Minimum Viable Audience: A Proactive Way to Do Market Research

(Last Updated On: 9 December 2018)

Most attempts to innovate are product-driven. Someone has a cool idea for a product. And then a marketing team has to find a market for the new concept.

Products are born this way because it’s less demanding to start with an idea than with an audience.

That’s the wrong way to develop innovative products. In the words of Seth Godin:

“You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.”

— Seth Godin

We can all agree that:

– Creating something is easy.

– Creating something that people care about is much more difficult.

And that’s because innovation requires technology but also behaviour change.

Minimum Viable Audience: A New Method for Market Research

What about starting with an existing… audience?

An increasing number of businesses have used inventive ways to lower market risks. Instead of starting with a product, they focus on building a Minimum Viable Audience (MVA).

To build a Minimum Viable Audience, you need to do two things:

  1. Building an engaged following that trusts you and checks regularly the content you share about a specific topic;
  2. Interacting with them in order to get enough insight about who they are, what they do, and why they are interested in this content.

There is a lot to say about building an engaged following.

But if you’re doing a good job at solving a problem and succeed to get the attention of those who care about this problem, you’re on the right path.

Getting good data requires to develop a trusted relationship with your following. Each interaction has to be worth their time. This is not a typical ‘squeezing-consumer’ approach.

Once you know what your Minimum Viable Audience needs and wants, it is much easier to create something that they care about.


Case study: Building a Minimum Viable Audience of SEO practitioners

In 2004, Rand Fishkin started SEOMoz (now called Moz), a blog sharing tips about search engine optimization.

Moz built an audience before launch. The founding team quickly grew a following that trusted them. Their readers were interested in acquiring customers through SEO. The team understood that and started offering SEO consulting services.

By interacting with their Minimum Viable Audience, the Moz team figured out that consulting wasn’t enough. There was an opportunity to build some SEO tools that would help their customers do better SEO. Today, Moz is a successful SaaS business with over $30 millions in revenue.

All that just started as a blog about SEO back in 2004.

Here’s how Rand Fishkin feels with hindsight:

“This is a strategy I’d replicate again, far more intentionally, with any future venture.

(1) The greatest advantage initially seems like it’s the low cost of marketing you’ve generated by having a stready stream of people who already care about the problem you’re trying to solve visiting your site, knowing you, liking you, and trusting you.

(2) But, even more valuable is the deep experience you gain from spending so much time trying to provide value to and earn attention and amplification from the crowd you eventually want to serve.”

What’s different about addressing a Minimum Viable Audience?

The output of traditional market research is a report with lots of data and insight about your market and potential customers.

And hopefully, this will give you enough insight to spot opportunities, create a relevant value proposition, and make the right decisions.

The output of building a Minimum Viable Audience is different. You can still get a report with lots of data and insight.

But you get something else:

You built an asset.

Building a Minimum Viable Audience gives a continuous access to the people who interacted with you. These people can be your Early Adopters, they can keep helping you create and iterate your value proposition.

Unlike people in a focus group who leave the room anonymously once the interview is done; many people, who become part of your Minimum Viable Audience, stick around.

That’s a valuable intangible asset when you start a new business.

The Benefits of Having a Minimum Viable Audience

A Minimum Viable Audience is a well targeted group of potential customers who came to you because they care about the topic you’re exploring.

Having access to such an audience will you test what stories get the most interest, refine your assumptions around your new value proposition (customer experience, positioning, and features/benefits).

It also helps you refine your insight on what segment of the market resonates the best with your story.

(And for this particular point, I encourage you to read this article about storytelling and marketing.)

Like Rand Fishkin, every entrerpeneur wants a platform where they can reach highly qualified leads.

That makes the innovation process so much easier.

How Minimum Should the Minimum Viable Audience Be?

In a great marketing article, Kevin Kelly argues that an audience of 1,000 True Fans is enough to make a descent living. If each of them spends $100 per year, it sums up to $100,000 per year.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.

Although Kelly refers to solopreneurs, his idea is a useful benchmark for any new business that is considering starting with a Minimum Viable Audience.

Having True Fans is the result of targeting the long-tail

This is what you must do in order to build a Minimum Viable Audience. You want to start with a strong opinion on who your target audience is, being quite specific. And refine over time.

This will lead you to reach people who really care about what you’re working on.

What about the exact number?

It could be 1,000 or 5,000. The exact number doesn’t matter. What matters is writing down a number that you feel comfortable with.

In Kelly’s words:

There is something important and liberating in seeking a finite attainable number of passionate fans rather than hoping for a rare best-selling career backed by millions of folks who have just heard about you.

The right minimum depends on many factors including price, how engaged the audience is, the size of your business, and your initial investment to build the audience.

The Smallest Viable Market: Those who will miss you the most

In today’s hypercompetitive business environment, you really benefit from being the best.

But how can you be the best?

Simple! Pick a small audience for whom you‘ll be the best. Being the leader—the best—in your category requires you to narrow the category.

In This Is Marketing, Seth Godin talks about the power of marketing for the smallest viable market:

“The smallest possible world that sustains you is the world you can choose.”

The smaller your viable audience is, the easier it will be for you to be the best at serving them.

Spotting the Right Customers with Content

If startups can do it from scratch, think about the potential for a company that already has a large customer base.

Any business can use content to spot outliers and emerging trends among its customers. A brewing company, which is considering launching a line of cocktails, could start an online magazine that shares original recipes and explore new cocktail bars. Advertising the magazine to their existing customer base would be an efficient way to spot those who are interested in cocktails.

Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, who theorized one-to-one marketing summarize it well in Managing Customer Relationships:

“The enterprise learns more about its own strengths and weaknesses from each interaction and from the customer’s feedback, and is therefore able to market, communicate, and handle some aspects of its own tactics or strategy more efficiently and effectively than was possible prior to the relationship.”

That’s plenty for market research. Soon, the brewing company will be able to reach out to people who share a common interest for cocktails.

And they’ll be better prepared for the launch.

Once the cocktails are ready to be sold, the brewer already knows who are its customers. And they trust the company. Indeed, it has built a privileged channel to reach them.

Next time you have a cool idea, try building a Minimum Viable Audience first. It’s so much more straightforward when you have a strong relationship with a following who cares about your new product.