Writing Effective Marketing Requirements

by Jarie Bolander on August 21, 2009

Marketeers have a tough job. They have to try and figure out what features a customer wants and them communicate them to engineering. Compound the mind reading with the fortune telling and it’s a miracle they can get anything right. Customers do tell you what they want but that is not enough. The marketeer needs to figure out what the customer needs not what they want. This is the art of writing effective marketing requirements.

Product definitions suffer when markets are uncertain. Confidence also plays a role. The marketeer is under pressure to define a product that will sell. Get it wrong and the business suffers. Marketeers that lack confidence will always over feature and poorly define what they want. Better marketing requirements starts with understanding the customers pain.

Step 1: Understand The Customers Pain

True understanding of the customers pain requires that you know the customers business and what problems they face. Don’t rely on what they tell you directly. Most often, that is only half the story. Customers tend to focus on their immediate, short term problems since that is what is pressing to fix now. Look beyond their immediate needs. Some questions to ask include:

  1. What do they do now?: Understanding the present state will reveal gaps of opportunity. Ask questions about the process the customer uses now. Chances are, you will start to see what they can’t see — places where a properly defined product can fit in.
  2. Who are their customers?: If your gadget or service helps your customer service their customers, then get to know them. How do they use the existing product? What pain to they feel?
  3. Survey the entire ecosystem: This includes looking at everything that might interact with your product from all sides. This can sometimes be tough to do but strive for completeness since there are hidden gems to be found.

Step 2: Understand Your Competitors

Competitor offering are good clues as to where the market is but not where it might go. Resist the temptation to copy competitors requirements without understanding why the are important. Sometimes, competitors add features because one customer asked for it not because the market finds it useful. Here are a few questions to ask about competitors:

  1. Current Product Offerings: Take a look at the present state of the market and figure out what is out there. Try and narrow down the features to their core. Then, expand from there.
  2. Competitor Roadmaps: If you can get ahold of them, see where they are headed. Their roadmaps may be customer driven or not but it should signal the direction they think the market is going.
  3. Research trade journals and papers: Competitors may publish studies or white papers on their approaches to solving certain problems. Trade organizations may also publish forecasts that aggregate the trends in the industry. These are great resources for secondary market information and what your peers are doing.

Step 3: The Essence of The Product

Now that you have gathered lots and lots of data, it’s time to digest it and define your product essence. This is an important step (kind of like a mission statement) because this essence will ground your requirements. It also helps others to grasp your product concept. The essence of your product must be summarized in one paragraph (think of it like an elevator pitch). Strive for clarity of purpose while focusing on specifics. Try these steps to define your products elevator pitch:

  1. Brainstorm Descriptive Words: Write down as many descriptors for your product as you can. Just free write for 15 minutes. Group these words into like categories. Look at the themes that emerge. These themes are what you want customers to remember.
  2. Describe The Pain: There is no better way to figure out what features to request that to figure out what you are solving. Make statements that are concert in language that is easily understandable. Try and capture the big idea about what pain the customer has.
  3. Solve The Pain: Once you define the pain, solve it. Describe your solution so that it solves the pain. Tell the reader how your will do it. Show them the benefits. Engage them by making your solution the obvious solution.
  4. Show Why Your Different: Solving the pain is one thing. Uniquely solving it takes additional effort. You started to solve the pain above but now you have to really tell the customer why your product will be better than your competitor. Talk about usability. Talk about features you only have. Resist discussing price. Just being cheaper is not a feature — it’s a sales tactic. Customers want value. Give them value not a cheaper widget.

Step 4: Craft Core Requirements:

At this point, you should have a good understanding of the wants and needs of your customers. The next step is to define the core features that are “must haves.” Each one of these features is critical to product success. Discipline at this step will set your destiny. Boil it down to the core. Don’t add features just because they sound good — they have to be great.

  1. Define The What, Not The How: Too often, marketeers have a design or engineering background. That experience creeps into their product definitions. The temptation is so great that product features are so specific that engineering has no freedom to create. It does no good to describe that your product needs a Lithium Ion battery with 2300 mAH when what you really want is a 3 day battery life. Leave the details to engineering. Marketing must define as broadly as practical what they what and let engineering figure out how to implement it.
  2. Run Usage Scenarios: Mock ups or thought experiments on how a customer will actually use the product provides critical insights into core features. Get engineering involved with this and make them part of the discussion. It’s amazing how creative these sessions can be. Engineers love to solve problems and when they are part of the requirements process, you get better products.
  3. Keep Refining The Core: As you look at core requirements, continue to refine out the nice to haves and boil down to the core.

Step 5: Define Nice To Haves:

All products have features that would be great to include. These features are important to define and prioritize. Time permitting, you might even get some. Be aware that you must assign priority to each and every one. All features have a priority. Your core features are must haves that will always take priority. Your nice to haves need the same level of discipline.

Step 6: Layout The Business Case:

Hopefully, you have a business case by this point. If not, why bother building the gadget in the first place. Always include a business case summary in your marketing requirements. Most engineers want to know that what they build will be successful. I cannot stress this enough. Make a compelling business case will make your product better and your team will enjoy working on it a lot more. Add things like: market size, sales projections, Average Selling Price (ASP) and gross margins.

Step 7: Send Out For Review:

Reviews are a great way to see if your requirements are understood. Send out your requirements to a select set of people that you trust. This initial group should vet your document for clarity and completeness. Do this review before you send it to other groups. A trusted team of advisers that are aligned with your interests, will ensure that nothing glaring is wrong.

Once your trusted advisers have reviewed it, then you can send it to a broader audience. Expect questions, comments or downright objections. That is normal and will make your requirements document better.

Step 8: Repeat And Refine As Necessary:

With every review, you will get closer to better requirements. You may get tons of feedback on specific sections while other will barely be touched. This is normal. Continue to strive for clarity. Continue to maintain your core vision. This will server you well when it comes to implementation.

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