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It is one thing to read about the value of quality, but it’s an entirely different thing to experience the harsh consequences of its absence. I suppose some lessons are best learned through the school of hard knocks, and the value of quality was one of them. For obvious reasons, I won’t mention the name of the company, or the product, but trust me – the events described below did happen, and I had the dubious benefit of experiencing them first hand. Read the rest of this entry »

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productx-keynoteJoin me, and hundreds of other Israeli product managers at the ProductX conference on December 15th!

You may be pleased to find out that product management has earned its place in the sun within the Israeli hi-tech community. Over the last few years, the ProductX conference became the “annual gathering” of those involved in product management activities. It’s a great opportunity to hear about the latest trends in the field and learn new best practices.

productx-agendaMore importantly – it is a place where “PM heads” can meet their peers, share experiences, and pick up some useful tricks of the trade.

This year’s ProductX conference will take place on December 15th, at the AVENUE conference center in Airport City – Israel.

An impressive lineup of speakers will share personal ‘lessons from the trenches’ throughout the day and offer valuable tips.

The day is guaranteed to end on a high note. We have a unique opportunity to listen to a talk by the talented Dr. Kira Radinsky about machine learning and product management.

I personally attended the last two ProductX conferences – and truly enjoyed the experience. Granted, the facilities are nice and the included lunch is definitely a nice bonus – not to mention the coffee breaks and the yummy cookies!

But it’s not just about the food…

Let’s face it – a PM job is a lonely job. And there are very few people in the industry that know what we’re going through every day. Well… Here’s your chance to meet these “few people”.

So… if product management is “your thing” – don’t hesitate and get your tickets to the conference now!

And as a special offer to readers of this blog, remember to plug in the discount code “Baruch20” and get an immediate 20% discount!!!

See you there!

Earlier I described a few approaches for handling a customer crisis. I’d like to share a few incidents I happened to be involved in. As always, there’s the “theory” and then there’s “reality”. So while some of these incidents ended on a positive note, others became what I would politely call “valuable lessons learned”. For obvious reasons, I will cannot name the customers, or the company I worked for at the time. But I assure you that the events described below did happen, at least according to my own personal memory…

Read the rest of this entry »

Needless to say, your product or service offering lives and dies by its customers. While every customer counts, some customers count a bit more. Indeed, the amount of revenues a major customer generates for your company is very important, but so are customers who are willing to become a reference. These “reference customers” are an important asset that you must invest in building. Read the rest of this entry »

While traditional media is controlled by professional editors who determined what will be published and when, social media offers means to communicate directly with customers, partners, investors – in short with the world. By the term ‘social media’ I am referring to a whole range of tools such as blogs, social networks and messaging tools.Social-media

So what are some of the social media tools out there?

  • Company Blog: if your company doesn’t have one, it’s time to create it… A company blog is a straight forward way to update its followers: customers, analysts, partners…and competitors. The blog enables you to deliver your messages in your own words, without depending on external editors. Blogs should be updated with new posts on a regular basis, since if you let your blog go stale, you may lose your audience.
  • Social networks: powerful platforms for spreading your word. Ideal for posting short updates/messages which may refer readers to your website or blog for more information. Some social networks also allow you to build your own “pages” and acquire “followers”. The main social network that comes to mind is of course Facebook, yet there are many others that you should consider for your purposes. Check out the list of social networks websites. For example, if China is one of your target markets, then you should consider RenRen, or other leading Chinese sites.
  • Virtual communities: these are online communities that share common interests. By joining these communities, you can share ideas with people from your field. You should of course join special interest groups within your favorite professional social network (e.g. LinkedIn), but you should also make an effort to find the leading communities in your area of interest. Check out this virtual communities list.
  • Video sites: where you can host self-made, or professionally-made videos for a general audience. Video hosting sites can be used for example for delivering recorded presentations, or product demonstrations. One of the most popular ones is YouTube, but there are many other video hosting sites.
  • Messaging tools: offer the ability to send short messages, with optional links to extended content. One platform that comes to mind is Twitter, whose messages (aka “tweets”) are referred to as “micro blogging”. But there are other messaging platforms, such as the Chinese popular WeChat
  • Electronic Newsletter: regular updates by email to people who subscribe to a news letter issued by your company.

