Monthly Archives: November 2011

How well can you really understand your buyers?

By Saeed Khan

I had the pleasure of meeting with a number of international region sales managers recently. They covered geographic regions including Western Europe, the Nordic countries, Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and parts of Africa. There was a mix of direct sales staff and distributor/partner managers. This was the first time I’ve met with such a diverse group of  sales people all at the same time.

What was really amazing was the diversity of views and issues that were discussed.  The product in question was an enterprise IT software product, and while we do have price lists in numerous international currencies, the issues of pricing, discounts and difficulties selling the product were the focus of much discussion.

Now a cynic would say that when are these things NOT a focus of discussion with sales people? :-) But there were many  interesting points brought up by the group.

  • A very simple and seemingly clear value proposition in North America can be meaningless in another country because of different regulations or different business priorities.
  • In some countries buying decisions are VERY heavily influenced by the relationship between the buyer and the vendor and actual product functionality is less important.
  • In some countries there is a prestige factor (for the buyer) associated with certain vendors and certain products and that can heavily influence purchase decisions.
  • In some countries, local partners (e.g. system integrators and consultants) play a large role in the buying decision and implementation of a product, so their needs must be understood.
  • Not all regions viewed the value of product functionality the same way. Some regions valued certain functionality, while other regions saw little value in that same functionality.
  • In some regions, particularly emerging markets, piracy is still rampant, and security (or lack of it) in a product can be an influencing factor.

These are just some of the examples that were discussed, but it quickly became very clear that there was a lot of factors across the different regions that required different approaches to convince buyers to purchase product.

Buyer personae can be regional

When we typically think of buyers, we often talk about “THE buyer persona”.  But clearly there are MANY buyer personae that need to be understood. The sales managers understand their buyers — or at least are supposed to understand their buyers — but how well do we in Product Management and Product Marketing understand the diversity of buyers and buying criteria around the world? And how well can we stay abreast of the changes that will impact these personae? And with different personae, there will be a need for different messaging and likely different positioning. This has a fundamental impact on how the product is marketed in different regions.

These recent meetings really opened my eyes. I had a general sense of some of the regional issues prior to the meeting, but honestly, they were at a very high level, without much detail. Now I have a much deeper appreciation of the challenges we face in different regions, and I have a lot to think about as we plan product strategy and go-to-market activities for next year.

How do you handle regional differences with respect to your product? Is it an issue? I’d love to hear from you.


Tweet this: How well can you really understand your buyers? #prodmgmt #persona #sales

On Value Creation

I was reading this post by Steve Denning in his blog at  The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value.  Both Steve Denning and Roger Martin are two of my favorite management thinkers.

A snippet from that article:

“Although Jack Welch was seen during his tenure as CEO of GE as the heroic exemplar of maximizing shareholder value, he came to be one of its strongest critics. On March 12, 2009, he gave an interview with Francesco Guerrera of the Financial Times and said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products. Managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal”

As I have often argued in my posts here, traditional management theory and thinking is what won’t work in the future.  Just as Jack Welch did a convenient U-turn above, so did Michael Porter very subtly in his ‘Creating Shared Value‘ post in HBR earlier this year that might be the anti-thesis of his Competitive Strategy published in 1980.

So what we are seeing in recent times is not just a failure of the value creation models of the past that executives live by, but even celebrated theorists and practitioners alike are now admitting they were wrong – some openly like Jack Welch.

What does all this mean to a product manager?   Make products customers would use, you would use and let the market decide.  Don’t waste your energy in things like managing analyst expectations – not just financial analysts, but also “industry analysts”.  There are far more powerful mediums where you could get social worth for your products and services by going directly to the users – that is where and for whom, value is created.

- Prabhakar Gopalan

Tweet this: On Value Creation @PGopalan

Worth Repeating: The Benefits of Focus

Back in 2008, Ethan wrote this post of focus and targeting a specific niche. It’s a great little piece because it demonstrates that you can be successful without trying to appeal to everyone. Actually another obvious example of this is the huge proliferation of specialty TV channels. Way back (30+ years ago) most countries had very few TV channels, and they were mostly all broad based. Now, there seems to be a specific channel for just about every market-segment you can imagine – and they all seem to find an audience.

