Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Discriminatory Dark Side Of Big Data

It has happened again. Researchers have discovered that Google’s ad-targeting system is discriminatory. Male web users were more likely to be shown high paying executive ads compared to female visitors. The researchers have published a paper which was presented at the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium in Philadelphia.

I had blogged about the dark side of Big Data almost two years back. Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard professor Googled her own name to find out an ad next to her name for a background check hinting that she was arrested. She dug deeper and concluded that so-called black-identifying names were significantly more likely to be the targets for such ads. She documented this in her paper, Discrimination in Online Ad Delivery. Google then denied AdWords being discriminatory in anyway and Google is denying to be discriminatory now.

I want to believe Google. I don’t think Google believes they are discriminating. And, that’s the discriminatory dark side of Big Data. I have no intention to paint a gloomy picture and blame technology, but I find it scary to observe that technology is changing much faster than the ability of the brightest minds to comprehend the impact of it.

A combination of massively parallel computing and sophisticated algorithms to leverage this parallelism as well as ability of algorithms to learn and adapt without any manual intervention to be more relevant, almost in real-time, are going to cause a lot more of such issues to surface. As a customer you simply don't know whether the products or services that you are offered or not at a certain price is based on any discriminatory practices. To complicate this further, in many cases, even companies don't know whether insights they derive from a vast amount of internal as well as external data are discriminatory or not. This is the dark side of Big Data.

The challenge with Big Data is not Big Data itself but what companies could do with your data combined with any other data without your explicit understanding of how algorithms work. To prevent discriminatory practices, we see employment practices being audited to ensure equal opportunity and admissions to colleges audited to ensure fair admission process, but I don't see how anyone is going to audit these algorithms and data practices.

Disruptive technology always surfaces socioeconomic issues that either didn't exist before or were not obvious and imminent. Some people get worked up because they don't quite understand how technology works. I still remember politicians trying to blame GMail for "reading" emails to show ads. I believe that Big Data is yet another such disruption that is going to cause similar issues and it is disappointing that nothing much has changed in the last two years.

It has taken a while for the Internet companies to figure out how to safeguard our personal data and they are not even there, but their ability to control the way this data could get used is very questionable. Let’s not forget data does not discriminate, people do. We should not shy away from these issues but should collaboratively work hard to highlight and amplify what these issues might be and address them as opposed to blame technology to be evil.

Photo courtesy: Kutrt Bauschardt

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Art Of Delegation - My Ten Principles For Healthy Team Culture

"Delegate almost to the point of abdication" - Warren Buffet

I have worked with numerous leaders at all levels and have seen the best and worst practices in how they delegate or they don’t. Here are my 10 principles of delegation that I practice and advocate based on the lessons I have learned by being on both ends of the spectrum.

1. Delegating is not simply about asking someone to do something for you; it’s about setting expectations on desired outcome and offering to help.

2. Delegating does not mean being a slacker but shifting focus instead on right things; as a leader, more often than not, doing right things is more important than doing things right.

3. Delegating something that you typically won’t is the best way to empower your employees; all other empowering talk is cheap.

4. Never take credit for what you delegate; in fact never take credit for anything that you accomplish.

5. Delegation leads to transparency; most employees struggle to get a bigger picture and don’t have insights into what their managers do.

6. Don't say, “I trust you,” instead delegate a task where an employee understands she would not have gotten an opportunity to work on it unless the manager had her trust.

7. Put yourself in the shoes of whom you are delegating to; manage their concerns, emotions, and challenges instead of yours.

8. If afraid of delegating a task imagine the worst case scenario before you delegate it and mitigate the situation by setting expectations and periodically monitoring the progress to make you comfortable delegate.

9. If still afraid of delegating unpack the task into sub-tasks and start with delegating the first sub-task; it’s always the first step that is incredibly hard to take.

10. Share with your employees what you don’t want to delegate; help them build empathy for what you do and motivate them to step up for that task the next time.

Photo courtesy: tanakawho

Monday, March 16, 2015

Chasing Unknown Unknown, The Spirit Of Silicon Valley

A framework that I use to think about problems disruptive technology could help solve is based on what Donald Rumsfeld wrote in his memoir, Known and Unknown:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
A couple of decades ago technology was seen as means to automate manual processes and bring efficiency. While largely automation is a prerequisite in the modern economy the role of technology has significantly changed to create unique differentiation and competitive advantage against peers in an industry. Many people are working on making things betters, cheaper, and faster or a combination of these three. This approach—solving known known—does provide incremental or evolutionary innovation and market does reward it.

But, the Silicon Valley thinks differently.

The Silicon Valley loves to chase known unknown problems, the moonshots, such as self-driving vehicles, providing internet access to every single human being on the earth, and private shuttles to space. These BHAG are totally worth chasing. To a certain degree, we do know and experience what the actual problem is and we can even visualize what a possible solution could look like. As counterintuitive as it may sound, but it is relatively easy to have entrepreneurs and investors rally towards a solution if they can visualize an outcome even if solving a problem could mean putting in a monumental effort.
"We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” - Daniel Kahneman
Most disruptive products or business models have a few things in common: they focus on latent needs of customers, they imagine new experiences and deliver them to customers, and most importantly they find and solve problems people didn’t know they had and couldn’t imagine it could be solved - the unknown unknown.

Chasing unknown unknown requires bold thinking and a strong belief in you quest and methods to get there. Traditional analytical thinking will take you to the next quarter or the next year with a double digit growth but won’t bring exponential growth. These unknown problems excite me the most and I truly enjoy working on them. Unknown unknown is the framework that I use to understand the potential of disruptive technology such as Big Data and Internet of Things. If technology can solve any problem which problem you want to have it solved is how I think.

Chasing unknown unknowns is not an alternative to go for moonshots; we need both and in many cases solving an unknown unknown journey starts by converting it to a known unknown. The key difference between the two is where you spend your time -  looking for a problem and reframing it or finding a breakthrough innovation for a known corny problem. A very small number of people can think across this entire spectrum; most people are either good at finding a problem or solving it but not at both.

Discovering unknown problems requires a qualitative and an abductive approach as well as right set of tools, techniques, and mindset. Simply asking people what problems they want to have it solved they don’t know they have won’t take you anywhere. I am a passionate design thinker and I practice and highly encourage others to practice qualitative methods of design and design thinking to chase unknown unknowns.

I wish, as Silicon Valley, we don’t lose the spirit of going after unknown unknown since it is hard to raise venture capital and rally people around a problem that people don’t know exist for sure. Empowering people to do things they could not have done before or even imagined they could do is a dream that I want entrepreneurs to have.

Photo courtesy: Ahmed Rabea