Product Marketing Versus Product Management

I had a great conversation today with Kevin Merritt of blist.  He was nice enough to get together with me as I get reintroduced to the Seattle scene.  It’s a weird thing returning to a city which you left almost a decade ago, but made much easier when people welcome you with open arms.

During the course of our conversation, we were talking about the shifting needs of getting product to market, and the skill set required of your marketing team.  This of course could take many, many pages of text to work through, but I think he summed it up best when he broke down the shift by stating simply: “people need to think about the difference between product marketing and product management.”

When most people think about marketing, especially engineers, they think about marketing communications.  They think about advertisements.  They think about press releases.  They think about Gartner’s magic quadrant.  That used to be the right way to think about marketing, because the means by which you could reach your customer were quite constrained, and marketers relied on the gatekeepers to the customers.  Namely the press corp and the analysts.

Times they are a changing, and marketers now have unprecedented access to their customers.  Think about it: 10 years ago, it was almost a ridiculous thought to think that a CEO would have a public forum discussion with customers about product features, limitations or directions.  The idea that for several cents per click, you could have your ad in front of customers looking for information pertaining to your product, in a specific city, at a specific time period during the day was the stuff of advertising fairy tale, and yet now it’s a simple matter with Google AdWords.

Product management is about reaching the customer.  Delivering to them the product that solves a need for them in an exceptional way.  This requires close quarters conversations with your customers to really understand their pain points.  Assisting users in the product discovery continuum is a critical part of product management.  In a world with an increasing volume of products and features, how can you be heard?  Product management is about delivering the right message at the right time to the right person.  If you can’t assess those items, you’re in the wrong business.

I can speak personally about this because I was part of the team that built AskMe.  I was the very first employee and responsible for the consumer portal and our syndication business.  We grew the site to MediaMetrix top 150, and had a guy who isn’t credited (though should be) with inventing the sponsored link for search traffic.  My team was doing widgets with our content back in 2000.  The problem?  We had the right product with the right message at the wrong point in time.  We were Yahoo! Answers about six years too early.  Other examples include the Foleo (wrong product), Newton (wrong time) and the early days of the UFC (wrong message – no holds barred fighting vs. mixed martial arts).

Being a stellar product manager means adapting to the world around you, and using the new tools and communications channels to reach your customers, assess their needs and pain points, and construct the messaging for your product.  Yesteryear’s banner ad was yesterday’s AdWord is today’s social media portfolio will be tommorrow’s who knows what.  The key is to stay educated and stay close to your customer.