The Role of Product Marketing in Your Startup, Part I: Defining Product Marketing

featuring Saeed Khan

The Role of Product Marketing in Your Startup, Part I: Defining Product Marketing

featuring Saeed Khan

Can you give a solid definition of Product Marketing? Do you understand exactly how it fits into your company and what sets it apart from Product Management? If not, you’re not alone. In this first post in a two-part guest series Saeed Khan, writer for On Product Management, sets the record straight, explaining the importance behind the distinction and discussing how companies should — and should not — define the Product Marketing role.

Anyone who’s worked in a tech startup knows that it’s a “get the job done” environment where your title means little and what you do means a lot. Engineering also manages IT. CEOs “hit the streets” and sell. A lot of HR responsibilities are done by individual hiring managers. Everyone answers phones and supports the day-to-day business operations when needed. With the right people, it’s a great experience and everyone pitches in where they can to help the company move forward.

In the early days, that kind of “get the job done” environment is necessary in order 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 roles are not well defined, even though they are important. As a result, the right people are not always assigned to those jobs. Specifically, I’m taking about Product Management and Product Marketing.

Unlike functions such as Sales, Engineering, or Finance, where the roles, responsibilities, and outcomes are very well understood (and measurable), Product Management and Product Marketing can’t always make those claims, particularly in early-stage companies.

Additionally, in early-stage companies it’s unlikely that these functions are discretely staffed. Product Marketing is sometimes combined with Marketing. In other cases, Product Management and Product Marketing are rolled into one. Sometimes Product Management is blended in with Engineering or simply handled by one of the founders.

As the company grows, it’s critical to understand these functions and to define and staff these roles appropriately. Doing so will sharpen focus on the responsibilities and enable scalability for the roles within the organization as it grows. Unfortunately, that’s not always easy.

What is Product Management and Product Marketing?

First, let me define what Product Management and Product Marketing are. I try to make a clear distinction between each of these two functions below, but please note I’m not claiming that the following are the only precise definitions. Given my experience and understanding of these roles across a number of technology companies, the following definitions are both 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 are aligned and 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 people because it seems to imply that Product Marketing is subservient to Product Management, or more personally, that Product Marketers are subservient to Product Managers. But that is not the case.

As 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 product that meets functional and quality requirements within a given timeframe.

But within the Engineering department, there are usually at least 2 groups – Engineering (or Development) and Quality Assurance. They have different but related roles, and must work together to deliver what is needed. In tiny companies, there may not be a formal QA function and 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 the roles, the questions quickly become, how do we define these functions as the 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 also the best place to start. Unfortunately, however, many companies don’t start with objectives and instead focus on simple descriptions of Product Management and Product Marketing.

For example, many companies define Product Management and Product Marketing 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 Engineering and Product Marketing primarily works with Sales.

This is where a lot of problems begin. All of these are somewhat correct, but they are overly simplistic definitions that don’t really help people understand how to implement these functions properly.

Alternatively, some companies also resort to defining the roles by their deliverables (ex: Product Management is responsible for requirements while Product Marketing delivers 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 – Engineering, Sales, Marketing, Support, Finance, Senior Management – to be effective.

Look here for Part II of the series, where Saeed offers more tips for properly defining, implementing, and hiring for the Product Marketing role.

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Photo by: Daniel Foster


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...

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Share Your Thoughts

  • Pattopat

    Great post Saeed, I am sharing the view point and I am convinced that there is still some education to convey on these topics. Looking fwd to your 2nd post. Patrick

    • Saeed Khan

      Patrick, thanks for the comment. the second part is up. Let me know your thoughts.

  • Sergey Stupin

    good post! it’s really helpful.I faced such problem several times and it’s really hard to separate these 2 roles. in most cases product manager communicate with top management to align product strategy with them and develpment and define the requirements for the product. product marketing communicate information about the product to sales and marketing. the main question for me is how product management and product marketing communicate with each other? what information product management provide to product marketing and vice versa? are they both the part of one team?

    • Saeed Khan

      One thing to keep in mind is the difference between the functions (Product Management, Product Marketing) and the roles (Product Manager, Product Marketer).

      The overall function of Product Management includes Product Marketing, but the roles of Product Manager and Product Marketer are distinct roles within Product Management overall. :-)

      i.e. Product Managers aren’t superior to Product Marketers. I see them as complementary roles and thus should actively and regularly communicate AND collaborate with each other.

      For example, I work closely with my product marketing counterparts keeping them up to date on what I’m learning from customers and internal parties, helping them plan and in some cases deliver things like webinars etc. They do the same with me and some of my deliverables.

      While this is clearly a very simple description, it is accurate in terms of the relationship I have with Product Marketing.

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