The Four Essentials That Get You There
Product marketing is a critical function for any high growth SaaS business but is one of the hardest jobs to recruit for and one of the hardest jobs to do really well. Product marketing is central to translating customer insight into messaging that resonates with customers, accelerates sales cycle and lays the foundation for evangelism. Martina Lauchengco is our guide on this topic. She is a Partner at venture capital firm Costanoa Ventures, and also a Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, where she leads on product marketing. She has spent over 25 years as a marketing executive building, branding and launching market-defining software at Microsoft, Netscape, Loudcloud and more. She has served on 12 startup boards and lectures on marketing and product management at UC Berkeley.
What is product marketing and why is it so important?
I like to think of product marketing as helping connect the market to your product - that's a little upside down from how most people think about it, which is that you build a product, and then you take it to market. The starting point is always the market lens because the landscape of modern product marketing is so crowded, with many more companies doing similar or overlapping things. You need to start by having market intelligence that you understand deeply, so that you can find the wedge for your product and where it fits and then do all the things (strategically and tactically) in order to win.
So product marketing is setting that foundation that intersects what you've built and your market.
Product marketing must align with company strategy.
This is one of the things I think is least understood about product marketing, because so many practitioners have this list of 35 things they think they now need to do: I'm doing this for sales enablement; I'm building these decks; I need to do positioning and messaging. And the job becomes checking off all the tactical things that must be done.
But the single most important thing is that product marketing needs to exist within a strategic framework so that you know the ‘why' behind every single activity. If you're trying to craft a particular position - for example, trying to be associated as the premier solution in a local area - then how you position, message and choose your tactics are going to be very different than somebody who’s trying to be an international, global leader doing the exact same thing.
So that's why having a clear strategic framework is the single most important thing and must be done first.
There is a big overlap between product management and product marketing.
Product management and product marketing are closely aligned, more aligned than most people think. Often, particularly for founders that are relatively early stage, there is almost no difference between product management and product marketing because, in those early days, you usually have one product which you're trying to bring to market, so they overlap 100%. But you want to have the same systematic thought process to how you practice product marketing that you bring to product management, in order to do it well. This starts with strategic alignment, as described above so they're very similar disciplines, but with fundamental differences.
Focusing on your goals is vital and is not the same as a list of priorities.
A big part of what I often see is that people don't understand the purpose of the product marketing function.They think it's producing all these things saying, "OK we built a product, so now we need to do all this stuff to get it out to market!”
I love telling the story of founders that I worked with that had a list of 50 things and said, "Okay, we have a list of 50 things, we're hoping you can help us prioritise them." To which I said, "All right, let's stop there and let's talk about your goals for the next 12 months." Talking about the goals made very clear what the strategy should be. Then as we laid out the strategy we could start putting in the appropriate activities and that list was cut by two thirds.
Product marketing strategy helps us focus on the most important things and what each deliverable is designed to accomplish. We all have limited time and resources so if there were three things that we planned and it turns out that we only have time for one, we say this is what it needs to do. That's how strategy helps.
In 2020 product marketing’s role has become increasingly important in helping a company own a position in their market.
Owning a position in your market has never been as important as it is today.
Everyone has enormous cognitive and emotional fatigue, as there's so much happening in the world right now. The competition for attention has gone to 11 out of 10 - it’s off the charts for everyone! So you can't assume that that little message, that one email or any of the activities that you're doing will make a difference; you have to ensure that the collection of everything you're doing adds up to you owning a market position. Owning a market position will give you a longer term game from which to operate and ensure the market knows who you are and what you do. So it's really crucial in 2020 and into 2021 to double down on positioning.
Equally important in the messaging is to have empathy and compassion, not necessarily always in how you message, but to understand that everyone's world is different. So if you're going out there talking about how, "oh, here's what you need to do to ensure your security landscape is as secure as ever, with everybody working from home." It's like, "yeah, okay, tell me something I don't already know." Better might be to say the above, but end with, “this is really hard and unexpected for everyone.” That's a more compassionate way of saying the same thing that acknowledges the humanity of the situation all of us are in. They're subtle nuances but they are important in someone deciding to lean in, not feeling like they're talking to a robot, that's not acknowledging the situation on the ground.
Keep your messaging human and use plain language.
I wrote a blog post on examples that happened in the airline industry at the start of the pandemic, where everyone was bombarding their customers with the same message about what they were doing to keep customers safe. Every example was purely rational, “These are the things that we're doing to keep our planes sanitized and maintain your health.” And there'd be these paragraphs against each of them going into way more detail.
Then there were others that were much more human saying, “We know this is hard. We're really appreciative that all of us are going through this together,” and very short, meaningful tidbits about, “and here's some of the things that we're doing” with links where customers could find more. And it was just presented in a way that you could consume it both emotionally and as a human.
