product later down the line.
🎯 Segmented Ad-test
Goal: We had hypotheses on who our target customers could be but needed to learn more about who specifically was interested in our product.
What we did: We created 4 identical ads on Facebook and Instagram for a product that technically still did not exist (all we had was a prototype) and we targeted each ad to a different potential customer segment. The ad led to a landing page (essentially a single-page website with only one possible action or button) that showcased the product and its attributes. On the landing page, we asked users to sign up via email for early access to our product. For each ad targeting a distinct potential customer group, we measured the number of people the ad reached, the percentage of people that clicked on the ad to view our landing page, and the percentage of people who signed up for early access to our product. And months later, when we launched, we looked at the percentage of people who actually purchased the product.
Outcome: The ad test gave us signal into which group of potential customers was most interested in our product. It also helped build up a roster of potential early customers and helped us build a community and sense of excitement before we even had a product. When we eventually launched, many of our early buyers came from this ad test.
📊 Instagram polls
Goal: Various over time. We generally used these to get quick opinions from our followers while developing new products or content. In the very beginning, we wanted to understand why people did or did not print photos. Later down the line, we wanted to get a sense of what kinds of stickers our community liked and what they valued in potential gift kits.
What we did: We ask our followers quick opened ended questions or created multiple-choice polls to get their feedback.
Outcome: Instagram polls are a quick and easy way to capture our community's thoughts. It helped us understand photo printing behaviors, define our first sticker launch, and come up with gift sets for Mother’s day. But more broadly speaking, this method brings our community into our process constantly and establishes a feedback-centered culture, empowering our customers and followers to proactively reach out with ideas and feedback that help us in many different ways. On many occasions, we reach out to folks who share feedback to ask follow-up questions and learn more. And we’ve been fortunate to have a community that is always willing to share their thoughts!
When users consider buying or buy a product from us
📈 Use case survey
Goal: Understand why people buy or consider buying our photo journals, who they buy them for, and how they use them.
Cost: 20% of sale revenue if a user makes a purchase
What we did: We created a pop-up on our website that asked users to take a quick survey while purchasing products from our shop. It linked to a google form that asked questions about why they were buying photo journals and a space for general feedback.
Outcome: We got a solid understanding of various use cases of our product and this shaped the content we made on social media, and other marketing and ad targeting efforts - which directly increased sales.
📍 Checkout source question
Goal: Learn where our customers come from.
What we did: This one’s pretty standard. It’s a quick question we ask at checkout, to learn how our new customers find us.
Outcome: This gives us visibility into how our different marketing channels are working and enables us to focus more or less on platforms as needed.
💬 Etsy/Instagram message requests & inquiries
Goal: Learn more about customer needs while they’re purchasing our products. Is there something missing that they wish we could do?
What we did: Not much really. People often reach out with special requests or questions while considering buying our products. We’re sure to reply to them quickly while taking careful note of what people are requesting or asking for.
Outcome: While we can’t always build solutions for specific requests that people make, we observe trends and when we have the resources, we build products or services to address the needs potential customers express. Journal card addons, photo prints, and a darker photo journal complementing the original Chronicle were all inspired by these messages in some way.
After customers purchase a product
💝Direct Outreach & thank you notes
Goal: Thank our customers, capture feedback after the purchase, and build a connection with them.
What we did: In every order that we sent out, (until very recently when we were swarmed with orders) we included a handwritten thank you note to our customers that encouraged them to connect with us and share their feedback.
Outcome: These notes have encouraged customers to reach out to us on Instagram and tell us what they enjoyed or wish was better in their Project Memory experience. We’ve directly incorporated their feedback to improve our product quality and packaging experience. Further, when a customer reaches out to us, it helps build a direct connection and gives us the opportunity to potentially ask them follow-up questions and learn more about how they use our products.
🗣Etsy Review Analysis
Goal: Learn more about how our customers are using our products, and understand what customers enjoyed or disliked about the purchasing and product experience.
What we did: Every couple of months, we go through all of our reviews and take notes on how our customers describe using our products, and how they feel about the overall experience.
Outcome: This research gives us a direct peek into what we need to improve and what we should continue doing more of. Further, it helps us get to know our customers better. For example, we had made a long list of use cases (ie what people could use our photo journals for) but we had never thought about weddings. After reading through our reviews, we realized that many of our customers used the photo journals and journal cards they bought from us in creative ways, specifically for weddings. We made a new user persona that helped us make better content and marketing decisions, thereby impacting sales.
💬 Direct outreach
Goal: When we noticed that some people were coming to our store just to buy journal cards, we were intrigued and wanted to know why. We wanted to learn what people who buy journal cards without a photo journal use the cards for.
What we did: We directly messaged customers on Etsy, to ask them if they were comfortable sharing how they used their cards.
Outcome: Journal cards sold way more than we had predicted and doing this research reduced our blindspots by telling us why people were buying these cards. From writing letters to using them as sticker pads - we uncovered a wide range of use cases and learned how to describe and market journal cards better.
Those have been some of the key research projects we’ve done over the last year!
Adopting a customer-first mindset of curiosity has enabled us to create products that deliver unique value to our customers, stand out from the competition, and of course, bring in revenue 💰 These efforts have directly empowered us to build strong relationships with our customers, reduce the money we spend on marketing, and generally operate with more confidence.
So even if you’re a small business and don’t have a lot of money or personnel to conduct research, try getting creative with it! It certainly takes time, but we promise you - it’s worth it!
Thanks for reading!