Finding success in a new role despite an unconventional career path

I used to make pizzas for a living. Now, I market enterprise-level software products. 

Clickbait? No! As is common amongst product marketers, the journey into this field is often a non-linear one. While we don’t all start out as pizza makers, there’s no set trajectory for seeing success in this space. Sure, there are certain skills and traits you need to enjoy this role and be successful, but Product Marketers come from all walks of life. Let me tell you a bit about mine.

My journey into the Product Marketing world

After graduation, desperate for a job, I fell into the hot, sweaty, cheesy world of pizzas. While I enjoyed four years of the carb hustle, I always had an appetite for flexing my creative muscles in a professional environment. I did not wish to express this desire through decorating pizzas with pepperoni and pineapple forever though; instead, I had grand visions of my inner nerd living out her wildest dreams. Those dreams involved writing content. Lots of it.

So, I figured Marketing was the path for me - a career where I could be creative and get paid for it would surely bring eternal happiness. I wrapped up my pizza life, moved across the Atlantic, and got myself a Marketing internship in the SaaS space.

I knew very quickly that I had made the right decision. Starting out as a marketing generalist, I got to dip my toe into every single pool there was - from social media management to organizing events, writing blog articles, and learning about SEO, to almost scratching my eyes out at Google Analytics (ok, so numbers aren’t my bag). It was a creative person’s dream. But what I loved most was anything tied to the product we built. Whether carrying out competitive research, coming up with product messaging, or strategizing new launches, it lit a fire in me that I had previously not experienced. I was passionate about how we spoke about our product, who our audience was, what they thought about our software, and whether it solved their problems… And so, without knowing it, I had become a product marketer.

Truth be told, it took a long time before I referred to myself as such. I had never heard of the term before (Marketing was already brand new to me) but as my liaisons with our Product Management team picked up, my recommendations were translated into the product roadmap, and I discovered the world of the (highly recommended!) Product Marketing Alliance (PMA), I realized I was doing all of the things other PMMs were doing!

GIF of Phoebe saying: Hi, that's me.

Alright, but what is Product Marketing?

Product Marketing is the function in a business that enables, supports, and improves the process of delivering a solution to the right audience. Whereas Marketing is a much wider and more general function that covers promoting all aspects of a brand, Product Marketing is about knowing your product, knowing your audience, and connecting the two.

A product marketer’s job is to ensure that the product you sell brings value to a specific audience. And, if it doesn’t serve that audience, it’s about figuring out how to get there. This is the holy grail of the product marketer’s world - achieving product-market fit. If your product isn’t flying off the shelves and your customers aren’t ranting and raving about it, it’s likely that you’re not there yet. And getting “there” is no easy feat - it can be a long process of elimination. Maybe your messaging needs work. Or, you’re in a saturated market and your positioning is off. It could be that your top-of-the-funnel efforts are solid but once you have users, you struggle to retain them. These are the types of questions that make a product marketer’s world go round.

So what does a Product Marketer actually do?

In reality, while there are commonalities to the role, Product Marketing looks different across all companies and industries. In some Product Marketing Manager (PMM) roles, you’ll focus on sales enablement material and commercial success, in others you might specialize in go-to-market (GTM) or be the messaging person, and elsewhere you could be besties with your Product Management team working inside the product itself. Or, you might be doing a bit of everything (highly likely).

In my experience, aside from the actual tangible tasks, one of the greatest responsibilities of the PMM is cross-departmental collaboration and communication. It’s all well and good knowing your audience, competitive landscape, and product, but if you can’t feed your learnings back to relevant bodies in your organization to help affect changes, your work is meaningless. So, positioning yourself amongst your different teams in a way that ensures your voice is heard is crucial. (Though believe me, the impostor syndrome is still real at times!)

Who does a PMM work with?

A PMM sits cross-functionally; as a logical extension of Marketing, but in and amongst Sales, Product, and Customer Success. The illustration below paints a clear picture. Product marketers provide continuous feedback loops between these departments.

PMA Venn Diagram

Let’s dig a little deeper and explore each of the cross-departmental relationships a PMM has.

Product Management

Given that both these roles lead with “product” in their titles, it should be fairly evident that Product Management (PM) is the department the PMM works closest with. While PM leads the engineering side of the product, the PMM leads the marketing of it. They then meet somewhere in the middle when it comes to strategy and product launches.

The PMM also possesses valuable information the PM needs to shape the product roadmap. Remember, it is the PMM’s duty to seek out the ideal customer, understand what it is they need and represent their voice when working with the PM team. Below are some of the questions a PMM might ask their PM.

  • How does our product solve our customer’s needs?
  • How can we incorporate features our competitors are offering that we don’t?
  • How are the customer’s wishes reflected in the product roadmap?
  • What’s the user experience inside the product? What do our analytics say about user retention?

Sales

Product Marketing supports Sales with content for demand, adoption, and retention. In some organizations, the PMM might be responsible for training sales reps as they are usually equipped with the most up-to-date product knowledge. A PMM will want to know:

  • Is the Sales team set up with fact sheets, one-pagers, and sound bites for their product demos?
  • What language are they using when speaking with the customer?
  • On the flip side, how does the customer speak with Sales? Can this language be repurposed in the company’s product messaging? (Top tip - using language that is part of your prospect’s everyday vocabulary is SO important. It’ll be much easier for your customer to resonate with what you’re offering. So, drop the B2B jargon!)

