Product Marketing Resources

The following is a random list of resources for product marketing managers.  My name is Barbara Tallent and the information contained on this website came out of my 25+ years in high-tech. This is something that I want to share with others faced with the very challenging job of product marketing manager in the high-tech industry.

Some of this information is a little old or dated, and I have been too busy to update it. But I have had so many messages of appreciation from people that I don't want to take it down. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about any of the information here.

Product Marketing Book

This is a book that I started writing on high-tech product marketing - but never finished. Someday I will get back to it...

Introduction and Target Audience

Chapter 1 - Product Marketing Defined
The breadth and depth of the product marketing role

Chapter 2 - The Customers
How to incorporate customers into the product marketing process.

Chapter 3 - Product Planning
The product planning cycle and market requirements documents (MRD)

Introduction

How many successful product managers do you know? I know lots of product managers, and I can count on one hand the number that I would consider successful. I've often wondered why the product manager's role is one in which it seems so difficult to succeed. The following are several possible reasons:

  • The product manager has ultimate responsibility without ultimate authority.

  • The product manager's responsibility is typically so broad that being successful in one area often negates being successful in others.

  • The product manager comes from one specific discipline, either engineering or marketing and concentrates their efforts in the area they feel most comfortable.

So what are the visible signs of a successful product manager? The most obvious one is when the product they manage is a strong seller and profitable. However, there are often times when a product manager is not judged on solely on the success of their product. The product manager must often prove their effectiveness not only by having a successful product, but also by appearing that they are on top of all product issues, customer issues, and proactively managing the product, and not just reacting to day-to-day fires. Of course the product manager who is on-top of the product and providing proactive support of the product is usually the product manager with the strong selling, profitable products. The only way for the product manager to be completely on top of all issues is to be extremely organized and proactive.

Target audience and objective

Product managers generally come from many diverse backgrounds. Many were formally Systems Engineers, others come from other marketing roles, occasionally they move over from engineering, and some come straight from getting their MBA. Because of these diverse backgrounds, product managers often concentrate or succeed in one specific area of their job, often neglecting or ignoring other areas where they are less familiar with the requirements of the job.

This book is designed to help product manager's stay on top of every aspect of their product marketing job. It is designed for both the beginning product manager, who doesn't know where to start, as well as the experienced product manager who just need a reference of checklists and templates. The book outlines the product manager's job, provides templates for standard documents, as well as processes to help the product manager stay organized and keep the rest of the company informed on the product. Lastly this book provides insights and tips gathered from 20+ years of direct product marking experience with lots of input from other product managers in the high-tech industry.

Product Marketing Defined

So just what is Product Marketing? When you tell people who are unfamiliar with the industry (even many who are familiar with the industry) that you are in marketing, they invariably say, "Oh, so do you do advertising or sales?"

Once I tried explaining the scope of my product marketing job to my parents, but they were bored to tears by the time I was half way through. After that I just told people that I am responsible for all aspects of a product-line at my company.

The definition of Product Marketing changes slightly and even drastically within each the company. The following loosely describes the scope of the job. In larger companies it encompasses only one or two of these functions. In smaller companies it is all these functions and often more. In start-ups it is all this, Marketing Communications (public relations, advertising, collateral production, trade shows) and other functions such as product quality assurance, documentation and, in the case of one of my raw start-up jobs, delivering the mail! (Don't worry, I promise not to spend too much time here on the most efficient methods of mail delivery.)

Conception
Responsibilities
Target market definition
Market research
Market requirements
Forecast
Trade-offs - schedule vs. features
Positioning
Competitive analysis

Working with
Customers
Market research firms
Engineering
Finance
Sales
Development
Responsibilities
Refine market requirements
Run focus groups
Trade-offs - schedule vs. features

Working with
Customers
Engineering
Launch
Responsibilities
Start customer presetations
Refine forecast
Sales training
Press relations
Trade shows and events
Collateral
Promotion
BOM/Inventory (for hardware product

Working with
Customers
Sales
Analysts
Press
Engineering
Finance
Sales
Technical support
Sustain
Responsibilities
Sales training
Promotional programs
Product releases

Working with
Customers
Engineering
Technical support
Discontinue
Responsibilities
Assure customers have support and upgrade path

Interaction
Customers
Sales
Technical support
Finance


  • Product Conception - Encompasses market research and includes customer feedback, analysis, tracking product requirements, providing a product road map, positioning, and the product planning cycle, up to the point that a Marketing Requirements Document (MRD) is generated.

  • Product Development - The Product development cycle starts when a product is funded and continues through beta test until the time of the release. It encompasses running team meetings, refining requirements during the cycle, running focus groups, and beta testing.

