The Shape of a Problem in the Wild

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The wonderful thing about humans is that they have a hundred different ways to talk about their dreams, desires, needs, and challenges. No two people will talk about their experiences the same way. Thankfully, we can group these messages into several easy-to-recognize categories while we observe our potential customers in their communities.

Here’s an important thing to understand: Problem awareness can’t be expected by default. Many people walk through their lives, dealing with problems but not recognizing that something is wrong: to them, it’s just the way things are. When someone asks for a recommendation, not only have they understood that they have a problem, they also learned that they can solve it and that there are solutions that others might recommend to them.

Let me introduce Eugene Schwartz’s Prospect Awareness Scale, a handy categorization of different states of clarity about any given problem in their space. Here’s a quick rundown of this scale, from lowest awareness to highest:

  • Completely Unaware: The person is not aware of the problem at all. They are most likely to complain about a pain they feel.
  • Problem-Aware: The person understands they have a problem but is unaware that someone has already solved it. They are most likely to ask for help.
  • Solution-Aware: The person knows that their problem can be solved but doesn’t yet know that you offer a product that does. They’re most likely to ask for recommendations.
  • Product-Aware: The person knows what you sell but is also looking at the competition. They will ask for alternatives to your products or your competitors.
  • Most Aware: The person knows your product and only needs to be convinced to use it. For problem discovery, this group isn’t too interesting. Super interesting for any sales activities at some later point, though!


This might be the most obvious hint that there is something wrong: people quite literally telling you that something is not working for them. Anything that starts with one of these phrases can be considered a complaint:

  • “I can’t believe X is so hard…”
  • “Why is there no X for Y…”
  • “I can’t figure out how to X…”
  • “How on earth do people deal with X…”

The common theme among complaints is that they usually come after someone attempted to solve a pressing problem unsuccessfully. Their frustration levels rising, they eventually escalate to sharing their annoyance in their communities.

Understand that a complaint is usually an explosive message. It might draw a bleaker picture than the person would feel in another situation. Still, a complaint is a clear indicator of a pain, a strongly felt one at that. If you see regular complaints about a particular issue, you might be looking at a very critical problem.

When people vent their frustration, consider holding back on the engagement for a bit. A person who just typed furiously to deal with their pain is not the best candidate for a thoughtful and calm conversation. Take a note of the conversation happening and engage a bit later, maybe even through another channel than directly responding to the original message or thread.

Asking for Help

While complaints are usually very emotionally charged, asking people for help is a more somber affair. While often similarly using similar wording, the complainer doesn’t actively seek assistance. They’re usually looking for consolation and commiseration. A person asking for help, however, is looking for a more interactive experience.

When people ask for help, they have exhausted their repertoire of solutions. Particularly in professional communities, people will try many things before they consider asking others for assistance. While in certain communities, it’s perfectly fine to ask for help, it may be considered a sign of weakness and lack of experience in others. Your Embedded Exploration efforts should have provided you with some insight into this threshold so that you can distinguish how experienced any given person asking for help might be.

By virtue of having limited knowledge, beginners will ask for help faster and more often, which will skew the quantitative distribution of “asking for help” messages towards the novices in any given field. Every now and then, an expert will ask such a question. Pay particular attention to those posts, as they point at critical problems that even the most experienced professionals (who often have interesting budgets) have trouble with.

Take notice of who responds to people asking for help and how they approach both solving their problem and asking for clarification. You will learn a lot about how solutions in this space can be analyzed by observing how people try to find the root causes of problems.

The people who jump at the opportunity to help another community member are the people you want to follow and engage with actively. Consider how much insight they have into the problem space on your target niche: not only do they hang out in the community, they are actively trying to solve people’s problems. If there is any person who you should ask about problems they regularly encounter, it would be the person that is always on the lookout for people who need help.

Looking for Recommendations

People who don’t need help immediately but are interested in preparing for a future problem will trust their community to supply them with valuable recommendations. Whenever people ask for tools, processes, or resources that will help them approach a future challenge with confidence, you should take a note of these things:

  • Which products, services, or resources are recommended most often within the replies for this particular question?
  • What gets recommended all the time, across many different questions?
  • Who recommends these things? How experienced are they? Are they trustworthy? Might they have ulterior motives? How does the community react?
  • Is there a follow-up? Does the person who initially asked report back after they consumed or used the recommendation? Did it work for them? (This is a very effective way of evaluating a recommendation. You might even consider asking the person who asked a few days after they received the recommendation.)

Try figuring out how the solutions that are being recommended are monetized. This will heavily inform the expectations around price in that community. If every single recommendation is a free tool or resource, you might run into trouble charging for something comparable later.

That doesn’t mean a solution to their problem can’t be turned into a viable stream of revenue using other monetization strategies, but I personally prefer to directly charge people money, which directly validates the balance between price and value.

Looking for Alternatives

An interesting variation of looking for recommendations is the ever-so-slightly more specific ask for alternatives. Recommendations are open-ended; people take everything they can get. But asking for an alternative is different and much more interesting for the problem discovery process: here is a solution to a validated problem that is not sufficiently solving it. On top of that, someone is actively seeking it.

Since we’re very interested in signs of a validated problem, this is a powerful signal. Someone else has found a problem worth solving but failed at executing. While that means that their solution might need some major tweaks, it pre-validates the problem for you.

The other validation that people asking for alternatives provides is the existence of a budget. Unless the person explicitly asks for free alternatives, you can consider them interested in paying some sort of fee for a solution to their problem. For your future price calculations, it’s useful to jot down the average price range of the product for which an alternative is sought. This will give you an anchor price later.

Alternatives also allow you to understand what the workflow of your prospective customers is. Obviously, the product that people want to replace doesn’t quite work with how they approach solving their problems. It’s a good idea to ask them about this specifically. Since you already know the problem to be valid, this will give you a head-start for invalidating any ideas you might have that will clash with your customers’ reality.

Finally, let’s look into a few other kinds of messages you might find in communities that are indicative of a problem:

  • People are sharing the (often crude) systems they made to solve a problem. Whenever you see someone trying to build an Excel sheet or a Google Doc to enable them to solve an issue, you have found an issue exhibiting several traits of a critical problem: it’s recurring and painful enough that someone built a system around it.
  • People are looking to hire someone to solve a problem. No matter if it’s a contractor for a quick job or a long-term position, you’re looking at someone who couldn’t deal with a problem and chose to act.

It’s important to understand how and why people choose to communicate about their problems to others. You can use the Prospect Awareness scale and the archetypes of messages to estimate where the audience you’re observing from within their own communities is along the path from completely unaware to full awareness. This is a validation strategy that you can leverage for your further outreach, your marketing, and finally your product decisions. Listen to your audience. They will tell you what they need and how they need to be talked to for you to learn more.

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