Product Storytelling – Don’t Forget the Context

When launching a new product, it is important that customers understand what problems your product is solving. You don’t have time to tell a long story so you need to make sure your message is effective in creating a desire to learn more.

This is where context can help. If you are trying to tell a story about your product, context is the background information that helps the scene make sense. Without this context, you leave it up to the customer to figure it out on their own.

I recently wrote an article highlighting as an example for setting good background context on their web site.  New visitors can quickly understand what their product is (secure cloud file access) and who they are positioning it to (business users) thanks to messaging supported by good background context.

I would like to highlight another example that I don’t think does as good a job in providing support for the product message, Microsoft’s new Surface product launch video (see video below).

Microsoft is running this ad as an on-air introduction for their product launch. It is most likely the first contact that people are going to have with the first hardware tablet built by Microsoft  So, what does Microsoft do to help provide context for the product story in the video?

  • They rapidly and repeatedly attach and detach a keyboard from the tablet
  • They leverage an upbeat soundtrack
  • They have young dancers
  • They have old dancers
  • They have kids dancers
  • They have office workers dancers
  • They have hipsters dancers
  • They make a lot of clicking sounds
  • They user tablets as a drum set??

I would say that the music and dancing are about trying to create an emotional message associating the product as being fun and consumer oriented. Now there is nothing wrong about trying to build an emotional message for a product, but this is easier said than done for a new product. Somewhere in this message there needs to be a product, that not only does something, but does it better than the competition.

My best guess for all the clicking noises  is that this is about helping viewers understand that this device has a detachable keyboard and a kickstand (the functional part of the message).

However, if this is the main differentiator of the new device, shouldn’t it be a bit clearer why this is a big deal? Is it about being more productive? If so, you’d think you would see a reference to productivity and getting something done (maybe someone using Microsoft Office?). They don’t even show anyone typing on the keyboard during the entire video.

Without more context around the functional uses of the product, Microsoft is leaving it up the viewers of the video to decide on their own if this solves a problem they have. I believe they are trying to position the device as a “living room and office device” but I think it completely misses the mark on helping us to see why this is important.

What do you think? See something I am missing that pulls it all together?

Setting the Context of your Product

I have been thinking a lot about new product development and the process of building a story that goes with it. The obvious challenge being that when you have a new product, you often have a lot of explaining to do.

There is no shortage of information out there about how hard it is to get noticed and how short attention spans are these days. Within seconds of contact with a potential customer, you need to start telling your story. However, with limited time you need to make sure you are putting your message into a context that makes sense to the customer.

Context helps provide background information, almost like a setting for your story.

Seth Godin recently wrote an article that helps explain the need for putting your story in context. Seth explains,

What is this thing? What are you like? Are you friend or foe, flake or leader, good deal or ripoff, easy or hard, important or not? Are you destined for the trusted category or the other one?

Make it easy to categorize you and you’re likely to end up in the category you are hoping for.

Having a good story is a must. However, if it takes too long for a customer to relate, you may lose them before the story can finish.

How to get started?

Creating a to the point product story supported by the right context is no easy task. The work can require building and taking apart your messaging over and over again until you get to where there is nothing extra  left to distract.

I don’t think there are any short cuts here, but there are some approaches that can help guide you. Here are some examples that can help as you work through the process.

Explain your story in a paragraph or less

Brad Feld, VC at the Foundry Group, believes that if you are just getting started, you need to explain your product (company) in a paragraph or less. Brad writes,

I strongly believe that a founder should be able to explain what they do in one paragraph. I’m not a believer in the “one sentence mashup approach” (e.g. we are like pinterest + groupon + facebook for dogs). Rather, I like three sentences: (1) what we do, (2) who we do it to, and (3) why you should care. Sometimes this can be two sentences; sometimes four, but never more than a paragraph.

Remember, you don’t have to try and fit everything your product does into that first paragraph. The idea being, that this is the foundation that supports the rest of your product messaging. From here, as you  continue to build out your assets such as web sites, marketing collateral, etc look for ways to help set the context so that customers immediately begin to understand the direction you are heading.

