Innovation. Uniqueness. Excitement.
This is why you work in tech, right? Because there is no roadmap or playbook when you’re embarking on something new. There isn’t typically a, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.” You can get all the playbooks, best practices, and workshops you want, but ultimately, the magic is about doing something nobody has done before, and it’s exciting.
Of course, I’m talking about Product.
One of the biggest things I learned in the early days at Drift — back when there were barely 20 of us — was how we used the product to generate momentum for marketing. We pushed and pulled each other. The CTO would roll up to my desk and ask, “What do you want?” And I wanted something in October, November, December, and January — something new to talk about every month.
At Drift, it wasn’t about building a new product. It was about creating a new category and putting together elements in a totally different way. I know the word “disrupt” is totally overhyped, but that was the idea back then. Disrupt marketing and sales throughout the industry. Change the narrative. Change the game.
Creating a new product category isn’t actually so different from launching a new product. In my opinion, it comes down to marketing just as much as your engineering and product teams. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I spoke with Robin Daniels, former CMO at Matterport, and Marcus Andrews, Director of Product Marketing at Pendo, to find out more about what that looks like on the marketing side and how you can operationalize it.
Become a 10x-Level Marketer
When I asked Robin Daniels, CMO at Matterport, about how his team operates, he said that he divides it into three layers: tactical, strategic, and 10x:
- Tactical: The nuts and bolts of the marketing engine. Robin says, “The tactical level is when you’re swimming in a sea of data and tweaking and optimizing all the time. And that’s critical for any marketing team — to be optimizing your messaging, your channels, and how you’re spending your dollars based on the data you’re seeing.”
- Strategic: Your long-term campaigns that start taking bets on where the market will go. “This is where you’ve got to have a whole vision about what you’re going to do to move the needle 2x, 3x, and so on,” he says. “It’s not about singular activities, but pulling the team together with a long-term plan. You don’t know what the market trends are going to be in six months or what’s going to happen in the world…but you are going to have different themes you will need to plan out.”
- 10x: This is where the innovation happens and new categories get made. “There’s very little data to guide you. If there was, everyone else would be doing it. You’re, by nature, getting into this field where it’s a little uncomfortable. Can you do this play? Have you done this before? Will the market allow it?” says Robin.
Creating a new product category requires a willingness to move up from day-to-day marketing tactics like ad spend and keywords and into scary, unknown territory where you don’t know if it’s going to work.
In other words, this 10x level is where you’re going to have to play if you want to create a new category. You’re not going to know if it’s going to work. It’s a risk. But if it pays off, you’ll have built a business that stands out on its own from its competitors as something for them to emulate, and you set the tone moving forward for the entire industry.
Back when Robin worked at Salesforce, they planned launches every six or seven weeks so there was always news in the marketplace around one of their products, Chatter. Now Salesforce as a CRM was not a new category, but what was different is the idea of adding a social layer. If you’re not using Salesforce, Chatter basically allows you to add notes, files, and feedback to any campaign or account. When they released this back in ‘09, it was a total game-changer.
“From the beginning, we set the tone for the company Salesforce wanted to be,” says Robin. “Nobody wanted to write about a CRM system anymore. It just wasn’t that interesting. But this was a social layer on top of your CRM system, and by the end of the year and a half of these efforts, Chatter was the most adopted product we had ever put out in the market. All of our customers were using it.”
Define the Narrative and Positioning Separately
What creates a product category isn’t just a great product. It’s just as much, if not more, about the narrative.
“People care about stories,” says Marcus Andrews, Director of Product Marketing at Pendo. “They want to hear about your product, but they learn via stories. They pay attention via stories. Sales sell stories, right? They build relationships on emotion.”
Your job is to make that narrative compelling enough that your new product warrants a completely new and revolutionary category. It’s not enough to talk about features. Instead, think through how you’re changing the market or even the world as your consumers know it.
Here’s where marketers get tripped up because they throw together a positioning deck and think that’s all they need to do. But you need to focus on two key elements:
- Narrative, which details the overarching company-level story that guides the focus and direction, rooted in the changes your company makes in the world. This should be interesting to anyone, not just the people that use your product.
- Positioning, which is the research and analysis behind that narrative and the output that guides how to market the specific technology.
“I’ve heard a million times from my team, ‘What’s the positioning for this product?’ And what people actually want is the tagline. No, no, no, no. You have to define these things to be successful, but you also have to make sure the words actually mean something,” says Marcus.
“Positioning is the process of talking to customers, talking to the product team, talking to the marketing team, and understanding those pieces really well to pull them together. It has a specific output that changes as the product changes. That’s not the same as the story you’re telling.”
Think about it like a Venn Diagram where you’ve got your market, your product, and your marketing. There are different situations that can happen as you’re building out new products:
- Vaporware: Where your marketing is super interesting to your market but has nothing to do with your product.
- Boredom: Where your marketing is super true to your product but doesn’t capture the imagination of the market in any way, shape, or form.
I can’t tell you how to put together a company narrative, but I can give you a handy template for your positioning statement. See the difference? Narrative is more at the 10x level where you have to think about what you’re changing on a market level vs. positioning around your product.
Positioning isn’t easy. It’s also not static, because you’re never going to set and forget your brand positioning. As your market, customers, products, and more change, so will your positioning strategy.
Don’t fight it. It’s normal.
But that means that you need to be constantly updating your positioning statement.
Now I’m not the biggest fan of traditional positioning statements. I think people spend way too much time on the statement instead of just focusing on the story.
