👋 Hi, I’m James. Thanks for checking out Building Momentum: a newsletter to help startup founders and marketers accelerate SaaS growth through product marketing.
I recently sat down with Josh and Nate from the Searching4SaaS podcast to talk about the role of product marketing in early-stage SaaS.
You can listen to the podcast above, or find it wherever you get your podcasts. You can also read the edited transcript below!
Big thanks to Josh and Nate for having me on!
In this post:
What’s the biggest thing people get wrong about PMMs?
Product marketing is such a broad term, there is so much that you can do with it.
There are so many things that we can do or that we can be involved in. I think one of the biggest disservices that marketers or CEOs or founders give is not really giving product marketers the space to find their own way to help the business. I think often we get categorized as either one of two models.
Number one is just being an internal agency for sales enablement or content marketing teams. It’s just like, look, we need this one sheet. We need this data sheet. We need a deck. It’s horrible, I spent most of my first couple of jobs being a deck monkey. And it was horrible. It’s not a fulfilling job at all. We can be much more strategic than that.
The other model is that we can just be a conveyor belt for product teams. So whatever product teams ship, that’s it. We launch it out into the world, we write the release notes and maybe send an email to customers or whatever. Again, it’s really unfulfilling. It’s not it’s not a nice way to work.
And also misses out on the strategic value that product marketing can bring. And I think that’s because at it’s core, product marketing is a strategy role. We really have to understand who our customers are, what the business is doing, what’s happening in the market… and then try and draw those dots together.
It’s just that pace that people are yet to really twig them to at scale. There’s definitely companies and people out there who are advocating for this approach. But that’s the one message: product marketing is strategic. Don’t make that mistake, don’t try and force them into executional stuff all the time, make sure there’s that room for strategy as well.
JOSH: Does the fact that the word marketing is in the title kind of allude to that? All the things you described are things that traditionally marketers have looked at.
JDP: Exactly. You know product marketing is often seen as the fluffy people that make the deck after the fact, the ones that do execute on whatever strategy has already been decided, but we can step back from that and really understand what the landscape is saying, what we’re hearing from customers and have some input into the way that we move forward.
It’s just so much better for everyone involved. It works so much better.
How does research play in product marketing strategy?
You can go super deep into the research. But what I mean by strategy is all about understanding where you are today, where you want to be by a certain timeframe and the steps involved to make that happen. And then putting that into action. You don’t need to do super deep research all the time.
You can do really nice targeted pieces of customer research, competitive research, or just understanding more about your business goals and the way that the business system works.Some of those bits can really give you a lot of answers into how to really maximize the results that you’re going to get from a go-to market function, from a marketing perspective… there’s so many of these bits and pieces that’s impacted by what product marketers can do.
When do should a traditional PMM join a business?
I don’t think there’s anything really as a traditional product marketer, I think it we’re really versatile and that we can be thrown into a situation and just get what needs to be done,done. I think there is a time when you can say, “okay, we can benefit from some product marketing expertise and skills here”.
And I think that really does depend on the go-to market motion that set, the existing skillset of the team, and the biggest challenges that you’re facing over the next six to 12 months probably.
If we’re gonna think about, you know, a standard B2B SaaS startup, so imagine that the founder is a you know, a product person who’s taking on the sales ownership, and the go-to market is a traditional inside sales play. I think product marketing should be like the first or second marketer that you would hire now.
It used to be that the first person would be a demand generation, but that’s changed a lot because it’s significantly easier to access an audience now than it ever has been. You’ve got social media, you’ve got all of these outreach tools. You’ve got all of the advertising networks and things like that. It’s easier than ever to get in front of people.
But the challenge is, is to how do you make sure you get in front of the right people, the right audience, and then how do you pitch in the best way. How do you sell them on what your product is and how it can help them?
That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen such a big increase in demand for product marketers over the last 18 months to two years, is there is so much differentiation required now to kind of cut through the noise and product marketing is one of the best tools you can have to build that into the core of your go-to market.
Especially in teams where the majority skillset is kind of technical or there’s technical founding team. Product marketers are going to have a real big impact, the sooner the better.
I think that tech people are really great for thinking deep about the application of technology, but product marketers can really join the application of it to the use cases that a specific customer can get value from. And that’s where you’re going to connect the dots, and put the pedal to the metal, and really see things start to take off.
Do product marketers replace the things a startup CEO would do?
I think, you know, in the early in the journey, you have a CEO who is really close to the customer. They’ve got that past experience, they’ve been in that role before. And so they’ve got this really deep ingrained understanding, but as you scale the business, the CEO spends less time on sharing that viewpoint and advocating for them across product engineering, success, sales, marketing. It becomes less clear, and there’s more ambiguity.
