You might think planning is the first part of getting ready for your next major release, but there are three important activities you need to complete before you start planning. Skip them and you risk building new features nobody wants or uses.
These activities ensure that you understand your target buyers and product users—their needs, requirements, and expectations may have shifted from your last product release. They’ll also help you discover technological advances and trends that present opportunities for you to have a competitive advantage (or, you may find that your competitors are using technology in a way that's winning your customers over).
Here are the three most critical steps to take before you start product planning:
1. Track the market landscape
You should always track key market indicators. Use this tracking information during pre-planning to uncover shifts and trends in:
- Market share: Is it growing or shrinking? How are your competitors doing here?
- Target market size: Is it bigger or smaller? Are there places to expand?
- Target market demographics or firmographics: Are there any notable changes?
- Target buyer and user personas: Have there been any shifts in titles or responsibilities? What are their top concerns or pain points? How are they currently solving the problem?
- Emerging technologies: Is there anything new that can help you solve your target buyers' needs?
Look to your internal resources for insights and answers to these questions. Talk to your sales, customer success, support, and services teams to find information on your current buyers and product users. For external sources on market intelligence, you can usually access reports from third-party industry analysts and respected industry publications.
Hearing the pain points directly from your target customers is the best way to uncover what they need and how you can stand out in the marketplace. Start with in-person depth interviews, open-ended discussions with people in your target market to understand their problems and needs. Run surveys to test what you’ve learned on a larger scale.
2. Identify your top competitors and focus on them
To outperform your competitors, you need to know what they’re up to. This is a key part of pre-planning since it will help you learn about the market and what you're up against. The key is to focus on the top competitors from the perspective of your market.
Start your competitive research online. Check out competitors’ websites for their value propositions, marquee customers, and highlighted features. See if users have reviewed their product sites like Gartner Peer Insights or G2Crowd. Sign up for a webinar or watch one of their demos to hear the story they tell. If it's an option, try out a demo of the product to see it for yourself.
Once you've done your preliminary research, it's time to talk to your sales team. They likely have a lot of insight into your competitors, since they talk to prospects all day long who are choosing between you and your competitors. They can likely provide you with information like what prospects think the strengths and weaknesses of your product are, who they consider your top competitors, and what major problems their prospects want to solve.
Like product planning, gathering competitive intelligence is a near-continuous process—the competitive landscape is changing everyday. Run frequent surveys with your sales team so you have up-to-date information on hand. Then make sure to use that information in product planning.
3. Document and share your findings
Using your competitive intelligence, create a competitive matrix that and share it with your extended team. A competitive intelligence matrix helps you focus on the specific products that are in direct competition with yours.
You can build your competitive matrix in a spreadsheet (or even use Obo). List your product's top 3-5 competitive products in the first column. (There might be more than five, but stick to this limit for now.) Notice we said "product," not "brand." One brand or company might have a couple of competitive products, and they should each be listed if that's the case.
For each competitor’s product, briefly fill out these details:
- Overview: This is just a quick assessment of the product's strengths and weaknesses.
- Pricing: How is their product priced? Is it a subscription model or a one-time purchase? Are there any hidden costs (e.g. services, support, overages) that aren't included in the advertised price? If you can't find pricing online, see if your sales team has the information or look at online reviews or third-party sites.
- Value proposition: You can usually find their value proposition in the headline on the product page or home page.
- Key features: What defines your competitor's product? What features are highlighted the most? How do those tie to the problems the market is trying to solve?
- Key customers: If you can find them, choose the top names of customers advertised on their site. Look for trends in size and industry. Note: If more than one competitor claims the same customer, it could be a sign that that customer isn’t fully satisfied with either one.
- Key integrations and partners: These are generally listed on their website. If it applies, see if they have an active user community.
- Notes: Here's where you can put anything else that's relevant, such as analyst ratings, wins and losses.
Armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to start planning a product that your customers want and that will outperform your competitors.