Here's an important rule of thumb, if you're a researcher such as myself: Don't name something unless it really exists. That sounds fairly obvious, but unfortunately, in the history of the technology industry, there's a sad history of failed neologisms. In some cases, these phrases exaggerated the importance or complexity of some relatively mundane aspect of the world. That's how the superheated usage of the term knowledge management turned into a four letter word. In other cases, people use neologisms designed to describe things that might (or might not) exist in the future as if they already existed now. I've heard some presentations about the Semantic Web that certainly fall into that category.

Therefore, when I use a phrase like social product management, believe me, I'm using it very carefully. Over the course of the last week, I've had occasion to use it on several occasions, most recently at last night's open house for PMs in the Forrester Foster City office. (Thanks to all who attended, by the way.)

Social product management passes the sniff test for neologisms because it describes something that's really happening: social media are changing the way that product managers and product marketers work. Here are a few manifestations, excerpted from the research I've been doing for the last several months:

  • Social media figure increasingly in the to-do lists for PMs. Whether it's answering forum postings or monitoring "chatter" about your company on Twitter, PMs are spending more time using social media to get some aspects of their job completed.
  • Social media demand new skills to master. It's abundantly clear that using social media, in either an inbound or outbound capacity, takes real skill. Unfortunately, not everyone has learned how to  spot the social media outlets where particular kinds of stakeholders congregate, or how to collect and interpret a representative sample of aggregate social media activity.
  • Social media frequently require investment. It takes time and effort to figure out which social media channels are worth your attention. In some cases, new tools, such as listening platforms, can be a big force multiplier in these efforts.
  • Social media require new attitudes to work. Everything falls apart if the company isn't ready to take social media seriously. Strangely, customers expect social media to be the place where conversations happen, instead of providing yet another brand of megaphone for vendors to announce their greatness. They also expect you to follow up on these conversations. Weird, but true.
  • Social media foment professional crises for PMs. The natural consequence of the previous bullets are some tough conversations between PMs and their managers. Topics include How the hell do you expect me to do this in my free time to Why use these new sources of intelligence if we continue to make the same mistakes in the decision-making process? However these conversations turn out, the fact that they're happening at all means that social media are having a real effect on the PM job.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying that social media obliterate everything that PMs used to do. Far from it. In pretty much every aspect of the job where social media are relevant, they supplement existing PM tasks, deliverables, or resources. For example, as useful as innovation sites may be (users propose features, comment on them, vote on them), you still need to have occasional face-to-face conversations with people in customer organizations. If 5,000 people vote for a great new feature, Ion flux regulator, that doesn't tell you why it's important to them, how they expect it to work, and other critical details that bear directly on prioritization and design decisions.

Therefore, the phrase social product management does have weight and purpose, to the extent that social media are changing the way that PMs in the tech industry work. Me absolvo, it's not just another meaningless buzzword.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]