Indie Hackers Growth February 12, 2021

Product-Channel Fit

Darko @zerotousers

Imagine reading and analyzing more than 482 founder interviews. Think you could do it?

It took me over 200 hours (see Zero to Users for the summary), but I've found some interesting patterns through my research that distinguished products that succeeded versus those that failed. One of the biggest problems of those that didn’t succeed? They lacked product-channel fit.

You’ve probably heard about product-market fit which is basically the degree to which your product satisfies a market need.

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It doesn't always happen overnight. You achieve product-market fit by iterating (adjusting) your product until it reaches a point where it finally “fits” the market need.

The problem is when you stop there and think product-market fit is all you need. A lot of people have shown that this isn’t true.

For example, Brian Balfour, former VP of Growth at HubSpot, wrote a popular article 3 years ago where he talked about how product-market fit alone is not enough to make a successful product. There’s more than one thing you need to “fit” your product around. One of the them is the acquisition channel.

Product Success = Product-Market/Channel Fit

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To succeed with your startup you need not only a market, but also a way to reach that market through various acquisition channels (Google, Facebook, email and so on.)

According to Brian Balfour, product-channel fit was as much important, if not more, than product-market fit.. And he’s not the only influential person to make this claim. Peter Thiel (co-founder of Paypal) famously said:

Most companies get zero distribution channels to work. If you get just one channel to work you have a great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished. (source: “Zero to One”)

How I’ve Discovered Product-Channel Fit & An Example

I’ve spent 2 years analyzing more than 482 founder interviews and observed that founders that who “fit” their product to a specific acquisition channel were WAY more likely to succeed than those who treated all acquisition channels as dumping grounds for their links.

One such example is @this_vid, a Twitter bot that’s making ~$1k/month and is being used every few seconds by various Twitter users.

The value proposition of @this_vid is pretty straightforward:

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These guys did a “product-channel fit” in 2 ways:

1. Connecting the platform’s input to their output

DownloadThisVideo “fit” into Twitter’s ecosystem by using what people are already doing on there (replying to tweets) as an input to their software.

Imagine if instead of “fitting” their product to Twitter’s ecosystem, they instead were a generic search engine that asked users to go to a URL, and enter a Twitter link? Something like this:

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Be honest. Do you think there would be thousands of people using them each and every day if they made this instead?

2. Turned users input into a viable acquisition channel strategy

Every time people reply to a tweet, other people can see it. They can then easily click on DownloadThisVideo’s profile, check what it’s about, and start using them in less than 10 seconds. For example:

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@this_vid nailed product-channel fit, and their lessons can be used by pretty much every other product out there.

Your Product Should Mold to the Channel, Not the Other Way Around

There are 3 main factors to determine your startup success: your product, the market and the channel(s). Out of all 3, your product is the most flexible one you can change*.*

Always remember: you can mold your product in any way, shape or form.

@this_vid made use of Twitter API. They “molded” their product in a way that’s extremely easy to use. The result: They’re being mentioned every few seconds on average:

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This gives @this_vid not only more adoption, but free marketing as well. People who see a certain tweet will also look at the replies; then they’ll see the handle and check it out. This is powered by marketing at its finest.

this_vid molded their product to the channel (Twitter) by using the 2 principles above. What can you learn from them?

  1. If you want to make your product easier to use for a particular channel, see what actions people already do there;
  2. Find a way to be more visible to more users. Below you’ll find one more example of this.

Use The Channel’s “Greediness” To Your Advantage

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If you’ve been on Facebook for long enough, you’d notice they spend a lot of time trying to keep users inside their platform. Organic page reach has been declining for over 5 years. They’re forcing you to pay to play. They also give less reach to posts containing links.

What’s the thing they like? Engagement. Likes, comments. Posts that get those twoget a bigger reach. Also (at the time of this writing, Dec 2020), Facebook Groups (on average) get more reach vs. Facebook pages.

A lot of smart guys figured this out and came up with a neat post format to promote their products (in a non-spammy way) using these 2 factors (Facebook groups + comments). I call this “comment to get this” posts. Here’s an example of 1 post from a Facebook SaaS group:

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The results?

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These posts work well because they “fit” well into the way an acquisition channel (Facebook) works:

  1. The more people comment on a post, the more people Facebook shows the post to;
  2. People get a notification when someone replies to their comment.

I was personally a part of this “giveaway” and commented on this post. 7 days later, I got a reply to my comment saying to check my FB inbox. What I saw inside was a nice link/attachment. Sweet.

Imagine if the original post was something like this:

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My guess is that a post like this would have barely 1% of the success compared to the post above.

Not Understanding How a Channel Works Can Make or Break Your Startup’s Growth Strategy

Here’s the problem with most founders using a particular acquisition channel:

They treat the channel as (yet another) dumping ground for their link.

I’ve seen countless examples of people posting a longer version of a post that just said: “Hey guys, we’re doing X, check us out!” Then, they’d get that post deleted and/or they’d get 0 reach. Two days later, they’re complaining everywhere that “X channel sucks, I’ve tried it and it didn’t work”.

It didn’t work because you haven’t found a “fit” between the channel and your product, not because of the channel itself.

Product-Channel Fit Principles

What can we learn about product-channel fit from the examples above?

1. Study the context behind what other people are doing

There are new acquisition channel tactics appearing all the time, and the best way to learn about them first is to be present on those channels.

I’ve learned about the Facebook group comments tactic by being present in many Facebook groups. I’ve learned about various Twitter bots by reading stuff on Twitter.

