Product Marketing: From Explanation To Innovation

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.

For most of you reading this blog, I'm just rehashing what you already know and probably have experienced first-hand. It's a story worth repeating, however, since it helps explain why innovation in the technology industry often fails.

Learning How To Offend In A Foreign Language
Academic research into innovation has uncovered many variables that determine the odds of its success. The more complex the information about a new technology, the harder it is to persuade people to adopt it. The less information available, early in the evaluation stage, that demonstrates how to use the technology successfully, the lower the chances of adoption. Product-centric product marketing is exactly the kind of information that undermines adoption, creating complexity instead of reducing it, while leaving it up to users to figure out how the technology might help (or hurt) them in their specific jobs, such as retail managers, doctors, professors, architects, or lawyers.

Case in point: Microsoft Word. All of the people I just cited have a strong reason to use Word on a daily basis. However, if you look at the Microsoft Office site, or the help file for Word, there's very little specific help there, or even a link to where you might find help. (Yes, I know, there are lots of Microsoft partners who cater to specific verticals. Microsoft does have a large marketing budget for Office, so it's fair to look at the product that someone might buy at Costco or Best Buy.)

Let's say that I'm a private practice attorney, and I need to use some tool to churn out motions, correspondence, and other documents of equal legal gravity. There's nothing in Microsoft's product marketing that helps me understand how Word might help. While that may not have been a problem for Microsoft when Office had no effective competition, it should be a concern now that threats both big (Google Docs) and small (Zoho) exist. In fact, some of the material on the entry page, such as seasonal and birthday clip art, implies that the people behind Office are more concerned about a consumer audience.

Moving From Conjugations To Conversations
If you think it's unfair to expect Microsoft to speak intelligently to lawyers, it's worth looking at what a company that does serve that narrow vertical does. AbacusLaw is, as its name implies, a tool for running a law office, from scheduling to case management. You might think that, having explained how to use its tools in terms that attorneys and their staff can appreciate, no further work is required.

Yet AbacusLaw takes great pains to explain for the different segments of the legal market – civil, criminal, family, estate, corporate, maritime, you name it – how their product can help. The explanations, per vertical, are succinct and easy to parse. For example, the section for criminal defense attorneys identifies, in bold type, the relevant concerns for these lawyers, such as drafting, updating, and searching documents without costly delays or errors. Unlike Microsoft, AbacusLaw does make the extra effort to speak directly and coherently to fractions of its overall market.

Should Microsoft's Web site for Office dive this deeply into these micro-verticals? Obviously not, but Microsoft does need to figure out how to speak to the legal profession more effectively. Even if Microsoft isn't the ultimate source of guidance on using Word to draft legal documents, it might provide, at the very least, a link to that information. Somewhere in the precious real estate of the Microsoft Office landing page, somewhere perhaps between the glories of the ribbon and the new SaaS version of Office, there should be a signpost to why an attorney would ever get to the point of looking at the ribbon or consider using the SaaS version.

[Believe it or not, this overlong post isn't the last thing I'll have to say about product marketing and the innovation process. Expect to see more on both topics, often together.]