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22 min read

Why PMMs should start thinking like CEOs

Membership content | Leadership

What I'm going to talk about in this article is some of the tactics that you can leverage to help people start seeing Product Marketing in a very different light. In fact, thinking more like a CEO and how it can help you benefit from a business standpoint.

When you think of a CEO, you don't often think about marketing, right? It's often one of these three:

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It’s sales because they understand they've driven some kind of massive sales organisation for years, whether it's at IBM or Red Hat or something like that, right? It's finance because they understand the numbers. They were CFO somewhere for the last 20 years or so, in the valley here, or San Francisco.

Engineering is big. A lot of companies are these whiz kids geniuses that are building out companies and kind of just looking to disrupt this world. Now, the challenge with Product Marketing is that we often do this:

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We don't feel comfortable always being out in front of it. We don't feel comfortable being in front of customers. Business acumen isn't always something that we double down on, and in many organizations, they don't empower us to think differently.

But that's what I want us to start doing. So I know product managers and engineering, especially at the very tech-savvy companies, tend to have the center of gravity there.

They look at us as, ‘Hey, you're going to make the slide deck, you’re the slide guy or girl’, and that's all you're kind of good at. ‘If I need a campaign, I'll come to you’, but when it comes to business or driving a plan, you're not often my first stop on the train.

I want to change that. One of the cool things I saw was the State of Product Marketing survey. The fact that many of you want a seat at the leadership table, you want to be able to actually have more influence in whatever company that you work for.

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On a scale of one to 10 we get about a 6.5 in terms of how much influence we think people have, 6.5 is 65%, it's pretty much a D, pretty much we're not doing a great job, and that bothers me because I love marketing, I've been doing it for a long time. So I feel like it's up to us to help rebrand product marketing as a whole in order to get what we want:

  1. The leadership aspect of it
  2. Clarity on that role

Many of you are doing different things. Some of you are more focused on demand Gen. Some of you are more focused on the pricing, but I think what you need to think about it, although you're doing this right, almost 60% of you are focused on generating new revenue for the organization which is great because as a CEO, you need to be thinking about the dollars. How are you generating new dollars for your organization?

The other thing is MQLs which was pretty weird to see because demand-gen is often on the hook for generating your MQLs in many organizations, but about 45% of you are actually working on that now and 42% are on retaining customers. So I see that as driving some up-sell, maybe some cross-sell mixed in there as well, am I right?

The good thing is, you're doing a lot of what's required already from a CEO perspective, we just need to put it together in a really cohesive plan to do so and help others in your organization, whether they're in PM or engineering or a senior executive role, see us in that light.  

PMM 2.0

So, the big premise of this article is seeing yourself in a different light. Product Marketing doesn't have to be seen as only the marketer, only the slide person, you can be seen as a person who's actually the owner of your business unit, driving dollars for whatever product you're driving. So, I have my evolution: scale here…

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So on the left hand side, you have the old world of what people view product marketing as, I call it 'the slide jockey', they'll go to you when there's a presentation or there's a couple typos or they don't really know how to make a transition work, instead of you being the one to actually get in front and present it.

The next kind of phase, as I call it, 'the slide jockey plus', they're a little more respected, they come for more advanced slides. The next iteration in the evolution, I guess, I would say is the solid PMM, the person who is that rock star, they're confident this is probably where most product marketers fall.

But what I want to focus on is on the right side, the right-hand side there, getting in front of customers. If you're building the presentations already, there's no one in the organization that is a better fit to actually do that presentation than you. You just have to believe that. You have to think about that.

How many of you reading this have been in a presentation where your product manager is doing the pitch deck that you built? And you're like, I could do that, and probably way better. Yeah, you might not have the technical depth on that, but many of the beginning conversations that you're having with customers are more so teaching them about a new approach, about new architecture, or a new way of thinking.

You don't need to be super, super technical to do that. Now, it does pay off to have some good knowledge of the technology. I hear often about people wanting to give demos, but if you’re not there yet then work towards that point. Don't just think that over a day I'm going to understand a deep dive into how to do Superman's pitch to SGE or whoever your biggest customer you're trying to get is, it doesn't happen every day we have to work at it.

Personally what I do is I block off an hour for myself and for my team every Friday. I call it ‘the tech review hour’, and literally no matter what’s going on, how pressing other things are going on, you dedicate an hour out of the day to just understand the technology. That question that you had that week or that came up in a customer meeting, you had no idea what that was or that acronym that popped up, you're like, I really don't know. Use that hour on a Friday or a day that works for you to study that.