The variety of social media tools illustrate the power of this media, and the fact it is still evolving rapidly. Social media can be very powerful, yet it is not without challenges and pitfalls. As the term implies, social media is driven by a society of individuals. Anyone can post and share information, or publically comment on it. And yes, that includes disgruntled customers and competitors. The old adage “bad news travel fast” gets new meaning when it comes to social media.

I am not suggesting that one should avoid social media, but rather suggest you become aware of both its strength and weaknesses. Social media is here to stay, and it is a force to reckon with. As a product manager, you should definitely adopt a social media strategy for both your inbound and outbound activities.

Let’s start with the inbound activities. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that just about anyone whose opinion you care about has some level of social media activity. Industry analysts publish blog posts, issue tweets and publish newsletters. Companies within your target market author blogs, issue newsletters and maintain Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. And once you identify key people within your existing and potential customer base, you can follow their activities within social networks and virtual communities and learn about their opinions and activities. Naturally, social media is also an effective way to gather information about your competitors.

As a product manager you are responsible for gathering information about your target market and customer needs. This type of information builds your ‘knowledge base’ and is very handy when negotiating features and roadmap with your development team. Social media is definitely an important source for gathering market information, yet it should augment rather than replace direct customer engagements and personal conversations with industry analysts.

The outbound activities are a bit more challenging. As a product manager, you possess a great deal of knowledge about your company’s products/services, and the industry you operate in. You are therefore an excellent resource for disseminating such information through social media. Your knowledge and experience can be used for authoring the company blog, contributing to its Twitter feed, and generating posts on other social media pages. You can also voice opinions and share knowledge about your company offerings within virtual communities. Your path to becoming a “social media maven” is wide open. But not so fast…

Outbound social media activities require time, effort and skills. Starting a company blog and then neglecting to update it regularly may do more harm than good. Failing to quickly respond to comments made on posts you issued, especially negative comments, can be quite harmful. And if you lack the skills required to communicate a message eloquently, succinctly, and with some pizzazz, your social media activities may be ignored at best, or worse – generate negative sentiment.

People tend to underestimate the time and effort required to create a blog entry or a social media post. Creating succinct, engaging and informative content can be very time consuming. Before embarking on a social media writing adventure, it is recommended to seek guidance on how to create effective social media content. You can always start with a Google search on the subject (e.g. “how to write effective social media content”) and read some of the articles that come up. Plan to spend a few hours on creating each social media post, and make sure you get some feedback from peers before posting it live.

Usually you want the content posted in social media to reach a broad audience. This requires that the assets you use (i.e. company blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, etc.) have a large number of followers. Expanding the social media community requires both efforts and budgets. The company social media assets should be promoted in all its outbound communications, including: website, press releases, marketing collateral, presentations, and more. The amount and quality of social media activity obviously helps; the more interesting and engaging your posts are, the more followers you gain. And you should also make an investment in promoting your social media assets through paid campaigns on your social platforms of choice.

So before diving head first into your company outbound social media activities, make sure you assess the time, efforts and skills required. If you realize you may fall short on any of these three, then you should either team up with, or hire someone who would compliment your product knowledge with social media knowhow and resources. Small firms may expect a product manager to be also responsible for social media marketing. However, when possible the company should allocate separate marketing resources to manage its social media activity and utilize the product manager as a content contributor.

Last but not least: your outbound social media strategy and activities should be aligned with other traditional outbound marketing activities. To that end, it is critical that the messaging and positioning of the company and its product/services are clear and agreed upon. With the rapidly growing number of channels used to communicate your company messages, it is highly advisable that the messaging be put in writing and circulated among all those who spread the word – through traditional and social media.

One of the most effective ways to increase customers’ awareness of your product or service is through the public media. Referencing your product/service in trade publications, magazine articles, websites, and blogs helps deliver your messages to a target audience. Customers often perceive the public media as a more objective information source compared to your own sales collateral. Favorable coverage by the public media has therefore a better chance to resonate with customers. Read the rest of this entry »

Most industries have ‘analysts’ who track and report major industry trends, key customer needs and vendors offerings. While some analysts may work individually, most industry analysts work for ‘analyst firms’. The larger analyst firms employ specialists in a broad range of market segments and technologies, thus combining multiple disciplines to create comprehensive market reports. Analyst firms that managed to build a powerful brand in specific industries have a lot of influence on the market, and are a force to be reckoned with. Analysts exercise their influence in several ways: quotes in the media, published reports, conferences, and one-on-one engagements.Analysts

Analysts are often quoted in media articles. Most editors who cover a specific industry tend to call an analyst and ask him or her to comment on a recent development in the market. For example, if a vendor makes a new product announcement, editors who wish to report on the announcement are likely to contact an analyst and get his/her perspective on the product. This is also true when an article is written about a particular industry trend; an analyst will likely be asked to contribute his views to the specific media piece.

