If you’ve considered building a product—whether it’s a book, a course, an application, or a program—you’ve likely run into a fair amount of doubt and a number of questions early in the process.
“What if no one wants to buy this?”
“How can I convince people it’s valuable?”
“What if people don’t get it?”
All this after you likely struggled to find your big idea in the first place. And if you’re like many people reading this blog, you still don’t know what that idea is—and you’re pre-worrying about the questions above.
The good news (and there’s lots of good news in this post) is that the answers to these questions are all related. Once you figure out one important thing, the rest should follow.
It all starts with asking a different question.
And that question is…
What do people want to buy?
The problem with sales isn’t that people don’t want to buy. We all love buying.
So if you ask yourself what people want to buy first, you negate the need to sell. You just create what people want to buy.
Of course, that sounds scary. What if you don’t want to make what people want to buy?
Here again, you need to look at it differently.
People don’t want to buy products. They want to buy outcomes.
Or as David Ogilvy once said, “People don’t buy drills. They buy holes.”
You can build anything you want, as long as it gets people to the outcome that they want to buy.
Do they want to learn a new skill? You can teach that skill in the manner you choose to get them there.
Do they want to change a bad habit or behavioral pattern? You can help them through that shift in the best way you know how.
Do they never want to be frustrated by that friend of theirs again? You can guide them to respond differently however you see fit.
Do they want to reach a big goal? You can create a unique path to get them there based on what you’re really passionate about.
Do they want to change how they see themselves in the mirror? You can build the product that makes that happen.
Build your product to sell and you’ll never feel like you’re selling again. All you need to do is tell the truth, speak openly and honestly about what your product is designed to help your customers accomplish, and they’ll do the rest.
Your customers don’t have to fully understand your product to buy it. They don’t have to be taught why they thing you’ve created is valuable. The only thing they need to understand is that your product was designed to help them get what they want, become the person they want to become, or change something they’ve been meaning to change.
When you build a product to sell, you can count on customer excitement to help you spread the word. You can count on your sales copy all but writing itself. You can count on your advertising to stick. You can count on each sales conversation you have being productive.
Building to sell isn’t a jail sentence; it is, in fact, the way you set your business free.
There are few things more frustrating than pouring your heart into an idea only to see it fail to sell. Because this is a problem that so many of my clients have faced in the past, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort figuring out a step-by-step system for them to use to create products that naturally resonate (and sell) with their audiences.
What follows is that process, as clearly as I can articulate it. While it is 13 steps long, it doesn’t have to take a long time (click here to find out the 5 tools we use to build hands-on training & coaching programs fast). Rapid product creation, testing, and sales is an important part of growth. Long development cycles are product killers, not indicators of success or effectiveness. In fact, you may be able to complete this 13 step process in a couple of days. I find that a couple of weeks or months is a great time frame. Any more than 8-10 weeks and you’re likely investing too heavily in untested assumptions.
In fact, you may be able to complete this 13 step process in a couple of days. I find that a couple of weeks or months is a great time frame. Any more than 8-10 weeks and you’re likely investing too heavily in untested assumptions. Tighten it up, take a deep breath, and leap.
First, let’s start by defining resonance. In my book, The Observation Engine, I say that resonance is “when something just feels right. When an idea echoes what you’re already feeling, a circumstance you find yourself in, or something you see coming on your personal horizon, that idea resonates with you. You’re tied to it. You give it weight and meaning.”
Products that resonate with us touch something deep inside. Which is not to say that your products have to be “deep” to resonate. Impulse buys resonate with us not because they fulfill a deep need but because they mirror a very surface desire or concern. SaaS (software as a service) products—think AirBnB or Laura Roeder’s Edgar—often resonate the same way: software that instantly alleviates a felt frustration or desire.
Of course, other products that resonate—like Randi Buckley’s Healthy Boundaries for Kind People or Shawn Fink’s Abundant Mama Project—do resonate with something deeper inside of us. Randi’s program mirrors our unexpressed desires for balance, boundaries, and space when our very natures push us to be kind at all costs. Shawn’s program connects with our desire to connect to a vision of motherhood that is intentional, mindful, and full of both giving and receiving.
Why does resonance matter? Products that resonate sell easily.
Here’s another example: Super Mario Maker is a new offering from Nintendo that leverages nostalgia for Mario and combines it with the contemporary creative culture of Minecraft. Either of these features could resonate on its own but by combining them, Nintendo has a recipe for a blockbuster. (Bonus points: This article about creating great levels for Super Mario Maker is a great corollary to creating products that resonate.)
