04024 Is Your Product a Missionary or Savior?

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The software industry, and the high technology industry in general, is so young that sometimes everything about it seems to be brand new. It’s a whole new world filled with new products that deal with unfamiliar concepts. For example, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is already “old hat” when it’s a term that was unknown ten years ago.

The urge to be new and improved means that some classic product categories reappear dressed in new garb. It used to be that you created reports (even printed them out in hardcopy!). Nowadays you implement a Decision Support System instead. It’s the same thing.

Taking a step back and using a Product Management perspective to look at the constant stream of new software products, it becomes apparent that while every company wants their product to be brand spanking new, there are two very distinct strains of newness: the Missionary and the Savior. And one of those two types is a much harder sell.

Is your product a Missionary or a Savior, and what does that mean for your business model? Is one easier than the other? How does this change the role of the Product Manager? Read on below for a discussion of two very different types of product.


The Product Manager’s Role

The unofficial role of the Product Manager is to fill in wherever there are gaps in the organization in order for the product to be a success. This involves any combination of better design, marketing, selling, operations, development or customer care.

Because the gaps and needs for a Missionary product are very different than for a Savior one, a Product Manager focuses on different areas for each product.

The Missionary Product

The Missionary product is a product that is ahead of its time or at least on the bleeding edge. It represents a new idea or a whole new take on an old idea. Nobody has heard of it and your company is in the position of telling others about it and convincing them of how important it is. It’s a breakthrough product.

The upside of a Missionary product is that it’s fun and exciting to stand up in front of crowds of people and reveal the product in all its glory. Everything feels like uncharted territory, and as Product Manager you feel like you’re making software history.

It’s fun when the vision is yours to craft, and when people get that vision, they’re blown away.

The downside of a Missionary product is that people are not easily convinced that something new and different is better. Some people just don’t get it. Still others get it but don’t have the stamina to do the heavy selling within their own organization to teammates who aren’t getting it. Selling a Missionary product is definitely an uphill climb.

The temptation of the Missionary product is the possibility that it will convert the world and become one of the top success stories of all time.

The Savior Product

The Savior product is one that addresses a widely known pain in the marketplace. It helps relieve a difficulty that people have complained about for years. Sometimes it lands in a market where there are already plenty of solutions, but the Savior product provides a solution that is dramatically more effective or many times easier.

The upside of a Savior product reads like those profiles of successful companies where they say things like:

  • “We didn’t really do a lot of advertising. It spread like wildfire through word of mouth.”
  • “We’re growing by leaps and bounds. It’s all we can do to keep up with orders.”
  • “We’re really profitable because we don’t have to spend money on advertising or selling expenses.”

The downside of a Savior product is, well, is there a downside? I’m not sure. If you consider growing so fast that it’s painful to be a problem, then that would be a downside, I guess.

The Difference In a Nutshell

With a Savior product, the market comes running out into the streets to greet it, cheering it along all the way. The Missionary product has to go exploring into lands unknown to make converts through its boundless zeal.

To a certain extent, this difference resembles what happens before and after (probably well after) the famous Chasm discussed in Geoffrey A. Moore’s book, Crossing the Chasm.

As you can imagine, if you’re dealing with a Missionary product, you probably have a whole lot more effort ahead of you to make that product take hold and flourish.

The Worst Part About a Missionary Product

The worst part about a Missionary product is that everyone wants to think they have a Missionary product which is really just a Savior product that hasn’t been discovered yet. You can expend a whole lot of energy and effort – and money that you’ll never recover – promoting a product that you are convinced everyone would want if they just knew about it, only to discover that the market does not, in fact, want it at all.

This falls right into a common trap in technology companies. It’s the “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” syndrome. Technically oriented individuals who are light on marketing knowledge develop a product without doing the proper research to determine if it actually fits a need. Then they have what they (and possibly they alone) consider a great product, and all it needs is a little marketing for customers to come begging to give you money. So everybody with a poorly researched product tends to believe it’s a Missionary product.

So it’s very hard to know if your Missionary product will speak to the masses, or if you’re throwing good money after bad.

Marketing a Savior Product

Marketing a Savior product feels like running downhill. Put in a decent amount of effort and soon you’ll be speeding along. Go read a book on Marketing and do all the things they say: talk to the media to develop a buzz, do advertising and watch the orders flow in, send sales reps out with nice presentations and sit back as they bring in signed contracts. It’s mostly a numbers and time phenomenon.

Do some trade shows, and you’ll find plenty of interest and enthusiasm. It will help build a flow of leads for the sales pipeline.

When the time is ripe, and momentum is building, you can even do a big, expensive top ad agency style campaign, and it will bring in a great return. And then you probably won’t need to rely on too much advertising, as word of mouth provides plenty of new business.

Do some things that make it easier for word of mouth to happen, and you’re in solid shape.

Marketing a Missionary Product

But marketing a Missionary product is like running uphill. You can put in a superior effort and still find yourself going along at an inferior pace, and wondering why.

The problem with marketing a Missionary product is that you still have to try to do all the things listed in the books about Marketing. But you just won’t get a very good return, which makes it hard to justify further expenditures, or simply means your budget will run out.

But you won’t be able to do the jazzy top marketing agency thing. The mainstream media is unlikely to pick up your story as long as you are untested. So you need to aim for the lesser known media outlets. This will get you coverage, but little or even no sales. What it does get you is some notoriety so that you can get picked up by better known outlets in the future.

If you do any advertising, you won’t have the budget for a super ad agency. You’ll have to be as creative as you can, may have doubts about the agency’s abilities, and the campaign may not pay for itself in the end. You need to carefully hunt down and record any return you get if you want to be lucky enough to do a second campaign.

Trade shows will require all the clever tricks you can think of. You’ll have to work to drive traffic to your booth and follow up on every lead like it’s made of gold. And you’ll need to track your return in order to justify trade shows for next year.

As a Product Manager, Marketing and Sales will need every bright idea you can come up with to make the product message more compelling.

Putting the Missionary to the Test

One thing you will be faced with as a Product Manager of a Missionary product is determining whether you’ve got a true Missionary product or you’ve wound up falling into the pitfalls of Better Mousetrap thinking. If no systematic market research has been done, you’ll need to do that. It may have to be done on a shoestring, but you’ll need to get the buy-in of the management team to consistently measure and justify how good the reaction of the market is to your product. Use the feedback as guidance on how to better convince the masses.

This can be a series of interviews with customers and prospects, done by asking the same questions and considering all the input, not just what people want to hear. There are a number of ways this can be done without a budget for formal market research.

The Successful Missionary Product

Of course, you’re in for a wild and thrilling ride if you have a successful Missionary product. After awhile, the painstaking and strained marketing effort begins to show better and better returns. And finally someone declares the product a Savior. If you can tough it out for what inevitably takes longer than expected to get through the wilderness, up the hill, and over the chasm, then you have the joy of managing an incredibly powerful, profitable product.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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