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13 min read

Product marketing life [podcast]: Alexander Becker


Full transcript:

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone, and welcome to Product Marketing Life brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name is Emma Bilardi, I'm a content marketer here at PMA. This week, I'm joined by Alexander Becker, Product Marketer and Managing Partner at Dorm Room Fund and we'll be discussing his new book, The Product Marketing Field Guide. Thanks for joining us, Alex.

Alexander Becker  0:21

Thanks for having me, Emma, it's great to talk to you.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:23

Yeah, you too. So today, we're going to talk a little bit about your book the PMM Field Guide. Can you tell us a little bit about it and the role that inspired you to write this?

Alexander Becker  0:33

Absolutely. Product marketing is my profession, but it also is my passion. And like many PMMs today, I really found the role somewhat accidentally, I actually worked in tech banking right out of undergrad, and then had helped build a sales team at a B2B software company. I was lucky enough to essentially be recruited to join a product marketing team that we had just started and to find a really incredible manager and mentor, who really introduced me to the field.

But I realized that most product marketers... I got lucky, but many folks who were interested in the field or many folks who were starting off as product marketers didn't have that sort of entryway into the field. And so I'm currently an MBA student and I looked out and saw that no one had really taken an in-depth look into what B2B product marketing is going to look like five years from now.

I did what PMMs do, which is I went out and started asking questions, I interviewed 23 CMOs, Marketing Leaders, and product marketing experts from some of the most interesting B2B software companies out there, and essentially collected their wisdom and created this book, which I really see as aimed at two groups.

One is early-stage PMMs that are trying to chart out their career and the skills they want to build. The second group is product marketing leaders at B2B SaaS companies that are trying to understand the role and the types of teams they want to build.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  2:15

So I'd like to talk a little bit about the process of writing a book. First of all, where did you find the time? And what was your writing process? Did you have a particular routine you found helpful?

Alexander Becker  2:27

Absolutely, it was definitely a large project, to put it mildly. But I was lucky enough to do it while I was a full-time business student, so I had a little more time and had some incredible support from the Centre for Digital Strategies at the Tuck School at Dartmouth, where I'm a student. But my overall process for the eBook essentially had three phases.

First was to create an outline based on a core set of questions that I developed from my experience as a PMM, as well as a bunch of secondary research on the SaaS market and where the SaaS space is going.

The second phase was to identify a long list of experts, each of which I felt had unique experiences and unique perspectives on the set of questions, reach out to them, and set up interviews.

Then lastly, once I'd done my interviews, done my secondary research, it was really a question of pulling out key trends and insights from each one of those conversations and trying to get those experts into a conversation with each other, even though they weren't in the same room. It was important that this feel like a conversation, feel authentic, and not like a Wall Street Journal article or a white paper.

In terms of daily process, two things I think were really critical for me, one was writing consistently, not just getting up and waiting for inspiration to strike but really forcing myself to make progress every day. The second one was writing as I talk, I think you learn this as a marketer and a copywriter but when you're writing for a business audience, it can be very tempting to try to sound businessy, which I think does very few favors to either the writer or the reader.

So making sure the book sounded like this conversation and a conversation I'd have with a friend was important.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  4:25

So one of my favorite parts of the eBook was the history of B2B product marketing and how much we can learn from the past. So for anyone that's unfamiliar with that history, because there were certainly aspects I had no idea about, can you walk us through it?

Alexander Becker  4:39

Yeah, it's funny, I think sometimes in tech, we are so focused on what comes next that we forget how we got where we are. And the fascinating thing about product marketing is it's - even in the software industry, which is you know, itself not all that old, - a comparatively young role. So if you go back and talk to folks who've been in the industry a long time, they'll tell you that essentially pre-2000 you very rarely saw folks in the B2B SaaS space with product marketing titles.

There were a few reasons for that, but the largest one was that back in the early days of enterprise software, competition was much lower than it is today, there were just fewer companies in the space. Change happened at a much slower pace. And a lot of the responsibilities that today, we put under the product marketing umbrella things like customer research, things like competitive Intel, could essentially be handled by a combination of traditional corporate marketers, product managers.

And so the forces in the industry hadn't really created a need for product marketing yet. Right around 2000 and in the early days of the SaaS Revolution, the shift from on-prem to SaaS products, there were really three forces that changed things. One is that software started getting much cheaper to develop. Two is that customer expectations around features and the pace of change expanded wildly. And three is that the market, all of a sudden, as it was easier to launch products, as customers had greater expectations, the market started to get a lot more competitive.

So all of a sudden, you needed a dedicated role within SaaS companies that could focus more deeply on customer and market research than a product manager typically has time to do, that understood product and segmentation better than a traditional corporate marketer, and that could help sales break through the noise and compete in this increasingly cutthroat space.

