Influencing the Product Roadmap, Part One: Relationships and Market Intelligence

The customer is at the core of product marketing. Understanding who the customer is, what their pain points are, and how they make purchase decisions influences every aspect, from messaging and positioning to determining pricing and enabling sales. 

A product marketer’s role is not just about “spreading the word”. A good product marketer is involved early on in the product life cycle—with engineering and product management—and helps understand the market context of the product and optimize the impact of releasing a product. Optimizing impact may require you to influence the product roadmap and the product managers who oversee it. You might have to make the case for changing the timing of a certain product release or advocate for features that more effectively solve customer problems. Even with product marketing, or by extension, product management, in your job title, changing the type of products and their timing your company releases to the market isn’t a birthright. You’re not given the keys to roadmap influence by default. If you want to affect the product roadmap and optimize business impact, you need to do so through influence

You can influence the direction of your product and company’s product strategy with three dimensions of influence: influence through relationships and data, influence through being the expert on the market, and influence by being the voice of the customer. 

Influence Through Relationships

The product marketing and product management dynamic is a partnership. In a healthy organization, a product marketer and product manager work together to deliver and communicate the right value to the right customer. The product marketer covers much of the go-to-market strategy while the product manager owns much of the product strategy. 

Theoretically, product marketing is a strategic role. However, depending on the culture of a company, a product marketer may lose strategic clout and instead, be relegated to tactical, passive executors. 

In order to be able to influence product managers, the executive team, and broadly, other internal stakeholders of your product, you need to bring expertise to the conversation. Be the expert on knowing your customers, category, and competition better than anyone else. Rather than doling out feature requests, bring insights backed by evidence. With data underpinning your perspective on the market and customers, it becomes difficult to ignore you. They might object to your feature or prioritization suggestions but they will pay attention.

Aren’t product managers also aware of this trinity—customers, category, and competition? Yes, product management isn’t running blind and waiting for the product marketer to shepherd them with data. However, it’s likely that they don’t have complete clarity on an aspect of customers or the market. Over the last several years, product marketing has grown to fill much of the strategic void left by product management. Try to tap into this void and see where you can deliver outsized value. For example, you may need to start by bringing comprehensive insights into direct and indirect competition. If there’s no shortage of quantitative metrics in the hands of other stakeholders, bring qualitative feedback to the table. Ultimately, product management shares many of the goals of product marketing: delivering value and focusing on the right initiatives. By providing clarity on what to focus on, you’re able to help accomplish your core goal of delivering the right value to customers as well as gaining more influence to shape product strategy.

Influence Through Market Awareness

Particularly with high-growth companies, prioritization is an important theme. With more jobs to be done than resources and people, it becomes critical to be able to determine which projects to focus on and their timing. As a product marketer, you can deliver outsized value in determining the priority of projects by being the spokesperson for understanding overarching trends, the competition, and market data.

Trends-Centric Intelligence

In line with the notion of delivering value to people, going beyond requirements in the context of your product and keenly understanding macro trends will make your business more competitive. It’s the ability to look ahead.

In 2015, a product leader took the reins of one of the largest tech companies in history. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, is one of the most profound examples of strategic thinking and getting ahead of changing currents in the market rather than being swept by them. Joining Google in 2004, Pichai identified a weakness in Google’s strategy as well as an opportunity. At the time, Microsoft Internet Explorer was the clear market share leader in web browsers and without a browser of their own, Google and their search traffic were at the mercy of incumbent web browsers. Google’s search engine’s revenue was under threat

Despite initial executive opposition, Sundar insisted on developing products to mitigate this problem and developing a browser of their own: Chrome. As of 2020, the market share of Google Chrome is approximately 64%. Google’s ad revenue, principally from Search is $40.98 billion. IE11 is the last version of Internet Explorer, with the browser nearing its final days. The initiatives taken more than a decade earlier with the development of Chrome was more than a quarrel with Internet Explorer. Pichai was able to foresee trends in user expectations of the web browser and identified the need to own the entire browsing experience—not just the website experience. As a result, Google was able to leverage its own browser to more effectively succeed with Google Suite and other products that enabled Google’s dominance in the categories they participate in. 