Most products do a lot. It’s tempting to try to sell all that functionality at once. But a lot of products benefit from having less as opposed to more. Yesterday I ran into a problem: I bought a new car. OK, that wasn’t the problem. My new car has a roof mounted antenna, one that goes back at 45 degrees. Driving into my garage is no problem but backing out again results in the antenna snagging against the bottom of the garage door. My fix was to unscrew the antenna. The unfortunate side effect was the we lost radio reception a lot sooner than normal as we drove out of town.

I figured there must be someone out there that has a solution to this problem. I mean, a shorter antenna isn’t exactly rocket science. I eventually found a site that had a solution so compelling I bought is right away – something very unusual for me, who normally spends an hour of research per dollar (yes, it takes me 2.99 hours to buy a loaf of bread). The miracle site?

Never have I found a more focused site. I mean, if you want a stubby antenna, this is the place. There’s selection and nothing to distract me from my task of finding a short – sorry, stubby – antenna.

I know that your product is a lot more amazing than a stubby antenna, but I doubt you could close a sale in five minutes. What could you remove – from your marketing material, if not your product – that would at least cut your sales cycle in half?


Tweet this: The Benefits of Focus (and Niche Markets)  # prodmgmt

Releases, Roadmaps and Visions

By Saeed Khan

Roadmaps are always a popular topic when discussing products. I can’t tell you how many times people ask whether something is “on the product roadmap”. One of the most consistently popular articles on this blog is this one that I wrote back in 2008 – Agile/Scrum and Product Roadmaps.

Recently I noticed some thoughts on the Web and decided another post on the topic was in order.

The first was the Twitter #prodmgmttalk on the topic of roadmaps. Here are a few tweets from that discussion:

Note @bfgmartin’s tweet about the roadmap (potentially) changing every week. That’s pretty granular IMHO and is really more of a backlog or at best a release level view of the product.

Coincidentally, Fred Wilson had a post on his blog a few days earlier called Long Roadmaps. In it he wrote the following:

I interviewed Dennis Crowley yesterday at the NYU Entrepreneurs Festival….Dennis said that all the way back to Dodgeball, the predecessor company to Foursquare, he and Alex had a roadmap for the product that was years ahead of what they could actually build. When Dennis and Naveen decided to start building Foursquare, Dennis pulled out that roadmap and updated it to reflect the power of modern smartphones. And that roadmap goes way out, well beyond what Foursquare is today or what it will be in a year from now.

Just to be clear, Fred is saying that Dennis Crowley had a “roadmap” for a product so forward looking that the technology for it didn’t exist. i.e. it couldn’t be built at the time it was “envisioned”.  This is not a “roadmap”, but more of a vision of the future.

So the question is what exactly is a “roadmap”, because it seems to have quite a broad definition in terms of timeframe and granularity.

If we think of Releases, Roadmaps and Visions as plans, they can be described and differentiated as follows:

TimeframeGranularityCertaintyDriven by
ReleaseNear term (months)Features or StoriesVery high (but changes can be made if needed)Short term objectives, usually aligned with a longer term plan
RoadmapMedium term (many release cycles) Themes or Epics with some Feature/Story detailsModerate (decreases as
Roadmap goes farther out in time. Changes are likely.)
Company and product strategy, competitive pressures and market trends
VisionLong term (no set time, but usually beyond current roadmap)Varies but usually a mix of high level ideas with some specific details based on Founder/CEO's ideas/thoughtsLow (who can predict the future with any certainty?)Founder/CEO's objectives and views

This breakdown makes sense to me. It’s what I’ve used pretty consistently for many years. For example, back in 2008, in my Agile/Scrum Roadmap post, I defined a product roadmap as follows:

A roadmap is a planned future, laid out in broad strokes — i.e. planned or proposed product releases, listing high level functionality or release themes, laid out in rough timeframes — usually the target calendar or fiscal quarter — for a period usually extending for 2 or 3 significant feature releases into the future.

For startups or companies in fast moving and growing markets, those 2-3 releases might only cover the next 12 months of time. For other more mature companies in less dynamic markets, those releases might cover several years.

