One of the greatest challenges any PMM faces is convincing others within their organization of the value product marketing brings and getting a seat at the table.
For anyone joining a younger organization who mightn’t even have a PMM org set-up, this can feel like the impossible task, but the good news is, it’s achievable.
I'm Dave Kim, PMM at Lyft & I'll share the four key lessons I’ve learned throughout my career as a PMM to help you get there.
I've got to admit, as I was putting this article together, I went through an existential crisis multiple times and I'll tell you why. One of my friends who I used to work with at Pinterest, he called me up a few months ago and said, "Hey, I'm going to write a post. called the life and death of product marketing".
In my head, I had never questioned our function before, so I got this feeling of, what do you mean death of product marketing that I've never thought it was dying in the first place? We had dinner a little bit later and he went through his points and what I can say is, if you've ever read his blog, it's called Casey Accidental, he goes through why he thinks product marketing as a function is perhaps evolving, or in his words, going dead.
He specifically says this is more from a consumer perspective, and that's the perspective that I come from, less from the B2B side, but overall, it just made me think a lot about - what is the job that I do? Why is it valuable? And why do other people feel that maybe we're not as valuable?
Is product marketing dead?
So when I think about the topic that I propose, ‘establishing the product marketing function: sharing best practices on how to help younger organizations realize the value of product marketing’, this completely filled me with dread honestly, because I just want to make sure that I provide actual lessons that you can take back because what I do definitely feel is, is product marketing dead?
What I've realized is that if you want product marketing, in your company, to be a function that delivers a lot of value, you have to have a strong function to begin with. So what I'm going to share is my journey of how I came to certain lessons, and hopefully, you'll find it helpful.
What do we do?
I'm sure you've seen the question many times before, how do we define product marketing? I put it into these three rough buckets that most people would agree with here.
The way I think of things is pretty much how a lot of people think about their product. But what I would say is in the world of tech and the world where tech has gone to, it's changed a lot based on how products are rolled out today.
The product lifecycle
So this is like your typical product lifecycle, and us understanding where we fit within the product lifecycle is really important to understanding how we actually bring value to the organization that we're in.
From this, you can see informing the product roadmap, and this is just my experience but PMMs contribute to the insights actually to find a problem space for the PM in determining what we actually build. And then as you go into product-market-fit land, prototyping, beta, and then eventually to the general availability, that's what the PMM leads the overall go to market strategy.
So the positioning, messaging, what is the narrative we want to go out with? And after we find this magical thing called product-market-fit, which is the stage where we feel a feature or product set is actually helping drive value for the business, there's driving growth for the business, not just for the feature itself, but the feature in the sense of does it help with your overall stickiness to the product or retention or brings in users?
The moment we know it's driving that is when you go into the scale and adoption stage. So this is where we might take a little bit less of a drivers seat, but we contribute to the multiple campaigns that a lot of different teams are driving.
Think of brand, growth, performance, whether above the line or below the line, the whole point is getting that feature into these other types of campaigns or other functions that might run so people actually use it. The other part is really thinking about if you are in sunset mode, or you figure out how do you go back to the start of the lifecycle, which is how do you innovate so you prevent sunsetting or the decline?
That's basically how I orient myself in terms of how I think of product marketing and what our job is and I'll go through my journey to explain how I landed there, and then also, why it's important to set that framework to educate our cross-functional partners of what product marketing does and how they come in at different times.
Part 1: education
After college, I went to Microsoft. I started off in the APM program so as a product manager, and the first thing I worked on, was actually bringing Windows Vista to the world. Does anyone remember Windows Vista? So if you know what happened to it, it was one of the biggest duds that Microsoft ever launched. Not only that, but it was also two years late, it took five years to market. Usually, there was a three-year product lifecycle bringing Windows platforms to the market, so it was two years late.
They had to roll back a bunch of things, it was just a disaster when they were putting it out on the market, no one understood why they even built certain things. It was just a little bit of like, "Oh why did we do it this way?".
What I realized is they didn't really have the end-user experience in mind. Microsoft at that time, and still is, very good at the B2B side of things. How do we talk to enterprise customers? How do we talk to OEMs? How do we talk to developers? But not as good at what is the end consumer experience? What needs are we solving for them?
