“Everything I Really Need to Know About Product Marketing I Learned in Elementary School”

Dr. Stuart Payne is Principal of Northwood Elementary School, a National Blue-Ribbon School and California Distinguished School in Irvine, California. I was already impressed with the work of Stuart and his staff, and was even more so after reading his Principal’s Message in a recent issue of Northwood Elementary’s parents newsletter, which summarized the goals he and his teaching staff set for the school year:

At the beginning of this year, our dedicated staff set…three goals for ourselves: (1) Rigor, (2) Differentiation, and (3) Progress Monitoring.

These succinct goals no doubt rang true for Northwood Elementary parents.   In fact, they rang quite true for me in my world of product marketing.  Let’s look at each one more closely:

Photo by courosa (Flickr CC)

Rigor.  Stuart Payne writes: “Through rigor, we endeavor to make sure that every child is challenged in a developmentally appropriate manner.”  This vital educational goal can be easily adapted to product marketing/product management terms: We must challenge ourselves to really understand our products and our markets, and convey our value in a compelling manner that our target markets will understand and be motivated to learn more.  I am reminded of a good blog post by Dave Kellogg on applying (rigorous) critical thinking for effective product positioning (I elaborate on Dave Kellogg’s post here, btw).

One sidenote: Stuart Payne also wrote: “(R)esearch indicates…that when the work is too difficult, (students) become frustrated.”  This reminded me of a classic blog post by Kathy Sierra: Do your customers feel a similar sense of frustration trying to understand and/or use our products?  Why?  How can this be corrected (and fast)?

Differentiation.  Of course, as a product marketer, product differentiation is critical.  However, Northwood Elementary is referring to differentiation as in the non-standardization of classroom instruction:

By designing differentiated lessons that meet the needs of our students varying ability levels, we ensure success for all  (emphasis added).

So let’s look at “differentiation” in a similar way for marketing: The “standardization” of marketing and PR is long gone, as David Meerman Scott and others have already made quite clear.  That said, what different means, what different avenues should we share our product messaging? The book Content Rules by Ann Handley and CC Chapman addresses this very topic.

In a nutshell, Content Rules is a how-to guide to differentiate your product messaging in video, podcasts, webinars, blogs, ebooks. Doing so enables us to connect with prospects in the mediums of their choice, in which we convey in informative, compelling ways what our products are and why they are essential.

Progress Monitoring.  Stuart Payne explains:

Progress monitoring is the way in which we gauge the effectiveness of our instruction and the way in which we measure students’ progress toward their learning goals (Emphasis added). During our Response to Instruction (RTI) block, for example, we are able to target instruction in a way that aligns with each child’s reading ability.

Similarly, how do you know if your marketing programs are any good? I’ve always defined success of my product positioning, messaging and marketing content is its capacity to yield qualified leads and ultimately translate into revenue.  True enough, but just counting up “leads” is insufficient. Ardath Albee, in her excellent book eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, connects the dots between marketing and revenue with content marketing:

Building online engagement…depends on your ability to develop compelling content…’Engagement bling’ is what I call the positive results your company gains from sustaining trusted engagement with prospects and customers throughout their buying journeys…

The goal of marketing in a complex sale is to generate qualified demand that efficiently transitions to revenues.  And if you want to increase the level of demand for your solutions, it is critical that you enrich the relationships your company establishes with prospects and customers.  Marketing with contagious content operates like a pay-it forward system for your company.  This is because the value your content provides transfers to the value your prospects and customers ascribe to your company (p. 14 & 16 – emphasis added).

Ann Handley and CC Chapman elaborate further in Content Rules:

(A)ccording to Forrester Research, “Long sales cycles and complex purchase decision-making challenge B2B marketers to find the most qualified prospects and to build relationships long before the first sales call.” As a result, you need to embrace a new mind-set – one focused not just on generating leads but on developing a [content] strategy to keep prospects engaged until they’re good and ready to talk to your sales reps. (p. 25)

In other words, the old metaphor of the marketing department “throwing leads over the wall” should be replaced by a metaphor of marketers throwing an entertaining, informative party that prospective customers want to stay at and meet all your friends… who happen to work in the sales department!

There’s plenty more to write about on this topic, but it’s important to note that Northwood Elementary is taking an innovative approach in how student progress is being measured (its Response to Instruction block noted above, as opposed to, say, grades – a flawed, lagging indicator).  Similarly, marketing programs should be judged not just on a flawed measure such as the number of “leads” who, for example, opened an email link, but based on the quality and duration of the engagement of prospects to “keep them at the party.”

