Student Web Hosting – A look at Product Management at SiteGround
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Sharing knowledge is one of the main moving forces at SiteGround and our technical tutorials, webinars, and resources are well-known to people building on Joomla, WordPress, and other platforms. Today, we would like to test sharing knowledge a different area – how we approach marketing and product management at the company. Six months have passed since the improved Student Hosting Program was introduced and this gives me a good opportunity to tell you about the process of launching new products that we apply.
There is a structured approach that we usually follow that is as simple as answering a few questions:
- Is there an opportunity here?
- Who is our customer? What need/problem do they have?
- What is our solution to that problem?
- How do we reach them?
- How do we measure if our product is solving their problem?
- How do we improve from here?
OK, probably not that simple, but you get the idea – breaking up a big project in smaller chunks makes it easier to get started and avoid forgetting important stuff. Every project and product is different and thus answering the questions may require different approach, but here are some examples from our experience on how we went about it:
Identify the opportunity
Be sure of one thing: the opportunities are out there. Maybe they are buried deep down in your client base and/or your analytics data, but finding and taking advantage of them is what can make or break your business.
At SiteGround, there is a promotion for existing customers, which adds 1 month to the expiration date of the hosting account of the customer, for every successful person referred signs up for a discounted plan. We noticed that some people were making great use of this promotion – at that time some of our customers had already amassed free hosting for the next 10 years. Upon further investigation, it turned out those were professors from various institutions who needed professional web hosting for their students and found a great deal for their students through our referral program.
This looked very promising, however, it was a rough diamond at best – a lot of work needed to be done, before we could take advantage of it.
Who is your customer?
When you have the opportunity at hand you have to start developing your product by thinking who is it that you are creating a product for. Use marketing personas to flesh them out if it will help with your planning. It is imperative that you define the problems you think they have that you will be solving with your product. But don’t stop there!
Go out and validate your hypotheses!
Find someone who (you think) fits the description of your customer or someone who really knows your customer and talk to them. Trade shows and conferences are a great place for this, but surveys, focus groups, and 1-on-1 phone and in-person interviews are also an excellent way to validate.
Finding out that students and professors needed good hosting was not enough to come up with a project. So when we began to think about a special program catering to the university population, we sought to speak to people who were teaching students how to design and code websites and web applications at the various WordPress and Joomla events we attend. Over and over again, we were hearing the same thing – they felt their students were let down by suboptimal institutional solutions. They wanted something simple, reliable, and effective they could use in class.
It sounded a lot like they needed SiteGround hosting. We just had to find a way to give it to them that would make both academic and business sense.
Define your solution
Once you know who your customer is and what their needs are, step forward and define your goals with regards to serving them. With the students’ program, we defined three main targets:
- To allow students to work with a full-featured hosting account, both in terms of cutting-edge technology used, as well as the level of service we provide to our regular customers
- To help them internalize the most widely used software in the industry – cPanel, Softaculous, Caching, CDN, etc.
- To let them focus on building an aptitude to serve them in an Internet that is (and will continue to be) heavily dominated by applications such as WordPress, Joomla, Magento, etc.
Of course, there should also be a practical business objective present, even with subsidized programs like Student Web Hosting. In our case, it is expanding the brand recognition of SiteGround and allowing future professionals to make better informed decisions when they get to the point to be the decision maker.
Lastly, goals (both technical and business) are important, because they set the metric system by which you’ll be measuring the success (or failure) of the product you have created.
Reaching your target market
It is common knowledge that no matter how good your product is, the market will not ‘pull’ it from your hands. You have to be proactive and find ways to bring the product you spent so much time building to the attention of its intended users. That’s easier said than done. There is the huge cost, associated with promotion and direct sales, both in terms of time and money. Even if we forget about it for a second, there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) different products fighting for a small place in the user’s mind. Luckily there are ways to ‘hack’ your way into the consumer’s mind. Think of the ‘channels’ and ‘meeting-places’ (yes, digital), your potential customers frequent, that you can leverage to your advantage.
With the student program the webpages and SEO on them gave us a good basis to work with. These provide for around 10 hot leads on a weekly basis, coming from educators & organizations interested in joining the program. Word-of-mouth is another important contributor, now that we have a base of happy partners. Cold calling professors who we think would be a good fit is another path we are just starting to explore.
