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The Role of Product Marketing—And Why Startups Need to Define It

If you aren’t clear on what product marketing is, how it’s different from product management, and what the responsibilities of a product marketer are, you’re not alone. You’ve come to the right place, though—in this post, product consultant Saeed Khan explains how companies should and should not define this important role. Note: This post was originally published in January 2016 and was updated in June 2021.

Anyone who’s ever worked at a startup knows it’s a “get the job done” environment where your title means little and what you do means a lot.

Engineering manages IT. CEOs “hit the streets” and sell. Hiring managers take on HR responsibilities. Everyone answers the phone and supports the day-to-day business operations when needed. With the right people, it’s a great experience where everyone pitches in where they can to help the business grow.

In a startup’s early days, that kind of “get the job done” environment is necessary to cover supporting roles, but the core functions of the company are generally only performed by those trained and skilled in those areas.

For example, only Finance manages the books, and only Engineering actually writes the code for the product. And why should it be any other way? Nevertheless, there are typically a few grey areas where key roles aren’t well-defined. As a result, the right people aren’t always assigned to those jobs.

Specifically, I’m talking about product management and product marketing.

Unlike functions such as sales, engineering, or finance—where the roles, responsibilities, and outcomes are clearly understood (and measurable)—product management and product marketing can’t always make those claims, particularly in early-stage companies.

As the company grows, it’s critical to understand these functions and to define and staff these roles appropriately. Doing so will sharpen the focus on the responsibilities and enable scalability for the roles within the organization as it grows.

Unfortunately, that’s not always easy.

Product management vs. product marketing: What’s the difference?

I make a clear distinction between each of these two functions below, but note that I’m not claiming these are the only precise definitions. Given my experience and understanding of these roles across a number of technology companies, both of the following definitions are clear, implementable, and successful in real-world scenarios.

Product management is the comprehensive function in the company that oversees product success over the entire lifecycle of the product. Product management is responsible for understanding market needs, driving product strategy and plans (that align with company strategy), and ensuring product alignment across company departments and teams (e.g., pricing, channel, and marketing readiness, etc.). In short, it is cross-functional business, market, and technical management at the product or product-line level.

Product Management

Product marketing also focuses on understanding the market and market needs, but with an emphasis on understanding the buyer of 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’re aligned so they can work efficiently to generate and close opportunities. Product marketing is strategic marketing at the product or product-line level. Product marketing, as an overall function, is in fact a part of the overall function of product management.

Product Marketing

This might not sit well with some folks because it seems to imply that product marketing is subservient to product management—or, more personally, that product marketers are subservient to product managers. This isn’t the case.

An example: In a software company, the relationship between Product Management and Product Marketing is similar to the relationship between Engineering and Quality Assurance (QA). Engineering is a function that is responsible for building a product that meets functional and quality requirements within a given timeframe.

Related read: 5 Major Product Marketing Trends to Watch In 2021

But within the engineering department, there are usually at least two groups: Development and QA. They have different but related roles, and they must work together to deliver what’s needed. Tiny companies might not have a formal QA function, so Development will take on both responsibilities. But as the company grows, the QA role is defined and staffed accordingly. Likewise for Product Management and Product Marketing—one is a natural (and necessary) specialization of the other.

How NOT to define product marketing in your company

Once you have an understanding of these roles, it’s time to start answering questions like:

  • How do you define these functions as your company grows?
  • How should responsibilities be defined and assigned?
  • What are the objectives of these roles?
  • What kind of reporting structure is best?

The final question is probably the most important, and it’s also the best place to start. Unfortunately, many companies don’t start with objectives and instead focus on creating simple descriptions.

For example, many define them in terms of complementary opposites. You’ve probably encountered at least one of these definitions:

  • Product management is “inbound” and product marketing is “outbound”
  • Product management listens to the market, and product marketing speaks to the market
  • Product management focuses on putting product “on the shelf,” and product marketing focuses on getting product “off the shelf”
  • Product management primarily works with the engineering team, and product marketing primarily works with the sales team

A lot of problems start here. All of these statements are somewhat correct, but they’re overly simplistic definitions that don’t really help people understand how to properly implement these functions.

Alternatively, some startups resort to defining the roles by their deliverables. For example: Product managers are responsible for requirements, while product marketers deliver data sheets, white papers, web content, etc.). Again, this can cause problems, as it also serves to separate the two roles and ignore both the strategic nature of the work as well as the need to properly integrate the two.

The broad cross-functional nature of the roles can also make them difficult to define. More than any other part of the company, product managers and product marketers must work across teams to be effective.

How to implement product marketing in your company

It’s more important than ever to have a team solely dedicated to understanding market and buyer needs so they can use that knowledge to execute compelling marketing and sales strategies.

That’s why it’s crucial for you to define and incorporate a product marketing role into your organization. Again, product marketing is part of overall product management, but with the primary goal of understanding the market and buyer (their needs, alternatives, buying process, etc.) in relation to the company’s products and services.

Along with developing an understanding of the buyer, product marketers need to utilize knowledge of the market, product, product strategy, and competition in order for marketing and sales organizations to be effective.

From a deliverables perspective, what this usually means is developing documents defining positioning, messaging, competitive differentiation, and go-to-market strategy, and ensuring senior management is aligned with these.

On a more tactical level, product marketing also usually works with internal teams on product launches. This includes training and educating the sales and marketing teams on the go-to-market, positioning, messaging, differentiation, etc. And finally, particularly in smaller companies, product marketing often creates data sheets, white papers, copy, and other collateral.

I can’t stress enough that although this collateral and some of the tactical activities may be the most visible deliverables product marketing produces, they aren’t the primary focus. The strategic work—positioning, messaging, and understanding the buyer and market dynamics—is the foundation for virtually all other activities. Once defined, it can support other groups such as corporate marketing in creating consistent, highly effective collateral.

When should you hire a product marketer?

For a young company, every new hire is critical. There’s often no shortage of needs to fill, so it’s common that formal product marketing headcount is typically added when a company reaches an inflection point.

But that inflection point is usually reached because some person or small team—either product management or marketing—becomes so overloaded they can’t scale. A product marketer is then hired to take some of the load off that group.

This is the wrong way to hire, because the product marketer will immediately be defined by the responsibilities and deliverables handed off to them by the overloaded team.

Instead, think of product marketing as a role that helps both product management and the company scale. That way, the reason to hire isn’t simply to reduce the burden of another team—it’s to bring a better understanding of the buyers and market into the company and optimize how the company markets and sells to those buyers.

“Think of product marketing as a role that helps both product management and the company scale.”

Over time, as a startup introduces more products or product variations, and attacks new use cases, market segments, verticals, or geographies, product marketing (as part of overall product management) should grow in some reasonable proportion. From that initial hire, the company should grow a team or teams of product marketers who work alongside product managers to best address strategic and market needs for the company.

In today’s market where technology makes it easy for companies to compete with one another on a global scale, it’s more important than ever to have a team dedicated to understanding the market and buyer needs in order to use that knowledge to ensure the company executes on compelling marketing and sales strategies.

Product marketing talks to and listens to the market. It’s both inbound and outbound, but it exists with a specific focus. By incorporating product marketing into product management, your startup will achieve full end-to-end alignment—from company and product strategy to product development, product launch, and go-to-market strategy and tactics.

And who wouldn’t want that?

Header photo by fauxels from Pexels.

More resources

 

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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