The question I hear time and time again from product marketers is how do I influence the roadmap? It’s the age-old pain point for PMMs who have the potential to make a real difference if they can make their voice heard.
By driving both product and process innovation through inbound and outbound strategies, you can drive change in your role as a PMM and develop a stronger voice in the roadmap development. Here I’ll explain how I did just that with examples from my career.
I want to share with you some of the practices that have helped me and my PMM colleagues drive innovation in our roles. My name's Angela Zang, and I am currently a Product Marketing lead at Gusto.
We are a people platform for small and medium-sized businesses, we're privileged to serve over 100,000 small businesses in the US, and we provide an all in one solution of payroll, benefits, and HR for these folks so they can take care of the teams that take care of their business.
Previously, I've held a variety of roles in strategy, monetization, and product marketing across companies such as BCG, Intuit, and Facebook. A lot of those roles involved me trying to get people to listen to my insights and make changes in their organizations when they don't necessarily have to.
I found that to be very good practice for this art and science that we call product marketing.
What do we mean by innovation?
There's a lot of different types of innovation. The three main types I would say are product, process, and business model.
Product is typically what folks think in the Silicon Valley, in the startup world, where you're producing something that is either a very new category redefining, or it's an improvement in an existing performance of a product, or it's a new feature.
Then we have process innovation, where we're doing things to improve a certain process, whether it's to make a product better, whether it's to improve your customer support process, etc.
Lastly, we have business model innovation, which is a whole other topic in itself.
In this article, I will focus on product and process innovation, and share some of the insights that have helped me and my colleagues drive change in our roles.
When we think about new products, improved performance, and new features, a lot of times the goal is to get at more growth or more revenue. You could be looking for more users, customers, more adoption of your feature.
Ultimately, the goal usually is tied to some kind of revenue number. When we think about product innovation, let's use Apple as an example, they're the darling of the innovation world, here you can see a 2006 Nokia…
In 2007 the iPhone came along and it was completely different. This is an innovation example of something that really redefined the category.
Now, it's really hard to keep redefining categories and creating new categories even though Apple was very good at that, so you also have improvement and feature innovation and this is where the iPhone 11 comes in…
You have two cameras and two cameras are better than one. Then you have the iPhone 11 Pro that has three cameras and three cameras are better than two.
This is kind of like the Mac 3 - the shaving blades, there used to be like a Mac 3, then the Mac 4 then the Mac 5, so maybe in a couple of years we'll have six cameras on the iPhone.
Traditionally, when companies think about innovation on the product side, they tend to divide the world into two, on one hand, you have these folks who are actually making and building the products, and they're the ones responsible for innovation. And then on the other side, you have people whose job it is to get things off the shelf.
Somebody builds something amazing and wonderful and innovative, we put it on the shelf, and then, "Hey, product marketer, it's your job to get it off the shelf, and we may or may not have heard your input into what goes on in the making part".
Let's understand how we can maybe get to a little bit more of a voice on the making part.
Inbound versus outbound
Product marketing at every company I've done it at is a little bit different. But the way that I like to think about it is on the spectrum of inbound versus outbound.
Inbound is more answering the question of what should we be building and are we building the right things for the right customers?
On the outbound is how do we take an existing or a new product and how do we grow and scale this in the market?
In the fuzzy middle, there's a lot of validation, going through alphas and betas as well as prioritization and launch strategy, especially if you are either in a very fast growing org, or you are in a larger company with a lot of different products.
Even when our jobs are not explicitly inbound driven, there is a lot of value for PMMs to input into the beginning part of the product roadmap. Megan Fitzgerald once said, "Good PMM insights will de-risk innovation". I think that's a great point, and how do we help our insights really influence a product team so that we can help them de-risk whatever innovation that we help drive?
The big question that I always ask myself and I hear my teammates ask themselves in the PMM world is, how do I influence the roadmap?
