[At the time of delivering this presentation, Pragya was Senior Product Marketing Manager at Booking.com. She has since moved into a new role in Product Strategy for Facebook and Instagram Commerce.]
At Booking.com we went through a big change in recent years and had to adapt our successful marketplace for a new supply category - homeowners.
In this article, I’ll explain, based on my own experiences, how product marketing can drive change in the face of disruption like this across the three pillars of PMM:
I'll also be giving some launch examples from my own time at Booking.com and how we've adapted a successful marketplace for the new supply category of homeowners.
I've had a bit of an unconventional start in product marketing. I started off as an engineer. I've been in tech for a while in different capacities and for the last eight years, I've been doing product marketing for the travel tech sector, first for airlines around the world and now with Booking.
I am leading the global segment strategy and product marketing for homeowners and small businesses. It's a bit of a mix between an individual contributor and a team management role.
Booking started as a small Dutch travel company back in 1996. Now, three decades later, it's one of the largest travel sites out there. The mission is simple: to make it easier for everybody to experience the world.
At this moment, we actually provide the widest selection of accommodation options for a traveler to choose from, over 29 million options.
Where we were
If you've used Booking, you'll know these are typically the kind of places we proudly have on our platform: Beautiful luxury resorts all around the world and beautiful five-star hotels.
You can choose from alternate accommodations as well. If you want to book a treehouse, an igloo, or a houseboat, we have it all on the platform.
Something changed a few years ago. We had people who had spare bedrooms or a second home, they started registering their properties with us. This was obviously in order to monetize that extra space.
But for us, this was a bit of a difference in terms of the supplier we were used to working with. We were used to working with professionals, professionally managed hotels and homes and here, we had someone who was kind of new to hospitality and was basically offering the same product.
The functional need of 'I want a place to sleep for the night' is still being sold but coming in at a slightly lower cost, lower price point than a hotel, and without the bells and whistles a hotel would normally offer. You probably wouldn't have a nice hotel lobby or a welcome desk or extra services where you can dial, call for restaurants, laundry, or dry cleaning.
But we saw how this lower-priced product is actually quite a hit with our budget-conscious travellers.
We've seen this happen in the market before, right?
- If you want to read a book, people are actually very happy buying an Amazon Kindle versus actually paying for a full-blown tablet.
- You want to get directions, you're actually fine pulling it up on Google Maps versus having to pay for a navigation device.
- You want to learn a new skill, people now actually prefer the cost and flexibility that online learning platforms provide to you versus having to enrol in a full-time school or university.
Going back to the situation with Booking.com and homes, this is what it meant:
To the outside world and to travellers, what they could see was some homes on Booking.com.
The situation for us internally was slightly different:
- We were seeing a lot of homeowners actually call us; our customer service call volumes were a bit all over the place.
- Our partner satisfaction rate, which was generally good and stable was beginning to dwindle a bit.
- Retention was becoming a bit of an issue. People were joining, but they were dropping off equally fast.
For us, this was a bit of a disruptive scenario in our normal day-to-day business.
As marketers, we all know and traditional wisdom tells us it takes time for a product to go mainstream. We all need to work towards crossing that chasm. We need to get the innovators, the early adopters, the early majority, and then potentially our product could go mainstream.
What to do in a situation like this
But what if the situation looked like this?
New technologies have made product life cycles much shorter. What if the opportunity out there was trial users and everybody else, not only for us but for anybody who wanted to capture this particular segment? What do you do in a scenario like this?
The simple response, the logical response is, let's react to it as fast as we can.
The disclaimer I'd like to make is that in order to react to a situation like this, it needs an entire organization to steer and change direction. But I'm going to be speaking a bit about how product marketing is very well placed to help in a scenario like this.
Also, just to bear in mind, I mentioned Booking is a company that's three decades old. That means it's got its ways of working. Product marketing was a new function and we had to influence strategy for an audience we didn't know much about.
Where product marketing can steer change to become successful
I'm going to be sharing learnings and I've divided the learnings into these three categories:
These are the three pillars of what product marketers do, you'll have heard of them in different shapes and forms.
- The first one being the who and why - really championing the customer and the opportunity out there.
- The second is how do you build and communicate that value?
- The last one is the where and when - the go-to-market and the launch.
When you have to respond into a market with a really, really competitive product, product marketing has to be really closely involved with the first two phases before you can even have anything to launch per se.