The staff goals of Northwood Elementary to engage and help their students succeed bear close similarities with the goals of effective marketers, working to engage and help their prospects succeed with your products. Class dismissed!

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“Missionary” Technology Really Requires a Technology Evangelist

The Best Product Marketers Are “Intelligently Disobedient”

To help avoid a wide variety of business risks and disruptions, organizations should encourage employees to be “intelligently disobedient.”

This important trait is from Bruna Martinuzzi, author of some great business books including one of my favorites, The Leader as a Mensch. She explains:

I once worked for a technology company that encouraged employees to practice what they called “intelligent disobedience.”

The concept originates from seeing-eye dogs: while dogs must learn to obey the commands of a blind person, they must also know when they need to disobey commands that can put the owner in harm’s way, such as when a car is approaching.

Intelligent disobedience is not about setting out to be disagreeable or arbitrarily disobeying rules for its own sake. Rather, it is about using your judgment to decide when, for example, an established rule actually hinders your organization, rather than helps it.

That blind conformity is more likely to be prevalent in organizations practicing one-way, “top-down” business communication.

Bruna Martinuzzi offers a number of ideas to encourage cultivating an environment of intelligent disobedience, directly applicable to effective product marketers and product managers, including …

Be aware of mind traps that lead to blind conformity. Mind traps act as mental straight-jackets, preventing you from thinking creatively and rationally. These include, for example, the “herd instinct” – relying on the fact that “everybody else is doing it.” Another dangerous mind trap occurs when a group unduly defers to the “subject matter expert” rather than challenge long-held assumptions that may no longer be valid.

Rigorous, “intelligently disobedient” debates are to be actively encouraged, while divisive arguments intended to shut down meaningful discussion all together should not be tolerated.

Decentralize some of the decision-making in your unit. If you are used to making all the decisions, allow those closest to the customer the flexibility to make appropriate decisions on the spot, including the authority to bend the rules when necessary.

Don’t surround yourself with yes-men. Barry Rand of Xerox, quoted in Colin Powell’s A Leadership Primer: “…if you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant.”

Help your people distinguish between fact and conjecture. If you have one data point, you don’t have data; you have an anecdote. Conjecture can be influenced by anecdotes, assumptions and other mental scripts which don’t have a bearing on reality… Encourage people to ask questions, analyze assumptions and conjectures that may or may not be accurate.

The Anti- Product Management/Product Marketing Class

I don’t know what recently reminded me of the classic 80’s comedy film Back to School, starring the one and only Rodney Dangerfield, but a certain scene from that movie is a great (and funny) example of an anti-product management, anti-product marketing class.

Self-made millionaire Thornton Melon (played by Dangerfield) goes back to college to repair his relationship with his son, a student at the school. One of Thronton Melon’s first classes is led by the stereotypically stuffy, ivory-tower business professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead).

As Dr. Barbay informs the class they will create a new manufacturing company, Melon asks, “What’s the product?” After a few failed attempts to dismiss the question (Barbay: “Let’s just say they’re ‘widgets’!” Melon: “What’s a widget?!”), an exasperated Dr. Barbay finally insists the specific product they will make “doesn’t matter!”  That’s absolute heresy for any self-respecting product marketer or product manager!  Of course, the entire scene is well worth watching.

Update: On the contrary, Dr. Barbay: the idea, the answer to “What’s the product?” is, of course, everything to the company’s success.

Channeling 37Signals (and Kathy Sierra): Beating the Competition by Underdoing the Competition

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler. – Albert Einstein

I’ve been reading Rework by 37Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. The book is loaded with wise, relentlessly succinct and deliberately sharply-written advice to succeed in business in a web-enabled world. 

There are plenty of insights in Rework worthy of several blog entries, but one that especially jumped out at me was Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s advice to “underdo the competition.” This is also one of the blunt implorements on the back cover, including: Emulate drug dealers(!) Pick a fight(!) Happily, each is elaborated upon in the book to successfully deliver a salient point.

As for underdoing the competition:

Instead of entering into a “one-upping, Cold War mentality” with competitors, “do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problem and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition.”  (Rework, p. 144) …

In the end, it’s not worth paying much attention to the competition anyway…Focus on competitors too much and…(y)ou wind up offering your competitor’s products with a different coat of paint. (p.148)

Simplicity is clearly a strong product differentiator.

