This article was taken from a presentation for the Product Marketing Summit, San Francisco 2019 by Vidhya Ravi, when she was the Head of Brand Marketing and Communication at Automattic. She is now the Principal UX Research Manager at Microsoft. Catch up on all presentations with our OnDemand feature.
A quick question before I dig in: did you start your career in product marketing straight out of school? I didn’t.
I started my career in traditional CPG brand marketing with Procter and Gamble, and then a couple of other CPG companies. What was interesting about starting in that area is that I thought that my role and responsibilities would translate directly into other marketing jobs when I left that industry. I quickly found out that I was completely wrong.
In this article, I’ll be looking at:
Understanding your customer - who’s job is it anyway?
Why product marketing is essential to your brand.
When to start building your product marketing team.
How to start building your product marketing function.
Conditions for success.
Writing your own destiny.
Understanding your customer – whose job is it anyway?
I transitioned from brand marketing into tech, and all of the things that I’d previously done, like understanding consumers and figuring out how best to talk to them, were suddenly off my plate. I was expected to create assets – lots of them – and that was a problem when I didn't quite understand the consumer or what they did.
It turned out that understanding the consumer and the product experience was not my job anymore; it belonged to this group called product marketing. But then, I noticed that some tech companies didn’t even have a product marketing function, so I wondered, was understanding the customer actually anybody’s job?
It turns out that understanding the consumer might be product’s job, it might be marketing’s job, or it might be everybody’s job. But at the end of the day, somebody has to learn how to ask the right questions and dig deep into the consumer mindset to be able to build a great brand message.
Why product marketing is essential to your brand
So, what is the role of product marketing, and what does it have to do with your brand? Well, a brand is a shortcut that people use to describe a product experience, and what’s so important about product marketing is that it’s all about figuring out what makes your product experience great.
The work that I had leaned into in my traditional brand marketing roles turned out to be product marketing work, and it made me a better marketer and a better business person overall. At the end of the day, good product marketing means effectively positioning your product for the end-user, which is key to a strong business strategy.
I think one of the great things about spending time in this function and even building it internally, is that you start having the ability to influence business strategy in a way that's wider than just a singular area.
I realized that as I progressed in my career and started to do the kinds of things that I now get the opportunity to do at Automattic, like building out a brand marketing function, product marketing just had to be a part of that.
This is because product marketing takes place where the head and the heart meet. Product marketers leverage the functional drivers of emotion to tell a story that makes people want to connect with them.
Finally, product marketing is about the crystallization of a promise. And this is where I really hope that brand and product marketing – my personal passion is the intersection of both – can work together more. We need to better harmonize our promises, so if I'm offering a brand promise, it delivers against the product promise.
I want to lessen the risk of separation between the brand and the product because when that happens, a lot of things can go wrong. When brands promise things that they just can't deliver, consumers leave.
When a brand is not able to tell the story of the product, it’s not going to see the growth and acquisition that it needs. You need harmony between the brand promise and the product’s deliverables to be able to gain mindshare and market share.
When to start building your product marketing team
So how do you know when’s the right time to start building a product marketing function in your organization?
I hate to say this, but your first marketing hire is probably not going to be a product marketer. The reason why it's so hard for me to accept this is that I think it’s such an important role. Don’t we want to know what our business strategy is before we do anything else?
However, the reality is that most companies, especially early on, need every single hire to be highly tactical and able to deliver against the bottom line right away. That’s really hard to do in a strategic function that essentially needs to define itself.
So when should you bring in product marketing?
Product marketing to the rescue
I’ve generally found that when your growth or revenue hits a wall and your growth hacking ROI is diminishing, it gets much easier to justify bringing in a strategic hire.
Are you in a situation where you're bleeding customers, or you can't get new customers because you're in a highly competitive environment? Maybe when your product launched, you were doing something brand new, but then all of a sudden it became a crowded category. This is a great time to start thinking about bringing in product marketing.
If you want to consider new products, line extensions, or just expand your target market, these are things that product marketing does, and it can dissect challenges to bring in a new wave of growth. This can be another great time to start pitching a PMM function.
If you have high brand relevance, meaning everybody knows who you are but they don't know what you are, your marketing communications are not breaking through. Again, this is a great opportunity for a product marketing team.
How to start building your product marketing function
We want to make sure your new product marketing team is successful, so let me talk you through a couple of things you’ll need to think about before product marketing swoops in and saves the day.