It's this almost mystical thing that seems like product sometimes will have all the power in determining what goes on, and they either decide or not to listen to us. There are things that we can do as PMMs that I believe will help us get to a bigger voice in terms of influencing the roadmap.
The things that have really helped me and my teammates are these three:
- To build credibility with really strong inbounds.
- To deeply understand and align to product incentives within your individual team and your individual org.
- To get buy-in from what I call 'product and' - the other cross-functional partners that also have a say in building and releasing products like engineering, design, UX, etc. We can't forget about those teammates.
So I just mentioned building credibility with a really strong inbound - what is an inbound? It means a lot of different things to different people. I've heard it described as just pure market research. A lot of folks would talk about segmentation. Sometimes you'll have a framework in there.
Build credibility with really strong inbounds
What I've found really helpful for thinking through inbound is, it's a bunch of insights that we've gathered from understanding the market and our customers and potential customers wrapped in a very simple to understand framework that will drive to a set of actions that we want product and the 'product and' teams to take.
So a good inbound answers these questions:
- Where is the market today?
- Where do we expect it to go?
- What do we need to build and for whom do we build to get to this opportunity that we expect to capture based on either what we have today in our product capability, or what we want to have in the next three 6/12/24 months? And then lastly,
- What are we building that will differentiate us for our customers?
- Where is our strategic advantage?
A good inbound that answers all of these questions will make it easier for product to do several things.
It gives something back to the product organization.
I've talked with a lot of my good friends who are in product and one of the things they say is that there is so much demand on product’s time for requirements, feature requests from all different walks and they need to prioritize. So a really good inbound gives something back to the product organization to say, "Hey, here are a set of insights that we've put together", ideally with their input and guidance, to help them decide how to prioritize all the different requests and demands on their time that they have.
Good inbound provides a common framework as you talk about a really nebulous problem.
I have an example from a very new problem that we talked about at Facebook when I was there which I'll share. And a common framework will help your team coalesce around what do we mean when we talk about this? And what do we mean when we say customers want this or that? This is especially important if you're working on something that is very, very new, and the market is not really established.
Good inbound provides structure for the 'why' behind the developing roadmap.
I don't want to say it's ammunition or armour, but it's something that you can feel good in that get everybody's alignment and this is the reason why we're deciding to put this thing on the roadmap versus that.
A good inbound develops your expertise in the eyes of the org
This is especially he case if your PMM role is in a company that views it as a historically outbound driven role, it develops your expertise in the eyes of the org and also in the eyes of your partners, and really helps you to become that voice of expertise that other people will turn to for guidance.
Once you decide you want to do an inbound, there are typically a lot of questions. How do you decide where you want to focus your time? Even at Facebook, we had historically inbound driven roles even there, I would have maybe time to do one or two inbounds every six months. So it's really important to prioritize.
One simple framework I like to think about in prioritizing is the effort and the urgency and map that by the size of the impact.
Depending on which half you're in you may decide to do a couple of smaller inbounds for features that we see the market adapting rapidly and we really have that sense of urgency to do.
If you are in the time period where you have a little bit more luxury and time, you can go after the really big meaty, strategic inbounds that require a lot of effort, a lot of cross-functional alignment, but that will provide outsized impact for the organization.
After you decide on your inbound, you prioritize it, what do you do to get product buy-in?
An inbound example: Facebook
An example I want to share is from Facebook when I was there, we wanted to build a personalized video capability. When you say personalization, what does that mean? It means different things.
What I did for the inbound, and what a PMM can do, is think about it in a very easy framework - you can do it by two by two framework, you can do it in a Venn diagram, something that is extremely simple but helps your team and cross-functional partners look at it in a way that provides a common language.
When we think about personalization, I think about it in terms of input and output. It could be an input from a person to an algorithm powered by AI or machine learning. And it could be an output from mass customization to one to one.
When you have a framework like this, it's much easier to say, "Well, based on where the market is going, based on the customer insights that we've gathered, we believe we should start in this quadrant, and then move over to this quadrant in six months and what are the things that we have to build to enable that evolution?"
