Marketing and PLG: Unlocking the Opportunity for Growth

January 26, 2022

Undoubtedly you’ve heard about product-led growth as a go-to-market strategy. Who wouldn’t love a growth strategy in which a product essentially sells itself via a strong self-service flywheel. You may think PLG and marketing are at odds—who needs marketing when the product sells itself? However, if done right, PLG can unlock tons of growth potential for marketing functions that a typical sales-led approach cannot. 

PLG—what it changes and what it doesn’t—was the topic of conversation when Sara Varni joined Blake Bartlett on The BUILD Podcast. Currently CMO at Attentive, Sara was previously the CMO at Twilio. In her experience, the best way to integrate PLG from a marketing perspective is to find the right balance between novel strategies and long-standing best practices.

In general, PLG works best at the lower end of the market where you are primarily dealing with end users and are investing a lot of effort in building and maintaining a strong community that supports a long-tail customer base. As you start to move up market, there is more need for one-on-one human interaction and relationship building in the sales cycle. 

“Technologies like Twilio are built to enable some of the necessary personalization at scale,” Sara says. “But for a large, multimillion-dollar software deal, it’s still going to be the pretty rare case that doesn’t require any human interaction.”

With that context in mind, Sara and Blake explored the opportunity PLG brings to an entire business as well as how PLG affects marketing, brand, and the role of the sales team. 


The Truth about Products that Sell Themselves (And a Hidden PLG Opportunity)

When it comes to PLG, people fall into one of two camps: it’s a magic bullet, or it will never work for enterprise. Neither assumption is true. PLG can actually be applied in a wide variety of ways.

For example, most of Twilio’s users—more than ten million developers worldwide who use Twilio’s customer engagement platform to build unique, personalized experiences for their customers—get the product up and running on their own in a matter of hours. Twilio’s effective self-serve onboarding experience is perfect for a certain type of user, but it can only take the relationship so far. “Once a company starts to become a bigger customer, security, contracting, and finance will want a seat at the table,” says Sara. “It’s impossible for today’s PLG to cover all these aspects of negotiation.”

The trick is figuring out when to introduce the human element. “My hope is that as PLG evolves, the threshold at which you need to apply salespeople rises,” says Sara. “You don’t want to have to throw account executives at smaller deals―you want them focused on your highest potential accounts.” 

Ultimately, the goal is to de-labor your growth engine by continuously raising the high watermark of where you can apply the PLG engine. A PLG funnel that accommodates companies with up to 100 employees is good, but imagine the cost savings of one that accommodates companies with up to 500 employees. 

The key to pushing that watermark up is thinking beyond the traditional onboarding aspects of PLG. “There is a massive opportunity on the back-office side of PLG,” Sara says. “Most people focus their PLG efforts on unblocking parts of the funnel pre-close, but what actually prohibits companies from taking PLG to higher segments is all of the billing and contracting and security provisions.”

The Crux of the PLG/Marketing Relationship: Strategic Adaptation

While PLG does have a major impact on several key aspects of marketing, it does not—as some believe—“break” marketing. Incorporating PLG into your growth strategy doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch. It just means that you need to think a little differently about the motions and strategies you’re already using. 

You need to adapt your methods because you’re targeting a different person for a different reason. Instead of trying to convince an executive that you can help them with their KPIs, you’re trying to create an authentic connection with an individual end user so you can help them solve a specific problem. 

Here are a few examples of what might look different: 


Brand is still incredibly important in a PLG world, but you have to build it differently. In a traditional, sales-assisted world you might focus on airport billboards, radio ads, and big national ad campaigns. In a PLG world, your focus needs to shift to the individual user. “It comes down a lot more to authenticity,” Sara explains. “You don’t want to come across as someone who is just talking product. You want to present yourself as someone who is there to help the customer.” 

One of Twilio’s biggest PLG branding vehicles is their technical documentation. It’s one of the first things developers call out as one of the top reasons they love Twilio. “I encourage people to adopt a beginner’s mind when it comes to branding with PLG,” says Sara. “Because often the things you consider part of your playbook just aren’t as important in the PLG world.”


