The Definitive Guide to Product Marketing Optimization

Product Marketing is often the forgotten step-child of a Products organization – poorly defined roles, understaffed, with misaligned objectives and overly tactical deliverables. In some companies Product Marketing isn’t even part of the Products organization, reporting into Marketing or even Sales.

And in recent years, traditional Product Marketing responsibilities seem to be regularly delegated to newer marketing roles and teams such as Content Marketer, Field Marketer, Marketing Strategist, Competitive Analyst etc. and even to Product Managers.

Product Marketing is certainly a new profession; much younger than Product Management. For the high-tech industry, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of Regis McKenna’s Harvard Business Review article in 1991, entitled “Marketing is Everything” on the role of Product Marketing.

If you haven’t read it already, you should. Twenty-five years ago, McKenna predicted an impending and necessary shift from traditional marketing techniques to a much more informed approach with customers and markets.

He started the article off quite boldly:

“Technology is transforming choice, and choice is transforming the marketplace. As a result, we are witnessing the emergence of a new marketing paradigm—not a ‘do more’ marketing that simply turns up the volume on the sales spiels of the past but a knowledge- and experience-based marketing that represents the once-and-for-all death of the salesman.”

Now we haven’t gotten rid of salespeople entirely just yet ☺, but it’s clear that customers and prospects are much more knowledgeable and savvy than they were a quarter century ago, and it’s also clear that many companies rely far less on salespeople to generate sales than they did back then. Atlassian is one company that is well known for having no salespeople.

McKenna later also described his vision for both knowledge- and experience-based marketing:

“Knowledge-based marketing requires a company to master a scale of knowledge: of the technology in which it competes; of its competition; of its customers; of new sources of technology that can alter its competitive environment; and of its own organization, capabilities, plans, and way of doing business.

The other half of this new marketing paradigm is experience-based marketing, which emphasizes interactivity, connectivity, and creativity. With this approach, companies spend time with their customers, constantly monitor their competitors, and develop a feedback-analysis system that turns this information about the market and the competition into important new product intelligence.”

So who are these people who can be the knowledge-based and experience-based marketers; who understand the technology, the competition, the customers, as well as the organization, plans and business strategies? The answer is none other than Product Marketers.

Product Marketing plays a critical role in successful companies, particularly those in fields such as high-technology where the market landscape, regulatory environments and customer needs are rapidly changing.

So the question is, given all the factors that can impact a Product Marketing organization, AND the inherent issues in many Product Marketing organizations, how can companies properly implement Product Marketing and get the highest return from those teams?

The answer lies in the following four steps.

  1. Define Product Marketing correctly and truly understand it’s goals
  2. Organize it properly and staff it with the right people
  3. Have a standardized content and communication strategy and execute on the needed activities
  4. Track, measure and optimize

Now, none of these are revolutionary ideas, but executed together, they can have a significant impact on both the Product Marketing organization as well as the company overall.

1. Define Product Marketing correctly and truly understand its goals.

It’s surprising how difficult it is for people to formally define what Product Marketing is and what its goals are. Even some Product Marketers have difficulty doing so. And if the company can’t define it, how can they implement it properly?

Product Marketing can be defined as:

Product Marketing is strategic marketing at the product or product line level.

Product Marketing focuses on understanding market needs, but with an emphasis on understanding the buyer (or buying process) for the company’s products and services.

Product Marketing is responsible for developing positioning, messaging, competitive differentiation, and enabling the Sales and Marketing teams to ensure they are aligned and work efficiently to generate and close opportunities.

The key points in the above are underlined:

  • Strategic (not tactical) marketing
  • Understanding the buyer and buying process (intimately)
  • Defining (reusable) positioning, messaging and competitive differentiation statements
  • Enabling Sales and Marketing to perform their (traditional) jobs of creating demand and closing deals

Product Marketing is a cross functional discipline, residing at the center of product, sales, marketing (internal), and prospects, influencers and buyers (external):

Product Marketing Functional Areas

In far too many companies, Product Marketers are not viewed this way, but instead as an adjunct to Corporate Marketing. They are viewed as content creators (data sheets, white papers etc.) or as tactical marketers, working with Field Marketing or other Corporate Marketing groups to manage (and sometimes even execute) product specific marketing programs.

They are often neither experts in the product nor the market, though they have more knowledge of both than Corporate Marketing, so they are used to support corporate marketing programs related to products.

While this won’t cripple a company, it is FAR from optimal. And herein lies a big problem. Given that a lot of Product Marketing is based on soft skills, many companies don’t see what they are losing by not implementing Product Marketing properly.

It’s easy to see problems when hard skills are involved. E.g. a developer who can’t code well, or a sales person who can’t meet quota. But when it comes to creating crisp messaging or laser-focused strategic differentiation, things get quite lax.

Very few companies (a certain company named after a fruit exempted) focus on this. Objectively, their strategic marketing is mediocre at best, opening the path for competitors to supplant them and increasing the efforts required by their Sales and Marketing teams to achieve success.