I promise you it will come in handy. You'll be surprised at how much you actually learn about your technology.

Get close to the dollars

Now the next piece I'll talk about is the business leader. This is the most advanced piece and this is when we think of PMM 2.0. You want to get to the point where you're understanding how to run it, thinking like a CEO in everything you do, and everything you do in a marketing front, maps back to the dollars-in and I promise you the closer you remain to the money, the more important you will be seen to the organization.

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A lot of people I talk to on this topic struggle with credibility. I promise you that as you build marketing programs and messaging and positioning to your personas that generate money, your senior leaders will listen to you and listen to you often. The more that happens, the bigger your prowess becomes your importance, your personal brand within your organization. And you'll find that sales organizations and senior leaders come to you for recommendations whereas before you were just a slide jockey.

So, this is a really important concept to understand, get close to the dollars, understand where your company's making money, where are you struggling? Find that gap where the organization is struggling to find dollars, fill it, and people will listen. We have to think that way.

So, yes, people are going to come with their own kind of predispositions around what product marketing is, prove them wrong, and US dollars and money will help do that. The other thing is you don't have to just make it up and do it yourself. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. There have been so many phenomenal companies out there that have been successful and differentiated. And one of my favorite brands is Amazon.

Their customer service is phenomenal, something breaks or you need to return something and it's super, super easy, right? We've all done it, and it's because they're obsessed with making their customers happy. So, the two kinds of macro-level things you’ll take away from this article are:

  1. Get close to the money, and
  2. Get customer-obsessed.

And the best way to do that is to understand what your customers want. What do they need? What is their real challenge?

That challenge just isn't at a basic level, there are multiple pieces, there's an external challenge, that external challenge manifests itself as an internal one, which should be a philosophical one, and that's something wrong, this shouldn't be the case. So, you need to look at challenges in different layers, not just at a surface level.

Satya Nadella is one of the best CEOs I think out there, and he's the CEO of Microsoft, and you think about how he's been there maybe four years or so, Microsoft has turned itself around. It's now seen as one of the most innovative companies, they're going out there building communities of developers, before that it wasn't the case, right?

So, they were really quick to pivot and a lot of that is through Satya Nadella, he's an amazing business strategy for Microsoft. What we need to be able to do and say is, 'Hey, all these awesome marketing plans that we're doing, let's translate that into an actual business strategy instead'. And there are three ways to actually do that.

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The first is to actually understand how you're making money. Know your revenue numbers, in and out, who reading could tell me your revenue numbers right now? Who could tell me your revenue numbers for your product? Who here can tell me what's your split between net new and upsell?

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Generally, when I ask groups those questions I see quite a big reduction in people that could actually answer them, but it's important to just be able to memorize those and rattle them out. Another aspect you've got to think of is your partners as well if you are a company that resells to partners at all, which Zscaler does a lot.

You want to understand the partners that you can work with to actually help you drive revenue. Not just your technology partners who you're integrating, I'm talking about the folks who can actually help you land or expand on existing deals.

Revenue goals

The second piece is driving a unique marketing plan based on those revenue goals. Again, everything you do on marketing, map it back to your dollars, and it has some very clear-cut examples of what that looks like and what we've done within Zscaler to actually be, in my mind, successful on that.

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Work with lead-gen teams

The third thing is to work with the demand-gen team. You know, it's funny, this idea of why PMM should start thinking like CEOs actually came from my CMO currently at Zscaler, Micheline Nijmeh. The first meeting I had with her one on one, she said, look at it, Product Marketing is the heart, demand-gen are the veins and the arteries, so what we need to be able to do is come up with a messaging position to help demand-gen use throughout their content syndication methods, social media, paid digital, whatever that might be, to leverage.

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So, work with your CMO in that mind. If you are the CEO, demand gen's your CMO. The other piece are your subject matter experts, which in this case are going to be your product managers, within Zscaler we created this idea of a pod. So, every pod is split up by the different products we have, we have four different platforms that we drive, and each of those platforms has a demand-gen owner, a product marketer and a product manager as well.

Every week we meet to discuss whatever it is we need for that week. If there's a new product feature coming out, how do we look at it and actually build it? We actually rate it, is this a tier 1, 2, 3, or 4, and everything that's a tier-one gets higher focus in terms of the marketing standpoint, tier four, not so much.