What was interesting a few months later is when Apple released their Mac versus PC campaign, if anyone remembers that? For me, it was interesting because Apple does a really good job of thinking about that user experience, delighting them, and then they're really good at the messaging and positioning. So you know exactly who they're trying to target with their messaging.
Years later is when they released the iPhone, and I just remember we were at a conference and Steve Ballmer was like, "No one's gonna buy this". And the truth was almost half the employees already had one, and it was just a really good lesson in trying to understand, who is our user?
If we actually know who our users are, and what insights are driving, what product needs we're solving for them, then we could actually save a lot of money on engineering costs and on the time it takes to go to market. But without a real end-user insight in mind sometimes it just gets very muddled and you have a competitor like Apple who comes in and obviously delivers a much better experience.
After two years there, I decided to leave Microsoft and a lot of it was trying to think about where the future of technology was going. I was really interested in transportation, urban planning, my dream job was actually to work on Google Maps, so I went to Google.
What was really interesting about Google, coming from Microsoft, where it is a CPG world, packaged software goods, you come to the web 2.0 world where it's like, "just see what sticks", and there's a whole new way of bringing features to market and it changed how we think of maybe traditional marketing because sometimes we would only have a few weeks to figure out how we actually take this feature that the PM didn't tell us about and then we had to like bring it to market and package it up and make sure it still lands.
So there was a lot of this service center perspective of a PMM, at one point I was mapped to like 10 PMs and I could only think in two-week horizons of, what are you launching now? Okay, let me get a blog post, get a video - it was that kind of engine. But it made me realize there was more that we can do, but if you're very strapped from an organizational perspective, you end up being only in this go-to-market land.
It's something to think about as you actually try to think of how do you create a more valuable, stronger function? It very much like we had a simplistic idea of what marketing is, know the user, know the magic connect the two. What I loved about it was, it was just so fast-paced and instant and you can see people interacting with the products that you were marketing.
What I realized is we were in a very special land where budget wasn't as much of an issue. But what we did learn was actually with very little money, you could scale your message very effectively - you could be very scrappy and still make a really big impact.
Part 2: start up land
After about five years at Google, I decided to leave, we call it leaving the mothership, and go into startup land. My hiring manager at Pinterest at the time made it sound like the siren call of startups - “come and you can do whatever you want, you're the decision-maker”. That sounded really fun, I would be the first PMM at Pinterest.
What I soon realized after I joined and said, "Hey, I'm the new PMM" was I was naive to think people would actually know what that meant. I was trying to join the proverbial table, there were a couple of new people there that I'd never worked with before, growth, for example.
In some other marketing organizations growth is called performance marketing. But with the digitization of marketing, more and more growth teams actually have engineers now, where they can build what they call MarTech stocks, so you can automate and do a lot of marketing with fewer people involved. I had never actually worked with a growth team before.
There was also a brand team so I was trying to understand how I interacted with the brand team. And then obviously the product team, which was what I was more familiar with. It was just a weird feeling where it's like, "Oh, I could do whatever I want". But actually, my first job was to articulate the function of product marketing and get people on board.
It took a long time to actually even start executing. So I think if you are going to a smaller startup or an organization without PMM it's just knowing that step one is you shouldn't assume anyone knows what your function is. Part of your job, at least at first, is to actually tell people what you do.
Pinterest was a little passive-aggressive, so I’m like, "What the hell is growth? They're saying they make the landing page that makes no sense to me". And the other people are just like, "What the hell is a PMM?".
I remember my first interaction with Ben Silbermann, who's the founder of Pinterest was like, "Oh, you're here. They told me I need a PMM. I don't know what you do. But I'm glad you're here". I was just like, "Oh, okay". So knowing at the top level, the perception is I have no idea what you do and then even at the peer level there's a lot of people who have no idea what you do was just a very jarring experience because that wasn't what I thought I was getting into.
There was a lot of this...
You kind of look at each other and it's this weird turf war and it's very draining, because you just want to execute and you realize, "Oh, I have to play nice with this other function when I don't know exactly what they do, but they seem to be doing marketing, but they don't call themselves marketers".