It becomes much easier than just talking about "We need to build something personalized" and then your product manager will say, "Well, I think it should be this", design says, "No, it should be that".
I think a framework is really, really important in getting a credible inbound.
Inbound should align with your product incentives
Second is your inbound should align with product incentives. Depending on the company or the product team, product will be incentivized or tasked to ship either every quarter or every half. They will need a product vision for the next 12, 24, or 36 months, so they will need to tell a story of how what they're building in this quarter ladders up to the broader product vision or the company vision. They may be stacked against adoption or revenue goals depending on the phase of the product.
So, an inbound needs to articulate how your insights will help them get to their goals and that's literally how I think about it when I go through my inbounds with my PM counterparts - that's what I do, I say, "Hey, look, here's the company objective. Here's what we're trying to accomplish as a product. Here are the goals. Here are how my insights or our insights that we built together will help you get there".
Once you understand their incentives, it's much easier to have that conversation.
Don't forget the non-product stakeholders.
They are the folks who in every org can have an outsized voice in how the product roadmap is being established. Product is becoming more of a team sport, I think that's a great thing, and the other cross functions like data science, engineering, design, content strategy, UX, etc. all will have a role in determining the roadmap.
Depending on what the product is, you could figure out who are the most important non-product stakeholders. So if you are working on very complicated auction dynamics inside a market place, data engineering, engineering and data science will be your best friends, you will need to get them on your side to understand your insights.
If you are working at a very content-led org that is really big into content and UX, then those are the designers you will need to help push your insights forward.
I would encourage folks to not forget the nonproduct stakeholders. This is something that I feel like I've learned throughout my career and it's really helped me.
Okay, so that's all the sexy stuff - product is really sexy, we all want to talk about product innovation. But I would argue that process innovation is just as impactful and a lot of times can get you the resources to improve things on your product, because you're able to demonstrate value or demonstrate cost or money metrics sooner.
So, what are process innovations?
They are new and improved ways in production or delivery, a lot of times enabled by technique software, and it usually drives to cost and profits.
Example: using recycled materials for production
Again, an example using Apple is in 2016, Apple had this big audacious goal of improving their process to a closed-loop system so they will use recycled materials for production and their goal is to get to 100% of iPhones manufactured with recycled parts from older iPhones instead of just throwing out those materials and having to mine for more materials.
They're not there yet, but in order to get to this vision or get close to this vision, it's a lot of process innovation.
- How do we look at our supply chain end to end?
- How do we design better robots perhaps to get the old ion batteries out of the old iPhones?
- How do we sort these different battery capacities and make a simpler process and more cost-efficient process so that we can use recycled materials for production?
But we don't have to be at Apple to think about process innovation, or think about innovation in much smaller and more digestible chunks. I would say product innovation is in a lot of ways easier to get started.
There are probably processes in your roles or orgs that you see are sub-optimal. What I've found to be helpful is:
- Start documenting. A lot of times documentation, especially at smaller companies, or even larger companies are not where we want them to be. And so there are gaps in the system but there's no one source of truth for where these gaps are and what the consequences of these gaps are.
- When you've documented, demonstrate the value to key internal stakeholders that would either be in a position to give more resource or would be helpful in helping you ask for more resource.
- Tie these process innovations or improvements to customer or money metrics. Any way that you can tie it to money or customers I found is the key.
When I was at Intuit a few years ago, I joined a smaller business unit to help them with their monetization efforts. This is a three-sided marketplace where you had users of a financial app, you had the partner, the financial institutions, who would either provide content or offers on the app, and then you had other stakeholders that may be internal. We had to all got all get on the same page and what I realized when I joined was that we had a lot of partners.
We had various pricing negotiated over large periods of time, and the degree to which they either are refreshed periodically, or they aligned with our performance goals were sub-optimal.