So, work closely with those teams, these are your trusted advisors in a way, if you're the CEO.

I promised I'd get into some more tactical things when you look at knowing your revenue numbers, so these are some things you need to start considering:

  1. How much revenue does your product actually generate this year?
  2. What is your goal?

It could be 5 million if you're a startup, it could be 20 million, it could be a billion dollars, whatever it is, think about what that is. Next, think about your split.

  • Is it going to be majority net new?
  • Is there a majority upsell?

For the two products that I focus on at Zscalar, if I look at the split let's call it something called Zscaler Private Access, which is one of the four, and my split is between 55% and 45% net new to upsell. I need to make sure that this dual strategy that I had to drive revenue is intact. So I need to have specific things on the net new side where I'm looking at the top 500 customers and looking at what's the penetration rate for ZPA.

If I have the top 300 customers on the up-sell, how many of them have ZPA? How many of them don't? What is the right messaging to actually get them to take some action? And of course, it's way easier to sell to your existing customers. So consider that, I would consider that some of the low hanging fruit when you look at that split, but first off understanding the numbers behind that, and focusing your strategy based on that.

For the other pieces, what's the use case that is most lucrative for you? For my product, I have four main use cases that I consider. There's a replacement for, let's say, a VPN, there's securing access to AWS and Azure, and public cloud instances and things like that, there's mergers and acquisitions, and then there are third parties you need to connect to apps. But I know that VPN is going to be my number one use case.

So, guess what? I put all my marketing effort into the VPN aspect of it. It's important, right? Because I look at it in a couple of ways. You have your land motion and you expand motion, right? What's going to get you that easiest transactional deal, and then you can grow on and add more from there. It's important to consider these factors when you look at them. Especially from the mindset of the CEO.

Now, yes, we're marketers, so you need to understand what are the things that can help you drive pipeline, and the other thing is, how much of that pipeline should be sourced by marketing? I think industry averages around 35% should be marketing source. And my team, looking at all pipelines for the company, marketing source, is right around 55 to 60%.

So that means that the first time that a customer or prospect is interacting with Zscaler is because of a marketing asset, it's not a salesperson or it's not coming from the partner organization as well. Understand where you stand with that and fix it because I promise you if Product Marketing and marketing is driving the most revenue and driving the most pipeline, your teams will listen to you, your leaders will listen to you, and you as a product marketer will be elevated as a result of that.

The other piece, what's your conversion rate? Just because you're bringing in a marketing source pipeline does not mean it's actually turning into real dollars. So, look at the dollars in, how does that actually trickle down to close deals? You need to kind of walk back through that process.

  1. The lead comes in,
  2. It becomes a real marketing qualified lead,
  3. A sales qualified lead,
  4. It becomes a meeting,
  5. A PLC and then
  6. A closed deal as a result of that.

But you need to be able to track that and there are tools that can help you do it.

The second aspect of it: driving a unique marketing plan that can actually help accomplish those goals. But you need to have the data to begin with and then you start getting into the marketing piece. Don't go two before one. Don't just go and kind of drive creative marketing without understanding the numbers behind it. Because your impact both externally and internally will be less so.

Low hanging fruit

So, where's your low-hanging fruit today? Think about that for a second. If you were to go out and position your product based on the numbers that you know, where would you go after? For me, a lot of it is just my install base, we have a lot of customers, how do I upsell my existing customers that don't have a ZPA today? But think about how you can do that on a really tactical level.

The other aspects that a lot of teams like to use are promos and test drives, I think these are phenomenal ways to actually get folks and use marketing to drive revenue. So, promotions, we have this offer where if you take out your existing VPN we'll give you six months free of Zscaler service, leverage that.

We built out something called ZPA interactive, which is a seven-day hosted experience of ZPA as well. All a prospect has to do is go to a Marketo form, fill it out, and suddenly they have this seven-day hosted test drive of our instance and they didn't have to talk to a sales organization.

Again, using marketing to drive your revenue. What's your share of voice in the market and how do you leverage SEO and SEM today? Share voice is important, so working closely with your PR teams, the media outlets that are out there, information week or dark reading whatever it is, depending on your industry who your media players are there, and SEO and SEM.

