We got together with Matthew Ventrella, Product Marketing Manager at Upwork, and discussed the PMM process and how that ties into a culture focused on ownership, feedback, and continuous improvement. Matthew explains what this means to him, shares tips and actionable insights for others, and more.

Full transcript:

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone, and welcome to the Product Marketing Life podcast brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name's Emma Bilardi, I'm a Content Marketer here at PMA. This week, we're joined by Matthew Ventrella, Product Marketing Manager at Upwork. Hey, Matthew, thanks for joining us.

Matthew Ventrella  0:16

Hey, Emma, how are you doing?

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:17

I'm good thank you. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your role at Upwork?

Matthew Ventrella  0:22

Yeah, definitely. So first, thank you for inviting me to speak on the show.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:29

It's a pleasure to have you.

Matthew Ventrella  0:29

I'm a product marketing manager at Upwork. For those unfamiliar with Upwork, we're the world's largest work marketplace, connecting millions of businesses with independent professionals from around the globe. We offer our clients a really deep pool of top tier talent while providing independent professionals more opportunities to do the work that they love to do.

In my role, I focus more on the client or demand side of the platform. I own one of our major product offerings called Project Catalogue, which we actually just launched globally last week. So things have been a little bit busy. In addition to the Project Catalogue, I've worked on a variety of other products like direct contracts and payroll, all while focusing on ways to scale our product marketing team through processes and tooling.

Our product marketing team actually refreshed about a year and a half ago, the team went through some fundamental changes moving from a very executional downstream team to a team now that's really focused on being leaders in strategy and planning while still delivering. I also can't resist a quick plug, we're a small but mighty team with incredible leadership and growing very quickly. We do have a few roles open so please check them out after listening.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  4:56

Awesome, today we're going to discuss the product marketing process and how that ties into a culture focused on ownership feedback and continuous improvement. So can you tell our listeners what that actually means to you?

Matthew Ventrella  5:08

Yeah, absolutely. So to help illustrate what it means to me, let's try something quickly with our listeners. I want you to visualize a successful high performing marketing team. They could be at your current company, from a past company, one that you've worked with or even read about. Think big. Think about how they pushed boundaries, operated at high levels, and influenced organizations.

Now let's take a moment to think about the top qualities of this team. What separates them from average teams? Why are they so successful? There are probably a few qualities that came to mind. Things like a clear identity, a deep knowledge of what customers want, diversity of thought and perspective, maybe striking outputs, strong stakeholder relationships, or high levels of communication.

To me, all these traits tie back to a few foundational pillars with really the most prominent being a clear operating model with a strong set of processes weaved in. These defined processes really allow teams to be able to move forward, it basically acts as a springboard to really focus on what's important, which is delivering outstanding outputs. When processes and operating models are defined, you can really start setting some clear guidelines of ownership and expectations on how to get things done.

Ultimately, what this does is it frees up time for owners to find optimizations and conduct research and test hypothesis, whether it be with external customers, or internal stakeholders and teams, or even just developing themselves. In addition to time-saving and all that greatness, there are also operating models that can help you really refine your team culture. So building the expectations and values for your team. When you start adding values that focus on scalability, feedback, and optimizations, that's really kind of the core or the starting point for a continuous improvement culture.

The deployment of a continuous improvement culture really comes in different forms, whether it be through optimizing internal tooling and processes, self-learning and improvement, like I said earlier, external feedback on products, or looking to get ahead of external threats - competitors and different things that are changing in the market. To give a real-world example of continuous improvement in a product sense, I can expand a little bit more on our recent launch of Project Catalogue.

So, after deciding to try a different route with the launch, we decided to implement a launch and learn process, which basically meant releasing an alpha and a beta to really test the product and to get a better understanding of user reactions, gauge feedback, and really to just focus on creating the best possible product for customers. For the alpha, we targeted a small group of users from a series of different personas with in-app messages and emails to try to get them to use the product.

We then recruited both active and non-active users to really focus on hearing their point of view. And then we took all that information that we learned from them and documented it, and really focused on ways that we could get this information to the product team, as well as to the CX team and a couple of other teams to focus on ways that we can prioritize critical features and make adjustments that are required. This work led to a handful of modifications and additional features for the next launch, which was our beta. That happened about a month later.

With the beta, we went to a larger audience subset to test this new experience, the new features, and just kind of validate some of the thinking that we had. We kept the testing quite similar, but we also added quantitative surveys to understand user behavior and concerns at scale.

Again, we found new areas to improve upon and critical usability fixes that needed to happen prior to our G8 launch. And really, this work allowed us to not only improve our product prior to going live but also set our roadmap for the next few months after our G8 launch. So we identified really core features and functions that our users needed to be successful while using it.