These forces really came together to make the case that product marketing should be a dedicated role and if you look at the last 20 years, as those forces have gotten stronger, you're seeing product marketing as a role grow as a result.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  7:11

So how do you think the problems of product marketing's past can help the future of the role?

Alexander Becker  7:16

It's a great question. There's a quote in the book that I love from Jake Cohen, who's Head of Product Marketing at Klaviyo, where he basically says that people hire because they identify a problem and they label the solution to that problem with a job title. And so if you look at the core problems that created product marketing, it's basically two things.

One is software development has gotten cheaper, and two growth has gotten more expensive, you can basically understand the future of the SaaS industry and the future of the role through those two forces. I think if you ask anyone in the industry today, or look at the data we have around things like customer acquisition cost, just the sheer growth of different verticals, it's pretty clear that neither of those forces are going to slow down in the near future.

I don't think we're going to wake up in five years and see that markets are less competitive, or that technical trends have reversed, and all of a sudden software is more expensive to create. And so as we look at product marketing moving forward, I think that a lot of these predictions and solutions in the space are going to ultimately tie back to those two forces of cost of development and cost of growth.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  8:37

So one of the predictions in the book was that the next five years will make or break B2B product marketing, can you talk us through how you came to that conclusion?

Alexander Becker  8:46

Absolutely. And I need to start by saying I am massively optimistic about the future of product marketing. So there's my bias, obviously, it's where I've chosen to make my career. But if you look at the data, there is a really interesting tension and in the book, I call it the tension between unlimited promise and lingering uncertainty.

On the promise side, we see for example, that 59% of PMMs across organizations are seeing product marketing become more strategic within their companies. That's great data from the State of Product Marketing report that the PMA did. We're seeing more CMOs come from product marketing backgrounds.

Product marketers, in many organizations, are increasingly trusted as essentially the quarterbacks of go-to-market strategy and in many cases are directly tied to revenue. These trends really show that product marketing as a role has the potential to be the strategic linchpin for SaaS companies moving forward. At the same time though, there's uncertainty about the role and you see it in a couple of different areas.

One is, again, really interesting data from the PMA which shows that just 5% of product marketers feel that their organizations fully understand the role. This is at a point where the role has been around in one form or another for over two decades. In many organizations, there are pain points around low trust in product marketing, in some organizations, lack of clarity around what should sit with product marketing and what should sit with product management.

And there's this larger trend and Casey Winters, who's Chief Product Officer at Eventbrite actually wrote a blog post about this, where we've seen in some organizations many of the responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to product marketing, getting essentially unbundled and consumed by different teams and more specialized roles.

You see companies that have market insights teams that are taking some of that research work away from product marketing, or data and insights teams that are getting more specialized around data skills that PMMs used to handle. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but it does raise this question of, five years from now, are you still going to have a dedicated product marketing role or will you see parts and pieces of the role handled by other teams and new roles we may make up?

I think that's an interesting question, more likely to vary across organizations but it's an interesting question for PMMs to think about.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  11:39

For sure. So what was the most surprising statistic for you when you were researching this book?

Alexander Becker  11:45

So this is another one from the Product Marketing Alliance, the best research in the space so why not?

Emma Bilardi - PMA  11:57

We love a PMA plug on this show.

Alexander Becker  12:00

One of the things I found fascinating is that if you look at the PMA's last Product Marketing Tools of Choice report it lists 203 software tools across 15 different categories that are used by and really critical to PMMs. With the exception of competitive intelligence tools, almost none of these tools typically have product marketers as the primary purchasing decision-maker within a SaaS company.

This is not surprising, product marketing is a cross-functional role and it makes sense that PMMs wouldn't necessarily own something like a product data platform or a CRM. But I think as competition increases, as PMMs increasingly have to make faster decisions, and gain insights on customers faster there'll be really interesting questions around, in the future, do you see product marketers having a larger seat or a larger say when those products are purchased?

As I started thinking about the tools I used as a PMM, it rang true like, man, we used a lot of different tools, but we were rarely the ones actually purchasing them.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  13:13

Yeah. So one of the most interesting predictions for me was that B2B SaaS products will become radically more flexible across almost every vertical, which I think is something we're definitely seeing already, to some extent, in the B2B sphere. But how do you see product marketers adapting to this?

Alexander Becker  13:32

This could be an entire book in itself. But I think the macro changes that today, we think of low code - no code as a separate category of software products. But in the future, I think we can fully expect that the ability for users to build and customize flexible systems without needing engineering or without needing a custom team is going to be table stakes, in terms of how we interact with software.

As I talked to different PMMs, especially folks at highly flexible products like Notion two key changes really surfaced. One was that in a world where users expect to build all sorts of different things with a product that may or may not be what they start using it for initially, product marketers will have to focus much more on user education in their top-of-funnel messaging.

