How to Build and Scale a Product Marketing Function

EricBisceglia by

There’s been a flurry of interest in Product Marketing of late. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that Product Marketing is a frequently misunderstood function. But it’s not new. And I also wouldn’t go as far as to say that we’re in the midst of a renaissance or that we’re redefining what it is. The flurry seems to be drawing from the fact that early- to mid- stage companies are struggling to figure out when and how to weave Product Marketing into their businesses.

Fortunately, we can shed some light on this subject by looking at some examples. Before we do that, to get things started, it’s important to make sure we have a shared understanding of what Product Marketing is.

The Nerve Center

Product Marketing is often described as a nerve center or hub that connects and aligns product, marketing, and sales. Which sounds pretty important, right? Well, it is. In every successful business, there is always at least one person who has a well steeped understanding of the market, buyers, and needs that are being addressed. An oversimplified definition of product marketing could go something like this:

Product Marketers utilize knowledge of the market, users, buyers, and products to craft a go to market strategy that better informs and educates marketing and sales as well as prospects and customers to drive business.

To break that down into more detail, here are some of the specific things that Product Marketers do:

  • Market Knowledge: Segmentation, user and buyer personas, purchase motivators, competitive intelligence, use case scenarios, and customer problems
  • Business Strategy: Go to market strategy, sales strategy, channel strategy, market strategy definition
  • Tactics: Lead generation plans, customer retention programs, branding, awareness, field marketing plans, campaign definition, analyst relations and press/media relations
  • Content: Messaging, sales training, FAQs, documentation, brochures and data sheets, demos, web site content, lead gen content (e.g. ROI calculator), blog posts, case studies, press releases
  • Optimization and Market Learning: Key business metrics, pipeline tracking, website metrics tracking, customer advisory boards, focus groups and user groups

There’s often some discord on a number of the responsibilities listed above. One common debate is where responsibility for positioning and messaging belongs. For example, in a mature organization, you’ll often find that Product Marketing owns positioning while the Creative and Demand Gen teams are provided some creative freedom to craft the messaging. The nuance here is “what we want to say” vs. “how we want to say it”.

Another area of debate is related to the marketing programs strategy. A core tenet of Product Marketing’s function is to understand the buyer and as a result this often translates into knowledge of how and where to reach these people. Depending on the market you sell to, your Demand Gen team may be in a position to own this part of the strategy. For example, at my company, Attend, we sell event technology to marketers. So, our marketing team is very well versed in how to reach our target audience. In previous jobs, I was selling to IT. So, the Product Marketing team was better positioned to guide this part of the discussion.

The debate goes on. For example, in larger companies, there’s often Business Analyst teams that handle all of the analysis and reporting. The net-net on this is that Product Marketing is really a “hub” that can absorb any of the responsibilities covered above. Because it is positioned at the core of the business, where product, marketing, and sales meet, it can be a critical function particularly as a company grows. To that end, I’d like to shift our focus to how the role and responsibilities of a Product Marketer evolve as a company grows.

The Three Phases

Believe it or not, the Product Marketing function is almost always present in a company regardless of the stage of growth it is in, even if the role or organization doesn’t exist. I’ve had the fortune of filling this function and role at companies in all stages of growth: a Fortune 500 tech giant, a growth stage company that had a successful IPO, and an early stage startup. In each of these cases, the need for Product Marketing was paramount.

Based on my experiences and a number of people I’ve spoken with on the topic, I’ve come up with a pretty simple way to explain the evolution of product marketing. The table below breaks it down into three distinct phases: The Farmer, The Grower, The Harvester. Please excuse the farm nomenclature but it seemed to line up pretty well!

The FarmerThe GrowerThe Harvester
 

Common in seed stage startups

 

Common in companies with 25-200 employees (sometimes more…)

Common in companies with 500+ employees

 

Someone on the engineering team steps in and performs the true product management function, sometimes a lead engineer, sometimes a designer, and sometimes a founder.

 

Hybrid role that encompasses product management and product marketing responsibilities. Common to have a small product team where responsibility is divided based on another aspect of the business (e.g. market segment, web/mobile).

 

Distinct product manager and product marketer roles. In this model, product marketing is usually part of the marketing organization while product management is part of the product and engineering organization

Here’s how I’ve seen this in practice:

The Farmer (early stage startup): In many cases at this stage, the CEO or CTO, often a founder, it still playing the Product Manager role and fulfills the Product Marketing duties opportunistically. This role is almost always more product management focused due to resource constraints and a small sales team. They need to make sure they’re building the right product first before becoming expertly focused on how to sell it. Some sales enablement content is created but at a limited scale. Generally this “product” person is more focused on messaging and growth. As Saeed Kahn said in a recent OpenView blog, “your title means little and what you do means a lot”. That rings true at this stage.

The Grower (growth stage): At this stage, Product Marketing responsibilities are often woven into a hybrid Product role that is also accountable for all Product Management responsibilities. I’ve seen this model evolve into a business/product owner model. This is pretty common in companies that have multiple product lines where more focused business oversight is needed. This lasted until the company reached ~800 employees. Now that company has a Product Marketing team that reports into the CMO.

The Harvester (Fortune 500): When a company has tens of thousands of employees, organizational structure is pretty well defined. In this case, Product Marketing was part of the Marketing organization and Product Management rolled up into Engineering. The Marketing Programs team owned execution of a go to market strategy that was crafted by Product Marketing. On a more tactical level, Product Marketing was also tasked with working with internal teams to ensure readiness for product launches. This included sales and marketing enablement — i.e. training and educating these teams on the go-to-market, positioning, messaging, differentiation, etc. Product Marketing also created all of the demand gen and web content but it was ultimately made ready for consumption by a creative and web team.

Putting it to Use

It’s critical to understand the Product Marketing function and to define and staff these roles in the right ways as the company grows. The reason to hire is not simply to reduce the burden of another team, but to bring a better understanding of the buyers and market into the company and optimize how the company markets and sells to those buyers.

There are a bunch of ways out there to help you evaluate how a Product Marketing role can fit into your organization. The RACI framework is a pretty popular one that helps cross-functional teams evaluate where to draw the lines on responsibility, accountability, and general involvement. At the end of the day, you all have the best barometer on your businesses. You’ll know pretty quickly if your current team has the capacity to take on these responsibilities and when it’s time to scale a Product Marketing function.