In this article, I want to share my experiences building and scaling the product marketing function across the previous four organizations I’ve worked for; GE, MailChimp, Etsy, and Zapier.
I’ll walk you through my eight-step process, split across four buckets; understanding your customers, knowing your market, building strong relationships, and creating your vision - all while sharing examples and best practices along the way.
These are tips and tricks that you can take whether you are the only product marketer at your organization, whether you work for someone who works for someone who works for someone who runs product marketing, or whether you're actually scaling a team yourself, this should apply to you.
The four keys to building and scaling a product marketing function
- The first thing is understanding your customers - that's the number one thing you have to know your customers.
- The second is knowing your market - understanding the competitive landscape, understanding the other players, understanding what tangential products your customers might be using that impact the way they think about you and your product.
- The third is building strong relationships - this to me is where you really unlock the true power of product marketing is if you have super strong internal relationships. You can go to your product manager, your PM, your designer, your engineer, and really collaborate with them. I'll talk through some tips on how to do that.
- Finally, creating your vision - I think this is important, whether you're an IC, or you are at a manager level, understanding where you want to take your product marketing work, and being able to set that roadmap out for the rest of the company.
How to understand your customers
I'll start with understanding your customers, there are three topics I wanted to talk through.
- One is defining your target audience.
- The second is articulating the words to use.
- Third is identifying the most impactful channels and that's really around marketing.
How to define your target audience
On the qualitative side, we've heard about customer interviews, you can bring customers together, there's a lot of forums; Capterra, G2 crowd, iOS/Android stores for customer reviews - that's another really good way to do research, you don't have to pay anyone to help you do that. It's just desk research.
I think internal interviews are also super important. Everyone's organization looks different, for the past three companies that I've been at, we haven't had sales teams so I can't go to my sales team and ask what the customers are saying.
It's really about understanding from marketing, from product, from research, but who are the people in your company who have the closest relationship to the customers and really talking to them.
Finally, UX research. This is a function that I think looks and feels a little bit different across different companies, it can be run by product marketing, sometimes. But these are the people who are organizing the research studies, talking through the iterative product development process, getting feedback on design and on UI.
Being part of these research studies is so important. It's really easy with all the chaos to bow out of this type of work. But if you can get yourself embedded in the UX research, become a thought partner, become a contributor to the conversation that's happening there, I think that's another really good place that you not only develop an understanding of your target audience, but you're creating a dialogue with the rest of the team.
On the quantitative side, I put some numbers in here, because a lot of times, it's hard to know how much these things can cost. But segmentation studies are gold, they're amazing, but they can cost $2-300,000 and that's probably on the lighter side, depending on which agency you're using. Not every organization has that resource.
I think if you can advocate for it, it does really help impact the focus of the marketing team, the focus of the sales team, but it's not always available. If you don't have access to a few hundred thousand dollars to run a study, what else can you do from a quantitative perspective?
You can analyze support volume, you can look through the path to purchase from marketing to sales, all the way through to customer usage and understand from a product perspective, what customers are using, where they're dropping out, and try to build some quantitative work into your target audience.
I think at the end of the day, you're going to be most successful if you can showcase both qualitative and quantitative perspectives in terms of who your target audience is.
It doesn't always have to come from a segmentation study. I've worked at places where there is a really small amount - at GE there's a very small amount of customers - and so if you speak to 20 or 30 of your customers, you're going to start to get some consistency and try to build some segments around that.
Marketing personas are definitely helpful and I'll show you a resource that I built shortly for that.
Top concerns, problems to solve
Definitely understanding the top concerns, the problems to solve, and being able to socialize those around your organization is also very important.
Another thing you can do is empathy workshops or some sort of gathering with your cross-functional team where you talk them through all of your learnings.
How to articulate using the right words
The second step is articulating the words to use. Most of the time if you're in an organization the question around 'we've got 400 products, how do we market them?' I think a lot of this goes back to messaging.
MailChimp was in this space when I got there and Zapier is trying to work through it right now as well. We've got products, we don't really know how to talk about them in a way that makes sense to the customer.
That means everything that flows from that is a little bit disjointed. If you can stop and pause and understand and articulate the words you want to use when speaking to customers and prospects, you'll be in a much better place, and you'll find you get a lot more of your time back.
In terms of the inputs, there are different ways to do this.
Another one if you have a budget great, go and do a full scale messaging and positioning study, that's probably $200,000 at least, maybe you could do it for a little bit less. But that's a big quantitative study.
If you want to be scrappy and do it in house, you can look at what marketing has performed best in terms of you can look at email subject lines, you can look at paid advertising, you can look at which SEO articles are ranking highest, look at web traffic and where people are clicking on your website.
