The Road to Summit, Part 1
If you Google the term “product marketing,” you won’t find any origin stories. There is no written history. There’s no timeline and no semi-famous inventor. Where did it all start? What was the impetus for creating such a role and why, decades after its emergence and general acceptance, are we still arguing about what exactly they do?
For clues, let’s first consider a brief history of fences.
Strong fences may make for good neighbors if you’re in the business of pastoral farming, but in developing technology products, they are ruinous. They are ruinous to the product’s design, to its development, to its pricing, and in its sale. They lead to fractured thinking and intra-company rivalries, and they cause companies to launch offerings that inspire jeers, opposition, or perhaps worst of all—just dead silence.
Fences are the reason that a major national telecommunications company purchased internet from had to apply a 98% discount to make its proposal competitive. Fences are why many B2B software “help centers” are measured on their deflection rate—the amount of product feedback they prevent. And fences are why some of the world’s biggest software companies have such long lists of failed products.
Fences prevent communication. They prevent us from empathizing with those we work with and inspire people to “just toss it over the fence” to the next team. After which, it’s no longer our problem. And that kind of thinking is a massive problem, especially now, amidst a pandemic, when companies are wondering:
- Who’s supposed to understand our rapidly changing market?
- Who’s going to update our product strategy and narrative?
- Who’s going to ensure the whole revenue team speaks?
Why do product marketers exist? Simply, because without them, there is no one to tear down fences.
"Forget the product, start with the go to market strategy."
- Steve Jobs
1. What You Don’t See is What You Get
In a famous psychology experiment, researchers asked couples how much of the household chores they each thought they did. On average, both felt they did 80 percent of the chores. There’s a name for this effect: The availability heuristic. We place too much importance on the information available to us (I know all the chores I did), and too little on what we don’t know (the chores my partner did when I wasn’t around). Teams experience this in the extreme.
To salespeople, everyone seems to be trying to slow down their deal. To marketers, everyone seems to be freestyling their carefully crafted message. To product teams, all others seem to be trying to ruin the user experience. (No more in-app offers!) All of these teams are right. But none of them are completely right. They’re surrounded by fences. None has any idea what’s happening next door. That can kill you in the market.
Recall the telecom company with the generous 98% discount. I know exactly how they got there. It’s an engineering-led company. The product team holds all the power, and when they consulted with customers, the engineers built exactly what was asked—a Ferrari of internet connections. We’re talking a secure backbone, multi-layer protocol switching, and live engineers on-call at its colocation centers. When it came time for customers to buy? Comcast offered something that on the surface, seemed similar, but charged 2% as much, and no CFO on earth would approve the purchase of this company’s product. For its salespeople, that meant their deal cycle was just a long series of apologies and for me as the customer, they seemed inept.
The problem isn’t just with engineers leading. Product offerings are an equal disaster no matter which team is in near-complete charge.
👉 One famous cloud-based file-storage company was wildly successful at marketing its products to the path of least resistance—sales and marketing teams—but faced dismal renewal rates. Its customers’ IT administrators invariably tore apart its security issue-riddled service before they could re-sign.
👉 At one sales-led software startup I know, the sales leader gave away the farm on too many deals. He promised each of them a feature. His product team became so saddled with technical debt that they never got to engage in strategic planning. They lost the vision. Years later, they’re known for their lack of innovation.
What each of these companies could have used was an independent third-party with a view of what everyone was doing. That individual might have forced sales, marketing, and product to sit in on each others’ meetings, and instructed them on the dangers of excessive short-term optimization. Of course that person exists. We call them the product marketer.
And today, their plate is very, very full.
"Negotiations is the art of letting the other side have your way."
- Henry Kissinger
2. What is a Product Marketer?
To understand exactly what product marketers are, let’s consider what they are not. Product marketers not product people. Product people’s job is to empathize with the user and in their well-meaning mission to improve the experience, they can sometimes build things that aren’t as marketable as they could be.
“They fuse all revenue-related disciplines and teams into one oversight role.”
