Opting in : the web brings product management back on the field

opting-inSocial media and networks have something paradoxical for product directors or marketers. On the one hand they represent an awesome new potential but on the other hand they question their role so much – rather the way they’ve fulfilled it for decades – that they are used in two fashions  : not at all or badly. Not at all for those who find the questionings they raise stressful, badly for those who consider them as a new means of communication and not a new approach to their mission.

However there are some “Social Product Managers”. Product managers who don’t use social media as “one more tool” to serve an old way of doing things but who have reinvented their job. Not to justify the existence of the tools but to do things the way they should have been done for ages if the technology had existed to get rid of some constraints

Social product management is product management the way it always should have been done

In fact they’re not a new kind of product managers but product managers in the way their role makes necessary. Among them Ed Brill have been doing product management for more than 15 years at IBM. In Opting Inhe tells us how he made social media a part of his day to day work. So that’s not – and that’s good – one more book on social media adoption or the art of  blowing hot air and occupying the field in 3 tweets but the experience feedback of a product managers in a company that’s, although technological, is not the kind of place where such matters are handled  frivolously.

Ed Brill does not theorize on the use of social media and social business strategies for a product managers. He tells what he dit, how, why and does not hide his mistakes, complicated situations he faced and matters of conscience.

My main takes from Opting In are summed up in a couple of points that are as many challenges product directors will face in the future.

• Understand one’s mission

That’s where things start. If you consider that the role of a product manager is to push a product on the market at any cost and that the more you’ll put the market under pression and make it suffocate with your presence the more you’ll be likely to succeed this book is not for you.

Product directors organize encounters

What Ed Brill understood is that his role was not to push products to the market but makes the market meet a product and that both learn and benefit from the other. That’s bringing the market into the organization to make the organization more likely to successfully address the market.

• Deduce use cases

A produt manager should understand well the nature of his mission to know why and how he should use these new tools. Anyway, tools makes no sense if not aligned with a given way of doing things. A backwards-looking vision of product management brings questionings regarding to these tools. On the contrary a modern approach makes social media the natural extension of the intention and raise one single question : how the make the most of the tools.

• Adopting good practices, behaviors, postures

It’s not  about occupying the field and make noise but bring added value. Ed Brill explains all the sides of his job that are impacted, that’s to say all the day to day activitie where mobilizing people to learn from them, explain things or enable them brings a tangible added value, how do does it, with whom. Both internally or externally.

Then it’s all about behaviors. Of course there’s still the company’s “marketing machine” but what he shares is the experience of a social product manager, in other words of someone who, from a personal standpoint, socialized his practices. What is not the same thing  : that’s not about a plan he establishes and is run by other but the way he himself acts in his own name, in a transparent fashion, in the context of his job. He makes it easy to understand the business value of an “etiquette”, of digital good manners learned on the field, mastered by the individual and backed by the company.

Digital good manners have business value

What is really interesting is how Ed Brill explains the reasons why he adopt such or such behaviors, backed with examples. When to answer or not answer. How to react to an attack. Pick a fight or not. Join a controversial discussion or not. What are the matters that are better tackled by an individual personifying his mission than by corporate communication ? Why and how building this legitimacy that makes him more credible regardless to the title written on hios business card ?

What matters here is to get the two dimensions of this matter : the added value of such an approach from the product director on the one dand and impact it should have in terms of leadership – both internal and external – on the on other hand.

I appreciated a lot the way he explained this successes, mistakes, provocation games businesses often play and how these situations were handled, why some decisions wer made etc. Thos who think that this matter is either too futile or risky will appreciate to see how things actually happened between IBM and competitors, demonstrating the product director can’t be outside of the system and that risk is easily manageable with common sense.

I know many of product directors and marketing managers who have such questions. Trained to rely on their organization marketing machine, aware of the benefits of a social business strategy they need points of reference to make the first step to themselves personify their job in public. They’ll find in Ed Brill’s experience the answer to many of their questions.

At the time when businesses are trying to find ambassadors there’s no doubt the product manager should be one of them and the way Ed Brill did things may inspire and reassure them.

Manage risks in a zone of comfort between the employee and the business

• Manage risks

Last point, but not the least, Ed Brill tells us how to find the right balance between the need for transparency and conversations in the one hand and risk management, need for confidentiality and all the things that worries both businesses and employees that carries their own message on the thin frontier between good practices and risky one.

Note, and I’ll elaborate more on this point in a future post, that the attitude of the company matters a lot. By justifying those practices, setting limits in a constructive way, businesses contribute to create a zone of comfort and trust that makes things possible.

What to say to conclude ? We read lots of thing what what should be done, approaches, pratices. What Ed Brill brings is the experience of a product manager that reinvented his job and transparently explains how he lives it as a person and an employee. That’s the story of a nicely narrated personal and professional progress.

A book any product director or marketer should have on his bedside table.

And if you’re still doubtful in face of such approaches, wonder what is a product director who does not talk with the market ? That is not able to personify the voice of the product. That is not able to carry, assume, explain, defend on the on the field the decision he made.

In great restaurants the chief often goes in the dining room, greeting customers, talking with tem, explaining things and sometimes comes back in his kitchen with a new idea in mind. A good product manager should behave the same.