It helps to see how other companies have done this well. Take a look at the home page of for an example of putting it all together. In less than 30 seconds you can see context points that help explain what Box means by Simple, Secure, Sharing:

  1. Giant documents that serve as visual cues that Box is about sharing work documents (Notice how they didn’t include music files or videos here)
  2. A giant padlock to imply strength and security
  3. Clouds to amplify the point that this is a cloud based offering that you can access from anywhere

Without setting the work context, it might take you a little longer to figure out Box is aimed at solving a business collaboration problem. Box also gets bonus points for supporting their message with customer logos, a how it works video, and other links to learn more.

Done right, providing context can help accelerate customer understanding and keep them around to learn more about your offering. Without context, you are assuming that they will get the point of the story on their own which can be a dangerous assumption when you only have seconds to impress.


The Circles of Marketing and Making 1+1 = 3

product is the center of marketing - seth godin
Seth Godin's Circles of Marketing
product is the center of marketing - seth godin

Seth Godin’s Circles of Marketing

I am behind with my weekly blog post this summer but wanted to share some amazing thoughts on product marketing and telling your story.

Seth Godin recently put together a post that should be required reading for marketers. In the post, the circles of marketing, Seth writes,

And the innermost circle is the product or service itself. When the thing you sell has communication built in, when it is remarkable and worth talking about, when it changes the game–marketing seems a lot easier. Of course, that’s because you did the marketing when you invented the thing, saving you the expense and trouble of yelling about it.

Not a bad way to easily explain the definition of marketing and why product is so important.

So, after reading Seth’s article, I planned on talking about the power of baking story into your product. Instead, I recommend you watch this short video interview of Ken Burns, the famed documentary maker. The interview is on the craft of story and cinema but has some powerful insights for marketers. Quoting Ken on the subject of using stories to influence and drive change,

The common story is 1+1 =2. But all real genuine stories are about 1+1=3….Truth is we hope is a by-product of the best of our stories. And yet there are many different kinds of truth. And an emotional truth is something you have to build.

Here’s the video and the link to the full article on his 1+1=3 story telling approach:

We are working on a new product. Can you name it?

There is something to say about SolarWinds.

First, let me set the record straight. I have joined SolarWinds in January as Sr. Director of Business Strategy and I am probably still drinking the Kool-Aid. Having said that, one of the reasons I choose SolarWinds over an executive position at an early stage start-up was that I was very intrigued by their business model.

SolarWinds sells IT Management software to companies of all sizes without any sales rep in the field. They don’t even have a professional services organization. They market their products on the web and they close each transaction over the phone. We are talking a lot of them. Think big volumes.

This is quite different from the traditional enterprise software world I come from – lengthy sales cycles where most of the Product Marketer’s efforts are focused on enabling the field, writing up ROI documents and keeping its fingers crossed at the end of the quarter when the bulk of the bookings happen.

So what’s different about SolarWinds?

It starts with the product. Each product solves a very well-known set of issues for which users need a solution today. And they are very price attractive too. That makes the job for everyone else much easier. Marketers don’t have to come up with complex jargon or lengthy collaterals. They can focus on driving demand and customer acquisition. Sales don’t have to explain what the product does nor do they have to come up with fancy product demos. They can focus on closing each transaction, one at-a-time, all day long.

So how do you find out what issues your users need to solve today?

You ask them. SolarWinds Product Managers greatly rely on a community of 100,000+ users to identify needs and test new ideas. But it does not stop at the ideas or features level. At SolarWinds, there is a strong belief that you should not use catchy branded names because they don’t mean anything in and of themselves. Instead, they want the name of their products to be very descriptive because that’s how buyers will search for it on Google (obvious, right?). So they ask their users for suggestions : We are working on a new product. Can you name it?. And they get a lot of them. Why? Because SolarWinds users are also brand advocates. They truly have a say in the many aspects of product development and go-to-market strategy. Most importantly SolarWinds Product Managers are manically focused on making sure the product user experience is above the pack.

Why? Because at the end of the day it’s all about the product.

BTW – if you are on the set for a new adventure in Product Marketing or Product Management, and want to explore this fascinating business model, check the open positions they have, or shoot me an email.


Image Credit:  Photos by Mavis

A Product Launch Disaster in Front of Millions

Everyone wants the rewards that come with a big product launch – tech blogs, news coverage, and a ton of word of mouth leading up to a massive amount of sales.