  • Product Launch - The most intense part of the product cycle is the period where the product is announced to the outside world and the first order can be placed. A good product roll-out requires careful timing and coordination with many people internal to the company as well as external resources.  Product launch includes a product introduction plan, pricing, press relations including: press kit, speaking with press and analysts, press release, reviewer's guide, data sheets and brochures, customer evaluation guide, sales guides, (different for different channels), notifications to customers and channels, product presentation, advertising, BOMs (bills of material) and inventory, web update and promotions.

  • Product Sustaining - An area not to be ignored is the sustaining the product in the market. A product requires constant attention while it is being sold. Product updates and promotion are key elements of maximizing a Product's success. Product sustaining includes writing newsletters and bulletins, road shows and seminars, customer councils, programs, promotions, price changes, and running or participating in sales meetings.

  • Discontinuance - A part of the job many product managers would just as soon ignore is product discontinuance. But regular discontinuance of products is vital to keep a company healthy. Many companies have failed because they needed all their resources to sustain existing products couldn't perform new product research and development to remain competitive. Product discontinuance includes deciding when a product should be discontinued, writing a discontinuance plan, and notifications.

I recently heard "product marketing" referred to as the organization that is supposed to guide sales through lead generation and qualification. I think that is a bit of a stretch - even in a small company. But the product manager does have ultimate responsibility for the product and the product's success in the market. The purpose of this book is to walk through each phase of the product lifecycle and outline the product manager's responsibilities and role, and provide guidance on how to succeed at this very important, but extremely challenging position.

Chapter 2 - Customer Feedback

Customers - Who are they?
How do you get the most out of them?
Customer surveys
Customer councils
Customer advisory board
User testing
Getting customer input back into the development cycle
Further reading

Who Are They?

As a Product Marketing person, your customers are the most important people you work with. They are the ones who ultimately fund your company and determine the success of your product. It sounds silly to even have to say it, but it is one of those things that are often forgotten in the rush of trying to complete day-to-day tasks.

Your customers will often go several levels deep. The sales channels (whether they be direct or indirect) are your customers.  Additionally, within the purchasing company, the evaluator of your product is your customer, the person who approves the PO for your product is your customer, and the end user is your customer (sometimes three different people, sometimes all the same person). The methods used for gathering input below should be used for all levels of customers.You should do surveys, for example, of both your sales force and your end users (with different questions depending upon the audience).

All your customers should be treated as the critical resource that they are. They are all directly responsible for the success of your product and company.

How do you get the most out of them?

Getting the most out of your customers? Isn't that a little backward? It is true that you want to give your customers your very best, but how can you do that if you don't understand what they need?

Something so obvious and so simple - getting real customer feedback into the development process - is very often ignored in fast-paced engineering driven companies. It is ignored for many reasons, but most often it is because it is not always easy to get customer feedback in a form that is truly useful and timely.

Customer data needs to be collected regularly and proactively. If you only take information from the customers who are complaining loudly, you will have an unbalanced view of your product line. Many customers either suffer in silence or just stop using your product

A second benefit of gathering regular customer feedback, is that customers will also tell you what they like about your product. This information can be used for better positioning, entrances into new vertical markets, competitive analysis, and customer testimonials.

There are several methods for getting regular customer feedback. The following are a few that I recommend. These are all useful if done once, but become much more useful if done regularly. When you have regular customer feedback, it is easy to give yourself a report card and have a better understanding as to how you are progressing in terms of customer satisfaction.

Customer Surveys

An extremely useful tool and well perfected by the automotive industry is the customer surveys. Often times when you buy a car, or get it serviced, you will get a follow-up call from a customer service representative asking you a series of questions about the experience with the car dealer and how satisfied you are as a customer.

Ideally, you want to employ this model. Surveying new customers shortly after they have purchased your product and surveying your existing customers regularly -- once a quarter seems to be most effective.

Volumes have been written on customer surveys and the usefulness of certain questions, so I won't go into that detail here, but here are some basic guidelines:

  • Keep the survey short, 10 - 15 questions maximum.

  • For large-scale surveys use multiple choice questions for easy compilation of the data. Leave a section at the end for additional comments.

  • For large-scale surveys run a pilot test to make sure the questions flow and are understood by the target audience.

  • Do a phone survey because the return is better.

  • If you decide to do an email survey, provide some incentive for the customer to spend the time to fill it out. (Even if you do a phone survey, a small token of the company's appreciation for participating in the survey is a good idea.)

  • Use a basic vocabulary with words and phases people use in casual speech.

  • Use simple sentences that are specific and brief.

