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Influencing the Product Roadmap

Alfred Lua / Written on 01 July 2020

Hello there,

In case you missed last week's essays, I wrote about how I get customer insights at Buffer and how your business doesn't need to sell a story. For the latter, I had to challenge my belief that every great business should sell a story.

Also, I have been writing these Weekly Notes for several weeks now, and I'd love to hear if there's anything you like me to share. I'm happy to share as much as I can!

A little background: I have been at Buffer for almost five years and have done community, content marketing, user acquisition (briefly), and product marketing. A few of the bigger projects I have worked on are growing monthly organic traffic from one million to 1.5 million, creating email and in-app onboarding, Buffer Analyze launch, and bundle experiments.

Hit reply and let me know.

How can product marketers influence the product roadmap?

I see this question often.

You work closely with your customers yet you don't have a say on what the company should build.

I have experienced this at Buffer for many years. Despite being knowledgeable about social media marketing practices and trends, our marketing team didn't have much influence over our product roadmap. The product team decides what and when to build largely on their own.

In 2018, Instagram Stories were becoming very popular. We, the marketing team, knew that because we were very in touch with the trends in the social media world. Furthermore, we noticed our articles on Instagram Stories were getting 50-60,000 pageviews every month. We tried pushing for an Instagram Stories planning feature in Buffer but to no avail. When we finally built an Instagram Stories feature, it was 2019. A year later.

Marketers are the eyes and ears of the company. (Our customer support team is, too.) Not only do we work closely with our customers and our ideal audience, but we also are our ideal audience. We sell a social media management tool for marketers, and we are, well, marketers. :)

Not being able to have a say on our product roadmap always didn't feel right to me. In my ideal world, the product roadmap is shared between the product manager and the product marketer, so there's no need to influence. But in reality, especially in bigger companies, the product manager owns the roadmap.

When I was given the opportunity to take on the product marketing role and work directly with a product team, I was excited to finally be able to give some inputs. It hasn't been easy but I hope you can learn some things from my experiences.

1. Build relationships first

When I became the product marketer for Buffer Analyze, I was eager, perhaps too eager, to have a say on the roadmap. I immediately wanted to point out what I felt could be improved.

It was May 2019. I had taken on the new role for only a few days. We were going to launch our new social media analytics tool Buffer Analyze to the public. As I was preparing for the launch, I realized Buffer Analyze only integrated with Instagram. On the other hand, our flagship product integrates with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. While I understand we want to ship a minimum viable product, this felt too minimal. If we want to do a flashy launch, we should at least integrate with Facebook, too.

I was trying to do what is best for the company; nothing wrong, right?

Wrong. I pushed for the Facebook integration, and the launch was delayed by more than a month. Tom, the product manager, and I were told to do a 5 Why with an executive and our marketing director to dig into the cause of the delay. It wasn't a great way to start my relationship with Tom.

Since then, I decided to prioritize building relationships first, not just with Tom but everyone in the Buffer Analyze team. James, our product designer. Ivana, our engineering manager. Juliana, Dinos, Federico, and Mike, our product engineers. As a remote team, this wasn't easy. I couldn't simply have lunch with them. Tom starts his day when I'm going to bed. Juliana ends her day when I wake up.

I set up calls with them, sometimes waking up early sometimes staying up late. Tom and I decided to have a weekly chat to get to know each other and to stay on the same page on things. We recently replaced that with a fortnightly product strategy meeting, which also includes our product designer James. The best time to meet is 9 pm my time because Tom is in Canada, James is in the UK, and I'm in Singapore. It's late for me but I always show up because it's important for our relationships. And it's my favorite meeting.

I should add I don't think you should build relationships just to influence the product roadmap. I hope you don't. Work is all about collaborating with others, so having good relationships is important in general. Also, it's more enjoyable to work with people you know and like than people you don't know and dislike.

2. Understand product disciplines

This is a part of building relationships but it feels important enough to have its own section.

I believe to be a good product marketer, we need to understand product management, product design, and product engineering. Just understand, not master. This helps build relationships because people appreciate it when we understand their craft. But it also helps ensure we give sensible suggestions that considered what's possible in their areas. If I were to suggest something that will take us at least a year to build, it is understandable when people don't treat it seriously.

One thing I did recently is to suggest we not build a feature that was in the pipeline. Product managers are often flooded with feature requests. Instead of throwing more feature requests at Tom, I suggested we not build a feature and gave an analysis of why it might not be the right feature to build now. Tom agreed, and we pivoted. When others feel we understand their work, they are more likely to agree with our suggestions. That isn't to say I'm always right, though. That's why I always start with a suggestion and debate it with others.

Here's how I have learned a bit about the product disciplines:

  • I have designed and built apps, which let me practice scoping, product design, and engineering. My apps are tiny compared to Buffer but this does give me a good basic understanding of the product disciplines.
  • I read up on product management. My favorite read so far is Shape Up by Ryan Singer from Basecamp. I also read about problem solving, and my current favorite is Eigenquestions: The Art of Framing Problemsby Shishir Mehrotra of Coda.
  • A few simple but useful things: understanding how our product cycles work, learning how we use Jira, and knowing what each engineer does.

3. Have customer insights

If you say you want to influence the product roadmap because you are close to the customers, be prepared to ask many questions about your customers. The best-case scenario is you can answer whatever question is asked right away. This will help reinforce the fact that you do know your customers. I'm not quite there yet, so sometimes I have to say, "I don't know. But I can research."

I wrote last week about how I get customer insights at Buffer, and you might find a few things to try.

Instead of waiting for people to ask me about our customers, I also try to be proactive at it. I often share big and small customer insights with the product team. Here's how I like to present my customer insights:

  1. One-line summary: People should get a clear idea from this line. E.g. Customers usually create reports every first Monday of the month.
  2. Product usage data: How are customers currently using this feature in Buffer? Are they using any workarounds within Buffer?
  3. Customer quotes: Remarks from customers on social media, reddit, Facebook Groups, and review sites.
  4. Alternatives: What other options do customers have? This includes competitors and non-direct competitors, such as spreadsheets. Spreadsheets compete with every app.
  5. Intuition: Because I'm a marketer myself, I can often add my reasoning on why customers do what I have stated. E.g. Social media managers create monthly reports to share with their manager and team.

Let's exchange notes

I'm sure there are many better ways to influence the product roadmap than what I have shared. What has worked for you? I'd love to learn from you. Thanks!