“With PLG, you’re really shifting from ‘why’ content to ‘how’ content,” Sara says. “It’s much more focused on helping instead of selling—on being a kind of narrative on top of your user experience and customer journey that helps people get from A to B as quickly as possible.” This means creating content that’s a lot more tactical, and which addresses very specific problems and questions. For instance: How can I perform this specific task? How can I optimize this product for my particular use case? How can I complete this process with the least amount of friction? In a PLG world, specificity becomes a lot more important. 


Another example where you might see a shift is how you use events. With a traditional, sales-enabled model, events are much more focused on selling. In a PLG model, events take on an enablement role. They are an opportunity for customers and prospects to get hands-on with your product experts and have one-on-one conversations about specific challenges and needs. 

Overall, incorporating PLG will likely shift some of the channels you’re using and how you use them. It will prompt you to look at how you’re investing in your content, website, and digital experience to optimize for a self-serve audience. But even as you look for ways to remove the need for direct human interaction, you don’t want to lose the human touch. “You want to explore how you can create a PLG experience that still feels warm, engaging, and personalized,” Sara says. “This is how you continue to build strong brand affinity.”

The Sales Role in PLG and the Importance of Accurate Routing

Engaging with PLG doesn’t mean that you won’t have sales people anymore–their role will simply look different. “The high-level funnel dynamics aren’t going to change radically,” says Sara. “But there are probably different milestones you’ll start to look at to assess where you might want to enlist a salesperson to graduate a self-serve customer to a more sales-assisted experience.”

Creating success within this new paradigm might require hiring a different profile of inside sales rep—someone with a developer background, for instance, who is extremely comfortable having tactical conversations about specific projects and solutions. 

It is critical that you get really good at using data to identify the optimal points at which to engage a customer or prospect and know how to route them appropriately. “We use Drift to help us really fine-tune our data so we can pinpoint when someone actually wants to talk to a salesperson,” says Sara. “We can also identify when someone has a question that hasn’t been answered in our self-service forum, so we know to route them to a live support person who can help them solve their problem.” Matching customers with the right resources at the right time is critical. 

The Keys to Getting Started with PLG: Champions, Experimentation, and a Thoughtful Approach

When it comes to getting started with PLG, Sara recommends walking before you run and making sure you have champions on your product team. The good news is that you don’t have to do it all at once. It’s not a rip-and-replace proposition. You can definitely take a more progressive and iterative approach that starts with the lowest-hanging fruit and rolls out incrementally from there. 

“Having huge champions in product is absolutely critical because they’re ultimately the ones who will implement a lot of the PLG strategy,” says Sara. “You have to figure out how to align with their KPIs in order to get buy-in.”

Once you’ve established that initial buy in, Sara recommends proving the value of PLG with some small, targeted experiments. “It’s a lot less threatening to anyone who is against PLG if you get some incremental resources and gather some proof,” says Sara. “Identify the part of your product line or portfolio where you think you’ve got a good match for PLG, really nail that, and then expand from there.” 

Taking it slow is also a bit of an insurance policy to protect you from getting in too deep too fast. “You want to make sure you’re not going to disrupt the overall experience too dramatically overnight before you have all your ducks in a row,” Sara cautions. “PLG is great if you’re doing it well. It can be really crappy if it’s not a good experience.”

“Basically, you want to be really thoughtful about how you add PLG to your portfolio,” Sara says. “Make sure you’re not creating a separate, siloed PLG motion that has no connectivity to where you started your business.” PLG isn’t something you just tack on. It’s something that has to be fully integrated with the rest of your business and your marketing if it’s going to deliver real value. Incorporating a PLG motion will touch every aspect of your marketing, so it’s important to really think through how it relates to everything—brand, content, events, and so on—right from the start. 

To hear more from Sara and Blake, tune in to the full episode on The BUILD Podcast.


Shannon Curran

Shannon is the Director of Content Strategy at OpenView. She has a passion for telling compelling stories about technology that is changing the way people work and live.