So there's a very good lesson in how you work with these cross-functional partners, and especially the new ones that are popping up. If you think about growth, it's a pretty new function, even like data science, UX, a lot of these things are emerging functions, and they have their own issues with trying to explain their function.
But I think part of it trying to understand the entire marketing stack and the different teams that are emerging from it.
Lesson one: know your unique powers and others'
I didn't even know how to articulate what I was good at, if that makes sense, coming in I was like, "Oh, I just thought you knew that I do this and I think this is what I do. I swear I bring value". I think the more you yourself know what you're really good at and can stand for that, I think that's very important.
- We know the market, we understand the customers very deeply and not only that, we understand what they probably need so we can form the product.
- We are very good at messaging and communication, we can set a narrative that people will respond to.
- Then there's the project management of go-to-market, which is the quarterbacking where there are all these different stages, you need to bring in so many different cross-functional partners.
- You connect everyone, and it's a very smooth landing, that's also a skill set.
- You understand the full channel mix, you understand how to get the message across in that channel mix to the right set of customers.
These are all different skill sets, articulated through Pokemon monsters, but if you can explain that to people and they understand at least on a high level what you mean by these things, that'll help guide how you understand what their superpowers or unique powers are, so we can all work together at one point.
After a year at Pinterest, I moved on. I had always wanted to work at Uber because I definitely felt was like it was at the forefront of technology and transportation, I got recruited to work on what we called at the time the Uber Everything team. What was really interesting is in the first year their PMMs were there - from day zero or day one, and it was a PMM, a PM, and product ops. I had never worked with a product officer before but it was really fun because we were in the stage where it was pure product-market fit where we asked:
- What do we actually build?
- Why are we building this?
- Who are we building this for?
- What is the way we prioritize things and how do we actually bring it to market in one city?
- Five cities?
- 60 cities?
That kind of thing. Because we were there from day one, marketing was established as a function from the beginning so there was less of a, "Why are you guys here? What do you do?" and more of this, "Oh my God without you, we could never have succeeded".
It was just interesting to come to a place like that, it requires someone at a more senior level who has worked with PMM and fully understands the function, and usually, it's a product lead. If you have someone who's an advocate for you from the beginning, it will make your job easier. You should definitely suss out whether they understand that value and if they don't, your task is very clear.
After a year there I actually joined the core Uber team, which is the ride-sharing. That was interesting because I said, "Hey, I'm here", and they were like, "Why do we need PMMs? We're really successful. We found product-market fit, our business is growing like crazy, we have no idea why we need a PMM".
I think in hindsight if they had seen what we brought to the table, it would be very clear why you need a PMM upfront. Because a lot of the way that Uber and even Facebook and other companies with that web 2.0 feeling of 'just break things or see what sticks' doesn't work really well, especially in the real world because people don't like change, they don't like surprises.
I think having a PMM upfront would help prevent a lot of that and mitigate the change aversion and build actual trust between the customer and the brand. That goes into what I think is another lesson.
Lesson two: counterbalance growth at all costs mentality
I've experienced a world where growth has a lot of leverage because not only do they own the performance marketing dollars, they sometimes now have started to own the own-channels, so email and other types like push notifications.
A lot of times if you think about those channels, that in a previous life might have been under product marketing, and without those levers, it kind of diminishes our ability to impact the business if we have to work with another function to actually get access to those channels.
What I've learned from my experience is that with a growth mindset and today's definition of growth, it's very short term. It's not because it's bad or anything. It's just because they're goaled on more short term metrics. To the extent that a product marketer thinks about their relationships with our customers as a long term investment, our ability to counterbalance this notion of growth at all costs is really important because the downstream effects of having a ‘growth at all cost’ mentality is that you will pay for it with the eroded brand trust in the long term.
So I think it's really important that there is a counterbalance. It's not easy, but this is why it's so important to be at the table because you're one of the few people who can articulate the customer's voice and be empathetic to the customer's needs, compared to the other people at the table.