Who doesn’t want everyone talking about your product at launch?

So, where to start? If you look at a few of the tech leaders out there at generating launch buzz, it almost seems easy. First you need to keep things super secret – can’t have any details leaking out too soon.

Then you need to slowly give out a few hints and clues here and there that something big is coming – all to build the anticipation.

You then invite all the top media outlets and élite tech bloggers to an invitation only press conference. Making them wait until the expectations are at an all time high and then you put on the show – extra fireworks included.

The results being that the entire internet is abuzz with your news. All the tech blogs have live streams running that highlight every single detail of the event. From here, the announcement spreads to the evening news, the WSJ, and other mainstream media sources, making sure the mainstream audience hears what’s going to be the next “it” item.

There it is – the formula for success is right in front of you. Grab it, run the play, rinse and repeat and watch all the money roll in.

Of course, there is the flip side of going big. Big rewards also means big risk. When you have the world’s most influential tech audience watching your every move (and you are following someone else’s playbook) it is always a good idea to make sure that the product you are showing off is worth all this grand standing.

When you’re trying to launch your product like a rocket out of the gate, everything has to be perfect. The smallest of errors on this type of stage can leave you looking foolish in front of millions.

As a recent example, check out the Microsoft Surface launch video below. It less than a minute of awkwardness from the launch event but enough to generate close to 3 million views so far.

Image Credit:  mondopiccolo

You are a Startup Marketing Failure so Now What?

Chris Dixon wrote a post last week titled, The default state of a startup is failure, that I think is a must read for startup marketers. Chris shares the following ideas around building something new,

On the flip side, first-time entrepreneurs often fail to realize that when you build something new, no one will care. People won’t use your product, won’t tell people about it, and almost certainly won’t pay for it. (There are exceptions – but these are as rare as winning the lottery). This doesn’t mean you’ll fail. It means you need to be smarter and harder working, and surround yourself with extraordinary people.

While aimed at entrepreneurs, I think there is an important take away here for startup marketers as well.

No one cares about your slick UX and new features. It doesn’t matter how great that data sheet is or how fancy your new logo looks. Your snazzy email marketing is going right into the spam folder and your web site traffic is a joke.

The fact that nobody cares about your product is something that you need to embrace. It needs to be something that you are not only aware of but also motivated by. You have a challenge in front of you but also the opportunity to do something really special.

Where do you start? Here’s my recommendation:

  •  Add marketing from the start – building a great customer experience doesn’t happen by accident. Plan to add “remarkable-ness” at the beginning.
Once you are finished, figure out what worked and get ready to start again. It’s an iterative process that’s never done.
That’s my take on how to get started. Anything to add?

Image Credit:  jcoterhals


How to Create an Awesome Product Introduction Video

A few years ago, I gave a talk at Product Camp titled Start with the Story. One of my talking points was on the importance of a good product introduction.  When someone first encounters your product, there needs to be a quick way for them to understand what it is all about – essentially your product elevator pitch.

During the presentation I picked on a startup called PlanCast which was a schedule planning app that a lot of people were starting to use. Their home page made it impossible to tell what their application was supposed to do and why you should give it a try. As a counter example, I used Evernote which not only had a great home page but had an awesome “What we do” video that introduced the product.

Sometimes You Only Get One Shot

Whether you have a new product or a new company or both, sometimes you only get one shot to tell your story. Having a product video introduction can be a very effective way to convince a customer that you are worth their time and that they should learn more.

Here’s what I think great product intro videos do well:

  1. Quickly introduce why someone would use your product/service – what problem are you solving for me?
  2. Give us an idea of who the product was made for – who’s the target user?
  3. Illustrate some (not all) of the features of the product – how do I use it?
  4. Generate some excitement – leave me wanting to learn more!

There is definitely an art form for putting this together and in a package that you can watch in two minutes or less. It used to be that it was tough to find good examples but the secret is out.

Here are two recent videos that I think do a great job of introducing their product:


Don’t Get Lost in the Story

It takes a lot of creativity to turn your product message into a visual story. One of the biggest challenges you are going to face is getting lost in THE story. This  happens when your message gets lost inside the story that you are trying to tell.