SEO is critical, it's all your organic search that you do and the keywords and the H1 tags you put into your content. Don't ever underestimate that, because Google is a powerful tool, and if you show up within that first 10, that first page, you're in good shape. You start slipping two, two, and three, I mean, how often do we go to page two or three guys? Not that often.

Alright, so always think about that as well. The teams that can help you, think about that, not every team's going to be critical. I don't do a tonne of work with engineering, at Zscaler it's more so product management, it's the LDR, it's demand-gen. In fact, using your LDRs or SDRs in some cases, we call them to lead development reps at Zscaler or some call them sales development reps. What we're actually doing is driving target up-sell initiatives.

They'll go out do call blitzes and get people engaged, get those meetings set, that's some of the tactics you need to drive because until you get that respect with the sales organization, it's harder to work back from there, you need to first prove it out with the LDR, drive revenue, the LDRs have relationships with your SDRs or your sales reps, so work that angle instead.

You'll be surprised at how many reps start calling you to ask them for sales pitches, and for thoughts around how to actually help them drive success in their deals.

The third aspect of it, is work with your CMO and PM as your go-to-market team. Differentiation points and understanding your product are really critical and this is what I talked about before. You don't have to be a super, super deep dive, no, you're not going to know what every single bell and whistle or feature within your product. We have to know what's going to differentiate you, help you stand out.

This is really, really important and your product managers are going to be the ones to help you drive that and understand it because they're close to the product, so keep that in mind always. The other thing is developing customer focus campaigns. A lot of companies make the mistake of positioning our company as the hero. But we're not. We're the guide. The hero is your customers.

Think of every amazing story that's been out there.

  • You have a character who has a challenge,
  • They then need a guide,
  • Who gives them a plan,
  • Gives them a call to action,
  • They have this rush with failure,
  • And then there's a win.

You can insert any major stories, Star Wars, any of that kind of stuff, and that same story tends to play out. But think about what that looks like for your brand, customer-facing, think about your customer first.

The other piece, identify which assets are actually going to drive your biggest drivers or be your biggest pipeline drivers. Not all assets are equal, webinars at Zscaler do really, really well, they have better conversion rates. You might have white papers or solution briefs that stand out amongst others.

We use tools like Visible or Bright Funnel that can actually help you do some more of that marketing attribution so you can understand what are those specific assets that you can leverage. As a product marketer, it helps you focus. Instead of just going out and building a tonne of content, you can focus on the right kind of content and parse out all the other stuff that's not necessarily working.

I highly recommend looking at tools that can help you be a little more focused in your marketing efforts as well.

I've been reading this book called 'The story: building a story brand', I highly recommend this book. And it talks about different calls to action, so you can have a direct call to action or you can have a transitional one so when you work with the demand-gen teams, identify do you want to have the sign up for a 'demo now' or 'try it now' or 'buy now' type direct pieces? Or do you want to have more transitional words? The freemium's where it test drives.

Maybe for your case, it might be the direct ones that work out best, in some cases, it might be transitional, but be able to differentiate between those two and leverage the ones that make the most sense for you.

The other thing about being a CEO is being a thought leader, I think Elon Musk is one of the best thought leaders in the world. I don't think many people would argue that. But the interesting thing is we actually have a lot in common with him, between Product Marketing and Elon Musk, because guess what? A lot of what we're doing is very similar to it.

What are we doing? We're creating the vision for a better way in all the messaging that we drive, so whatever challenge it is that your customers are facing today, we are building a message and a positioning statement that helps them understand that it exists and that we can help them solve it. The other piece that we're doing is we're actually showcasing those who have actually accomplished it. So that's where our customer references come in.

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A lot of organizations, especially with the Zscaler brand, it's kind of a transition to go from the old world to this new world of the cloud. And the best way to actually get people over that hump, or that fear of embracing a new way, or new architecture, is showing others who have done that. A lot of you are working with customers, you're building out customer references, or doing customer interviews, right? That's half the battle already when you think about it.

The other piece is providing them with a way to actually do it. This product that you're building positioning for, building these decks for, and hopefully pitching those decks as well for is doing that. So, product marketers are already thought leaders, we're just not seeing ourselves that way. It's important.

The next time you have that opportunity to do a media interview, or whatever it might be to be interviewed or to actually give the pitch yourself, do it, stand out.

This brings me to the next point. I talked about this before, we need to kind of get away from this idea of being just the slide person or the slide jockey, be comfortable with actually getting in front of customers and positioning it, which means you need to have that conviction.

