Want to know a secret trick to product marketing? Acting as a translation layer between your product and the rest of the world.
There are few “fundamental truths” across product marketing, since the role varies so widely.
Yet for me, across all the different roles I’ve held — from big company to small, global corporations to startups, new products to established ones — there’s been one common thread. Product marketing serves as a critical translation layer between the product and just about everyone else.
- Breaking down technical concepts for sales, customers, and partners to better understand
- Framing a new feature in terms of why and how it matters (not just what it does)
- Positioning a message in context of a specific vertical, use case, or customer persona
- Or channeling market insights back to impact product roadmap
…product marketing has an incredible opportunity to adapt, interpret, tailor, and articulate what stakeholders need to know about the product — clearly and with impact.
Let’s zoom in on 3 aspects of this:
- What it means
- Why it matters
What It Means
What does it mean to think of yourself as a translator?
It means 100% commitment to being understood by the person on the other side.
It means taking ownership of the product message, and adapting it to resonate with who’s hearing it.
It means not sitting silently in a meeting when you see that someone is confused.
It means not settling for a product briefing that hurriedly reviews a new feature, blowing past why it really matters for customers.
It means speaking up, and speaking out, when you see everyone’s not on the same page.
It means stopping to check for understanding, and pivoting instantly to make sure you’re understood.
It means going beyond simply saying something, and ensuring that it’s fully grasped.
It means recognizing that it isn’t enough to simply say it — because if the audience isn’t understanding, then the communication has failed…and if it has failed, then why are you talking in the first place?
It means seeing yourself as the go-between that’s here to help in all of this.
Why It Matters
The reality is everyone in the company has a stake in your product. Each person needs to have some level of product understanding in order to do their job — but what each group needs to know is different.
As a quick example:
- Sales needs to understand what the features are, why they matter, how to talk about them, and how they stack up vs competitors
- Customer Support needs to deeply understand the product, but also how it’s used, potential issues/problems/challenges that might occur, and how to solve for them
- Other Marketing colleagues (digital, corporate, etc) need to grasp the top-level benefits, use cases and pain points it solves for, and differentiators vs rest of the market
- Customers themselves need to clearly understand what it is, how it can solve their problem, how to use it, and how it will fit into their overall business
Answering these questions is not a 1-time deal.
It’s an ongoing, iterative process.
It requires looking at and talking about the product in a variety of different ways.
It requires “unpacking” a feature to inspect the wider story of what it means and why that’s significant.
It’s about zooming in on the takeaway most relevant to that particular listener.
Because the bottom line is that if your team is confused, your customer will be too.
And when no one’s translating the product message, confusion, frustration and lack of alignment mean missed opportunities.
But when somebody is taking ownership — making sure that the various aspects of the product are well-understood, by each group, focusing on the areas that they most need to understand — there’s a critical communication link in place. That link unlocks a unified message, aligned team, and clearly-understood product, meaning you’ve got a solid starting point to approach the market.
Let’s get specific on ways you can do this.
Understanding that every business and scenario are different, here are some tips that are broad enough for you to try out and adapt to your own style.
Start by getting “product-fluent”:
To effectively translate for others you need to be “fluent” in the fine details and nuances about your product. Of course you’re probably already doing this — and now it’s just a mindset of thinking about this step as a way to internalize the info, so that you are prepared to share it with each distinct audience in the most effective way.
- Obviously as product marketers (read: NOT engineers) there is a certain level of technical depth that we get into, and then a transition point where we turn it over to our expert colleagues to take over. Define for yourself how far your product knowledge should extend vs where you’ll need to loop your Engineering or Product team into the conversation. Then with that threshold established…
- Go as deep as you possibly can into learning that product. Take ownership to deep dive and build your knowledge base in order to connect with stakeholders at their different levels.
- Spend time with your Product team to start flowing their knowledge over to you.
- And if you’ve just gotten a briefing on a new aspect of the product, pour over every detail and examine any aspect you don’t understand. Question it, poke it, prod it, turn it over in your mind, ask to hear the explanation again — whatever it takes to have it fully fleshed out in your mind enough to answer the questions you’re likely to get. Treat it like studying for a college exam and study!
- As you take that info away and digest it, go through the exercise of creating a Powerpoint deck that you would be comfortable presenting from end to end — this is a great check to ensure that you not only know the information, but are ready to articulate and deliver it to help others understand it as well.
- Raise your hand to deliver trainings, briefings, demos and other presentations on what you just learned — there’s nothing like the pressure of needing to get up in front of an audience to force you to internalize the information and learn it in a way that sticks!
