“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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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.

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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The Power of Critical Thinking in Marketing (or: Devil’s Advocate, Get Thee Behind Me!)

I read a great blog entry entitled Critical Thinkers vs. Critics by Mark Logic CEO Dave Kellogg. (Quick aside: Any blog by a CEO/Chairman/Founder that is regularly updated and features plenty of wisdom, wit and insight is evidence that company has a competitive advantage in leadership. Good on you, Dave.)

Dave Kellogg raises the important difference between a “critic,” a person who criticizes everything, generally without proposed solutions” and a “critical thinker,” a person who attacks ideas in the spirit of making them better, and who can hold both sides of an argument in their head at once.”

Point very well taken. I’d additionally define a critical thinker as someone who will also not allow herself/himself or others to fall victim to “paralysis by analysis.” Even more importantly, by virtue of being unafraid of taking a hard, unbiased look at issues and listening to others’ opinions, concerns and doubts, and in fact welcoming such open discussion, a critical thinker is also an optimist by nature.

I like how Dave assesses the level of critical thinking applied in the crafting of successful marketing positioning (emphasis added):

Critics “attack” other people’s ideas but not their own. Critical thinkers “attack” everyone’s ideas, especially their own. For certain disciplines (e.g., marketing positioning) one of my primary tests is not to examine the substance of a proposal, but instead to examine the critical thinking in the process that led to it [for example, reviewing a marketing proposal recommending a new company tag-line]:

  • How many other tag-lines did you think of?
  • Why didn’t you pick tag-line 3?
  • Did you consider tag-lines based on the higher-level notion of satisfaction?
  • What’s the argument against the tag-line you’re proposing?
  • What are the direct and indirect competitors tag-lines and their relative strengths and weaknesses?

As David Ogilvy once said: “good writing is slavery” (see page 33 of Ogilvy on Advertising). So is good positioning. And it comes from critical thinking and plenty of it.

I think delving into the multiple meanings of Dave’s word “attack” is important here, too.  A critical thinker will indeed “attack” an idea much differently than a critic. There is a world of difference between “attack,” as in how a critical thinker will “earnestly initiate” a rigorous debate of an idea, in such a comment as, “The European sales team will have concerns about the time they will need to devote to the new product. Let’s work out how we can address that concern and ensure they will have time to complete their deals in the pipeline,” versus how a critic might truly “attack,” as in, “beat down,” an idea with a discussion-dampering remark:  “Oh, the European sales team always marches to their own drummer. Mark my words, they will ignore the new product. I’ve seen it before.”

Dwight Schrute-A good example of an office criticHow to effectively deal with the “critic” is addressed in author Bruna Martinuzzi’s article on optimism, which she kindly allowed me to republish on this blog. Bruna accurately identifies the behavior of the “critic,” aka “devil’s advocate,” as symptomatic of general pessimism, which can discourage critical thinking:

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The Product Manager as CEO-Heir Apparent

Ursula-Burns-XeroxIn May 2009, Xerox President Ursula Burns succeeded the retiring Anne Mulcahy as CEO. The fact that Ursula Burns then became the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company is vitally important in and of itself. And yet, additionally, while reading Ursula Burns’ company biography, I was intrigued by whether Ms. Burns’ formative years with Xerox included significant work within product management. This may well have been the case.

Ursula Burns’ Xerox executive bio notes that “Burns joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and later assumed roles in product development and planning. From 1992 through 2000, Burns led several business teams including the office color and fax business and office network printing business.” It would be interesting to know whether the business teams Ms. Burns led was within product management, and whether her work prior to 1992 included roles within product management (this might depend on how Xerox defines “product development and planning.”) I dropped a quick email to the Xerox PR department inquiring about any specific product management roles during Ms. Burns’ career at Xerox, culminating to her new role as CEO. Carl Langsenkamp, Xerox Public Relations, quickly replied, noting that Ms. Burns’ held several jobs that encompassed product management. He also explained that Xerox describes certain positions in unique ways that may not be a standard in other companies.

Product-Manager-to-CEOThe notion that a Product Manager can and should emerge as an ultimate heir apparent to CEO of the company is one that has been raised many times. I had the epiphany (well, for me, anyway) after completing the Pragmatic Marketing product management training led by Steve Johnson that product managers and product marketers are uniquely skilled to ultimately serve as CEO. You can also Google “product manager to CEO”, hit “I’m Feeling Lucky”, and you should be directed to a very interesting online article on the product manager as CEO written by Barbara Tallent, who was herself a product manager-turned-CEO.

All that said, Product Managers (and again, yes, Product Marketing Managers) often still feel their opinions on strategic matters or key decisions are not heard or considered by senior management. This is because it remains up to a product manager to fill her or his worktime with those value-added activities that constitute true steps forward to the CEO corner office. These value-added activities are summed up in five key “soft” skills every product manager and marketer must master. This advice came from ZIGZAG Marketing Founder & Managing Partner John Mansour, who just spoke on this topic as guest speaker for the The Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) meeting just held on May 21…

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The Glass is 2x Too Large!

If you use AOL Mail, you have probably noticed the random splash screen below, with two different descriptions designed to make everyone happy in the “glass half empty or half full” debate:

AOL-Email-Half-Empty-Glass-Half-Full-Glass-Mike-Urbonas-blog

Of course, being an optimist also tends to come in rather handy for product marketers and managers, not to mention fellow job searchers amid this economy!

I have just built out a new Publications and Presentations page, including my writing samples, presentations, byline articles, and articles written for Productivity, the Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) e-newsletter. I have also added some articles, written by others, which I solicited for publication in Productivity. This includes a very practical article on Optimism: The Hidden Asset by author Bruna Martinuzzi, and more.

Glass-half-empty-half-fullAs for the glass debate: While an optimist will say the glass is half full, the pessimist will say the glass is half empty, I have concluded that the product manager and product marketer will conclude revealing research and effectively message that the glass is 50% 2x too large, resulting in the smaller glass that customers really want, cutting production costs and improving margins! You GO, product marketers and managers!

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