Know Your Hook: Build for Marketing

December 20, 2010

It’s natural to build a product, then focus on marketing when it is ready. It is much wiser to incorporate marketing from the start. A great exercise for a new startup is to write your press release – the earlier, the better.

Writing a press release keeps you focused on building a marketable product, and ensures you can say what you want to say about your product at launch. Often, it will make you realize that a feature you don’t think is core to the product is actually core to the marketing of the product. Your startup needs a hook, and the last thing you want to do is realize you don’t have a good one when you’re ready to launch.

Startups that succeed don’t just produce a great product – they present the product in a way that easily attracts an audience. Don’t just deliver a product for users that arrive interested. Include features that will attract more users in the first place. Build marketing into your product through features that provide instant gratification and/or get people to talk.

Recently I saw Spencer Rascoff, the CEO of Zillow, speak at an NWEN event. He explained that they delayed the launch of Zillow to complete a feature that enabled any homeowner to claim and edit the details of their property. This feature made it so no one could critize their use of publicly available data. It also drove more users; according to Wikipedia, “over 10 million users have claimed and edited property information.”

Another example of a marketing feature is in the Kinect for Xbox. As if their PR wasn’t already easy enough – no controller! – they took the time to build a feature called KinectShare. It takes photos during the Kinect’s use, and lets you easily share them on facebook. This wasn’t required for the Kinect’s core offering of a no-controller experience. Gamers wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there. But because of this feature, I am reminded every time I use Facebook that I still haven’t bought my Kinect. And while it’s not in my budget, it’s only a matter of time before I break down and buy one thanks to this feature.

What do you want to say when you launch your product? And how have you prioritized your marketing features?

Don’t Shield Engineers from Customers

December 13, 2010

My first role at Microsoft involved supporting the top Search Engine Marketing advertisers on Microsoft adCenter, which was just being launched to compete with Google adWords. The first version of adCenter lacked a ton of basic functionality required for SEM, and I took on the responsibility of collecting customer feedback from the frontline and presenting it to the product’s engineers. I couldn’t understand how the architecture didn’t support such basic and critical features and functionality, and why subsequent releases still didn’t include the updates customers needed.  As I dug deeper, it became apparent the engineers were being shielded from customers. Working directly with customers, I saw the value of customer feedback, and the importance of engineers meeting with customers firsthand. So you can imagine how disappointed I was in myself last week when I realized my startup had the same problem.

As a product manager for LazyMeter, I meet regularly with prospective users and report back to the team with feedback and features. During team meetings, I usually push for launch dates to be moved forward. While the team probably thinks I’m being an annoying business guy, I am pushing on behalf of a growing audience begging to use our product. I didn’t realize the rest of the team wasn’t getting to meet with this audience.  They’re located in Boston, so we have even more distance than usual between business and engineering.

During a phone call last week, a potential consulting client went into a rant about why he needs LazyMeter. “I have ADD,” he said, “and I need your product bad.” As he continued to beg us to launch, I heard the energy in my co-founder’s voice go through the roof. A few hours later, I got news that we hit a major milestone – early, for the first time.

The role of product manager is typically described as being the “voice of the customer”. Some product managers will go as far as to say they protect engineers from customers, who could easily take up all their time. While this is true, it doesn’t mean engineers should be denied access to customers completely. I cannot convey the need for a feature as well as a user, because I will miss their subject matter expertise and, more importantly, their passion. And the customer will always have the best insight into the solution, ensuring the feature is built correctly the first time. Too often, product managers ask for features without enough context, so the resulting feature isn’t what the customer asked for. Too often, product managers only take work items and negative feedback to engineers. It turns out part of the product management role is motivating the engineering team. Engineers need to see the difference they’re making in people’s lives. They need to feel the passion for the product they work on. Give an engineer features and you’re like a boss giving them more work.  Give an engineer a meeting with a customer and you’ll inspire and motivate them.  Direct meetings between engineers and customers improve the quality of the product, the speed of development, and the morale of the team.

When I left my first role at Microsoft, the sales team was setting up meetings with customers and engineers directly. The customers loved it – even if the results weren’t immediate, they liked that they were being heard and became ambassadors of the product. The engineers loved it – they stopped seeing feature requests as disruptive and understood how they impacted customers firsthand. And the salespeople loved it too – the customers spent more money.

Don’t Mix Productivity with Entertainment

December 6, 2010

You know the saying “don’t mix business with pleasure”. Yet websites repeatedly try to mix productivity with entertainment.

The news of Facebook’s improved messaging system had the blogosphere ready to declare the death of gmail, but we never heard that declaration again after the announcement. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg was clear that the system would not be an email killer. If Facebook really wants an email killer, I argue they need another entry point, because something productive like messaging does not fit into the rest of the product.

Facebook has already been offering messaging for years, and I find one glaring problem: each time I log into Facebook to read or send a message, I am immediately distracted by my newsfeed, and forget what I set out to do. Productivity requires commitment and focus. Procrastination is easy, so to require someone in productive mode to log into a service that lends itself to procrastination is a huge problem. Even if Facebook’s new messaging system allows me to send a message more quickly, the distractions while getting to the inbox are ultimately going to result in a loss of time. Facebook needs an entry point that takes users directly to their messaging without seeing the newsfeed; the current URL does not suffice.

There is a major divide between entertainment and productivity destinations. This may also explain why Google struggles to build a product like Facebook or Twitter. You go to Google to get things done, not to socialize – it’s a different state of mind. And while YouTube is obviously entertainment, it was an acquisition and is accessed through a completely different entry point. Because Gmail and Google Search are both productivity tools, I have no problem going to for messaging. But I won’t go to for my entertainment. If you think about it, that’s just weird.

Maybe one day someone will successfully bridge the divide between entertainment and productivity. Maybe someone will even find a way to connect the two. But until then, it’s best to focus on one or the other, or at least keep them separate.