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Marketing IS in the Middle: Steve Johnson

The last in the series is the first person who really taught me marketing from a product perspective.  Real world product marketing, not theoretical.  I took one class in Atlanta soon after getting my first PM job and I was like “Thanks for helping define what I do and how to express what I do to the business”.

Steve Johnson is an industry thought leader on Product Marketing and is quickly becoming the leader on how to integrate Agile with product management successfully.  Steve has held most every job in a technology business and shares his ideas and expertise as one of the first folks at Pragmatic Marketing and continues to learn the state of the market as he engages companies and speaks nationally.  Steve is not your average marketer – no tagline, no brand discussion – just problems, product and revenue.  Not enough about Steve? Here is the excerpt from his corporate bio which says it the best:

“A biting sense of humor”, “credible” and “feels my pain as a product manager” are just some of the words attendees use to describe the experience of being taught by Steve. He is able to convey his experiences of living the life of a product manager in a unique and entertaining way.

I’m definitely thankful for his time on the phone and his candor on marketing and product management.  Steve blogs frequently on Product Marketing and has distilled many of his ideas into a free eBook on “The Strategic Role of Product Management“.  Below is his take on the questions for the series….
What marketing roles have you had and in what markets?

I’ve had most every role in technology – programmer, sales engineer and full-on sales, While in sales I stumbled into product management.  I was a sales engineer and knew the product inside and out and began positioning it on my own and being successful in accounts.  I didn’t use the stuff marketing gave me, since that wasn’t how customers were really buying.  After a while of developing my own mode of operation, I was asked to train others in my group on how I was generating sales. All the sudden I’m training sales and the VP of Marketing was like “who is this guy and why is he doing the PM’s job?” Next thing you know, I’m in product management. That’s where I met Craig Stull who later founded Pragmatic Marketing.

I bounced around a few more companies in more senior roles and then I came on board at Pragmatic Marketing and have been there ever since learning what’s happening in the marketplace and sharing the Pragmatic Marketing practices and processes.

When you look at your career in marketing, what discipline/component have you found most interesting/challenging?

I guess it’s just the concept of being in marketing.  The word marketing means different things to different folks.  1/3 thinks it is advertising, 1/3 hear MARCOM and the remaining 1/3 think it is strategy and products.

The confusion of what marketing is challenging for a lot of people in marketing roles.  With the latest downturn I’m seeing more and more people who are being downsized.  The biggest driver for this for many is they didn’t explain their role and the value they bring.  Or perhaps they don’t really know their role. One company asked the product managers to focus on sales support and two years later, fired them because all they do is sales support. Sad really. PM’s do a very poor job of helping the rest of the business understand what they do; and those that don’t define and market what they do may not make it very far.

Of course a lot of marketers don’t want their role defined –  they say “it’s an art” and art can’t have reports built.  Define the role, instrument your activities and produce metrics on what worked and what didn’t and let the organization know…. The “Trust me, you can’t metric what I do” folks are just not going to survive.

What do you feel is the most important component of a successful marketing gig?

It’s how you approach the market.  The concept of the marketing mix is off, at least in technology, since the four P’s don’t account for Problems and problems are what drive revenue.  To that end, an intense focus on problems is required. Companies who focus mainly on innovation and not innovatively solving problems have a tough time succeeding.    Cool stuff, but not saleable doesn’t work.

There are other examples of problems which are solve in an innovative fashion that are out of tech.  Think about Zip cars from an innovation perspective – you can rent a car for a couple of hours. Doesn’t sound too innovative or to solve a problem for the most part. Until you live in a city. If you don’t live in a city, you can’t really understand the problem. That’s why there are no Zip cars in suburban DC. But if you live in a big city and only need a car a few hours a week, ZipCar is ideal.

So you need a problem.  Figure out the problem, understand the market opportunity and needs, build the right product and enable sales to go after real problems.

Another real problem that many of us don’t have in technology is the cell phone.  What we have today isn’t for everyone. Many people over 60 want big numbers and simple controls.  Enter the Jitterbug Phone.  The jitterbug has no camera, no email and no internet; it’s just a phone.  They brought 2 models to market – one has 10 numbers and a send key – works like an old school phone – dial tone and all.  The other has 3 buttons, Emergency, operator and “my daughter”…..  If you need another number a human operator connects you.  In this model, the operator manages your address book, you just tell them who you want to call by name and they connect you from your personal phone book in their systems.

