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!

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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 »

Unfortunately, some customers may not always be happy with your company’s product or service. As long as the majority of your customers are happy with it, most of the time – you are probably doing fine. However, every once in a while you may encounter a customer that is more than just “unhappy”. In fact, they may even be furious. Any situation where a customer is grossly unhappy with your solution, and possibly experiencing negative financial impact or a major loss of productivity, should be defined a “customer crisis”. 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.

Whitepaper are often regarded as “sales tools”, created after product development is complete and as part of getting ready for sales. But a whitepaper can do much more than augmenting the company’s sales collateral. It can help crystalize the product strategy and establish the value of developing a specific product or a service in the first place. After all, a product should address a specific customer need and deliver economic value – and that’s precisely what a whitepaper is supposed to communicate.  BridgingTheGap

I started working as a product manager for a company that focused on developing electronic system-level (ESL) design tools. Without diving too much into the technical minutia, ESL software tools help engineers quickly model a complex system and simulate its behavior – without spending a ton of hours on its specific implementation details. Think of it as helping architects quickly sketch and visualize a large building before diving into the details of each and every part of its structure. ESL tools let engineers “play” with different concepts for a large electronic system, pick the best concept, and only then proceed through the arduous process of actually designing and building it.

The product I was hired to manage was supposed to provide a link between the ESL tool the company offered, and 3rd party hardware design tools that already existed in the market. I was very excited about the prospects of such a product, but for a while it seemed like I was the only one…

A couple of weeks after I joined the company, the engineering manager responsible for developing the product quit the company, taking half of our small development team with him. The remaining engineers on the team looked quite demotivated themselves, and I am pretty sure started looking elsewhere for a job.

It was hard to garner support for the project throughout the company. The project was generally viewed as an “interface” between our “high level” design tool and 3rd party “low level” design tools. And when engineers face the choice between enhancing and improving “our tool” vs. creating an interface to “other tools” – their preference is quite clear…

I could tell by the looks of other folks in the company that they thought my product was clearly doomed, and my days in the company were numbered. However the phrase that kept running through my mind at the time was: “It ain’t over till it’s over”.

I decided to write a whitepaper titled: “Bridging the Gap between Concept and Implementation”. It described the overall process of designing a complex electronic system – starting with the conceptual level, where key architectural choices are made, all the way through the detailed design level, where actual hardware is designed. It further described the need to develop an adequate testing framework that would ensure that both the high level model and the detailed implementation meet the desired functionality.

My whitepaper highlighted the gap that existed between our ESL tool and the other hardware design tools. The engineers who worked on the system architecture used our tool to capture the system functionality. Once their task was done, they “tossed it over the wall” to the hardware designers, who had to essentially start from scratch in a different design tool. The gap between the high level and the detailed design phases made the overall process significantly longer and much more error prone. However with the help of a “little interface” between the two types of design tools, we could dramatically reduce the overall design time, improve the final product quality, and save our customers a ton of money.

The value to the customer which was described in the whitepaper was quite straightforward.  But it also pointed out the business benefits to our company. Given an interface to hardware design tools, our ESL product would get into the hands of many more hardware engineers, which meant growing the number of seats we sell, and increasing the value of each seat.

The project, officially named the “Hardware Design System”, eventually gained full management support. It became easier to recruit engineers to work on it, and our sales teams loved the prospects of making extra $$$. Once launched, the product exceeded all expectations and became one of the company’s main revenue sources. Not too bad for a “half dead product”…

I don’t want it to sound as if the whitepaper did all the “magic” by itself. It still took multiple internal meetings and heated discussions to get the message across and win support for the project. But I would say that the whitepaper laid the foundations for the whole internal campaign.

The same whitepaper, with a few modifications to fit it for external use, became the cornerstone of our outbound marketing campaign. It established the key messages, which were later used for developing all other sales collateral – presentations, datasheets, etc.

Granted, not every product development is driven by a whitepaper. But the basic tenants of ‘customer problem’, ‘alternative solutions’, ‘our solution’ and ‘why it’s better’ should be captured in every solid product requirement document (PRD). And once captured correctly, then creating a customer facing whitepaper should be mostly a “cut & paste” operation.

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.

One of the challenging marketing tasks I personally came across has been ‘naming’. Assigning a name to a product, a device, a solution, or a company has been much harder for me than it looks. This is especially true when the name has to be associated with online presence – a web address (URL), a search keyword, or a social media term. When you search for a name that is catchy, easy to remember, meaningful, easy to spell, and has an associated domain name – the process can be lengthy and frustrating.

Assigning a name to a product, let alone a company, is a serious matter. A ‘naming consultant’ I once met called the process “verbal branding”. According to her, a ‘name’ should be an integral part of the company branding strategy.

Marketers often make substantial investments in building their company/product ‘visual brand’ through careful selection of graphics, color schemes, etc. They hire design experts to build the elements of the ‘visual brand’ – logo, website template, presentation templates, etc. In contrast, the process of selecting a name, particularly a product name, is sometimes handled as a popularity contest among company employees.