The result: less effective marketing campaigns, increased sales cycles, fewer deals and decreased revenues.

2. Organize it properly and staff it with the right people.

Another major issue in many companies is how Product Marketing is implemented and staffed.

Some companies look for “rockstar” or “superhero” Product Marketers who can “do it all”. Others hire product marketer after product marketer, giving them siloed product responsibilities, minimizing the need or opportunity for collaboration.

These approaches would never be tolerated in other departments such as Sales or Engineering, because they simply aren’t scalable nor effective.

Just like other departments, Product Marketing needs to be populated with people in differentiated roles who work and collaborate together to increase value in and for the company. To quote an old cliché, business is a game of chess not checkers.

Analyzing that cliché, while both are games of strategy, the biggest difference between the two is that chess offers the player a “team” of differentiated pieces. Each must be used for its strengths in order to win, combining attack and defense with multiple pieces. And even if one player is down a number of pieces, they can still win if they play well and take advantage of their opponents mistakes.

Contrast this to checkers where each piece is identical, and the game is far simpler in terms of strategy and overall play. Some dynamics are similar to chess, but if one player is behind a number of pieces they have little chance of winning without the opponent making some egregious mistakes.

The Need for T-shaped Teams

We often hear that companies want “T-shaped” people or people with “T-shaped” skills. This means people who have a breadth of knowledge and can work across disciplines, but have expertise in at least one area.

While such people are great to have, it’s often difficult to find them. It’s better to build T-shaped teams. You want a team that works together and coordinates their efforts, not simply a group of people working within an organization.

One of my favorite stories (note: I am Canadian) on this topic comes from the 1996 Summer Olympics. In the 4×100 relay, the American’s were heavily favored. The Canadians had made the 4×100 finals.

One member of the Canadian Team (Donovan Bailey) had won the gold medal in the 100m race, but none of the other 3 members had even made the final of the 100m race. In the 4×100 race, the Canadian team had executed almost perfectly, winning the gold medal in a time of 39.69 seconds, almost a half-second ahead of the American team. This was the first (and only time so far) that Canada won a gold in this event.

Now in business, we see a T-shaped team at the C-level of every company. The executive management team consists of a set of experts in sales, marketing, engineering, finance etc. working together to run the company. And yet, as we move further down in the organization, we see this less and less, with more siloed hiring and organizational structures.

Cross-functional teams like Product Marketing MUST be composed of individuals with a variety of skills and focus so they form teams with both depth and breadth.

This means differentiated roles aligned with business/sales drivers and goals and not simply by product.

Product Marketing T Shaped Teams

For example, a Solution Product Marketer could look across products or into specific vertical industries to understand how to penetrate markets more effectively.

A Technical Product Marketer could focus on detailed technical evaluations of various product configurations or scenarios or related technologies.

The Competitive Analyst and Product Marketing Director roles are self-descriptive, but the various roles should work together. Plans and information must be shared across the team and of course across the company so that any findings or strategies can be implemented in sales and marketing activities.

Roles like these filled with the right people can deliver the T-shaped teams described earlier.

3. Have a standardized content and communication strategy and execute on the needed activities.

At its heart, Product Marketing is about communication; communicating the right information, in the right formats, to the right people at the right time. Yes, there are a lot of other tasks, but marketing – Product Marketing in this case – is fundamentally about communicating concepts, ideas and facts, to the people who need it, when they need it.

If we look at all the activities of Product Marketing, such as briefing analysts, creating (and communicating) positioning, messaging, competitive advantage, enablement etc.; these are all explicit acts of communication.

For many companies, these activities are performed in an ad hoc or as needed basis. Sure, there are launch plans and enablement plans etc, but they can vary radically from product to product or from release to release. The content created is shared in email or via Sharepoint or Box or some other analogous tool. Why?

The obvious response to the above is that products are different and releases are different so there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to apply. True, but standardized is not the same as one-size-fits-all.

Think about this from the information consumer’s perspective – e.g. a sales rep or a partner. For each product and every release, they have to learn and utilize a lot of information to be effective. If they need to find information at a later date, or someone knew comes on board and has to get up to speed, how many barriers are in their way in order to do that? Answer: many.

I won’t detail all the issues out, but it should be abundantly clear that in a game of mindshare, EVERY point of friction when conveying information is a point against success.

How can this be minimized?

Taking a cue from Lean Manufacturing – a process that is fundamentally about eliminating waste and creating value for downstream “customers” – we can look at communication as a Lean process. i.e. communication is about manufacturing content specifically for the consumption of downstream consumers/customers.

Without getting into a detailed discussion on Lean Manufacturing (far beyond the scope of this article), it’s important to understand how to create a Lean process.

  1. Identify the target downstream information consumers (internal and external)
  2. Specify what creates value from the consumers’ perspectives
  3. Identify all the steps along the process chain to get the information to them.
  4. Make those processes flow
  5. Make only what is pulled by the customer (audience)
  6. Strive for perfection by continually removing waste

While there are many ways to do this, one can certainly think of the target consumers and the path needed for success in terms of a grid.

e.g. If we think about the customer journey from Suspect to Champion, we can define a grid as follows:

Customer Journey

It’s important to explicitly define the goals at each stage, and then deliver the right information in the right formats to them. We should ask ourselves – “How can we make it AS EASY AS POSSIBLE for them to achieve THEIR goals?” the focus must be on the information consumer, and not simply on creating the same old – one size fits all – content.

