As a PMM, aligning cross-functionally and across departments within your company can be the difference between successfully doing your job and managing your workload, and feeling like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, never having enough hours in the day.
Achieving that holy grail of aligning your department with the rest of the company can feel like the impossible task sometimes, but the good news is it’s within reach.
I'm Jeff Hardison, Head of Product Marketing at Clearbit, and today I want to talk to you about how to create either a product marketing department when you don't have one or reestablish it so it's better aligned with various departments in your company, be it marketing department, be its sales, or be it product management.
I have done this really poorly for many years and I feel like now I'm at like B- level of doing this, I think it's one of the most challenging things to do in product marketing. I've worked at Hewlett Packard, which was like 100,000 people in product marketing. I've worked at Envision with Fran Larkin which is like 1000 people. And currently, I'm at Clearbit which is 100 people that’s just establishing its product marketing department and it's bumpy.
Whether you're trying to establish for the first time like I'm doing at Clearbit, or you're finding there's some tension with other departments when you join and you want to realign it. So if you're ever feeling stressed out by this or frustrated or wondering if anybody else is struggling with this, you're not alone.
A brief background
Let me explain a little bit about Clearbit if you don't know us, we mostly work with B2B SaaS companies like Stripe and Slack. We provide data to both B2B sales teams and marketing teams, we can identify people that are visiting your site if they're anonymous and the de-anonymize them, we help the sales team enrich Salesforce records.
What's interesting I think about the company and one of the reasons I joined wasn't this, even though I've worked in MarTech, it was because of the culture of the company. They were profitable by month four, which I thought was really neat. Their CEO he's 29 now, and he dropped out of high school to work for Twitter and Stripe as one of their early engineers and he's built this company.
He has a lot of interesting management cultures he uses that's made it easier for me to be a product marketer. There's a lot of mutual accountability there where he literally will do a survey of employees and ask them, "What am I doing wrong as a CEO?", and he'll list in an all-company meeting, the things people said and have a plan for how he can change, to me, that's just mind-blowing and lightyears ahead of people twice his age.
But it's made it easier to do product marketing there because a lot of times product marketing is very disruptive. I joined only about three months ago, and they told me, "You're gonna be establishing this department, you're inheriting one employee we hired before you were even joining in product marketing, the person's great, but you're also gonna be launching this product in three months, and it's gonna completely transform our business".
So I got a little bit of anxiety, I thought, "Wow, not only am I going to be establishing this department, but I'm going to be an IC on this new product" and I was coming from Envision where it was a bigger product market department, I was managing 1000 employees, it was established, to then having to really hit the ground running on establishing a department as well as launching something.
What is product marketing?
I know this is a simple question but I'd like you to ask yourself, what is product marketing? You have all these academic definitions of it, if you Google it, you get things like this...
We've all seen things like this where it's a very idealized conception of what product marketing is, you're doing research with customers, you're out there reading research reports and looking at market data, if you've got an app you're looking at the app data and you're helping with pricing and packaging and so forth and you're also maybe quarterbacking marketing launches and maybe doing a little bit of writing, making a case for your product.
Maybe you're doing some sales enablement, maybe retraining the sales department. You're basically 10 people in one and what I found is, I don't know about you, but that is so idealized, and it rarely works out that way.
Generally, there's one area in there that you're doing a little bit more of than the other, and somebody's mad at you because you're not doing something. Product managers are like, "Why aren't you doing the pricing?" And the sales department is like, "Why aren't you doing more training?", and you're getting all this flak all the time because you're not living out this idealized conception of what they read in school about what product marketing is, or how they saw product marketing was done at another company where they worked.
Really, I think your job, and this is what I want to talk about, is building product marketing in terms of how you see it being. Where do you think that you can really move the needle as a professional, as an expert on this, and how can you really create a product marketing function that fits your particular company and the people that work there.
Not something you've read about, not some Medium post, not something that your sales leader thinks is what they did at their past company.