Once I find a promising example that may work for me, I ask myself: What was the context behind this? What were they promoting? How did they end up there (without getting deleted)? There are many unknowns I needed to figure out before daring to post my stuff on a sub-Reddit community.

  1. Connect the channel input to your product output

Look at what DownloadThisVideo did. They used an action that millions of Twitter users do every day (replying to Tweets) as an “input” to their product’s output. They also made the output predictable (by telling people to check theirsite.com/your_twitter_handle_here).

Many people are severally under-estimating the effort their users need to go through in order to use their software (see BJ Fogg’s work on this).

For example, if @this_vid was a search engine where people would need to go and enter the Tweet’s URL, here are the steps they would need to go through:

a) Figure out how to get the unique URL of a Tweet

b) Copy the tweet URL into the clipboard

c) Go to the search engine

d) Enter the URL there

c) Wait and get the link

@this_vid replaced a), b), c), d) with something that takes 10x less time by studying how Twitter works, which leads me to my final point….

3. Study the channel’s API

Is there a way you can make your product easier/faster to use by integrating with the channel’s API (like DownloadThisVideo did)?

All main social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) have a public API & developer documentation. Can you make your product easier/faster to use by using those APIs?

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  1. 3

    Excellent writeup, thanks @zerotousers.

    Re: @this_vid - great idea and very cleverly fits into the twitter experience. Curious, where does the revenue even come from? I see "adsense integration" on the github, as well as a patreon page for the developer. Is that it? Where are ads even running?

    On that note, 626k+ follower count and every-few-seconds users = only $1k/month? Those numbers seem imbalanced to me, like there's a lot of value being left on the table. Is it typical of "bot" businesses to have a low ceiling like this? Does the value come more from how the founder leverages this audience on the next project?

    1. 1

      @this_vid is a member of IH, maybe you can ping him and he can chime in on this.

      1. 1

        Here👋

        You can check out my AMA for more details.

        Right now, income is majorly from AdSense. And you're right, it could probably be more, but I've neglected to optimise that side, and Google keeps hitting me with "policy violation" every other day. Hopefully I can take some time soon to figure it out.

        1. 1

          You should definitely try other ad networks. Seen founders have much more success with these other bigger ad networks (AdMob, Media.net) and they don't have such strict policies like Google.

          1. 1

            Cool, thanks. I'll check them out.

    2. 1

      Seconding @dv’s ask: how does the bot owner charge people for video downloads?

      1. 2

        the videos are free, I used this_vid many times...maybe it's from donations on Github/patreon etc!

  2. 3

    Once you spend some time and know how a channel works inside-out (what it rewards/punishes, and the whole dynamics), you can optimize for it.

    I'm seeing some people do this on IH by creating "post X and I'll review it" type of posts. They know IH awards comments, and they know they're making it extremely easy to leave a comment with their post request.

    1. 2

      I think it's a pretty similar strategy to the FB comment strategy I mentioned above, just instead of promising to send a PDF, you're providing value upfront. And I think it could be replicated to FB as well (could be also less spammy, because you're not promising to send them a DM with a PDF, but you're delivering value on the spot).

  3. 1

    Wow, big honour to be featured on your User Acquisition Channels series!🙈 Your posts are always insightful; never knew I'd be here one day. And you've got it pretty spot-on — I didn't know anything about acquisition or think in those terms, but I did ask myself how I could make it as seamless as possible (by bringing it to where people were). And the replies thing too — I figured it would generate some publicity, and it did.😅

    1. 2

      I'm pretty honored that you're honored :) Great job with your Twitter bot! Btw you were featured originally in this article that I wrote for Entrepreneur's Handbook, I've just re-posted this article here :)

  4. 1

    Wow, thanks Darko! Few posts are as eye-opening and well laid-out like this one. I will try my best to apply your tips soon.

    1. 1

      Glad you liked it :)

  5. 1

    I like Reforge's Race Car Growth Framework - https://www.reforge.com/blog/racecar-growth-framework

    In our case, we're starting with a cost-effective sales model, and will begin layering in virality. Following Slack's footsteps basically.

    1. 1

      That's a pretty good framework, saw it last week. Are you aware of any similar frameworks related to growth?

  6. 1

    Really good advice. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    1. 1

      Glad you found it useful!

  7. 1

    This is awesome - thanks!

    Along these lines - I've been thinking a lot about this in terms of how you create and share content in communities. If you spend enough time in channels, you understand the problems and questions people have, you can design content to solve those problems, and then you can repurpose that content for those other channels.

    The big barrier is people don't want to do the work of hanging out in the channels and understanding them, so they just spam and get very little value from them.

    1. 2

      Def agree. Sometimes even clever copy-paste works, for eg. taking a tweet screenshot and posting it on Instagram. Seen a lot of people succeed with this.

  8. 1

    How do you think we can do product-channel fit for a team collab software?

    1. 1

      One way is integrating into relevant marketplaces like the Slack directory. There the marketplace itself does a pretty good job promoting you (see this post for more details).

  9. 1

    The problem with integrating too tightly with a channel (like this_vid) is monetization. Glad to see they've solved it, but often you simply can't get people back to your site.

    1. 1

      I think it's not a problem at all because you can solve it later. At least you can add Patreon

      1. 1

        this_vid maker here. I agree with @founderinc54, actually. I wouldn't say I've solved it, but there are ways around it. Still, it is pretty challenging to figure out.

    2. 1

      I think there's a way in most of the cases. If you cannot integrate a site into the core functionality, then you can provide extended functionality (for eg. if you save tweets, you can offer people to 'organize their saved tweets' on your site, etc.)

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