Learn from products

I’m writing this article as my company, Chapter, celebrates its second anniversary. We may be 0.0001% complete on our mission, but it feels a big milestone, as around one in two businesses fail during this time period.

Now, undoubtedly a big reason for us achieving this is a combination of serendipity and luck, but I’m increasingly convinced that a big factor in our early resilience has been our relentless pursuit of breaking down the walls that exist between the worlds of product and marketing. We’re firm believers that the best products bake marketing directly into the experience. Lots has been written about this. But we’re also firm believers that marketing — and to be more precise, marketing communications — has a lot to learn from the world of product. What follows are the three things we’ve learned from the world of product over the past couple of years that have probably influenced us the most.

The first is that product helps you think about a different type of objective for communications. Advertising is about turning attention towards something; an intervention into what people are doing. Product often has the opposite objective: to eradicate all friction between the product and the user. Alan Dye, Apple’s head of user interface, says: “Inevitable is the word we use a lot. We want the way you use our products to feel inevitable.” How we tend to approach our design of communications feels increasingly odd in a world where we value seamlessness and invisibility. It means we approach new channels with our old hats on and see them as a place to tell stories rather than an opportunity to be more helpful to people. Rather than another ad unit, we might serve people better by offering contextual suggestions and the occasional nudge to swipe on.

The second is to spend as much time thinking about the system you are building with communications as you spend thinking about stories. Last year, Nike relaunched its Nike+ Running app as Nike+ Run Club. It does all the things you would expect from a running app — go on a run, track miles, etc. — but they’ve now thought a lot more about the overall system of runners: running with other people, meetups across cities, the running shoes that work best for you. The old app had some of these features but this is now built to connect a broad ecosystem far beyond the app and connect the user to other things happening in the world. Too often in today’s fragmented communications landscape, we develop communications asset to asset, campaign to campaign, rather than think about the long-term ecosystem we are building. When we do this, we make everything we do work harder and make them more likely to be multiplicative rather than additive in impact.

This isn’t the only learning we can draw from the system thinking that drives the best products today. Airbnb had built a fast-growing, highly valued business around hosts, homes and their guests. But at the end of 2016, it launched Trips, a new offering that gives guests activities and experiences about their accommodation. It marked the first step in its ambition to move from being in the accommodation business to being the system of record for travel, offering everything from getting to a destination to the things you do there. Leadership is being driven by building a product ecosystem that makes your brand the system of record. We’d be wise to apply this lesson to how we think about the opportunity for brands and how they position themselves. It’s about imagining how the world should or could be, rather than segmenting and positioning ourselves into ever-decreasing circles confined by the old rules of a category.

Finally, understanding what makes great products has helped us understand the importance of targeting existing behaviours rather than trying to create new ones — the idea that lies at the heart of far too much communications-led brand thinking. The products that thrive today understand how people think, act, feel and behave and build a bridge to the future from this. Snapchat Spectacles have thrived because they took an existing behaviour — wearing sunglasses — and made it better. Google Glass failed, in part, because it was trying to convince people to do something new — wear glasses. This type of thinking is the genius that underpins much of Tesla’s innovation: don’t install solar panels but choose roof tiles that can power your house. Too often, when it comes to communications, we try to get people to do something new. We’d be far more successful if we tried to build a bridge to the future by offering a better way to do what we already do.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Admap