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How to make product marketing a strategic function at your workplace

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I want to share five steps with you that can help propel product marketing into a strategic function within your organization.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I believe product marketers hold a very powerful role encompassing a multitude of responsibilities - while the acceleration of the role is great, it can make it hard to step back and look at the strategic picture. Hopefully, these five steps can help.

My name's Parag Pathak and I'm the Team Lead at IBM Security. This article is going to be focused on what you can do on a daily basis to be more strategic at your workplace.

We've all been here...

You've got cross-functional stakeholders, it might be product managers, engineers, sales, heck, when I was in startups, the CEOs were involved in this. They're giving out some great ideas and that's you at the bottom saying, "Hey, guys, all great ideas, but what's our strategy?"

No one knows. They're not saying the wrong things, they're all great ideas, the only problem is they're all tactical, executional, and ways of getting your strategy out the door.

What happens when you listen to all these stakeholders without having a strategy?

It's not a simple question.

If you're a big company like IBM, we have a multitude of products, solutions, buyers, partners, go-to-market routes, different SaaS models, on-prem models, it gets very complicated fast, which is why it's even more important to have a strategy in place.

With great power comes great responsibility

With great power comes great responsibility and product marketing holds a very powerful role in any organization, especially mine. Our companies are spending time on us so we can get more strategic and help the business grow.

I took a step back and I looked at all the things I was working on this week and I created a word cloud.

Product marketers have great responsibilities tied to their role.

There's a lot of tactical things like datasheets, social tweets, case studies, webinars - everyone loves them. One thing that's hard to do, when you have so much stuff going on on a daily basis, it's hard to step back and look at the strategic picture.

I think that's one of the places a lot of us struggle with. Depending on the size of the company, whether it's an enterprise or startup, these responsibilities may vary but I can guarantee that each one of us gets overworked in terms of tactical execution.

Striking a balance

This is one of my favorite quotes.

Every product marketing team needs to have a strategy in place to succeed.

It's one I visit every now and then to remind myself, and I love it because it has the perfect balance of balancing strategy and execution. Without strategy, execution is aimless. Without execution, the strategy is useless.

Many product marketers I talk to, including myself are really good at the execution piece, where we struggle to get to is really the strategy piece. That's why I'm writing this article, to share what works for me and what I've seen from my experience as well as what I've heard others do that really helps them elevate the conversation so that you can get a seat at the table.

Product marketing

Before I get into the five steps I've learned over the years, one thing I want to talk about is product marketing.

Each one of us brings unique value to the table. I believe that's explained by all of our different journeys to get to product marketing. There's no set path to get to product marketing.

I've had people come in from engineering, product management, other functions within marketing, who want to get into product marketing.

Everyone's bringing different backgrounds, but the ones that succeed the most, the ones that are doing the best jobs at product marketing, are those that can elevate the conversations and their strategies into a strategic function for the organization.

Again, that's something I'm going to focus on in these five steps - what are these things you can do on a daily basis to really get you there.


It's not an out-of-the-box solution, it takes time, it takes effort, and it takes consistency.

This works for me, doesn't mean it will work for you but it's a great start. The worst thing you can do is not start so if you want to start somewhere, you can start with these five, you can add on new ones.

5 steps to becoming a strategic product marketing leader.

5 steps to become a strategic product marketing leader

Don't be a garbage collector

What do I mean by garbage? It's anything and everything no other cross-functional stakeholder wants to do and doesn't necessarily fall under product marketing.

On my first day in my job at IBM, I was doing a lot of that. Some great examples of garbage are:

  • Technical spec updates,
  • Program management - you're managing meetings for other stakeholders to make decisions.
  • One-off sales requests that sound amazing, but they're only short-lived for about a day.

All of these things are really garbage collections that take time. You're already pressed for time so if you're adding all of this on top of that, it's hard for you to break through that and actually get to the strategic aspects of things.

Product marketers should never be 'garbage collectors'

At the same time, you have to be careful.