The process was really broken because we couldn't even tell when did we get a pricing from stash or ally, or we performed better on our app and so we should be empowered to ask for better pricing, but because we just had a pricing conversation last month, and we didn't get the data we needed we missed that opportunity.
What I thought about was how can I streamline this onboarding negotiation pricing process with these financial partners so that I can help the account managers have better, more productive, more revenue enriching conversations.
It literally started with a spreadsheet. I asked around is there a spreadsheet? There was not a spreadsheet, information was all over the place.
So I started with a spreadsheet of the dates and the information about these partners, I basically created a CRM in a spreadsheet, populated it to the calendars with these account managers so that we're all speaking from a common language of here is when we want to have these pricing conversations, here's how we can track performance, here's how we can report out in a more efficient way.
I then put those learnings in a doc that shared our best practices and helped onboard new account managers. All of that was extremely scrappy, but because of these efforts, we were able to show that we shortened the onboarding time with new financial partners, we were able to have a better more in-depth conversation with them, and then for one vertical that I started as kind of like a little pilot vertical, we were able to improve the revenue from financial partners by 160%.
To be fair, a lot of it was from a very low base but you can bet I was communicating that improvement to my manager, to the GM of the business unit, in terms of talking about how this process has showed us what more we can achieve by plugging these gaps.
Once you show the monetization potential, and you tie it to the KPIs of the org, it becomes less of a conversation of I'm just asking for resources and it's more around here are the processes that we can improve that we can then get to a much better experience for everyone involved.
What was the result?
The result was that we realized, "Hey, we've improved a lot on reporting and onboarding. But we've gone as far as we can with Excel and an outdated internal system."
So the next step was really to evaluate third party vendors. Because of the KPI that we've shared, we were able to convince and have that conversation with senior management that ended in an org-wide investment in the third-party vendor.
Marketing then became a key stakeholder in selecting who this vendor is, defining the specifications of what we needed in order to onboard and go to market and price more efficiently, and then we were able to work with this vendor to customize the solution to our individual and particular goals.
I think the really cool thing that this experience taught me is that a lot of times process innovation can also go back and drive product innovation. Because of this new capability that Intuit instrumented at the time, product also became much more confident about our ability to serve these offers, to do things in a more personalized or customer-oriented way.
It felt like product and the rest of the organization were in lockstep and were not leaving one part of the group behind. Instead, it becomes a virtuous cycle where we're both feeding into each other.
I've talked about a couple of things on product and process.
On product it's very important to build credibility with strong inbounds, use frameworks to have that common language, make sure that language and that framework is aligned to product incentives, get to know the incentives of your very own product team.
Not just within the company if it's a large company, but I would encourage you to go down to the BU level to the pod level, even maybe to the individual product managers incentive level:
- What does he or she want to accomplish? And,
- How can your insights help them structure the roadmap to accomplish that?
And then lastly, get buy-in from all the other cross-functional partners like design, engineering, and data science, that will help you give more oomph to your insights.
On the process side, I would say if there's no documentation or very poor documentation of a current process that you think should be improved, start documenting, get really scrappy, it's okay to use an Excel and Google calendar.
A lot of times that will help you demonstrate value to stakeholders, because sometimes these small process improvements will lead you to be able to tie the metrics to customer or dollars. It will help you get a much bigger investment, or much more refined process that you can then bring the rest of the org along.
Last but not least...
This is something that I've spent some time thinking about, thinking about new ways of building a product, or what is the product we should be building? How does it align to our incentives? To looking at a really poor process and trying to improve that, all of that is really hard thinking and it takes a lot of time and energy and mind space.
So I think as PMMs what I've seen is we are really passionate, we're enthusiastic, we want to help people, we are under-resourced and pulled and running in all different directions, putting out fires.
I just found that it was very important for me to prioritize time to shut the door or however you want to work and think about these hard problems, because that's I think, where we can deliver outsized value.
If anyone has really good tips or guidance on how to do that more effectively, I would love to talk to you, because that's something I am continuing to learn.