And now, we'll continue expanding upon that post-launch and already looking at our next subset of features that we're going to roll out. Really from here, our focus remains on continuing to grow and optimize the products, conducting even more interviews, and just again, focusing on gaining and gathering as much feedback as possible to really make our product as customer-centric as possible.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  10:20

Great. So do you have any tips or actionable ways on how product marketers can create a continuous improvement culture?

Matthew Ventrella  10:27

Yeah, definitely. So first and foremost, change management is really hard. There's no other way of going about it. Changing mindsets, changing the way that people behave is definitely a challenging thing. It requires a lot of buy-in, and it requires a lot of education to take others on the journey. So to help get change off the ground, it's really vital to have a clear outcome of where the team should go, and an outline of what actually needs to change.

This is really where you can start planting the continuous improvement thinking, ideating a future state that targets this consistent optimization. Without a proposed outcome, you're really just kind of a rudderless ship with no direction, you're just kind of spinning around and swirling and not really getting anywhere.

So another I guess quick tip would be to set micro-goals. The road is inevitably going to be bumpy, it helps to get smaller micro-goals put in place to help make sure that you really stay on track and ship the broader picture. Once you've really focused on this outline of where you want to be, the next step is to get buy-in from your team and this is really, really critical.

I found that the best way to do this is by holding a session where you can just bring the whole team together and discuss this vision, discuss this outcome, and have the team focus on creating a set of values and principles. What this does is really allows you to focus on setting the tone for the team, getting a sense of community. I like to use the phrase 'everybody's getting on the bus', you're all headed in the same direction, you're all together, and you all have the same idea as to where you want to go.

From here, the focus is now on establishing ground rules. So building a new operating model to work this new culture into. This means explaining the roles and responsibilities of product marketing in your organization, you're implementing your team's new values, focusing on how your team interacts with other teams, how your team interacts with one another.

And also, near and dear to my heart are written processes and templates. How do you actually get the things done? How do you create the scalable processes that you can keep implementing so that your team runs from the same core element? They all start in the same place? Another quick plug, the Product Marketing Alliance has some fantastic templates.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  13:23

Thank you.

Matthew Ventrella  13:24

I've been jumping through some of the templates and definitely getting some great inspiration for different ways that we can implement some more of these processes and some more of this thinking. So definitely check that out. In addition to that, there's also the Sharebird community, which has some really great insights from other marketers.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, utilize the resources that are available to you on the internet. There's a tonne of information out there, and there are people who have done exactly what you're doing. Look out for that information.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  14:04


Matthew Ventrella  14:05

To reinforce this new thinking into everyday team interactions, I suggest doing two things. First, tie this vision into team and individual OKRs, look at ways that you can convert high-level thinking into more actionable results.

Second is to be active, push your team to be champions of this new ideology. Encourage them to share documents with one another. Share your ideas for improvements and really just ask them to do the same, be that role model, be that person who's really driving this change.

At Upwork, for our product marketing team, it's very common for a PMM to share work, tooling, education processes, you name it with the rest of the team for feedback or for awareness. I think it really comes down to our underlying values, which is that we really understand and support each other and the growth and betterment of one another in an open space.

From that point, then it's all about turning this newfound behavior into a long term habit, embedding it into the DNA of the team. Further establishing this, you can do things like sharing your team wins with the wider org. We love customer stories and case studies so make a case study or story about your team and tell the successes and the highlights of this new way of working.

When it comes to tips, too, I just have a couple of quick ones that help you just as you go through this process. First is role and owner clarity, really focusing on ways that we can define what product marketing does, and get really, really clear with other stakeholders as to where they lie in this larger picture.

Ensure also that it's clear to your team that all feedback should come from a place of positive intent. Nothing will destroy openness faster than fear of ridicule so we really want to focus on creating an open, safe environment where you can test and throw out ideas and really build this kind of rapport with one another.

In addition to that, as I said earlier, being active, it's so critical to be active, it takes work to get behavior to change. Consistently keep at it, things are going to be hard, and people are going to be reluctant to change but if you keep at it, you're likely going to end up getting to that stage.

Last is to be vocal. Really think about how you're communicating out with the team, how you're communicating out with other stakeholders and making sure that you're again, highlighting these changes and really rewarding people for making this leap of faith if you will.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  17:32

Excellent advice. So are there any tools that you could recommend to help marketers streamline or track this process?

Matthew Ventrella  17:41

Yeah, so when it comes to tooling, I'm a big, big fan of Coda. It provides incredible amounts of flexibility. I personally love it because you can really create a centralized document to store various formats and information, whether it be spreadsheets or just your regular kind of text doc. The best thing for me is the fact that they're consistently investing and improving the tool, adding new features, making it better and better.