Jitterbug solves a problem for a very small part of the market, sure, but they solve it completely. Other products focus on most of the features that everyone everywhere needs and they fail to satisfy.

So to be successful you have to solve problems.

Since you selected problems, how has that contributed to revenue?

Simple – no problem, no revenue. We’ve all seen products that the developers and executives were sure would be a hit and they just fizzled. Why? Because people ought to want them doesn’t mean that people actually will want them. Tecnhology and innovation without a focus on solving problems is usually a waste of time. There are some exceptions–accidental successes–but innovations without a problem focus typically fail.

What experiences brought you to this conclusion?

Talking to people, looking at successful product and seeing what does and doesn’t work.  I ask people in my classes and most everyone can come up with a forced example, like the pet rock.  That’s an accident or a fad – but it’s not sustainable. Enduring products solve problems.  Sure there are successful companies which manufacture all kinds of stuff, like Sony, but the see what happens model can’t be taken by most business. What new  business or product can absorb that risk? not that many.

If you could design the perfect corporate environment for a marketer to be successful what would that be?

Organizational changes seldom solve problems – organization changes in bad organizations often make problems worse.  Good organizations for marketers have support in the leadership for what they want to do and understand what they are supposed to do.

One of the best ways to know that the leadership is aligned with the market is that the VP of Product is an executive peer.  There are other configurations which may work at different stages of the companies lifecycle, but the team needs to allow Product to plan, prioritize and execute.  They also need to allow for development to make product based on market requirements. For that to work, product management in development is a tough configuration.  Very often when product management is in development, they become more tactical.  Rather than researching market needs, they support development with beta testing and project planning. The Agile role of product owner is an example of this.  The product owner isn’t necessarily the product manager, but often this is how it works out when product is in development.

The other fairly common organization is for product management to report into marketing. However, in this role, they are often relegated to sales support – more sales tools, more presentations, more sales calls.

In my perfect corporate environment, Product drives, development makes, marketing promotes and sales sells.  With that being what everyone does it is fairly straightforward.  One thing I think might help is a new title in technology companies – Instead of a VP of Marketing, maybe we should call it the VP of Promotion.  It seems to me that everyone claims to be a marketing expert but not very good a promotion.

Regardless, if you have a firm definition of what you do, then it can be tracked, improved and managed more effectively. So first you need an organization that empowers product to deliver to the market and defines everyone’s role based on what they do and what they own.

There are other bad organizational configurations out there that don’t work, probably the worst are those poor souls who are VP of Marketing and Sales – a no win job.  In this role, you need to hit your numbers this year AND plan for next year. I’m not sure how that works when you are 30% off of quota.   I’m pretty sure you’re just out selling to keep your job and you will figure out next year when you get there, if you do.

By the way, I’ve also always been annoyed with Finance groups who just manage the cost numbers;  after all, they aren’t accountants, they are Finance and so, need to be strategic.  Shouldn’t they be tracking meaningful metrics beyond revenue and costs? They need to let everyone know the REAL metrics and help drive awareness on performance.  In the accounting style of finance, product managers must cobble together information from multiple systems and create their own view of the world.  The only real way to manage is against the financials and you can’t do that if you aren’t managing from the real numbers and trends which drive executive decisions.   Companies which leverage finance strategically can solve problems in a product or business together, rather than debating whose numbers are right or why one set of numbers aren’t right.

How far is this from reality?

Not far in some, but I definitely think there is a business in helping make this reality.  Helping organizations to let CFO’s to be leaders and not scorekeepers and training CFO’s on how to be strategic, if they aren’t already.

What’s next?

2009 will be a difficult year for many companies–certainly most US companies. The first reaction will be to cut costs across the board but another strategy is to focus on development of products, promotion, and people. Many companies have excess resources for the first time. Rather than fire them and lose their domain knowledge, we can focus them on creating new revenue opportunities for 2010. The economy will recover. Now is the time to set up interviews and customer surveys that we never had time for before. Now is the time to get everybody trained on best practices in product management, agile approaches to development, and new ways of promoting products such as video brochures, blogging, social media, and user-generated content. Now is the time to ensure that the buying process is well-understood and documented. Now is the time to set up systems to measure product success.

It’s so common to hear people say “if I only had time.” Now you do! Let’s not waste it by purging excess people but let’s take this rare opportunity to grow the business internally to prepare for a resurgence of business in years to come.