Also, you can look in-product, you can do some AB testing there, if anyone has a tool like Optimizely, you can also run AB tests inside the product or on the website, which is really helpful as well.
There are ways to do it in-house, there are ways to do it externally. The other thing I would add, in terms of doing it on your own, this is more desk research. So you can go to all your competitors’ sites and look at how they're talking about their product.
Ask yourself, does this make more sense in the way that we're framing it? Or what can I learn from how they're positioning their product, relative to mine? I think through that you'll not only understand what your messaging is but also what your differentiation points are.
The output from this is, you've got your messaging architecture, your messaging guide, and that's what you can socialize across the whole organization.
Everyone can rally around it, whether it's sales, marketing, PR, the product team, and this is something that I didn't think would be super valuable to a product team but at MailChimp, we were aching for something that would help us reposition ourselves in the market.
Everyone across the company, including engineers anchored themselves to the messaging.
Value prop, proof points & claims
What's your value proposition? What are your proof points and claims? This is another really important thing.
It involves working with legal typically if you have some - if you're a startup you probably don't have anyone that you have to vet it through - but if you work in a large organization, making sure that you can make the claims you want to but being able to say things like 'we are the number one blank tool for this target audience' or 'we are faster when we're doing X, Y, and Z in terms of our technology' - that's really important.
Prioritized features and messages
Finally, you want to have a list of prioritized features and messages. Knowing which of your entire feature set is the most valuable to your customer, your target audience, and being able to help the company prioritize that.
This last point, the prioritized features and messages, can change depending on who the audience is. For segment one, it looks one way, for segment two, it looks another way.
I think you've got your core prioritize list and then there are different ways to cut it. It can be by vertical, it can be by customer segment, it can be by geography.
If any of you work across different markets, you probably know that in Germany for business customers, they're very concerned around security and that's something that's very important to them much more so than in the US. You tweak that based on the different ways that you need to cut it for your business.
How to build message architecture
These are the inputs to your messaging architecture, you've got your research, you've got your value proposition, your product strategy, which is really important, and then if you're big enough to have an identity system, which could be your tone, your voice, how you show up in the world, this is probably coming from the brand team.
At Zapier, we're still building out that team so we don't necessarily have this as an input as much as we did it, let's say Etsy, where we had a really refined brand. But these are the four different layers that you can use to help drive the messaging architecture.
How to identify the most impactful channels
The third piece of understanding your customers is identifying the most impactful channels. I built out a rough outline of a marketing funnel here all the way from awareness down to retention, but you want to look at data.
This is where numbers come into play, being a scientist.
- Where are your customers and prospects hanging out online?
- Where channels are getting the most traction?
- How do these channels map to the marketing funnel?
A lot of businesses are super strong on SEO. I think a couple of pieces of data that I would look at here are your web traffic:
- Where's it coming from?
- What percentage is organic?
- What's the conversion rate there for the different channels?
- Which advertising is performing best in the market?
- How are you doing on social, which social channels are performing super well?
At MailChimp, we had really good traction on Instagram and Facebook, with more brand messaging but then when we want to talk about the product, it wasn't as successful, so it didn't get as much engagement.
Just knowing things like that can help you understand as you build out your go-to-market strategy, which channels do you want to consider? And how do you partner with those channel managers?
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Architecting the competitive landscape
Moving on to the second bucket, which is knowing your market and architecting and the competitive landscape. This is one of the areas that there's just a tonne of different ways to go about doing this.
Identify existing assets
The number one thing is to look for assets that already exist in your company.
- Are there research reports?
- Do you have a market research team?
- Can you sit down with them and get them to send you everything that already exists?
Meet with cross-functional teams
You're going to want to layer on your own perspective. So meet with your sales, support, customer success, product teams, your marketing peers - understand which competitors are coming up in the market, who you should be paying attention to.
Read as many customer reviews as you can get your hands on.
We've already done that a little bit to understand the target audience, but now we're doing it through a different lens. For example, if you're an e-commerce company, you're Shopify, you're looking at what reviews there are for Shopify, but also for WooCommerce and for Magento and for the other players in the market.
The idea is to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are and that allows you to build out more of an understanding of the market.
Dig into competitor sites
Digging into competitors’ websites, which I already talked about for messaging as well, normally when I do the messaging research, I'll keep that same document and then apply it to the competitive landscape as well.
But look at what releases they have, what press are they sending out? Where are they going? Where does it look like they're moving in the market?
If you have a Crunchbase subscription, especially the one that lets you really dig into the companies, that I think is another really helpful resource to understand once you've refined your competitive set where they're going.
This work is not done, you don't get to do it once every two years, and then walk away from it because competitors change, the market changes, competitors make new announcements.
