Until fairly recently though, that was meant in a figurative way. In other words, the product didn't really sell itself, but a high-quality product will generate positive word of mouth that will sell more products.
The emergence of the "growth hacker" a few years ago presented a new option. Growth hackers could be hybrids of marketers and coders, using A/B testing and other metrics to test marketing in real-world conditions. Another aspect of the growth hacking mindset is a merger of product development and marketing.
A classic example of this is Hotmail. When the product launched in 1996, its creators put a note at the bottom of each email asking recipients to "get your free email at Hotmail." That product literally sold itself. As usual, the B2B market lagged in this respect, but now what I like to call "product-led growth" is the norm as more startups productize their marketing.
How It Works
What Hotmail did was merely add a call-to-action to its product. Admittedly, this really isn't an option for products outside the realm of digital media. However, these days every business is a software business, so there are a lot more options for product-led growth.
Product-led growth isn't just about call-to-action messaging though. It means taking a cue from software development and releasing a minimum viable product that morphs depending on customer feedback. For instance, Amazon has a rule that before the company embarks on a new product initiative, someone on the product team needs to create a fake press release discussing its benefits. The company uses that as a roadmap.
Slack is another example. Rather than selling software, CEO Stewart Butterfield says the company is selling a positive user experience. Expensify (OpenView is an investor) is based on a similar premise. Filing expense reports is usually an arduous process that's made worse by poorly designed software. But what if users find the experience so much better that they become evangelists for the platform and bug their bosses to use it on the corporate level?
The Product-izing Trend
Product-led growth dovetails with another general business trend of productizing services. Like most business ideas, this is an old one. The idea of franchising, for instance, is to strip down an experience (like a restaurant) to a repeatable formula for signage, cooking times, etc. Famous chefs productize their offerings by writing cook books.
Similarly, some service companies have learned that much of what they offer, including training and expertise, can be offered in the form of a product, often a SaaS product. For instance, rather than merely offer consulting, Adobe has a suite of products that executives can use to market themselves better.
Smart companies these days are essentially product-izing their marketing. That is, they are baking in marketing to their products.
Let the Product Do the Selling for You
One of the lessons of the dot-com bust was that expensive ad campaigns weren't necessary. In the wake of Pets.com and its famous Super Bowl ad, we've seen scores of B2B companies like Dropbox, Slack, Expensify and Datadog (again, OpenView is an investor) gain traction without standard marketing campaigns.
These are companies that consider their product to be the most important of the 3P's. That may have always been the case, but the days when you could overcome a mediocre product experience with splashy advertising or hard charging sales is long gone. Consumers won't take your word for if that your product is great. They need to experience it for themselves first. And that's where the opportunity lies.