Setting up a system within your company for routine surveying your customers is the ideal scenario. However, there are at least two hurdles you must overcome to do this. One is that many companies don't sell direct and don't have their customers' names. One way to work around this is to use your web site to gather end users' names. You can do this by setting up a user group, providing tips and new product information to people who sign up. (For more information, see the Product Sustaining section of this book.) The second hurdle is that for a broad-based survey encompassing a broad group of customers you generally need to have corporate commitment in the form of both software and resources. Quarterly reviews of all customers is the most effective scenario because it will help you recognize trends in your customer base. However, a quarterly customer review process takes a commitment from the top of the organization. If you don't have that commitment, then start on a on a smaller scale.

Small Scale Surveys

For these sample surveys it is best to select a group of customers that are representative of your target market. Create a questionnaire with open-ended questions. You will find that you will get more information from your small sampling with open-ended questions. Make the phone calls yourself. You want to establish a dialog with these customers so if they think of additional information or opinions they feel free to contact you. Another alternative is to take a team approach. If you have multiple people in your group, each of you take ten customers to survey. Then you can get together to compare results.

The following are the advantages of small-scale survey

  • You can gather more detailed information

  • You don't need corporate commitment

  • The survey can be done quickly and easily

The following are the disadvantages of a small-scale survey:

  • Smaller sampling means less accuracy of representing the installed base

  • There is no mechanism in place for routine surveying of the customer base

Sales Channel Surveys

Your sales channels can tell you volumes about how easy or difficult your products are to sell. One of the most difficult aspects of sales channel surveys is getting the sales people to respond. They often have other priorities that they are working on - like making money.

I have found it is useful to survey the sales channel before a product planning meeting. When you tell them that you need their input to include in product planning they are generally receptive to helping you get the information you need to make their job easier. Another good time to survey sales people is in advance of a sales meeting to find out what type of support that they need (this is covered more in the chapter on Product Sustaining). In any case, it usually takes an e-mail and several phone calls to get feedback back from sales people.

Sample Small Scale Customer Survey Plan

Before writing the customer survey, write a short plan with that includes the objective of the survey, target audience, and the method.

Objective - What specifically are you trying to understand from the survey? In the sample survey below, it the objectives are as follows:

  • Discover how many hours a week our customers use our product

  • Discover who are our main competitors and what our advantages we have over them

  • Obtain customer's ideas on what would make them use our product more often

  • Understand our customer satisfaction level

Target audience - Who is going to participate in the survey? What representation is this of the customer base?

Method - How is the survey to be performed? Who from your company will do the survey? How will the target audience be recruited? Will it take place over the phone or via e-mail/web? What will you provide for an incentive or thank you? How will the results be compiled, analyzed, and reported?

Sample Small Scale Customer Survey

  1. How many hours a week do you use the product?

  2. Describe how you use the product?

  3. Did you evaluate other similar products before selecting this one?

  4. Which products did you evaluate?

  5. What made you select this product over the other products?

  6. What are the three things that would make you use this product for more hours a week?

Sample Sales Channel Survey Plan

As with the customer survey, it is best to write a plan first to call out the objectives and methods of the survey.

Objective - What are you trying to understand through the use of this survey? In the sample survey below, we are trying to find out which products are the easiest to sell and why, who is the competition and how do the sales people sell against them, and the sales perspective on how to make the products easier to sell.

Target Audience - Who are your surveying? Is it your entire sales force, your distribution channel, or select second-tier resellers?

Method - How is the survey to be performed? Who from your company will do the survey? How will the target audience be recruited? Will it take place over the phone or via mail/e-mail? What will you provide for an incentive or thank you? How will the results be compiled and reported?

Sample Sales Channel Survey

  1. Which products are the easiest to sell? Why?
  2. Which products are the most difficult to sell? Why?
  3. Who do you see as the major competitor for a specific product?
  4. How do you sell against this competitor?
  5. What are the three things that would make it easier for you sell this specific product?
  6. What are the most important features that this specific product is lacking? (You may want to supply a list and let them place them in the order of importance.)

For more detailed information on how to run customer surveys and compile the data, see "The Survey Research Handbook" by Pamela L. Areck and Robert B. Settle.

Small scale surveys are very effective at getting answers to your specific questions, but the ideal scenario is a quarterly customer review process, supported at all levels in the company, that allows you to participate as part of the review team.  If your company does not have a quarterly customer review process, you should do everything in your power to initiate one.

Customer Councils

Customers are surprisingly eager to attend customer councils. If they use your product often, they want to be taken seriously and they want their product suggestions to be heard. Having regular customer council meetings is a great way to discover the following information:

  • Validation of ideas for new products and features

  • Finding the major flaws in your current product

  • Discovering how customers are using your product

  • Validating which are the killer features of your current product

  • Discovering additional competitive information (your customers have probably evaluated your product next to some competitor)

  • Learning about future technologies your customers are evaluating and how this will impact your product's future

How often do you run customer councils?