So what do you think? Are these three things clearly defined now? Is it still possible to confuse a roadmap with a release, or a roadmap with a vision? Let me know.


Tweet this: Releases, Roadmaps and Visions #prodmgmt #innovation #roadmap

Build vs. Think – The Need for Thought Experiments in Product Development


Note: This is a guest post by Fred Engel. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

I was attending a feature set review the other day. As usual there were two camps each with a strong attachment to their solution. Not having a strong opinion on either side I asked, “How would someone succeed or fail with each of the options?” To my surprise, the response I got was

“Let’s just build one and see. In Agile, you build first and ask questions later. It is just impossible to think this stuff through, which is why you build.”

Now Einstein came up with the whole relativity thing using Thought Experiments. Surely our problem is not as complex as that, I argued. Besides, have we tried to figure this out? Do we know what is well understood and what is not? This line of reasoning was not being bought by the group. They wanted to build as a way of figuring things out.

What is wrong with “just building it”?

Building anything is costly in time and money and while it feels like progress, it is not. Just because something is being built does not mean there is progress. Progress implies forward movement towards a goal. Without out well thought out steps, the effort may not be progress but just movement. As discussed below, “just build it” is one of the tools in the arsenal and should be used after the thinking is complete.

What is a thought experiment?

A Thought Experiment is a fancy way of saying: “think through the various cases and scenarios of how things are going to work”. Thought experiments postulate different cases that are expected and think through the outcome. These “dry runs” are the cheapest, fastest ways of making progress for a broad set of problems. Usability walkthroughs are an example of this. Test driven design is another example. The process does not have to be formal, although it does need to provide good coverage.

One should always use Thought Experiments

There is never an adequate excuse for not using the brains in our heads to think things through. Here are some benefits of doing thought experiments:

  • Save time and money
  • Allow you to bring other people into the solution because you understand it better which will lead to you being more convincing.
  • Make you to understand the problem better. Working out the details in your head and on paper really does allow you to simulate doing it for real.
  • Solve the problem and give you a solution.
  • Bring clarity to what the real issues are. If you do thought experiments you will figure out what is easy and what is hard. You probably will discover what actually does need to be built and tested empirically.
  • Allow you to assess risk in the project and allow others to see how hard the hard parts are.

There are times to “just build it”

There are certainly a number of problems that can be solved best by experiment. It is after the thought experiment has been worked out that one can consider actually coding up the solution. The default should not be “just build it” but rather “here is what we should build and why”. Good reasons to “build it” include:

  1. There are some key complex pieces that need to be built to understand the feasibility of accomplishing the task at hand. Complex algorithms dealing with real data are a great example of this.
  2. New usability ideas. There are so many examples of good human interfaces that not learning from these seems wasteful. Know what you are doing that is new.
  3. What you want to build is simple and much easier to do than to do a thought experiment on. This case rarely exists but is far too often used as an excuse for not thinking in the first place.
  4. The people who need to be convinced will only be convinced with a working prototype. This is an unfortunate, but necessary, political answer to a real problem. “Seeing is believing” is sometimes the only way to understand or to move forward.
  5. When you really do not understand the dynamics of how something would be used, it is time to build.When you are just prototyping to get some understanding of a new paradigm.

The Product Manager (or owner) needs to drive this process and guide everyone away from just building.  Engineers have a strong desire to get moving and start building.  If the Product Manager/Owner has done a lot of the thought experiments early, the arguments of what should and should not be “just built” will be much easier.  The challenge is to have the strength of character to force more Thought Experiments.


Fred Engel is founder and CEO of Westerly Consulting, a management and advisory consulting firm based in Rhode Island.

Tweet this: Build vs. Think – The Need for Thought Experiments in Product Development #prodmgmt #innovation

How to Structure an Effective Go-To-Market Process


Note: This is  a guest post by Mike Smart. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

During a recent conversation with a VP of product management — let’s call him Kelly — he confided that his team was struggling with “the whole Go-to-Market (GTM) area.”

The company doesn’t have a dedicated product marketing resource; the workload is shared between product management, marketing communication and sales. The CEO has refused to authorize additional headcount in the short term.

