May 18, 2024

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Product Marketing 101: A beginner’s guide to building the function

13 min read

Early stage founders know that product marketing is the connective work that turns a product into a tool or solution with revenue potential. Product marketing makes up a big part of a founding team’s workflows—think studying the market, learning customers’ pain points, and figuring out how to build and sell a differentiated offering. But eventually a CEO needs to welcome a new brain into the operations to formalize positioning, messaging, pricing, sales motions, and more, to free up time and serve as a force multiplier.

So, what does great product marketing look like, and what should founders and early stage teams look for in their early product marketing hires? 

We spoke with Diana Jovin, Vice President of Marketing at Teleport; Cecilia Stallsmith, founder of the developer go-to-market (GTM) consultancy Calyx, where she has run product marketing launches for companies like Stripe, 1Password and Airtable; and Meghan Keaney Anderson, Head of Product Marketing and Communications at Watershed and former Head of Marketing at Jasper, to explain the nuts and bolts of product marketing––and how to build it out at your company.

The many hats of a product marketer

Often the first GTM hire, product marketers bring a founder’s GTM vision to life.

PMMs figure out the best way to explain their product’s competitive edge in the market, and translate those key points into scalable messaging for go-to-market efforts, like sales and demand generation. The core responsibilities of a PMM include:

  • Market research: Understanding the core audience, its pain points, and its needs. 
  • Positioning: Articulating how your product is uniquely suited to solve a specific buyer’s problem in the market.
  • Messaging: Developing talking points and recommended language to use in different sales and marketing scenarios and tailored to each core buyer persona. 
  • GTM strategy: Launching products and driving user adoption, retention, and engagements.
  • Sales enablement: Creating marketing assets for different stages of the funnel, like thought leadership articles, case studies, and demos.
  • Customer feedback: Collecting qualitative and quantitative data to improve the customer experience and inform higher-level product decisions. 

Product marketing is a “glue role,” meaning it connects a product to the right users and helps them adopt it, said Calyx’s Cecilia Stallsmith.

“The product marketer’s role is to deeply understand the customer,” said Cecilia. A product marketer must “hone user personas, and figure out how to communicate the value of the product—the best product messaging is user-centric, and focuses on how the product solves a problem for the intended audience.”

At its core, product marketing is a combination of information architecture and strategy, explained Diana Jovin, Teleport’s VP of Marketing. “The two key information architecture elements are positioning and messaging,” Diana added. 

Finally, product marketing is a team sport: it’s highly cross-functional. The best marketing leaders don’t develop positioning and messaging in isolation—to drive the best outcomes, product marketers must talk to customers,  engage in internal strategy calls, and conduct competitive research with the help of learning from users, analysts, and other experts, Diana said.

Here, we dive deeper into the definitions and expectations of positioning, messaging, and GTM strategy:

Positioning

Positioning answers the question, why should your audience pick you instead of alternatives in the market? It’s a core GTM topic, not only in lean product marketing but even in brand communications, too.

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Effective positioning isn’t that creative or exciting, explained Meghan, Jasper’s former marketing leader. “I think about the difference between positioning as the architecture of your house versus the furniture, decorations, and how it looks on top of that,” she added.

Strong positioning shares three characteristics: it’s very concrete, repeatable, and defensible, Meghan said. Most importantly, positioning entails “figuring out the coordinates of your company,” she added. To position a product, PMMs answer questions like:

  • Who are you selling to? 
  • What is their biggest problem? 
  • How does your product solve that problem? 
  • Why is your product differentiated in your response to that problem?

The answers to these questions help PMMs develop a product’s value proposition.

Diana added that a value proposition commonly follows this formula: “For a persona who has a problem, here is a solution that provides benefits.” The role of the product marketer is to identify and articulate the persona, problem, solution, and benefits.

PMM 101 - Diana Jovin Value Prop Formula

Messaging

Think of messaging as talking points or guidelines—not word-for-word copy, Diana explained. It’s the storytelling that brings your value proposition to life, Meghan added. 

The messaging side of product marketing translates value propositions into creative marketing campaigns designed to reach the product’s core personas, or buyer profiles. 

Product messaging reflects the audience, market trends, business need, product benefits, and points of differentiation. It should synthesize that into recommended language that other marketers can turn into sales enablement assets and demand generation campaigns, and that the sales team can use on its calls and demos, Diana said.

GTM strategy

Going to market with a product has two key stages: launch and adoption. This is especially the case for product-led growth startups, Meghan explained. 

 “If you’re a product marketer for a startup that’s largely product-led growth and doesn’t have a very complex buying cycle, then your focus is probably much more focused on product launches, but also within the product itself,” said Meghan. “How do you drive activation points? How do you drive adoption? What are the mechanics that you can introduce into the messaging around the use of a product that will get people deeper into it?”

In GTM strategy, it’s also important to determine whether you plan to pursue an offensive or defensive product marketing strategy—or a combination of both.