Your first product marketing hire
Product marketers have to wear a lot of different hats, especially in smaller companies. Some of their work will be marketing, some of it won’t; some of their work will just be convincing people that they matter. You're going to need someone who can rise to all of these challenges; it can't be someone who’s afraid to roll up their sleeves and dig into the nitty-gritty.
You also need someone who just gets all aspects of marketing because the reality is that they will probably end up doing brand marketing, content marketing, and other marketing activities too.
Lastly, your first hire needs to have some executive presence. They can’t be afraid to go toe-to-toe with the product team and the engineering team and insist on the value that they bring.
Laying the groundwork for your new PMMs
Before you even bring in that first hire, it’s a good idea to start showing examples of PMM work so people understand what it is that this function brings. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before, when you tell someone that you’re a product marketer and they kind of look at you like, “Well, what are you? Product? Are you marketing? What do you do?”
You need to show people in a tangible way what product marketers do and why. Show people in performance marketing the messaging strategies that they can optimize. Talk to the product team and tell them how they’re going to be able to better represent the voice of the customer. This way, you’re gonna get buy-in from the core stakeholders who’ll benefit from having a PMM function.
Competitive analysis is another great way to get people onside with your soon-to-be-born product marketing function. It's something that often nobody seems to own and yet everybody owns, and it allows you to jump in and show some value very quickly. Showing this before you bring a PMM in starts giving some tangibility to their function.
Quick tactical wins to get fast credibility for your product marketing function
Often by the time organizations bring in a product marketing function, they’re lagging on the foundational stuff they need to get done. Things like segmentation, messaging strategy, and even just a basic understanding of a value proposition have often been so neglected that they want their new PMMs to go and tackle that work first because they know that it’ll bring long-term returns.
The problem is that when you’ve just built a new function, suddenly giving them a huge strategic load that's not going to deliver results for a year or two is probably not the best way to get them set up for success. So it's really important to find things that your new PMMs can do tactically and quickly so that they build some credibility in the organization before taking on any longer-term strategic projects.
Of course, what those quick wins are is for you to decide, depending on the nature of your company, but it’s always good practice to have something you can deliver on now, as well as something in the works that you’ll deliver on in the future.
What’s in a name?
A great piece of advice I received from my CMO at Automattic, Monica Ohara, is to give your new team a functional name, and not to get married to any particular label. If you're precious about this team being called Product Marketing, guess what? You might not get what you want.
Think about what exactly you want this function to do. If you’re pitching it to the executive team as an org that’s going to drive growth, maybe Growth Strategy is a better name. It's weird hearing this from a brand person, but I'm also somewhat of a pragmatist. As long as the work is getting done, does it really matter whether the team responsible is called the janitorial team or the product marketing team?
Conditions for success
I’ve already talked about how if a brand can’t deliver on its promises, it’s doomed to fail. The same applies to a new team. If you can’t guarantee all of the promises you’re making to your C-suite colleagues about the new product marketing function, don’t bring it in.
Many of us have been the victims of being brought into an organization that couldn't guarantee conditions for success, and it’s not a great position to be in. When you're managing an organization that's not set up for success, that’s definitely not the place you want to be in.
If you can't guarantee that a new PMM function will drive customer acquisition or stop churn, I highly recommend that you figure out other ways to solve your problems. Bring in more generalized marketers that can perhaps lean into product marketing; communicate internally and talk to your product teams or other teams of a strategic bent that can help you address these issues instead.
Write your own destiny
When you’re building a new product marketing team from scratch, there are very few expectations on what that team should look like. This means you have a huge opportunity to write your own destiny.
Something to consider is whether or not that destiny should be tied to product. I know that might sound strange because our title is product marketing, but product marketing is, as I’ve mentioned, business strategy. What function should it be tied to in order to best influence business strategy?
If you're in an organization that’s heavily focused on sales and that’s the area that has the most influence, perhaps you want your product marketers to be tied more to sales or partnerships than you do to product. It depends on what you're trying to achieve.
However, before you're too eager to start attaching yourself to any one function, stop and think about what a unique opportunity you have. Product marketing could stand on its own. You can grow and build a strategic function that gets to decide where best to spend their time.
A responsibility that comes along with not being tied to another function is that you may have to think about your KPIs a little more. Figuring those out, committing to them, and making yourself relevant is essential.
Which brings me to my final words of wisdom: make a product marketer one of your earlier marketing hires, not your last, but if you can't do that, find an alternative route to success.
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