Everyone hates this process! There are too many competing launch events and activities. The dilemma is that no one really owns the go-t0-market, yet everyone is involved.

By default Kelly owns the problem and needs to find a solution.

Here is an approach I shared with him on how to improve this situation while dealing with headcount constraints. It is straightforward and I have seen companies get meaningful benefit in a matter of weeks.

Who Owns GTM?

The answer to this question will vary from company to company, but if a product launch doesn’t go well or the Go-to-Market has problems, most companies will look to Product Management or Product Marketing to solve it.

If there are too many people proclaiming ownership or too many checkpoints, go through a roles and responsibility exercise. I find it is well worth the time required, because it flushes out all the spectators who might be exerting influence over the product launch or GTM.

Another benefit is the roles responsibility exercise will separate “chickens” from “pigs”.

In a perfect world, this area is owned my Product Marketing with support and contribution from Product Management and marketing communications. A large company might be closer to this ideal state than a small company. My experience is that both small and large companies struggle with the hand off between functions. There is always a need to look at the specific ownership of deliverables regardless of company size.

A classic RASIC diagram can be a great tool to use for this exercise. Unless your company is unique this exercise will highlight areas of duplication, gaps and potential confusion.

Share the results of this exercise with members of your senior team. Use it as a way to illustrate disconnects in the whole GTM process. Show a little initiative and highlight areas where adjustments and changes may improve the outcome. Who knows; they might become receptive to dedicated resources.

Not All GTM’s Are Equal

All of your products are not equal. Therefore, the scope of each GTM or launch project should fit the product. This needs to be set up in advance, preferably during the annual business planning effort.

Take a look at the product portfolio. Using an objective criteria assess the level of investment and effort that is appropriate for each product in the portfolio. This is a great use of the Boston Consulting Grid (BCG) or the GE strategy matrix.

Combine input from key stakeholders in the organization that helps separate products that deserve more GTM investment from those that get less.

The questions you should be able to answer are:

  • What is the market potential for this new add-on or this completely new product?
  • What is the near-term sales potential for this add-on or a new product?

These answers must be quantitative and should be plotted on a matrix.

Product management is the final authority on identifying market potential. The sales team is the final authority on identifying sales opportunity.

Classify Investment and Resources (Example)

Level of InvestmentStrategic Fit / GoalMarket OpportunityBooking Potential
Very High / Retention
Global: >$MMAbove $MM/Yr
MEDIUMModerate / CompetitionRegional: <$MMBetween $M & $MM
LOWLimited / SalesOpportunistic: TBDBelow $M

Go-to-Market Requirements

No product manager would begin a new product concept without user stories, problem statements or requirements. The same is true with the go-to-market for a new product or a major add-on. The best practice in this area is to set several objective measurements for the go-to-market. The obvious ones are demand generation and web metrics. I would encourage the GTM team agree on one or two stretch goals that have value to one of the strategic business initiatives.

For our VP I suggested his GTM team focus on a sales enablement objective. This was in direct response to one of the criticism from the VP of Sales.

Interlock the sales process

The biggest benefit to mapping the GTM to your company’s sales methodology is to predefine the deliverables and establish their value to sales organization. This is a great way to begin to weed out unnecessary steps, tasks and work products that may not be useful.

If your company has a formal sales methodology this will be straightforward. If not, you will need to have a dialogue with sales or channel management to define the most valuable tools and where they fit in the sales sequence. This activity alone will have a positive effect on your relationship with sales.
The tie off with your company’s sales methodology and actual campaigns will also make it easier to quantify the results of the GTM project and track to the ultimate business results.

The following process diagram illustrates how GTM content and tools should feed and support the sales tools.

(click image to enlarge)

Begin with the End in Mind

GTM activities are expensive; they consume a lot of time and precious resources. This is the primary reason for developing metrics to continuously monitor and manage the effectiveness and efficiency of the overall GTM. As I mentioned earlier the obvious measurements are impact on lead generation, web metrics and sales funnel impact.

