Product Innovation is Not About Taking Risks; It’s About Reducing them

Author: Cate Zovod from Cognizant Accelerator

And Product Marketers are Key to Risk Reduction

There’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s epic historical drama “Lincoln” in which abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is chastising the President for making perceived compromises on the morally unambiguous issue of racial equality. Lincoln explains the means to the end – ensuring the passage of the 13th amendment:

“A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?”

There are known and proven disciplines for building products. A good product manager knows the latitude and longitude of the destination, how many covered wagons they are going to need and how long it will take to get there. But as their product marketing partner, you can map the route that is going to avoid the swamps and deserts – known and unknown. Whether you are in a bootstrapping startup or (in my case) one of the world’s largest technology services companies, you will encounter Terrain, and no matter how good your cell coverage, you will find yourself in places that are not showing up on your GPS.

I am a product marketing startup advisor in a product accelerator in a leading professional services company. I have the privilege of working with deep domain experts who, with a service-delivery mindset, tend to be more customer-centric than their counterparts in traditional software companies. However, repeatable product development and delivery is new territory, and I have learned that where I can provide immediate value is to reduce the risk – or perception of risk – from what we build. How? Through thorough research (quantitative and qualitative), real, meaningful customer conversations and strategic, intentional engagement with the internal and external business partners who are critical to your product’s success.

Risk: Poor decisions are made based on erroneous assumptions

Validate Every Assumption

Think like a VC. What would you personally need to know about this product to invest in it? After all, you will be investing all of your workday time and effort into making it successful.

Establish the urgency of the specific market problem that the product addresses by talking to customers and industry experts. Oftentimes in doing so, you will uncover other, more urgent problems that can feedback directly into product direction and scoping. Scoping not only means pinpointing what particular part of the problem the

product is addressing, but also asking honestly whether your business has the will, expertise and strategic alignment to build it, and just as importantly, to sell it repeatedly. Comb the business and product plans for assumptions, and design your interview scripts to validate – and poke at – anything that is being represented as fact.

Be clear about the intent of the customer conversation going in. What phase of product research and validation are you in? Is this a preliminary meeting to validate that there is pain in this area, are you looking for feedback on feature prioritization, or are you road testing key messages for launch? How would your customers perceive and measure the value you are promising to deliver, and would they pay for it?

Most importantly, are you hearing consistent themes? One customer interview does not comprise product validation. Several interviews with customers all representing different roles or saying different things also doesn’t reduce risk. What counts is finding the same profile of customer saying the same thing, multiple times. Only then can you check the box on that particular assumption.

Assumption Risk Reduction Checklist

· Customer interview questions for assumption validation

o New Product Idea

o Proposed Solution Approach and Roadmap

o Pricing and Packaging, Market Acceptance Criteria

o Messaging

· Database or spreadsheet to capture and analyze feedback in aggregate for team review and pattern recognition

Risk: Just because you build it doesn’t meant they’re gonna sell it

Boost your Signal to your Most Important Channels

An important area of derisking that product marketing can get ahead of is field acceptance of your product. In large, multi-product companies, your field sales organization is bombarded with messages and “to-do’s.” Give them a reason to believe. First and foremost, build a great product that gives them something new, compelling, and problem-solving to talk about.

Assuming all of your company’s products are well-conceived and designed, you need to go a step further to rise above the noise.

Do everything it takes to make the people who own the relationships with your potential customers comfortable selling new products. Engage key field personnel early in your product’s journey so they feel a sense of ownership. Caucus with them prior to customer validations. Bring them with you.

This becomes especially important if you are in the unfortunate but not uncommon position of having to rebuild credibility after a failed initiative or underperforming product performance.

When planning early budget towards a launch, ask for funding to be set aside to spiff your channels. Short of executive mandate to sell, you need to prime the pump, especially if your product is perceived as “harder” to sell because it addresses a new market or leverages new and not well-understood technologies.

Channel Engagement Risk Reduction Checklist

· New Product Introduction Plan

o Field engagement in customer research (invitations and results-sharing)

o Incentive structure including spiffs

o Sales and channel training, enablement and certification

o Proper sku set-up and representation in CRM

Risk: Investment does not translate into immediate outcome

Meter your Asks and Tie them to Successes

The metered ask is a common paradigm in venture capital. The startup receives more funding as key milestones are reached. Both investor and company alike are reducing risk because they are investing in traction.

Your requests for product marketing support, whether pipe generation campaign dollars, PR launches, access to customer communications channels, staffing – can follow this model too. Be thoughtful about when to ask for support from other Centers of Excellence (PR, Events, Sales Enablement), and build in some kind of quid pro quo when you are incorporating their activities into your launch plans. In exchange for their resources, you can provide a list of customer betas; your product briefing can secure supportive analyst quotes around the company’s strategy; perhaps you can make introductions to clients for case study development. Build incremental success metrics into your plans: number of pilots or free trials secured; conversion rates from beta to full contract; customer advocates identified; sales reps certified, etc.

Go-to-Market Risk Reduction Checklist

· Launch Plan and Budget

o Metered Success Metrics (if…then…)

o Marketing resource quid pro quo (give to get)

o Naming and Branding – trademark checks

There are market and operational risks you can prepare for, but can’t control, such as new competitive entrants and macro economic changes. But there are many risks you can minimize. By making a concerted effort to do so, you are also derisking your own job performance. You will be a more effective Product Marketer when you are confidently targeting the right people with the right message. You will be a more trusted partner to sales and marketing when you are quantifying gains in their areas. Most importantly, you can play a central role in ensuring your company’s success with a strategic, high profile initiative such as a new product launch.

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