The role of culture
You're going to find depending on the company you work at that there's going to be different types of cultures that are going to push for different kinds of things.
Who reading this works in a very sales-driven culture where there's not a lot of self-serve? You probably see something like this...
They're just constantly coming to you saying, "Hey, can you do training? Can you do more sales enablement? In my last company product marketing basically sold with us, we want you to fly around the world and be an expert, and we're just gonna set the meetings and take the commission checks". That's oftentimes or sometimes the culture.
I worked at one company, a very large company, where product marketing basically were salespeople. They were experts in the products, the salespeople were just territory managers. They had worked at maybe some other company the year before, they had relationships, they'd set the meeting, you'd fly and do that, and that's what the CEO valued and so we saw it worked and we didn't really shake it up that much.
Who reading this works in a non-sales-driven culture, a self-serve culture? If that's you, you've probably seen this situation where the product manager's like, "Hey I need your help to do research with customers, customer development, I need you to get on the phone with them with me or by yourself because I don't have time. Or I need you to look at the data and say whatever tool and help me make a case either for pushing back on a CEO maybe who's got a lot of 'from the gut' instinctual ideas they want to do, or pushing back on the sales leader who wants to build something to win some big deal".
So you're serving more of almost a pseudo product manager sometimes, it feels like. Basically this is the sentiment you get...
They're like, "Show me the data, show me the data" unless it's their idea and they use one customer example. But they're all about "show me the data" and so your job is to help them build a case with data or you to build a case to them for something with data oftentimes.
Sales-driven & self-serve
There's another culture I don't have a picture for but I've worked in, it's where it's this fusion of both self-serve and sales-driven culture, I wonder if anyone reading has experienced this? I think that's one of the most challenging, so if you have a friend or you're one of those people, practice some self-love today, and pat yourself on the back, because that is super challenging.
You've got almost warring factions with the product team who's trying to plot on how they're going to not have more salespeople, and they're leading product lead growth. And then you've got this sales culture on the other side who feels like they're not loved and respected and getting the attention they need. So you as a product marketer are often pulled from those two different departments to help those two departments work together better and to also help them move along.
Weak revenue or data-driven marketing companies
This one is interesting. Who reading this has worked in a company where it feels like the marketing people don't even understand the products? They can't even write about them? So you're basically the entire product marketing department in one person, there's about 80 of them over here, and you're thinking what do you do?
Oftentimes in those cultures from what I've seen, maybe there's a lot of top of funnel content they're creating that's educational and it's non-self-promotional, so they're really concentrated on creating that almost media or events company type atmosphere and your job is to be the first draft of things that they can polish or educate them on products.
I think our job is basically to analyze the business, talk to the customers, analyze the customers, look at the competitors, and decide what we think product marketing should be.
I think it's the bravest way to do it. It's hard, and you're going to get a lot of pushback on it but hopefully, I can share some ideas today that I think will make it a little bit easier.
Where to start?
Some of the questions you should ask yourself when you're doing this research on your company and wanting to build this department or realign it are:
Is your business self-serve, sales-driven, or both?
That's going to greatly impact how you do product marketing. If you come from a place, say you just joined your company, and it's self serve, but you worked in a B2B SaaS company with a big sales department and you're expecting to join and do a lot of sales enablement stuff, probably it's not gonna be the case, your need is probably gonna be more around research and maybe even in-app messaging and so forth.
If you maybe come from a self-serve background, and I've seen this probably more often, you come from a self-serve background and you get hired into this B2B, SaaS, sales-driven culture, you might find that all of a sudden you have salespeople for the first time in your life yelling at you and asking for things and wondering, what have you done for me lately?
You'd likely think 'this is not at all what I did my last job, in my last job I was working mostly with the marketing department or the product management department'.
Second, a good question I think to ask is:
How are the people resources allocated in your company?
