This article is the third installment in a series about running your own UXR business. Take a look at the first and second articles.
Marketing is a scary word for me. Whenever I think about marketing emails, copy, taglines, value propositions, marketing anything, I get a cringe-y feeling in my stomach.
It's not because I don't believe in any of these tactics—it’s because I get scared about using them.
When I was freelancing, I constantly had to market and sell myself to companies. For an introvert, this can feel like one giant nightmare. I didn't want to come across as disingenuous, as trying to push my services into a company, or as someone who used fluffy, jargony talk.
My number one struggle with freelancing was marketing. Whenever I emailed a potential client a proposal, I hit the "send" button, squeezed my eyes shut, and took a deep breath to calm myself down.
A marketing shift
I spent weeks creating my website listing my services, scouring the internet to sound confident but not corny. It was challenging work for me and drained me immensely.
Whenever I had to do anything marketing related, I dreaded it with every fiber of my being.
That feeling followed me into my business, but I had no choice this time. I couldn't hide behind daydreaming about a full-time job. I had decided to take on my business full-time, and it was either marketing or not making any money.
I had no idea how to market myself and my services or products for a long time. I constantly felt guilty promoting paid services. I needed to learn how to do this in a way that helped my audience and provided value. I was scared people would dislike me for what I was trying to do.
As a user researcher, I had a certain level of expertise. I've spent thousands of hours studying, learning, and practicing the craft. But as a business person, it was like starting from scratch.
I returned to the same habits I had when I started user research. I Googled everything, looking for answers to my struggles or examples of what I should or shouldn't do. I researched and analyzed marketing copy and email sequences until my head spun. And, yes, I had a Miro board with affinity diagrams on do's and don'ts.
But all of this research continuously landed me in the same place. It didn't feel authentic. I wrote sequences based on other people's experiences and businesses rather than my own. As a result, the words didn't flow as naturally as they did whenever I wrote articles.
I was beyond frustrated. I consider myself a writer—still learning but pretty good—so every time I sat at a blank screen and spent five hours writing a few sentences of marketing copy, I wanted to give up.
Then, I decided to apply the methods I used when I wanted to grow as a user researcher. I started to invest in different mentorships within both 1x1 and group containers.
I attribute so much of my learning to this coaching. Rather than scrolling through pages of content on Google, I got more direct feedback and resources for what I was trying to accomplish, and also advice from people infinitely better at email marketing than I am.
And, with this came the shift: know and speak to your audience like you would a friend.
After years of being a user researcher, I was missing what was right in front of me all along. I had an audience that went through similar struggles to mine, who were yearning for the same answers I searched for, and just wanted that feeling of confidence as a user researcher. I had to understand their pain points, needs, and goals to deliver content that was most relevant to them.
It's funny how a concept can feel so apparent in one space of our life, but we can't always see to apply it to others. I preached this process to hundreds of stakeholders, yet I didn't think to do it myself.
From there, I changed how I was marketing my business and myself, and although I am still learning every day (and I mean every day), I feel much better about the process.
How I market now
I spent a lot of time doing three things:
- Brainstorming (based on my experience and others I spoke to) how user researchers are generally feeling about their craft
- Understanding why people sign up for my email list (sometimes it’s still a mystery!)
- Analyzing feedback from people who have signed up for my free and paid content (ex: reading my articles, taking one of my courses, or joining my mentorship programs)
Using this information, I could better connect the dots between my messaging and what my audience needed from me. As a result, how I reached out to my audience changed in several ways.
My bi-weekly newsletter used to be just five links on user research content I found interesting. That's it. Five links.
After a few months, I received feedback that my audience would love to learn more about why I recommended the articles and what I thought about the information in them. Duh! It was obvious once I heard it, but not something I would have thought of without the feedback. If you had been on my email list for a while, you would have noticed the shift in January 2022. That's when I started writing commentary.
Additionally, people would reach out with specific questions. At first, I answered them individually, but I quickly realized that most of the questions might apply to many people. Thus, my Q&A within my newsletter was born. And the concept of a more personalized Q&A led to my podcast!
My BIG why
In marketing, they tell you to have your big why—the concept of a big why stressed me out. The reason I started my company was that I saw a gap. Many people didn't have the guidance or support they needed to either get into the field of user research or excel in their user research careers.
But, time after time, people told me this wasn't the right big why. And I agreed. It fell flat. My big why was essentially a what: "I want to help user researchers."
As many of you know, I am a big proponent of the five why’s, also known as the ACV laddering approach. So, again, I returned to my user research skills and used them on myself. I drew five why's on my whiteboard and put "I want to help user researchers" at the top. I then answered why five times.
This wasn't done in a day and took much longer than one whiteboard session. I realized how hard it is to answer why five times (sorry to all my participants!) and get down to that deep motivation when something is close to you.
But, eventually—and I mean eventually, it took months—I was able to form my big why. It's still something I’m working on. I realized it’s okay to change as my business does, but I finally feel better about it.
This big why helped me a lot with my content in terms of what value I want to bring to my audience and my purpose: to help user researchers gain confidence and clarity in their careers, so they can shed doubt about their skills and be an impactful support system for their teams.
In the past, I've written quite a few email sequences. These are supposed to bring people through my content in a logical way. That's a big should in marketing. You are doing something wrong if you don't have sequences or funnels.
I loathed sequences and funnels. No matter how I spun it, they felt terrible. It always felt like I was pushing people toward something paid without caring about them. Even when I tried to inject that big why, something still felt off.
Want to know something fun? Just a few weeks ago (or maybe months, depending on when you are reading this!), I deleted every sequence besides the introduction to my newsletter. It was one of the most freeing moments in my business.
Instead of using traditional sequences, I’m brainstorming other ways to provide content (both paid and free) to my audience in an authentic, "Nikki-and-Poncho" way. In fact, I recently received feedback that my welcome sequence (another marketing must-have) was too long, and I have shortened it.
Free and low-ticket events
In my last article, I spoke about my pricing model. One of the coaches I initially worked with had me scale back my free events and even my low-ticket webinars. I was doing a lot of free stuff while trying to grow a viable business, so I had to shift my focus away from this work.
However, I never re-balanced myself. Instead, I continued to shy away from free or low-ticket events because I "wasn't supposed to" do them. There's a myth that if people see you doing things for free, they either don't think your work is valuable OR they won't pay for higher ticket items.
Now, I've shifted as much as possible (for now) to a more open mindset. I hold one free event per quarter and am also experimenting with more lower-ticket items to complement my higher-ticket services.
It's all a constant balancing act in which (as we say in product) I fail fast, learn fast, and iterate!
Overall, caring about what my audience is feeling, what they are trying to achieve, and the feedback they are giving me surmounts any marketing advice I can find online. I want every researcher to feel capable and confident, so I focus on creating valuable content for my audience from that space.
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membership, follow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.