Builder beware: Marketing tension in product-first companies

One of the lures when I joined Intercom in 2014 was that it sold itself as a product-first company. We continue to repeat that mantra to ourselves today, and we say it to anyone who’ll listen.

We thump our chests when we say that. It’s a badge of honor – a badge of legitimacy – a badge of a new, better way of building a company. But, there’s a hidden arrogance inside that product-first mindset, and traps that await those who adopt it.

What are these traps, and how can you avoid them? This was the basis for my talk on the 2017 Inside Intercom world tour. Above you can watch me deliver that talk in London’s Roundhouse, or read on for a written account.

If you prefer audio, we’ve also released my talk as a special episode on our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.

The term “product-first” is implicitly set up in contrast to what came before, which were mostly sales-driven companies. Their approach: “First we sell it, then the product team has to quickly build it.” At a glimpse, this actually makes sense – if customers are willing to shell out cash, surely that’s a great way to ensure you build only valuable stuff. However, we all know how that story ends. Big clients end up dictating the roadmap, there’s no product vision, and your product quickly turns into incoherent bloatware.

This led to an era of marketing-driven companies. They were slick, polished, and most of all, promised the moon. These companies are comfortable selling an idea that has, at best, a tangential connection to what’s actually been built. Often they try to pitch a product that hasn’t been built yet. This still happens all the time.

In the world of subscription-based business models, your product better deliver

Dan Kaplan framed marketing’s tarnished legacy this way: “Many of history’s most brilliant marketing strategies were crafted to persuade consumers to
 believe things that were lies, 
buy things they didn’t need, 
and do things that were actually bad for them.” Case in point: the cigarette industry.

There’s also VC blogger Fred Wilson’s 
pithy statement: “Marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks.” No wonder marketing has a bad name in the tech industry.

Product-first contrasts this. It’s about building a product so great that it sells itself. All you need to worry about is building something customers love. And in the world of subscription-based business models, where switching software is a whole lot easier and cheaper, your product better deliver.

In this scenario, the R&D team are viewed as the heart of the company. The success of everyone else is predicated on the success of this team.

The idea of a product-first company isn’t exactly new. As Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald once said, “We know from our history that while promotions may win quarters, innovation wins decades.” Similarly, James Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame, would tell employees, “Focus on the product. Everything else will follow.”

The four traps facing product teams

New idea or not, we at Intercom are still big believers in the product-first philosophy, so this post isn’t written to tell you that product-first is a mistake. It is, however, a philosophy that comes with hidden traps. Here’s how our product team at Intercom has pulled ourselves out of them – hopefully with only a few minor flesh wounds to show for it.
Product-first trap 1
Implicit in a product-first mindset is the belief that the best product always wins. On many product teams, this is what drives us.

This optimistic view of the product world is relatively new, and I think it’s directly attributable to the ascent of Apple. Fifteen years ago Apple had laptops and a desktop OS that was miles ahead of its competition, Windows. It also had measly market share, and few of us early Apple fans thought we’d ever see the day when Apple products would be the incumbent. Back then, the better product was almost always the underdog product. Fast forward through the iPod and then the iPhone, and seemingly overnight your CEO and non-techy friends and family suddenly had good product taste.

Google’s search engine is a similar story. At first it was just in-the-know techies who used it; now virtually everyone does. But these examples are exception, not the rule.

In technology, fast followers are really fast. Just ask Snapchat.

Let’s look at another absolutely dominant product: Salesforce. I genuinely haven’t talked to a single person who really likes using their product or speaks enthusiastically about it, yet it’s viewed as absolutely essential to sales teams. Salesforce is like the modern day equivalent of Microsoft Office in the ’90s: 
Everyone uses it. Few people like it.

If you want to continue living in an optimistic world where the best product always wins, remember this: even if you do genuinely have a superior product, and your customers know it, your competition will quickly follow. In technology, fast followers are really fast. Just ask Snapchat. In their IPO filing they explained that their competitive advantage was a “consistent velocity of product innovation.” They planned to innovate so fast and so successfully that no one would catch them. Sounds easy enough, right? That is high risk. Facebook may be huge, but they are damn nimble when they’re copying you.
Product-first trap 2
Believing the best product always wins leads us directly to the second trap: 
being willfully naive about marketing. We fell headfirst into this trap at Intercom.

