In many organizations, product development and marketing are two completely separate entities. They operate as silos, unaware of each other’s goals, methodologies, and key metrics. Often, marketing doesn’t become aware of new products and features until the product team has already begun development, or worse, after it’s been shipped.
Companies spend a lot of money convincing customers to pay for products. But once the customer enters their credit card details, the customer becomes “acquired.” Many companies consider this the end of marketing. But marketing isn’t just a cog in the machine. It should play a pivotal role that starts before there’s ever a product and long after a customer converts.
In this article, we’d like to discuss the role of marketing in product development. Instead of tacking marketing on to your product after development, we’ll explain why marketing should play an early role in the process.
What is Marketing?
Marketing is a misunderstood practice. To most people, marketing means convincing customers to spend their money on a product. That’s somewhat true, but it’s only part of the narrative. Peter Drucker, famed management consultant, educator, and father of modern business practices, says this about marketing:
“Marketing is so basic that it is not just enough to have a strong sales department and to entrust marketing to it. Marketing is not only much broader than selling; it is not a specialized activity at all. It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is from the customer’s point of view. Concern and responsibility for marketing must therefore permeate all areas of the enterprise.”
Every interaction your customers have with your company is marketing. It’s all one long, ongoing conversation. Anything that adds value to your customers’ lives is part of that conversation, even after they convert to customers, such as in-app tooltips, help documentation, and customer support. However, anything that takes value away from their lives is part of that conversation too.
Traditional marketing activities like blogging, email marketing, and sales outreach are often the beginning of that conversation. These activities kick off a conversation, but they are not the totality of that conversation.
Your product is a key part of that conversation as well. Each interaction the customer has with the product - every time they log in! - is part of marketing. Every time they use your product to solve a problem, achieve a goal, or make their lives easier is marketing. But so is every failed login, unclear UI element, and error message.
Most importantly, the efficacy of your product plays a big role in marketing. Does it solve the customers’ problems? Does it operate smoothly and efficiently? Is it simple and intuitive even when addressing complex tasks? Customers are willing to overlook a lot of problems if your product solves their problems well, which means they’ll use word of mouth to expand your reach. There’s no better marketing than a good product.
For instance, let’s look at an error message like the one below.
Everything about this error message is accurate. The app failed to initialize. The only option is to close. And yes, that’s the correct error code. It's all accurate because it was written by a developer.
But what value does it offer the user? Unless the product is geared for highly technical people, they probably won’t understand what “initialize” means in this context. And they’re undoubtedly annoyed they have to close the app. They might look up that error, but only if you have public documentation that catalogues your codes. Instead of solving the user’s problem, this application just introduced another pain point.
Marketing’s involvement could smooth out this issue. They could supply better language for the error message or add a link to support content. Better yet, they could learn how or why the customer caused this error and work with the product team to eliminate that path entirely.
Dialogue, Not Monologue
We want to be absolutely clear about what we mean when we say “conversation.” A lot of organizations fail to take that word seriously. They spend a lot of time talking at their customers, but too little time listening to their needs, concerns, complaints, and feedback. You can’t have a conversation if you’re the only one talking.
A Facebook ad, blog post, or sales email are examples of talking at customers. These methods are important, no doubt, but they don’t help the product team. The comments and replies to those communications, however, potentially contain useful information for the product team. Realistically, any exchange your marketing team has with users and customers is an opportunity to improve the product. But it only works if the marketing team is listening.
Marketing has a duty to collect as much information as possible on customer needs, behaviors, triggers, expectations, pains, burdens, commitments, and anything else that can be used to inform the product. They also have the responsibility of sharing this information with the rest of the organization.
Collecting this information is just as important as where you keep it. In some organizations, product and marketing data are siloed to their respective teams which inadvertently creates deficiencies. It’s smarter to centralize this data in one place so everyone is working with the same information. This method also gives both teams access to data they wouldn’t normally encounter otherwise.
When to Include Marketing
Product development is mistakenly perceived as a domain belonging solely to developers. Whereas roles like human resources, legal, and customer support can be built after product development, marketing should be baked in from the beginning.
Since marketing is the entire conversation you have with your customers, it’s crucial to consider it early. You should bring in the marketing team and start asking marketing-related questions at the beginning of product creation before you’ve written a single line of code.
“Basic marketing science teaches us that the root of any well-developed strategic marketing plan lies in developing a product that is ‘need-driven,’” says Darrin C. Duber-Smith, president of Green Marketing, a strategic planning firm. “Organizations, then, must not develop a product and then determine where, when, how, and to whom it will be sold - after the fact. Most company leaders who do not fully understand this fundamental, global shift in product development strategy are doomed to fail in one way or another, or at the very least, neglect the prime directive, the optimization of ROI.”
The goal is to align product and marketing as closely as possible throughout development. This gives marketing the chance to supply the product team with lots of valuable information. It also gives the product team the chance to build a product that marketing can sell right away. Ultimately, this creates a cohesive end product that better resonates with customers.
The below development process may not match your process precisely, but it gives you a good idea of how big of a role marketing should play. Marketing people should be involved in idea generation and screening, testing the concept, and developing the overall marketing strategy. That’s all before you dive deep into development.
For instance, imagine the marketing team anticipates two distinct customer segments: small-to-medium sized businesses who will only purchase the product if it has Feature A and large enterprises that require Feature B. Marketing decides it will be fastest to sell to the small-to-medium sized businesses first because they can make quick purchasing decisions, whereas large enterprises often have slow sales cycles (and they could be locked into long contracts with existing products).
In this case, the product team would prioritize Feature A because it’s important to the customer segment they’re targeting. It also begins the process of collecting revenue, customer feedback, and data quickly, which all ultimately support future product development (everything is easier when there’s money coming in the door).
Essentially, your product and the marketing program should be completely intertwined. They aren’t separate functions. Marketing should have a seat at the table when you first discuss building a new project. If you wait to engage marketing until after building the product (or even just part of the product), there’s a chance you’ll build something unnecessary that doesn’t serve your customers as well as it should.