The PLG Pivot: Complementing Traditional Go-to-Market Tactics With Product-Led Elements

August 4, 2020

Most people consider product led growth (PLG) the exclusive territory of the latest batch of SaaS startups. While it’s true that a product-led approach comes naturally to many of these organizations, PLG can also offer more traditional companies a very effective way to innovate and grow. They just have to be willing to give it a try.

Related read: What is product led growth?

I’ve spent most of my career helping to build and grow companies that exist in the SaaS, cloud-based, PLG space. I spent many years at Google where I led the web strategy to drive new customer acquisition for G Suite (including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, etc.) and Google Cloud. Later I spent time at Stripe, also working on growth marketing.

About a year ago, I transitioned into a role with MongoDB, the leading, modern general purpose database platform that had historically taken a traditional, sales-led, enterprise-style approach to their go-to-market strategy. As the market has evolved and new opportunities have presented themselves—such as the launch of our first cloud-based product MongoDB Atlas—has done a fabulous job of integrating product-led/self-serve elements into their offering.

When I first joined the company, the growth marketing team was almost entirely focused on online ads. My first shorter-term, tactical mission was to broaden the scope of growth beyond top-of-funnel ads. I began implementing SEO and a wide range of customer marketing programs including email, chat and so forth.

On the longer-term strategic side, I focused on coordinating the marketing, product and analytics teams to help drive a shift in the internal mindset around how we were selling. My goal wasn’t to switch the organization completely away from their existing method of selling; it was more to expand the organizational mindset to include some product-led methods of driving product adoption.

In working through this process with the MongoDB team, I identified three core ingredients that are absolutely critical if you want to successfully pivot from a wholly traditional marketing strategy to one that leverages PLG elements:

  1. Data
  2. An experimentation-driven mindset
  3. The ability to think about your product as a sales channel

More on those below.

Requirement #1: Data

Let’s start with data because that’s the foundation on which you build your experiments and your overall strategy. Data is your window into the minds of your buyers and customers. It helps you understand their needs through both explicit input (data they share directly) and implicit input (behavioral and engagement information).

The advantage we have as modern marketers is access to a wealth of data generated via online interactions. Each interaction is an opportunity to collect additional data points not only about individual prospects, but also about what the customer journey looks like overall.

The key to extracting value from all this information is knowing how to harness it to reveal insights that inform your sales and marketing efforts.

Related read: Get to Know the 3 Pillars of Product Led Growth

In the case of integrating product-led elements into a traditional go-to-market strategy, your data can help you identify key touchpoints in the customer journey: where a user learned about your product, heard about your company, first interacted with your product, etc. More importantly, data can help you identify any friction points in that customer journey.

This data-driven approach is so much more efficient and effective than the old way of collecting anecdotal information from prospects, users and your sales team. Not only are you able to get a much broader range of information by collecting vast amounts of digital data, you can also be assured that the information is much more accurate because it comes, as they say, straight from the horse’s mouth.

And once you have all this data and you’re able to analyze it to uncover the truth of how people are interacting with your product, you can use that information to improve the customer journey and tailor your sales and marketing messaging, content and tactics.

Requirement #2: Experimentation-driven mindset

If data is the most important physical asset you need for a successful initiative, an experimentation-driven mindset is the most important philosophical asset you need in your toolbox.

Bringing product-led elements into the mix requires using data to identify the points of highest friction so you can reduce or—optimally—eliminate them. The only way to do this is to experiment and iterate until you know how to deliver the best experience.

The challenge for any organization (but especially for more traditional ones that are used to operating within a fairly static enterprise-style marketing and sales process) is the need for constant change.

To win this particular battle, you need:

1. The ability to embrace change and “failure”

Experimentation is, by its nature, risky because you don’t know the outcomes ahead of time. It’s all about learning from what works, and—just as importantly—what doesn’t. You’re not always going to get the “right” answer, but you will always learn something. You will break things, but you will be able to minimize damage by iterating quickly—rebounding from one “failed” experiment to the next. You have to accept that you’re playing a long game.

Related read: How the Best Tech Companies Run Growth Experiments

While you may have some short-term wins along the way, you should always be looking ahead to the ultimate outcome and know that even when you feel like you’re going backwards, you’re still moving in the right direction.

2. A lot of executive buy-in

It almost goes without saying that getting an organization to adopt this kind of change-friendly approach requires a lot of buy in from leadership. No matter how carefully you introduce these ideas, they will cause some disruption, so it’s very important to have executives who not only support the effort, but will champion it within the company.

3. An educated team

Likewise, anything you can do to educate others within your organization will help smooth the way for your work. Most human beings are not that comfortable with change, especially change they don’t control.

Bringing your colleagues into the fold by sharing your plans and explaining how this strategy can help them in their roles will go a long way toward encouraging the cross-functional collaboration that you need to make things work.

4. The right people

Finally, as you begin to think about augmenting your own team, you’re going to want to consider carefully the attributes to look for in new hires. In most cases, it’s best to hire people who have already worked in a similar environment and are used to the dynamic nature of the beast.

Alternatively, you can also look for people who are eager to step into this space and have the personality to thrive in a state of constant change.

Requirement #3: Ability to think about product as a sales channel

With your data assets in order and the groundwork laid to shift your team’s mindset, you can start to focus more closely on leveraging your product as an efficient sales channel. There are philosophical and tactical elements to this.

On the philosophical end, you need to help people wrap their heads around the idea that the product and the experience you create around it are not only two sides of the same coin, they also encompass many pieces of your sales process.

For buyers who have a pretty simple decision-making process and don’t require any human interaction, you can provide a self-serve option that allows them to try your product and then buy it without needing to go through a salesperson. Adding this path into your existing customer journey is what will drive incremental product led growth.

For buyers with a more complex decision-making process that does rely on sales support, your product takes on the role of being your best lead generation engine. Not only is your product the first entry point for these more complex buyers, but it’s also the vehicle through which you can collect specific data on each prospect.

You can see what they’re using, how they’re using it and where they get hung up. And with this information in hand, you can tailor your marketing and sales approach to align perfectly with each prospect’s specific situation and needs. It’s a very powerful way to provide a more personalized and relevant buyer experience.

It’s not an either/or situation

Product-led and sales-driven growth strategies are not mutually exclusive. They can actually complement each other beautifully, giving you the best of both worlds. While it’s typically been more common to hear about PLG companies adding a sales-led component as they expand into enterprise markets, we’re also starting to hear more about companies with traditional go-to-market strategies pivoting to embrace the product-led mindset and tactics.

“At the end of the day, it all comes back to doing what’s best for the user.”

It’s not always an easy road to travel. As we’ve covered here, there are some pretty major cultural changes that need to take place if you’re going to successfully integrate product led growth into the mix. But if you can get all the pieces to fall into place, the combination of these two strategies can be extremely effective in driving growth from multiple directions.

At the end of the day, it all comes back to doing what’s best for the user. Our job as growth marketers is to eliminate friction in the customer journey. Whether that journey starts outside the product and works its way in, or begins and ends within the product, the end result is the same. Let your buyer’s best interests drive your decisions, and you can’t go wrong.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October 2019 and was updated in August 2020.

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