Plus, they also feature templates, which as you can tell, I like a lot. So being able to kind of get into the mind of others, and see how people tackle problems, I think is a really interesting way to think differently about the way that you can approach challenges and things like that. But more generally, when it comes to tools, I think really the first step when thinking about a tool is that it's universal and that everyone on your team, whether it be your product team, your analytics team, if you have a research team, all these different teams have access to it.

Because at the end of the day, when you pull all these insights together, you collect feedback, operationalize everything, it's going to be really hard to share that information if it's just locked to your team, or if other teams can't get into it. So really focusing on that, in addition to ensuring that the tool has an ability to store and display the information in a repeatable way, again, templates.

With the ability to make something into a template, you can find a way to build cohesion amongst your team so that everyone is really working from the same starting point. That really helps with making sure that when we're making improvements, we're all universally doing it as opposed to people shooting off into 100 different directions.

When it comes to tracking processes for cultures of continuous improvement, if your processes are working then there's a high chance that your general marketing OKRs are going to be doing quite well. If you're doing the right things, and you're following the right way that you set up your processes, it's likely that you're going to start seeing some success with just the general running of the team. Almost like the proof is in the pudding, if you will.

The other thing too, though, is that you can also track metrics that align to setting up processes, so we're building this culture of continuous improvement. Focusing on ways that you can deliver X amount of insights to the product team, or you are refreshing your operating model or different ways like that. Thinking about, again, taking these high-level ideas, and then breaking them down into lower-level OKR results, it's basically a forcing function to make sure that you deliver on it.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  21:08

Okay, so let's talk a little bit about processes again. In your opinion, what are the most vital processes that product marketers should have ownership of?

Matthew Ventrella  21:20

Yeah, so in my opinion, product marketers should really own four core areas, and then the processes that are associated with them. The first core area is developing customer and market insights to ultimately inform product strategy. Really, the processes in this area are creating competitive reviews, customer journey mapping, win-loss analysis, and ultimately persona creation. They all kind of build to that.  

Second is positioning products and developing messaging strategies for the target audience. Some of the processes in here or really the only process in here is developing a positioning and messaging document. So really focusing on how do we position this product? What are the messages that we tell?

Third is developing a go-to-market strategy and then managing the product launch itself. The process for this is the GTM strategy so actually setting the stage for the GTM, as well as managing the launch process.

Fourth would be really focusing on driving adoption and optimization, utilizing some different customer and market insights. The processes for this would be to run user research sessions, conducting AB testing, and then ultimately, post-launch marketing. Thinking again, more about this product marketing and how do we continue telling that story after the GTM launch?

Emma Bilardi - PMA  23:12

If there's a process that a product marketer should have ownership of, but currently doesn't, what can I do to rectify that situation without stepping on toes? This is something that comes up quite a lot in the Slack community question wise, so I'm sure they'd appreciate some sage advice.

Matthew Ventrella  25:13

Yeah, definitely. This is definitely a pretty challenging question and I think it's challenging because there's just a lot of variations. The situation itself can really vary quite broadly based on the level of process. Depending on where it sits, is it an associate-level of process, or is it like a VP level process? Who the owner or owners are, and ultimately, your relationship with the person who you report to.

For some, it can be as simple as just going directly to the person who you report to, talk to them about this process that you want to own, and then ultimately devising a strategy with them to build influence and focus on ways that you can really get that ownership and insert yourself into that situation. But I'm going to challenge myself a little bit, and I'm going to think through a more formal process. First, what I would do is understand the situation and really get a good understanding of what exactly you want to own. Think about the core areas and where you'd fit in best. Sometimes there are processes that have multiple different stakeholders and multiple different owners so there might just be a subsection of the larger process that you want to own. Really focus on where you'd kind of fit in, in that.

Then also consider why the person who owns it owns it. Think about what are the reasons, what are the ways that the company is set up, what are the areas as to how this person came to own it, to really get a good understanding of the background. Just keep in mind, too, if you're kind of late in the process, and say for instance it's a product launch or something like that, and you're only two weeks out, probably not the best time to start trying to influence yourself into that process. You might have to wait until the next one, but just keep in mind that background and get a better understanding of it.

From there, probably the next stage would be to really focus on how you can join in on the project, or review the process from the owner themselves. Again, just really focusing on how you can collect as much information as possible. That lends itself well to finding an opportunity to insert influence.

We want to identify gaps, and we want to identify the way that you can provide your value to the process. What are the things that make you invaluable? What are the insights that you have, that no one else can provide? Go through that process of where do you add that value? And why should you be the owner? Think about the actions that you would take to fix the proverbial gap. Then what I would do is talk to the person you report to and present your findings. Set up a meeting, explain to them the opportunity, and ultimately why you should own this process or project. Talk about the value that you add, and then ultimately your approach.

