Instead of advertising, Musk’s digital instincts led him to build a product that compelled customers to advertise for him, research for him, and spread the word contagiously, at no charge. He built the product, opened the stores, the customers came, and they posted. And they posted. And they posted. In taking the path less traveled by, he changed automotive and marketing history.
Okay, so let’s set the Elon Musk aspect aside and focus on the product-first aspect.
A bad product, no matter how well promoted, is still a bad product. And trying to promote a product becomes much more difficult, and much more expensive, when you don’t have happy customers.
Acquiring new customers is costlier than retaining customers. But you’re not going to retain customers if your product sucks. And if the experience is so bad that people start telling others to stay away… well, you’re charging uphill into a strong headwind.
Back in college we’d talk through a lot of case studies. I had a tendency to invoke a certain phrase over and over: “Shit on a silver platter is still shit.”
The core product, the core experience, needs to be strong. It needs to work. Otherwise, as marketers, we’re making a promise that we know won’t be kept. And you can only do that for so long before people start talking.
So get the product right. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be good. Good enough that customers are willing to give it a chance and stick around as it improves.
(Aside: I’m well aware of the “sell before you build” philosophy embraced by indie hackers and aspiring entrepreneurs. That’s great for validating interest. But once you’ve validated interest, you need to make the thing, and that’s where my mind’s at with this post.)
Consistent, ongoing customer communication comes in handy here. In those early days, as the product is just getting off the ground, it’s a very collaborative and tight experience between you and the early adopters. For software, this could be an open beta phase or a discounted soft launch.
A lot of the marketing messaging at this point is “this is what we’re making, come try us out”. And from that early experience of working closely with the first groups of customers, you’re going to get feedback that’ll help you improve the product and how you market it.
And then, as the product matures, as more people are using it, you can start pulling testimonials and stories out of the feedback. Real opinions from real people using your products in real scenarios? That’s powerful stuff. Once you have that, you’re able to say “here’s what we’re making, here’s what other people are saying, come try us out”.
Meanwhile your existing customers are sticking around, because the product is still fulfilling its promise and it keeps getting better.
What comes after that? Well, if you think the product is really strong and you’re ready to crank it out and scale, you can double down on referrals and word of mouth: Incentivize sharing with discounts and refer-a-friend programs. Increase your marketing and advertising spend. You’ve tightened up the rest of the experience, and now you’re shuttling more people through.
But you need to have a good product before all of that. It needs to work. It needs to fulfill whatever promise you’re making. As marketers, we’re pouring tons of effort into raising awareness and setting expectations. So let’s make sure those expectations are being met before we start making a lot of noise.