Keep an eye out for the diamond in the rough

Some of these garbage pieces could actually be good things. They're actually diamonds in the rough. How do you spot those? There's no easy answer.

It takes time to learn the organization and what makes sense. But for me, a couple of diamonds in the rough that I've found, in my experience, are really those one-off sales requests that I just said are garbage, I've used those to really leverage relationships with our sellers.

Anytime I go into a new company, one of the first things I try to do is make friends with one or two sales leaders who I know are impactful, resourceful, and someone who other sales reps listen to.

By partnering with them, you can really build a connection, where you get the news firsthand from them around what's happening, what's working, you can test product messaging and your positioning, your new assets with them, and so forth.

That's always a good thing to keep in mind is take on the garbage, but just limit it in the beginning and as you get better at it, you will find yourself having more time to do the strategic work, which is really the messaging, positioning, buyer personas, and win loss activities.

Focus on the market and buyers

Do you feel you understand your market and buyers better or your product? I recently asked this question to a small group of PMMs and 25% said market and buyers, 52% product, and 23% both.

I used to be heavy on products as well, but in the last couple of years, that really started shifting towards the market and the buyers. The easy reason for that is there are a lot of product experts within the company.

They believe in the product, they love talking about it, there are the CPPs, tech sellers, product management professionals. The big difference here can be seen when it comes to events.

If you've ever sent engineers or product managers to events, you'll know the meeting goes like this.

The prospect comes to the booth and asks, 'What do you do?' The product management person simply says, 'Well, thanks for coming. We're IBM Security. Here's what we do. Here are some cool features. Here's a demo that's already pre canned'.

That's a problem. You're not solving customer problems here.

Be market and buyer-centric

By being market and buyer-centric this is the conversation you can have as a product marketer.

A prospect walks in and asks what you do, you give a quick elevator spiel on what IBM Security is, and then twist the question back to them. 'This is what we do. I'm curious to know about your environments, how many stock analysts do you have? What are the challenges that are keeping you up at night?’

Having that question and back and forth interaction really helps the customer understand number one, you're interested in what they have to tell you. Two, it allows you to tailor your demo, your pitch, and your follow-up meetings to that particular customer.

It's very much a one-on-one touch that you can easily scale. That's why it's so important to focus on the market and the buyers.

There are already a lot of product experts in your company

That doesn't mean don't do product collateral, those are important as well but rely on your other stakeholders to really help you build those out, whether it's technical webinars, datasheets, and so forth.

There are so many knowledgeable engineers and product managers out there that can help you with this.

Lead with empathy

I think this is something humans, in general, forget to do on a daily basis - empathize. I was on a panel for PMA a while back and empathy was a common theme across all of them. That's because everyone wants to feel human.

This is actually my IBM Security Team, this photo was taken at a rally we had, that's a lot of people on our marketing team alone, then we've got product managers, sellers, account reps, so forth.

Product marketers need to lead with empathy

Everyone is on a unique journey, not just us. I get it, product marketers are overwhelmed, we're busy, I am but so are these guys. So are our customers who have to deal with the actual buyers, we're just a vendor for them at some point.

Leading with empathy helps you understand where they're coming from, what stage of the journey they're at, maybe they're new to the industry, maybe they've been there for 20 plus years, someone has a dog at home, someone as kids, others may not have those and want to stay in the office longer.

Each person is unique. By connecting with them, not only will you make new friends (you don't need Bumble for that) but at the same time, it's great because it opens up the conversation that enables collaboration cross-functionally.

How does that tie into strategy?

When thinking about strategy, many times I've seen product marketers fall into this trap where they basically get into a silo, lock themselves in a meeting room and start working on messaging and positioning and go-to-market strategy.

That's great but once you present that to the cross-functional stakeholders, they're not going to buy it because they weren't involved. Whether it's digital, product management, or sales, get them involved early on so they have a say.