Chapter One: who and why
New audience - it meant that we had to start over with understanding the audience and when you are given a new challenge, or you have a new team, the number one pain point for product marketers was lack of resources and lack of influence.
No researchers = no excuse
In order to understand an audience, what we have learned is if you don't have researchers, it's no excuse because as product marketers. We are the ones who have to have the final understanding of the end consumer. You can actually drive a lot of research yourself.
If I were to divide up a lot of the research techniques we used at Booking on two axes, behavioral versus attitudinal, qualitative versus quantitative.
There are a lot more research techniques out there, but these are the main ones we used.
Let me break this down for you:
Behavioral - Quantitative
The top right-hand corner is basically all your data and analytics, you have a Google Analytics dashboard to see what's happening on your website.
Quantitative - Attitudinal
The bottom right-hand corner is the surveys you sent out to your users. How's your experience been? Can you rate your experience on a particular scale?
Qualitative - Attitudinal
The bottom left-hand corner is basically contextual inquiries - this could be on your website, you can have a pop-up questionnaire. How was your experience? Is there anything amiss here? This could also be in-person.
Behavioral - Qualitative
The top left-hand side is basically unstructured qualitative observations.
For us, we have seen that actually a lot of the qualitative research techniques that are out there, product marketing is very well suited to lead and do themselves.
In certain cases, it might be wise to take some quick training before you go into it.
Or if you have researchers in adjacent business units, it’s a good idea to actually run your methodology by them. "Hey, I'm planning to do this does this make sense?" That also elevates their roles to a consultant. You can then go out there yourself and do a lot of this yourself.
Let's see a few examples:
Are you familiar with the term dogfooding? A technique that is commonly used in a lot of tech companies, and also beyond. It's basically when you try and test your own products and services. This is especially important if you yourself are a potential user of the product.
At Booking.com we encourage everybody, not only product marketing, to actually try Booking.com themselves, both as a traveler and also as an accommodation partner. My entire team has been through the experience of registering our own properties on Booking and seeing how it is as a homeowner on the platform. We also encourage everybody to do dogfooding on a competitor site.
Once that’s done, you compile a nice report, you share it - we use a lot of collaboration tools - and people tag all the relevant teams who could be affected and benefit from those insights.
This is great if you have a product that's being continuously worked upon and optimized by other teams, so you get a steady fresh flow of insights from it. It also helps create accountability immediately.
Another technique we use is called partner shadowing. The simplest way to put it is: let's say you have a new employee in your organization, a new product marketer, you must have come across the situation where they reach out to you and say, "Hey, I want to learn what you do in your day to day role. Do you mind if I come and sit next to you for half a day? Do you mind if I follow you around in meetings?"
This is what we do even with our users and our clients. We go down to their properties. We go down to their apartments, we go down to their homes, and we have conversations with them as they're working their day out, right from the time they're actually cleaning their properties until the time the first guest arrives.
One other thing you can do, which is great to build empathy within your organization, is we host what we call Ask me Anything or Partner Panels where we have reached out to a lot of homeowners and say "We're doing an exclusive event. Why don't you come down to the head office?"
Then we invite everybody in the business unit who could be working with that particular category; data scientists, copywriters, researchers, everyone, and we have a discussion - two hours, questions back and forth.
This is also a great way to put a face on the user for everybody in your organization. Because you can look at numbers, our numbers were telling us a lot of homeowners are joining us but we had no idea what they expected from us. Why and how could we actually create the optimal experience for them? Speaking to your end-user really gets you there.
You are in it for the long haul
Moving on to the second learning for the who and why. Especially if you work with agile teams who are changing focus all the time, the product marketer is the one who has to have the full snapshot of the user.
Try and create that long-term picture as you're gathering all of these different insights.
Define an inspiring north star vision
A couple of ways you can do that is basically defining an inspiring North Star vision for the category.
As you're getting all this information, try and segment your users into different groups. Try and quantify those groups, attach personas to them. Create the journey map, what does their current experience look like? What is an ideal experience you would like to provide them?
Benchmark what you're providing versus the alternatives they have in the market. We were lucky we had designers to help build this for us but back in the day, I've created them from PowerPoint and free icons on the net. There are a lot of free tools that you can use to create these nice visuals and also a complete story for your audience.
This is great because it's great for a leadership team to explain to them things in a nice engaging way. It's also nice for adjacent teams that may not be working on your category immediately, to get them on board.
Why should this be a priority?
The last learning we had in the who and why is that you do all this and then you may still be asked the question, "Okay, why should I prioritize this?"
