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Planners versus Product Managers: From soap powder to software but audiences always first

28 June, 2013

Since working at Red Bee, I’ve come into contact far more with Product Managers than at any other time in my career. Whether with clients sat in road map briefings for BBC’s iplayer product or internally, getting to grips with the next bit of kit the Red Bee Play Out team are developing. In both instances, I’ve noticed that Product guys and Planners don’t just use similar language (and like decent chartage) but come from the same starting point; the end user/audience. John Wilshire over at Smithery talks a lot about this. He describes it as moving from

making people want things to making things people want.

Last night, I was having a potter through Quora. (I’d forgotten how good it was).

I stumbled across this question which highlighted an approach the guys at Amazon take to NPD:

What is Amazon’s approach to product development and product management?

And here was an answer from Ian McAllister, who leads New Traffic Initiatives at Amazon describing Amazon’s approach of ‘working backwards’ from the customer.

There is an approach called “working backwards” that is widely used at Amazon. We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, using this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.

For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press releaseis the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.

If the benefits listed don’t sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they’re not (and shouldn’t be built). Instead, the product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!).

Ian continues here.

So perhaps it’s not Planners, Product Managers mirror, it’s PRs?

Both Product Manager and Planner roles traditionally have different outputs – Ad Planners; ads, Product Managers; products, but fundamentally to generate the same outcome; demand for a product/service. And of course, there is an ever-growing blur… much of the ad industry dialogue in recent years has been centred on “the best advertising becoming products” with many agencies preferring to put their work in the bracket of products over campaigns and the increasing emphasis on agency product innovation.

So whilst the ad industry looks to Product Development for innovation, perhaps Product Managers can look to Planners for inspiration. Planners are often schooled in how carve out a strategy, a point of differentiation, a thing to hang a brand’s hat on for the creative teams to talk about. Often in highly commoditised markets, emotional benefits are cooked up rather than just a functional differentiator. Perhaps injecting a bit of emotion and ‘whim’ into the product development process could help create products that we are more inclined to spend time with satisfying an innate emotional need rather than a rational benefit. Or perhaps not (depending on whether or not you think inventing an emotional conceit for your product in order to shift it, is a bit morally bankrupt… Though I don’t think I’ll try and tackle the fundamental theories of demand generation today thanks).

In an age where the definition of ‘products’ shifts from physical to virtual to connected and economies seem to be organising themselves accordingly; from soap powder to software, I’m fascinated to see how Amazon’s approach to product creation will influence the next 50 years of thinking in value creation and what part the previous 50 years of brand theory can contribute.

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