How product marketing creates a product-driven company

12 min read

How about an extravaganza of two PMMs facing each other?

Featuring,

(Speaker) Marcus Andrews, Principal Product Manager at HubSpot

(Host) Sanjana Murali, Product Marketer at Hippo Video.

Listen to the Podcast here

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Vector Alignment

Question: Marcus, you had written an excellent piece on Medium based on the idea that the ultimate challenge facing businesses is, vector alignment. What does that mean and why is it so important for companies? 

Marcus: Yes. That whole idea came from, believe it or not, a camping trip that our founder of HubSpot, Dharma Shah, went on with Elan Musk, where Elon Musk told him all about his idea of vector alignment and how it’s the ultimate challenge for companies. And basically Elon Musk’s point was that everybody inside of a company has an energy and has an impact and they can vector that energy in a certain direction.

© Marcus Andrews

For the most part, when you look at a company, most companies really have all these people who have energy and are vectored in either slightly different or very different directions. Everyone is kind of pushing against each other and kind of fight each other at their energy, even in small ways. When you are really a company of any size, but as such, especially a small company, when you’re able to vector your energy all in the same direction and really have a very strong identity where everyone kind of knows exactly who you are and what you do in the story you’re telling.

Everybody has a lot of energy and focuses on this idea. That’s the solution to this challenge of vector alignment. And it couldn’t be more true. When I see HubSpot. I see small companies. Companies really have this alignment. They have a huge outsized impact.

Identity

Question: In the piece, you have mentioned that every company needs to find an identity and your identity will help you align vectors. How do you define that and how does it work?

Marcus: Yes, I think identity is kind of a proxy for brands or cultures. I like the word identity just because it’s who we are and what we stand for and really what we’re focused on. I think that identity to me is really this kind of focus and energy and that is really tight and clear and a lot like culture can happen if you don’t let it.

And the same with the brand. It’s just being intentional about this, I think it is really important and focusing on it, especially when you’re starting a company and really understanding and creating it. You need to build it based on the people who work at your company, but you can create an identity. And I think just most companies really don’t think about it too much. And the ones that do, it’s clear that they do when it works, especially.

Question: You have also stated that product marketers give you a product-driven identity. How do they do that at a high level?

Marcus: I think there’s a lot of talk around product-led companies right now and that’s a little bit different from my idea. I think a product-driven company is just a company that really believes in its product. That’s where they find a lot of their identity through their product and what they build.

This is important because you can have companies that have a strong identity, but it might be really marketing-driven, might be sales driven. And while those can help drive revenue at first, ultimately they’re challenged because they don’t have this strong identity based on what they build and they can get away from their product. That’s like a marketing team talking about something that the market is really interested in, customers are really interested in but ultimately doesn’t have much to do with their product.

People may buy but you’re going to have issues around churn and you’re gonna tell interesting stories that are gonna be really disconnected from what you sell or what the product does. And that’s a massive problem. So if you can make an identity for your product and have your identity in your stories, your marketing is based on what it is that you’ve built, you can have a much healthier go to market model and company.

That’s really what products marketers do: marketers to me are this creative kind of generalists, marketers who have a marketing skillset but they’re almost never set in the product team and are embedded into a product. And so they really learn and digest and understand the product in a way that most marketing teams and sales teams don’t.

I think good product marketers are really good at creating narratives, building products and creating these stories and then going out to your internal teams or to your customers or to the market and getting people excited and building kind of vector alignment and getting people rowing in the same direction around one idea.

So that’s what I personally love about my job because I get to do this. But I also think that’s how we have so much impact. It’s hard to measure. I think that’s what generally this is kind of a pitch to startups like, hey, hire a product marketer early and this is what you want them to do. And this is when they have a big impact. When you do, they can come in, help build this product-driven identity and give your company a lot of momentum and helps build that identity.

The Pyramid 

Question: Your piece then breaks down the walk of a PMM into a hierarchy of needs like a pyramid visual. So how does that work?

Marcus: I wanted to build some kind of visual about my work that would be helpful for other people in product marketing. And when I started to think about the work that I do and how I think about it in my process, it really is like there are these different foundational levels.

You can’t really do a great product launch until you’ve done an awesome kind of cross-functional roadshow. And so you’ve built this thing and it kind of fell together.

That’s kind of how the pyramid works too.

If you’re new to a product’s marketing role and you’re trying to figure out where to start and how to go about your day and the things that you’re working on, the pyramid is especially useful and I think it’ll help them find their work and ultimately be successful in their job.

© Marcus Andrews

Question: Can you tell us about each phase of the pyramid?

