Today's a very exciting day for me. As you know, I'm a member of a team of Forrester analysts who write research specifically for product marketers and product managers in the tech industry. A few weeks ago, we launched a community for product marketers and product managers. Now, we're bringing those two activities together by including our PM community in every stage of a research project. Plus, we're using an Agile approach. And you're all invited.
(Role-based research. The voice of the customer, expressed loudly and regularly through social media. Agile as the vehicle for applying what customers say to the product we're developing, in the most rapid and substantive way possible. I guess we do read our own research.)
What's The Topic?
We've yet to meet a product marketer or product manager who isn't interested in thought leadership, given its attractiveness and elusiveness. Gaining recognition as a thought leader is only the first step. Having achieved that exalted status, how do vendors convert thought leadership into tangible business benefits?
For our first venture into this new research approach, thought leadership was an easy choice of topic: important, popular, practical, and manageable.
Where Does The Community Fit In?
The community has a bigger role to play in this project than just suggesting a topic. We need your suggestions and feedback throughout the entire research process, from inception to publication. For example, before doing the primary research, we'll draft a list of interview questions. Since thought leadership has no end of interesting aspects, we want to make sure that the questions we ask go straight to the issues that matter most to product marketers and product managers. Here are but a few examples:
In the tech industry, the earlier in the innovation process a developer works, the greater the prestige. Lower in the status hierarchy are developers who work on performance and scalability issues, build integrations with other systems, handle security issues, and (heaven forfend!) help the QA team set up test environments.
Of course, the customer has a much different set of priorities. Sure, new products and features are interesting, but their value is moot if the technology doesn't work. How many concurrent users can the system bear before it keels over? Are the big security holes plugged? Has anyone else run version 126.96.36.199 on Ubuntu 10.04? These questions determine whether a customer buys your product and how likely they are to remain a customer after they've tried to deploy it.
Remember The D In R&D
Some of the larger technology companies have decided to make a serious investment in fixing the problem. While sensitivity training might help some development teams better appreciate the contributions of some of their members ("Looks like the performance guy needs a hug!"), there's no replacement for a well-staffed, well-equipped, dedicated effort to ensuring that the technology works as advertised. Or, just as importantly, doesn't work as advertised, so that the customer knows what sort of configurations and use cases to avoid.
Every office has a gadget fetishist. These people can be indicators of technologies that might be interesting, but they're not 100% reliable. It's in the nature of experimentation to make occasional hits (iPhones, Flip video cameras, GPS navigation devices, noise-canceling headphones that actually work) and frequent misses (USB-powered toothbrushes, Segways, most noise-canceling headphones, anything applied directly to the forehead). Not everyone wants to be an experimenter, or can afford to be one.
Consequently, gadgeteers – "innovators," in the terminology of people who study the diffusion of innovations – are always a very small minority of the population. Given their hit-or-miss track records, others treat innovators skeptically.
Why then do many technology vendors, in their quest to become thought leaders, market to a tiny minority of buyers that others in their organizations don't see as reliable guides to technology investments?
Social technology start-ups provide the most obvious examples of this strategy. Foursquare's Web site, for example, is clearly pitched at the social enthusiast, someone who takes the value of giving "you & your friends new ways of exploring your city." The site's main page provides links to Foursquare apps written for the iPhone, BlackBerry, and other mobile devices, assuming that having Foursquare on your phone might be a good idea. Being a thought leader in location-based social networking, in Foursquare's case, means marketing to the tiny population of people willing to dive head-first into its service, figuring out its value as they go. If Foursquare, as a thought leader in social technology, is ahead of the market, there's always a population of social networking enthusiasts willing to experiment with them.