Ultimately, using resonance as your metric of success means that your product is designed for your customers, not for you. While that might seem like an obvious imperative, designers designing for themselves is a problem in every industry, at every level (micro, small, startup, and enterprise business).
If you ensure that everything you do is designed to resonate with your customer, you can be reasonably certain you’ll have a product that will sell easily, generate word of mouth marketing, and nurture happy customers—even if you start with a mere prototype. Ready to create a product that resonates? Here we go.
Step 1: Join a conversation.
The good news is that you’ve already done this step. Markets are conversations, as the book The Cluetrain Manifesto explains. What that means is that people who have similar problems, desires, and questions tend to talk to each other. They’ll also talk with you if you’re willing to listen.
Sometimes, joining a conversation is a formal step: becoming a member at a gym, joining a forum, getting a degree. Other times, joining a conversation just means talking about what you’re into with other people who are into it too on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or in your local community.
Don’t overthink this step. Joining conversations is something we do naturally as human beings. If you’re passionate about what you are creating, you’re already a part of the conversation—you just need to draw some attention to it and amplify your efforts.
If you’re really stuck, look for the #hashtag effect. Hashtags are visual and hyperlinked markers of conversations. Some, like Hannah Marcotti’s #ilovethislifenow, are proprietary (but you can still join in to find like-minded folks). Others, are generic, like #marketing or #smallbusiness. Both kinds are doors into conversations that then can lead to more productive engagements.
Step 2: Identify core questions, frustrations, and desires.
Once you draw attention to the fact that you’re already in a conversation with people for whom you could create something, you need to start cataloging their core questions, frustrations, and desires. You might mentally catalog them, or you might pop them into something like Evernote or a mind mapping tool so that you can start to spot patterns.
In my own business, I’ve been keeping track of core questions, frustrations, and desires for years. The questions are things like “How do I get the word out about my product?” or “How do I break through this earning plateau?” The frustrations are things like “People get excited about my product but they don’t buy it” or “No matter how many marketing formulas I follow, I can’t get something to stick.” And the desires are things like “I’d love to have a team of people to bounce ideas off of” or “I really want to take a little time off from my business every so often.”
I don’t worry that those questions might not be the “right” questions or that those frustrations might be superficial symptoms of much larger problems. What really matters is that those questions, frustrations, and desires are what is relevant to the people in my conversation right now. It’s what they’re paying the most attention to.
I might have a better question to ask or a deeper problem for them to address, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t identify with it. That lesson took me a long time to learn. You have to start with what’s relevant, here and now.
Step 3: Engage those questions, frustrations, or desires.
Once you know what the questions, frustrations, and desires inherent to your conversation are, you can engage them. To engage them, you have to get curious. You want to dig deeper, pose your own questions, and find out more about what’s important to your people.
Social media is an amazing tool for this. Using the core questions, frustrations, and desires of the conversation as your starting point, you can craft content that encourages others to talk back to you, validate your understanding, and enhance your awareness.
Ramit Sethi is a master of this. In this super simple recent Facebook post, he poses a straightforward question about what people really want to buy:
Knowing what people want to buy gives him details he can use to better create and position the products he is developing. He can use his community’s words as sample goals and he can direct the development of his products to gear them toward those kinds of goals.
Step 4: Respond with something different.
Product designers often forget that their prospective users have already tried a lot of different ways to answer their questions, alleviate their frustrations, and achieve their desires. If it’s out there, they’ve given it a whirl. That means you, as a designer, need to understand what all those options might be so that you can respond with something different.
Take Ramit’s example above. One thing Ramit says over and over again is that he’ll never suggest you give up your daily latte habit to save money. Instead, he’d like you to live the life you want and learn how to make enough money to support it (for the record, I completely agree).
He might not be the only person suggesting this course of action, but it’s certainly very different from most financial advice people have heard throughout the years. By taking a relevant idea (“I want to save money”), examining what the past options have been (“I really should give up that daily [whatever]”), and proposing something different (“What if you learned how to make an extra $1k a month?”), Ramit is able to command people’s attention without shouting, being sleazy, or contributing to the noise. He’s earned trust and attention before he’s even started building a product.
Step 5: Understand and articulate the Before & After.
Steps 5-8 are about nailing your sales message before you build the product. This is one of the biggest changes I ask all of my clients to make and it comes from many failed products in my own experience. Being able to understand and articulate the Before & After is the easiest way to describe value.