Customer councils should be held twice a year or quarterly. You may or may not want the same group of customers each customer council. You may want to have two groups and invite them to alternating councils if you are doing them quarterly.

Who do you invite to the customer council?

Large customers are always important to your company and should be invited purely for improving customer relations with them. Additionally you want to invite customers who fall squarely into your target market for the product. You may also want to invite customers who are particularly vocal. One of two of these very vocal customers will make sure that meeting turns into a good two-way dialog and does not become a presentation by the company to the customers.

Logistics of the Customer Council

Ideally the customer council should be held at your company so that as many employees can attend as is appropriate. If this is not possible, pick a nearby hotel. Alternatively you can run customer councils out in the field for maximum regional penetration.

Invitations should go out well in advance, a couple months if possible, to allow customers to schedule the meeting appropriately. You should plan on supplying meals for your customers during their stay and have one event or dinner with the group. You should also give your customers a token gift to let them know you appreciate their time. A company or product logoed bag or briefcase is one example of a give-away that is nice for people traveling to your destination.

Sample Customer Council Agenda

  1. Introductions of company personnel and customers - It is important that everyone is introduced. Ask that the customers not only introduce themselves, but tell a little bit about how they are using your product.

  2. Overview of product line - You will sometimes be surprised that many of your customers don't know your current product line. Give a brief overview of the features and benefits of your current products

  3. Overview of product plans - This is the non-disclosure part of your presentation and it is worthwhile to mention that to your customers when you start the presentation. The objective is to get your customers' feedback on the product plans. Ideally you want give as much information as possible and include a demonstration of a prototype if feasible, to maximize the feedback you will get. You may not have another opportunity to have all your key customers in one room again before the product is introduced.

  4. Q&A - This should be a very open forum. Ideally you should concentrate initially on feedback on the product plans. It may help to facilitate the discussions if you have a list of other items for discussion. These items could include features the customers would like to see in your current product line, new products suggestions, new technologies that your customers are using in conjunction with your products, asking your customers how they get information on new products including (for example trade journals or tradeshows).

  5. Breakout sessions - It is sometimes easier to get feedback in smaller groups. Occasionally your customer's competitors are in the same room with them and they don't feel comfortable speaking out about how they are using your product. There may also be certain product areas that are more interesting to some then others. By using more focused sessions you should get better feedback.

  6. Survey - It is important that your customers feel that attending the customer council was useful for them. Be sure to get them to fill out a survey stating what they liked and didn't like about the customer council and any suggestions they have for the next one.

Customer Visits

Regular customer visits are the best way to understand the acceptance of your product. If you know your product well, the sales people will probably be delighted to take you on customer calls. If your company has a formal quarterly customer review process, then it is a good idea to attend some of these reviews in person.

Another way to get in front of key customers is to make an appointment to present the product roadmap or a new version of the product under non-disclosure.  Be sure to make these sessions a two-way dialog. Ask the same type of questions you would ask in the customer council including the following:

  • What is your company direction as it relates to the use of our product?

  • What are your needs and requirements for this type of product?

  • Do the products we are developing fit your requirements? Where are they deficient? What do you like best about the products we have just talked about?

  • What competitor's products are you evaluating? How are those products better/worse than ours?

  • What other similar/compatible technologies are you evaluating?

Always remember that this is a sales call and you are there to sell your products in addition to gathering feedback. Have answers prepared for the deficiencies of your product, but let the customer know that their input is not only appreciated, but will be taken into account in the product design process.

Customer Advisory Board

In addition to the customer council, you may feel like you need to gather more timely information on specific issues during the development cycle. Questions such as how something should be implemented or what platforms should be supported always come up during the development cycle. An excellent way to get quick answers is to build a customer advisory board that can be communicated with over e-mail. Like the customer council, customers are generally eager to have their voices heard. The following are some suggestions for running a productive advisory board:

  1. Try to limit your communications so that you don't overwhelm customers with e-mail.

  2. Make the e-mail concise focused on a specific question.

  3. Make sure the e-mail asks a specific question, you may even want to give some example answers as well to further define the type of information that you are looking for.

  4. A once a month e-mail is generally acceptable to most customers, any more often might be overwhelming.

  5. Don't expect everyone to respond to every e-mail, you want to get a large enough group that having a 30% response provides you with enough information.

  6. Use your customer council as a starting list for the advisory board. Also advertise on your web site for volunteers.

User Testing

User testing is an excellent way to get instant feedback on new products or product features. It is also a great way to involve engineering so that they get a good glimpse of how potential customer reacts to a product. There is a broad range of user testing from simple in-house testing to having a research firm run a full-scale test of your product. The following example focuses more on the quick and dirty, do-it-yourself user testing. As always, it is beneficial to write a short plan before starting any activity like this to make sure that everyone is clear on the objectives and exactly what is to be tested. You should also have a kick-off meeting to go over the plan with engineering and get their input on what should be tested.