As product examples proving their point, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson point to the increasing popularity of plain-vanilla fixed-gear bicycles that are cheap, easy to ride, and require less maintenance, as well as the Flip, a best-selling compact camcorder with no bells or whistles – except that the market has decided “ultra simplicity” is the one bell/whistle they really need.

Actually, I found an example of my own while looking for a web-based to-do application. There are plenty of fine (and free) online organizers out there, but the one I settled upon was perhaps the simplest one available: TeuxDeux by “studio-mates swissmiss and Fictive Kin.”

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Not All Interruption Marketing is Bad

While recently browsing some business books at the local Barnes & Noble, I noticed something stuck in the middle of the book I had just pulled off the shelf. Was it an insert placed there by the publisher? No, it was a business card placed there by a hapless wannabe entrprenuer with the answers to my financial dreams:   

iStockphoto.com images

“Earn more money than you ever thought possible…this is not MLM…take charge of your future…Act on the wisdom of the immortal Napoleon Hill…Call me to find out what this amazing business is and…”                     

My immediate reaction was one of personal offense for intruding on my simple act of browsing a book, coupled with disbelief over some fool actually expecting to realize some business from a small but nonetheless particularly annoying act of interruption marketing, one-way marketing that depends on getting people to stop and pay attention to the message.                      

Interruption marketing can range from traditional media advertising, which might briefly entertain a viewer, but is usually quickly forgotten, to obnoxious actions like sticking business cards into books or getting rudely awakened from an airline nap with an in-flight announcement of a Carribean flight offer, as experienced by David Meerman Scott.

With the widespread acceptance (deservingly so) of Permission Marketing, the innovative marketing approach devised by Seth Godin, it is tempting to dismiss all interruption marketing as not worthwhile at best and downright bad at worst. So can interruption marketing still be effective in a Google search, Permission Marketing, New Rules of Marketing & PR world?   

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The Product Marketing Manager as a Plate Spinner Extraordinaire

I really liked this article on the seven characteristics of a great marketer by fellow marketing blogger Daphne Rose. Of the seven characteristics Daphne noted, I really liked the analogy she drew between product marketers and spinners… plate spinners, that is.

Spin-Class-You're-Doing-It-Wrong

Daphne Rose wrote, “Like the plate spinners on the old Ed Sullivan Show, great marketers are gifted time managers. It’s second nature for them to keep everything in motion – successfully.”

I am old enough (barely old enough – I swear! 😄) to vaguely recall watching plate spinner Erich Brenn on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, available in this YouTube video:

Thinking further about the idea of the product marketer as a plate spinner, I came up with some more observations I hope you like and ring true…

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“Everything I Know About Business (and Life) I Learned From…Poker? Or Maybe Slaying Dragons…?

Quick! Think of a subject; any subject. Now think of any kind of game/pastime/hobby. Got it? You’ve just completed a Mad Lib:

Everything I know about   [subject]

I learned from  [game/etc.] .

You just might have a new best-selling book (or at least a blog post) topic now!

Ever since Robert Fulghum wrote that ‘everything he needed to know he learned in kindergarten,’ it seems like there is a lot of writing out there with a similar “Everything I know about…” theme – lots of it parody, but many clever writings, too.

In the clever category is “Everything I Know About Business I Learned from Poker,” written by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, an idea appearing in the What Matters Now e-book (compiled by Seth Godin), which I just wrote about here. Tony Hsieh provides a clever explanation how poker has taught him about financials, strategy, education and culture, excerpted from Tony Hsieh’s excellent blog.  (As I have mentioned before, any company whose CEO is writing an informative, thought-provoking blog has a competitive advantage in leadership).

Still, it’s easy to take the idea too far: unlike business, poker has a much higher level of luck that can’t be reduced through proactive strategic planning and creativity (think effective product marketing and management, etc.). Even after correctly speculating an opponent has an inferior hand, a bad final “river” card can do you in anyway. In poker, it’s often better to be “lucky” than “good”!

Today poker is very widely regarded as very “cool”, with televised poker champions playing their personas to the hilt.

That said, I have a great deal of respect for someone willing to share an “Everything I know…” insight using a game, pastime, hobby, etc. that is…well, let’s say definitely not perceived as “cool” by popular culture.