Value is transformation. If you describe someone’s situation now (Before) and their goals (After), you’ve described the transformation they’re after. You’ve framed the value of what you have to offer in a way that immediately resonates with them. Here’s the Before that Randi Buckley describes on the sales page for Healthy Boundaries for Kind People:
“…the folks whose hearts are so very big, who give unlimited second chances, who carry the bad behavior or others on their shoulders, all while wanting to do the right thing. The folks who might even think they don’t deserve boundaries, or that boundaries might even be selfish. Or they don’t know what to do or what to say to make things different.”
And here’s how she describes the After:
“It’s a journey to feeling like you have, tend, and maintain healthy boundaries with ease and without all of the hang ups, guilt, not-knowing-what-to-do, fear of repercussions, feeling like a jerk.”
The transformation she describes is an easy way for prospective users to understand the value they’re considering purchasing. That simple description can be the difference between people “getting it” and not getting it—and it’s so often exactly what’s left out of sales copy. Before you do anything else in the process of developing a product, make sure you can clearly define the Before & After for your customer.
Step 6: Offer your Key Insight.
Everything to this point has focused on the people you’re talking to, what they’re experiencing, and how you’re understanding it. Now, we begin to flip the script.
I like to think of the space between the Before & After as being a doorway. Your customers have been trying to get through but they continue to find the door closed and locked. You, as an expert, someone with experience, or a curious soul who is in the problem-solving business, have the key.
You have a piece of knowledge, know-how, or understanding that acts to unlock the door. Your Key Insight isn’t the product—it’s the Why It Works. Your product works for a reason, which is also likely its differentiating factor, and that reason provides much needed hope and understanding to your prospective user.
Let’s look at Randi’s example again. Randi’s Key Insight for Healthy Boundaries for Kind People is “Kindness can be a tool to take a stand for yourself.” Dr. Michelle Mazur uses the Key Insight ‘Your speech is an asset you can sell over & over again,’ to demonstrate how she helps her clients get better results and why her Speak for Impact package is different than other services they’ve looked at.
Put yourself in the shoes of their prospective users (that’s probably not too hard for you!). That statement could be the source of extreme relief and a giant a ha! moment. If you can provide that kind of feeling and exhilaration before you even ask for a sale let alone deliver a product, how much more open to buying will your prospective user be?
Step 7: Test your Before & After and Key Insight.
Now the first 6 steps set you up to be reasonably certain that your Before & After and Key Insight will resonate with your audience. But you can’t be completely certain until you test it.
Testing it is as simple as mirroring the message through social media, your blog, or email marketing. It could also be embedded into a workshop, webinar, or community event. You need to get comfortable communicating it in many different forms and seeing what the response to that communication is. The more people respond positively (“Wow, you read my mind!” or “That completely changed the way I look at that.”) the more you know you’re on the right track.
Step 8: Form your Hypothesis.
Your Hypothesis brings it all together. You connect your Key Insight to the results and goals (After) that your prospective users are after so that they start to see the product you’re eventually going to sell them as the answer they’ve been looking for. Here’s Randi’s Hypothesis:
“Kindness can be a tool to take a stand for yourself. What we tolerate, we perpetuate, and with your new tools, beliefs, and rewiring, you will use boundaries to AMPLIFY your kindness into the world. I’m totally serious.”
And here’s the beautiful Hypothesis Danielle LaPorte uses to talk about The Desire Map:
“What if, first, we got clear on how we actually wanted to feel in our life, and then we laid out our intentions? What if your most desired feelings consciously informed how you plan your day, your year, your career, your holidays — your life? You know what will happen with that kind of inner clarity and outer action? You’ll feel the way you want to feel more often than not. Decisions will be easier to make: You’ll know what to say no, thank you to and what to say hell yes! to. I bet you’ll complain less. You’ll be more optimistic, more open-hearted. It will be easier for you to return to your center in the midst of a challenge — I promise.”
Here’s the Hypothesis I use on the Quiet Power Strategy™ sales page:
“Running your business your way doesn’t mean making it up as you go. You can create a strategic plan that allows you to maximize your effectiveness and lead yourself to the wealth, peace, and ease you crave.”
The Hypothesis is your opportunity to join what you know to what your prospective users want. Your Hypothesis is the ultimate way to ensure that your audience is connecting the dots between their experience and what you have to offer.
Step 9: Build your product using the Before & After, Key Insight, and Hypothesis as guidelines. (i.e. Build to sell.)
Build your products to sell—not to impress yourself.
To do that, you need to build them with the sales message in mind. You build in the features that support the benefits and end results you’ve outlined in the sales message—that and nothing else. When you do things in this order, building the product becomes so much easier.