Product marketers are also not just marcomm people. Whereas marcomm’s job is to spin the best possible story, product marketers are involved in the product’s ideation and creation. (The best message is a true one.)
Product marketers are this: They are part product manager, part marketer, part seller, and part customer success manager. They fuse all revenue-related disciplines and teams into one oversight role to ensure that:
- The company builds a product people want and;
- There is a market for what they’re building and;
- It is competitively priced and;
- It’s wrapped in a strategic narrative.
As a product marketer, you have a triadic imperative:
- Understand your market
- Guide your product strategy and narrative
- Enable the revenue team
As part of understanding our market, we research and analyze market forces, customer segments, buyers, industries of focus, and competitors to understand the total addressable market. And thereby, to measure our share of that market, for each portfolio of our solutions. If done well, we’re able to foresee demand and adoption, and measure portfolio health.
As part of guiding our product strategy and narrative, we’re helping to craft messaging that’s audience-centric, not product-centric. The output of this is content that creates value, captures value, and expands value.
A product marketer who is doing their job prevents occurrences of fence-tossing. Better, they tear down the fences. They ensure that marketing isn’t only informed of a new product two weeks before it’s due to be launched. This role is there to ensure that the first time sales hears about a new offering isn’t when a customer calls to say they received an email about it. Product marketers are there to ensure that a good product is priced appropriately, messaged attractively, sold vigorously, and supported judiciously.
And now more than ever, your imperative is dire because the world is looking down the barrel of the worst economic crisis in history (21.5 million jobs lost in the U.S. alone).
Someone will have to lead.
"Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors."
3. Surviving and Thriving Amid Global Crisis
Do you know what you’re not supposed to do when rescuing a drowning person? Enter the water and try to lift them up so they can breathe. People in mortal panic act irrationally and in their terror, are liable to pull you down and that’s the end of both of you. Morbid, I know, but there’s a parallel for the present moment. All teams, including sales, success, marketing, product, and communications are feeling the early onset of panic. Nobody is better prepared to throw them each a floatation device than the product marketer.
According to Gartner, that flotation device is a mixture of:
- Reexamining your market. How does COVID-19 impact your segmentation? Targeting?
- Reevaluating your ideal buyer profile. Who’s out of the market? Who’s in? Are they still interested in the same things for the same reasons?
- Talking to customer analysts. Ask, if this persists, what changes for you? If this happens again, how will you react?
And according to SiriusDecisions, “portfolio marketers must hone their survival skills, build an ‘emergency plan,’ and take on a critical role in managing change and aligning cross-functional teams.” Their job is to ask:
- How does this change our go-to-market architecture?
- How does this change our personas? Do we add new ones?
- How should we update our messaging and content?
- How do we arm sales to adapt and continue selling?
- How does this change our roles, responsibilities, and org structure?
Many of us are finding that our role’s historical lack of authority and budgetary baggage is suddenly an advantage. We aren’t losing many team members—they were small to begin with. We haven’t had our budgets slashed by much—most are small enough to evade notice. And unlike any other teams, we are accustomed to peering into the future to fully understand the market and what change means for us. If companies today are ships tossed at sea, we’re the only role sure-footed enough to be at the helm.
Sales teams are feeling their pipelines lightening. Do they go after what’s left with their most aggressive discounts and take it down before the coming famine? Or do they do the hard thing—reconfirm the prospect’s priorities in light of the present crisis—and go for the bundled upsell?
Marketing teams are sensing buyers’ attention drawn elsewhere. Do they send a flurry of new offers and new promotions on new channels to maintain loosening demand? Or do they reinvest in their top channels and existing messaging and prepare for a time when this is all over?
Product teams are hearing horror stories from end users. Do they make a snap decision to pivot the product road map to save people now? Or do they hold the course, no matter how difficult that becomes?
For all teams, how long can they persist? Is the time for fight or flight?
Product marketers know. You have the tools to figure it out. You’re the architect of growth within your organization precisely because you’re the only team (save for leadership) equipped to engage in multi-dimensional planning. You are the guardian of long-term thinking and now is your time
This is when your company needs a destroyer of fences.