You may be asked this question from your product teams, from senior stakeholders, and in a scenario like this, we realized it's best to frame your insights in the context and in the framework that stakeholder is best used to.
Again, people who work with agile product teams would be used to this, a hypothesis or a user story is the most basic unit of a sprint that a product team is going to be working on.
At Booking.com, we have a best-case framework. It's an educated prediction of what a change could lead to.
Let's go through this exercise:
Based on data, partner feedback, instinct, etc. we believe changing a certain condition for users will make them do this and we will know this when we see effects on certain metrics happening. This will be good for our business because of this.
For homeowners, let's say based on feedback and the numbers from Google Analytics, we believe that removing one additional step from the registration process will actually make them complete the registration process even more and we will see this when they call us less and they complete the registration more.
This is important because if you are in a structure similar to ours, where product marketing is essentially sitting with product and we're part of daily stand-ups, sprint planning exercises, everything that's there in the orange, product marketing has a lot of input into.
That's one way to channel your insights directly into the product team because there's no point in insights sitting in a report. We have to actively make sure they are being used.
Zoom out a bit. If you are maybe not so much involved with your product team on a day-to-day basis, but you still want to help them prioritize the right things what we also do is opportunity analysis in terms of should they pursue segment X or segment Y? Or should they be working on let's say, payments management for homeowners versus personalization for homeowners?
Let's zoom out even more. If you're managing multiple teams, then we are all used to creating business cases, and then we basically quantify the overall opportunity. This we also use to shift priorities to ask for additional funding.
Depending on the context, and depending on where you are sitting with product and how much influence you can have on them, actively create these kinds of reports. This really actively helps those insights get used.
From my own experience, one of the business cases I submitted, I heard about it six months later, and there was a team funded so it could take time, but at least you have done your work in actually driving that.
Who & why: Recap
To recap on the who and why:
- Buckle up on understanding the audience yourself - we're the ones who are ultimately held accountable.
- Have the full and long term picture - I gave some examples of how you can do so.
- Then think about more than insights 0 how can this really be a priority?
Chapter Two: how
Now you have created all these insights, you have fought to get the team on board and everyone is brainstorming and has come up with the most creative way to solve that particular problem.
How can product marketing then help go even faster?
Imagine this situation:
Someone called Daniel has inherited a beautiful holiday home from his great-grandmother on one of the Greek islands. He wants to make money from it so he puts it on Booking.com. The product team is hard at work, the property is registered on Booking.
Positioning is way more than messaging
The first learning I would like to share is that as a product marketer, even while the MVP or the concept is being built, there is a lot more work we can do already in terms of positioning. What I mean is, it's way more than just messaging and value proposition work.
Take a look at the screenshot below:
Imagine everyone is booking their next summer holiday to Greece as travellers. If you want to stay in a five-star property hotel, what would you do? You look for the five-star filter on a booking website, that will pop up all of the five-star hotels there.
But let's say you're traveling with eight people and you want to stay in a holiday home with a swimming pool. But there isn't an objective way, anywhere in the world, to know which private properties would also make that cut.
What Booking has done in the last month is released an industry-first way of rating vacation rental properties across the world. The four yellow tiles you see are an equivalent of a four-star vacation rental property.
Now, when we search on Booking.com Daniel's Greek property is going to show up alongside all the other four-star hotels. That's really cool because anyone can actually book Daniel's property.
Think all-round commercial and major stakeholder management
But if you're a product marketer working on a solution like this what will you need to do?
We have to explain to Daniel why this is good for him, why this is going to get him more business. We have to explain the machine learning and the 400 parameters that went into calculating this. But then Daniel also can tell us "Hey, but actually, in Greece the government has given me a four-star rating already. I have a certificate to prove it".
Then we say okay, is that really the case? Which rating should Daniel keep? That involves a lot of legal data privacy and commercial stakeholder management. Daniel can also call up customer service and say, "Hey, I want to actually improve my rating from four-star to five-star". So customer service should 1) know this solution's gone out there and 2) help Daniel with the right response.
A lot of work is being done even when the product is being built by the product marketer. Can a product manager do all this? Yes, I'm sure they can, but it would just take double the time.
What we've learned is by really functioning as the commercial operational legal arm of the product manager, product marketing can really help go fast when it comes to launching new solutions.
Repackaging existing could be an underutilized opportunity
The second example I'd like to give is this:
Daniel says he has a beautiful orchard at the back of his Greek holiday home where there are fresh fruits and he wants to serve fresh fruits to his guests for breakfast, and he also wants to put that on his property page.
