As I explained earlier this week, this is our first venture into Agile Research Development, a very different way of doing research. Since it's officially Agile, I'll use even the thinnest of excuses to explain how we're applying Agile principles. Pictured here is our Scrum Master, Eric Hsieh, taking a picture of our initial list of items that we're putting into the backlog. That chart sits right next to my desk in the Foster City office of Forrester, so I threw in another shot that gives a peek at the scenic view from my desk. (If you've never been to Foster City, it's the mini-Venice of the Bay Area. I could kayak to work.) Also taken from the Agile canon are the user stories that define how we expect the collaboration between us and the Forrester community to operate.
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:
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.
In the technology industry, we use the term thought leader far too loosely. This mistake is not just semantic, since technology vendors want to use thought leadership to achieve business results.
Big vendors like IBM, SAP, and Microsoft want you to believe that they are thought leaders, in spite of their size and age. Yes, we may bestride the world like a colossus, but, when need be, we can pick up our feet and run in the direction that the market is headed. Small vendors have the opposite problem. Sure, they may be nimble, and they may have Big New Ideas that anticipate the future of their markets. But can you rely on them to execute? And no matter how good your ideas might be, how do you get anyone to pay attention to them if no one has heard of you before?
If you're not convincing, you're not a thought leader. Therefore, thought leadership must be superior to the unconvincing claims that appear on vendor Web sites, where practically everyone claims to be the leading company in blahblahblah. (If everyone's a leader, then who are the followers?) Inserting the word thought into these elevator pitches doesn't convert them into magical words of power.
Congratulations, product marketers: You've been a critical part of the innovation process.
Sorry to break it to you, product marketers: On average, technology vendors stink at the phase of innovation where you play the biggest part.
Translating The Nouns But Not The Verbs
By no means are product marketers per se to blame for this outcome. Until recently, the technology industry has been slow to realize how innovation works. Vendors tacitly assumed that there were two separate processes at work, one that brought new products and services to market and another that convinced people to buy and use them.
At the boundary between product management and product marketing (as clearly as you can draw one), a hand-off occurred where one process ended and another began. The hand-off created predictable problems, in the same fashion as phone companies that assign one team for turning off phone service at your old location and a second team for turning it on at your new one.
One of the most painful consequences is fragmented, incomplete, and inaccurate information about a topic of interest to everyone: adoption. Every person in a tech company depends on some understanding of the who, what, why, when, and how of adoption, from the engineer who builds the technology, to the marketer who describes it to a general audience, to the salesperson who tries to persuade specific people to buy it. With rare exceptions, the engineer, marketer, and salesperson do not share the same mental image.
Learning about customers is hard, and everyone has deadlines to meet. Meanwhile, engineers, marketers, and salespeople can achieve a gestalt on a different topic: the technology's capabilities. For product marketers, product-centric marketing content is a natural result.
In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves in Speed, "Pop quiz, hotshot!" Answer the following questions:
On average, how long does it take for customers to implement your technology? (Include people using the technology in the definition of "implement.")
In all phases of a project (building the justification, drafting the requirements, selecting vendors, implementing the technology, reviewing its success), is there anyone in the customer organization who champions the project from start to finish? If not, when and how does the hand-off happen?
Is there anyone responsible for successful execution in each phase? Again, if not, what does the hand-off look like?
How does the project team convince people in their organization to use your technology?
Don't worry if you couldn't answer some, or even all, of the previous questions. You're not alone. Most technology vendors don't have anything but the most superficial understanding of how customers adopt their technology. Naming a few stakeholders isn't the same as understanding the adoption process, unless you think there's no reason to read Gone With The Wind if you can identify Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler as the main characters.
Tech vendors have all kinds of reasons to understand adoption better than they do. When projects fail, and adoption doesn't happen, those customers are far less likely to stay customers. That's also a potential success story that you must cross off the list. And that's just the beginning of the problems.
Adding up the last two years of Forrester research into the product management/product marketing role in the tech industry, it's easy to see why it can be hard to hire a good PM. Many of the skills that define successful PMs aren't easy to detect in a few hours of interviews. Since these traits generally don't reveal themselves until the PM is on the job, perhaps you should simulate the job in the interview.
While many technology vendors have a muddled idea of what PM success looks like, they usually have some notion of the outcomes they don't want to see. Can't build good working relationships with Development? Black mark. Can't say no to a sales enablement request? Black mark. Can't manage competing inbound and outbound priorities? Black mark. Can't give a detailed description of the specific roles to which we're marketing and selling? Black mark.
And the list goes on. The candidate sitting on the other side of the desk might have done an outstanding job, as it says on the resume, launching products at various companies. But what does "launching products" mean, exactly? Did the candidate keep the project on track, or was he just someone in the congratulatory photo op at the end? When you're interviewing a developer or QA person, you have a pretty good idea what their contribution was. The exact contribution of PM can be a bit more obscure, though certainly no less important.
The Australian product management consultancy brainmates just published the results of a survey on a very interesting topic, social media usage among PMs. The short list of questions get right to the heart of the matter: Do you expect to be using social media more?
The brainmates survey indicates that PMs are ready to embrace, or bracing themselves for, social media as an increasingly useful tool for product marketing, product feedback, and collaboration. In contrast, PMs do not expect to be increasing their use of social media for monitoring "to find references to their products or services and any references related to their market, customer segments or competitors." Interesting, especially given how much electronic ink that social medianiks have spilled about using Twitter, Facebook, et al. to see ourselves (or our brand) as others see us.