Side note

This also helps once you launch the product or once you roll out, sellers can't complain about you because they're involved in this process. It's a great way to build a relationship, as well as cover your ass.

Be the content king

I don't know about you guys, but I've seen a lot of people confuse product marketing with content marketing and vice versa. You don't have to create each and every piece of content. Be the content king or queen and rule it.

You are in the best positioned to know the gaps that exist with your customers today, you know what's on your website, you know what assets you have, you know what the customer journey looks like, work with a demand Gen performance marketers to understand where the gaps might be, and also you have a pulse on the market and the buyers.

Once you have that you can easily figure out what type of content needs to be created and own the content calendar or the content plan. But that's as far as it should go.

But not always the creator

Rely on your stakeholders. If you're doing the technical webinars I mentioned earlier, you have a lot of tech sellers who would be more than willing to help demo the product and help showcase the product.

You have product managers who can talk about the roadmap and so forth. You have sellers who can talk about case studies or customers they've worked with before.

Create a blog, create a podcast out of that, reuse that material.

Don’t get stuck in a content rut

The idea here is if you start focusing only solely on content, you're going to get stuck in a tactical rut and it's hard to get out of that. Others expect you to create content on an ongoing basis, your demand Gen team is going to be after you to get that content going because we have signed up for webinars on these different platforms and we have display ads going.

Make sure you have the calendar, own the content, but don't waste your time always creating it.

Obsess over your customers

This point is actually very important. Does anyone reading truly believe their company is 100% customer-centric in everything you do?

I'd say IBM is about 75% there, we have a lot of training on being customer-centric. But there are a lot of things that we do that are totally not customer-centric. I'll be the first to admit it.

It's okay to be not 100% there. I love this comic primarily because they're not focusing on the customer goals, they're focusing on the organizational goals.

Obsess over your customers, even if you need to disrupt yourself.

Product marketing as a result is often driven by organizational goals. I don't know about you but goals get cascaded down to me and then I have to look at those goals and then build my own goals based on those goals. That just means they're all feeding into organisational goals.

But what about the customers? These are the people that are paying your bills, the reason you're employed, and the reason your product actually exists. By focusing on customers, there's a lot of value.

Customer is king

Number one, I dare you to walk into a meeting backed by customer data and present something - no one's going to challenge you if you have customer data.

The whole adage around customer is king still holds true and if you have data around what customers are saying it's going to help you strengthen your positioning.

Customer data is powerful

Two when we talk about us being overwhelmed and focusing on priorities, there's a lot of things - we do agile marketing, we do sprints, we figure out what the priority is for this week, this month, this quarter, this year.

It's hard to make those trade-offs unless you have data to back it up. If you have customer data, it makes it even stronger to say, "Here's a gap. Here's why we need it. Here's what the customers are asking for. And not just a one-off customer, but a volume of customers."

That's going to make your case stronger.

Customers want to be heard

The third thing is customers want to be heard. If you've ever used G2 Crowd or Gartner Peer Reviews you'll know customers are brutally honest - it hurts.

But the reviews they leave are really thought-provoking. Things we put out to product thinking, 'here's how a user is going to use it', they use it totally different. Their view of the product is totally different from what yours is.

Having an outside-in approach versus an inside-out approach is very helpful when it comes to this.

Final thoughts

I want to leave you with one last quote, which I believe is super important.

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. We are often told 'product marketing does a, b, c, d, and e, here are the top five strategic things you can do'.

Take a step back, think about all the stuff you're doing today. If you didn't do it tomorrow or if you didn't do it for a month, will it really impact the business?

There are some things I do today that won't. Those are easy things to take off your bucket so that you can focus on things that are much more strategic in nature.

Thank you.

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Written by:

Parag Pathak

Parag Pathak

Parag Pathak is the Team Lead of Product Marketing at IBM Security. He's a passionate, strategic marketing leader, handling day-to-day tactical marketing initiatives and sales strategies.

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How to make product marketing a strategic function at your workplace