A Suspect is typically an unnamed/unknown individual who may be researching your products. They may be browsing your website or looking for more information, but, have not indicated any preference to buy or even trial your product. How can the Suspect’s needs be addressed to move them to either a prospect, evaluator or buyer?

Clearly an evaluator has a different character profile than a suspect. An evaluator is usually known to you, has signed up for or downloaded a trial version of your software and there is usually some interaction happening between your company and the evaluator. Many companies put a lot of focus here for obvious reasons.

The point of this grid is make a conscious and explicit definition of who needs what information and when, and THEN use this to create the content and communication strategy to support the marketing and sales processes.

This one grid alone will not address everyone’s needs, but this approach can be useful when targeting any consumer, and is especially effective in situations where an ongoing process is needed.

4. Track, measure and optimize.

Metrics are always a contentious topic. To paraphrase an old saying about standards: The great thing about metrics is that there are so many of them. There are lots of marketing metrics people use and cite. Typically metrics include pipeline size, # of leads, opportunity size etc. These can even be broken out by specific campaign, geography, channel etc.

There are also vanity metrics like tweets, likes, shares, views etc. These are helpful to gauge specific activities but difficult to tie back into more strategic initiatives.

Most companies have accepted metrics (good or not) for tracking sales and marketing activities, but few if any specifically for Product Marketing. Often the goal of Product Marketing is to positively impact those Sales/Marketing metrics. But that doesn’t mean Product Marketing shouldn’t have specific metrics they focus on.

Product Marketers should be thinking at a level ABOVE typical sales/marketing metrics. i.e. what will enhance or drive the downstream metrics used by sales and marketing.

Think Meta

What’s the common refrain of all sales teams? “We need MORE leads.” But is that the only way to generate more sales?

If Marketing (and Sales) measure the # of people entering or in the sales funnel, Product Marketing should measure how FAST they are moving through the sales funnel.

i.e. increasing the velocity through the funnel – either by more quickly qualifying OUT bad leads or closing leads faster and eventually creating influencers and champions – will generate more sales AND do it with less wasted effort – it’s that Lean process in action.

It also means that your competition will have a tougher time winning against you in competitive situations.

The questions that should be answered to improve velocity are:

  • How long is it taking people to go through the current sales process?
  • What barriers are people facing?
  • Why are they dropping out?
  • What prevents them from moving forward at each stage?

To answer these and other necessary questions requires getting data from your sales/marketing automation tools AND talking to prospects, evaluators etc. There is virtually no other way. Often people look at the data from their tools because it’s relatively easy to acquire and draw conclusions from there. But no matter how much marketing and sales automation data you have. it must be viewed in context of empirical data gathered directly from people.

Some companies conduct Win/Loss calls AFTER the sales cycle ends (i.e. closed or lost a deal), This is definitely a good practice to follow. But how many companies perform the equivalent at earlier stages? Very few if any? Why not?

Understanding why a Prospect failed to evaluate or (if possible) why a Suspect failed to become a Prospect, can only help in optimizing the process and increasing velocity and volume in the funnel. This is definitely something that Product Marketing can and should do to the extent possible.

Don’t forget internal customers

The process can be applied to internal customers as well. i.e. downstream sales and marketing teams who participate in the sales process.

  • Are they utilizing the provided content?
  • Are they creating their own?
  • If so, why?
  • What barriers do they encounter that inhibit THEIR velocity in the sale or marketing process?

Having both an internal AND external view is critical in this process. And keep in mind that Product Marketing should take a long term view of the activities and improvements. Depending on the type of products and sales cycles, it could be anywhere from days to months before the impact of changes is clearly measurable. Product Marketing should treat the process like a product. There should be a roadmap for improvement and if needed, even a concept like releases or stages in the process so that small changes can be made, measured, optimized etc.

In Conclusion

To paraphrase Reis and Trout, like Marketing, Product Marketing is a battle for mindshare, internally and externally. And remember, when it comes to customers, your competitors are competing for that same mindshare. If they can do this job better than you, they will win.

Like any competition, this is an ongoing battle, in what can be a very dynamic playing field. To win, you need to get the right players, organize them efficiently and have them play their positions well. They need to have a clear strategy for success, and you need to track results over time and continuously improve. All of this is easier said than done, but whoever said that winning should be easy.

Saeed Khan
Saeed Khan
Product Consultant

Saeed Khan is a self-proclaimed career product manager, having spent 15 years doing it formally and a number of years before that doing it informally. He’s worked with startups and public companies in Toronto and Silicon Valley, in roles ranging from individual contributor to Vice President of Product Management. In 2008, he was a contributor to the book Software Product Management, Issues and Perspectives.
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