“Happiness is in expectations management.”
Let’s try to apply this wisdom to Product Marketing and Marketing Strategy. For example, your company expects a product to generate specific and positive cash flow over a period of its life, and your customers expect the product to reliably perform functions you have promised them in your marketing communications.
I would like to pose that pro-active management of your customers expectations will dramatically improve the probability of your product’s success.
It is important to take a look at the entire cycle of creation and management of expectations process:
- Pre-Announcement Speculation Stage– Think about rumors and speculations about the “next” version or release that start to appear out of nowhere soon after a new product is launched. Regardless of the sources or “accuracy” of the information floating around, the consumers started to expect that Apple iPad3 will have smaller size/track form than iPad2 just two quarters after iPad2 was launched.Who knows how they will react on the announcement day if this expectation is not met? Should the speculations be ignored? Can they provide early predictions, hints and insights that help to form consumer expectations? Can they negatively affect the market performance of the current model as they influence consumers to delay their purchase until speculated new model is launched? Most importantly should they influence the strategic planning process?
- Product Announcement and/or Launch– Now, the mysteries of a product’s specifications and major functions are revealed to the public; however, the interpretation of this data is done not by the consumers at large, but by a relatively small group of analysts, pundits and bloggers who are well aware of expectations created at pre-announcement stage. Some of them probably have created or at least communicated these rumors and speculations. Now they have to reconcile the speculations with the announced specifications, and of course to write about it because that is what they do.Many uncertainties are removed now, but performance speculations are sometimes intensified. A good example is the RIM PlayBook battery’s poor performance media storm which somehow petered out by the time the tablet started shipping. By that time the PlayBook was perceived by consumers at large as a problematic product. I am not suggesting that this issue alone caused the tablet to fail RIM’s expectations; however, a mismanagement of “signals” like this one is not a recipe for success.
- Pre-shipment– It is quite a common practice today to let influential industry/market analysts experience product before the general population of consumers. There are pretty strict guidelines involved in this process to maintain proper relationship and ethical standards. I am not writing about a practice of buying endorsements to fool consumers; this practice is now illegal. You probably read critical acclaims to a movie that yet to be released to the theaters or criticisms of video games that are not available yet to players. The idea is to create a positive impression enough that would engage early adopters into a first wave of product moving through the channels.The articles and reviews published by the pre-shipment stage influencers are a gold mine of the feedback for potential “last chance” reconciliation between expectations and experience. However the time for analysis of this feedback, the identification of “low hanging fruit” opportunities for changes, their prioritization and the implementation is very, very short.
- Product Shipped – Now, the early adopters – your very first customers – got the product in their hands. Their expectations are formed by your marketing messages, their previous experiences with your brand, and the reviews of the pundits published during the pre-shipment stage. These early customers start to share their experiences generating Word of Mouth (WoM) online as well as off line which, according to multiple research studies ( example 1, example 2), is the most trusted source of information that influences consumer decision to purchase your product, or select the competitor’s.Many marketing pros told me that they are aware of the WoM’s importance, and confessed to searching and reading as much as they possibly can. Some use Social Media monitoring tools to detect a sentiment and to know whether their product is liked or not, but cannot figure out WHY. None of these approaches can detect and consistently measure the difference between customer’s expectations and experience, but it can give you some hints. The critical question is, “what are you going to do with such information?”
We have seen the most powerful results achieved and the most attractive ROI, when marketing used the feedback analysis results to:
- Engage market players by clearly communicating these results and the company’s plans to act on them;
- Fine tune Marketing Communications messages and media to resonate with customer’s perspective found and measured in WoM.
This approach may involve multiple departments in some organizations, from Product Marketing to Marketing Communications, PR and Customer Service, to mention a few. Each has its own perspective on interpretation and value of customer feedback and WoM – some treat it as Crisis Management and some ignore as anecdotal trivia. However, this is the best expression of how well your product met customer expectations well before the sales numbers spell it for you. By that time the “game” may be over.