And have some empathy where there are some gaps. So, for example, I worked at one company where we had a ratio of 1:20 - 20 product managers for every one product marketer. In that situation, you're gonna have to explain to product management, "Hey, I can't be on every single customer call, we're gonna have to kinda divide and conquer here".
Maybe the marketing department is really tiny and the product marketing department’s pretty sizable, you might want to take that into consideration when you're wondering why they're not doing more. Or maybe the sales department is really small, they're just starting out, it was a self-serve business, and they're just building that touch business, you might have to have some empathy and do some training.
That's the case at, for example, Clearbit right now where it was a lot of self-serve business, we're just now hiring a lot of salespeople and I'm sitting there wondering, why can't they sell this product better than me yet? But then I realized that hey, they've just joined, they didn't work in say MarTech previously and so forth and so I try to have empathy for them.
Do you know more about your customer than some of your colleagues?
Another thing here is depending on what industry you work in, if you work in MarTech for example, I wonder if anyone reading works in MarTech? Do you ever feel like you're setting up the focus group of one or that you should be considered the focus group of one for products? And I believe you should.
Sometimes you might know more about your product than the product managers. You should voice your opinion and say, "Hey, I've talked to a lot of customers and also, I am a customer of this, or I've worked in this industry before. And there's this feature that we don't have that competitors have that we should consider".
I think a lot of product marketers shy away from that sometimes, and I don't think there's any reason to shy away from it. Other questions to ask are:
- Where are other departments flailing?
- Where can you help shore up things?
- Ultimately, how can you help grow the business?
It's not about you doing perfect product marketing. It's about you helping generate revenue, building the business, getting investment and so forth.
Get curious with the other departments
One of the things you're going to need to do once you have your plan in place, and this sounds really basic but it's kind of scary, is to go and visit these other departments, the leaders and people who are vocal in departments and see if you can get aligned.
At Clearbit, I joined in June and fortunately, I work in a place where everybody's super friendly and nice and open and accountable and transparent, so this was not hard. But I joined in June, I had to sprint to come up with a plan for the product marketing department based on just my gut instinct that had zero data on what was going on, and then go visit, say, the head of sales, the head of product, all the product managers, the marketing department, and ask them:
"Hey, this is what I think we should be doing here, it's like, week two, do you agree? Where are the gaps? What are things that you think that I'm not seeing? What is something that you did in your past company with a product marketer that you think we should do here and you've been waiting for?"
By getting curious and not shoving my ideas down their throat they opened up and they're like, "Yeah, actually, I did some homework for you, Jeff. Here is a spreadsheet of the things that we could really use in sales". And the product managers like, "You know what I could really use help with is just building contacts, I need help talking to customers so that we can make a case to management for not building a feature or building a feature or what have you".
The other group is obviously marketing, the marketers have probably been waiting for you, at Clearbit, the marketers were playing product marketing so it was actually nice when I joined that they did a lot of things that marketers haven't done in past jobs. With a recent launch we had, usually, I have to quarterback the launch, bug everybody, nag everybody, get everything done in other companies, whereas here they were just doing it because they had never had somebody to rely on like that.
So you can find out from them, "Hey, do you want me to run launches? Or do you have it?" and if they say, "No we got it", I won't step on your toes. Bonus points for this is don't just talk the leaders but talk to other people, talk to vocal people who just joined, to managers, even just ICs. Talk to as many people as you can about this because those people might be leaders someday there and not only leaders have great ideas, but everybody in the company has ideas if you have time to meet with them.
The department of empathy
Basically, you've just got to get empathetic, I feel like we're not really the product marketing departments, we are the department of empathy for companies. There's probably no one better suited, whether it's biologically or just how you've chosen to live your life, than product marketers to be that department.
Because we're generally pretty sensitive people on one hand, like a lot of marketers, and creative and right-brained, but on the other hand, we have this left-brain side where we can work with numbers and understand very rational arguments for things. That is usually why you end up in product marketing because you have both of those sides of your brain.
