Experience Series: Product Marketing

https://dilbert.com/strip/1996-04-21

This post is part of my Experience Series where I share opinions I have formed from building companies and running product. Each posting is a break down of a company function. This post focuses on product marketing specifically.

Sales Enablement

Take your product messaging and write it in 500/250/100/50/25/15 words. This is a great exercise in applying constraints and forcing you to consider the words you use.

  • Apart from applied constraints, this approach creates copy you can use within various mediums in the business. The result is a message that largely feels the same, regardless of where it’s consumed from.
  • As you scale the business up, your messaging document can become a foundation point for other teams. Not only do you get scalability, but everyone is using the same exact message which leads to less confusion.

Creating the content for enablement is only the first step. Whatever you create must be supported with training and Q&A sessions to ensure your audience truly understands the product changes.

  • Enablement is really difficult. This is something I still struggle with to this day and from my continued learnings, it’s all about process and communication.
  • When PassiveTotal was two people, it was dead simple to enable each other to be successful. As you scale to 150+ people like RiskIQ, you need to rely more on others to carry out specific functions inside of the business. Your materials become far more important and must be complete.

Your enablement materials should focus on outcomes and value that your customers will get, not descriptions of features.

  • This is not a steadfast rule, but in general, a customer should be able to read your messaging and answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”. As in example, “You can query for indicators-of-compromise (IOCs) in a single location” is more a feature whereas “Save at least one full time analyst headcount by getting results delivered in a single platform” speaks more to customer value.
  • Describe features in more detail through product release notes. You still want to cover value, but it’s okay to elaborate in more detail about the feature itself. Any materials going to sales or customers should focus more on the value end.

There is likely to be persona overlap between your product users and product buyers. Try to be consistent as possible as it will save you time and energy when you create enablement materials.

  • With PassiveTotal, we were lucky in the overlap between buyer and user were strong. In some cases, our buyers were our users, so marketing to them was easy.

If your sales team is engaged with a lower-end buyer within an account, chances are high they will need to present something to their boss to move the deal along. Product marketing can help by having email templates, differentiators and other materials prepared. If someone likes your product, make it easy for them to sell it internally.

  • In the early days of PassiveTotal, we would respond to these sorts of requests from technical users manually. Each time we did it, our messaging was slightly different. Over time, we eventually realized it was better to centralize this information in one spot. What we failed to learn though was that it’s okay to engage your user with a “what can I do to help you sell this internally” statement. We always thought it would be weird to engage that way, but it’s pretty standard.
  • A benefit to a service like NinjaJobs is that the publishing pricing and packaging speak for themselves, so there’s really no need to generate all the marketing or sales-based materials. Either a user perceives value or they don’t.

Enablement is not equal across the board. What you deliver to marketing will differ from the sales team which will differ from customer success. Expect to customize to your audience.

  • Sales teams are motivated by product changes or releases that increase the value to the customer. What new thing can they talk about that didn’t exist before and how is it better than the competition?
  • Customer Success teams are motivated by product changes or releases that increase engagement within an account and strengthen product usage. Value is of course part of this as well, but it may not be the core focus as the account has already been sold.

Give yourself, your team and your organization plenty of time to have access to materials prior to launching your release.

  • When you are part of a larger organization, this is tough to get right, but it’s important that everyone be aligned before a release goes live. If not, a lot can go awry. Sales may be caught by surprise and could have a poor meeting. Customers may lose trust in your product if you change something without first telling them. Customer Success will need to deal with angry customers. Demos done by sales engineers may not go according to plan.

Make sure you have a demo account setup within your product to highlight new features or maintain a consistent pitch. Nothing worse than having your demo change from under you when doing a presentation. Or worse, having it fail altogether.