Customer Success

Ensuring your customer success team is on board when it comes to product launches, updates, and new features is critical to your customer’s success. In a similar fashion to Sales, they need up-to-date product knowledge from the PMM but their requirements will be more technical given their role with assisting active customers.

Marketing

The Marketing department provides the PMM with content and execution power. While the PMM is the harbinger of change and strategy, marketers contribute valuable expertise and help execute launch plans. Once the PMM has their GTM strategy in place, the marketing team can assist with digital ad campaigns, social media presence, landing page designs, blog articles… you name it.

What skills do I need to be a PMM?

There are several skills and traits you need if you are considering the PMM career path. Some can be learned and developed, others just need to be part of who you are as a human. Let’s start with the absolute prerequisites.

  1. Empathy. Without it, you won’t be a good PMM. After all, your role centers around understanding your customer. You are working to hear and represent their voice. But you also need to be empathetic when you’re dealing with different teams and the roadblocks they might be facing.
  2. Project management. If you’re goal-oriented, and you love a good to-do list or a beautiful Trello board… you’re one step closer to PMM success. You’ll be managing product launches and cross-departmental GTM strategies, so the ability to keep a bird’s eye view of multiple projects is key.
  3. Writing and communication skills. Whether you’re communicating current priorities or strategic objectives, updating your team, or pitching your product to sales reps, you must speak clearly, eloquently, and articulately. On top of that, the PMM is responsible for crafting product-specific language, so you should be comfortable with wordsmithery.

On top of these essentials, I’d say you should also possess the following:

  1. Curiosity. Maybe you want to know every last detail of your customer’s pain points, or you’re dead set on working out what makes your competitor successful. On a personal level, you’re keen to learn more about your craft and learn from the greats - maybe Sharebird podcasts are your jam! However you express your curiosity, keep at it.
  2. Persistence and determination. Let’s be real. Product Marketing is hard. You might have a great product, know everything there is to know about your industry, and have spent 6 months crafting product messaging... and you can still miss the mark. It’s all about falling down and getting back up again. This can be said for most things in life, but with Product Marketing, if you don’t get back up again, your product isn’t going anywhere either. No pressure.
  3. Problem solver. This is a no-brainer! If you like a challenge, great. Product Marketing will be that for you.

Finally, what career path can help me get into Product Marketing?

If you have made it this far through my article, I am hoping that my story has addressed this question already. Sure, many successful product marketers have followed a more “traditional” linear route into the field. But Product Marketers can also come from Product Management backgrounds (this makes a lot of sense given the huge overlap in skills and experience), Customer Success fields (these individuals bring enormous amounts of empathy and people skills), and Sales/Marketing - or a dozen other roles!

In truth, there is no one way to achieve success in this role. I studied foreign languages, somehow ended up in the food industry, and then took a leap of faith because I had an inkling the creative world was for me. It has paid off for me so far, but I did have to make some sacrifices. I willingly took an internship (although that meant a step down in job title and salary) because it felt right and I knew it would accelerate my career in the long term. In short - if you feel passionate about something and you have the means to sacrifice income, time, or ego in order to go after this feeling, do it.

In summary

Product Marketing is having its moment. I mean it’s been having its moment for a really, really long time but given the current amount of noise in the SaaS space, it’s almost like the Pied Piper of the Product Marketing world started playing his pipe and we all came out from under our rocks to network (in human, not rodent form).

All bad jokes aside, what I’m trying to say is that while it might come off as a trend, it’s not. Product Marketing is here to stay because without it, new products flop. The energy in the space is palpable and the buzz feels new and exciting (all the recommended podcasts linked below were only launched between 2019-2020 and even the PMA only came into existence in February 2019!?!) so, in my opinion, this is a fantastic time to get a foot on the PMM ladder.

I wanted to write this piece for anyone who is considering Product Marketing, wanted to know more about the field, or doesn’t believe they have the right background for this challenge. If you have any of the skills listed above, are determined, and want to get into something really challenging AND stimulating, this is your sign!

My final tips for anyone wanting to pursue a career in Product Marketing would be:

  • Surround yourself with a solid network of people. If you’re new to the company, book 1:1s with relevant bodies in Product and Sales. Nurture these relationships.
  • If your product is difficult to grasp (let me tell you, ERP sure was), having humans around you who can educate you, clarify things, and support you is worth its weight in gold. You are nothing without your team!
  • Be prepared to sweat. Product marketers have had to prove they are worth their seats at the table. Slowly but surely, they are being recognized as individuals who bring massive strategic value. But to do just that, you need to be prepared to assert yourself and always back your thoughts up with data.
  • Make the most of the resources available to product marketers. Read, read and read some more! Start with the PMA, sign up to join their Slack channel where you’ll be able to chat and benefit from the brains of thousands of other PMMs, listen to podcasts, and network on LinkedIn. One of the greatest ways to learn in this field is from other PMMs sharing their wisdom and learnings. Strive to always keep improving!

Resources

Podcasts

Websites