Warning: This is going to be a rant, so proceed at your own risk.
A friend of mine is chartered with rolling out a product to a market that doesn't want it. Another marketing friend has been told to come up with a competitive analysis for a product that is not as good as the competitor. In both these scenarios, marketing is viewed as something that you do at the end of the process to package up and put a pretty ribbon on the product. Questions such as "Who is the target market for this product?" have either never been asked or are answered generically with a resounding, "Everybody". Positioning is something that "those marketing people" are supposed to figure out after a product has been created.
Whether you are working on a competitive analysis, datasheet, or complete roll-out for a new product, this job is a hundred times harder if the product was not designed with the market in mind.
How can you even build a product without answering the simple questions about who is the target market and what value will they find in the product? I don't know the answer, but most technical products are built this way. I partially blame the technical entrepreneur of these companies, but most of the time they just don't know any better. The real culprit is the venture capitalists who fund and advise these companies. They should be asking the hard questions before the product is finished its development cycle. They should also be funding the market research up front to verify that there is indeed a market for the product. But none of this helps you if you are stuck in this position.
I like to think of myself as being at a high enough level in a company that I can actually change this crazy behavior. But alas, I am only fooling myself. I have had several calls from recruiters who wanted me to talk to a start-up that "has finished their product" and is now ready to hire a CEO, marketing and sales people. If I join one of these companies, I get to be the bad guy and tell the investors that the product was developed in a vacuum. Why would I want a job like that?
If making the change is hard for the CEO, it is almost impossible for the product manager.A product manager is not in a position to make a revolutionary change in a company. However, there is a lot a product manager can do to make evolutionary progress in a company.
Before one line of code is written, or the designers have started to work on the product, use the following basic checklist as a sanity check:
Who is going to buy the product (by title, by job function, by company size and industry)?
What is the value of the product for that person?
Who is the competition and why is this substantially better?
Will someone pay money for this product?
If the company can't answer these questions then how do they know what to build? When the hard trade-offs come on the feature list, how do you know what to leave behind? If you can't get the answers from the developers on this, then management should be able to provide the answers. If you can't get the answers from management, then you should be able to get some budget to do some basic research to answer these questions. Whether your research is talking to analysts in this space or performing a market validation, you will gain insights that will help your prioritize features, jump ahead of the competition, and position a product that can be truly unique in the market.
If your company is really progressive, you will want to have the product designed before it is built. This means that you have gone beyond the target market, and are building a product for real users. No one knows software design better than Alan Cooper. His book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylumprovides some real insights on how software should be designed for humans.
Unfortunately, few companies are that progressive. As a marketing person, you will most likely find yourself handed a product at the end of its development cycle and asked to market it. You will find, on this site, lots of information on positioning, writing datasheets, creating a sales presentation, and doing competitive analysis. Just know that you are not alone out there - we are all stuck in this insanity...