Marcus: If you start at the bottom and this is the visuals laid out in the piece, but first, the foundational phase is just sort of it’s just called product. And that’s really just the relationship that you have with your product team. I think that it’s not a problem. I’ve necessarily had time because you really have to clear roles and like a shared vision and a shared goal with your product team, PMMs, Product Directors, GMs or whoever it is. But sometimes it’s unclear who should do what or like that relationship with the product marketer and the product marketing manager can be a little bit murky.

You gotta figure this out. If this isn’t structurally sound if you don’t have a good relationship with them and that you’re working with or it’s unclear who does what or if it’s unclear what your goals are, it’s really hard to be good at your job.

And so this is important. One thing I’d like to say is that sometimes you have a product manager who has a team and they may think like, oh, you know, my designer and my products marketer work for me and that’s probably not a healthy relationship because it’s not a partnership. How I think about it is that we all work for the product. We’re all in support of the product and the customers at the other end of the product, they’re the boss. We’re all trying to do the best we can to deliver for them.

But yeah, that first phase is just super foundational. If you don’t nail that, it’s hard to move up. And what really differentiates a product marketer is that they could step in and pretend to be a product manager for a day or a week. 

They’d know the product so well that if they need to jump on a support call and help out, they clearly can. And that’s such a critical part of being a good product marketing manager. You may not put that. You actually will put that knowledge to use a lot.

Maybe not in the way of doing support calls all the time.

And you don’t have to do it as you don’t even know the product as in-depth as the product manager but you do really have to know it really well. And also like the roadmap for the product, you have to be able to demo. So there’s this product knowledge that is really the foundation I feel to be a good PMM. 

The next phase of the pyramid is then research. So what I think really differentiates a product marketing manager from a product marketer is our strength of the knowledge of the market.

PMMs or Product Managers often know the customer really well, they know the problem really well. They know how the product is going to be built really well. And I think they should lean on product marketers to really understand what’s happening in the market, know competitive wise, what’s going on in the category, what category do we fit into? Who is the competition in that category? How are we different from this? What are the stories that these other companies are telling? How can we tell a unique story?

And there’s a lot of hardcore research. So there should be data analysis at this phase. There should be some quantitative research. You should be able to do some surveys and customer interviews. Really good positioning does not come together without the superstrong research muscle. And I think that most PMM teams know this is important. Always see a ton of this.

PMMs, they want to jump right into the narrative and positioning and messaging before they do. They’ve built this great product relationship. They’ve done this research. And it’s really hard to build good positioning, to build strong value props, to build an interesting narrative. If you haven’t done your research or if you don’t really understand the product. So that’s what kind of narrative design really fits into the middle of this. And this can mean a lot of things. You know, I go more in-depth in the piece.

But, I think this is if you’re launching a product or whether you’re working on an existing product, this is really just like understanding your story, building that positioning, writing actual words. Maybe you’re starting to build pitch decks, the sales pitch deck or an internal memo are pretty cool tactics at this phase. And then once you sort this, it’s kind of a packaging stage too. This is the sort of narrative step.

Once you’ve packaged all of this up and really built kind of the story here and something that is ready to take externally, you can take this to other teams, race across teams as that is the next step.

And that’s really just like a roadshow, but it also involves external components. So I think it’s important at this phase to get it in front of customers, get it in front of the rest of your team and test it and then really at HubSpot or a larger company. Right. So we will go to in-person meetings. And all the different teams will make sure that people see this on the wiki. I will do this in our larger meetings and you really get to go to the sales team, work with sales enablement, you’re really going out to all your partner teams.

Product marketing is an extremely cross-functional role and you’re making sure you’re getting everybody excited about this, getting them the right information about the product, helping them build that campaign.

And only then once you’ve done all these things can you really launch. So there’s not too much in the launch here, because I think you know a lot of what product marketing is known for and what we focus on in our launch campaigns. There’s so much kind of below that makes a successful launch happen. And that leads up to it. So a lot of the time this work is happening in, a lot of these pieces can be happening all at the same time.

But I wanted to put this together just to kind of show how I think about it and give some structure to product marketing, the role.

Question: How did you develop this structure to work for PMM?

Marcus: I think it was just my experience here at HubSpot spin foundational to it. But this is really kind of a combination of trial and error. And then just going back and looking at launches and looking at my work and being like, why didn’t this work or why wasn’t this better?

And even at this point, it’s a few years old. I should probably refresh it. But it’s really just from my experience, talking to other teams, talking to customers and figuring out what makes a launch great, what are the potholes that other people can avoid? So it’s all just experience and process.

Question: And how do you put it to use?

Marcus: Yes, we put it to use constantly. This is sort of whether I start working with a new products marketing or new products team or with a new product group or just trying to define my day or quarter, usually if there’s a big launch coming up, I don’t always come back to the pyramid.