  • What made PassiveTotal a dream to demo in the beginning was the dynamic nature of the product. Every month, we would have a new example or use case we could use to show the value of the platform. As we have scaled, that lack of consistency in the demo has been a real challenge to deal with. As experts of the system, we can speak to anything, but as sales gets ahold of the product, they expect to use a script and won’t likely want to deviate into the technical details of the product.
  • For any of my future products, I would bake in the notion of a true demo account where the data is static and can be refreshed easily. If you don’t design for this upfront, it can be harder to slot in later.

Use the size of your release to help guide the materials needed for enablement. Smaller releases may only warrant an email. Medium ones may get everything a small has along with a blog post and an updated data sheet. Large ones may get everything a medium has along with a webinar and press release. Have some process in place to dictate this.

  • Size of the initiative is a good place to start, but you should also factor in your audience and how much they will or won’t care about a given item.

Your market goals should drive your overall release strategy. You may want to bond several initiatives together into one larger thematic release depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Ensure teams meant to use your materials have a clear way to deliver feedback. If the message is not landing, adjustments may be needed. A proper feedback loop ensures you have insight into the process.

  • Even with process, you may not get a lot of feedback from external parties out in the field. If this is the case for you, attend a few sales or customer calls and hear the message for yourself. How is it landing? What questions were asked? Was it delivered properly? Don’t let a lack of feedback stop you from validating your approach.

Industry Analysts

Paying your annual fee is not a substitute for briefings, conversations and providing commentary on research provided. You need to work with the analysts, not just pay them.

  • Prior to RiskIQ, I never had to work with industry analysts. To this day, I have mixed feelings on the value they bring to individual products and our industry as a whole. It’s important to form your opinions on working with the analysts, not judging those that pay to do so.

Find where your company fits in the categories outlined by the analyst. If you don’t see a clear fit, ask them who they think would best handle your solution. Go meet with the analysts and see who best represents your views.

  • Assuming you are paying for the analysts, they will be more than happy to get you introduced to the proper analyst that covers your space. Just be aware, it could take a few weeks to get a meeting booked, so make sure you engage early.

There will be cases where you have no clear fit with analysts. Best you can do in these cases is lobby for your view, align to a tangential category or simply save your money.

  • This has been the case for RiskIQ for quite some time. Our approach of doing multiple areas of focus has landed us in a position of not cleanly fitting into a single category. As a result, it’s been tough to get coverage. I have no solution for cases like this other than to cut your losses or continue raising awareness.

When speaking to analysts, ask them open-ended questions and try to understand their perspective. It’s not worth trying to prove they are wrong, they have an opinion and so do you.

Assuming you do well in a category, you may as well promote it to your advantage. If you later fall out of the category or go lower in rank, expect some negative perception from the market, even if it’s not your fault.

Packaging and Pricing

Figure out what kind of product you want — is it a credit card swipe, low fee or is it an invoice and enterprise pricing. Pick one and focus on it.

  • When we started PassiveTotal, we were committed to enterprise deals. In picking this path, we recognized that we would not see revenue as quickly, though when we did, it would be worth the effort we put in. In our heads, we felt it was better to have 10 enterprise customers vs. 1000 credit card swipe customers. Support would be less and we would not be cheapening what we thought was a lot of value.
  • For NinjaJobs, we break the rules a bit. We lead with a credit card swipe model on the front-end, but offer enterprise pricing when engaged. The benefit of this approach is that the credit card swipe doesn’t require really any support at all and accounts for 95% of all business. For cases when someone wants unlimited postings or help from our recruiters, we have a single enterprise package that justifies our support load.

No matter how much research you do on packaging and pricing, someone will always complain. I personally believe you try to take a fair, but firm approach to the process. Look at the competition and the value of what you provide. Don’t ask people unless you want to get annoyed.

