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Product Managers As Storytellers

Recently I’ve been working with some experienced product managers on an exciting and innovative program. These people spend most of their time threading needles: figuring out how to triage the many demands of lead customers while getting the most from their limited R&D budget. The result is a pragmatic list of features, each of which has a rock-solid justification. Unfortunately, the combined product release is sometimes barely marketable.

The reason is that it doesn’t tell any sort of story. What I mean is that it isn’t underpinned by a thematic set of guiding product design principles or long-term customer objectives. It’s just a list of unconnected (although probably frequently requested) features. Consequently, the product release is hard to characterize and, quite frankly, isn’t particularly inspiring.

Selling the Story

As a marketing guy, I want to understand the story behind a product or product release because from there I can build the justification for someone buying it. Rather than promoting the individual elements of the roadmap, I first promote (and build case for) the overarching customer story. Selling the story vs. selling the features is one of the defining differences between product/solution marketing and product management.

A well-managed product roadmap is essential for market success but it doesn’t drive demand. It’s the marketing that creates interest and attracts buyers. With good marketing, the customer first “buys” the future vision (the promise of the story) then is convinced to write the cheque for the product itself.

It’s worth thinking about the product story early in the process of developing the product roadmap or defining the contents of a product release. The sooner you articulate the story, the more it will guide the roadmap and enable effective marketing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Marketers (and good sales people) are storytellers by trade. What we need now, are a few more product managers who can spin a good yarn.

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