Market reports are another important vehicles for analysts to exercise their influence. Most analysts firms regularly publish reports on specific markets, individual vendors, and customer needs. Some of these reports may be free, while others are available for a fee. Analyst firms also conduct independent market surveys and the results are included in published reports. For certain market and technology categories, analyst firms may publish an annual report on the “state of the industry”. Such reports may also include vendor rankings and recommendations. Analyst firms also publish quantitative reports, which include market sizes, growth rates, and vendors market share.

Conferences are another area where analysts exercise their influence. They are often invited to give a talk, publish a paper, or participate in a discussion panel. Attendees often consider the messages communicated by analysts in such conferences as far more “objective” than vendors’ presentations. Some of the largest analyst firms also hold their own conferences on specific industry topics. Naturally, what analysts communicate in conferences is often echoed in the press and media.

Lastly, analysts spend a considerable amount of their time doing one-on-one engagements with customers and vendors. Discussions with customers help analysts gain deeper insights into the market needs. By gathering feedback from a large number of meetings, analysts can develop a comprehensive view of customer needs and priorities. These individual engagements are also an opportunity for customers to seek advice from the analyst, based on his/her broader view of the market. The individual meetings with vendors help analysts understand the current state of the art in technology and solution development. Some vendors use the opportunity to probe the analyst for feedback and advice on their product roadmap.

All in all, analysts can have a major influence on your product or service success. A favorable analyst quote in the media lends credibility to your offering; positive ranking in an industry report definitely helps buyers choose your offering; and you’d naturally like analysts to recommend your product or service next time they meet with a customer executive. So how do you get analysts on your side?

Analysts Relationships (AR) should be an important part of your marketing plan. Investing in AR will go a long way to support your marketing efforts. As the name suggests, it is about building relationships with analysts, so make sure your AR efforts are ongoing and done with a long term view. Here are several guidelines for you to consider as part of your AR initiative.

  • Know your analysts: every industry has its own list of analysts and analyst firms – take the time to find out who they are. Simply scan articles in the trade press, press releases, conferences agendas, and industry related reports. You should identify the individual analysts who are the ‘movers and shakers’ in your industry.
  • Establish a dialog: analysts are not reclusive people. They constantly seek to form relationships with key customers and vendors. Find the right way to introduce yourself to the analyst – by email, phone, or in person (e.g. at a conference).
  • Listen first: leading analysts have in-depth perspective on the industry. It is definitely worth listening to what they have to say, before stating your own views. Remember that mediocre analysts also have an ego, and while you may not fully appreciate their opinions – then certainly do. So be humble, and listen first.
  • Avoid hard selling: analysts listen to numerous vendor pitches. Most of them can spot a “story” when they hear it. Be genuine in your interaction with them; share the supporting evidence for your views on the market. Be open to a discussion and be prepared to change your mind if need be.
  • Seek advice: analysts may be in a position to provide you with valuable feedback on your product or service plans. They have insights into what your competitors are doing, and have ongoing dialogs with multiple customer executives. Soliciting their input on how to positioning product can both help you, and gain their trust.
  • Become an information source: analysts are thirsty for genuine knowledge about the industry. As a PM, you have access to information about customer needs, technology trends, etc. Plus you know your product and service better than any analyst would ever do. Maintain integrity and build the rapport so that you are viewed as a trusted information source.
  • Engage early and often: don’t wait till the moment you announce a new offering to disclose it to an analyst. Keep in mind that they wish to be part of the process, and have access to “inside information”. It is recommended that you provide analysts with “non disclosure” updates early on. Get their feedback on the direction of your product and service development. By the time you announce it, they should be fully on board.