I urge teams to avoid the trap of pegging the ultimate success of a launch or GTM on the number of leads and percentage increase in sales funnel; at least initially. In the beginning better measurements would be process effectiveness, cycle time and quality of execution. As the team gains experience
business outcomes and hard metrics must become a component of the evaluation criteria.

Alignment at the top

Revamping the go-to-market disconnect in a company is an execution play. Which means that committed managers and team leaders can reduce the number of disconnects and improve overall effectiveness without permission.

Buy-in among the executive team will lead to the most dramatic change in your company’s GTM impact. With executive sponsorship the GTM process can become a strategic asset. It has the potential to provide a measurable return on investment just like other strategic initiatives such as branding, innovation and quality.

Mike Smart is Principal Consultant at Egress Solutions, a technology product management and marketing consulting firm that specializes in solving the critical product and market problems companies face.

Tweet this: How to Structure an Effective Go-to-Market Process by @Mike_Smart #prodmktg #prodmgmt #productlaunch

Apparent value vs. Discoverable value


By Saeed Khan

Not all features are created equal. Not all features are useful or evident upfront. The value we derive from products can be multi-layered or multi-faceted.

In his article – Come for X, Stay for Y – Braden Kowitz eloquently writes about the concepts of Apparent value and Discoverable value. He writes (using Gmail as an example):

  • Apparent value — This kind of value is easy to explain and gets users to sign up. It fixes a pain-point customers already experience. It’s typically better, faster, cheaper. In Gmail’s case, it was storage space.
  • Discoverable value — This kind of value appears when benefits are delayed or when a product requires users to develop new habits (which takes time). It also appears when many slight improvements combine to make a big difference in the experience. This kind of value is powerful because it keeps people around. For Gmail, this was search and conversation view.

When you think about your product or service, do you consciously thinking about how you deliver value in these ways? What are the immediate needs — BTW this is the stuff that is typically marketed — that are being addressed, vs. what are those needs that will be addressed later on through discovery.

As a non-high tech example, take a look at the picture of the bridge above. The Apparent value of the bridge is to enable people to safely cross the water without getting wet. But the Discoverable value is the view of the river you have once you are in the middle of the bridge. And you’d only discover that once you were half way across.

Read the whole article as Braden discusses several companies and products — such as Zynga and Apple — who understand this distinction and implement it well.


P.S. I prefer the term emergent value vs. discoverable value, but that’s just me.

P.P.S. There’s another value — hidden value — that you typically want to avoid when building products. :-)

Tweet this: Apparent value vs. Discoverable value. Why both are important. #prodmgmt

Product Portfolio Management – Maximizing return with a complex product mix


NOTE: The following is a guest post by Veronica Figarella. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

Have you ever been in a situation where a company wouldn’t kill-off old, and possibly even unprofitable products? Or maybe you keep getting “product improvement” projects that must be completed for political or emotional reasons, rather than because there was a valid business reason for them?

If you’ve been in either of these situations, you know that this can result in too many products with few resources to support them, compromising quality of execution, and lengthening time to market. It’s also a clear sign of a muddled business strategy.

Your company is suffering from poor product portfolio management. And it most likely  means your company lacks proper processes to define and manage an ideal product mix.

But Product Portfolio Management (PPM) is more than simply allocating budgets and resources.

It is a dynamic process… characterized by uncertainty and changing information, dynamic opportunities, multiple goals and strategic considerations, interdependence among projects and multiple decision-makers and locations. It includes periodical review of the total portfolio, making Go/Kill decisions and developing new product development process for the business that includes strategic resource allocation.” (Cooper, Edgett & Kleinschmidt, 1998).

PPM is a dynamic, complex process and one of its biggest challenges is having all stakeholders understand it’s purpose the same way. Unfortunately that is not always the case. For example, a financial planner typically sees PPM as an opportunity to allocate resources optimally and efficiently, while an engineer sees it as a place to pick the right projects and foster innovation. Meanwhile a Marketer’s priority are those products that enhance the brand and diminish time to market and address urgent sales demands. So it’s important to define the objectives of the PPM process upfront.

What should be the objective of Product Portfolio Management?

PPM should maximize the fit of products with customers and markets and return value to all stakeholders (customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, society, etc) with the optimal amount of resources invested. It should address the company’s strategic objectives and align products with corporate (short term and long term) goals.

