Product Roadmaps: Just One Damn Thing After Another?

Dostoyevsky once wrote (paraphrasing) that every man needs both a place to be, and a place to go. Others very cleverly talk about the difference between roots and routes, arguing that in order for humans to reach their full potential, they need to know both who they are, and have a vision for what they wish to become.

The same applies to products.

Unfortunately, product managers and humans alike rarely think deeply about either being or becoming. They think of life (that of the themselves or their products) as simply the cumulative effect of adding one thing after another. True, this may be life in the strictest and barest sense, but would anyone call this ‘flourishing?’ I think not.

Let’s talk about product roadmaps.

A product roadmap is NOT a list of features on a timeline. A roadmap is not a prioritized list of feature requests. A product roadmap, insofar as it IS a roadmap, MUST begin with a clear idea of what the product is, and what it aspires to become. It must have roots and routes.

Of course, the way that a product thinks of its roots and routes is always subject to change in the same way as a human being may change their self-conception and aspirations. What is VITAL, however, is that they HAVE a self-conception and a vision for the future.

You can’t steer a parked car.

It’s incredibly easy for product managers to fall into the same trap as humans in general, thinking of their roadmaps in terms of ‘what’

  • WHAT am I going to do?
  • WHAT am I going to do next?
  • WHAT are my product gaps?
  • WHAT are my customers requesting?

But a product roadmap should NOT first and foremost be concerned with ‘what’ questions. It needs to instead be laser focused on the ‘how.’

The ‘what’ is fundamentally about vision.

  • What is it?
  • What should it become?

Only once these questions are asked and answered can a product manager start thinking about creating and prioritizing specific features and enhancements. A clear vision gives a product a ‘why,’ and makes it possible to frame a roadmap as the ‘how.’

In the absence of this vision work (which is hard to do), however, there is no roadmap. There is no beginning. There is no end. Without a clear vision framed in terms of what a product is, and what it aspires to become, a ‘product roadmap’ is simply one damn thing after another.

What is product marketing? A kind of manifesto

There is remarkably little written about product marketing.

For the last month, I have been tracking the terms “Product Marketing” and “Product Marketer” using Google alerts. In that time, except for a few exceptions, all I have see are job advertisements. A LOT of job advertisements. For a position that is in such high demand, the fact that there is so little written about it is remarkable indeed.

So, what is product marketing? It’s complicated.

It is commonly accepted that product marketing exists at the intersection of marketing, product management, and sales. A product marketer ‘owns’ messaging for a product or product line. In support of field and central marketing, they work to ensure that what a product ‘means’ is coherent, consistent with broader corporate messaging and brand standards, and compelling to a full range of buying personas. The messaging produced by a product marketer comes to life in two forms: through outward-facing collateral used for demand generation, and inward-facing resources used for sales enablement.

So what is a product marketer? They are a story-teller who serves the interests of marketing, product, and sales through the creation of messaging that is coherent, consistent, and compelling.

It would be easy to stop here and think of the product marketer as a person in the present, as someone who creates stories that strike a balance between the three types of organizational interest it serves. Is a product marketer someone who creates messages that ‘work’ here and now? Yes. But if we also take seriously the role of a product marketer in creating, not just meaning, but also vision, then the product marketer also bears a kind of responsibility to the future. And as it turns out, the most effective and impactful product narratives are those that point beyond an immediate need and toward a future in which a thing is not only useful, but also important.

For me, the most exciting part of product marketing is its relationship to product management. This relationship is not one-way. It is not as if product management creates a thing, and then hands it to ‘the marketing guy’ to ‘market.’ To the extent that a product marketer is responsible for what a thing means, they also have a direct impact on what it becomes. With a meaning that is coherent, consistent, and compelling comes an understanding of the problems and needs of the market. It also necessarily defines values. By working with product management to understand, not just what is possible, but also what is meaningful, the product marketer importantly contributes to a vision for a product that is actualized in the form of a roadmap.

If you can’t say something important, don’t say anything at all.

How common is the commitment to importance among product marketers? I can’t say. But I would like to think that a commitment to importance is essential to being an excellent product marketer. It renders the role itself important (as opposed to merely useful). But with importance comes greater responsibility. It means developing domain expertise over and above the general expertise of being a product marketer. With domain expertise comes a greater sense of empathy for the industries your product supports.

The minute that a product marketer shifts their perspective from the present to the future, their locus of responsibility also changes. Focused on the present, the product marketer is an advocate on behalf of the product to the market. Focused on the future, the product marketer serves as an advocate to the product on behalf of the market.

What, then, is a product marketer? They are a story-teller who advocates on behalf of the market to an organization’s marketing, product, and sales departments through the creation of narratives that are coherent, consistent, and compelling.