  • For PassiveTotal, we looked at our competition and what others charged for raw data sets. Some of our prospects told us we were too cheap and they couldn’t justify pushing us through procurement. Others thought we were way too expensive and said they could never afford the product. Right in between, we found those who saw the value and felt the price was fair.
  • Your first few interactions may be negative ones where a prospect mentions your pricing is unreasonable. Validate as best you can, but also recognize who you’re speaking with. Technical users are likely to think in hundreds of dollars where managers may think in thousands.
  • Fun fact for PassiveTotal: Our original pricing has survived for 5 years. While the packages are due for a much needed refresh, the core pricing itself is unlikely to change too much. In other words, we got lucky.

Leading with packages is a far better approach than leading with individually marked value items (queries, seats, etc.). Less for someone to complain about or try to negotiate on if it’s a package.

  • This is more human psychology than anything else. With PassiveTotal, leading with something like X queries was always met with resistance. Prospective customers did not want any limitation, but were also unwilling to pay the cost for unlimited. Even when we presented evidence that unlimited was silly, the argument would persist. Leading with packages got us out of the mess since query count was just one of many items.
  • For all the benefits packages have brought in NinjaJobs and PassiveTotal, they do raise complications for a sales team. Mainly, that each individual item becomes an adjustable lever or a perceived negotiation point. The less points you have, the better.

When coming up with a price, look to your competition or some other guidepost in the market. Call up people in your network and try to figure these details out, do not just go asking anyone what they think.

  • When we first asked potential customers how much they would pay for a solution like PassiveTotal, they mentioned figures in the range of less than $15 dollars a month. While there’s a market for lower-cost solutions priced in this way, it would have been hard to scale to double-digit millions.

Once you think you have a pricing model, fill it up with numbers and calculate different success cases (low success, high success, etc.) and map it to your overall burn rate.

  • This is just good business and helps you understand where you may want to increase or decrease spend. Generating models costs you nothing but your time, but will get you mentally prepared for whatever may occur. We did this with PassiveTotal and it not only guided our pricing approach, but also drove our goals for sales. We knew how long we could operate if we missed the goals and we knew where we would apply money if we met the goals.

Less is more. Make your pricing as simple as possible, so it’s easy to understand and figure out. If it’s complicated or requires an MBA to interpret, you will have issues. Pin your pricing to your key value. If you do this, you shouldn’t have a list of 10 items, but maybe 1–3.

Charging too little is a real thing. Whoever you engage is going to need to spend money to just consider the purchase of your product. Once they like it, they are going to dedicate accounting and legal time to review the entire process. If your product is less than the cost to buy it, what’s the point. Be fair, but not dirt cheap.

  • This is my usual argument for “good-guy/girl-cyber” who has a product and just wants to make money to support their operating costs. If you go the route of a credit card swipe, you won’t have issues. If you exceed $5–10K, expect to fall within the standard procurement process and thus, may need to raise your price.

Resist the urge to price super low in an effort to bring competitors down. Price is just one factor in why people make purchases. You may win some deals, but it won’t hurt your competition like you would think. Keep in mind, it takes people, effort and time (all expenses) to remove a product and add a new one.

  • I’ve tried these strategies before and in the end, they function more as a distraction than anything else. For the reasons I point out, even when the current solution has its flaws, it’s already in place and working. Why remove something that works and risk replacing it with something that fails. In the end, that failure would cost way more than the savings gained from the lower price.

If you’ve come up with a reasonable price, add 15–25% in order to account for VARs (value-added resellers) or procurement negotiations or global markets. If you are lucky enough to run into all of these, add 50%. Sales and procurement love discounts and it’s tough to avoid them.

  • Unfortunate reality and something we didn’t account for in the early days. Nothing kills the excitement of a sale like losing 25% of your profits for literally no reason––there’s a reason, but you won’t agree with it.
  • Padding on your prices also accounts for the hours you will put into closing the deal. It’s easy to be optimistic and think you’ll close within 30 days. Depending on your product and the customer buying it, you could easily be waiting 90 or even 120 days to close.
  • In security, not all locations are created equal. Each major region will have a slightly different maturity level which will dictate how much they spend on a solution. Account for this in your models and pricing as there is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the early days, it’s okay to customize your offerings a bit to land a deal. Try to avoid this as much as possible though because it’s hard to true the account later. If you keep getting asks for custom packaging, your model might be flawed.