I think it's important to refresh this every three to six months. It is a lot of work to do this so if you don't have a market research team that you can rely on, we don't have that right now, we're trying to start with one competitor at a time to help build some understanding down the road. I think we'd like to do it much more frequently but it's just not possible today.
What can you do that at least starts to socialize this information around the organization? Of course, knowing when a competitor makes a big move is really important as well. I want to show you a couple of ways that I've articulated this.
This is one where you have the list of your features on the left-hand side and then you've got your competitors at the top and then the way that this is is kind of red, green, yellow, but instead, it's white, light pink or dark pink.
Which companies are really strong in these spaces, which companies have weaknesses, that's one way to do it.
Another way I've done it which I really like, someone on my team at MailChimp came up with this idea, we've got competitors and then where their current state is and what they could potentially build for in the future.
This was really helpful because we were trying to build out a new product line and we knew who our core competitors were, but we didn't necessarily know what they were capable of doing in this space.
We were certainly the market leader at the moment but would they be able to build a product that would compete with ours in the near future? I think this is a really good framework as well.
Of course, the tried and true - I pulled this from G2, your little map.
This is the one that I've always used to socialize across the entire organization. If you're presenting to an entire engineering all hands, (which I think is really great to do, get in front of your engineering team and show them the competitive landscape) this is the one that I think will actually sit in people's minds relative to the other two.
But when you're talking to marketing or anyone who's out there trying to acquire customers, I think the other two can be a little bit more illuminative.
How to build strong relationships in product marketing
The third bucket is around building strong relationships. This to me is the most important thing, I think you can do everything great, you can understand your customers and understand your market.
But if you don't have the internal relationships you need you're going to sit alone on your own island.
- The first point here is embedding yourself in product development and I'll walk through how I've done that in the past. Again, certainly haven't always done it well but these are lessons I've learned.
- The second thing is bringing data back to your product team. What types of information can you bring back that will illuminate something for them?
- Third is building process to scale product marketing. This reduces the confusion that I think an organization can have around what exactly product marketing is and can do.
5. How can you embed yourself in product development?
The first thing is embedding yourself in product development. This is really a perspective from Etsy, MailChimp, and Zapier because there's no sales team and it's really a highly cross-functional engineering, product, and design organizations.
PM: your partner in defining the opportunity
The first partner I'd look to is your product manager. If you can think about them as your partner in identifying the opportunity and going after the opportunity, that should be your core partnership.
It's important whether you're at a management level to have that relationship with your peer at that level, or if you're on an individual product team to make sure that the PM feels like you are their partner.
Your focus really is to broaden their horizon, broaden their perspective, and to have dialogues with them around where they should go. Start to have that, should we do it this way? Should we do it that way?
I think it's completely normal for you to have different perspectives and that's actually very healthy. You don't necessarily want to think and look and feel the same exact way about all the opportunities as your PM, but you want to be able to have that dialogue so that you can talk about it.
Designer: collaborate on customer empathy
The second teammate is your designer. Here it's really around collaborating on customer empathy.
The designer, as someone who's thinking about the UI and the way the customers are actually going to interact with the product, and then you the customer person who's going to try to get them to that experience, how do you collaborate and make sure that you're on the same page on who the customer is?
This goes back to that conversation around the entire customer experience matters. Because if you think you're marketing to one person, and they're building for another, you've got a disjointed product experience and it's probably going to impact your adoption.
Things you can focus on there or work on together, you can build out personas, you can focus on key problems to solve and make sure that that's socialized within the rest of the team.
Engineering: new ideas and perspectives
Engineering, at GE engineers literally sat in a different building, I hardly ever interacted with them unless we were all in a meeting together. It was kind of similar at Etsy until we started doing UX research and we started inviting the engineers to the UX research.
They were super engaged, it really surprised me. They wanted to be there, they wanted to participate and they had some really great ideas. Thinking about bringing them into the fold, and making sure that they're part of the conversation because most engineers don't just want to build something and ship it, they want to be part of the whole story.
Thinking about pulling in new ideas and perspectives from the engineers, what do they know that you don't know? Or what ideas do they have that you wouldn't think of? There's a lot of opportunity there in terms of identifying new opportunities and just making them feel like valued teammates.
Research: avenue to better understand customers
Finally, research, which is your avenue to better understanding customers, you can build out value propositions with them. I've worked with UX research teams where we've actually been able to get them to test messaging for us prior to launching a product.
It isn't something that naturally occurs, especially if someone's coming from a product research background. But you can say "Hey, can you give me 10 minutes in this hour-long interview or five minutes in your 30-minute long interview, to test these five messages, I want to see what resonates best so that we can build the best marketing for the customer".
