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Avoid these 5 product marketing missteps

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Since graduating from MIT Sloan in 2002, Jill Soley has nearly 20 years of experience managing, analyzing, directing, and advising a range of startups and global businesses on product management and marketing. 

“Across those large companies and startups, I’ve seen a lot of the same mistakes,” she said during a recent talk at MIT Sloan. “I’ve seen companies throw away millions on stuff that they shouldn't be, and I've made a ton of mistakes.”

Soley has put those lessons learned and experience she’s gained into the recent book, “Beyond Product,” co-written with fellow marketing executive Todd Wilms. The book includes interviews with a variety of founders and executives — such as Bill Macaitis, former CMO of Slack; Meredith Dunn, vice president of styling and client experience at Stich Fix; and Erica Brescia, co-founder and COO of Bitnami — as well as insight from the authors’ personal experiences, successes, and missteps in product marketing. Here are five mistakes to avoid:

Don’t tie yourself to a solution

The way it usually works is a founder has an idea for a great product that’s going to revolutionize the world, and that founder goes out and tries to get funding for it. 

But what Soley heard from every venture capitalist she spoke to for her book, was that instead of tying yourself to a solution, you should go out to the market and focus on understanding the problem, and then focus on solving the problem.

“The founders who went out and talked to the market, who really understood the market, before they laid any line of code, before they spent money on an office or hired anybody, but who really talked to a statistically relevant sampling of the market — people they didn't know, not friends and family who are going to pat them on the back and tell them it’s awesome — those people had a much higher chance of success,” she said.

Don’t ignore marketing until the last minute

A common product marketing mistake, Soley said, is that the product developers in a company think of product marketers as the “launch people,” who take a finished product and bring it into the market.

“After I figure out what I’m going to build, and after I build it, then I throw it over the wall to marketing and they’re going to plan this amazing launch and everybody is going to buy my product,” Soley said. “How well does that work?”

The reason so many launches fail is that the product marketers haven’t been brought along for the ride to work with developers to determine what the market is, what the market cares about, and how the product is meeting those needs. 

Don’t accidentally hide your product

During 2006-2013, when Soley worked for Adobe, the company launched Creative Suite Review, a service to allow creative design users to share work and gather feedback from clients. Despite the company doing market research and knowing it could solve a problem for customers, users were slow to adopt the service. 

One problem: The service came out buried within a bundle of services. And customers were more concerned with learning new versions of the old products they used, like Photoshop or InDesign. Ancillary feedback services were not front of mind.

A few years later, when Adobe launched Creative Cloud, Soley’s team had learned from their mistakes. This time, the products were front and center in the cloud, and customers could also find those ancillary services in the same cloud space.

“It doesn't matter how great your features are and how great your product is if no one can find it, if they can't buy it, and if they can't adopt it,” she said.

Be agile in marketing as well as product

Soley spent more than a year at Cloverpop, a startup offering a software-as-a-service product to companies to improve their decision-making processes. These improvements could be something like reducing the number of meetings it takes to reach a decision, or improved communication so that employees know a decision has been made and can take action

But Cloverpop had problems of its own, Soley said. The company struggled with sales because the software wasn’t well-known. And even once a client learned about it, there were security and budget hoops to jump through before purchase.  

Then there were adoption challenges, Soley said, because the software changed workflows and processes. To address these problems, Cloverpop developed diagnostics to help companies pinpoint challenges around their decision-making, Soley said, and also developed software training for the customers. But some potential customers already handled diagnostics and training on their own.

Cloverpop broke apart the different services. So now, for example, a customer can just do a decision-making diagnostic.

Don’t only solve small problems

Think about what problem you’re solving for a customer. Get to know who your customer is, Soley said. Find out what keeps them up at night, as well as what makes them crazy and gives them their greatest pain.

“If your product or your company is solving something that’s the level of pain that can be solved with aspirin, you should really be thinking whether you have a business,” Soley said. “Either you've got to be solving a Vicodin-level pain or you've got to be providing me with something that makes me so excited, so happy, makes my life so much better.”

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