Who else in the company can do this better than you? You have this opportunity to be awesome, and to not only have empathy for these other departments but to be this almost diplomat between these different departments - help product management see the importance of not testing before they run an idea by sales.
Help sales see that product management is doing the best they can with the engineering resources they have. You can build that inter-department empathy, you can bring in empathy for the customer, that voice of the customer we hear we're supposed to do in product marketing, as well as have empathy for these other departments.
Build your plan
So when you're creating this plan, a few things that I recommend including in the plan are things like:
- Overview of what the pm should handle.
- Are you gonna handle pricing?
- Are you gonna handle messaging?
- Are you going to lead launches?
- Or is the market department going to do it?
- Are you going to do sales enablement?
- Are you going to do training?
Go back to that academic definition of what product marketing is, and decide what you're going to handle or not handle and then take that in for your alignment exercise.
Secondly, and this was actually something I learned from Fran, is the percentages of time spent in each. This is so important, and it's not black and white, you're not going to be checking your time like an agency person. But you want to build some expectations in departments and say things like, "Hey, sales, we're probably only gonna spend 20% of our time on sales enablement, because the other 80% is spent on these other things".
So when they come back to you and say what have you done for me lately? You can remind them, remember, this is what we aligned on in terms of percentages spent.
Third, you're going to need a proposal for who's going to handle the disputed areas. So if you're not handling pricing, you need to say, "Hey, my proposal is that product management is going to own this". Or let's say that they want you to handle sales training for new salespeople, not just sales enablement, "Hey, you guys are gonna need to hire somebody to handle this. I can handle it temporarily or what have you".
Lastly, don't just talk about what they want from you, but what do you want from them? This is the most overlooked thing in any presentation because I think a lot of people look at product marketing as a services organization and you're not, you're a leader in the company. You're gonna want certain things from them.
Maybe you want to know about new packaging before sales roll it out so that you can weigh in on it, and bring your own data for why you should or shouldn't do something or the messaging for it. Maybe product management is going to change copy in the products, in-app copy, and there's no UX copywriter, you probably want to weigh in on that.
You want to make it very clear what you're going to be asking and bothering them about and it's not just going to be this situation where you're sitting back waiting to take orders from other departments.
As part of this plan, it's pretty easy, pretty intuitive here, but present your ideas to the stakeholders, get their feedback, come back again and say, "Look, I listened to your feedback. This is my adjusted plan".
If possible, and this is something that sometimes I forget to do, I didn't do this at Clearbit but we did this at Envision, is present your ideas for what product marketing should be to the whole company. Because what often happens is you're aligned with the VP of sales and the VP of marketing, but they didn't tell the rest of the department and all of a sudden, six months later, you have this product manager coming to you and saying, "Hey, why aren't you helping with customer research?"
So if you can, be brave, even if people say, "Yeah, I don't think we need to do that". Try to present it to the whole company and take those questions. When new leaders join, you're going to have to realign, unfortunately, and present to them, they're going to be coming in like guns blazing, with all kinds of ideas, want to make a name for themselves right away oftentimes, and have ideas from where they worked. And you're going to need to align with them on what you're doing.
Basically, you're just trying to avoid this...
If you do this alignment upfront, and you do it repeatedly, when new people join or just to remind people, you'll get less of the above. You'll get less of this tension and this anger from the sales department, from product management and so forth because you listen to them, you align with them, you got their buy-in and everybody likes that. We like that when they do that with us, they like it when we do it with them.
Alignment never rests
You're always gonna be aligning and I know sometimes I've worked with people that are in marketing from small startups and they find this icky that they have to do this alignment. It feels like they're a politician, or they're a congressperson lobbying for some type of new bill.
It's just the reality, particularly as your company gets bigger, you're always going to be aligning with these other departments because you sit in the middle of sales, product, and marketing.