Sample User Testing Plan

  1. Objective - What are you trying to achieve with the user testing? List specific objectives, then review your plan to make sure it will meet the objectives. For a product user testing the objectives are generally one or more of the following: validation of a design, assessing ease of use, or validation of demand for the product within the target market.
  2. Specifics to be tested - It is important that everyone agrees on exactly what is being tested. List specific product features and capabilities to be tested.
  3. Method - How are you planning on executing the user testing? For product testing it is most useful to have one-on-one sessions with a select group from your target market. You should discuss the following information in this section:
    • Where are you going to hold the user testing?
    • What equipment are you going to use? (Video camera, tape recorder, and/or one person taking notes.) The combination of a video camera and person taking notes is generally the most effective.
    • How much information are you going to give the participants before they see or start using the product?
    • What questions are you going to ask at the conclusion of the session?
    • How is the feedback going to be reported to the rest of the company? I recommend that one person summarize the feedback in report form. The videos should be edited to show highlights listed on the report. A meeting should be held with interested parties in engineering and marketing to go through the report and the video clips.
  4. Selecting the target audience - How are you going to select user testing participants? One method for finding an target group of users is to advertise on your web site. Offer some token for participation and have a form that people can fill out that will allow you to qualify the prospects for the user testing.
  5. Schedule and frequency - When are you going to run user testing in the development cycle and how many are you going to have for a given product? Include a schedule for the user testing with how many days it will take to run the user testing and compile the information for the report.

Getting Customer Input Back into the Development Cycle

No matter how much customer exposure you have had, engineering groups may be reluctant to take your word for the fact that a product or feature needs to be added or changed. Clear, concisely presented evidence always makes your arguments much more compelling.

If you are doing customer surveys be sure to include engineering in the summary meeting. You should have a meeting that gives a quick overview of your survey and a summary of your findings. Don't expect anyone to read through reams of survey material. Present your information in a concise easy-to-read form. Do, however, make the full survey material available for any enterprising individual that wants to delve into it. Remember that engineering really needs to understand exactly what the customer is trying to do, so that they can come up with creative ways to solve customer's problem.  

If you are doing user testing make sure that engineering sits in on those summary meetings, watches the video clips and has full access to all notes and videotapes.  

Always include engineering in any customer council meeting. It is great for them to meet and listen to real customers who use the product every day. The customers will also appreciate having engineering there. It will make them feel that the company is taking their input seriously.

If you are making regular customer visits, write up short reports when you come back and e-mail them to the appropriate engineering group. You may find that your e-mail generates some interesting ideas. In all cases, customer input needs to be summarized at your regular product planning meetings.

Supplying Useful Feedback

Remember when giving feedback that your input should be in the form of market requirements, not necessarily product features. It is most important to inform engineering of what the customer is trying to accomplish.

To illustrate this, I will use the following simple example. You sell a product that serves your customer two meals a day.

What the customer says: I want the product to serve me three meals a day.

What the customer's real problem is: Don't take the customer's statement at face value. Ask why they want a product that serves three meals a day. The customer says that they are often more hungry than twice a day. You may want to ask if they are consistently hungry three times a day. The customer may say, "I don't know, but I know that I am hungry more than twice a day." If you just added one meal a day to your product, you might not really be serving the customer's need.

What you should report to engineering: The customer is hungry more than twice a day and would like a product that serves them when they are hungry.

What engineering may come back with: Engineering may comeback with an incredible design that triggers meals based on integrating a new technology that picks up on the food thought patterns of the customer. In some cases this may be overkill, and you will need to negotiate schedule vs. technology. But the point is not to tell engineering specifically what to build. Tell them the problem you are trying to solve, it is their job to find the creative solution.

All your customers should be treated as the critical resource that they are. They are all directly responsible for the success of your product and company.

Further Reading

A great book on understanding your customers and incorporating that input into the development cycle is Richard Whiteley and Diane Hessan's book Customer Centered Growth.

Other Relationships

This chapter has touched on the importance of customer relationships and ways to keep your products selling through a strong communication with your customers. But as a product manager, there are other relationships that you need to worry about as well. You will need to have relationships with both analysts and the press. Analyst relationships can and will be a two way street. Press relationships tend to be more of a one way communication - you communicating information to them and them communicating it to the world for you. One of the most important means of doing this is through the product review cycle. The next chapter will cover press relationships and writing a product evaluation guide for the press (which can also be turned into a customer evaluation guide).