Naturally, you should determine the type of proprietary information you share with analysts and the timing. Leading analyst firms are well aware of the need to protect the confidentiality of information they receive from customers and vendors. However some 2nd and 3rd tier analysts may be less stringent about it. What to share with whom and when is a fine line to walk. AR specialists can provide you with specific background on individual analysts and recommend the appropriate “rules of engagement”.

Beyond relationship building, there is also the “pay to play” approach. Most analyst firms will author custom reports for a fee. These reports may include “product reviews”, “customer success” stories, or “industry trend” analysis. While in theory none of these custom projects should influence the independent industry reports the analyst firm produces, in actuality they can sometime help. It is therefore recommended to consider commissioning selected analysts to author “whitepapers” that show case your product or service.

Since “commissioned whitepapers” are a known industry practice, their objective value may vary in customer eyes. Some analysts firms are reputed to be fairly objective even with commissioned whitepapers, and are therefore considered a “seal of approval”. Other firms are known to write whatever the paying vendor asked for, and the value of having their name on the whitepaper is significantly lower. This is where an AR specialist can help guide your time and money investment.

The role analysts play in the success of your product or service may vary depending on the market and the industry you are in. In the information technology (IT) industry for example, analysts play a major role. Some analyst firms (e.g. The Gartner Group) are considered a major source of information and their industry reports guide the decisions of key customer executives. If your industry is similar, then consider analysts relations as a critical part of your job as a product manager.

AR specialist can help with introductions and provide you with individual background, but it is up to you to build the rapport, the trust and the information exchange with the analyst. And when the time comes, these relationships will produce a major return for your product or service.

There are many types of marketing collateral that companies produce now days: web pages, datasheets, brochures, whitepapers, blogs, online videos, etc. Since customers are bombarded by information, most marketing collateral tends to be short, succinct and focused on “benefits”. Whitepapers are an exception to that rule, and therefore deserve some special attention. But first, what are they?whitepaper

As the name implies, whitepapers are mostly textual documents with a few key illustrations. They are normally 6-8 pages long, but you can occasionally find longer ones. Whitepapers can be a bit more technical in nature. They don’t necessarily need to get into the nitty-gritty details of the technology, but they can offer a sense of what the underlying architecture is.

Whitepapers can and should address a mixed audience: business buyers who wish to understand a bit more about the solution and technical buyers who wish to understand a bit more about the business value proposition. Most whitepapers are designed to answer the following key questions about a product/service offered by the company:

  • What is the need/problem addressed by this product/service?

Products or services are usually purchased in order to address a specific customer need. At times the business need is clear to the customer, but often it should be clearly articulated. The whitepaper goal is to “associate” the product/service with an important need the customer has.

  • What are the alternative solutions to this problem?

Customers prefer to have a choice when it comes to selecting a product or a service. A vendor can let the customer discover their choices by themselves, but it is far more effective to set the context for these alternatives yourself.

  • How does this product/service address the problem?

Most customers don’t like mysteries and prefer to know more about how your product/service operates. You don’t have to spell out confidential intellectual property; simply providing a high level description of the solution architecture will be sufficient to build customer confidence.

  • Why is it better than other available solutions?

As stated, buyers prefer to have choices. Needless to say, you prefer they choose your product or service. This is the right place to articulate why your alternative is better than the others.

A simple whitepaper “template” can help address the questions above: Start with an ‘introduction’ that describes overall market trends, then zoom- in to a specific problem/need your solution was designed to address. Follow with a list of alternatives used to address that problem/need today. Pay special attention to the “current way of doing things”, especially if the status quo is your main competitor… Next provide an overview of your product/service including a hint of its underlying architecture. Finally explain why your product/service addresses the need/problem better than any other alternative – and you’re done!

Well, writing a whitepaper sounds easy doesn’t it? To be honest, whitepapers do involve quite a lot of work and require a range of skills – both business and technical. To be effective, whitepapers must integrate several key business-technical elements:

  • Customer needs: the author must thoroughly understand the customer needs in order to describe them in the whitepaper. Those are the very same needs that came up during the gathering of product requirements. Once those needs are well understood, there is also the challenge of describing the key ones in a succinct and compelling manner.
  • Alternative solutions: the author must be reasonably familiar with the competitive land scape. Other solutions should have been thoroughly analyzed and their pros and cons well understood. Once the competitive positioning is understood, it must be articulated within the whitepaper.
  • Solution architecture: providing details about the solution requires knowledge of the product/service underlying architecture. All too often the actual technical architecture is far too complicated, and a simpler version must be synthesized and used in the whitepaper. This simpler version is often referred to as a ‘marketing architecture’, or “marketecture”.

