By Tmaurizia via Wikimedia Commons

Teaching a Product to Talk

Thoughts on Product Marketing and Context.

One of my all-time favorite pieces of writing is an essay by Annie Dillard called Teaching a Stone to Talk. It’s about a man who works each morning to train a palm-sized beach stone to answer back.

It has nothing to do with product marketing.

It’s really about humans — and how we spend our days trying to coax the meaning out of things.

Which, of course, has everything to do with product marketing.

Because a stone is never just a stone. It is a puzzle piece. It’s an element to factor into your life and understand in full context. But stones (and complex strands of code) are really good at causing you to confuse the forrest for the trees. Particularly if you’ve spent some time with them. Particularly if you’ve held them at fifteen different angles and stared until you’ve memorized each solitary speck and glint.

A product will always present you with concrete qualities. It has four walls. It triggers alerts when a set of criteria are reached. It’s faster or more effective than its competitors. The challenge is in shifting your definitions from what the product does to what it means — what it makes possible for the world around it.

People think Apple is good at this, but in reality Apple spends a lot of time looking in the mirror. It’s just so damn exquisite that none of us seem to care.

Google is good at this. GE is really freaking good at this.

I can’t watch a GE commercial without wanting to call up my dad afterwards and talk to him about the wonders of modern life. How we can build anything. Solve anything. But it’s not just lighting and plot-lines that leads to this. It’s not that GE saw an opportunity to dramatize a stone and took it. Several years ago, GE’s entire marketing organization shifted its structure to ensure that context was built into their product blueprints from the very beginning.

Beth Comstock, GE’s chief marketing officer, explained in an April interview with Forbes, “GE is a Technology company, but technology alone doesn’t tell the full story… So, for us it’s been a big push to be technology-led as well as market-led. Marketing makes us more ambidextrous in terms of innovation by connecting the technology to needs, and to trends in the marketplace and make us more tethered to the market. We define marketing as a combination of value and innovation, and that means that we had to look at marketers as innovators.”

What does this mean in action? It means that before you build an ultrasound machine, you’d better understand how that machine fits into the larger panorama of hospital operations and global need. You’d better, as Comstock says:

“..Go to China, to talk to the hospital organizations to who say, we’re all about world health. We need an ultrasound to that we can, if not fit in our pocket, put in a briefcase. We can’t have one that’s the size of an air conditioner to go to some of the remote locations.”

Understanding that marketplace before a product gets there is as essential to telling the product story as it is to building the product. So marketing and product teams need to be side by side on it from the get-go. They have to see the gap together and envision respectively 1) how to fill it and 2) what filling it will mean for the people around it.

If you capture that inherent narrative from the beginning, if you understand the context into which it is born, the product will grow up learning to tell its own story. The lights and plotlines will be authentic, and the meaning won’t need coaxing at all.