A4___STEAL_THESE_HEADLINESBirmingham, in 1981, and Yours Truly is a spotty teenager….

I’m not quite ready for sneaking into pubs or drinking White Lightning or Thunderbird at house parties.

So instead, my rule breaking means I’m at my best friend’s house, watching a double bill of Evil Dead and I Spit On Your Grave on VHS video.

This was the time of so-called ‘video nasties’ when the British censor decided to ban a whole bunch of horror titles on video in reaction to some misguided moral outrage, probably stirred up by Mary Whitehouse.

I guess it was as much the fact that with the popularity of video players, these films could now be brought into the family home and that disturbed those with more sensitive dispositions.

The fact that some of these had already been certified and released in cinemas (Evil Dead), didn’t seem to register.

Anyhow, these films were difficult to get hold of at the time and we used to go to a used car lot that doubled up as a video rental shop (don’t ask). We had befriended the owner and he used to slip us the ‘under the counter’ titles.

Yes, we were underage and probably should’t have been watching some of these films, but I turned out ok… kind of.

And ok, I probably should’ve been watching Star Wars instead of video nasties… but Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the other space cadets (at least the Ewoks hadn’t turned up by 1981) were just so dull in comparison.

Gory Zombie films were our absolute favourites, and the quality of the picture was pretty bad. But that didn’t matter, the juddering images and occasional blank screen only added to the experience.

Meanwhile, I remember a school friend whose parents had a Betamax video player – and he was always keen to point out how much better Betamax was compared to the inferior VHS.

And true, I remember watching some mainstream Hollywood film and the picture quality was a lot better (if we were watching it today we’d probably take it back to the shop and ask if it was broken).

By 1983 my Betamax friend and his parents were already oddball – outcasts – rejects of the video age. You could barely get anything on Betamax compared to all the titles that were coming out on VHS.

The rest of us could swap films we’d recorded off the telly with ease, but the Betamax crowd would miss out almost every time.

I realise that this doesn’t sound like something at all related to our super-connected online world in 2016. It’s from another, more mechanical, time.

Except that the reason Betamax failed is actually a huge lesson about how to succeed with a product online.

I assume you’re aware of the famous Betamax versus VHS battle, aren’t you?

The common wisdom goes that a vastly superior Betamax video product got defeated by an inferior VHS product.

Except that’s not really the case. Not from my point of view, anyway.

The technology might have been better…. better playback quality and audio… but was Betamax a better product?

After all, the bit of a product that performs a function is only one of the many aspects of a customer’s experience of a product. What about all the other aspects like price, choice, availability and ease of use?

VHS won because Sony (creators of Betamax) didn’t target what customers really wanted… and how they behaved in the real world.

First off, VHS machines were cheaper (at the lower end of the market, but a vital one for people wanting to rent videos).

Second, the earliest VHS machines could record and play whole films while the first Betamaxs were only an hour. This meant that Hollywood release films on VHS, cornering the market early on, left Betamax behind in terms of what could be rented.

Third, there was more choice with VHS. You could get more films, more easily, and there was a bigger wall of them in the video shop.

When I was a teenager, I just wanted to be part of the crowd, so if more people had VHS, that was better. It didn’t really matter about the quality of the playback on one or the other. It was more about being part of the VHS community and get better choices, more stuff and easier access to films.

This is so true now with online marketing.

Your product is not just the content of the thing you sell (for instance an eBook, subscription, live event, gadget or foodstuff)…

  • It’s the experience of finding that product online – how available is the product, how available is feedback, reviews and comments by other users on social media, in forums and review sites. How easy is it to view the products on eCommerce sites or your website and then order it with ease and confidence?
  • It’s the experience of receiving that product – this includes confirmation process, the autoresponder emails, the delivery updates, email newsletters, trial periods and guarantees.
  • It’s the experience of using the product – how easy the product is to use, how easy it is to get feedback, ask questions, access support and get add-ons, upgrades and related product.
  • It’s the social aspect of a product – the old world of swapping videos with friends that allowed VHS to thrive is now the social media world where people can see what everyone else is buying, and there’s a huge compulsion for people to join the crowd.

The brutal truth is, it really doesn’t matter what the quality of your product is like. You could have created the best gadget since the iPhone – but if it doesn’t fit in with what the customer really wants, and how they go about looking for products online, then you will fail.

The problem is that many businesses don’t do the necessary research and preparation before they develop or launch a product.

By that I don’t mean they fail to research the content of product itself. It’s more that they don’t research the customer’s lifestyle, internet habits and online experiences properly. They don’t work out what people really want (and don’t want). They don’t check out what the competition is doing that might be better.

If you don’t do this, you can fall into two common traps:

TRAP ONE: the Narcissus problem


You spend so long thinking about developing or creating a product that you fall in love with your product and lose objectivity. You become do convinced that you’ve created the app that’s going to destroy Facebook or the fitness eCourse that’s going to change the way people work out for ever that you get caught up in your own hype.

You ignore, or don’t take seriously enough, all the possible problems and flaws. You’ve put so much into the project that you won’t accept criticism or make the effort to criticise yourself.

This is dangerous, because you need to be prepared BEFORE the launch for all kinds of objection.

Just because you love your product, it doesn’t mean your customers will. All the holes in your pitch be plugged. All the possible concerns addressed. You have to put in hard work and research to make sure you have all the evidence, proof and answers that a customer might need to make a buying decision.

ACTION PLAN: Put yourself in the position of the grumpiest, most unreasonable customer, then list every possible objection to the product, no matter how petty or unjust.

Don’t only think about the content of the product itself, but the whole online experience:

  • Where are they going to come across your product and what fears or worries might they have (who are you? How can they trust you?)
  • What social proof will they be able to see that this is something that they will enjoy (are you reliable, credible and genuine?)
  • What about ordering? Delivery? Trial periods? Guarantees? Customer support? Refunds? 
  • What about your website, email updates, software, bonuses and other tools or facilities?
  • Where are you weaker than your competition?

Next, put yourself in the position of a rival business, expert or industry critic and run through the same questions, looking for every potential objection, weakness and flaw.

TRAP TWO: customer blindness

Customer blindness
Because you’re the expert in your business, you naturally assume that you know what your customers really desire and need – but have you checked recently? Do know for sure?

If not, that’s a lot of risk to take – months of planning, developing and marketing will go down the drain if you don’t understand your customer’s real online experience.

If you want to avoid these problems and come up with a desirable product and marketing that hits the spot, you need a methodical process of gathering information. Think of it like a lawyer putting together a watertight legal case.

ACTION PLAN: Before you do anything else in product development or marketing, try and do the following:

  • Carrying out a survey
  • Phone your best customers
  • Ask for feedback in your emails and/or blog
  • Encourage comments beneath blog and social media posts
  • Go to networking or live events and talking to customers
  • Hold a focus group
  • Get beta testers to try out an early version or prototype of your product
  • Run a webinar in which people can ask questions
  • Survey all your email, social media and forum feedback
  • Be on social media as much as possible engaging with customers, responding to their queries, understanding their interests, likes and dislikes.
  • Find out what else they are buying and why they like or dislike it

Last month I developed an entire nose-to-tail system for compiling research for a new product. It’s now up on digitalupstart.co.uk, so please look at that as soon as you can. It will come in useful no matter what stage you are at with your business.

And if there’s anything specific you’d like me to look into for further issues of Digital Upstart – any problems, sticking points or confusing technologies – then please do get in touch by email at Nick@digitalupstart.co.uk or Twitter at @NickUpstart.