So who should write a whitepaper? Ideally, the product manager should. After all, he or she has reasonable knowledge of the market, customers and the solution architecture. However not all product managers have the skills, or the time to develop the concepts and put them into fine writing.

One possible solution is to employ the services of a professional marketing writer. While this may work, it does depend on close cooperation with, and supervision by a product manager. The process should start with developing a detailed outline, which covers the key points the whitepaper must cover. The product manager and the writer should plan on having multiple sessions to discuss items listed on the outline. Investing up front in developing the detailed outline and discussing every item on it will save a lot of time and many review iterations later.

There is also the possibility of hiring a market analyst firm to create the whitepaper. This approach holds two main benefits: First, analysts should be familiar with the market, customer needs and other solutions in your space. You don’t need to spoon-feed them with information before they can start working on the whitepaper. Second, if assuming the analyst holds certain credibility in your market, then a whitepaper authored by them will carry more weight in the customer eyes. There are however two challenges with this approach. One has to do with budget – leading analyst firms will charge a hefty sum for producing a whitepaper. The other challenge has to do with the analysts’ wiliness to create a “biased” piece. Leading analysts firms protect their vendor neutrality and position themselves as objective advisors to customers. Creating a whitepaper that clearly favors your solutions may conflict with their neutrality.

Assuming you have a designated author for the whitepaper, then when should the work start? It depends on your “collateral philosophy”. Some marketing organizations focus on generating the basic collateral first – datasheets, brochures, web pages, etc. This approach is driven by the fact that these collateral pieces are a must, and therefore it is best to get them out first. The more complex task of creating a whitepaper is deferred to later. Other marketing organizations choose to start with a whitepaper. It forces the integration and assures consistency of the value proposition, solution description, and competitive positioning. Producing a cohesive whitepaper first makes the production of “basic” collateral a straight forward process.

Given the complexity and time involved in producing whitepapers, are they really worth the effort? Well, it depends. If selling your product or service involves multiple decision makers – some technically inclined and others business inclined – then a whitepaper will be worth its weight in gold. If on the other hand you are selling a consumer product, then investing in cool videos is probably a better choice.

In the business-to-business (B2B) space, where vendors sell products and services to other companies or organizations, whitepapers are a must. They are powerful sales tools that can help accelerate your sales process. In the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, where vendors sell to individual users, whitepapers can help, but certainly are not a necessity.

We discussed the importance of messaging and the impact it has on the perception of your product/service by customers (i.e. its positioning). I would like to discuss two examples, where the choice of words used in the message had a profound impact on the product positioning. Let me start with the ‘bad’ example:

I used to work for a company called Daisy Systems where I was part of the marketing team responsible for a new product called the “VHDL Design System”. VHDL is a ‘hardware description language’, which is used by integrated circuit (IC) engineers to describe the intended behavior of the chip they are designing. Using VHDL, engineers can simulate alternative design approaches, and detect potential flaws early on. Once the functionality (aka “logic”) of the chip is accurately captured in VHDL, it is semi-automatically converted into fabrication-ready format. The conversion process is called “logic synthesis”.

When VHDL was first introduced, it held the promise of increasing engineers’ productivity, improving chip reliability, and reducing the overall design time.  The “old process” involved manual creation of detailed, low level electronic schemes of the IC, which were later converted into fabrication format (aka “layout format”). The “new process” involved the creation of a high-level model of the IC (much like writing a software program), which was then “synthesized” into low level electronic schemes, which were converted into fabrication format.

[Note: I realize that for those of you who are familiar with the IC design process, the description above sounds very simplistic. But hopefully it provides some context for those who do not deal with IC design on a daily basis.]

Now back to the messaging story. Our team was excited to launch the new ‘VHDL Design System’. It was fully integrated with existing IC design tools our company offered, and thus became the first end-to-end VHDL-based IC design solution. This was a great message and we expected the market to react very favorably. There was one catch though…

VHDL is a very rich and complex language, and it was designed with many potential uses in mind. In reality, IC designers could use only a small portion of the language constructs VHDL offered. Our technical team reviewed the language thoroughly, and chose to support the “subset” that was applicable for IC design. Unfortunately, the word “subset” was used in our marketing collateral.

