If you’re creating a new product, a question might be lingering in your mind: How do you find the right customers to interview?

Here is one of the traditional methods for conducting customer interviews:

1. Make an educated guess about your target audience’s demographics

2. Look in your contact list and social network for people who might match your criteria

3. Create an online survey and send them to these people. (better, ask them for a phone interview)

4. Ask for more recommendations and introductions.

The biggest flaw with this method is the assumption that your contacts provide a valid sample of your target audience; At best, you might get few answers that help you refine your questions, and your criteria for interviewing future, and at worst, you might end up believing the wrong answers because they happen to support your idea.

So what’s a better strategy?

Start with the tribe leader, because his voice is worth 10,000 voices. This person might be a bestselling author, a blogger, or one of the top consultant in the field. What’s important is that this person is seen as a leader and expert by your target audience; they listen to him, they trust his opinion, and they share their thoughts and feedback with him.

For instance, if you’re working on a new presentation tool, Garr Reynolds would be a great example. If you’re creating the next agile project management tool, Mike Cohn might be your guy.

Keep in mind that this expert is not just a tool expert, but a community expert as well. He uses best practices, works with the tools, and knows other people who use them.

Why is his voice worth 10,000 voices?

  • He reads dozens of books on the topic, so he might save you the time to read them by sharing his insights and conclusions, or by recommending the most useful ones to read.
  • He interacts with your potential audience on a daily basis; he writes for them, he reads their comments, and he speaks to them in conferences and seminars.
  • His blog analytics provides him with great insights about the audience’s demographics, which he might be willing to share if you ask nicely
  • He knows other experts in the field that he can introduce you to
  • He knows his active readers, and can suggest some people for you to interview
  • He is a power user of other products in your market, and already knows what people like and dislike about them
  • He probably knows your potential competitors, and some of their current and previous employees

Once you’ve identified the tribe leader, get in touch with him and ask for an interview. Keep in mind that his time is valuable, so you will need to find a good incentive to get his attention: If the person is offering consulting services, hire him. If he’s a second degree connection on LinkedIn, ask for an introduction from a common connection. If you’ve already started a blog on the topic – which is a great way to find early customers – then ask the expert if he’d like to be featured in an interview on your blog.

When you interview the customer expert, make sure you ask him questions about him and his audience. Keep your interview questions open-ended to give him a chance to share wisdom and insights that you didn’t ask about. Find out what his readers like and dislike, what they read, where they hang out, and what they buy. Ask him for introductions to other experts and active community members that you can interview later.

By working earlier with this community expert, you will find that he may be able to provide you with insights that would otherwise take you a long time ,and a large number of users, to get on your own.

And if you continue to work closely with the community expert, and you’re creating something that he (and his followers) care about, it’s likely that he’ll give you a good mention on his blog once you’re product is out. That’s probably worth 10,000 more voices.

Interviewing the leader is not a substitute for interviewing other tribe members, but it’s probably one of the best ways to get started.

This blog post was partly inspired by an insight from Tyler Perry’s biography (recommended), where he talks about the turning point in his career. After he’d exhausted all his financial resources seven years in a row, and couldn’t find audience for his plays, he finally went about it a bit differently: he visited the city’s churches and persuaded their most powerful musicians and choir members to take roles in the production of his plays. The opening night was one of the coldest nights in Atlanta, yet there was a line around the corner trying to get in the theater. His show sold out that night, and almost every night since then. Perry hired community leaders, and made them into cast members. That made all the difference.