So if you think of a product like AirTable or Notion, it is critical in terms of conversion that a user understand what they can actually do with this product and what they can build with it, and some aspect of how it works before they actually sign up.

The second shift and this is something that a lot of different products have or a lot of different product marketing teams have struggled with and attacked in different ways, is that when you have a highly flexible product, all of a sudden your users may surface use cases that you didn't even think about. You may have really interesting uses for your product that pop up from your user community.

I think a critical shift for product marketers in the future, will be figuring out, when is it important to surface a user-generated use case and use it to inform your positioning and your messaging? And what are the user-generated use cases that may be a great fit for a certain user but are actually something that you want to push back against or not highlight just because there are long-term strategic implications for your product?

Emma Bilardi - PMA  15:47

Product-led growth has been somewhat of a hot topic, too and it's something that you cover in the book. How do you think product marketing factors into this?

Alexander Becker  15:56

Absolutely, I will start by saying I'm a fan of PLG models but I'm certainly not a PLG absolutist, I think of it as a spectrum. You have everything from full-on PLG models, where the product does all of your customer acquisition, to companies that use hybrid models, where they have sales working on certain accounts and a PLG funnel elsewhere, to companies that essentially fit PLG sidecar products into specific aspects of their product but still rely largely on a sales-led model.

I think it's important to set the stage that there is not going to be one answer in terms of PLG in the future. But largely, if you think about a world where end users' first touchpoint is your product, not necessarily talking to a member of the sales team and where a product is, in many cases, targeted at the end-users who use that product every day, rather than a senior enterprise buyer, I think there are essentially four key shifts that PMMs need to think about.

One is that B2B PMMs will increasingly need to learn B2C skills. If you think about the funnel someone uses to sign up for an app, a consumer app on their phone, there are key marketing skill sets to create that funnel that B2B PMMS in PLG environments will need to understand.

Secondly, in PLG models, there's much more of a focus on product data and activation metrics, essentially because you don't have an implementation team or an individual reaching out to do White Glove onboarding. The positive thing for PMMs is that in a world where you can directly measure how a customer is interacting with your product right after sign up, that makes product marketing, the messaging and the positioning that is used to bring a user into the product, much more measurable and measurable much faster than waiting for an implementation process to occur.

The next key shift is traditionally, PMMs have messaged to buyer personas. So you have a senior executive at a company, you know they're going to be your first stop, and so you build the messaging stack directly for them. In a PLG world, oftentimes, those senior buyers are only brought into the process after a critical mass of end-users have started to use your product.

So PMMs in the future will have to get better at building messaging that is relevant both to end users who simply want to sign up or swipe a credit card and get started and ultimately to senior buyers who may choose to do enterprise deals down the line. The last key shift, and again, this is one that I could spend a lot of time on and I think will be interesting to see in the future, is that in a world where the first stop for an end-user wanting to use your product is not sales but the product itself, growth marketing skills and product marketing skills, I think will start to converge in some really interesting ways.

And you will see an increasing number of product marketers who have experience with or at least an understanding of the analytical frameworks and structures of experimentation that growth marketers use.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  19:29

So that brings me on to my next question, actually, with the rise of SaaS businesses do you feel like this opens the door for people with more varying skill sets than we've previously seen in product marketing? And do you think this will make for an easier transition into the industry?

Alexander Becker  19:44

Absolutely. And I think one of the things that is unique and kind of wonderful about product marketing is that almost everyone gets there somewhat accidentally. No one studies product marketing in school, it's fairly rare, although I think it's increasingly happening that you get folks coming right out of undergrad into PMM roles.

As I've interviewed and worked with some really amazing product marketing leaders, I've seen them come from everywhere from management consulting to sales to in many cases, product marketers who were previously customers. I think because the role is so cross-functional and growing so quickly, I expect the willingness to hire PMMs who have really valuable skills and knowledge, but who haven't necessarily done a specific product marketing role in the past will only increase.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  20:31

Well, thank you so much for joining us, Alex. Where can our listeners find the Product Marketing Field Guide?

Alexander Becker  20:38

Yes. So the full eBook will be available on the Product Marketing Alliance site starting next Wednesday, April 21. So stay tuned and would love to get feedback and ideas from anyone who reads it. I'm excited to launch this out to the world.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  20:54

Yeah, it's really great. Obviously, I read it for the research for the show and it's fantastic and it looks great, and you should definitely download it.

Alexander Becker  21:05

Thanks so much, Emma.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  21:06

Thanks again, Alex. Bye.

Written by:

Emma Bilardi

Emma Bilardi

Emma is a Manchester-based freelance writer. She's been writing for as long as she can remember, and in the last few years predominantly about product design.

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Product marketing life [podcast]: Alexander Becker