When a colleague or stakeholder brings up the word value, more often than not we jump to the literal and financial meaning of the word — some predetermined number that we’ve been promised or have promised to achieve. This is the value that ends up in spreadsheets and can be directly attributed to efficiently optimized production processes. But as Nathan Shedroff so eloquently put it in his closing talk at Interactions South America last year there is a qualitative side to the word “value” that doesn’t fit neatly into the business tools taught to MBAs or reinforced through MBOs. The less empirical but equally important value is the relationship fostered between that product or service and it’s customer. After all, great relationships are exactly where this “premium value” originates.
But it’s not that simple. The value-creating relationships don’t come into existence overnight. These relationships are emergent, formed through continuous interaction with our service. When these interactions are positive, they build a bond with our customer that endears our product to them in a way our competitors fail to do. These repeated interactions form an experience — one explicitly designed to create these long-lasting relationships and, in turn, premium value. This is the story of Instagram and WhatsApp, of Zappos and Dropbox and offline services like Shake Shack and Disney World.
As we set out to build new products or refine existing ones, how do we know which experiences will drive great relationships? There are infinite ways to create the value that comes from great product experiences. You could focus on a quirky and colloquial tone like the one Groupon used to drive its meteoric rise. You could emphasize clarity, utility and efficiency like Google does on its search results pages. Or you could opt for ubiquity and continuous streaming of content like Netflix does to ensure viewers always have an option to watch no matter where they are or what device they happen to have in front of them.
To ensure the signal of our product’s unique experience shines through the noise of the competition, pics of your friend’s toes in the sandy beaches of Aruba and viral videos of cats riding Roombas, we resort, all too quickly, to the silver bullet known as Marketing.
Wikipedia defines Marketing as: “The methodology of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service.”
This definition is wrong. As Shedroff puts it, “Marketing is the inhale. It’s how you learn.” Advertising and PR, often conflated with marketing, are the “exhale.” The latter are the tools we use to tell our prospective customers how we will bring value into our relationships with them. In order to have a “healthy” product we have to inhale regularly. Marketing needs to take on a much bigger portion of the “inhaling” — or learning — that organizations do. Digging deeper into the Wikipedia definition of the term you start to see hints of this approach:
“Marketing techniques include choosing target markets through market analysis and market segmentation, as well as understanding consumer behavior…”
However, the traditional tools used by marketers don’t provide the kind of insight needed by today’s product development teams — certainly not at the pace they need it. Surveys, ad campaigns, email marketing, focus groups and the myriad of other tools associated with traditional marketing are simply not as effective in a world where new products, features and content can be pushed out 5 times a minute.
Today, it is the actual product that provides organizations with the best ability to “inhale” and increase the efficacy and pace of the learning process. Through a technique known as lean product development, companies can ensure that, as they build, they learn and adjust just as quickly as the insight comes in. This method of building experiences values learning over growth. It values customer reaction to a real (or at least seemingly real) manifestation of a lighter-weight product over speculation on a future state of the product which doesn’t currently (and may never) exist. With its roots in Lean manufacturing, lean product development takes a position of humility. One that declares the end state of a product and perhaps even more importantly, the value a customer will find in it, unknown. As such, it is imperative to learn as much as possible — to inhale — before spending time, money and people developing experiences that don’t create the kind of relationships that drive premium value.
At its core, lean product development relies on:
- Humility — This is an organizational state of mind that allows the best experiences to emerge over time, never assuming that all the answers can be known up front.
- Experimentation — This is a tactical approach with a propensity to test, quickly, many ideas using a variety of methods to gauge the efficacy of features, content and functionality to see how valuable customers find them.
- Iteration — Experimentation will lead to failures that will, in turn, drive new learnings. Iterative capabilities (and a cultural mindset comfortable with iteration) allow an organization to get the next experiment designed and shipped quickly, constantly nudging the product in a more accurate direction.
- User-centered POV — Relationships are about people, their needs, their emotions and their aspirations. Focusing our efforts to understand why our customers are seeking a product, what problem it solves for them and how we can best help them solve that ensures the core of our future relationships stays true to those needs.
- Quantitative and qualitative insights — How people are behaving is important. Equally as important is why they are behaving this way. Understanding how to balance these two sides allows our product experiences to enhance the right features while downplaying those that do less for our users.
- Responsiveness — This is the ability of an organization to react quickly to newly-learned information. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge our products don’t meet our customers’ needs (although this is a significant step forward). We must empower our teams to react quickly to improve and optimize the components of the relationship that build loyalty.
- Deliberate design — Great experiences are not accidental. They are synthesized by experienced, opinionated designers who have studied the data (both quant and qual) and used their skills to create the next version of the service based on that insight. As Jared Spool put it, “Design is the rendering of intent.”
Lean product development makes use of all of these aspects (and more) to create a continuous learning cycle that bakes real-world insight, not organizational “gut feels”, into the ever-evolving state of the services the company offers and the relationships it’s developing with its customers. This is what marketing looks like in a world of continuous change and learning. This is the way we empower our teams to learn how to create the greatest amount of premium value. Once we find the formula, that’s when we fire up the advertising and PR machines and exhale.
As more power shifts to the Chief Marketing Officer’s purview, especially as it relates to product development, the role is evolving to one of Chief Learning Officer. By making use of lean product development techniques and the organizational approaches they require, CMO’s can help establish a culture of learning. This culture bridges the gap between “marketing” and “product” — two unnecessary silos often at odds with each other in the enterprise.
Today’s biggest product successes are often driven by viral growth. That growth comes from great experiences based in product relationships that deliver real value to customers. They solve a problem. They entertain. They bring people closer together. They educate. To discover the ingredients of these experiences, CMO’s must get to a product as quickly as possible — leveraging lean product development to maximize the insight being inhaled and to instill organization-wide emphasis on learning first, before mass-market delivery.