Offensive product marketing explains why the product is better than the competition—by pointing out its own strengths over the competition’s weaknesses.

Defensive product marketing anticipates the different strategic moves that competitors might make in response to you, and adjusts the positioning accordingly so you can defend your space, Diana explained.

Both strategy types—but especially defensive product marketing—help convey why a company’s product has the right to win market share.

“Within a corporate deck, I always include a market definition slide,” said Diana. “It answers questions like, what elements give you the right to win? What can the company do better than anybody else? By doing that, you articulate how you are disrupting a market while creating a defensive moat against the moves that competitors might make.”

Product marketing’s three essential documents and workflows

To bring positioning and messaging to life––and reach internal consensus––product marketers translate their research into clear documentation. To that end, Diana recommends three core “tools” in the product marketing lifecycle:

  1. Messaging document: Explains a product’s audience, market trends, benefits and differentiation. Additionally, the messaging document includes recommended language for describing the product, plus the benefits of describing it in that way.
  2. Persona document: Covers product’s audience––its core buyers, some of their titles, their key priorities, and their day-to-day responsibilities that they might be preoccupied with when sales reaches out to them.
  3. Campaign document: A project brief that articulates a marketing campaign’s objective and purpose, key performance indicators (KPIs), channels it’ll live on, and stakeholder responsibilities. 

Note that messaging documents can be polarizing among PMM leaders—some high-profile SaaS companies prefer to lean on their feature landing pages and sales decks as their source-of-truth messaging documents, Cecilia said. That’s because messaging can quickly become stale in a rapidly changing market. For that reason, you should still expect to develop messaging, but might choose to house and update it in dedicated documentation, or direct stakeholders to product copy and sales enablement materials instead.

Finally, it’s important to leverage user research best practices to learn who they are and what they need in their own words. These insights can inform positioning, messaging, and GTM strategy. “It’s really important to design effective interview guides and questionnaires so you don’t lead the user and bias the information you gather,” Cecilia said. Here are her two tips for conducting smart qualitative research:

  1. Make sure you understand the difference between open-ended and leading questions. It’s all too easy to ask a question with wording that’s already biased in favor of a positive or negative answer. Open-ended questions avoid this trap, allowing the user to articulate their thoughts and feelings on the topic at hand. A leading question like “Did you find the interface difficult to use?” guides the user toward saying yes and identifying how, whereas an open-ended question like “If you could change one thing about the product, what would it be?” doesn’t guide the user toward a specific answer choice or sentiment.
  2. Learn about selection bias when building surveys and questionnaires. Ideally, data collection will represent the overall user base and market—but without the right sampling measures, informal surveys may draw just a subset of the overall population you’re intending to study. For instance, survey opt-ins may draw more engaged users and yield positive answers, rather than a range of product opinions that could actually move the needle with actionable feedback.

Three types of product marketers

Though a first marketing hire might need to be a “Swiss Army knife” profile, a more mature product marketing function has specialists aligned to the organization’s broader needs and innovation strategy. Here are three common PMM archetypes:

  1. Enterprise PMMs are often focused on sales enablement. These product marketers adapt positioning to different industries and buyer personas, Meghan explained. “Enterprise PMMs mostly accompany the sales team on their process, especially if it’s a big inside sales team,” she added.
  2. Product-led growth (PLG) PMMs primarily support launches and growth initiatives within the product itself. They’re particularly common at startups with straightforward and self-serve sales cycles. Product-focused PMMs drive activation points and adoption, Meghan added, and develop messaging that gets users deeper into the product. Think of them as an API between the product and sales orgs, Diana explained. 
  3. Technical/Developer PMMs create in-depth tutorials and demos for a technical audience. They speak the language of developers—straightforward and without jargon, Cecilia explained, unlike more corporate enterprise buyers. “They have to be able to take a very technical concept, understand it deeply, and then articulate how it works,” she added. “To me, it’s sort of a blend of a sales engineer and a product marketer,” Meghan added.

The right time to hire a product marketing leader

“The role of product marketing is to enable you to scale, once you have identified good product-market fit” said Diana. “Without that, your CEO is going to have to be on every call as a small company.”

There are three clear signs it’s time to hire a product marketer:

  1. When the company is ready to move from early adopters to scaled growth. Once you’ve found product-market fit, product marketing can help identify the broader market that your product needs to target, develop resonant messaging, and run marketing efforts to acquire those new users. Your first product marketing hire often sets up your marketing team’s basic early infrastructure for adopting and activating users.
  2. To support product launches. If launches and feature releases feel unmanageable, PMMs can help get the word out in a controlled and scalable manner on different channels. “There are some companies where they’re releasing a ton of product, they’ve got little feature releases every week, they’ve got a major launch every quarter,” said Meghan. “And in many cases, especially in the tech industry, you see that’s the case that actually pushes someone to hire their first product marketer.”
  3. If you’re looking to break into new markets. “In industries where there’s an expansion motion, or you’re selling into hard-to-move industries, you really need more of a solutions-focused product marketer who can research the buyer, understand that buying process and what matters to them, and help establish product-market fit,” Meghan added.