Author's note:  Ok, so I haven't written the next chapter yet, but take a look at the write-up that I have on a product evaluation guide to get started.  I promise to get back to writing soon!  Barbara Tallent

Chapter 3 - Product Conception

The Product Planning Process

The product planning process is one of the most controversial within any company. Everyone wants a hand in new product definition and almost everyone will have contributions that will make a new product successful. With all these interested parties, you are going to need a system to help you through the product planning process and a way to decide which ideas have the most merit. This system also needs to incorporate customer feedback, assure that important new product ideas are approved, and that development of them initiated immediately. What follows is a product planning system that works well for most companies.

Diagram of the process outlined below

The above diagram outlines the phases in the product planning cycle. In any given company, these steps may be condensed or combined. For example, some companies may use a single document to cover both the Market Requirements Document and the Functional Specification.

The steps are important because they allow you to gather input from all possible resources, evaluate the potential of each idea and gather input from all involved parties about which ideas will work and their ease of implementation.

Input

There should be no shortage of new product ideas. If you are doing regular customer councils and customer surveys, you should have a long list. (Please see Chapter 2 for more information on gathering regular input from customers and your sales channels.) You will also have ideas from sales, engineering, technical support, and management. The biggest job is narrowing down the list. A regular poll of sales, tech support, engineering, and customers for product ideas may help you prioritize. Be sure everyone in your company knows to feed product ideas to you. Often times the tech support organization has a unique insight to customer requirements because they are in contact with customers who need help daily, but no one ever bothers to ask them. When you need to narrow the list further, run it by your customer council. You can ask them to vote on the product ideas they think are most valuable.

You should also understand your current products, what is selling, what isn't, and why. Finance should be able to provide you with a breakdown of sales by product. A couple of phone calls to key sales people should provide you with an earful of information on why certain products are selling well and why others are not. Product managers are also called upon to do customer presentations to major accounts. These presentations should be open communication sessions. It is an excellent opportunity to learn first-hand what the customer needs and how they are using your product. (For more information please see Chapter 2, "Customer Presentations")

Competitive analysis is also an important part of product planning. Your customers, sales channels, and prospects evaluating your product will tell you where you fall short competitively. Additionally you may want to take an existing strength that you have over your competitors and lengthen your lead with improvements to that strength. Remember that a competitor won't release a feature that is just on par with your product, they will be trying to exceed your strength. Also understand where your competitors are going and what products they have in the works. You won't get this information directly from them, but you may hear rumors or see press on their strategic directions. Additionally listen to your prospects when they are asking you about your product features and directions. Often times they are parroting back information that your competitor's have given them. The World Wide Web is also an excellent place to gather competitive information. Often times competitors will publish their strategic directions and, for software companies, actually have beta versions of their new software releases available.

Market analysis is also important. Trends in the industry need to be factored into your product plans. Professional market analysts can help you with this if you want a third-party perspective. Your engineering group will also provide some good ideas in this area; they are generally on top of many of the new technologies.

Don't forget the possibility of discontinuing a current product. Discontinuing a product is a tough decision, but many companies have failed because they have spent too much of their resource trying to maintain a product with old, difficult technology. (Please see the product discontinuation section for more information on when to discontinue a product.)

Narrow down the list to a handful of ideas that you want to investigate further. Remember that the most important criteria for your company is return on investment. The top ideas that you select must either have broad market appeal (within your current market) or enable you tap a new market.

Product Ideas Refined

After narrowing down the list of potential new products or features enhancements for an existing product, you will want to refine some of the more promising ideas. Before a product idea is funded, some basic information needs to be gathered about who is going to buy the product, how much they will buy, and how much it will cost to develop it. This is the information that will eventually be expanded upon in the MRD (Market Requirements Document) but should be gathered and presented in summarized form to seek product approval. Here is the type of information you will need:

  • Product Description - You need enough information so that the product can be easily described in one or two sentences to customers or other people within the company. Also position the product. Who buys the product? Why is the product of value to the buyer? Why is it better than the competition? One over-used, but effective measurement of your description is the "elevator test". Can you sell the product idea to potential customer in the short time that you would have them as a captive audience on an elevator.

  • Market Justification - Why should the company build this product? Who needs it? How much will they buy? Including market numbers and real sales projections will help you determine the size and the viability of the market. These will initially be very rough estimates until you have time to determine competing products' marketshare.

  • Resource Projection - Work with the engineering organization to get an initial very rough estimate on what it will take to build the product in terms of people-years. You will probably meet some resistance with this. No engineering manager wants to sign up to a schedule for a product that is not well defined. You will need to assure the engineering manager that no product will be defined until management can be assured of the return on investment and you can't figure out ROI without having an estimation of the investment. Be sure to use these schedule numbers with the caveat that they are rough estimates and real schedules will be defined after the product is specified.