I don’t remember the exact phrases, but we have mentioned somewhere in our collateral that: “Our VHDL Design System supports a subset of the language which is fit for real world IC designs”. The ‘s’ word wasn’t in the headlines, but it was visible enough for customers and competitors to pick up. That was enough to create a marketing disaster.

Shortly after our product was launched, it became known as the “VHDL subset” solution. Our competitors were quick to declare that their product was a “Full VHDL” solution. And who wants to buy a “subset” when they can get the “full” thing?

The reality was that none of the competing products supported the full VHDL language – they simply chose to claim otherwise. Customers had no way to test whether a specific product had “full” VHDL support or no, so vendors could get away with making such claims. It took a couple of years till customers started to realize that a definition of a “VHDL subset” was needed in order to support real-world IC design. And standardization bodies like the IEEE started working on such definition.

But the damage cause by the initial miss-positioning of our ‘VHDL Design System’ was already done. Just one word prevented us from attaining the leadership position we believe we deserved.

Now to a different use of words, with a different outcome:

Years later, I worked for a company called Cadence Design Systems. The product I was responsible for was a “system level simulator”. It was a tool used for IC design, which allowed architects to capture, simulate and test algorithms before proceeding to the next stage of actually designing an IC. This was a “next generation” tool, which again promised a lot of productivity improvements for the complex process of IC design.

There weren’t many companies out there who offered such tools, and the market converged on two main vendors: ourselves and another company. Both offered a ‘system level simulator’. Naturally, both companies needed to position themselves in the mind of the customers. The other company promoted their solution as being “event-driven” simulation. Our solution was “cycle-based” simulation.

Without getting into all the nitty-gritty details about simulation technology, I’ll just say that event-driven simulation has certain efficiency advantage over cycle-based simulation. As you can imagine, our competitors were quick to point those advantages in front of customers. We started feeling the competitive pressure on a daily basis.

We couldn’t go back on our ‘cycle-driven’ position and claim that we too are ‘event-driven’. First, it was technically untrue, but even more importantly it was mentioned in all of our collateral. We had to find a way around the positioning trap our competitors set.

After much research and brain storming, we came across the answer. The vast majority of ICs designed in our target markets was “synchronous”. They used one or more on-chip ‘clocks’ to synchronize operations. Everything on the chip happened based on clock cycles. Hmm, cycles… that rings a bell, doesn’t it?

We decided to position our simulator as the best fit for ‘clock-based’ IC designs. While one could perhaps simulate an algorithm faster with an ‘event-driven’ simulator, mapping the algorithm later into a ‘clock-based’ IC design would be very difficult, and involve lots of re-work.

We simply claimed to have a ‘cycle-based’ simulator which is ideal for ‘clock-based’ IC designs. The connection between cycle-based and clock-based did wonders for our positioning. Most of the customers planned to use a system-level simulation tool as part of their IC design process. They didn’t want to deal with the complex mapping of ‘event-driven’ designs into ‘clock-based’ ones. We won the competitive battle – fair and square.

So there you go – messaging and positioning are indeed important. Choosing the words used in your product/service message can greatly influence its success (or failure). As I said earlier – resist the temptation to skip the messaging process. The exercise will be well worth your time.

One of the important roles product manager has is to help craft the ‘messaging’ for their product. By ‘messaging’ I am referring to the set of messages a company puts out there to influence how customers perceive its product or service. Those usually take the form of website content, datasheets, presentations, advertisements, etc.

I used the phrase ‘help craft messaging’’, since in some organizations messaging is the responsibility of a separate ‘product marketing’ and/or ‘marketing communications’ team. Regardless of the formal organizational structure, I believe that a product manager must be intimately involved in the process of positioning and messaging. But before we get too much into organizational dynamics, let’s discuss what ‘positioning’ actually means.

So what is ‘positioning’? While there are several definitions for the term ‘positioning (marketing)’, most agree that it is something that happens in the customer’s mind. Specifically, it the way the customer perceives your product vs. other products in the market.  If you are looking for a simple, yet powerful explanation of positioning, I highly recommend you read a book called “Positioning – the battle for your mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It is an easy read and full of examples that illustrate the concept.

