What do your customers want to know?

Went shopping for a dual port USB charger. Seems simple enough.  I think I want this one.

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If you were considering this purchase, what specs would you like to know? 

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And there you have it. The most important spec is "the latest innovated [?] charger created by Motorola. (I was wondering about its SIZE! You know, height, width, maybe something relevant to my purchase.) (Oh, and why is a used one twice the price of a new one?)

I often read FAQs and specs to find some key piece of data but I usually get junk like this. Marketing hype. Nonsense specs.

I actually read this one once: "Q: Can it really be this good?" Yeh, I bet you get asked that one frequently.

Specs should answer the frequently asked questions. Get it? FAQ = frequently asked questions! Now, how many people ask, "Is this one of the latest innovated chargers from Motorola?" I mean, really! 

Product descriptions should answer customer questions, not the questions that you wish people would ask but never do. Help a customer move forward in the buying cycle. 

Positioning, messaging, and ownership

Who defines product positioning? Product Management or Marketing Communications? Product managers are responsible for the features of the product and its positioning in the marketplace. The Marketing Communications (marcom or marcomms) organization is chartered with delivering the product message to the market. Product Management defines the positioning and Marcom delivers the positioning.

Here's a crazy idea. What if we thought of marcom as a development organization?

A product manager wants to develop a new brochure to use at a product launch in two months. Marcom says, "Yes." The costs are estimated for production and a bid is given to the manager. If her budget allows, she will go ahead with the new brochure. Marcom is in effect an inside agency, doing all the design, layout and production work—synchronized with the company branding.

Another product manager needs a brochure in two weeks. Marcom's answer is still "Yes." However, in this case, the price is probably much higher. In addition to the standard production costs, Marcom must bring in additional resources to perform the service—producing a brochure on a tight deadline probably can't be done using only internal staff. The estimate for delivering the brochure is given to the product manager. If the costs are greater than the budget will allow, the product manager will have to say "No."

As a service provider, Marcom decides when to do things inside and when to use outside help. The costs are all passed back to the product's promotion budget and the product manager decides whether the promotion is warranted.

Is this too crazy to work?

Fundamentally, the product manager should evaluate promotional materials based strictly on their support of the positioning. Leave the creative work to the creative people. Ask yourself: does it support the position?

You should be able to describe the position or the statement you wish to make to your marcom contact and trust them to deliver the message.

Another fine distinction is the contrast of product positioning and messaging. Positioning is what we'll say; the messaging is how we'll say it. Marcom generally owns messaging while product management generally own positioning.

I once shared a positioning and persona document plus a drawing on a cocktail napkin to our marcom group. They were able to create a go-to-market campaign and product brochures based entirely on these items.

In my work with both marcom and agencies, I have learned that most of the project time is spent in "planning" which is really time spent trying to figure out the product position. They interview the various product people and then create a positioning document based on their understanding of the product. From that document, they build their promotional plan.

There's nothing wrong with developing a positioning document with a marcom group as long as you know that's what you're doing. You run into trouble when a promotion meeting is spent trying to define the positioning.

If you don't know the positioning, you're not ready to begin your promotion.

Positioning (and naming) in tiers

I was running a positioning exercise with a team of product managers and VPs. We were really getting into it when the VP of Marketing interrupted the process to say, “We need to use the word ‘power’ in our messaging. The president loves that word.” Maybe that’s why so much of the positioning I see is industry gobbledygook: Marketers are trying to impress the leadership instead of the customer.

When you have a corporate positioning document filled with empty claims like “world-class” and “customer focused” it’s really hard to know what you do for clients.

The first rule of positioning is to focus not on what you can do but focus on what you can do for your customers, using their language.

A simple test for positioning is to consider whether your competitors can realistically say the opposite. “Our product is designed for massive deployments” is a claim that might appeal to large customers. And scare way the small ones. Furthermore, the opposite claim—“we are designed for small environments”—is also reasonable. This says that you’re focused on smaller companies and you’d like to stay away from large deals.

However, a product rarely stands alone. Whether a product or service, it lives within an environment, a company, a portfolio, or a marketplace. So in addition to positioning the product itself, you’ll need to put the product in the context of its environment.

For example: the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite.

Company [Amazon]

Portfolio/category [Kindle]

Product [Paperwhite]

In this case, it’s merely a naming convention; you would be unlikely to buy multiple products in the Kindle category. However, when positioning the portfolio of products, the “features” of a portfolio are often the products within it.

For example: Microsoft Office 365 Word

Company [Microsoft]

Portfolio/category [Office 365]

Product [Word]

You’d need positioning documents for each of the products. For Microsoft Word, you might describe: 1) reviewer mode for collaboration, 2) multi-language dictionaries, and 3) powerful scripting language. You’d also want positioning for the suite. Office is a portfolio of products; you’re likely to buy many of the products within the suite. Microsoft Office “features” are Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other applications plus the interoperability between them.