Products Approved

Once you have gathered the above information for you product proposals, you need to get the project approved. I recommend using a product planning meeting for this because it allows you to present all the appropriate information to everyone at once. It is also a great forum for discussion of the merits of the product. (See "Running an Effective Product Planning Meeting" below for more information.)

In some companies, you may need a full market requirements document before the project is approved. This is not the most effective method of product planning for the following reasons:

  • At this point, the product manager's time is best used looking at the broad picture and narrowing down the most promising product ideas. To do the research work required for a full MRD wastes time before the project is approved.

  • Projects are better refined by all parties involved. There should be an open discussion of the project's viability before a detailed MRD is generated.

The company should have an "Approved Projects List" (some companies call this a Plan of Record or POR) that is either published regularly or located centrally where everyone can access it. If your company doesn't have one, then create one. This is a list of all projects that are approved and currently being developed in the company or division. Having one central list will provide a point of focus and clarify the priorities for all involved. Ideally the list should be updated regularly and posted in a central location. When a project is added to the list, it should be funded with development resources.

Market Requirements Refined

Once the product is approved you can refine the market requirements, adding more detail on the desired features of the product and how the customers will use the product. (See the "Market Requirements Document" section of this chapter for more information.) There will be two types of MRDs, one for new products and a second for new releases of a current product. The new product MRD will require

Development Initiated

Once the MRD is complete, the developers can start to work on a functional specification and prototypes. Some companies combine the MRD and Functional Specification into one document to help them decrease time to market. To do this, you must work very closely with engineering to make sure that the functional design of the product will indeed meet customer requirements. (Please see Chapter 4 - The Product Development Cycle for more information on working the Product through the development cycle

Running a Successful Product Planning Meeting

Why have a product planning meeting? Everyone hates meetings and adding one more won't be popular. You need a meeting because time-to-market is the key to success in the high-tech industry. Anything that delays your time-to-market hurts your company. If you can gather everyone in a room and get them to agree that a new product must be funded and development started immediately, you have decreased your time-to-market.

The meeting gives you a forum to formally add and remove products and projects to the approved projects list and to make sure that everyone involved is clear on the priorities. It also gives them visibility to why the priorities are what they are.

I initially started product planning meetings when I was working in a CEO-driven company. This particular CEO would wander over engineering and together with a couple key engineers they would come up with a great idea and suddenly we had a new product that was funded. The problem was that the product was not necessarily something our customers wanted and the products our customers wanted most, didn't have the resources assigned to them. I put the product planning meeting in place so that all ideas were researched, discussed, and approved or rejected at this meeting with everyone's input.

This process may seem like a lot of work, and frankly it is. By comparison, you wouldn't just start writing code on a software product without doing the structure and design work first. When you compare the effort of product planning to spending hundreds of man-hours of development resource for a product that sales can't sell and customers won't buy, the planning work is nominal.

How often you run product planning meetings depends upon the size of your engineering group and the dynamics of your market. Once every six weeks to once every quarter, should be often enough to reset priorities. Although the market may change overnight, product development can't and shouldn't be asked to. Changes to development plans, schedules and priorities need to be carefully measured.

Attendees

The objective of the meeting is to obtain product approval, so you need to invite everyone who has a say in such things including the President, CEO, VP of Marketing, VP of Engineering, VP of Finance, and VP of Manufacturing. You also want to invite anyone who will provide lively but productive discussions. (It is also your job to keep these discussions under control and not let the meeting get side-tracked.) Invite as much of engineering as you can get away with. You don't want the meeting to become unwieldy, but at the same time you don't want someone coming back later saying that the product should not have been approved or rejected without their input.

Meeting Format

Everyone should be notified well in advance of the meeting about which potential products or features are to be discussed. This will allow concerned parties to give you their input well in advance of the meeting. The idea is not to "spring" new product ideas in the meeting, but give people time to think about the new ideas and how it will affect their aspect of the business. Here is a sample agenda.

  • Overview of the market and significant changes in the market since the last product planning meeting or within the last quarter. This is done so that the audience has complete exposure to all the changes and trends in the market. It will allow them to be better prepared to make product decisions.

  • Review of company direction. A very quick review of the company's long term goals will help everyone keep the strategy in mind when making product decisions.

  • Review of the current approved products and schedules, preferably by the VP of Engineering. This lets the audience understand the current workload and how time is already allocated. If current projects are slipping it makes no sense to add new projects without removing some.

  • Discussion of new project proposals or changes. Each product should be given 45 minutes to an hour for presentation and discussion, so you should only try to do four to six products in a single meeting. You will probably need to run the meeting through lunch and ideally have it off-site where there are no interruptions.

It is important to drive the meeting to conclusion. This should be your primary purpose in the meeting. The meeting should end with a review of all projects and which were approved, rejected, or need further investigation. Also included should be a list of proposed projects for the next meeting.