I realize the concept of positioning sounds a bit elusive, so let me try to illustrate it through a simplified perception model. I’ll use car models as the ‘product’:

Let’s assume that customers take into account only two attributes when choosing a car: price and performance. In order to establish their opinion of a particular model, they mentally ‘rank’ each it based on these attributes. A customer who evaluates two car models – Toyota and Porsche, may rank them as follows (see Figure 1).

Positioning Diagram

Figure 1: Perception grid

In the above example, the ‘positioning’ of Toyota is low price – medium performance, while Porsche’s is high price – high performance. Each car occupies a different ‘position’ in the customer’s perception grid.

While positioning ultimately happens in the customer’s mind, marketers strive to influence it. In our little example, the Toyota marketer may strive to increase its perceived performance, while the Porsche marketer wishes to decrease its perceived price. They both try to do it through ‘messaging’ – namely the set of messages a company puts out in order to inform and influence customers.

As stated, this was a simplistic example. Often there are more than two attributes a customer takes into consideration when establishing their view of a product. In such cases, we are talking about a multi-dimensional perception grid. The basic positioning principle still holds: 1) understand the key attributes your customer cares about 2) figure out how your (and others) product ranks 3) “map” the products on a multi-dimensional grid.

When dealing with hi-tech products, especially in the business-to-business (B2B) space, there are multiple attributes that influence the ‘positioning’ in customers’ mind. Examples for such attributes are:

       Price: how cost effective is the product? How does it compare to similar or alternative solutions in the market place?

       Performance: what is the “performance” of the product compared to others? Performance is obviously defined based on the product category, and may actually be broken down to multiple sub-attributes.

       Quality: how reliable is the product? What is its failure rate, or MTBF (mean time between failures)? What do other customers say of the product reliability?

       Functionality: what are the key functions the product provides? Depending on the product category and the market landscape, there may be multiple key functions that customers take into account when ranking a product in their mind.

       Support: how is the product supported? How dependable is the service? What are the costs and schedules associated with repairing the product?

       Company: how solid is the company that offers the product? What is their financial longevity? Who are its key management personnel? What is their market share?

But before delving into complex multi-dimensional perception grids, let’s not be quick to discard simplistic positioning models. In the “noisy” communication environment we all live in, it could be effective to focus on just a handful of attributes. The messaging efforts would focus on establishing your product positioning along these few attributes.

A classic example is “market leadership”: all things being equal, customers prefer to pick a “market leader”. If you can substantiate a ‘market leader’ positioning, it may be the primary message you emphasize with customers. If we go back to the “car models” example, then consider for example BMW’s positioning – “The ultimate driving experience” – which emphasizes one “attribute” in customers mind, their driving experience.

Figuring how your product ‘positioning’ is framed in customers’ mind is just part of the task. You also need to develop the ‘messaging’ that will reinforce, evolve or perhaps change your product positioning. The ‘messaging’ of a product, or a company for that matter, manifests itself through any form of communications the company puts out there, for example:

       Presentations: overview of the product, its features and use cases

       Datasheets: outlining product functionality and key benefits

       Whitepapers: how to apply a product to benefit a customer

       Success stories: how a particular customer benefited from the product

       Website: sections that deal with specific products, or solutions

       Press Releases: contain news about the product, or uses of it

       Interviews: conversations with news editors, analysts, etc.

       Blogs: containing specific references to the product

       Social media: posts that reference the product or its use cases

Ideally, the underlying key messages in every form of communication should be similar, or at least consistent. To achieve that, a “messaging document” must be developed with all the key messages. The messaging document should be reviewed and approved by all the relevant stakeholders before any communication piece is developed, let alone distributed. Unfortunately, due to constraints and deadlines, there is a tendency to “skip” the messaging exercise and jump straight to creating the content at hand. The outcome is inconsistent messages which may lead to a sub-optimal or even incorrect positioning. 

There are many different formats and templates out there for “messaging documents”. Frankly, doing the exercise and thinking thoroughly about the messaging and the desired target positioning is far more important than the actual format you choose… But just in case, I am enclosing a potential template for a messaging document below.

