Don't outsmart yourself

In product marketing, you always want to sound like the smartest person in the room. However, you shouldn't prove it with marketing messages that only you fully understand.

At last, someone who can understand my brilliance
Colleague Mary Gerush and I are working on a market segmentation for requirements tools. It's a great excuse to get into a lot of very interesting conversations about some very deep topics. The requirements market is in transition, from an era of heavy-weight tools designed to address information management challenges, to something very different. (You'll have to stay tuned to find out what the new market looks like.) We're starting from scratch, with no particular attachment to the traditional terms and concepts for describing what these tools are supposed to do.

That's the entree into the very interesting conversations. Vendors in this space, whatever it is, are very smart people who think about the shape of the requirements market all day long. Not surprisingly, their opinions about the market, which are reflected in their marketing messages, are very smart, too. In fact, in a couple of occasions, I wonder if they were being a little too smart.

Gaze upon the awesomeness of my planet-sized brain
In days of product marketing yore, I've certainly made the mistake of crafting the too-clever-by-half marketing message. Frequently, it involved the incredibly innovative way to avoid a catastrophic collision between the messy world of collaboration and the regimented Death Star of compliance and risk management. "Look at how amazingly our products let these two worlds co-exist!" I would say. Unfortunately, the use cases were often so complex and unfamiliar that, credible though they may be, they frequently confused audiences as often as impressing them.

Sometimes, being ahead of the curve can be a good thing. For example, in the last year or two, Salesforce has been insisting that it's more than just a CRM company. While at first many people didn't understand how Force.com fit into the company's corporate strategy, by now, a lot more people understand. It just took a while for the idea to sink in.

But that approach doesn't always work. Back in the early days of groupware, smart product marketers were talking about the future of knowledge management and innovation networks. Unfortunately, their prospective customers just wanted to have a common place to store files, a shared calendar, and maybe one or two other capabilities that helped them work more efficiently as departments. Terms like walled garden were completely lost on this audience, even if they accurately described how people collaborated, or how they would collaborate in the future.

I will speak in terms you humans can understand
How do you avoid outsmarting yourself? If, in a single slide, you can't describe scenario in which all these fantastic technology elements come together, you may be in trouble. The whole picture may emerge across twenty slides, but that's a lot like saying, "You'll only understand Kant's Critique of Pure Reason after you've read it a couple of times." You may be brilliant, even visionary, but you're a 21st century marketer, not an 18th century philosopher.