You see what you can edit out because you have a clear framework for what’s important. You see where you can cut corners and where you can’t because you have guidelines for what matters. For every choice that presents itself as part of the product development process, come back to your Before & After, Key Insight, and Hypothesis as your strategic guide. If you’ve already built a product but without the sales message in mind first, you’ve no doubt experienced the pain of sitting in front of a blank page unable to come up with a compelling way to sell what you’ve just poured blood, sweat, and tears into.
If you’ve already built a product but without the sales message in mind first, you’ve no doubt experienced the pain of sitting in front of a blank page unable to come up with a compelling way to sell what you’ve just poured blood, sweat, and tears into.
Step 10: Make your offer.
This is your big moment. Make your offer to the people you’ve been paying attention to, observing, and engaging throughout the process. They’ll feel like you’ve made it just for them (because you have) and they’ll feel like they contributed to its creation (because they have).
This should be the easiest sale you’ve ever made. If you want to make sure your audience is going to be ready to receive your offer, create a guided conversation beforehand. Start with what they already know, challenge any underlying misconceptions or assumptions, expand their vision of what’s possible, analyze where they’re at right now (the core questions, frustrations, and desires they have), and then provide a clear result related to the product you’ve just created.
You can do that via email marketing, a 1:1 sales conversation, a series of videos… the possibilities are endless. It’s all about connecting what’s relevant and important to your prospective users right now with the insight you have and the product you have to offer them.
Step 11: Deliver the value.
This should be the easiest step. Give the people what they bought. Except… building a product that resonates doesn’t end here.
Step 12: Gather feedback both direct and indirect.
Once you’ve delivered the product the first time (and every time after that), you need to gather feedback. Sometimes that feedback is direct; your customers tell you how they feel about it.
But often, the best feedback is indirect. That comes from seeing where your customers get stuck, looking for unexpected ways they use your product, and answering questions that arise during the normal course of business. Every time you release a product there’s a wealth of information at your fingertips. A few weeks ago, Danielle LaPorte posted this about her Desire Map Planner on her Facebook page:
“I say this every year: I LOVE my day planner. I’m so proud of this planner system. And every year, I totally overhaul the design and make it even better. And then I say, No, THIS year, it’s the best edition yet. Well… THIS YEAR IS THE BEST PLANNER COLLECTION EVER. It’s radically newer, smarter, wiser, funner, and sexier. It’s taken Team D and me 3 years and a bunch of surveys and feedback to really truly hit it out of the park with this edition. I feel like I’ve finally landed on the organization and design that will work for a vast amount of people and stand the test of time.”
Feedback gives you the information you need to make your product even better.
Feedback is the fuel for a collaborative, co-creative experience with your customers. You don’t have to use all the feedback. You don’t have to listen to everyone. But you do need to create a system through which you can gather feedback and keep the stuff you want to work with.
Step 13: Iterate, reposition, or differentiate.
Great products aren’t born in a breakthrough; they evolve over time. Even something as industry-changing as the iPhone started small. Marie Forleo’s B-School wasn’t a juggernaut in its first iteration. WordPress has been through dozens of versions.
If you set out to make a perfect product, you will fail. Set out to make a product that resonates and then make your goal to increase the resonance each time you offer it for sale. Add features that improve the resonance; create messages that improve the resonance; pivot the purpose to improve the resonance.
To iterate—create a new version—you start way back at Step 2 and you work your way through the cycle again. At this stage, you may also need to reposition your product. If people love it but it does something different for them than you were originally anticipating (this happens all the time even though it sounds weird), reposition the product to reflect the way people really use it and the results they really achieve. If you thought the product would resonate with one audience and it really resonates with another audience, reposition it to better reflect that new audience.
Finally, differentiate. As my mentor Sally Hogshead says, “Different is better than better.” Once you have a better handle on how the product resonates and how people use it, you can amplify the features that separate it from the rest of the competition so that it really stands out. While differentiation should be a goal from the beginning, it’s in future iterations that differentiation can more thoroughly be achieved.
That’s it (ha!): 13 steps to creating a product that resonates. You can apply these steps to anything: an information product, a piece of jewelry, a coaching program, a podcast, etc… Once you know what you want to create and how its going to resonate, I assure you there are any number of free tutorials out there on creating and selling the exact thing you want to create.
The beauty of having a strategic framework like this is that you have so much less to sift through when you’re ready to build. You’ll get your product to market faster, you’ll sell more, and create a bigger impact by virtue of the focus you had on the strategic objectives you uncovered step-by-step through this guide. Get out there and create something that resonates.