How your roadmap can get you the right customers

Guest post by Janna Bastow 

If there’s one topic that gets product managers talking, it’s the age-old question of whether product roadmaps should be made public or not.

Depending on which product manager you talk to, you’re likely to get a passionate response on one end of the spectrum. As is always the case with important topics, both sides bring up good arguments - whether it is the confidentiality concern from the “Nays” or the transparency plea from the “Yays”.

Obviously, every product team has to assess the suitability of a public product roadmap internally, but we’d like to examine what role a public product roadmap can play in actually selling your product.

Why would your customers want to see your product roadmap?

To start off with, think about the shift that has happened in marketing in recent years. Instead of pushing marketing messages onto potential customers, companies have started trying to become useful and interesting for their target group - earning their interest, so to speak.

In this new world, transparency, trust, and sharing are fundamental.  People have become used to being more involved and engaged with the organisations they buy from, and their products - and not just on crowdsourcing websites. For companies, the holy grail is to build a relationship with users that goes beyond the transactional.

However, if your customer-facing teams (generally speaking this covers sales, marketing, and customer service) aren’t able to answer questions surrounding your vision for the product, it makes this trust-building much harder.

In fact, those teams will have to find other ways to address critical questions like these (thanks to Jerry Eshbaugh  for the inspiration):

  • Is the product being continuously developed?

  • Can customers input on its development?

  • Is your company investing in new technology?

  • Does your product vision align with their future needs?

  • Do you even have a long term vision (i.e. do you plan on sticking around – this can be especially important for young companies)?

These are all important questions for existing and potential customers. And often, the alternative ways your outward-facing team come up with to answer them are inconsistent at best and destructively overpromising at worst.

With many companies still reluctant to share their product roadmaps with customers - mainly down to confidentiality arguments - you have a massive opportunity to be more helpful to your existing and potential customers by answering their concerns around future plans in an easy-to-understand format: a public product roadmap.

Your product roadmap as a strategic positioning document

Remember, your sales leads don’t just purchase the current product reality. If you want to build a loyal, long term user base, you need them to buy into the bigger picture. While you can do this with blog posts, emails and individual customer service replies, nothing speaks more strongly than a centralized public product roadmap.

What’s more, if you operate in a very crowded marketplace and are struggling to show clear product differentiators in the present, your product roadmap might be the decider between a deal or no deal.

Think of it as yet another way to differentiate your product, or to show the potential product, as Theodore Levitt would call it.

A tale of two roadmaps

To finish this off, a point on having two roadmaps: one internal and one external version. This is a suggestion that very frequently comes up, and there is definite value in this.

Being able to keep a more detailed roadmap for internal view only while showing key milestones to customers strikes a nice balance between transparency and necessary commercial confidentiality.

Just keep an eagle eye on them to ensure consistency, or even better, use a product management tool like ProdPad that has the functionality to do both.

And if you’re still not ready to give this “public product roadmap thing” a go, at the very least communicate clearly to your customer-facing team which parts of the plan they can pass on to questioning customers.

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Janna Bastow is the co-founder of ProdPad, building product management software.  She's also the co-founder and organiser of Mind the Product, a fast-growing community of product managers, and puts on the Mind the Product conference and ProductTank events around the world.