Five green flags of great product marketing leaders

Great PMMs are able to jump into a fast-growing startup, serve as a founder’s GTM thought partner, and quickly execute on new ideas. But, how should you discern among a pool of competitive candidates? These signals tend to indicate promise in product marketing leaders:

  1. They’re not brand new to product marketing. “You can’t train on the fly for something that is such a pivotal position and that enables so many different functions in the organization,” Diana said. The goal is to find a seasoned product marketer—but sometimes they pivot from a tangential role, such as content marketing, customer marketing, or sales enablement, before growing within the PMM function.
  2. They know how to drive revenue. Meghan emphasized the importance of bringing on a leader who knows what levers to pull to support business growth. Translated to skill sets, that might look like someone who’s familiar with growth marketing and sales enablement tactics, on top of deeply understanding the product and market.
  3. They can articulate technical concepts and product features. This doesn’t mean PMMs need to know how to code—it’s useful, but not critical, Ceci said. But they do need to understand the technical side of what is happening at the company, especially so they can have substantive conversations with engineers and translate technical know-how into messaging that will resonate with different personas and stakeholder groups. Founders should expect to explain to candidates what degree of technical depth their marketing leader needs to understand to effectively position the product, Diana added.
  4. They understand the market. Early marketing leaders need to have a firm grasp of the market’s history and trends. Together with technical understanding, product marketing leaders need to be able to deliver a narrative about the product and market it serves.
  5. They have good conversational chemistry with founders and C-level leaders. You want someone who is happy to roll up their sleeves,” Cecilia said. “I’d want to hire someone who’s excellent at extracting the vision from a founder and turning that into a crisp, resonate message for the market.”

Asking these questions helps founding teams identify the right talent to deliver on several key business objectives: establishing a foothold in the market, connecting product to market, and making customer empathy a core tenet of any marketing strategy and campaign. Diana expands on these three points:

  • Positioning is pivotal to your long-term outcome. Going after a niche in an existing market? Creating a new market? These questions define who you see as your competitor or alternative solution set, and the work that’s needed to drive market awareness and interest.
  • Narrative bridges the gap between the market and the product. Often technical founders are very focused on the nuts and bolts of a product. Your narrative informs the arc of content that comes before prospects are ready to talk about feature sets. 
  • Technical skills mean deeper understanding of customer experience and problem set. Even though PMMs don’t need to code, they need to understand the world from the point of view of their customer base.

Developing the marketing organization

Once you’ve hired a marketing leader, it’s time to build out a team. So, what does a marketing org look like over time? 

First, our advice assumes your first hire is a PMM. Note that this is not prescriptive; for example, PLG startups occasionally opt to focus on brand marketing to build awareness first. Remember to build your marketing organization, including your first hire(s), around your most important business needs. 

Meghan shared a glimpse of the shift in marketing priorities as a startup scales from Series A to Series B:

Series A companies need to stand up their positioning in the market and their engine of growth, Meghan said. “I might hire a head of marketing to formalize the positioning, and have them hire someone who can build the engine—one person who does product marketing, and then the other who can figure out the mechanism for getting people into the funnel and whether it’s freemium or an inside sales team. But those are the two most important things: Get to a place of predictable demand and get to the foundation of why you’re different in the market.”

Series B companies double down on where they’re strongest and where their differentiation needs to be, Meghan said. If your best leads come from organic, then lean heavily on SEO and organic. If they come from events, build out field marketing, she explained.

When to hire a chief marketing officer (CMO) 

From there, when should you hire a CMO? Not until after you’ve proven product-market fit, said Diana. Bring on a product marketing leader first, and hire a CMO when the company is more mature, Diana and Meghan agreed. 

Most importantly, it’s the right time to hire a CMO when you feel the need to build a full-fledged marketing organization—not just product marketing support that focuses on messaging, positioning, launches, and sales enablement, Cecilia added. 

CMOs shine at overseeing a marketing organization’s budget, building and executing a strategic plan, and aligning product marketing with other marketing and communications functions, like demand generation, brand marketing, field marketing, and corporate communications. When you’re thinking about building a full-stack growth engine, with brand work, a communications strategy, events, and more, it’s important that a CMO oversees these extra specialties. 

Building a strong marketing foundation 

Once a product marketing foundation is in place, it’s time to continue educating the market and supporting sales on the stages of the buyer journey that need the most improvement. Building a marketing team that translates positioning and messaging into valuable campaigns and assets is a critical part of business-building. It’s never too early to bring on a strategic storyteller to help establish and refine product-market fit. 

To learn more about marketing, communications, customer success, partnerships, and GTM operations, subscribe today to our GTM Course.

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