Taking the same idea one step further, you might position the company by calling out its suites of products as “features”: Windows, Office, Surface, Xbox, and Bing.

Positioning a product, suite, or company isn’t really that hard. You just have to know what your customers are saying. And then convey your product essence using the words of your customers.

Maybe it seems like a lot of work but believe me, it’ll save a bunch of time wasted on re-work in the months to come. Figure out what you want to say, and then say it.

Positioning with formulas

In marketing, positioning is the process by which marketers try to create an image or identity in the minds of their target market for its product, brand, or organization.—Wikipedia

Marketing dragged me into a meeting with a new agency. There, I was asked to talk about the people who buy the product, some of its best capabilities, and some of my customer stories. This went on for a bit as I tried to figure out their agenda. Finally it hit me:

“Are you trying to figure out my positioning?”

“Yes,” they said. “Our plan is to interview you and all the members of the leadership team. Then we’ll take what we’ve learned to craft your product positioning.”

Instead, I opened my laptop and shared my already-approved positioning document with the agency team. They were shocked. They rarely, if ever, work with a company that has figured this out already.

Having this conversation moved the project into high gear. They didn’t have to create positioning and didn’t have to suffer the long process of getting it approved. They could start the creative process immediately.

A positioning document explains your product capabilities and message to your internal teams and agencies. It’s the source document for branding, promotion, and sales enablement. It’s sufficiently important that my friends at Pragmatic Marketing recommend putting it in the business case. And if you can get the execs to sign off on positioning, you can reduce your internal approvals dramatically. After all, the words are pre-approved.

Some product leaders are happy starting the positioning process from a blank sheet of paper. They can quickly knock out a simple tagline or elevator pitch (hint: fewer words are better).

For example: The Kindle is a book-reader that’s fun to use, has a long battery life, and doesn’t cost a lot of money.

While some marketers like a simple positioning statement without any particular format, others prefer a little structure. As a rule, it’s easier to edit than to create. If you find it difficult to start, try a positioning “formula.” There are many formulas for a positioning message; just find one you like and start plugging in your product information.

The Regis McKenna format

Perhaps the most common positioning approach in the tech world is the “Regis McKenna” format, popularized in Geoffrey Moore’s seminal work, Crossing the Chasm.

For [target customer]

Who [statement of need or opportunity]

The [product name] is a [product category]

That [statement of key benefit, a compelling reason to buy]

Unlike [primary competitive alternative or approach]

Our product [statement of primary differentiation]

Example: For travelers who read a lot, the Kindle is an electronic book-reader that puts thousands of books at your fingertips. Unlike Apple’s iPad, you can use our reader for weeks on a single charge.

The “simile” approach

Perhaps the quickest way to a message is the simile. Explain your product in a familiar context. This format provides a nice shorthand for sales people too.

It’s like [reference product in another category]

but for [new application].

Example: The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite: it’s like an iPod but for books.

An agile user story format

I’ve started recommending positioning with the user story format for agile teams. They’re already familiar with the format, so we can just write positioning like any other user story, but at a product level.

As a [persona]

I want to [solve a problem]

So that [professional benefit statement].

Plus [personal benefit statement]

Example: As a voracious reader, I want to have my entire library with me wherever I go so that I can read whatever I want whenever I want. With the Kindle, I can! Plus, I like to appear “in the know” about both gadgets and books to my friends and colleagues.

About the competition

When your product has a lot of competition, you’ll also need to account for why you’re better than a competitive alternative. That’s the reason the McKenna model has the phrase starting with “unlike.” And you don’t just want to position against the competition, you want to re-position them. It’s not “We are good; they are bad.” It’s “We are good at this; they are good at something else.”

Upgrade positioning

In addition to a positioning document for each product or solution, you’ll also want one for new versions of old products, answering the question: “Why should I upgrade?”

We’ve all seen cases where a new upgrade failed to catch on with the customer base. (Think of the last few releases of Microsoft Windows®) Approach the positioning process again but from the standpoint of a customer who has an earlier version. What do you need to say about your product to compel your customers to suffer the move to a new release? The most common reasons—“we want your money” and “your upgrade will reduce our support costs”—aren’t reasons that the customer cares about.

People upgrade for different reasons but you’ll usually find they want a specific new capability. Interview some customers who have upgraded (or plan to upgrade) and what you learn will be the core of your message.

Example: The new Kindle Paperwhite. The world's most advanced e-reader just got better: higher resolution, higher contrast touchscreen with built-in light, and 8-week battery life. All at a lower cost. Now you can read anywhere.

If there’s one template or tool that summarizes everything you want to communicate about a product, it’s positioning. It saves you a ton of work because you now know exactly what you want to say. You’ll have this at the ready when you write a media release, a sales presentation, a demo script, an ebook. And good positioning also provides helpful context for your development team.

Figure out what you want to say before you have to say it. Do your positioning as soon as you can.

For more on positioning, see these resources:


photo credit: fatllama via photopincc