Be a Market Expert

By Mae Scott-Schaefer Decades ago, I received the advice that in order to be successful in my career, it was imperative that I understood my products. I had to know them backwards, forwards, inside out and sideways, or so I was told by a senior mentor. I went along with this for years. I knew my products. I could rattle off all of the features and benefits, and discuss their functionality. Did anyone care? Who knows? I didn’t bother to ask. Time passed, and as it did, I realized that merely knowing my products was not enough. Sesame Street provided me with an epiphany. I loved Sesame Street as a child. When my daughter was a toddler, she was captivated by the cute, fuzzy, red puppet who would talk to his goldfish, Dorothy. Sesame Street has weathered enormous changes in the social/political landscape, fierce competition for viewers, and a seismic shift in the way viewers consume video content. Its four-and-a-half decade tenure began when only two-thirds of American households had televisions, yet the show remains relevant in an era in which the video medium is ubiquitous. What is the secret to its endurance? It’s simple. The folks at Sesame Street really understand preschoolers. Sesame Street is an educational program, and as such, we should all take a lesson from it. As product management or marketer professionals, we love to say that we are the experts on our products. We are the CEOs of our products, and are tasked to run our products like they are businesses. But it really is not terribly unique to be an expert on your products. I’m sure that if you dig just a little, you will find that your company has many product experts. What they may not have are market experts. All too often, we brand ourselves as a utility—we can help customers achieve certain goals, and show them how our product can help them execute tasks and solve problems. But a better approach is to brand yourself as someone who has knowledge and expertise of the market itself, and not merely of the products or solutions you provide to it. Why? Because knowledge builds trust, and people buy from people they trust. Whether your product is mobile phones or retirement plans, your market shares some basic, common characteristics. At its most simplistic, your market has problems, and your purpose is to understand those problems.  Your market segments into three different buckets: customers, shoppers and potentials. In order to truly understand your market, you need to go where they are. Yes, you need to speak with them in person. You can commission research and read analyst reports as well, but there is no substitute for getting out into the market and meeting them live and in person. For our current customers, we want to find out what new problems they have that we can solve. For our evaluators, we want to know what they are shopping for. What is the specific problem they have for which our product might be a solution? What are their buying criteria?  While we all pay attention to customers, and most of us pay close attention to shoppers, we tend to ignore the potentials because the potentials are quiet. What do you know about the “potential” segment of your market? Why aren’t they shopping? How are they solving problems now? Listen to what your market says. Talk less, and really observe. Take an outside-in approach. What you will gain by becoming a market expert is the insight to articulate the answer to this key question: What attributes do we have that are valued by the market, and are they unique? Uniqueness is your differentiator in the market. You will also understand what your market values; that may be innovation, reputation, expertise or something else entirely. The power you will have is in understanding why the market buys your products, and why they come to you specifically.  Maybe you will finally find out how to get to Sesame Street! Mae Scott-Schaefer helps companies position their products and services in ways that resonate with the needs of their markets. She has worked in the publishing, consulting and software industries, and holds both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. Contact Mae at mae.schaefer@gmail.com.  

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