I.        Background information:

Setting the Stage
Purpose Statement This document provides overall ‘to-customer’ messaging and positioning for the company solution. This message framework should be used as a guide to develop consistent marketing communications by internal marketing teams, by agencies, and whenever the company solutions are referenced in customer-facing communications. This document is for internal use only and is not intended for distribution to customers or partners.
Summary of Customer Needs Summarize what the key customer needs are in your space.
Market Landscape Describe the market landscape: what are the key trends that influence it? Who are the key players?
Target Audience Who is the target audience? What type of companies are you aiming for, and what type of individual positions/roles you wish to target?

II.            Positioning Statements:

To-Customer Positioning

Positioning Statement

 

 

 1.     Fordescribe the audience within your target customers.

 2.     Whowants to <describe their key needs>

 3.     What describe what the company does for its customers.

 4.     Howdescribe how it does what it does, including unique technologies.

 5.     Competitorsoutline key competitors

 6.     Differentiators outline key differentiators:

  •          Differentiator one: details
  •          Differentiator two: details
  •          (3-6 differentiators in all)

 

Customer-Facing Statements

100-Word Description

Description of what the company does, customer benefits and key differentiators, in no more than 100 words.

50-Word Description

Subset of the above, in no more than 50 words.

25 Word Description

Subset of the above, in no more than 25 words.

 III.           Supporting Pillars:

Pillars

Pillar 1 

Pillar 2

Pillar 3

Audience Focus

Describe the audience

Describe the audience

Describe the audience

Pillar Benefit Statement Pillar key benefit statement  Pillar key benefit statement. Pillar key benefit statement 
Pain Points – Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

– Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

 – Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

– Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

 – Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

– Customer pain point(s), related to the pillar

Support Points

Supporting point 1

– Details of the supporting point.

Supporting point 2

– Details of the supporting point.

Supporting point 1

Details of the supporting point.

Supporting point 2

– Details of the supporting point.

Supporting point 1

Details of the supporting point.

Supporting point 2

– Details of the supporting point.

 

Completing the first section – Background Information – should be straight forward. I assume a product manager has full understanding of his/her target market. However the purpose of this section is to help get other marketing related teams (e.g. Marcom team, PR agencies) on the same page.

The second section – Positioning Statements – is where the hard work begins. And this is also where most of the time will be spent in the messaging exercise. The message creation process is broken (sometimes artificially) into several steps. Multiple iterations of those steps may be required until convergence is achieved. Let’s go back to our simplistic example of car selection and attempt to fill the details on behalf of the Porsche product manager:

For: upper middleclass customers

Who: wish to enjoy performance driving on everyday roads

What: our company offers performance cars at affordable price

How: based on our unique automotive technology tested on challenging race courses

Differentiators:

  • Acceleration: sub-5sec acceleration from 0-60mph
  • Transmission: 7-speed gear; 1-6 with sports ratio; 7 with fuel-efficient ratio
  • Electro-mechanical steering: extremely precise yet comfortable at high speeds

The next challenge involves building the integrated positioning statements – a long, medium and a short one. Use the text crafted in the For/Who/What/How/Differentiators sections as building blocks. I suggest you start with the 100 words statement and then prune it down to get to the 50 and 25 words ones. As I stated before, the process will be iterative, and you will have to go back to earlier parts and continue to refine the positioning statements.

Finally, the Supporting Pillars are just that: they outline the more detailed proof points that support the positioning statements above. Each pillar includes a benefit statement, the related customer ‘pain points’, and supporting evidence to the pillar benefit claims. When dealing with more complex sales, there are often multiple audiences, each interested in different benefits. For example technical buyers interested in features/functions, and financial buyers interested in costs/ROI.  Going back to our small Porsche example:

Audience: car buyer

Benefit: top performance, at affordable price, on everyday roads

Pain point: enjoy high performance driving on a daily basis, yet at reasonable cost

Support Points:

  • Highly efficient, state-of-the-art engines <details here>
  • 7-speed manual gearbox <details here>
  • Electromechanical power steering <details here>
  • Efficiency enhancing measures <details here>

I hope the simple example illustrated the general structure of a messaging document. But don’t let the simple structure deceive you. Converging on few, powerful and consistent messages can be a challenging process. It requires participation from key stake holders, and involves multiple iterations till agreement is achieved.

It might be tempting to skip the seemingly trivial task of messaging document creation, and go straight to marketing content writing. Resist that temptation! Go through a messaging process first, and trust me, the payoff will be very high. And the extra bonus: your marketing content will be consistent and far more effective.