In technology marketing, we always have a tendency to say, "here are the features, here are the facts, and don't these features and facts win you over!" But it's really the context into which that's being received that determines whether or not someone is going to be receptive to your message. This is a time where we have to be hyper aware of the broader context, not just of customers' daily lives, but also of all the other stuff they're being bombarded with to ensure that what we want to say is going to be effective.
Product marketing follows a journey from startup to grow up to scale up.
Product marketing boils down to four utterly essential things:
These four essentials build a very strong foundation, even during that early stage of a startup, and follow through the entire journey.
At a startup it is all about discovery in product marketing, as it is in product development. You do not know the answers; you have to presume that if you say five things, only two of them are actually going to resonate. A lot of people fall in love with how they want to say something and it's amazing. There's some kind of marketing switch in everyone's brain. They're like, "Oh, now I'm marketing," and they speak in “marketing eze”. And it becomes very formal, with really big words, and everything is technically correct. But it just sounds like everybody else, so the startup phase is the period to not be attached to how you think you want to say something, rather you have to be extremely good at listening:
And those are the nuggets that you're trying to extract at the startup phase, because if your foundation is built on those, that's what's going to let you get to that next level. More on that below.
Enabling evangelism is so underestimated and is just as important at the startup phase. What that means is that if you sell a product to someone who loves it, help them to talk about it - it’s that simple. But they're never going to use the precise same words that you do to talk about your product. So what do they say? Do they tell a story? Do they use another customer as an example? Is it that another bank X or Y is using it? They're like, "Oh, well, this bank uses that. So you know, you can trust it."
So what are those messages your evangelists use? Everyone thinks about the fact that they need pundits and influencers to talk about them. And that is true. But what is really powerful is the everyday moment where someone is having a conversation with a peer or colleague, and saying, "what do you do to solve this problem that I'm experiencing?" And your customer talks about your solution in a really normal, ordinary way that effectively communicates why the person they’re talking to should use you. That's really important in this early stage.
A lot of people rely on surveys or send emails to get feedback but how someone says something is almost always more insightful than how they write it. And so I always encourage people, as they're trying to figure these things out, to listen hard to what people actually say. And that's what you want to communicate. Because if you read it the way someone says they're like, "Oh, yeah, that that makes complete sense." And it's very clear, it's not full of all sorts of jargon, because no one speaks that way!
Post product market fit, entering the grow up phase, it’s all about repeatability and alignment with sales, marketing, and customer success.
At this stage, it's all about repeatability. The single most important thing becomes the GTM playbook and everything product marketing can bring to bear to help that replicate and scale, and of course the connection between sales, marketing and success.
At the grow up stage you want to build a great partnership between those three functions into the company's DNA. What I mean by that is not that product marketing does sales or success bidding, it means that they are equal counterbalances. So if product marketing produces a deck, but sales likes only half of it and they don't say anything to product marketing, then that’s a recipe for disaster. Sales needs to be able to say, "product marketing, you know what, I only want to use three of the 20 slides in this deck. This is how I talk about it." This is critical because you'll have many more salespeople than product marketing, and therefore much more signal coming in from the market. This is where you have to have a really dynamic dialogue between sales and marketing about what's working and what’s not.
Product marketing also needs to be really sure of the position and the why, so they can explain to a salesperson, “I know you'd like to say it that way and maybe that works for you, but for us to occupy this position, it's really essential that you don't lose these three things. And here's how I want you to say it. Because if you say it this way again and again, then we will get to occupy this position.” It’s a balance, but it is really crucial that you're listening to the field and vice versa at this phase.
To achieve this you have to establish trust. As a company scales, sales are busy selling and product marketing is busy checking off those boxes. Sales are saying, "I gotta run, I gotta make my number." And there's not enough attention paid to the dialogue of what's working, what’s not and what needs adjusting. But if you make that investment really early, build vulnerable trust and have candid conversations, you can make great progress.
If sales is being Maverick, you need to say, "You need to stop, we're not able to own a position if you keep doing that." And if sales is saying, "Look, you're not giving us an ownable position," that’s valid too.
Everyone needs to stop taking it personally and say, "Let's fix this, what does it need to be, and let's try this together." That's where you can still bring in some of the discovery methodology that you use in the early stage to figure out how to fix it.
Another problem I see is that marketing will try and get something perfect before they roll it out to sales. You have to be unafraid in the same way that you did in the earlier stages of listening to customers and making that so dynamic. Don’t be afraid to be dynamic with sales, you don't have to have all the answers, your job is to get this right for the company and to focus on that, versus trying to be like, "Oh, we have got to get it all right first time, and show everybody how awesome we are." Who cares? It's all about the success of the company!
As the company enters scale up territory, $25m in ARR and above, check your position and think about how the company appears digitally.