  • I’ve had to approve a lot of custom deals and it pains me every time. The excuse often attached to the deal is that we will address it on the renewal. This is usually a lie as the customer has no incentive or reason to agree to what’s being asked at renewal time and if you aren’t in a position to lose the business, you’ll end up signing the same contract again for another year.

Competitive Intelligence

Google Alerts are great resources to keep low-key tabs on your competition. Configure alerts for all of them and read the emails every day. Consider configuring alerts for related companies as well. Keep in touch with your market.

  • I wrote a library for Google Alerts to automate the process of creating and fetching results. Using that same library, I also built an analyst tool, Chirp, to visualize and interact with the results.

Don’t let the competition distract you from your goals. Do your best to stay engaged with their approach, but don’t assume they are better than you. The last thing you want to do is begin chasing someone else.

  • With PassiveTotal, anytime I saw a competitor in the market, I would become extremely fearful that they had “it” more together than we did. I’d obsess over our short-comings for a week before my business partner would slap me out of it. In the end, many of the “competition” we faced in PassiveTotal never amounted to anything at all.
  • With RiskIQ, competition is a good thing for us today. Even when the competitors are direct, it’s interesting to learn from them and see how we might be able to change our approach.

Competition is a good validator of your market. If you don’t have any competition, then you are either really novel or you are in a space where no one has seen enough value to bother.

  • For RiskIQ, seeing competition these days is welcome. We’ve long invested in educating the market about some of the value we bring. This process is long and costly, but having competition means it’s shared amongst all those participating. It’s great to go from having to educate a prospect to having a real discussion about how our solution is applied.
  • NinjaJobs is a niche product and there isn’t really too much direct competition, or at least any we consider to be taking away from our market. As such, we are able to coast along without doing too much. We make niche profits to deliver a niche solution.

Competitors today may be partners tomorrow. Always be civil and let business be business. If you see competition at an event, grab a drink, be coy and do your best to extract intelligence from them. Don’t be a jerk.

  • Words to live by. I made a few mistakes early on where I took business too personally. I avoided certain individuals and considered them my “enemies”. This got in the way of me appreciating what we could learn from each other and how we could ultimately work together. Had I not been this way, I think all of my businesses could have benefitted more and faster.

As you scale the business, you may want to formally track competition. Here’s a template I use to do that and it’s served me well.

  • I view competition as being one of two flavors––direct and indirect. Absent a lot of resources, it’s best to focus just on direct competition and apply the template to those companies. If you have the resources and time, it doesn’t hurt to include indirect companies as well. The exercise is likely to give you some additional insight about the overall market.
  • These competitive battlecards should make their way to your sales and customer success teams, though they are not sufficient for customers. If you begin to get customer inquiries on how you differ from the “competition”, consider drafting up a similar, but customer-facing card you could share.

Learn from your competition by acting like a customer. Register for their events. Attend their webinars. Look at their messaging.

  • I was hesitant to include this item, but I think it’s important. If you have true competition––losing deals to them––in the market, you should know how they position themselves. Is their product better? If so, why? Is their messaging more clear? Is their approach different? Never steal from competition, but do learn from them.

Ignorance can be bliss. If you are focused and have a clear path to your perceived success, consider ignoring competition. It’s hard to unsee what you come across and it could introduce unnecessary doubt in your plan.

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Founder of @BlockadeIO, PDF X-RAY, and @PassiveTotal. Partner and developer for @TheNinjaJobs. VP of Strategy for @RiskIQ. Roaster at @SplitKeyCoffee.

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Brandon Dixon

Brandon Dixon

Founder of @BlockadeIO, PDF X-RAY, and @PassiveTotal. Partner and developer for @TheNinjaJobs. VP of Strategy for @RiskIQ. Roaster at @SplitKeyCoffee.

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