How product marketing can translate for sales:
When it comes to helping sales understand the product, a few things are key. I approach my role as a translator with two main goals in mind:
- Understanding: Helping sales understand the bigger picture of not just what the spec’s and features are, but why and how those benefit customers and provide value-add.
- Repeatability: Helping sales repeat and convey information about the product in a way that’s consistent with the core messaging we set as a company — thinking critically about how to equip each person as ambassador of our message so that they know how to talk about it in a reliable way when interacting with customers.
- Take a hard look at the documents and info that is being presented to sales in your product briefings today. Put yourself in their shoes to ask: “If this was the first time I was hearing about this, would I walk away 1-understanding all of this, and 2-able to repeat it accurately in my next customer visit?”
- Ask would a bit more context around real life scenarios where this feature would be used help bring this to life? Could we focus more on use case scenarios so that they can say “So here’s where you would apply this…”
- When showing a video of a new feature, think hard about is everyone REALLY understanding what they’re seeing on screen and how it differs from what we had before? Or would it help to pause and point out what’s happening at different points: “So what you’re seeing here is the new feature x, think about how that looks now compared to our last version, so now you’re able to…”
- Do they need a few more concrete tools to avoid going “off-script”? Can we think ahead to where gaps in their talk track might come up when they demo this for the first time? Do they have a full set of talking points in addition to the standard product briefing, or better examples of where and how this feature would be used in real life? Could we help them by mapping out use case scenarios, examples of the buyer persona in action with this feature, or how-to-demo guides that spell out what to say at each step? Or something else entirely?
What you say vs what someone takes away from the conversation are not always the same thing, so planning ahead for both understanding and repeatability is a great way to ensure your training is getting across all that it needs to.
How product marketing can translate for customers:
Since all customers and business scenarios are different, the single biggest translation insight I can convey is to:
- Never be afraid to pause, and check for understanding! This one is huge, and with so many different groups interacting with customers — from sales, engineering, support — keeping a sharp eye on whether words are being said but not necessarily understood is key.
- Don’t be afraid to jump in and reframe, provide context, and adapt the message to the customer’s world. If a demo is falling flat, adapt it to their uses and industry to regain interest. If an answer is met with a glazed-over look, step back, tweak, and try again. Observe and watch where the connections are getting frayed, and afterwards debrief with your team to strategize on how to connect better next time and incorporate this into your marketing plan.
How product marketing can translate for Product teams:
Our friends in Product are the creators and makers of what our job is all about. While they focus on the building process, we can be their ears and eyes to what others are hearing, seeing, and perceiving about that product.
- Help Product understand what other stakeholders need to know. As you’re receiving product briefings, ask the questions that you know sales and others will ask. Test out the responses, tweak and provide feedback when the answer is confusing or insufficient.
- Chime in on demos. Recommend the best demos that will show off a feature in context. Hint: product teams are often not thinking about how the overall demo can look to a customer, what aspects can be distracting or unfamiliar to the customer’s industry, and things that may cause them to tune out before you’ve even started. Help cut away those distractions that highlight a relevant scenario and storyline to translate how new feature x applies directly to their work. Suggest: “Here’s an idea of how we can best show feature off. If we set up a scenario where someone is working on x, and we show feature y in that context we can talk to z use case…Let’s avoid this big mess of wires because it will distract from what we’re trying to show…”.
- Report back from conferences & industry events. Take the time to write up trip reports & summarizes key takeaways. (Hint: keep it short with 2–3 bullets, a photo, and an overt “Key Takeaway” callout so that they can skim it!) Market insights are both a reality check and fuel for product roadmap that you can channel to their attention.
These are a mere snapshot of tactics to test out to help translate to each group, and we’d love to hear what has worked for you in the comments!
Lost In Translation No More
If you’re thinking “So…are you telling me I have even more work to do than I thought?!” No!
As product marketers, we’re already overloaded with projects, and this is not a suggestion to max out your to do list even more. It’s more about thinking of the work that you’re doing with this idea of a translator in mind.
As you train, as you brief, as you learn about what’s coming in the next launch, as you participate in meetings, make this subtle mind-shift to think about what could get lost, and manage against that. Your approach and your tactics will be unique to you, your organization, and the what the conditions call for — but what matters is the emphasis on getting everyone to speak the same language with a shared understanding.
When you start to see all the moving parts start to move as one because of it, you’ll be glad you did.