What Makes You A Good Product Marketing Manager?

“A Pretty Package Can’t Sell A Poor Product” – Bill Walsh

I am a big fan of Bill Walsh and his management philosophy. Following is an excerpt from his book The Score Takes Care Of Itself.

To promote sales of season tickets, I came up with an ambitious (and time-consuming) plan called “Pick-a-Seat Day” in which we put bright red ribbons on all available season ticket seats and invited the public to buy their favorites. And that’s not all.

On the big promotion day we offered balloons, free donkey rides, ethnic foods, and clowns for the kiddies. Also, free popcorn, soft drinks and hot dogs, jugglers, a Dixieland band, and magicians. It was really a great family event for the thousands of folks who came out to Candlestick Park.

The next morning I arrived at the office early to see what the results of my “Pick-a-Seat Day” promotion were. Or, more accurately, weren’t. Total season tickets sold: seven. (I bought three more myself on the fifty-yard line, just so I could report that we’d hit double digits. In fact, our family still has those seats.)

“Pick-a-Seat Day” was a total flop, but it was a flop that taught me something very important: A pretty package can’t sell a poor product. Results— in my profession, winning football games— are the ultimate promotional tool. I was trying to sell a bad product, a team that was the worst franchise in sports, that had lost twenty-seven straight road games, and whose record at home wasn’t much better.

From that point on, I focused my energies exclusively on creating a quality product, a team that was worth spending money to see. When that was achieved, we also achieved a ten-year waiting list to buy a 49ers’ season ticket.

In your efforts to create interest in your own product, don’t get carried away with premature promotion— creating a pretty package with hype, spin, and all the rest. First, make sure you’ve got something of quality to promote. Then worry about how you’re going to wrap it in an attractive package. The world’s best promotional tool is a good product.

I see this as a chronic problem in the software industry and many product marketing managers make it even worse. They tend to impose their own belief system in isolation while marketing to prospects without championing product and customer views as well as ignoring competition and where the product fits in the market. Over a period of time I have learned a few lessons observing and woking with them as well as being one of them for some part of my work.

Amplify the value proposition, don’t recreate it: One of the most common mistakes I observe product marketing managers make is to recreate value proposition of a product instead of amplifying it. A lot goes into making a great product – finding the end user needs, designing compelling experiences, and enabling them with technology. Product managers and engineers spend a lot of time making great products. Don’t reinvent the wheel; it’s precisely those stories and the unique characteristics of the product you want to amplify. As a product marketing manager your job is to tell great stories and not to rewrite them. Find the right medium and use it to your own advantage. Get customers excited and help them see the possibilities.

Sell the problem, not the solution: I have seen people focus on a very narrow definition of competitive differentiation, pricing and positioning. It’s not just about pricing and positioning; customers shop in categories for a specific set of problems or challenges they may have. As a vendor you need to have empathy for your customers on their buying process. Spending time articulating how your products solve their problems is far more important than outlining features and outsourcing the task of matching features with JTBD of your customers. Product marketing managers tend to fixate on what they are selling as opposed to what customers are buying.

Apple commercials are a great example of bringing products to life in scenarios and stories without marketing a product feature-by-feature. These commercials are designed to emotionally connect with consumers in their lives on why they need to buy Apple products and what they might use them for. Communicating with buyers on how you understand their problems is far more important than telling them they can do whatever they want with your products. This is especially hard when you’re selling technology and what customers are buying is a solution.

You need to understand the market, competition, and customers, not in isolation, but how they move with each other. Most product marketing managers I have seen take either a market view and force products to customers or take a customer view in justifying how it meets demands of the customers, but fail miserably articulating how their products fit in the market with the competition because they ignore the market. You have to do both. You could decide to ignore what you don’t prefer but your prospects won’t.

Focus on what customers are buying and not what you’re selling: Most successful go-to-market strategies are the ones that are profoundly simple. I have observed product marketing managers fail at one of the most basic tasks to ensure the prospects understand what they are buying. With complicated pricing, packaging, and a combination of deployment options, more often than not, customers are confused about what they are buying even if a product could potentially solve their problems. This confusion creates friction and customers end up buying what they understand in simple terms and that may not be your product even if it is superior to your competition. If you can’t simplify the value proposition in simple English without any jargon and offer an extremely clear explanation of what they are buying and how they can operationalize it with the lowest time to the highest value you’re not doing your job well.

Leverage irrationality: Software is rational, human beings are not. I have seen product marketing managers take a classical demand-supply economics as their go-to-market basis. They strongly feel that the product (supply) should somehow fit into an existing need (demand). While, to large extent, I do hope product managers (and not product marketing manages) are looking at those opportunities, but not all products are designed that way. It’s your job to tap into this very irrationality, the behavioral economics, to create demand for the product. Make customers want your products and not just need them. Better understand behavioral economics to decide how you will market the product, how you will package it, and how you will sell it. Customers don’t make decisions based on the product merit alone; good sales people know this and they leverage these aspects in their sales cycle. What I find strange, especially in enterprise software, is that product marketing managers stay oblivious to the fact that customers don’t always make rational choices. Perhaps it’s the formal business education or the “knowledge curse” that gets in their way and they overthink a human behavior situation and make it an economics issue.

Footnote: This is not an attempt to stereotype all product marketing managers and make them look stupid. In fact I have met and worked with some really bright product marketing manager. This is simply an attempt to outline how they might be able to channel some of their energy in a different way to be more effective in certain situations.

(Cross-posted @ Cloud Computing)