Product planning meeting minutes should be published immediately following the meeting. Meeting minutes are painful and it is always easy to put them off, however for this meeting the decisions are so critical to every aspect of the business that I would recommend getting the minutes out the night of the meeting.

For projects that are approved, work should commence on a Market Requirements Document

The Preparation

The outline below shows you what information should be included on the product planning slides for each product.

You need to prepare all the slides in advance of the meeting. You will want to schedule some time with engineering to review the slides before they are finalized. This is necessary for the following reasons:

  • Engineering needs to provide resource estimates.

  • Engineers may have great ideas on a particular implementation of a product or even a good target market for the product.

  • Engineers may have strong opinions on a given project. It is best to understand those before trying to get the project approved.

For the meeting you will want to have the room set up in a round table format to encourage discussion. Have copies of the slides and back-up documentation for everyone involved. New products are controversial and anything you can do to make the meeting run smoother is important to the overall objective of the company working on projects with the best return on investment.

Outline of Presentation

I recommend using only one or two slides per product. You can hand out any back-up material. A simple standard format will allow anyone to look back at the slides and recommendations without becoming lost.

Sample Presentation

slide with information detailed below

Project Name- Come up with a name for the project that is easy to identify, but don't spend a lot of time on it, this isn't the final product name.

Product Description - Give a brief bulleted description of the product and its positioning (why it is of value to the customers and why it is better than anything else on the market).

Recommedation - Most people would want the recommendation last, but I have worked with plenty of unruly groups who would get sidetracked long before the product manger could talk about their recommendation. So I put it as far up to the top as possible. If you are working with a more civilized group of people, you can put it at the end.

The recommendation should be one of three things: Add the project to the approved projects list and fund it, reject the project (removing it if it was on the list), or hold for further investigation. If a project is a fairly new idea and you haven't had the opportunity to run it by your customers, you may want to recommend that you spend some more time on the market justification before it is approved. The only other statement that may be made here is the recommendation to discontinue a current product. If this is a recommendation then there should also be a discussion of the replacement product.

Market Justification - Why should the company build this product? Who needs it? How much will they buy? Include market size numbers here and real sales projections. Just remember that the VP of Sales isn't going to sign up to these preliminary numbers!

Resource Projection - This should be a rough estimate from engineering on what it will take to build the product.

The Decision

Getting a decision from the meeting is crucial, even if the decision is that more information is needed. The ultimate decision generally falls into one of four categories:

  • Approved - If there is sufficient information to approve a product, then it is added to the list of approved products and the next step, whether it is writing a market requirements document, or writing a functional specification, is started.

  • Canceled - If there is not sufficient justification for a product, or it does not fit into the company strategy then it should be canceled and removed from the list of approved projects (if it was there to begin with).

  • Hold pending further investigation - No matter how much research you do on a project, questions may come up that you don't have ready answers for. Sometimes a decision will need to be delayed pending further market research information or an investigation from development. In any case, the additional information should be gathered and the project should be discussed at the next product planning meeting.

  • Hold for future - If the product fits into the company strategy, but the resources are unavailable to work on it, it may be a good idea to put it on hold until some determined future time.

The decision should take into account the following criteria:

  • Does the project fit into the company's long term strategy?

  • Does the target market for the project align with the company strategy?

  • Will there be sufficient revenue from the product to justify the work required?

  • If there is not sufficient revenue, are there other highly compelling reasons to justify the work?

  • Are the resources available to do the work?

  • If the resources are not available, should this project take precedence over another?

The person who ultimately makes the decision should be determined in advance of the meeting. This is generally the CEO, President, or CTO of the company. The forum should allow adequate discussion before the decision is reached.

Market Requirements Document (MRD)

Please see my MRD binder for good variety of resources on how to write a market requirements document.

Market Requirements Documents

"How to" Write-Ups

The following are some write-ups that I have used in my consulting business that can help your get started, or be used as a checklist, when you are working on these projects:

LiveBinders of Resources

I have started creating binders below with resources (mine and others) on writing market requirements documents, competitive analysis, product positioning, and product presentations. Let me know if you find other good write-ups to add to my binders!

A Note About Binders

Have you ever been unhappy with the way we share information today? Generally we are sending an email with a bunch of links and/or attachments and some explanitory text.

Then, after you hit 'send', you find one more thing that you wanted to add - and off goes another email.

The recipient of this information is forced to piece together puzzle that you sent over. Of course when they are looking for that inforrmation later, they have to sift through lots of email to find it.

We have set out to change that with LiveBinders - an easier way to group and share information.

If you find this product marketing site useful, please do me a favor in return and check out LiveBinders and make some binders for yourself. You can even copy some of my binders above to get started.

Random Articles

These are random articles that I have written over time as well as some favorite rants of mine.