This article is based on Timothy’s scintillating talk at Product Marketing Misunderstood, 2023. PMA members can catch up on all the sessions from this once-in-a-lifetime event here.
There are two sure signs that a discipline is in its infancy:
- A preoccupation with self-definition
- The emergence of professional organizations (like Product Marketing Alliance!) focused on establishing the legitimacy of that discipline by canonizing a set of standard practices
True, the seeds of our discipline may be found in the 18th century, but the existence of articles like this one underscores the fact that we’re still in the early days of product marketing.
The good news is that it's hard to find a mature or even maturing organization today that doesn’t see the value of establishing a product marketing function – but what that means varies wildly.
The many flavors of product marketing
At some organizations, product marketing is aligned most strongly with marketing and may be largely occupied with content creation. Its main responsibilities may include maintaining the messaging, positioning, personas, competitive intelligence, and market research necessary to support campaign execution.
In some organizations, product marketing is considered an extension of product management. Their role is to provide market intelligence to product managers to assist in making roadmap decisions, oversee pricing and other areas of offering management, and act as a buffer for market-facing activities such as client advisory boards, client meetings, analyst calls, and the like.
Regardless of where you are today, it's likely that your responsibilities include some combination of those I outlined above.
Product marketing sits at the intersection of sales, marketing, product management, and customer engagement. The ability to speak the market into product and product into the market is the unique virtue of the product marketer. But it's also frequently a source of real confusion both for the individual product marketer and the organization that they serve.
In this article, I'm going to resist the temptation to offer a clear definition of product marketing. Instead, I'd like to argue that ambiguity is essential to the product marketer's role.
The role of product marketers isn't just to produce deliverables within a fixed scope. Instead, they should embrace ambiguity as a strength, and work to navigate that ambiguity in order to serve as a powerful strategic partner to their organization.
Why is product marketing so ambiguous?
So, why is product marketing so hard to pin down? Why is the role at once so different between organizations and so broad within them?
On the one hand, we have only ourselves to blame: Interesting people are interested people – and we are interesting people. I love to talk to other product marketers because their career paths are often so incredibly diverse.
Take me as an example: I have a master's degree in sociology and a Ph.D. in philosophy. I’ve worked variously as a market research consultant, a teacher, a data scientist, and a college administrator. I'm trained as a musician and have worked as a radio DJ. In addition to my day job as a product marketer, I also run a horse farm with my wife and our two dogs, Pocket and Fergus.
As product marketers, we like to solve complex challenges by approaching solutions from creative angles. And because of our varied experiences, we tend to have very deep toolboxes. We don't like being bored. We can't just clock in and clock out. We need to understand in ways that are both deep and wide.
We want to understand and define what we do, but we also don't like being constrained. We like the blurry edges of our discipline because it affords us the ability to understand every part of the organization and to contribute in myriad ways, according to our interests and individual talents.
The fact that product marketing is so frequently misunderstood, then, is a problem that we want to both solve and perpetuate. The struggle, as they say, is real.
The misunderstanding of product marketing is a function of our temperaments, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
On the other hand, because we sit at the intersection of product marketing, sales, and customer success, it can be difficult to determine where each of these discrete functions ends and where ours picks up.
Our strength in many ways is as a silo-buster and as an intermediary. But because our work often overlaps with the work of others who occupy roles that are far less ambiguous, misunderstanding and conflict are common.
The tensions of working in an ambiguous role
In any organization, role clarity translates into job security. Although we as product marketers embrace the ambiguity of our role, I must admit that this can lead to a degree of insecurity – not least for the product manager, the field marketer, and the salesperson who all of a sudden have a product marketer nipping at the edges of their roles or, worse yet, telling them how to do their jobs.
Just as ambiguity can lead to tension at the heart of individual product marketers, it can also lead to tension at the heart of the organization.
Still, product marketing is vital because, in its absence, it can be very hard for product, marketing, and sales functions to work together in pursuit of a common vision. But if product marketing is done poorly, these same functions can very easily feel surveilled, judged, and even disempowered.
So, what is a product marketer to do?
Step one: Embrace ambiguity
First of all, product marketers should embrace ambiguity. Don't think of product marketing as a rigidly defined role in and of itself. Instead, think of the discipline as a toolbox to be filled with practices, skills, and ideas from a wide variety of sources.
This, of course, includes tools and education provided by organizations like Product Marketing Alliance, but also everywhere and anywhere else. Give yourself permission to experience, experiment, and learn from everyone and anyone.
Even as you embrace the ambiguity widespread in product marketing, you need to realize that role clarity is going to be very important, both for you and for your organization. However, this role clarity is contingent on context and has to be constantly negotiated and renegotiated relative to constant subtle changes around you.
In the history of rhetoric, there's this idea of ingenium, which describes the ability to creatively solve specific challenges here and now by mobilizing a variety of tools that may otherwise seem unrelated. This is the essence of imagination, but it requires attunement to the needs of your organization and to those individuals around you.