In my discussion with the aforementioned ‘naming consultant’ she pointed out that there are generally three types of names:  Descriptive name, Suggestive name and Arbitrary name.

  • Descriptive names are a succinct version of what the product or the company does; for example: ‘Intelligent Business Machines’ (IBM) for a company or ‘Integrated Services Router’ (ISR) for a product.
  • Suggestive names provide a “hint” as to what the product or the company is about; for example ‘Qualcomm’ is a company that offers quality communication solutions, and ‘iPhone’ is a product that combines Internet services with a phone.
  • Arbitrary names do not directly or indirectly describe what the product or company does. However if properly selected, they could have an effect on the audience.  For example, the name ‘Verizon’ doesn’t describe a communication services company; however it resembles the word ‘Horizon’, and thus may benefit from a positive effect. Another example is the name given to the Intel microprocessor ‘Pentium’, which was a departure from the company X86 naming convention.

There are additional subtleties associated with company or product naming.  But starting with a choice between a descriptive, suggestive or arbitrary name is a good place to start. Whatever you do, keep in mind that names tend to stick with a company or product for a while. The cost of changing those names increases dramatically over time. So don’t leave the name selection process to the very end…

Usually a lot of thought is given to choosing a company name. However product names are sometimes handled as an afterthought – a task left to be tackled right before the public launch. A “working name” is selected at the beginning of the development process, and that name somehow finds its way into the code, software menus, documentation, etc. Uprooting the “working name” and replacing it with the chosen “marketing name” can be a challenging task, especially when time is running out before the launch. As a product manager, you should invest in selecting the proper name early on, and make sure that all the teams involved get on board with the selected name.

Anyone in the company can come up with a product name, but it is important that a marketing professional is tasked overseeing the selection process. The team can follow the ritual of announcing a ‘naming contest’ where the winner gets a small prize (a free pizza…). Alternatively, you can hire a naming consultant, and task them with coming up with a list of recommended names. The process for name selection may depend on budget and timeline, but regardless – it should start early!

There is no single recipe for name selection; however there are a few common tasks involved in the process:

–       Desired attributes: define the set of attributes the selected name should possess.  This should preferably be done before any naming candidates are available. Think carefully about the desired attributes, list them, and if possible – prioritize them. Having a set of attributes will greatly help evaluate the proposed naming candidates. Some of the attributes are generic, while others are company/product specific.

  • Generic attributes: these include elements such as: easy pronunciation – in target languages, straightforward spelling, avoiding negative connotation (in target languages), availability of domain name, etc.
  • Specific attributes: related to the company or product at hand. For example: should the name reflect performance? Quality? Trustworthiness? Luxury? Affordability? Also, if there is a theme already adopted by the company (e.g. flower names), then new names must comply.

–       Naming candidates: generating a list of naming candidates can be done in multiple ways. For example: brainstorming sessions; or theme-based searches (e.g. Greek mythology gods); team contest with prizes; or hiring a naming consultant. Regardless of the process chosen, it is useful to communicate the desired attributes as guidelines for suggestions.

–       Top candidate(s) selection: using the list of desired attributes as a benchmark, the suggested names should be prioritized and top candidates selected. It is important to select more than one top candidate, since the subsequent approval process may disqualify some.

–       Legal screening: the top naming candidates should go through a legal review process. Any trademark contention issues should be reviewed and resolved. The candidate list should be pruned down to those names that can withstand challenged from other companies. Note that the legal screening should be done in all key target markets.

–       Internet screening: check if the candidate names can be associated with relevant domain names – especially important for company names.  They should also be tested in multiple search engines and social media sites to detect potential contentions with existing names/keywords.

–       Final selection: hopefully at this stage there are a couple of names which passed the screening process and can be presented for final decision by marketing and senior management.

As you can tell, the above process can become lengthy and convoluted. You may encounter barriers such as trademark issues or contentions in a particular target market – hence the suggestion to start the naming process early and in earnest. A good name can be a powerful branding asset, so it is well worth the effort.

While choosing a name is important, one must avoid the risk of “over naming”. This is particularly true for small companies, where the company name and its product name can be easily interchanged by customers. An example of blurring product and company names is Oracle Corporation. It was founded as Software Development Laboratories (SDL), later renamed as Relational Software, Inc. (RSI) and eventually named Oracle Corporation after its flagship product.

Likewise, if your company has a broad product line, naming every sub-product can be superfluous. Customers may remember the product line names, but sub-products names will be lost in the noise. You may still need to assign names to sub-products for logistical purposes (e.g. order processing), but those names should not be viewed and treated as a brand. The branding emphasis should be on the main product line, while sub-products can be simply given “descriptive names”.

At the end of the day, the product manager must decide where to put the emphasis on naming. Naming is part of the overall branding strategy, and should fit right into it. Spend the energy, time and budget on names that are critical to your brand – e.g. company name, or key product line name. Keep in mind that customers remember only a handful of names, so choose your battles wisely.