© 2019 Dave Cole

Blog | Product Marketing as Master Storytellers 

I believe Product Marketing (PMM) is primarily about creating and delivering the story an organization tells the market about itself and especially its products. Markets are driven by dialogue and PMM has a weighty responsibility: Product Marketing conceives the narrative and keeps the conversation flowing naturally throughout the year. While PMM is necessarily focused externally on the market, successful teams tackle work inside the organization with vigor. Aligning stakeholders on messaging, coordinating launches across Sales and Marketing and gracefully handling engineering surprises all mean that the very best PMM have eyes both in the front and the back of their heads.

 

The concept of markets as a dialogue started for me upon reading The Cluetrain Manifesto. The idea is simple and struck home for me: imagine that you’re sitting across from your customer at a table. How would you speak to them? What would you say? The premise is that our ability to reach niche audiences with customized messages based on previously unheard of amount of customer insight on screens that follow you into the bathroom means the industrial era practices of blind mass marketing are broken.  A prime example is the press release.

 

So you’re back at the small café table with your customer or prospect for a friendly chat. Light jazz music is playing in the background and steam is rolling pleasantly off of your cappuccinos. Now consider that you start the conversation on a new topic by shouting at the top of your lungs speaking in grandiose terms about this hot new something they need to buy right now. Pretty ridiculous, right? Cluetrain Manifesto argues that most press releases are the functional equivalent and I would agree. REVOLUTIONARY NEW FIZZBANG 7.5 USHERS IN ERA OF TURBO COLON-CLEANSING. Chock full of hyperbole and hackneyed business-speak, press releases are effectively a tone-deaf monologue at a podium where the speaker walks off afterward without taking questions.

 

Press releases still have a role. I don’t love them, but what if they were delivered as a story that you might be telling your customer across the table over coffee? Check out how Google announces hitting a key milestone in rolling out wifi to Indian rail stations. It gets the point across with stories rather than superlatives. It is vastly more… human.

 

Let’s take this a step further. What if you assumed that the initial conversation over coffee was followed up by subsequent emails and perhaps a phone call, like any other relationship would? Further, if the customer can try your product and determine how great it is for themselves, is there really a need to shout at them and exaggerate the benefits? The inverse of outdated industrial era marketing practices is the farmer’s market. When I visit the local Sunday farmer’s market in Santa Monica, I can try the oranges that are cut by the grower for me to sample. I can ask the baker when the bread was made and how. The fig farmer tells me how the drought has impacted fruit quality and flavor. They are selling to me, but it’s enjoyable and expected. And what’s more, I see all of them to following week if I’d like to. Is it unreasonable to think that this same approach can work for software and in particular, security?

 

Applying this back to product marketing, I believe the highest impact approach to PMM is to create a tight, compelling narrative for the next 12 months as if you were talking about your products to an earnest customer at the farmer’s market over with the aforementioned friend over coffee. Ideally a friend who isn’t well versed in your industry. How do you setup the story? These are likely the points you make prior to your initial launch through blogs, analyst briefings and other low key means of initiating the market dialogue while beginning to test your broader story. The key points you make to drive home your message are the launches themselves—each one a step in further developing the narrative and punctuated by a statement to the market, an event, etc.

 

When you reflect on recent changes in how products are developed and delivered, the idea of the steady flow of conversation with the market as opposed to the occasional “big bang” is both obvious and necessary. Cloud services support frequent updates by design with frequent low impact changes not only mitigating risk of a significant whoopsie but also allowing for users to gradually adjust to changes in the customer experience (as opposed to jarring shifts in UX). Nearly synonymous with cloud services is the agile development methodology which lends towards incremental improvements delivered routinely rather than huge releases packed with new functionality which were the hallmark of waterfall-based development. Lastly, consider the impact of devops and CI/CD—we can now not only release software but also the infrastructure on a continual basis while allowing it to elastically flex to demand for services. Pretty amazing. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this from a Marketing perspective to power a constantly fresh dialogue with our customers and prospects?

 

I admittedly haven’t mentioned much about tactics or PMM specifics. I believe this is the easier part of the equation and has to flex to match the business and their respective situation. The hard part is having the foresight and discipline to structure a potent yearlong narrative that unfolds in sync with product delivery. Even better, how about a multiyear strategy that unfolds over time as an expertly written series of books instead of a “one and done” story?

 

Think of the best stories you’ve ever read—I bet many of them were trilogies like Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” or even longer series like the 7 book Harry Potter sequence. As a Fantasy and SciFi aficionado, my favorite moments are when I’m deep in a series and the author reveals an aspect of the story line that was merely hinted at long ago. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (Song of Fire and Ice) offers plenty of examples of this, as do series by Pat Rothfluss, Mark Lawrence, Scott Lynch and many others. The feeling as a reader is epic—the unveiling is a delight, you feel as if a master guide is taking you on a perfectly orchestrated journey. Why can’t a product reveal itself over time in the same fashion? I believe exceptional Product Marketing can deliver this same experience for a product.

 

In closing, PMM for me are master storytellers who structure and maintain a compelling conversation with the most important audience—an organization’s customers and prospects.  When done well, their grip on the audience is tight, their voice is authentic and no one leaves during the credits as they rightfully suspect that there just might be something amazing around the next corner.