That conviction comes from understanding the product, understanding your customer, and of course, understanding the content. The good thing is you're already building the content so you know it. I highly recommend that your growth goal for each of you reading this should be to think about how you can get more involved in presenting to the customers if you're not already today. Because it's critical.

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There's this idea that we don't really know as product marketers what we're geared towards, what we're working on. We want more leadership, we want more influence, but we need to actually put in more work to get there.

In fact, it's going to be extra work because we don't come from a technical background in many cases. And if you work in the valley, a lot of it is very tech-driven. They want their most technical people in front of it. Product Marketing is often not even allowed to be in a customer meeting in many cases, but you need to help fight that.

All of you are part of this new PMM 2.0 movement, but you have to realize that because no one’s just going to get up and do it, your CSO isn't going to do it, your product team isn’t going to help you do it. Why? Because they like that glory. They like being brought in and being the go-to and the heroes behind it. Why would they want more people coming in and taking some of that glory?

It's up to you to do it, because we're product marketers. This is an important image.

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I mean, when you stop working on slides, you'll be so surprised at what else you can see. There's a lot more to it. There's the challenge, you'll be able to understand and pick up when your deck is being presented to customers:

  • What are the things that are really hooking them?
  • When are they nodding or smiling?
  • Saying yes?

Unless you get out of that slide world where I'm just building PowerPoint after PowerPoint, it's going to be really difficult for you to get to that point.  

One of my favorite books in the world is a book called Think and Grow Rich, written by a guy named Napoleon Hill during the Great Depression. The whole goal of it was to actually inspire people to kind of get back in the market and showcase that America is still strong, even in this terrible time in reality.

A gentleman named Andrew Carnegie paid this gentleman Napoleon Hill to actually write a book on what makes a leader great. He went out and interviewed 10,000 people, Edison, Charles Schwab, JD Rockefeller, all to understand and build this profile of the best leader, and within this, he has this concept of the mind group.

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These are your selected peers and the folks that are going to help you be successful in your role. The whole idea behind this is, you don't have to know it all. You just have to know someone who does, and groups that do, and leverage that to your power.

He gives this awesome example of Henry Ford. For any of you who don't know, Henry Ford is actually brought to court because he had a very 'non-advanced degree', I think he tapped out at like high school if that. And the lawyer, the prosecutor said, there's no way you could have built a successful company called Ford without doing something wrong, something illegal. He was actually literally brought to court from this and there are people that actually have recorded his responses to it.

The lawyer at the time was grilling him on all these silly questions like, 'during the Revolutionary War how many British soldiers came, how many left?' He's like, 'I don't know, considerably less', and at a certain point, he was like, 'You know what, forget it, at my desk I have an electrical panel of six buttons and I can press the smartest person in that function to come to my desk. I don't need to hear about this anymore.'

Literally, that's what he said in court, and it's true. We don't have to be the most technical. We don't have to know it all. But we can build a group that can help us get there. That's called mind group.

So, I challenge everyone reading to build their own mind group if you don't have it already. Many of you do. Maybe it's your product manager. Maybe it's your demand-gen person. Maybe it's your analysts that you're really close to at Gartner or Forrester. Whatever it is, build those relationships.

I'll give you an example of who my mind group is.

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I love the Avengers, so I took this idea and I said here's what my mind group looks like. So if you need a template, look at this:  

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Industry analysts, I work closely with Gartner at least once a month and we have a Gartner SAS day where we connect with them. Demand-gen, the sales rock stars, I have my Rolodex of my top 10 that I like to work with. You don't need to work with every single one of your reps, if you've got your mini group, work with them, learn from them, and you'll be really successful. Key executives, your customers, amazing leaders as well.

So, I want to kind of bring it all full circle, again, to not succeed is to look like this.

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I don't want any one of the people reading this to ever look like this. So don't do it. Challenge yourself, get in front of the customers, be differentiated. And remember these three things:

  1. See yourself as a CEO
  2. Spend less time working on slide decks
  3. Look up, be a business leader, be the CEO, and elevate the entire team as you do so.

And in closing, there could be a CEO inside each and every one of you, you just have to believe it. You have to find out.

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Written by:

Christopher Hines

Christopher Hines

Christopher is currently the VP of Marketing & Strategy at Axel Security.

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Why PMMs should start thinking like CEOs