Is Your Product Marketing Problem a Product Problem?


Guest post by Caroline Tien-Spalding CMO at Aptology

As of this writing, there are over 211,000 jobs on Indeed in the category of “product marketing.” On the flip side, there are only 19,000 jobs under the “demand generation” category.

How can it be that the need for marketing a product can be so much higher than pipeline creation and lead gen? 

The answer is surprisingly (and sadly) simple: Companies are building products and trying to fit them into a marketplace that never asked for that solution. Consequently, marketing departments are trying to play “catch up” instead of doing what they do best: fueling the fire created by product-market fit.  

The Cornerstone of Your Company is Not Building Products, It’s Solving Problems

Possibly fueled by a library’s worth of Silicon Valley myths, a trope in product development (or rather, incomplete product development) is this familiar workflow: 

  • C Suite: “Wouldn’t it be great if…” or “Did you see what X company just released? Let’s do that, too.”
  • Create a collection of features misnamed “product”
  • Bring in the sales team
  • Bring in the marketing team
  • Task the aforementioned with finding a marketplace
  • Launch the product
  • Try to convince “many possible buyers” they solve a problem with the product
  • Get frustrated with marketing and sales
  • Discontinue the product
  • Start again

The amount of money, effort, and time put into this workflow can be detrimental to a business of any size, all because a product was built before critical questions were asked.

Start with the End: Use the Solution to Pull the Customer Instead of Pushing the Need

Luckily, the fix to this cycle of waste is also deceivingly simple: for a product to be successful, it has to answer a need. If the need isn’t there, no amount of product marketing will save it.

Positioning and messaging can only go so far if the product cannot fit itself into a pre-existing marketplace. Before any sort of project management workflow is begun, there should be a clear answer to these two questions:

“Who are we helping? Why?”

Who because you will need this to be your north star – always understanding what “Job to Be Done” is being solved, and having a granular understanding of exactly how they’re getting the job done today so that you understand the “job to be fired”. Why is the stress test – why this problem for this person? It has to make the top three in either pain level or frequency of the problem. These two should lead to the answer to: Why is it a better way than how customers currently solve the problem? 

Amazon in its early development stages handled this hurdle brilliantly: before any sort of development was begun, the engineering team would need to draft the press release about the product idea as if it were being launched that day. 

Doing this exercise allowed all teams involved in the lifecycle of the product to discover what benefits, if any, the idea had and how it could fulfill a need that was previously unmet. It prevented anyone from beginning a wasteful expenditure of their talent by making everyone answer the question of “why?”. And in my experience, it uncovers the actual feature set needed to be a viable solution – because it forces the teams to think of the problem-solution pair and three reasons why this specific solution works.

Questions Your Team Should Ask Now, Not at Launch

No matter if you’re part of a startup or a Fortune 100, your team should be able to adequately answer the following questions ahead of time:

  • Who is the customer?
  • Why is this high pain or high frequency a problem for them?
  • What are they having to do now to deal with it?
  • What are three reasons our solution would change their day?
  • What is our solution not?
  • What is the impact on our customer of having the problem solved with our product?

Having these questions answered first gives all teams involved a clear roadmap because it shows how your product will fulfill a promise: We built this to solve your specific problem. We promise it is the solution because….

The more detailed you can be with your answer, the higher the success rate your company can expect with its launch.

Correcting Course

This will be the #1 question – what if we’re already far along, or we’ve launched? Are we doomed? Not necessarily. The ability to salvage missed opportunities can be done (and yes sometimes even after a launch) by engaging with the customer base that was originally targeted, except this time involving them more heavily in the pivot towards profitability. Here is a suggested workflow:

  1. Reach out to at least 30 of your ideal behavioral/firmographic target (the people in the right companies “firmographics” and who pride themselves on being great at ___ insert problem here “behavior”). Then ask them to describe what yesterday was like for them. Focusing on “yesterday” instead of “today” bypasses boilerplate, “job description” type responses, and gives insight into how your target customer goes about a typical day interacting with the problem a product like yours is meant to solve. If the pain point isn’t top five things listed – you may have an issue there. If the problem isn’t frequent, it has to be extremely painful – so ask about the last time (problem) happened, and how they solved it.
  2. Take the data accumulated and begin to address the pain points that came up multiple times in your interviews. How can your product respond to these issues? Can it be repurposed to solve data-driven concerns your customer base is having? What is missing from the solution? What should be made easier?
  3. If you’re successfully “firing a Job to Be Done”, enlist 12 prospects into actually using your solution, for free. After 1-3 months, pull the plug – and see how many are willing to pay to keep it going. If you have less than 8 prospects handing over a credit card / crying, you haven’t achieved product-market fit yet.
  4. If your sample base did not provide actionable data points, consider pivoting the target group. Could another type of customer utilize your product that hadn’t been previously considered?
  5. If you’re not finding success there, consider moving laterally to the same type of customer, but with a slightly different job. For example, if your B2B product was originally designed for Sales Operations but isn’t taking hold, maybe People Analytics Directors are an untapped client base. Repeat steps 1 and 2. Rinse and repeat the interview process until your solution begins to create a pool of money, where you’ve begun to build a data-tested base of customers who are ready to buy.

Achieving this is the difference between a prosperous business and a shutdown. This means hard calls need to be made – for example, if your beta group gives a weak commitment or declines to hand over money, it means the product has not yet found its footing because it’s not creating feelings of urgency with your base. It means more work, more steps in the quest to product-market fit; but it’s a lot cheaper than millions spent in product marketing, marketing and sales for little traction. Every dollar you spend upfront can pay 100X or more in cost per acquisition efficiency – potentially 100,000X or more if you’re in the B2B space, where sales cycles are long and expensive.