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Why Do Market Segments Matter?

What are Market Segments Really?

I’ve written about market segmentation before both on this blog and as an important concept to understand in The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development. I think it is vital to grasp because it’s fundamental to achieving Product-Market fit and building a scalable business. I’m writing about it again because it has come to my attention that I have perhaps not explained one of its primary precepts well enough.

As I wrote before, Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm defined a market segment as:
* a set of actual or potential customers
* for a given set of products or services
* who have a common set of needs or wants, and
* who reference each other when making a buying decision.
Most of this is pretty intuitive. In a nutshell, a market segment is comprised of like buyers who share the same pain. But there’s more to it. The reference part trips some people up. The key point to understand is that the customers and potential buyers must be willing AND able to reference each other.

This doesn’t mean that two customers need to know each other or even speak to one another, but simply that one respects the opinion of the other for a particular purchasing decision and that somehow the sharing of that opinion happens. Go to any well-marketed B2B web site and you’ll see case studies of successful customer implementations, often arranged by vertical industry, because the decision maker in one company likely respects his or her counterpart’s decision making about specific products.
Note that verticals are not necessary to define segments, since for some products, buyers may not consider industry a significant factor. Same holds true for other classic market segment variables, such as geography and buyer profile (gender, age, income, etc.). Those factors may come into play, but only as defined by “willing AND able to reference each other.”
One can quickly understand the tremendous importance of social media marketing within the context of market segments. Facebook’s “Like” feature by itself instantly expands the scope of “sharing a reference” by several orders of magnitude.

Market Segments and Product-Market Fit

As you search for Product-Market Fit, you are likely to investigate multiple market segments. Ideally, you want to reach Sean Ellis’ 40% “very disappointed” metric in one segment. In other words, if you have achieved 40% across your user base, you still need to segment those users and measure within the segments.   You don’t want to find yourself in the situation of treating a group of users who are only willing to pay $5/mo — or nothing at all — with one willing to pay more.   By segmenting those users, you might discover a lower score among the group you assumed you were targeting. Or you might find your 40% “very disappointed” is in a segment that is ridiculously small or has no money. In this case, you might choose to continue to work to get over 40% in the more promising segment.

Market Segments and the Scalable Business

Simplistically speaking, your Startup becomes a scalable startup when you have learned how to acquire and convert a big (or multiple) market segments.  If you are raising money, part of your story should be detailing your target segment and how you will convert its members, as well as how winning this segment will lead to a scalable business.
segments graphicAs in the diagram to the left, you might find that your total addressable market (TAM) can be split into various segments.  The TAM includes all users who share a problem to some degree and who you believe will be receptive to your solution.  The level of pain might differ, however, between some identifiable groups of users.  The features required in the solution might also differ.  Further, who the buyer is, who they consider trustworthy references, and how they are acquired and converted (funnel) are likely not the same across all the groups.
Your growth strategy — how you build a scalable business model — will depend on your strategy to capture these segments.   Best practices dictate that you choose and focus on 1 segment at a time, the reasoning being that 1) you don’t have the resources to tackle specific functionality required by the different segments; and 2) you don’t have the resources to acquire and convert multiple funnels simultaneously.
Whether this is truly best practices depends on your startup.  How different are the feature requirements?  How different are the funnels?  How much bleed over into adjacent segments does your social media marketing provide?   For web-based business models anyway, as the costs of online marketing have decreased and the ability to track the return on your marketing dollars has increased, the need to focus on only 1 segment has diminished.  (When you are  first starting out, however, there’s still a lot of benefit to the learning that is accomplished by focusing on narrowly drawn segments.)
The one core principle that remains, however, is to focus on one core value proposition. If you start selling to a segment with a different need or change the product for a group of users because they’re solving a different pain, in actuality you are “pivoting.”   In this case, you are better off not serving multiple masters and must “fail one” in order to pursue another.

Market Segments and Early Adopters

Early Adopters are not a segment unto themselves.  Early adopters are those prospective customers who readily recognize the problem you are trying to solve and are often looking for solutions for themselves.  Early Adopters are important since they are likely closer to the pain then you are and will help modify and validate your core customer-problem-solution assumptions.   They will also likely champion your product if you are successful at solving their problem and will form the base of core passionate users you seek that determine Product-Market Fit.  In the early going, you will likely find that your early adopters represent different segments and you will eventually disappoint some of them.
I hope this clarifies some of my past writing on market segments.  What has been your experience?