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Product Solutions, Product Launch Planning, and Individual Contributors

Alfred Lua / Written on 06 March 2020


This is my weekly private letter on marketing and distribution models. I'll also share numbers and discussions on Buffer projects to give you an insider look at the daily life at a tech company.

This week is a highlight of my time at Buffer. We shipped a strategically important experiment, which I have been leading for about eight months. About 15 people were involved in big and small ways. You can read about it in the next section.

What I'm working on

Product Solutions V2

Buffer now has three products, Publish, Analyze, and Reply. But there isn't an easy way to try multiple products at the same time. If you want to try Publish and Analyze together (which is common among our customers given that publishing and analytics go hand-in-hand), you have to start a trial for Publish, go through the onboarding, go to the pricing page again, and start another trial for Analyze.

Here's the analogy I shared with the team: It's like going to McDonald's to buy a burger, then queuing again to get a cup of coke.

Last August, we started working on packing Publish and Analyze into a product solution. With one click, visitors would be able to try Buffer's publishing and analytics products together. The first experiment, which took place last October, wasn't a clear success but we had several positive signals.

This Monday, we just shipped the second experiment (code name: Product Solutions V2). In about four days, more than 400 trials were started. Only about 100 trials were started in the previous experiment. The second experiment is an A/B test on a page that offers the $99/mo Publish Business plan. Our hypothesis is that the product solutions page will generate more trial starts and higher net new MRR than the Publish Business plan page. We will let the experiment run for 14 days and analyze the results 28 days later so that all trialists have sufficient time to convert to a paid plan if they wish to.

This is a significant step towards, what we call in the team, a One Buffer experience. I'm excited to share the results with you when analysis is done.

Best Time to Post launch planning

Last week, we quietly added a new feature to Analyze to help customers maximize their reach on Instagram by recommending a few best times to post.

I'll be launching the feature next Wednesday. In the past, almost all our product launches were aimed at getting people to start a trial of Buffer. If a new feature is great (which I'm sure it would be or you won't be launching it), we should shout about it to attract new customers, right?

Not always.

Matt Hodges, Former VP of Commercial Product Strategy at Intercom, once wrote:

If we treated everything equally and tried to shout about each and every thing, people would simply stop listening to us. Just like when your smoke alarm won’t stop beeping, and you take the batteries out to make it stop. It’s a bad idea.

Not every product launch has to attract new customers. For this launch, my goals are to increase product usage and reduce churn, which are, in the SaaS world, as important as getting new customers. I decided against shouting about it externally because it is a minor feature that other products already have. While ours might be better, it is unlikely people will switch over to Buffer just because of this feature.

As a followup to Matt's article, Jasmine Jaume, Group Product Marketing Manager at Intercom, wrote:

... we were spending time and energy on less-impactful activities at the expense of higher-impact ones, as well as struggling to show how our efforts tied into our higher-level marketing goals.

That is how I felt about my past product launches. Regardless of the significance of the feature, I'd promote it heavily in hope to attract new customers. As you might have guessed, it wasn't always effective.

For this upcoming launch, I'll be focusing more on informing and educating our customers than reaching our external audience because my goals are higher product usage and lower churn. There will be in-app messages and emails; our customer engagement team will also mention it in their webinars. We will be sharing on social media but there will be no ads, partnership, influencer outreach, Product Hunt, or press.

Being strategic about products launches is especially important for a small team like ours because we cannot always do everything.

Social media meetup

I have been trying to speak with social media managers in Singapore to learn about their daily work and challenges but to no avail. So I decided to organize a social media meetup for marketers to discuss social media challenges.

Within 24 hours, all 15 spaces were taken up. And there are 13 people on the waiting list for the next meetup.

Because Buffer doesn't have an office in Singapore (or anywhere), I'm grateful to Meltwater for wanting to host the event. I just went to check out the venue, and it's perfect for the group discussion I have in mind.

It'll be happening next week. I'll share more after the event.

What I'm thinking about

Individual contributors

Because we intentionally hire slowly at Buffer, it's very unlikely for many people to become managers. Fortunately, we also recognize an individual contributor (IC) path in our career framework. This has worked well for certain teams, such as engineering, where my colleagues have been promoted from junior engineers to senior engineers to take on projects with a bigger scope of influence or complex engineering challenges.

But this has been tricky on the marketing team. Traditionally, product marketers are promoted into managerial roles to manage several other product marketers. This is generally how product marketing teams scale their impact. So how does an IC path for product marketers look like?

The two resources I've found somewhat useful are Rand Fishkin's article and a podcast interview with Mathew Sweezey, Principal of Marketing Insights at Salesforce. From Rand Fishkin's article:

Individual contributors have responsibility for themselves and their work. As they get more senior on an IC track, their influence becomes more wide-ranging. A good example of this at Moz is someone like Dr. Pete, who recognizes strategic imperatives at the company and pitches in. He assists engineering and big data with reviews, assists marketing with tactical advice and strategic input, publishes incredibly high quality blog posts and guides, and even designs entire projects from the ground up and executes on their creation. His influence is company-wide, cross-team, and as senior as they come. He lets his influence define his role, rather than the other way around.

It seems to me a senior product marketing IC should be a thought leader in product marketing or perhaps the space that the company is in (brand building for Buffer). A product marketing IC should do product marketing (e.g. research, go-to-market, adoption) and share their knowledge (e.g. write essays and speak at events). A junior IC will do more of the former while a senior IC will do more of the latter. But it's important to note that an IC would still have to do the work — product marketing. A senior IC should be more efficient and competent to have the time to write and speak.

How would an IC know they are progressing in their career? From what I've read and seen, here are a few possible signals:

  • Having a bigger budget for executing projects
  • People reading and sharing their essays
  • Invitations to podcasts and events to talk about their specialization
  • Other companies asking to collaborate on the area of their specialization
  • People in the company consulting them when building features for that area
  • Other ICs asking them how to do certain thing and what tools they use

The best thing to do to grow in an IC path? Start a blog and write about your work.