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What is Digital Product Management?


It’s a question we hear all the time… What is Digital Product Management? So we created this guide to help individuals, teams and companies answer that question.

What is Digital Product Management?

That’s a question that thousands of Google searches are launched each day to ascertain – a search which returns more than 2.5 billion results in half a second. Opinions vary, so let us take this space to assert our position, based on training and working with more than 75,000 customers in 120 countries, over 20+ years.

Today’s Mainstream Product Manager

First, let’s recap the role of the Product Manager, which has become increasingly mainstream, and somewhat standardized – initially in tech companies, and steadily more pervasively – over the past 20 years. That’s major progress, for a role which by some measures was first conceived as a ‘Brand Man’ by Neil McElroy of Procter & Gamble in the 1930’s.

Today, the Product Manager role is sometimes summarized as being responsible for getting the right products “on the shelf”; that is, creating products that people and companies want to buy. This is in contrast to other business roles, notably Sales and Marketing, who are chiefly responsible for “getting the products off the shelf”. Admittedly, this “shelf” metaphor doesn’t feel very digital – we’ll come back to that shortly.

The Product Management role is very broad and has significant business impact. In practice, the PM team leads or contributes to several specific efforts:

1. Strategic Planning

Identifying trends, opportunities, and threats in multiple domains (e.g., market, technology, regulatory, economic, among others). Then, helping establish and align the strategic priorities of the company. This often also includes Market Sizing & Segmenting: Determining which markets and sub-markets are attractive to pursue, and why.

2. Discovery of Market Needs

Uncovering unmet market needs, problems, “pain points” and the like, then determining which ones are compelling enough for the business to pursue.

3. Product Conception

Ideating and refining potential solutions to the discovered market problems.

4. Planning & Prioritizing

Making tough choices that drive high impact investments and allocation of scarce resources.

5. Competitive Research

Sizing up competitors, to shore up your own weaknesses and identify leap-ahead opportunities.

6. Guiding Engineering Execution & Delivery

Empowering, leading, and motivating the development teams, while ensuring what they deliver works, is timely, and meets the market need.

7. Pricing & Packaging

Establishing the right price for the product’s value.

8. Go-to-market efforts

This is often in conjunction with Product Marketing.

That’s a lot, right? It’s a role with a broad set of responsibilities. In some organizations, it’s even split into multiple, specialty disciplines with their own career paths. This has drawn a lot of talented people into Product Management as an expansive and growing domain.

The Origins of Digital Product Management

As you would expect, Digital Product Management got its start at software and technology companies like “FAANG” (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google), game developers, mobile app developers, and the like: they were all “born digital”.

Digital Transformation has been a wake-up call for a much broader set of established companies to gain competitive advantage by learning and mastering the Digital Product Management practices pioneered by these digital natives.

What Makes a Digital Product Manager Different?

Digital Product Management refers to several specific dimensions of the Product Management practice:

  • Continuous experimentation and validation of market needs and value delivery – not only while a product is “in development”, but throughout the entire product lifecycle. And, a corresponding emphasis on data-driven decision-making, instead of relying primarily on opinions and assumptions.
  • New types of (digital) products, which may be new versions of existing products, extensions to existing products, or entirely new.
  • New models and metrics for acquiring, monetizing and retaining customers, and creating recurring revenue streams.
  • Rigorous focus on the User of the product, not merely the Buyer.
  • Dramatically increased velocity and iteration in addressing each of the above domains.

Three takeaways here:

  1. The above practices are equally critical. You can’t pick and choose which to adopt and which to ignore.
  2. While these are “table-stakes” for today’s startups, they often represent a significant – even profound – cultural change for many established companies.
  3. These practices rely far more on science than art or craft, and accordingly, call for a new kind of PM: the Digital Product Manager (DPM).

The DPM alone can’t overcome all the barriers to transformation. But they can learn, apply, and master new ways to work, to fill the leadership gap, and be a critical part of the transformation.

Digital Product Managers Are STILL Product Managers!

In short: The DPM is essentially responsible for incorporating the above practices into the existing discipline of Product Management, to build a new breed of products. Importantly, Product teams are still performing the “traditional” PM practices too, but the DPM role is distinct in being chartered as described here. The other key distinction is that while the eight product management efforts described at top are often executed linearly and sequentially, the DPM drives the five digital practices essentially concurrently – iterating on all of them rapidly. Think of this as “doing less, more often”. Not surprisingly, companies are hiring briskly for these DPM roles, and moving some existing PMs into new DPM assignments.

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Product Management for “Digital” Products

As noted above, digital products are not a single product category and certainly don’t have to be all-new: some well-established, mature products are increasingly finding new opportunities to grow, new ways to serve customer needs, and provide value via digital technologies. Consider these three examples of digital products:

1. Digital Version of Formerly Analog Products

There are now USB-equipped turntables available, which provide increased value over their analog predecessors: not only can you continue to play your collection of vinyl classics, but you can easily “rip” them for easier storage and access, or archiving, at the same time. That’s substantially increasing the value proposition of the original analog turntable.

2. Existing Products with Added Digital Services

No better examples than the Nest thermostat, smoke detector, or cameras. Each takes an existing product, commoditized long ago, and adds substantial value for providing safety and comfort via wireless connectivity and cloud-based subscription services. Or, consider the “connected tractor” – it’s as much a rolling, GPS-guided, data-collection machine these days as it is a device to plow the field.

3. Entirely New Digital Offerings

Some products just weren’t possible before the confluence of cheap and pervasive internet connectivity, storage, and processing power. Smartphones and tablets are two examples of these new offerings, and they, in turn, enabled services like Spotify, which allows your music to follow you anywhere.

As you would expect, digital products like those above, and many others, need the expertise and rigor described here to ensure they hit the mark as market needs and technologies quickly evolve. A Digital Product Manager would be tapped to lead their conception, development, delivery, and ongoing market success.

Wrap Up

There you have it: Let’s all make room for the Digital Product Manager. Learn more in our on-demand webinars, Mastering Digital Product Management Part 1 and Part 2. We discussed more about the key dimensions that distinguish the Digital Product Management practice from a more traditional PM practice and what it takes to facilitate an in-product journey that will delight your customers, and keep them coming back for more. Watch the on-demand webinars today.

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Digital Product Management Course

If the career of Digital Product Manager interests you, check our new comprehensive, hands-on training that enables Product Managers to quickly and iteratively discover, design, deliver, and grow digital products with confidence, ensuring their customers are delighted and business goals are achieved.