Solutions marketing is even more confusing than product marketing. Solution marketing is about articulating how a customer pain is solved. While product marketing explains what a product does and why anyone would care, solution marketing turns the table, and explains how a customer pain point is solved – in some cases, with many products from the same company or different companies.
The conceptual issue is this – there are many ways to solve a problem and various degrees to which a solution addresses a problem.
As an analogy, consider that if you need shelter, you can have many solutions – homes, hotels, airbnb, a couch at a friend’s house, a church – but the timespan of your problem and your ability to pay might limit how viable a solution any of them are.
As a tech relevant analogy, the IBM Watson is often positioned as a solution for companies looking to incorporate artificial intelligence in their business, but it is hardly out-of-the-box and also requires a good amount of time and much professional services/implementation effort to deliver results.
Why does solutions marketing matter even?
If it is so confusing, why bother with it, at all? There are a few, very strong business reasons to do so:
- Growth / Market expansion : Product companies that have found initial product-market fit can run out of growth vectors if their addressable market is a narrow segment. Or their customer acquisition rates can plateau after initial use cases have been copied by competitors. Solutions marketing is a way to capitalize on product success and expand its applicability to a wider range of problems. I spent many years at Splunk, and we initially marketed it as “Google for the datacenter”. However, had we limited its positioning to that of a search engine, Splunk would have been easily outrun by competitors. Expanding to other key solution areas such as security, IT operations, application management and more, helped customers see it in a much broader light.
- Faster customer acquisition: Solutions marketing entails putting yourself in the shoes of the customer, thinking about their problems and if/how your product solves it. Putting your product in context for a prospect speeds up the selling into and across an organization. The right kind of messaging, positioning, packaging and pricing around this type of thinking leads to faster, more streamlined sales. Going back to my Splunk example where I led solutions marketing for Splunk in IT Operations, Application Management and other areas, had I approached the prospects in the market with a “search engine” type of message, chances are our prospects would have been left wondering what they would do with a “search engine”. Adding the context of faster mean time to incident resolution, cross-technology stack visibility and added intelligence about critical applications’ usage, meant that customers could justify their purchases and accelerate the sales process.
- Faster time to value for the customer: Solutions marketing, if done right, will mean that you build the “accessories” or “value-add” on top of your product that gets your customer to value faster. Whether it is in the form of targeted content, collateral, technical how-to’s, tool-tips, wizards, small apps or full-fledged, packaged end-to-end user experiences, it is a win-win – customer problems get solved faster, vendors get an opportunity to create differentiation that delights the customer.
Key concepts in solutions marketing:
Solutions definition: The easiest definition of a solution is that it is something that solves a customer problem. Defining solutions is not easy, picking the right solutions is even more difficult especially if your customer journey doesn’t reveal many patterns beyond the initial use case.
Some popular approaches used to define solution areas include:
- Classifying the distinct pain-points your product solves by industry/vertical – but this is a very broad definition, since your product is hardly likely to solve every problem in the industry.
- Evaluating popular use cases, particularly if your product is used horizontally across many industries. You can see this example on New Relic’s website where they have categorized their main use cases into DevOps, Cloud Adoption and Digital Customer Experience, likely because most of their customers got started using their product to solve specific issues in these areas. You can see a similar example on Elastic’s website where they have defined 8 different solutions ranging from Cloud to IoT.
- Using the business initiatives that drive deals as a framework, an example being Okta’s website. Okta lists Protecting Against Data Breaches, Seamless Customer Experience and others as business initiatives. This approach appeals particularly to sales, as it allows them to focus on specific initiatives inside their customers’ businesses. A downside is that the terminology for these initiatives may vary from company to company and make initial prospecting difficult.
- Using personas to drive solution definition. If you already have a product that is used by a variety of different personas (this is another blog post), engaging with these personas and figuring out the pain-points your product solves for them, could hint at what are solution areas for your product. At Splunk, we had distinct personas – IT operations professionals, application owners, developers,security professionals – and these helped outline our initial set of solutions. Persona-based solutions also helped us develop the right set of messaging, pricing, packaging and pricing for our go-to-market activities, because we could build business cases against existing tool sets in each of these individual markets.
Which approach to use?
Its annoying to hear the phrase “It Depends”, but there really is no set-in-stone guidance. It depends on your product and your business. In some cases, there is a clear signal from your product’s initial use cases of adjacent markets that are large and lucrative. To get a sense for this, understanding your customer’s journey and the adjacent set of products that make your product successful is often a useful exercise.
Oracle, in the early days, used the solutions approach to greatly expand the stickiness of their database. By building financial, ERP, HR and other business applications and marketing into these solution areas, they ensured their database was everywhere and now of course, they have 80% of the database market.
In contrast, mongodb.com, another very successful company describes solutions as basically their different products, which makes total sense to their core audience of application developers.
Salesforce.com leaves no stone unturned – they define solutions, by role, by business size, by need and by industry vertical.
Market sizing, an eye for growth rates of adjacent segments, customer councils, a thorough understanding of customer problems and adjacent product usage are all critical tools in your tool belt while picking solutions.
So what is the marketing part here?
Solutions marketing is analogous to product marketing – except now the entire solution area is your business concern. Messaging, positioning, content , collateral, pricing, packaging needs to appeal to and attract the right set of folks – ones who feel the pain, need the solution and are ready with budget.
Each solution area should be equipped with the appropriate level of solution guides/cookbooks/apps/experiences to help customers achieve success faster. Demand generation, events presence, analyst and press engagements, all need to revolve around the solution areas you are investing in. Pricing and packaging can be used to encourage comparisons with single use competitors or alternatives that require much effort and customization to use for the same problem.
There is also an inbound role that marketing plays here – engaging with customers, listening to their stories of success with the product, and building on these stories to not just to acquire more customers but to also provide input to engineering and product teams so they can focus their build efforts. The more targeted your solution, the greater the chance of its adoption.