Google recently released a video that I think is a perfect example of losing your product message while trying to tell  a story. The following video is very creative and well done but at the end of it, I am still not sure what it is their product does, who it is for, and how it works. Most importantly, I am not excited and am not rushing off to learn more:

Do use videos to tell the story of your product. Just make sure that your message doesn’t get lost in the story.

What’s your favorite product intro video that you’ve ever seen?


The Most Important Thing You Can Do At A Trade Show

If you are planning on setting up a booth at a trade show there a lot of practices out there to make the effort a success. Booth design, location, staffing, and prizes can all make the difference between meeting your lead goals and coming up short (see Hub Spot’s post on trade show marketing).

That being said, here is the most important thing you have to do when exhibiting at a trade show,

Clearly explain what it is that you do on your trade show booth. 

Yes, I know you are mandated to show your awesome marketing tag line like,

“We Do More!”

“Exceeding Expectations Since 1999”

“Leading Technology Innovation”

“We Do More while Optimizing and Bring Best in Class Value”

but that doesn’t mean that you can’t add descriptive text that explains what part of the industry you are in and what problem it is your are addressing. If you are a tech company that specializes in network security software, say so. If you are a mobile design firm focused on gaming, put it down in writing. Don’t make me guess!

It doesn’t have to be creative, just clearly written and in a big enough font that people can read it from 8-10 feet away.

The trade show floor is a noisy and chaotic environment that is already filled with enough distractions. Don’t make it even harder on the audience. Especially, those that are there looking to learn about a solution to a problem that you can address.


Image Credit:  ShashiBellamkonda

Own your Story or Someone Else Will

the story of your product
Bad marketing is easy to spot. We point it out, share it, rant at it, and swear that it will never happen to us.

Good marketing is east to spot. We point it out, share it, savor it, and try to emulate it.

So, what is the secret of good marketing?

Simon Sinek offers this as an explanation,

Good marketing offers us a view of the world.

Bad marketing offers us a product to buy…..

Good marketing uses the products to help tell a story.

Bad marketing tells stories about products.

This probably isn’t the first time you have heard that telling a story is important. Some would argue that storytelling is one of the most important skills a marketer can have but how do you really apply this?

What happens when marketing, product, and sales all start telling their own story? What happens when your story changes all the time?

You must develop the positioning that becomes THE STORY that all other message support.

Nobody likes an inconsistent or incomplete story. Good marketing takes the time to build the framework to support the story in a consistent and authentic manner.

More to come on this topic and if you are in Austin this weekend and want to hear more, make sure to attend the 8th ProductCampt Austin. I am planning a session titled, “Own your Story or Someone Else Will” to discuss. Hope to see you there!


Image Credit:  umjanedoan

The Rise of the Product Marketer

Last week we had a guest post from Dave Wolpert that resulted in a thoughtful discussion on the role of Product Marketing and whether or not it was on the decline. In this follow-up, I am going to give my thoughts on the role.

In most businesses there is a gap between marketing and product that must be filled. Without an audience, a great product has nowhere to go. Likewise, a great marketing strategy can’t save you from a woeful product.

I believe that business success can be found when you match a great product with a great marketing plan and this is where Product Marketing can have the most impact.

Boaz Ronkin and Tim Johnson added comments to the post that I think are spot on. Product Managers need to focus on the voice of the customer to make sure that the product delivers the necessary benefits to the users. However, the product users are often not the only ones with input when it comes to purchasing the product, especially in B2B products. This is where Product Marketing can deliver on the voice of the prospect and make sure that the story being told is correctly positioned.

A list of technical specifications does not make for a good product message.

Product Marketers need to create and evolve the product story to best attract the right prospects. This story then drives the development of marketing and sales materials – from data sheets to webinars to social media. Product Marketing may not be responsible for producing all of this content but it is their job to make sure that the message is consistent until it is time to evolve.

My opinion is that there is a need for the strategic Product Marketer and it is not just a tactical role. Look at the Zero Moment of Truth and the End of Business as Usual as recent examples highlighting the need for great product marketing in the age of the connected consumer.

Enough about my thoughts, where do you see the role of Product Marketing?