What are the approaches to Product Portfolio Management?

Regardless of the approach taken to manage a portfolio of products, companies can only choose one of the following:

  • modify existing products
  • remove unprofitable/old ones
  • add new products

BCG Matrix SampleTraditional approaches like the BCG (Boston Consulting Group) and the GE/Mckinsey matrices allocate resources to business units or projects according to market attractiveness and its possibility of success in a particular market. Although these models are great choices to allocate resources to existing products, they require additional analysis when new products are added as they need to consider the time frame of the opportunity for a new product. Remember that because market conditions changes, information to ponder new initiatives is most likely a wild guess.

Other valid approaches are financially driven models where products are measured mainly by their NPV, ROI or contribution to earnings. More complete approaches where qualitative and strategic benefits are considered into portfolio balance, despite their contribution to margins, are also popular since they consider a product’s lifetime cycle and market context.

Regardless of the type of approach your company uses, PPM process needs to be clear and communicated properly to all parties involved. It needs to be linked to corporate strategy and preferably managed by a Product Portfolio Analyst so Product Managers act only as users and are not overloaded with additional administrative responsibilities.

Senior Management needs to be closely involved in it, and not only to define where the R&D budget gets spent, but to understand the complete Product Portfolio Mix and how it is serving the company’s customers.

A PPM process needs to accommodate changes in decisions while products are being developed; it should allow a bit of chaos without compromising ’ integrity. The process has to reflect the degree of risk that the company is willing to manage.  In that sense, a risk adverse company should reinforce the investigation phase by implementing additional information requirements before entering a selection process or reinforcing product diversification to cope with expected market changes.

What are the key actions to design a Product Portfolio Management process?

To design a PPM process, stakeholders need to agree on:

  1. Where does it begin…  is it a selection process? Or is it a monitoring effort?
  2. Is the process a way to provide information to others or a model to make decisions?
  3. Do projects enter at the idea stage or at a later face?  One should not confuse idea screening with portfolio review as the latter can be performed before the product development process starts
  4. Where does the information to feed the process come from? And who is responsible for validating and gathering it?
  5. What resources will be committed at the early stage of product development? And how flexible are those commitments?
  6. What are the measurements, key indicators or must meet criteria for a Product to be part of the Portfolio Mix?
  7. When/How is a product “killed”  or removed from the portfolio?
  8. How often is the Product Portfolio Mix reviewed or revised?
  9. Are resources truly aligned with strategy?
  10. What will be the percentage of New Products in the Mix? And how successful are New Products once launched?
  11. Does the company have the right structure to manage the Product Portfolio?

Although there is no magic solution to design an effective PPM process, it is very likely that it will change in time as organizations adapt to using it. Moreover, the bigger the organization gets, the more difficult it is to survive without one. A proper PPM process will help companies adapt their products to markets and costumer behaviour changes and translate corporate strategy into a fully realized set of product offerings.



Tweet this: New post by @vfigatelix – Portfolio Product Management – Maximizing return with a complex product mix #prodmgmt

Open Question: Product Management Challenges at a Startup

by Saeed Khan

I’m going to try something a bit different this time. Here’s your chance to help a startup founder with some common startup challenges.

Max Cameron is a cofounder of Big Bang Technology, the makers of Woople, a hosted eLearning platform for enterprises.

Max’s company has grown from 2 founders to 10 people and while they’ve hired a full-time Product Manager there are several hurdles they still need to overcome.

Max has 3 current challenges that he’s facing and I’d like to enlist all of you to collectively help Max address them, buy watching the video of Max talking about his company, and then leaving comments at the bottom of the blog post.

If you are shy :-) but still want to give some advice, you can use the Contact Us form. I’ll keep your identity secret but share your advice with Max.

