As a highly strategic role, there are few entry-level product marketing positions, so product marketers typically find their way in from other parts of the marketing team or wider business. 

Requiring cross-functional collaboration touching marketing, product, customer success, sales, and sometimes engineering, it should be no surprise that product marketers often come from these parts of the organization. 

However, this transition isn’t always easy, and developing and building the right skills is essential. 

To get some real-world insights, Colin Hakeman, Product Marketing Specialist at Humana, reached out to three PMM professionals from a variety of backgrounds – sales, customer success, and agency – to understand how they made their transitions into the world of product marketing.

From agency to product marketing manager: Farrel Brest

Agencies are a great way to get exposure to a variety of marketing strategies and tactics in an accelerated and cross-functional environment. 

Employment in these dynamic workplaces builds adaptability, prioritization, and project management skills, while the diverse collection of projects shapes you into a marketing generalist, highly valuable in the PMM world. 

To get some insight into how one can transition from ad agency to PMM, Colin spoke with Farrel Brest, a Product Marketing Manager at Fiverr Pro, regarding the way his agency experience built the product marketing skills he employs today.

Farrel’s path to product marketing

I kicked off my career over 12 years ago at Naked Communications in Sydney, Australia. This agency was media-neutral and lived by the philosophy that "everything communicates." Whether it's a high-level campaign or a simple "thank you for registering for our webinar" email, every touchpoint offers a chance to connect – and convert – with our target personas

This role was a masterclass in strategic media thinking for me.

Next, I joined Circul8, one of Australia's most established purpose-driven creative agencies. Here, I delved deeper into combining strategic thinking with the nuts and bolts of campaign execution and storytelling. This role was more tactical and revolved around creating collateral and managing projects end-to-end.

In 2018, I founded Nine Tribes, a unique agency that melds traditional agency strategy with a direct-to-freelancer model. I wore multiple hats here – from crafting strategies to uncovering consumer, industry, and competitive insights, to defining messaging and positioning, as well as handling the marketing and omnichannel distribution strategies, not to forget sales enablement and pitch decks. 

The scope of the projects I managed closely resembled go-to-market (GTM) campaigns. These transitions have been instrumental in shaping my approach to product marketing.

Why Farrel chose product marketing

Throughout my agency experiences, one common thread emerged: The power of meaningful communication between brands and their audience. 

When I stumbled upon the role of product marketing manager, it was an “aha” moment. It felt like I had been doing it all along. The role is a perfect medley of strategic thinking, consumer psychology, and working with multiple people. 

How Farrel’s agency experience proved valuable in his career as a PMM

Whether we're in the middle of a product launch, coordinating a live event, or preparing for a webinar, my agency experience equips me with the skills needed to navigate these very cyclical PMM tasks. 

My agency background has proven invaluable in my product marketing career in three key ways: 

  1. Know your customer: This involves deep dives into research to understand our end-users: Their thinking patterns, buying behaviors, and the platforms they engage with. 
  2. Writing: I'm able to turn features into compelling benefits and produce narrative-based content like landing pages and bite-sized videos that resonate with our personas.
  3. Stakeholder management: Agency life was all about collaboration – be it with other departments or clients. This skill is incredibly valuable when coordinating with product and engineering teams on the latest releases, as well as with sales and customer-facing roles to understand the impact of our marketing strategies.

Farrel’s advice on making the switch from agency to product marketing

Firstly, agencies offer a wide range of services, from strategy and research to account management and content creation. Get experience in these transferable skills, and be curious to learn on the go. 

Secondly, the ability to adapt and be resourceful is crucial in a product marketing role. In both agency timelines and in tech or SaaS companies, things move very quickly. You’ll be able to keep up to speed!  

From customer success to product marketing manager: Joe Coletta

Serving as the voice of the market for their organizations, product marketers need to be experts on their customers. There’s no way to succeed without a deep, nuanced, and empathetic understanding of the customer and their needs, goals, and pain points. 

While there are many ways to gain this understanding, customer success teams collect these insights during their everyday conversations with customers. This experience provides an outstanding basis for customer success managers (CSMs) to become product marketers. 

To understand how to best make this switch, Colin reached out to Joe Coletta, a Senior Product Marketing Manager at ReversingLabs, for insights into his experience changing roles. 

