As a marketer, we’re often brought in at the end of a project to take what the business has created and sell it to customers. The business people will take the product documentation, drop it on our desks to “make it pretty” so customers will buy it. It’s frustrating. How do we know what the customers really want? How can we link it back to their underlying motivations? But that’s just what we’ve always done.
Does it have to be this way? Isn’t marketing about understanding a customer’s underlying needs? How come the business doesn’t think like that? Shouldn’t we understand these needs before building the product?
That’s what Amazon does. At Amazon, the company uses a product development/marketing process called “Working Backwards.” Working Backwards has a double meaning. On the one hand, Amazon works backward from the customer to build the product based on what the customer wants. On the other hand, Amazon’s process doesn’t come up with the product and then sells it to the customer; they do it backward from the ways other companies do.
The Working Backwards process has the following components:
Press Release (PR): The core of Working Backwards is the Press Release. When was the last time you’d heard that? Doesn’t a press release come at the end of the process after we know what we’ve built? Normally yes. But that’s a press release that’s trying to tell customers what’s already made. At Amazon, a person working on a new product works on a fictional press release. They are showing customers what it would be like when the product would launch. The press release answers questions like, “Who is the customer who’s using the product?,” “What’s the key pain point that the customer has?,” and “How will this product delight them?” The press release goes through many versions before it’s nailed down. At the end of this process, there’s a compelling experience that everyone is building towards.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): What are the questions that customers are going to have about the product? What do internal stakeholders need to know in order to get the product successfully launched? Normally these questions are answered once that product has been built. Not at Amazon. These questions are answered upfront right after the Press Release. In fact, these two documents are often combined into a PR/FAQ. While the press release defines the overall experience that we want the customer to have, the FAQ gets into the details of how this will work. Getting these questions nailed down early on saves a lot of pain. Answering the question, “How is this different from existing products?” is a great question to nail down before you’ve built the product.
Visuals and User Documentation: Once the PR/FAQ is built, we need to put some meat on the bones. We start putting together some of the screens and help define what this will look like. Most notably, this is where the user documentation is written. Normally this is a task that’s done at the last minute and given a low priority. As a joke, I’ve heard this described as, “It’s the first thing the customer sees, that’s why it’s traditionally given to the most junior member of the team.” In Working Backwards, the User Documentation is critical. It defines what the end customer is able to do on the system. If a customer can’t see and interact with the feature, why is the company even building it?
This may seem like a lot of work. All of these things are done before anyone even starts building the product. People may complain that they want to just build something. However, if you look at the steps above, you need to define all of these things before the product is built. Why would you build a product before you have a compelling experience that you’re aiming for? Why would you build something before you know the answers to the questions that customers will ask? The key here is that the Working Backwards process does a lot of work upfront, where changes are the least expensive. Making changes later in the process requires a lot more rework and people are less likely to make them.
Midas Exchange also leverages a client-first approach, where we aim to solve our client’s marketing and financial challenges leveraging our corporate trade model. We evaluate their problem assets while concurrently analyzing their media. We then create a plan alongside their existing agency partner to enable them to utilize their problem assets to fund their marketing programs. They are essentially growing by leveraging their problem assets.
Working Backwards is one of the secrets to Amazon’s success. It lets the company innovate faster because they can quickly and nimbly change the product before it’s even built. The process has been so successful that it’s virtually unchanged in well over a decade. You can see more about the Working Backwards process in this video on Amazon’s Culture of Innovation.