While the challenges are listed below, I strongly urge you to watch the YouTube video of Max — it’s only 6 minutes in length — to get all the details before answering. You can click the image below to launch the video. Unfortunately it cannot be embedded directly in this page.

click image to launch video

The 3 challenges Max needs advice on are:

  1. Metrics in the software. What metrics should be instrumented into the product to see if implemented features are effective in solving customer/user problems.
  2. Optimizing the onboarding process for new clients. What are the right collateral pieces for the sales people? What is/are the right pricing models? How to best get in front of the business people — i.e. the buyers? How to work with technical/IT teams to perform integrations?
  3. How to take the collateral that is built and have Marketing work with Product Management to create compelling stories to identify and target new customer segments.

So there it is. What advice do you have for Max and his company?


Tweet this: Open Question: Product Management Challenges at a Startup #prodmgmt #startup #marketing


Worth Repeating: 8 Lessons we can learn from Infomercials

I posted this originally back in 2009. I used to watch the show Pitchmen on television. Unfortunately one of the two main characters — infomercial star extraordinaire Billy Mays — passed away suddenly that year. The show lasted one more season but I don’t think it’s on TV any more. Regardless, it was an interesting show while it lasted and after watching a number of episodes there were clearly some lessons for product success that we can all learn (or remember :-) ).


You know you’re a Products Geek, when you find a show like Pitchmen appealing.

pitchmenPitchmen, on the Discovery Channel, is a behind the scenes docudrama about infomerical marketers and how they identify products to promote, develop the pitch and then take the products to market.

The show stars the late Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan, two very successful and well known television direct marketers.

While it’s very easy to brush these guys off as selling gimmicky items to uninformed consumers, there are lessons to be learned from watching these guys operate.

And that’s what I like about the show. It presents some of the discipline and process they follow for the products they market and sell. Here’s a list of some of the behind the scenes work they do.

1. They look for problems that a lot of people have.

  • Stain or smell remover: Yes
  • An acoustic shark repellent: No

2. They test out the products and validate they actually live up to their claims.

  • Can the odor remover get rid of foul smells from hockey equipment?
  • Can a vertical grill actually cook as well as a traditional horizontal grill?

3. They listen to others carefully, getting feedback from potential users of the product.

  • For a self-rotating pool side lounge chair, aimed at removing the need to manually rotate a chair to get optimal exposure of the sun, they enlisted some swimsuit models to test them out. After the trial, they not only asked what they thought of the product, but asked how could the chair be improved. One of the testers suggested cup holders. Not a bad suggestion.

4. The benefits of the product have to be clearly demonstrable with a number of use cases.

  • For a food grater, they grate garlic, chocolate, cheese, citrus zest and other foods. The objective is to present a broad number of real use cases to show utility and value. This is clearly an area where technology companies need to improve when thinking about how they demo their own products.

5. They always try to find at least one “Wow!” aspect for each product.

  • For a shoe insert product that claims to eliminate impact from running or other sports, they put their hand under a pad made of the same material as the insert, and then hit the pad with a hammer. Then they took their hand out and wiggled all their fingers to show they were undamaged. Can you say “Wow!”?

6. They craft the messaging and the pitch, being very particular to the words they choose.

  • Whether via rhymes or alliterations or carefully crafted wording, the right word at the right time can make a big difference in how a product is perceived. For example, with a product for grating food, the lines “grate cheese with ease” and “for zest it’s the best” are used. Don’t think these stick in people’s memories? Remember that line from the OJ Simpson trial? “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must…”

7. They ensure price points that will be appealing for their audience.

  • With a vertical grill product (think of a big single slice toaster that grills burgers, steaks etc. vertically) they went to one of their partner companies who tried to source a manufacturing partner that could build product cost-effectively enough that they could sell it for $50. The partner couldn’t bring the price point low enough and so they said “No” to the product, even though it met all their other criteria.

8. They are data driven business people.

  • While they may come across as shady marketers, they are clearly rather sophisticated (and successful) in what they do. They test out their pitches in local markets, measure the results, adjust their pitch, and test again. When they go national, they are very confident that they have something with mass appeal that people will buy.
  • This is probably the most important lesson that Product Managers should remember. They definitely follow the “Nail it, then scale it” mantra.

Overall, I find Pitchmen to be a bit of a guilty pleasure. I’ve got it scheduled for recording on my PVR. Even so, it is educational and every episode reminds me of basic marketing principles that have broad applicability and value.


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