Matt Hodges, originally our Director of Product Marketing, was the first Intercom hire with the actual word “marketing” in his title. In his LinkedIn message trying to recruit Matt, our CEO Eoghan gushed, “The product almost completely sells itself. We’ve spent nothing on sales and marketing.” Product-first was held up as a badge of honor.

But Eoghan also said, “The next step-change in growth for the company will come from explaining to the world what we’re building and why.” This approach makes sense – establish product-market fit first, then start to push the pedal on sales and marketing.

Delivery dates do matter

The problem was that this willful ignorance of marketing had already seeped into us on the product team. Though Matt had a very influential voice, the marketing function itself didn’t. Moreover, our product team was slow to adapt to working with a marketing team. We were guilty of giving late handovers to the marketing team, and I use “handovers” to really mean there was almost no collaboration. Sometimes we were setting a feature live with no heads up at all to marketing. It was an afterthought.

For a while we didn’t give marketing any delivery dates. “We’ll ship it
 when it’s ready!” we’d say. Then marketing said they basically couldn’t 
function without real delivery dates, so we gave dates a try.

Product missing marketing deadlines

We consistently, and often wildly, missed those dates. For example, when we launched our help center, we initially promised it in April 2016, then July, then September. It wasn’t released until December. Imagine that, a product team who sucks at delivering on a date they promised! We were that team.

As a result, Matt gave an internal talk to the R&D team in hopes of addressing the product’s team naiveté about marketing. Matt explained that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing’s role. Marketing isn’t a single team. In fact, it’s an umbrella term for a bunch of teams, each with different set of core skills: demand gen, comms, content, events, product marketing, product education and brand design.

Our naiveté about marketing meant that we didn’t think dates really mattered. 

We had zero credibility when we promised anything, and this created a one-way tension between product and marketing.
Uneven tensions between teams
For far too long, the product team wasn’t even aware of this tension; meanwhile, marketing was fighting an uphill battle. Our product team’s willful naiveté had a real cost – we were making it difficult for other folks in the company to do their job.

Marketing has a way with words

Our marketing naiveté, however, went much deeper than deadlines. Back in 2015 we made Intercom real time, which meant messages were sent instantly, and we now could compete against “live chat” products. I wrote a big, long blog post for the launch, very modestly titled “Live chat was great but now it’s history.”

You can’t introduce something new without framing it in today’s terms

Live chat is broken, I said. It’s 
based on an antiquated phone-call model. You have to wait around for someone to answer. Hang up and it’s gone forever. It’s only synchronous and it’s fleeting.

Our version was modeled on modern messaging, It could be real time, but it could seamlessly move to asynchronous, and back again, just like WhatsApp or iMessage. The live chat model is dead, the messaging model is the future. It was a solid product proposition, or so I thought.

What did we see when we look at our marketing page on launch day? Live chat was mentioned everywhere. It was in the heading, the navigation, even the URL. It’s like the marketing team was completely contradicting the product team.

Live chat legacy landing page

Our legacy live chat landing page. Check our latest live chat solutions here.

Matt gently pointed out that there were more than 100,000 global monthly searches for “live chat software,” and basically nothing for “asynchronous messaging.”

If people are looking for live chat software, that’s what we need to tell them we have. You can’t introduce something new without framing it in today’s terms. So while the product team focuses on the future, and builds bridges to that future, the marketing team needs to get potential customers to the bridge. Sometimes that means using the exact phrase you’re trying to kill.

This discrepancy isn’t a good thing in itself, but at least now we have a proper two-way tension. And that is a good thing, because now we can start asking much better questions of both our product and marketing approach.
product-purist mindset trap
Product-first folks have a tendency to become product-purists, and with that comes a belief that anything done for marketing purposes is sullied and tarnished. Product purists view marketing as separate and independent from their precious product creation. They think, “build it, and they will come.”

Implicit here is that the product team builds things from a pure motivation, whereas marketing wants things built for the wrong reason. In reality both are working to the same end – building something useful for people, and explaining and convincing them that it is useful, so that they actually use it.
Product story
The product-purist mindset ignores that a story needs to guide your product decisions. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

This might sound obvious, but it isn’t. Product people, by default, don’t think this way – particularly not after we’ve sweated and stressed through bringing a feature to life.