As you build a positioning statement, you’ll want to answer:
- Who’s it for? Your target audience. Example: “B2B marketers”
- What does it do? Explain what your product is. Example: “membership site”
- Why is it different? Explain how you’re different. Example: “hand-picked by DG”
- What’s the benefit? Explain the selfish benefit people get: Example: “grow career”
- What proof do you have? Back it up because you’ll need proof. Example: “2,000+ members”
Keep it simple. Just focus on answering those questions and then stitching them together, like this:
For [B2B marketers] who [want to get better at marketing], [DGMG] provides [a membership site] with [tactical lessons and learnings curated by DG] so you can [grow your career in marketing].
Launch, Launch, Launch
If you’re defining a brand new category, you need to launch products within that category, as frequently as possible.
If you want to generate attention and make people stop what they’re doing and say, “That’s new,” then you should create a consistent cadence of product launches.
“Launches are the thing that get the most attention,” says Marcus. “It’s where you really earn your keep. It has a huge impact. And it’s fucking hard.”
Honestly, you need something to launch every quarter. I remember being in discussions with the head of product at Drift and I’d say, “What do you have for me this quarter?” It was a clear framework and expectations of cadence for both sides.
At Matterport, Robin defines two types of major launches. “We launch aligned to our product calendar, and then we do campaigns aligned with our sales teams once we get everything out into the market. We have one or two epic launches per year because it requires so much effort in order to do them well, but we’ll also do four or five minor launches every quarter, like a partnership announcement, customer announcement, feature update, and so on, just to keep the momentum going,” he says.
When you launch a product, the one thing most marketers overlook is the internal launch. You’ve got to get your people excited about whatever it is that you’re launching. Before the public sees anything, you should have an internal presentation for people in the company. If you can’t get them fired up on a Friday at your show-and-tell, then your launch on Tuesday isn’t going to go the way you think it will.
“When you have an amazing launch, it’s because you have all of this momentum going towards it,” says Marcus. “Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody’s all-in. And it has to happen not because their boss says, ‘Hey, you have to do a launch this year.’ You need that momentum and it comes from within.”
Your team serves as a barometer for your launches — not only because they should be the most excited about new products or features, but also because your employees are the ones that kick off word-of-mouth in an authentic way that’s really challenging to measure. They’re going to help you get over the finish line. The more excited you can make them, the better the launch will be.
Build in Real-time, In the Open
This is where it gets uncomfortable, but necessary.
Customers today can smell your BS a mile away. And there’s no way to create a product category out of thin air without trying things as you go. That’s the definition of innovation — there is no playbook.
Don’t be afraid to build marketing messaging and campaigns in real-time, and build in a transparent way that fits your market and your customers.
Ask for feedback. Put your resources out there. Un-gate your content. In other words, take the risk of working out in the open.
Remember: Your job in marketing is to make sales easier. Not capital-s Sales as a team, but sales as in the process of buying from you. So why not put out your product deck right on your website? Why not create a product roadmap and make it publicly available?
Doing this is hard. You’re going to meet a lot of internal resistance. But if you want to create a category (aka, what no one has done before), then you’re going to have to do things that no one has done before.
“We launched Matterport for iPhone and marketed this for the first time as a consumer product, which caused a lot of discussions, and leaning into that human element was honestly uncomfortable because it was completely antithetical to everything we’ve done before,” says Robin. “Is this the right messaging? Should we do this? Will anybody care?”
People cared. In the first week, Matterport had more signups than within the first eight years of business as a B2B company. “It created such a groundswell and changed the conversation overnight,” he says. “Operating like this, you might fail. But at least you’ll look back and say, ‘You know what? We tried something that was bold and different.’”
Category-making Happens Every Day
But it’s not just launches that build categories. It’s all of the small moments in between.
When you have a launch, it’s pretty easy to know what you’re doing:
- What’s the messaging?
- What’s the website look like?
- What landing pages will you build?
- What video will you record?
- What blog posts will you create?
If you’ve got a great new product to share, that part is easy. But when you don’t, you still have to keep up that momentum, which leaves you two options:
- Be mad that your product team won’t give you anything and spiral downwards into a funk.
- Create your own momentum out of your narrative and see what happens.
You can guess which one I prefer. (It’s #2.)
“A good marketer should be able to turn whatever the product team is working on into something exciting,” says Marcus. “It’s up to you to unpack all of this stuff, even if it’s minor like an integration or a web hook, and say something that makes it way more interesting.”
I had to do this once at Drift. We were launching new dashboards, and I remember thinking, “Really? This is what I’ve got? New dashboards?”
But it ended up challenging us from a marketing perspective to define the story upfront. When you’re creating a category, you have to think about the why for your customers and what industry change you’re making. You have to think bigger. So we created this campaign all about ending the war between sales and marketing. Suddenly, everybody wanted it, and we turned it into magic.
The key is about picking your spots, and knowing how to group product updates in a way that builds your story, not just release for the sake of having news on the wire.
“One thing I’ve noticed is this moment where you think, ‘We’re lacking news in the market, let’s push some more shit out there.’ And that’s not always the best thing to do for maximum impact,” says Robin. “Even if the product team says it’s going to be ready in two weeks, it may not be ready from a marketing perspective.”
You’re not always going to have the Great Big Launch to make headlines about.
The package — and the story you tell — is what’s going to build your category over time. Not a marketing blitz with every possible tactic, every time.
How to Build a Product Category
To build a product category:
- Take 10x level bets
- Focus on your overarching narrative, more than product-specific positioning
- Hammer a regular cadence of product launches
- Build in the open and focus on your customers first
- Create your own momentum
It’s not easy. But if you’ve truly got a product that can change everything about an industry, you’ve got a chance to do something totally different.