Working with Product Marketing

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Positioning, positioning, positioning

The best software doesn’t sell itself. Even if you did have the best software, it needs to be positioned, priced and pitched correctly to stand a chance amongst your competitors, and that’s where product marketing comes in. As a manager of an engineering team it’s likely that you’ll be regularly working with a product marketer to make sure that the cool stuff that you’re building is making the biggest splash possible.

Great product marketing can make the code you’re writing into something that people need to have. This is most easily demonstrated by example. To begin with, consider this: a customer messaging platform. Sounds boring. But by using Intercom, and especially when perusing through their wonderfully designed guides, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start using it sooner. Now consider this: yet another instant messaging program. Yawn. But after having a read through the beautifully written and illustrated Telegram blog I was downloading their app and I’ve been using it ever since. It makes a lot of difference. A world-class engineer, designer, product manager and product marketer can really change the world.

In the wider world beyond software, clever positioning of a product can dramatically widen its reach. For example, Cirque du Soleil are not just positioning themselves as a circus act. They are a brand that compete against theatre, movies and musicals worldwide.

So what is product marketing?

Product marketing is a really interesting role. It’s a kind of hybrid of product, sales and marketing. Small SaaS companies may have just one product marketer for their application. Large companies may have one product marketer per tool in their suite, or they may have many product marketers producing content to appeal to particular user personas.

As an engineering manager, product marketers are extremely useful to make sure that your team are iterating quickly on the most impactful features, that they are getting feedback from users quickly and therefore experiencing the true impact of their work. We’ll have a look at how we can help them help us shortly, but first let’s explore their role.

So, what do product marketers concern themselves with?

  • Creating a compelling narrative and positioning for the product that you are building. Why does this product exist and how is it making its own ding in the marketplace? Why is it so much better than competing products? Why is it so much better value for money? They have the answers to these questions.
  • Deciding the right moments in time to make big marketing pushes for big impact. Your product may have new features and functionality added weekly, but when is the right point of the year to turn the wheels of the hype machine and do a big, splashy launch? When should they spend marketing budget on creating an advertising campaign? How does that line up with what the rest of the company is doing and with competitors’ launches?
  • Engaging with customers and tracking usage of features. Your product marketer will obsess over how new functionality is being picked up when it hits production and will keep a close eye on feedback, whether implicit or explicit. They’ll reach out to your biggest customers directly for feedback. They’ll worry when few people engage with your latest product feature and want to help you fix that problem.
  • Steering sales enablement. Your product marketer will be the biggest champion for your software and will spend plenty of time narrating the story and purpose to the sales team. They’ll do demos for them, run sales enablement sessions, get them excited about what’s coming down the pipe, and give them hints and tips on how to sell against competing products and how to get the most out of your new features.
  • Advising on pricing. It’s extremely hard to get pricing right in an ever more price sensitive economy. Your product marketer will eagerly study what your competitors are charging and what their billing models look like so that you can have the best chance of fighting them.
  • Feeding back from the marketplace. Your product marketers should be sitting in on sales pitches, demos and executive business reviews with your key clients, listening to their needs and then feeding it back. As well as bringing products to market, they should bring the market to the product.

Helping them help you succeed

As you can see, product marketers do a lot! They’re invaluable resources for your team, connecting you with customers and further convincing your own engineers of the over-arching purpose of what they are building.

But this seems a world away from engineering management, which is your job. Is there anything that you can do to help them do their job better and therefore make your team’s work even more successful? Well, fortunately, there is a lot that you can do.

Let’s explore how you can help.

  • Find the product marketer(s) who are working on your area of the application. Your team and department may already have strong links with those that are doing product marketing, but it’s equally possible that they sit in another department, or on another floor, or even in another office in another country. How often do you meet with them? There may be a lot of disconnect between the engineers writing the code and those weaving the narrative. Find them, introduce yourself. Take them for a coffee if they’re nearby. Ask them how they do their job. Ask how you can help. Enquire as to whether they have any frustrations. Even better, see if they can come sit with your team on a regular basis to form a closer bond.
  • Include them. Open up your world to them. Invite them to your sprint demos. Get them in your Slack channels. You want to have a fluid, open conversation going at all times. See them as an integral part of your team. This gives them the chance to offer feedback (from themselves and also customers) at the earliest possible stages, creating the opportunity for them to motivate and steer the team.
  • Describe the reasons you think that you product or feature is awesome. Your team will work on more than just customer facing features. They may improve uptime, speed or the number of concurrent users that your application can handle. These aren’t always clear to your product marketers, but they are great ammunition for them to further improve their message.
  • Let them practice their narrative with your team. Not only does this give the chance for them to have a safe space to craft the ongoing story of your features and receive feedback, it also gives them the chance to expose the impact of the work that your team is doing. This is extremely motivational and breeds a feeling of purpose and desire for your team to do their best work: it really means something!
  • Build in feature toggling. For the greatest possible market impact, your product marketer may advise batching together the unveiling of a set of new features and launching them as part of a campaign. You won’t want to hold back code changes indefinitely, as continued code changes can end up blocked behind stale code that hasn’t yet been released. Instead, build in the ability to feature toggle and keep shipping to production in secret. We’ve had great success with Launch Darkly, which allows code to be wrapped in feature flags that can be turned on and off dynamically. It can also do targeted or percentage-based rollouts; ideal for enabling features for trusted clients for early feedback, or letting your company’s employees use the most bleeding-edge features.
  • Track usage. Always call upon your product marketer when designing new features so that you know what the important metrics are that should be tracked. Is it clicks or opens or conversions? Is it session length or actions performed? These tools give your product marketer greater power in investigating how well features are being received.
  • Build in survey functionality. This could be as simple as a net-promoter score prompt that appears occasionally in the application, or could be a detailed survey that is delivered to users quarterly.
  • Let them talk directly to customers. Again, Intercom has been an excellent tool for this. As well as telling their narrative via marketing material, we’ve been using Intercom to let our product marketers deliver product updates, targeted messaging and receive questions and feedback directly from customers through the application. Doing so requires no intervention from the engineers.

In summary

If you’re running an engineering team, then having a good relationship with your product marketers can help you make your work land with impact at the right place and the right time. There are a plethora of ways that you can help make life better for your product marketers, and it’s in your team’s best interests that you do.

Make sure that you’re getting the most from them: early feedback on product development, intelligence on your competitors, clarification of the value (to users, but also monetary) of what you are building, your messaging to the market, and help defining targets behind usage and interest. Go and use them!

Thank you to Phill Agnew for the comments and feedback on my draft of this post.


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