Product marketing can come into these kinds of situations with a little bit of research, a little bit of thinking, and be able to bring everyone together around a single definition of who the customer is and how you best reach them advocate for the customer amongst all of those teams.
So yeah absolutely, that’s a really interesting way to look at it.
Where should a PMM sit in the reporting structure: product or marketing?
There’s a lot of conflict about it, a lot of strong opinions!
I’m biased. I’ve only ever worked in product marketing where we’re aligned to marketing teams. So we’re part of the marketing or broader growth team and we are primarily concerned with revenue, customer acquisition and adoption, retention, satisfaction kind of metrics.
I like that a lot because it’s really focused on the commercial aspect. And it’s very customer focused and there’s always a recognition of the channels that you’re using to communicate to the business, to the rest of the world.
But conversely, there are people that have only ever worked in product teams and love that really close connection with what’s on the roadmap, where things are, how they can, how product marketers can help product teams to influence the roadmap more around customer insights and help drive that part of the process as well.
I don’t think there’s any clear and cut answer. So around the best way to do it, I think experimentation is the best,best thing to see how it fits. I think some of those things are going to come out quite naturally during the first couple of years of having product marketing in the business anyway. But I think it’s very interesting.
I can’t imagine working for put a marketing team under product. I can’t, connect the dots yet in my head around how I would be most successful in that setup. But I guess it would just be a learning curve.
Where is the crossover between product marketing, and growth marketing or product growth?
JOSH: I could see someone coming from the Product side be doing marketing aspects, or a growth marketer type who’ll be writing onboarding emails, or a marketer ensuring the right features are highlighted. Those are where the lines start to bleed from me. Is that what you see too?
Yeah, I’ve done all of those bits and pieces whilst being in the marketing side and it’s worked pretty fine. I think even though we’re under marketing, it’s a super cross-functional role by default. You have to have connections and strong alignment with product, with success and with sales and the rest of the marketing team anyway.
I think it’s also interesting when you think about the goals of product marketing teams, what they want to or need to achieve your business over the next six months, 12 months, 18 months. Once you can be really clear on that, then it makes much more sense, and be like okay, well, product marketing is focused on this particular area so for now let’s align them onto this part of the team, or we’ll make sure they’ve got really strong connection with these people.
But again, one of the things that we don’t necessarily do so well is say, okay, this is, this is what product marketing is going to set out to achieve. We just kind of floats around a little bit.
It’s a really fluid role, a very fluid team. I think in terms of metrics the best situation I worked in was where we had two key metrics. One was net new ARR added each month, and the other was successful adoption of users to the product.
So the number of accounts that signed up the turn into paying customers, and those that hit whatever user goal was. That gave us two really distinct ways to think about it. The first part was about everything that happens before sign up or before the initial kind of payment point. So positioning, pricing, messaging, communicating features, the sales experience, stuff like that was something that we could improve ourselves or through our relationships with other teams.
And then the second part around successful adoption was about, is this the right product for this type of customer? Do we communicate better? Do we help them find out how to get started as quickly enough? Did they achieve that core goals early on enough and see the value in it?
Melding those two together was a really interesting a really interesting experience.
Should product marketing report directly to the CEO?
NATE: I wonder if it would make more sense for product marketing to report directly to the CEO, kind of an agency for the CEO?
Yeah. When you say that out loud, obviously it makes so much sense. All of every single role I’ve had, the product marketing plan has always been discussed with the CEO. It’s always: this is how we think of the positioning, this is what we’re learning, these are some problems we’ve seen in the sales funnel and this is how we’re thinking of fixing them.
You know, these are the broad goals of what we want to do from an adoption and activation perspective. So absolutely we should have that direct line in. The only reason that we don’t is… I’m not sure why we dont, I think that’d be really good experiment for somebody to run.
What’s the direction of product marketing?
It’s this is where I think product marketing is going to fragment in some ways over the next five or so years. I expect that we will see increase in strategy roles. So Strategy teams, Director of Strategy…we’ll probably still have product marketers under a strategy team who are responsible for kind of core market insights from customers, competitors, and general landscape kind of stuff.
And then I think we’ll see some of the more execution part of product marketing go to segment marketing teams that will focused on driving growth and adoption from particular customer groups.That’s where I think product marketing is probably going to be.
We are saying many more CMOs come from product marketing. I think another route for product marketing growth, as well is into chief of staff and COO roles. Anything that is about melding strategy with execution. I think we’re, we’re really strong in helping merge both of those worlds together.
What about fractional product marketers?
Yeah, it’s definitely something that’s grown, the concept has really come up over the last couple of months maybe. It’s really pretty new.