The way I see growth, they have their growth engine, I don't know if you've seen Little Shop of Horrors, but it's just like you keep feeding it and sometimes, with Lyft and Uber, these are ride incentives. It's great to have coupons as a customer, but eventually, you just start to think of both of them as discount brands. I think it's just being able to understand when you deploy growth and the way they think about it, and then when you also make sure that has like the long term view in mind.
If you have watched the movie or the play, it ends up being this huge monster that's hard to contain, because it grew so much.
I think that's what's happened a lot in the recent tech culture and just being aware, because that makes our role even more important.
I just want to reiterate, it's all about advocating for the long term because I think there are not as many functions that are thinking about the long term, sometimes even PMs are just thinking about shipping their product and leaving it versus a PMM who should think of the whole customer journey.
Lesson three: own the GTM first, then move up/down stream
I think a lot of times what you should realize in terms of the evolution of product marketing, is typically you're brought in from a go-to-market perspective. So to that extent, to own the go-to-market, which can be a very broad definition, I would use it broadly, which allows you to get access to creating very visible things that are seen by external and internally so once you establish that you can move upstream and downstream.
A lot of times what happens in the much smaller companies, a PM does marketing, they realize they have too many things to launch and they're not good at messaging so they bring in product marketing and the initial job is just to launch products and messaging.
But the overall value we can bring is to be way more strategic, know which customers we're building for, what they need, and then even be more responsible for a P&L to the extent we can use a channel mix to grow the product. In this diagram, you can see PM is doing everything in the beginning.
Ideally, you would have a PMM upfront but that just usually doesn't happen. They bring in a PMM, and the Northstar is to have this really trusted relationship with your PM which takes time, but once you do have a trust relationship, they bring you into the fold so you can do the upstream and downstream.
I'll give you an example from Pinterest. I mentioned earlier Ben, the founder, saying he had no idea what I did, we launched this feature called guided search and it was, from the press narratives, the first time they stopped thinking of us as a scrapbooking company, and actually potentially a competitor to Google image.
For him, that was really important, but it also set the tone for a different position for the brand in general. He was like, "Oh, well, I kind of get what you do now. And how do we do more of that?" So it was just a way to insert the function in because go-to-market is supposedly supposed to be owned by PMMs and that's more of an industry standard.
So I think to an extent it's very visible, you own that and then have some wins, you can start proving credibility for the function.
Lesson four: company alignment on the product journey
I'm going to be honest, this is something that I'm trying to do at Lyft right now. It's not easy. But essentially, it's trying to think of the whole product journey and product lifecycle. Even from a PM to a PMM to brand, growth, product ops, and whatnot, how do people think of the product as a journey and then what roles they insert themselves at the different stages of that journey.
I've inserted the visuals below again, usually in the build stage, it's PM driven. PMM is a strong contributor to defining the problem space. Go-to-market - PMM driven. This is assuming you've got your product-market fit, which is the star, and then when you're in the growth and scale, growth levers should only be used when you have product-market fit.
So to the extent brand above the line campaigns, ops who're generally working on the field, comms, and growth are driving usage and adoption of the feature in that stage. And then to the extent, we can prevent a client by innovating and going back to the beginning of the cycle, but I don't think this is news to anyone that there's a product life cycle, but for tech sometimes because of the way we launch things so quickly, without the typical like CPGs lifecycle, there's a lot of muddiness in this product-market fit stage of the go-to-market.
I think the most valuable thing we can do is to have a relationship with the product team so that they come to us first to say, "So what should we build? Because we should have a much better understanding of what we should build".
If they have that type of relationship with you, then your value to the company is much higher because you can actually focus engineering talent and resources on the features that actually matter the most. Avoid a Windows Vista situation.
At the end of the day, I think that's the highest value we can bring.
Summary: four lessons from my journey
In summary, know your unique powers as well as others, counterbalance growth at all costs mentality, own the go-to-market first then go upstream and downstream, and then get company alignment on the product journey.
Is product marketing dead?
No, I actually think even more so now our ability to tie things together, present it in a coherent way to our customers so we are bringing stuff that they actually want and then we are communicating and driving the relationship in a way that is built for the long term, PMMs are uniquely suited to do that and we just need to be able to have a seat at the table.