He says, "I don't want to change anything else. But I want to mention that because I think that's going to make my property unique".
We are going to tell Daniel, yes, there is absolutely a possibility for you to do that. We have something called 'host profiles' - other people like Cecile have done it and seen great results, and you can also do this.
Benefit from your network within the organization to not have to re-invent the wheel
But the point I'm trying to make here is especially if you come from large organizations where in a different unit, something may already have been tested and tried, as product marketers, we should not underestimate our network.
All those coffee catchups, all those alignment meetings, knowing a certain solution was tried elsewhere, whether it was a success or a failure, why it didn't go ahead. Doing this kind of homework already for the product owner is so much help. That is what I mean by repackaging existing opportunities.
In this specific example, we already had a part of this functionality built, it was never used, but in our case, we decided to repackage it and actually use it. Benefit from your organization's network, and you may not have to reinvent the wheel.
When we think of repackaging, we think the solution exists, the user doesn't understand it, so let's try and re-explain it in a way the user would understand. But here we are going a step further, doing that investigation already on what we could essentially reuse within the organization and there could be a lot of opportunities.
You do all this but you will still need to do your homework as a product marketer.
You'll still need to decide:
- What to call it
- How you are going to explain it
- Which audiences you should roll it out to
- What the roadmap will look like
Your new solutions could benefit other segments
The last example I'm going to give in the 'how' is how your new solutions could actually benefit other segments.
In this particular example, let's say Daniel says, "Hey, I don't want people who are going to party in my holiday home", so we've launched a house rules section for travellers, which they must review and acknowledge before they book.
In the rare case somebody breaks a glass or something happens over there, the host can report it immediately and get help from customer service.
Communicate plans early, get ideas to evolve solution and business case
I'm calling on this example because as you are developing solutions, and as you are testing them, even in the testing phase, it's a good idea to communicate plans.
In our case, there are a lot of account managers who take care of core properties and they provided great feedback saying that this could benefit their segment as well. Already when you are in the MVP and concept phase, try and create that long-term map in terms of which segments you could possibly expand the solution into.
In this case, it's amazing because we have made an investment into a new category, but in the end, it's benefiting our core category as well.
Obviously, you still need to do the homework around:
- Product-market fit
- How you're going to scale it
- How you'll do a value proposition for different categories.
These are things we've observed that have worked in the last three or four years we've been working on this category:
- Positioning is about more than messaging. Think around commercial, operational, legal, everything and you can really enhance the product's time to market.
- Repackaging existing could be an option, especially when your teams are trying and testing a lot of things at the same time.
- Your core business and other segments could also benefit from your developments.
Launch: some examples
I'm going to give a few examples in terms of when we approach the communication for this particular category:
360-degree campaigns for homeowners
I don't have any best cases that I marked out for the launch, per se, but in the last few years, we have launched a lot of 360-degree campaigns for homeowners around the world.
For this particular segment, we had to reassess all the channels, we had to relook at how it makes sense to approach a category - I think you need to do that for any new category you work on.
I did not have the luxury of having account management or a sales team I could put on this so we had to think digital, we had to think scalable social, we had to think about what made sense for the end-user and for us.
A lot of campaigns have been going out towards homeowners and maybe you will see some of these as well.
Category awareness for travellers
If you're working in a two-sided marketplace, you also have to think about the other end of the spectrum and for us, that means travellers.
I've spoken to people recently who've said, "We didn't know Booking actually has homes, we thought it's primarily for hotels" so we also need to do that work on changing perception.
If you have been travelling around Europe the last few years, you would have seen a lot of these nice quirky advertisements where Booking is actually educating the other side of the market in terms of the new category we are investing in and how many apartments and homes we have.
You do all this, and hopefully, the tabloids start to take notice.
It's great because as product marketers, ultimately it's you who is owning all the upstream and downstream communication so you will see snippets of your messaging, your value proposition in these articles.
This is a one-sentence summary of everything I've been speaking about.
If you have to react to a situation or adapt yourself to a new category, help steer change by going fast.
Yes, we all know we have to master the who but also master the why. Try and proactively feed that into your product organization.
You can really influence time to market by thinking more than value propositions and messaging.
If you do all that, you can be better prepared and sooner prepared for launching anything, because there's no point going to the market with a product that's not ready.
You do all this and your product can be ready faster, and you'll have a better story to tell.