If you haven’t already, read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s work proves that the human need for narrative is overpowering. It’s how we convince ourselves of what we do and what we buy. It’s not rational. Ignore this truth at your own peril. On the product team, particularly in our early days, we did just that. We had a product-purist mindset.

Most good companies impose real pressure to keep shipping, and in that environment it’s easy to ship just half of a story. That’s a shame. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose sight of the story that should be driving what you’re building.

This became apparent when redesigning our Messenger in 2016. We designed new expanded profiles for teammates in the Messenger, which had a deceptively complex interaction. These profiles really seemed like a ‘nice to have,’ so we scoped them out.

Messenger profiles

Profiles were first introduced to the Intercom Messenger in 2016 (pictured above). Check out the latest and greatest Messenger here.

It was ¾ of the way through project before I started thinking about the story. Our mission statement is “make business personal”, so it was a no brainer that part of the story of our new Messenger needs to be that it’s the most personal.

Suddenly, it was blindingly obvious: Of course we have to scope in those expanded profiles. They embody the mission. Knowing the story made the decision an easy one. It was just a very late decision.

The story drives human decisions

In 2017, we created an explicit place in our process for the story: the external pitch for the project, which needs to be drafted right after the problem statement. Even more importantly, alongside an effort to get better at scoping smaller, we’ve actually said that you can scope features in if they’re required for the story. We’re simultaneously trying to scope down to bare essentials when it comes to that first beta, while leaving in what’s required for the story.

Forgetting the importance of the story is yet another trap. In our experience, you have to forcefully inject the story into your process; otherwise, it will dwindle down to afterthought.

When we think about this chasm between product and marketing, it’s easy to forget that great product people are often natural marketers, and vice versa.

Although we had no formal marketing team in Intercom’s early days, marketing was actually alive and well. We were punching way above our weight from very early on with our blog, thanks to regular contributions from our co-founder Des Traynor. He knew how important the blog was in helping get initial traction. Meanwhile, our CEO, Eoghan, drove the content and design of the marketing site. Marketing was happening; it just wasn’t acknowledged.

A great example of this is what surely became the most copied part of Intercom. Not something from inside our product, but something straight off the homepage. This illustration…
homepage copycats
This “old-way vs the new-way” concept – a messy bunch of applications tangled together on the left – spread like wildfire among SaaS company homepages. It seemed like every week we were seeing new copycat examples of this illustration.

As your company grows, think about optimizing for the right tensions

Why did this illustration resonate so much? Because in just a couple seconds customers could create a mental model of the value of Intercom. This concept of bundling and simplifying simultaneously captured a current frustration and a hope for a better place. It told a story, a story that’s actually hard to tell in words, and it told it visually in a way that sticks in your head. That is skillful marketing. And where did it come from? Eoghan sketched the initial concept. He was really our marketer-in-chief too.

The story that Des and Eoghan helped shape – this narrative around our product – gave us a ton of breathing room. People became customers, because they believed in our long-term vision, and that is immensely valuable in a product’s early days.

Mind the traps

The best founders naturally blend product and marketing, but in a product-first company, once you have different product and marketing teams, that natural blending gets ripped apart. It becomes monochromatic, and you’re left with an unhealthy rift between product and marketing.

As your company grows, think about optimizing for the right tensions. If everyone always agrees, then you’ll likely be blind to your weaknesses, and if everyone always disagrees, it’s really hard to make progress.

Don’t hire marketing people who just try to tell a story around whatever product decided to build. Marketing should be fighting for a better story, which often means more scope. Meanwhile, product should be fighting to get a smaller product to customers faster, to make sure what they’re building actually solves the problem.

Both sides are fighting to build a product that has real value and actually gets used.
Where does this leave us? Product-first isn’t itself misguided. But, if you are adopting it as a philosophy, remember to watch out for the traps sitting in front of you:

  • The belief that the best product always wins
  • A willful naiveté to the value of marketing
  • A product-purist mindset
  • Forgetting that the story drives human decisions. Good product
 is compelling product, and to be compelling, you need a story.

Hire people who will expose this tension – people who will lean into the tension and embrace the dissent. The world doesn’t need product purists. The world needs great products that actually get used and can make their little dent in the universe.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our other talks from the 2017 Inside Intercom world tour:

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019