Joe's path to product marketing

The early part of my career was in sales – first as a territory manager for a national workplace safety company, and later as a sales development representative (SDR) for a data backup and recovery company. 

Through a series of bumps, bruises, and mistakes, I realized that sales was not the right career path for me. However, it did allow me to develop transferable skills that, to this day, have been invaluable in my career. 

First and foremost, it taught me to have thick skin. It also taught me that the key to being a successful salesperson is not about cheerleading for how awesome your product is, it’s about active listening, asking the right questions to unearth key challenges, and mapping the right solutions to help them achieve their goals. 

It was this consultative approach to selling that allowed me to transition to customer success in the cybersecurity field. I found success working as a CSM and had a good relationship with my customers. However, developing as a marketer was a goal that I had always wanted to achieve from the earliest days of my career. 

I didn’t have any direct marketing experience then, so instead of looking for opportunities externally, I decided to network internally with some of the hiring managers within the marketing department.

Eventually, I was invited to interview for a marketing communications position that touched several functions including content creation, demand-gen, and customer advocacy

Ultimately, my frontline customer experience as a CSM, coupled with a solid marketing foundation gave me the qualifications necessary to land my first dedicated product marketing manager role at a different company. 

I’m proud to say that I’ve been on the PMM journey ever since. 

Why Joe chose product marketing

Even though I held roles in sales and customer success in the past, I knew that I eventually wanted to migrate into marketing. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure in what discipline of marketing I wanted to grow – be it demand-gen, field marketing, or something else.

It wasn’t until I started networking with our product marketing director while I was a CSM that I started to develop an appreciation for product marketing as a function. Product marketing serves as the connective tissue between marketing, product, sales, and customer success. 

To be in such a highly visible and impactful role was an opportunity I actively pursued from that point onward.

How Joe’s CS experience proved valuable in his career as a PMM

Much like my brief career in sales, my time as a CSM provided me with a wealth of knowledge and skills that I will continue to draw from regardless of where my career takes me. 

As a CSM in the cybersecurity space, I made a point to build relationships at each level of my customer’s organization – from the day-to-day end users, all the way up to the C-suite

Building these relationships and asking the right questions is how I developed an understanding of my customers’ challenges, their success criteria, and their evaluation processes. It also helped build my credibility. As a CSM, it was my job to be a subject matter expert so that I could effectively propose solutions to problems they were trying to solve. 

As a product marketer, my goal is to understand our customers’ businesses as much as they do. Whenever I’m developing a new messaging framework, for example, I make a point to elevate the voice of the customer based on conversations I’ve had first-hand as a CSM. 

Being more prescriptive with how we develop messaging allows product marketers to elevate their company’s brand from just another vendor to a go-to resource for industry best practices. This approach carries over into how I build content, develop web copy, sales plays, and launch new products.

Joe’s advice on making the switch from CS to product marketing

For anyone looking to migrate from CS to PMM, it helps to be at a customer-obsessed company. A customer-obsessed company will be more likely to understand the value a team member with customer-facing experience will bring to the product marketing team. 

If you think your company fits that criteria, start networking from within! It will be much easier to make the switch if you’ve built relationships. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved with the product marketing team even while you’re still working as a CSM. You can get involved with proofreading messaging briefs, broker introductions between your customers and your product marketing team, and volunteer to write content for the company’s website. 

As you build your portfolio, you’ll start to get a better understanding of where your skills can help add value and better position yourself for when a new product marketing role becomes available. 

From sales to product marketing manager: Nick Sather

As two parts of the same GTM engine, sales and marketing must work together to maximize their effectiveness.

Each has a unique perspective regarding generating interest, encouraging engagement, and pushing the sales process to completion. But, to succeed, both must be tightly aligned. Product marketers are often tasked with bridging the gap through sales enablement efforts, so an understanding of the sales team’s strategies and needs is essential. 

There’s no better way to gain this knowledge than to start in sales. 

For firsthand experience making the move from sales to product marketing, Colin connected with Nick Sather, Product Marketing Manager at Precisely, regarding how his sales background led to success in his career in product marketing.

Nick’s path to product marketing

My career journey has been a little unusual. I studied business in college (granted, very usual), but specifically concentrated on entrepreneurship. During my time in college, I earned business chops by directly throwing myself into working with owners of companies and startups in my community. 