As a company enters the scale up phase there are a number of things that change and you have to be super-attuned to your position, whether or not you're still holding it, and whether or not it needs to evolve.
Typically, in this stage, let's say you've created a category and evidence of that is that everybody's copying you or they're all diving into the category. Or maybe the incumbents are saying, "Oh, yeah, that new, fancy, shiny, bright object, we do that too!" And so there's this rush into your success, so you have to ask yourself, "do we double down on that position, or do we need to evolve and expand? And if we do that, then how do we reposition ourselves?”
These are questions that typically get asked at this phase, and might require revisiting how you organise:
For each of these we really need to be in tune to how they might be different. And we're understanding and communicating and messaging and choosing activities that are very appropriate for those markets. That's a “market forward” way to organise.
We go back again to those four core essentials and ensure we are aligned:
Another thing that becomes important here, when you're typically at scale, is how you appear digitally. This becomes massively important in marketing as well as in product marketing, because you'll have the legacy of where you were, with who you're trying to be today and who you want to be tomorrow and you need to be attentive to that.
It might mean how you think about enabling evangelism and who evangelises on your behalf, or how does what you’re saying need to evolve? How do we create assets that let us better occupy our new position? It's about taking all the same foundational elements but the landscape in which you operate is much more complex, much more nuanced. You have many more levers that you might need to push and pull and that whole exercise of prioritisation actually becomes much harder, but more important, at this stage.
There are some great product marketing role models.
At a massive scale, I think Salesforce has become the SaaS poster child and is known for exceptional product marketing. They do it really, really well and it's infused in how they do everything.
There are different companies that have been great at different phases, so Zendesk is one of my favorite examples. I'd say in their early days to just a couple years post IPO phase they were excellent, because they had extreme clarity on who they were and what they wanted to be and how they positioned themselves in the marketplace. Then they had that scaling problem, which was like, "okay, we can't grow our revenues just being who we were. So now we have a product suite and we're doing all these other things." It's been hard for them to make that adjustment and that's a challenge that many companies face. But I'd say in the early days, they were really clear on the position they were trying to occupy and that differentiated them massively.
Both they and HubSpot were absolutely fantastic on making go-to-market a core part of how they marketed the product - does that fall into product marketing? Probably. The companies that do product marketing the best are those that believe that the function is intrinsically part of delivering against company strategy.
The biggest impact on product marketing in recent years is the access to data and customers.
The single biggest thing that's having an impact on both product management and product marketing is the access to data and how accessible customers are, but this is a double edged sword. We have all this data, we can test messaging inexpensively just by buying ads, so you have all this real world data that is amazing and awesome and everyone should take advantage of that evolution.
The double edged sword is that while we simultaneously have access to all this great and amazing data, we mustn’t lose sight of how it adds up and what it means. Jeff Bezos famously talks about the fact that if you look at a survey results, it might say 54% of people feel favorably towards a solution and 46% don’t. Therefore the decision is obvious, but that difference between the 54% and the 46% is pretty small. It’s in the balance, so can we really say that the 54% direction is the one that we should take? We need to understand the context and this is where having discussions with customers is again so important, asking “how would you describe this?” Or "what was the straw that broke the camel's back that made you decide that you needed to solve this problem?" Asking those probing questions can help give clarity amidst all of that data.
Another big evolution is around growth marketing and to me that's, in many ways, a modern take on product marketing, where you're taking all the different levers, all the different elements and infusing it with how you think about connecting your product with your market There are a lot of senior growth leaders that came from product marketing, saying, "Growth Marketing, it's just the same thing with different tools!" So that's another really interesting evolution in the craft
Driving the point home of the importance of product marketing
For founders, the number one thing I want them to remember is product marketing is about helping you achieve your goals. It is not a function where they're doing just a bunch of busy work.
So how do you get what you need? It's really focusing on those four fundamentals and always asking those same four questions of anyone in that function.
Especially for founders, watch out for number four. You know your market really well. So if you think your case studies are stale and inauthentic, then it's going to sound that way to the people you're trying to market to.
So make sure your product marketing uses regular English, and find ways to say what you want to say in a way that connects with people you're having a conversation with.
And remember, enabling evangelism isn't about promotion, it's about people really believing in you so much that they want to talk about you, because they love what you do. They love every experience of you, so think about enabling evangelism in the broadest possible sense.
That’s it. Keep those four things in mind as you scale and you can take Product Marketing from good to great.
If people want to learn more they can find me on Linkedin, Twitter, or on the Costanoa, SVPG, and Product Marketing Alliance websites.
Lastly, look out for my book, “LOVED: How to Market Tech Products That Customers Adore" will be published by Wiley in the second half of 2021.
On Twitter: @mavinmartina
On Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/martinalauchengco/