I think the important thing here is to get their feedback, you might not know that there is a certain reason why the reporting structure is set the way that it is, it might be based on antiquated thinking, it might be something that you just don't see. And ultimately the person who you report to should be the one who can help you with navigating a little bit of the politics behind that process.

The other thing is you want to arm them with documentation. You want to give them a deck or something like that, that has your findings, walks through this decision making, and really the goal of that would be when they go to their director or their executive or whoever they need to talk to, to vocalize this movement, they need something that they can share so that person can then make a decision. That's really critical.

From there, again, it entirely depends on the situation but there could be a situation where you meet with the required stakeholders or the boss's boss and offer the proposal on how to fill the gap. Again, this is where that documentation would come in handy because ultimately, you have something to lean back on and you have something to talk to.

Lastly, if all goes well, and you do end up getting the process or project and you get that ownership, take ownership and deliver. You want to really impress people because if you were able to pull something away, you really want to focus on how you can highlight yourself, how you can illustrate the amazing work that you've done and you're going to continue delivering. Ultimately what that will do is it'll help you with building your influence in your organization.

It'll help you in future situations when you're looking to potentially take on more ownership. All around what you always want to do is own it, deliver, and then also be vocal and make sure that you share your wins, you talk about the successes of your team, you talk about all of these wonderful things that you're now able to do because you're an owner, and it's awesome.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  31:06

We like to kind of wrap things up in the show with some tips or best practices. So do you have any tips or best practices on gathering and implementing customer feedback?

Matthew Ventrella  31:16

Yeah, definitely. So at Upwork, we have a research team who conducts a lot of studies for us. I'm very spoiled, I've never actually had a research team prior to coming to Upwork so it's a wonderful luxury to have, though, I do still think it's incredibly important to interview clients and ask questions, I still do it. I think it really helps you when it comes to putting yourself into the shoes of your customer.  I'd say some of the tips that I have are, first, these experiences are really invaluable. Test early and test often.

At the end of the day, these people who you're testing with, they're going to be the end-users of your product so make sure that you ask really meaningful questions early on so that you can really inform your thinking and start focusing on your direction. There's nothing worse than creating an entire positioning and messaging statement that you've painstakingly made over weeks at a time to then ultimately have everything fall apart at launch. And really, it's so key to get that feedback and to really understand what your customers are thinking and what they're responding to. Next would be to go in with an open mindset.

Again, this is incredibly important, go in and expect to hear negative feedback. There's probably going to be issues that you haven't even thought of and that's okay, that's important. That's the whole point of doing research, is to really understand what your customers are thinking, and how you can create the tools and the processes, and the messaging to make sure that you're aligned with their expectations. In addition to that, don't just talk to power users, I feel like I've learned so much from people who are casual users, or people who have logged into the platform once or twice, maybe they had a hard time with finding what it was that they needed.

Knowing that information and focusing on ways that we can make things easier, make things more client-centric is absolutely critical. You learn that ultimately from people who maybe don't use your product all the time. In addition to that, I'd really focus on using your existing customer base, these are the people who are actually using your product. Really get a good understanding from them as to what are the reasons why they use your product?

Something that we've done is set up customer advisory boards, which is basically just a group of customers who come together, more or less you set up a process with them where you ask them questions, you share with them new products, and they just provide their honest feedback about it. It's a really helpful resource instead of having to consistently go out and find new prospects and find new research subjects to talk to. But if you don't have the resources for a customer advisory board or it's just too cumbersome there are some really fantastic sites when it comes to customer research and just finding people who you can study.

At Upwork, we use a website called User Testing but there are tonnes and tonnes out there that can help you with finding these prospects and then ultimately learning from them and getting their feedback. Two last points, so I'd say first would be, after you've run your session, make sure that the raw feedback is made digestible. I've used a couple of different workflows for this.

The first is just using a Google slide. So just really having core breakdowns with specific call-outs to items that need to be updated or changed or issues with messaging or whatever it may be.

Second is a more workflow process, which would be using Trello. So actually taking all of these insights and turning them into cards on a board, and then using the flow and moving cards through and being able to assign them to people and make these changes. So it really varies on how you want to go through the process of making changes.

Lastly, share your findings. It's incredibly important that you put all this effort and time and energy into asking people questions, getting their feedback, finding them in the first place. Making sure that you share your findings with your broader team and make sure that the product team and channel owners and everyone else make the necessary refinements that are documented throughout your studies.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  36:59

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us, Matthew.

Matthew Ventrella  37:03

Awesome. Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  37:05

No problem it was our pleasure. There's so much great advice in there that I'm sure our listeners will get a lot out of it. So again, thanks very much and take care.

Matthew Ventrella  37:16

Great, thanks, Emma.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  37:17

No problem.