For that I wish to honor Chad Henderson of Oklahoma City: Everything he needs to know about life he learned from…Dungeons and Dragons. (Thanks to BoingBoing for their original posting on this.)     Continue reading

What Matters Now: “Glittering Paragraphs” of Bright Ideas

Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a (stack) of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph. – Mark Twain

Photo by: cayusa (Flickr CC)

Thanks to Bruna Martinuzzi, author of The Leader as a Mench, for sending me just before the holiday break a copy of What Matters Now, a free e-book compiled by marketing author and visionary Seth Godin.

Over 70 authors, executives, and entrepreneurs each share an idea, using no more than a couple of “glittering paragraphs,” for you to think about and act upon in 2010 and beyond.

Among my personal favorites that are food for thought related to marketing and personal branding:

As much as I am an advocate for blogging, being networked on LinkedIn, etc., author and entrepreneur Howard Mann shares his idea on being too Connected:

There are tens of thousands of businesses making many millions a year that still haven’t heard of twitter, blogs or facebook…Have they missed out or is the joke on us?…More megaphones don’t equal a better dialogue…

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Be a Dogged (Not Dog!) Product Marketer/Product Manager

Taking advantage of the excuse to post a picture of my dog.

Taking advantage of the excuse to post a picture of our dog Pepper 

Barbara Tallent is a former product manager turned CEO, who today is co-founder of LiveBinders, a social bookmarking application. I first connected with Barbara Tallent some years back after reading her informative article From Product Manager to CEO.

Barbara led a thought-provoking live presentation that asked the question, Why are there so few Great Product Managers?

Barbara Tallent interviewed six CEOs on a confidential basis to get their perspective on why there are so few great product managers. Much to her chagrin as a former product marketing executive, these CEOs were fairly jaded about the product marketing function: “I’ve never really worked with a great product manager,” one CEO told Barbara (and that CEO had worked with Barbara earlier in his career!). Another drolly responded, “Why aren’t there any great product managers?”

Another product manager turned CEO readily agreed that product marketing is “a really tough job,” for a number of reasons:

  • The CEO, VP Development, VP Sales and sales team, etc. all see small portions of the overall product marketing job and assume what they see is all the product marketer does.
  • Very few metrics – not all product marketers are judged based on sales success
  • Risk of being the “fall guy” – product marketers and managers might be blamed if some issues with the product and/or sales levels come up; going back to the familiar refrain that the PM/PMM has all the responsibility and none of the line authority.

OK, now here’s the good news: There is ample reward to go with the above risk. CEOs also viewed product marketing and management as a key source of future company leadership.

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Hooked on Shark Tank TV Show, and Marketing Lessons

I am hooked on Shark Tank, the new ABC business reality TV show. Originating from the other side of the pond as Dragons’ Den on BBC, then on CBC, Shark Tank is now here in the US.

The premise of the show: five investors (also known as “venture capitalists” or “VCs,” but on the show they are…”sharks”!) listen to pitches from entrepreneurs seeking an investment into their businesses. That business may be an active, “real” business operation, like Tod Wilson, the very first entrepreneur on the show, who successfully secured an investment in his retail and wholesale pie business. Other proposals might come from one person with a great, or not-so-great, product idea, reminiscent of the past ABC series American Inventor.

The VCs might extend an offer to invest in the entrepreneur’s venture, perhaps offering to buy it outright, using their own money on terms they specify. The entrepreneur might accept, counteroffer or decline. Things get even more interesting when VCs compete against one another when presented with an investor pitch particularly like  (whoa, “feeding frenzy”!).

I like Shark Tank because it gives the viewer a taste of what’s involved with starting a business and getting money from outside investors to make it a reality. You have to have a product or at least a product idea that solves a problem that people will pay you for. The entrepreneurs, virtually all of whom initially offer a sliver of ownership for a hefty investment, soon realize they must give up substantial, even majority, ownership in the business in exchange for an investment. And you had better deliver an effective presentation.

I like the Shark Tank review by The AV Club which sums up what the program has going for it quite well:

So what does Shark Tank offer? Frankly, it offers a lot of solid business advice in a time when solid business advice is lacking. The five “sharks” at the show’s center are about as far from someone like Jim Cramer or the rest of the CNBC buffoons as you can get because they’re investing their own money and not trying to get you to invest your money.

All that said, there is one key piece of entrepreneur homework I would like to see more of on Shark Tank: market research.

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