It’s sort of just kind of built into my head. But this is basically the process that I’m going through constantly.

Question: How does this process scale as you grow? 

Marcus: That can definitely be tricky. I think a lot of it is around just the relationship that you have with that.

This is complicated like that first bottom phase of the pyramid. I think it’s great because it helps fight at least our products. Product team grew a lot faster than our product marketing team. And so you kind of where this is all right. We used to be, you would have, you would own a small set of products and a small set of teams to work with. And I think as the team grew, I started to own more products, started to work with a director or a GM of an entire product line.

And you can still do it. I think It’s sort of scaling that bottom part of the pyramid and your relationships with products. Making sure those are still strong. But you’re meeting with the right people, you’re building the relationships with the right people and then trying to be just focused.

I think that as you grow, usually product marketers end up taking on more products and the problem with that is that if your team isn’t totally scaling toward the point where you still have a small number of products, which makes sense that you do that most colleagues don’t do. You just have to get more focused, trying to do a lot of things well is very hard versus trying to do a few things really great. And that shows as the company grows.

In product marketing, we go through HubSpot. We don’t have a complex but an in-depth way of prioritizing the things that we work on so that we are able to say no to the product team in certain respects, but then also really crush the launches that we know are going to be a high impact that is most important to the company.

Question: What’s your take on this? Will the bosses change in the future or remain constant?

Marcus: The thing that has really changed about this since I wrote it is just that the need and it’s maybe it’s just an omission from this.

I mean, some spots always have done a good job of having a strategic narrative of the kind that shapes all of the marketing and all of the product launch that we do. It’s our inbound marketing story. And that has been the story of HubSpot for a long time. And it’s thought, as we redefine it, we look at it differently, slightly from year to year. That’s kind of the piece that I think is missing from this.

Most companies do not have a story, but very few have a strategic narrative or a story that they’ve really designed and focused on and how HubSpot has it, which is great.

I think some other companies do a really good job at this. And when they do these launches and all of this work as a product marketer, it always ladders up into those larger stories. And that is a really important part of being a good product marketer, too, because you get to do your work.

You have awesome launches. You have interesting stories, but they need to be part of that larger company strategic narrative. Every single time because that is vector alignment too. You want to stay focused and row in the same direction, that is how I would change this if I were to rewrite it today, which I probably should.

Question: What’s your advice to startups thinking about product marketing for the first time? 

Marcus: It’s an investment. Sometimes I see it from startups where they do invest in product marketing early. Sometimes I see them added on later. There’s such a thing about software, especially in B2B software where I work. It’s just that every category is so crowded and it’s easy for these companies to spin up technology and it’s harder to find differences in functionality in your products specifically. So investing in products, marketing, storytelling, strategic narrative and narrative design early on is smart even if you don’t even know what you’re doing. 

Just starting to build that muscle and investigate it and figure it out is huge because when you build this identity, the earlier you build this identity that I’m talking about in this piece, the stronger it gets. And it’s really hard to change, really hard to reinvent yourself on the fly because you kind of has to start over. So it’s kind of simple, like hiring someone who’s seen this before, who’s done this before and this is my advice. If you have someone who can come in and guide this from a marketing standpoint

On Fire

Some of the Rapid Fire questions which have been asked during the podcast. Listen to the Podcast to find out the answers.

Question: What’s your goal for this year in terms of both personal or professional?

Question: What’s your favorite productivity hack?

Question: What’s your favorite book?

Question: Who’s content do you follow the most on LinkedIn? Who’s kind is by far the most on LinkedIn?

How does HubSpot use videos as a marketing strategy?

Question: Do you and your team use videos in your marketing activities?

Marcus: Yeah, absolutely. Videos are one of those things that make such a change in the world around and where people love the medium.

If you’re a product marketer or if you’re a marketing team and you’re not invested in video and aren’t thinking about it as part of your launches, you’re absolutely missing. It’s that simple. Videos are the most powerful storytelling medium we have.  And there’s no way to tell a better story than through sight, sound and motion. If you’re not using it, I think you’re missing out on a great storytelling device.

We use it in every launch and we try to get better at it. Videos can be challenging and we work on building that muscle all the time.

We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. Subscribe to our channel for your daily dose of quality learnings and insights into the world of sales and marketing.

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Sanjana Murali is a Marketing Specialist at Hippo Video. She is an award-winning blogger, one of her articles on “Customer Success” was selected from worldwide participants and won her MVP 2019 award. She has learned the knack of ranking her blogs and website pages in the 1st result of Google Search from her 6+ years of writing and marketing experience. She is also the host of #Limitless webinar and podcast series at Hippo Video. She loves to talk about branding and marketing with videos. An eternal writer, words are her lifeline.

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