The wonderful, horrible world of creating a new product category
Trying to create a new category in digital marketing can be an emotional roller-coaster. Columnist Peter Isaacson discusses the ups and downs and how to ultimately obtain your goals.
Helping create a new technology category is unquestionably one of the most satisfying experiences of my career. It’s also one of the hardest, most frustrating and uncertain experiences of my career. Sometimes, an idea barely makes it out of the gate.
Years ago at Adobe, we tried to create a category called “Network Publishing.” It was a great idea. That nobody else got. Without any traction, we folded up the tent after six months or so and moved on.
But for marketers (or anyone else) who have been at a company that has truly led the creation of a new category, you tend to speak of that time in reverential terms. People who were at Eloqua in the mid-2000s as they helped create the marketing automation category typically talk about it as the high point of their career. As Eloqua became the category-defining leader of this new space, there was immense satisfaction knowing that they had come together as a team and achieved something special.
Right now, Demandbase is experiencing all of this as we help push the charge into Account-Based Marketing (ABM). In an amazingly short amount of time, we’ve moved from being one of the only technology companies talking about it to witnessing scores of tech companies, both old and new, shout their ABM bona fides.
But the path to category glory is not linear. Nor is it all smiles and rainbows. It’s hard. Really hard. You don’t necessarily track the five stages of grief, but you definitely follow a roller-coaster of emotions at each stage: Anticipation, Exhilaration, Despair and Hopefulness.
Every new category starts with an idea. Sometimes these are product ideas, when the category is so clear at its inception that the new category is self-evident. Think smartphones, the on-demand economy like Uber and Airbnb, wearable tech and so forth.
Sometimes it’s incubated in business strategy meetings. But there is an “aha” moment when you start to realize that there is a there, there. Meaning the idea — the category — is resonating with people.
For me, that moment came during a presentation I delivered at the Fliptop “Predict” conference in mid-2014. At Demandbase, we had been talking about an account-based approach to B2B marketing for years. And we had often used the term, Account-Based Marketing, in our programs. ITSMA, the Information Technology Services Marketing Association, is often credited with the actual term, having used it for a decade or more.
But nobody else was really talking about it. That started to change with the response that I got from that presentation at that conference. It convinced me that we were onto something — that ABM was an idea whose time had come.
There is a great quote attributed to former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” In technology, I think you can amend that to: “Great presentations discuss ideas. Awful presentations demo your product.”
Too often, marketers or founders assume that an audience is dying to hear about their product. Wrong. Nothing drives people to Texas Hold’em on their phone faster than listening to someone drone on about their product.
But when you capture an idea, one that truly resonates with the audience, and talk about how it will make them better at their jobs and help them drive better results or grow professionally — that is when light bulbs go on.
You start to realize that maybe, just maybe, you have caught fire in a bottle, and it is truly exhilarating. That initial stage of defining and communicating a new category and seeing people nod their heads because it just makes so much sense is a great moment for any company.
Now for the buzz-kill. For a true category to take shape, you can’t be the only one talking about it. Other vendors need to jump on board. If they don’t, then you are forever relegated to a niche, in which people don’t really know how to think about you.
Think Segway: cool technology, a lot of press when it came out. However, there hasn’t exactly been a stampede of companies introducing standup personal transportation devices.
But competition in a new category is a good, and necessary, thing. Sure, it can be scary. You once had a monopoly on the message, and now other folks are climbing on board. But it’s better to be a leader in a $3B category than a $70M niche player in a space that nobody talks about.
But the despair sets in when you see the confusion that all this activity creates — new vendors with new messages, competing visions for how the category is defined, new products. And with this, customers are inevitably confused. Confusion is compounded when other vendors, who don’t even have a competitive offering, reposition themselves to take advantage of the new category buzz.
This is clearly happening in ABM. And it can be frustrating. But it is also an expected part of new category creation. It’s the adolescent phase, when the category is still sorting itself out and figuring what it’s going to be when it grows up.
With luck, the season of despair is a short one, and it is quickly replaced by hopefulness — the recognition that the category ideas are starting to stick, that your customers, and the market, are starting to fundamentally change the way they think and get things done. This doesn’t mean that they’re all buying your products. Remember, competition is a good thing for both categories and customers.
But as people — customers, analysts and the press — start to wrap their heads around what this new thing is, the vernacular becomes more consistent, the solutions more differentiated and clear. Your target audience starts to move from “What’s this thing that you do?” to “Yeah, that’s a box we need to check. Let’s talk.” Turning that corner is what makes it all worthwhile.
One of the most rewarding things about developing a new category is that it’s a team sport. It’s not driven by a single department. It’s not a marketing thing. It’s a company thing. Everyone, literally everyone, plays a role in it. And when you come together as a team, it’s that much more rewarding.
There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” We’re in tech, so we aren’t walking slowly. But together, we are certainly walking far.