Bringing a similar approach to your products involves thinking strategically, identifying gaps today, and having a long-term mindset to deliver value. It’s equally important to be qualitatively and analytically aware of the industry, socioeconomic trends, and technological changes that can affect the needs and expectations of the customers of tomorrow. 

Competitive Intelligence

Foreseeing trends is not about an innate superpower. Being constantly aware of the competitive landscape and analyzing their potential direction gives you an image of macrotrends in your industry. It may also signal an urgent need to shift product or go-to-market strategy. In order to influence the product roadmap, you need to be the undeniable expert on several categories, particularly the competitive landscape. Specifically, aim to be the first to know of competition announcements and the most knowledgeable on gaps in your product relative to the competition. 

Being Aware of Competitive Developments

Voluntarily become a lead in your competitors’ funnels. Sign up for their newsletter and opt to receive announcements. Set up Google alerts for when their names are trending in the search results. These are low-effort methods to be the first one in your company to hear about new product launches, blunders, their messaging, and the general direction of their company. 

And it’s not only about awareness and keeping tabs on your competitors. To be the expert on the competition, you need to understand developments within a strategic and long-term context. If your closest competitor has recently launched a product that sells to the same specific target segment as you, even if you think they’re not offering a compelling solution, they could become a significant threat to your business. Being your company’s most knowledgeable person about the technical context behind your competitor’s latest move and their larger motive automatically gives you more weight to influence both product and go-to-market strategy.

Knowing Where the Gaps Are

Interviews aren’t the only way to get customer insights and competitive intelligence. Integrate intelligence into your product and processes. If you’re already prompting unhappy customers with an exit survey of why they’re leaving, have a checkbox to select in case they’re leaving for a competitor. Track net promoter score (NPS) comments and reviews that mention other products. Understanding customer happiness and unhappiness relative to other options highlights both strengths and weaknesses in your product and customer success strategy. Discovering them can take minimal overhead by integrating with your current workflows.

This integrated intelligence serves as a general gauge to help you keep your strategy in check. Further insights can be gained by rigorously looking at win/loss reports to understand why prospects opted for you or chose your competitor. Surveying churned customers can be a strong indicator if you’re continuing to deliver value and satisfy needs, especially as the market evolves. A company that previously seemed to be a distant, indirect competitor could now be well equipped to solve your customer’s problems better than you can. Finally, feedback from your sales organization can reveal gaps, strengths, and opportunities. What are the typical objections that they hear from prospects with regard to competition? What are capabilities and subjects that are becoming increasingly prevalent in conversations? Understanding this can help you have weight in influencing what aspects of the roadmap to prioritize, especially if you bring qualitative feedback from these discussions in addition to metrics. Is there a growing competitive threat that makes delivering on the product enhancement more important? Is there an increasingly clear opportunity in our market—with a small window—in which we can see significant gains?

Market Intelligence

There’s few things that are more powerful than concrete metrics behind statements. If you’re able to give the financial or user base impact of prioritizing a certain enhancement or solution, your colleagues will listen. Your input suddenly gains clout. 

To begin, aggregate the data you’ve collected from customer surveys, churned user interviews, secondary research on market trends, competitive information, support tickets, and feedback from sales. Make a special note of product gaps that resulted in lost prospects or churned customers. Customer expectations and needs may not necessarily be a net new feature. It could be a strong want for a streamlined user experience. They might want greater platform stability, not necessarily new capabilities every month. 

After extracting the essence of customer wants, rank them: urgent, table-stakes, differentiators, and nice-to-have. This hierarchy should be informed by outcomes that they can engender such revenue opened or retained. What would the impact be if those product enhancements were delivered? Could prioritizing A versus B pay off in a stronger way by expanding your total addressable market (TAM) or retaining a significant portion of your customer base?

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