Building product bandwagon with early adopters

Banner image titled "The product Bandwagon"

This is a story where I had to re-think why my product was successful.

A few months ago, I created a web app at Microsoft. It was designed to host internal service documentation for a large org in Windows team. I built the business case and product roadmap, then worked with a team of engineers to set up the infrastructure.

To set customers up for success, I also created extensive documentation guidance on the site to help them author well-formatted, high-quality documentation. My hypothesis was the app could only succeed if the customers knew how to best produce content to maximize utility for their readers.

The app was quite successful. It first launched with but a small volume of content and just a few active users, from 2 alpha tester teams I worked with. Within a few weeks, user base expanded from the early adopters to over half of the target org, and the amount of content more than quadrupled. Moreover, customer-created content followed my published guidance, and the service documentation’s quality were held high.

I’ve accredited this success mostly to those guidance, until 2 weeks ago, when I had a chance to observe a brand-new customer creating content on the app. He was trying to create a content landing page for his team, and since I was sitting right next to him, I pointed him to a set of guidance pages that would help him create his pages with the perfect formatting and page structure.

He said, “Thanks Ellery!” Then he did not click on any link I recommended. Instead he forked the source of another team’s landing page and did a string replacement. Done.

Curious, I asked him why he bypassed all guidance creating content, when he had previously expressed he cared much about the quality of content he creates. He said, “I just want a page that gets the job done. I know every team here already follows the best practices, so why would I bother reading the guidance?”

It was an “Aha!” moment for me. As he went on creating other pages in similar fashion, I sat next to him re-evaluating the success of this web app. I setup content guidance, customers all followed those guidance and their readers are happy, so I attributed the success to the guidance. Except maybe the key wasn’t the guidance, but rather the time I spent working with the 2 alpha tester teams to setup initial content (which did follow the guidance) — and subsequent customers just followed their leads.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this “bandwagon effect” in play. I’ve driven several product features by working with early adopters first, then using the success story we build conjointly to address doubt and get buy-in on larger scale, faster. Interestingly this applied here as well: customers were not only following others on whether to use a product, but also on how to use it.

This serves as a great reminder of the necessity to put yourself in customers’ shoes as a PM. Sometimes, people don’t want to read a 300-page driver’s manual; they just want to jump on the bandwagon.