Typically, they're very open to that. What this creates is a shared vision for your go-to-market strategy and that means you don't have to go out and fight like 'this is how we're taking it to market and this is why' - everyone's already aligned with you, by the time that you've built that.
How to deliver data to your team
The second aspect of building strong relationships is bringing data back to your product team. If you think about it, they're not privy to all of the marketing KPIs, all the marketing strategy.
Often, there's this tension between product and marketing, where product is saying, "Well, marketing is not doing much", and marketing is saying, "Well, the product isn't right".
If you can come to them and say:
"Look, these are all the things that I'm tracking, this is the progress we're making, these are the channels that are working really well, this is how we're thinking about upper funnel thought leadership, this is how I want to show up at events this year, and how I want to bring our product to customers through these different mechanisms, how we want to leverage partners.”
That always has been really powerful, and again, opens up the door to shared collaboration. Because this is information that they otherwise would have never had access to or it would be on them to go and get it.
How to build processes to scale product marketing
This is something there's a lot I could talk through here, it could be an article of its own.
But the thing that I found the most powerful is having a tiered launch system, that's the most powerful thing I've found because it allows you to have a shared language across all these organizations and all these different teams about what your product is, and how you're going to bring it to market.
Product launch tiers
I'll show you a few things. In this first example you've got your launch tiers; tier one, tier two, tier three, tier four, from highest priority all the way down to the basic iterative launches that you don't really talk to customers about.
You can map these out by month and by tier. This was super powerful at MailChimp, and we're working on doing something like this at Zapier where you've got the different products and what tiers they fall into and when they're coming out.
This allows you to say to the rest of the marketing team, if you've got content teams that you're working with or designers that you need access to, "Look, October's super busy, December is going to be pretty quiet because we don't even know whether these things are going to launch. So can we get the resources in October to take all these products to market?".
You've got your deliverables and this changes market-to-market, this is an old version but across your different tiers.
What are the things you actually could activate? Then it's up to you as the PMM to decide what's part of my go-to-market package? What do I actually include in this tier one launch or in this tier four launch?
Hiring the right staff for impactful work
Finally, creating your vision. I think this is important.
If you're just starting out, your first time, speaking as someone who's managed new PMMs and looked at what sets people apart, having someone who comes to you and says:
"This is what I want to do for my product line. These are the resources I think I need to get that" whether it's a headcount, or it's research studies, etc, showing that you have a vision for your product, or for the whole PMM team if that's the role that you're in.
It’s definitely really powerful and helps you get clout in the organization as well as advocate for more headcount and grow the team so that you can have more impact.
What what does this mean?
Build a vision and structure for your team
I think number one is building a vision and a structure for your team. Even if you're only a single PMM, thinking about what does that mean? You as a team of one, what is your vision for your team and your impact?
Align to business priorities
Always align to business priorities, understand where your company is going over the 1-3 year timeline, and make sure that you're aligning yourself to that.
Ensure you can demonstrate revenue impact
So that, as you're talking to executives, you can say, "This is how I'm contributing to this company-wide goal", ensure you can demonstrate revenue impact, I know that's super important for our work, aligning and signing up for revenue goals is great if you can do that.
Include a case study on GTM or messaging
When I go to hire, I think always having a go-to-market case study or a messaging case study is really important because you're able to pick out who knows what they're doing, or who actually is passionate about this from the people who might just like the name of your company or want a job in marketing in general.
Hire an intern for a discrete project
Finally, I think hiring interns is a really great way to not only build your pipeline of talent, but also if you have discrete projects, and you don't have the headcount for the year, hiring an intern to do let's say, a deep dive on a certain audience or to do a deep dive on a competitor, or to run a research study.
We've done this and had some real success and we hired actually a couple of our interns at MailChimp. I didn't have interns at Etsy, but I think product marketing is actually a great fit for an internship especially if you can define the project.
So not saying a generic PMM intern, but having someone with a discrete project who you can manage and they have a deliverable they can show at the end of the day, I think it's a great space for internships.
Before I go, I'll leave you with three thoughts.
Think of each PMM as a mini GM
You're managing your business, you're thinking about everything from off-site into the product experience, and you're helping your product manager drive towards their adoption and revenue goals.
Focus on bringing net new opportunities to your teams
Focus on bringing net new opportunities to your teams, whether it's competitive intel, customer insights, marketing performance, or a new AB test that you can run either on the site or in the product.
Know your customer and know your market
If you do these things, and you have the relationships, you're going to be a successful PMM.
Hopefully, you can get to the point where you feel like this, you're putting something out into the world, you know what it is, you feel crystallized.
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