Among the many existential questions of building and distributing software is the question of product marketing. What even is product marketing?
Is it launching new products and features?
Is it finding ways to increase product adoption?
Is the goal of product marketing to offer customer education, retention, activation, or engagement? All of the above?
Product marketing can mean various things in different company contexts, which makes it hard to find a standard definition.
What we’ve landed on at Buffer is this simple definition:
Product marketing is communicating the value of our products to our audience.
Pretty straightforward, right?
The challenges, of course, come in when we apply that simple definition to the many types of projects and features we have with Buffer. Case in point: product launches.
A philosophy on how to launch
At Buffer, we have always loved the excitement of a big marketing launch. But as the company has matured, we’ve started to question whether or not big launches truly reflect how we make products and whether they are the best way to communicate the value of Buffer.
What makes our products special?
We regularly survey our customers about their experience using Buffer, and we tend to see patterns about what they like about Buffer and what we can improve. On the positive side, we almost always hear some variation of the following:
1. Our products are easier to use than other solutions
2. Our customer service is top-notch
One of the reasons why Buffer is intuitive is that we’ve resisted the temptation to release lots of disjointed products and features and we’ve been diligent about sunsetting concepts that weren’t fully realized. For example, we’ve retired features like content suggestions and optimal timing, and we’ve chosen not to develop a recurring content library.
Our strategy is to build a limited number of things and to build them well.
Recently, one of our product managers, Tom Redman, wrote a post about building minimum lovable products at Buffer. His article explained our product philosophy well:
Tight constraints force a creative, disciplined and critical approach to product design and development… When it comes to implementing product features, I usually dream big then go small.
Going small with product marketing
It sounds counter-intuitive to intentionally “go small” with product marketing, right?
After all, big launches have a lot of benefits.
Big launches capture the public imagination.
Think: Apple keynotes and blockbuster film premieres. Even in B2B marketing, brands like Intercom are creating extensive teaser campaigns and holding live events.
Big launches can generate press, awareness, and customers.
For example, just recently we did a big launch for Stories Creator, our latest free marketing tool. It ended up as the No. 1 product on Product Hunt that day and is generating thousands of email signups and tens of thousands of visits to our website.
Big launches build team morale.
When we launched Stories Creator, we felt a real energy within the team. (Check out all those emoji replies!)
But going BIG has its downsides, too.
You only get one shot at a big launch.
With a series of small launches, you can gather feedback and refine your product and its positioning without alienating too many customers.
Big launches can create a false sense of product / market fit.
While getting a ton of press coverage and interest from prospective customers feels great, it can be costly to your business if those prospects don’t stick around to become satisfied customers. Even worse, if you mis-position your product, you run the risk of developing negative word-of-mouth from unhappy customers. Blogger and author Eric Ries, who created the Lean Startup methodology, wrote a great post on the subject, titled frankly “Don’t Launch.”
Big launches can have diminishing returns.
If you’re constantly launching new features or products in a big way, by nature they become less “big” or unique over time, and your audience will start to treat them that way. Here’s how Matt Hodges from Intercom explains it:
“The more you shout when you shouldn’t, the more people will decide that you’re like that smoking alarm or that attention-seeking shepherd boy, and eventually they’ll decide it’s better to stop listening altogether.” — Intercom
Continuous improvement = differentiator
If you could imagine our marketing as another product that we build for customers, we want people to think of it the same way they do all of our other products:
- Thoughtfully created
- Always open to improvement and feedback
- Easy to consume
By imagining our marketing as a product, we can take what makes our products special and use it to make our marketing special, too.
We are in the process of establishing a marketing vision that we think will carry us forward into the coming years in a really strong position. Here are a couple of key phrases from that vision:
- “Marketing carries with it certain connotations — not all of them good. We value the relationships we create, the people we can help, and the stories we can tell. This helps us approach our work from a perspective that’s not tied to any particular phrase or funnel: We do the work that is valuable, we do work that helps others reach their goals. In doing so, Buffer grows quite naturally on its own.”
- “When you deliver value to your audience, growth takes care of itself.”
Knowing this, the answer to the question of “big launch” versus “continuous improvement” seems clear. We develop an advantage when we celebrate continuous improvement, not when we keep our progress closely guarded, waiting for the next big launch.
Continuous improvement for us looks a lot of different ways:
- Regular updates on our in-app changelog, Headway
- A regularly-occurring product release notes email (which we currently send every eight weeks)
- Sharing about meaningful, iterative improvements via our social media channels
- Highlighting continuous improvement in our customer support interactions via HelpScout and Reply
And in the course of these ongoing celebrations, we may discover that a series of continuously improved bits becomes a mass worthy of a “big launch.” If so, great! As long as we’re recognizing the near-daily value that we’re delivering to customers and not saving up for a big reveal, I feel that we’ll be aligned with our product team and serving our customers well.
And that’s a great place for product marketing to be.
What works for you?
- Do you have a preference between big launches or continuous improvements for your products?
- How have you solved for this in your work?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter. Thanks for reading!