From software startups to local mead shops, I gained experience through short consulting opportunities where I built growth plans and new processes to help various businesses. 

These experiences weren’t siloed to sales, finance, or marketing, but touched all areas of the business as it related to the product and its customers. But when it came time to graduate, translating my experience to a specific departmental role within an organization was extremely challenging. 

I knew that I wasn’t set on starting my own business coming out of college, but wasn’t sure where my experience lined up within an organization with defined roles.     

I understood that most of my experience translated to sales and marketing, and it just so happened that I pursued my first role post-graduation during the chaos of COVID-19.

I joined the sales team on a new vertical for a Series B SaaS startup. I loved my time there, but after about nine months, my daily work grind left me unengaged and drained. I chose to leave that role without another opportunity lined up in order to explore what other options might be a better fit. 

I spent the next seven months doing research into new career fields.

I loved having conversations with prospects, but I didn’t enjoy the cyclical nature of sales. I knew I wanted to spend time building something, but I also knew I wanted to maintain a connection with the market.

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During those seven months, I reached out to connect with hundreds of people, not trying to immediately secure a job, but to better understand theirs. The purpose was to prototype new career fields as quickly as possible and test whether a role would energize and engage me. 

The result? I had one-on-one conversations with over 60 people and prototyped 12+ career fields. I took a design approach to my career, following strategies from the book Designing Your Life (which I seriously can’t recommend enough).

Why Nick chose product marketing

During my career exploration, I met with someone in product marketing, a new career field I had surprisingly never heard of before. After three more conversations and loads of research, this was the area that was closest aligned with my previous entrepreneurial experience. 

I realized that a majority of the energizing work I had done paralleled the responsibilities of a product marketer! I soon found and joined Product Marketing Alliance, dove deep into the community, and eventually found my first product marketing role at Greenlight Guru through the PMA Slack channel

I attribute a lot of my decision to dive into product marketing to PMA because of its easy-to-digest content in addition to its friendly and active community!

How Nick’s sales experience proved valuable in his career as a PMM

My sales experience has been extremely valuable. In sales, active listening is vital, so this makes discovering customers and conducting win-loss interviews ten times easier. 

In addition, my experience on the ground floor in sales made relating and conversing with the sales team far more seamless. Having been in their shoes, I had a clear understanding of their priorities and needs. As a result, sales collateral and training became more clear and actionable.

Nick’s advice on making the switch from sales to product marketing

If anyone is looking to switch from sales to product marketing, I would suggest three things:

  1. Start trying to contribute to product marketing-related responsibilities. Similar to how I began developing more sales enablement materials for my sales team. Ask around and look for opportunities.
  2. Begin documenting your impact within the company. Sales is very quantifiable, so if you can’t bring one to three (or more) years of experience as an in-house product marketer, show how your contributions to a team translated directly to key company objectives. Focus especially on when you can combine the first point and include product marketing-related impact (which you can learn more about via PMA’s blog content).
  3. Arguably most importantly, start crafting your personal story. Start to figure out how you can articulate this transition. Where did you come from? Where are you going? Why are you doing this? What skill set do you have that few other people can speak to? (e.g. very few marketers know what it’s like to be in sales). When you lead with intentionality, people will sense that.

Transitioning into the field of product marketing: Closing thoughts

Making the leap into product marketing from a non-traditional background is challenging but rewarding. By leaning on transferable skills and seeking internal opportunities, these professionals successfully transitioned into impactful product marketing roles.

Key Takeaways

  • Sales builds customer empathy and an understanding of what supports the sales cycle needs, which is advantageous for effective messaging and positioning.
  • Customer success offers frontline insights to elevate the customer voice when developing materials.
  • Agencies teach adaptability, strategic thinking, and marketing fundamentals to support launches.
  • Networking and volunteering for cross-functional projects open doors to new PMM opportunities.
  • Articulating your background’s unique value makes you stand out from other applicants.
  • With the right experience, mindset, and effort, professionals from many fields can find success in product marketing.

As evidenced by Farrel, Joe, and Nick's journeys, a career pivot into product marketing, while difficult, can be achieved by identifying transferable skills, seeking internal opportunities, and clearly communicating your value. 

Though the path may not be linear, remain open and persevere. With your diverse expertise, you can contribute immeasurable value and insight to the product marketing community.