I think it’s really interesting. It’s probably something I’m going to be exploring over the next couple of years, but I think there’s probably two types of fractional PMMS that you might want.
One is one that can come in with a framework and experience: this is how we can do positioning, here’s the process, let’s work on it together, go through that, bring everyone around on why it’s the right direction, and there’s a lot of internal change management with things like positioning that we need to manage as well. And then sell it into the business and make sure it’s working and fitted nicely.
And then I think that is the strategic functional product marketer who can come in and be like, this is how we’ve done this before. Let’s go back to the basics. Let’s build the core artifacts that you need from personas all the way through to buyer journey, through to uderstanding of the broader customer journey, map out the sales enablement material that you need you know, the product announcement matrixes, and all this kind of stuff, which I think is really interesting as well.
But I think one of the, one of the downsides of this is that we miss the opportunity to focus on upskilling the product marketers and marketers that you already have.
That’s something that, one of my friends Alicia Carney and I are doing: a course to help upskill scrappy product marketers. But especially in Europe, there’s not a lot of career growth for product marketers, or an easy way to break into it. And so I think we need a bit more thinking there on how we manage the next generation as well.
What’s your WTF is Go-To-Market course about?
Alicia and I are both pretty involved in the product marketing community. And one of the questions we hear from almost everyone we speak to, whether they’re a new product marketer, someone who’s been in the role for a couple of years or even CEOs and CMOs is: I hear the words go-to-market all the time, but I don’t really understand what it is, how do all the bits connect together? I can read a definition of it, but what’s the connective tissue between all of these different building blocks?
And so that’s why we just called it WTF is Go-To-Market. People that have those questions are generally in their first three or four years, if not earlier for product marketing, we’re really focused on helping marketers in B2B technology companies.
That’s where our experience is mostly from. But also the frameworks and attitudes that we’ve developed as well best fit there. So there’s a lot of focus on understanding our customers, understanding the needs of the business, and connecting those bits together.
So thinking less about product marketing and go-to-market as just the checklist, and more about trying to understand what it is you’re really trying to achieve. Hopefully that’s what we’re going to help product marketers do. We’ve just invited our first cohort which is really cool.
We’ve been lucky enough to offer a scholarship as well, to improve diversity in the product marketing community sponsored by Crane VC, which is also an awesome thing that we can hopefully help to change..
The first first course is in February. It’s a six week course, and then we hope to do it every, probably every quarter. It’s really exciting. We’ve asked people to do video applications, if they feel comfortable, and we ask about the best product marketing projects they’ve worked on and the worst ones they’ve worked on.
And you can just see all of these lessons we’ve learnt, where we’ve had exactly the same experiences. So if we can help people manage those future ones a little bit better, then we’re not just going to see an impact on the results that product launches can drive the business, but also see that reflected in the career growth of people as well. And that’s, that’s the driving force behind it for us.
We’ve got people in the cohort from their first product marketing job all the way through to 40-something year old director level people, and we’ve got one CEO of a tech company in there as well. So it’s a real, really good mix of people.
What PMM characteristics should you look for in an up-and-coming potential PMM?
So I think the first part I’d say is empathy really about getting into the minds of our customers. We really need to see life from their perspective. If you take positioning, then the definition of positioning is about occupying a space in the mind of the customer. To do that effectively, you need to understand what is already going on in their head, what’s going on in their life for them.
And so unless we can do that really effectively, product marketing breaks down really quickly. So being able to do research, to be able to hypothesize and you know, validate or anything you need to do to really embody your customer, I think is really important. And that goes hand in hand with advocacy.
So representing that customer that you’ve built a solid understanding of, being able to understand the business goals and the business system as it were that you’re operating within and having the skills to navigate around that to drive the best outcomes I think is really important.
Product marketing breaks down if the work we’re doing is not used by the business. We can do all of the snazzy PDFs of personas and go-to-market strategy documents all we want, but unless it’s put into action and people are being consistent with it, it breaks down.
And then lastly, it’s having an understanding of what strategy is. It’s not solely the 10 year mission and vision. You need to understand that. But you need to understand what are the small steps that you can make today to push you forward between now and then, keeping in mind the intended outcomes that you want to achieve, and then being able to make choices that move you from A to B.
What one tip would you give?
I’ve been through three or four big pivots, changes in the way that businesses are operating, and one of the biggest tips I share with that your internal stakeholders are your customers as well.
So do the same thing. Understand what’s driving them, their jobs, pains, gains, and motivations, and then think backwards into how do you help them get to that desired state.
It’s just a customer, it’s exactly the same process, just a different outlook on it.
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