Lastly, another great way to ‘growth hack’ the student program was by initiating partnerships with student-run and oriented organizations and publications. Some of the high-profile partnerships we have started in the last 6 months included:
- CG Student Awards, a leading competition for students of computer animation and graphics, allowed us to reach a global audience with the program and evaluate potential new markets to target
- ThePolitic, Yale’s 60-year-old political journal run by students, was a test to expand to a somewhat different demographic and see whether the program would gain traction with them
Success & failure are defined by the goals you set in the planning phase. If you are not measuring by those goals, then they are not you real objectives.
If your goal is straightforward – something like ‘make the most sales’ or ‘generate new leads’, then get counting. Try to segment where each sale is coming from (in terms of the ‘channels’ discussed in the previous section) and measure how well they are ‘converting’ – use a simple metric such as # sales/# visitors from a source (people usually call this ‘conversion rate’) or something more complex in accordance with your specifics.
It gets more challenging when you have to put structure to ‘fuzzy’ goals. My advice is – get creative. Not in the ‘make up your own numbers’ kind of way, but really think in broad strokes about how you can put structure to finding out whether you hit your marks.
With the Student Program we could have focused on the easily measurable – number of accounts created. And from the numbers we have seen in the last 6 months – close to 1500 signups and partnerships with over 20 different institutions – we could make the case that the program is a success. Champagne popped.
However, we felt that looking solely at the numbers is not enough. If you go back and look at the goals mentioned above, you’ll see that they are all qualitative – therefore numbers alone would not have given us an answer whether we had achieved them. So we decided to go back to those who inspired the program – the educators (a group which has grown considerably since) – and ask them about their experience with the program.
We were careful to ask questions which would not ‘lead’ the respondents into telling us what we wanted to hear – so most were very broad, the “what did you like/dislike about the program” type.
Still, the answers that came back were really close to what we were hoping to hear. From the things professors had to say, it seemed that we managed to achieve all three objectives we set out with:
Providing comprehensive hosting solution to students
“Student Hosting is very helpful for my Harvard Extension courses because students can standardize on hosting from one source.”
— Jen Kramer, Harvard Extension School
“The support has been amazing. Truly! The best I’ve ever encountered.”
— David Maier, Mt. Hood Community College
Internalizing the most popular software
One of the main strengths of the Student Hosting Program is how easy it makes things for me. I’ve always been timid to teach cPanel due to […] my inability to have students interact with it on their own machines. With SiteGround’s Student Hosting Program, this problem has been alleviated. Now, each of my students has his or her own private account, with its own cPanel.
— Dave Winter, California State University Long Beach
[…]The student program is great! It allows us to teach our students real-world FTP and cPanel management strategies, and it allows them to work on their work at home, school, or on the road without carrying a flash drive. It’s been a huge help this semester.
— Vincent Panico, Raritan Valley Community College
Preparing future Joomla & WordPress stars!
The program is a GREAT way to introduce the students to web hosting and WordPress.
— David Maier, Mt. Hood Community College
I have found this program to be invaluable in teaching a college WordPress course. […] Many of my students have two or more instances of WordPress running on their account, which makes it possible for them to really dive into the software.
— Dave Winter, California State University Long Beach
Going through this whole process will leave you with good understanding of what works and what does not – both in terms of product specifics, as well as marketing channels. It will also give you ideas of new ‘vectors’ to explore, i.e. new customer segments, markets, etc.
For the student program, we are considering ways to expand the program, loosely grouped in two broad categories. We can either follow a ‘vertical’ vector – looking down or up the educational chain to bring the product to another relevant demographic. An example in our case, would be expanding to include relevant students from alternative educational institutions, secondary schools, etc. who we deem a relevant demographic (i.e. students of web design and similar topics). Another way would be to expand ‘horizontally’, i.e. take the same program and bring it to the same target audience in a new ‘geographical’ location. For example, we are currently considering launching the program for the UK educational market.
If I can choose just one thing to stay with you from this post, it would be the one that permeates all topics I have discussed – testing. Whatever ideas you get from your research, always test whether it makes sense for your product or business.
This blogpost is a test. For a while, we have been considering diversifying the topics we cover on our company blog and this has been one of the directions we wanted to explore. And just like with the Student Hosting program, quantitative metrics would not be enough to decide whether should publish more posts of this type. So we would like to ask you to share your feedback with us in the comments section and help us figure out whether it adds value.