We’re just going to say it: product marketers are undervalued. They’re often overlooked for their engineering-enabled product counterparts–and that’s a big issue if you want to build something the market wants to buy.
Personally, we think a good chunk of these issues comes from not understanding what product marketers do on both a strategy and a day-to-day level. It’s easy to see that content marketers produce content, but product marketers don’t code a product. Instead, they’re shaping it’s features, making sure it’s marketable, and crafting the story that sells it.
That’s why we were thrilled to interview Martina Lauchengco, author of LOVED: How to Rethink Marketing for Tech Product, and a product marketing veteran out of Microsoft and Netscape, to break down product marketing and show us how it works.
What’s the role of product marketing?
In her book, LOVED, Martina outlines four pillars of product marketing. These are the four areas where product marketers spend their time. They are: ambassador, strategist, storyteller, and evangelist.
- Ambassadors connect customer and market insights.
- Practically this means running customer interviews, competitive analysis, market sizing exercises, and more.
- Strategists figure out how these insights become strategy as you position your company and decide what should be built.
- This merges customer insights with your strategy shaping positioning work, messaging, and product roadmaps.
- Storytellers shape how the world thinks about your product by how they communicate.
- This often looks like your product messaging but it’s also strategically thinking about what marketing activities you take on to align your branding with your activities.
- Evangelists empower others to act as evangelists on your behalf.
- This can also feel like product-led growth, or, product-led marketing. It’s marketing and messaging that activates others to talk about your product.
Where product managers are building new features, product marketers are figuring out how to take them to market. These activities are especially important if you’re thinking about creating a new category or positioning for your product.
Product Marketing in Practice
But what does this look like in the day-to-day? It can feel a bit hand-wavey to say something like: product marketers clarify your positioning and work on market penetration. No wonder we’re all confused.
Let’s break it down by looking at Google. Google excelled in its product marketing. It didn’t create a new category per se but rethought the way search was currently working, and its marketing enhanced that notion.
"Everyone else was building these mega portals that were more directory-like. Companies were just stuffing more and more stuff into them…and when Google first started, what made them sail past everyone else was this idea: we just want to be the very, very best, the very fastest, and singularly focused on search. Now, of course, they've built many other things on top of that business, but what let them do that was they decided to be absolutely fantastic in a totally different way in that existing category”
Martina told us.
There are a couple of things that happened that made this strategy just hum. And here’s how you and some smart product marketing can replicate them.
Pillar one: ambassadorship
We don’t know what kind of customer research Google did as it developed its search feature, but we can certainly give you trusted advice for learning more about your customer.
“The big thing I would advise is: make it happen right along with everything that you already do. Right now, I'm helping one of our companies revisit their sales deck and their messaging. I'm listening to Gong calls and I'm looking at what sales reps are actually saying. The big thing I look for is when the customer asks a question, a clarifying question…those are lean in moments…I'm very much looking at what the customer is saying and what they're presenting. And that's given me incredible insight about how the market is working”
In fact, in almost every podcast we’ve run here at June, our interviewees can’t stop talking about the customer and communicating with them. From Hiten Shah to Ben Williams, your market insights around what customers want and need come from customers themselves. What turns this into revenue growth is rapidly turning this feedback into in-product changes–whether that’s done by a product manager, an engineering-driven arm, or just that one software engineer who gets it.
So how do you do it?
“Whenever I start a new project, I start with customer research”
Ashley Hockney, an expert product marketer said.
“For me this takes on three components: the qualitative, quantitative, and strategic inputs from my client.”
Here’s how she thinks about it:
- Quantitative information - the what . I use whatever product analytics tools a team has plus their Google Analytics and revenue information to understand what’s happening to their customer lifecycle. I might also look at SEO research to understand market demands, run a competitive analysis, or do social listening. This tells me what’s happening.
- Customer research - the why. I run ah-ha user interviews that I’ve adapted over the years to get at why people sign up and stay. This fills in what I see in the quantitative information by telling me why something is happening.
- Product strategy - what we want to happen: I always start my interviewing company leaders to understand the vision for how the product might change. This tells us what we want customer behavior to look like eventually.
You need all three of these to understand what a company wants to happen and how that is or isn’t effectively translated across marketing materials to customers.
“You want to be data informed, not data driven
“[modern telemetry is] telling you where people are now. It doesn't necessarily tell you where they want to be or where they should be getting more value. It tells you it's taillights versus headlights. And so data is great for taillights and market insights and more of this qualitative stuff is much better for headlights. So that's how I would think about them on balance"
And then that information has to move from customer to product marketer to product manager to ensure that customer input is accounted for in company decision making.
“It's the job of the product marketer to make sure the customer market insight is considered in decision making either. There's stuff that the product marketer directly controls, and that's more of the, how is this product actually going to market? And how do we talk about it? How do we make sure that we enable that evangelism? Through sales or through influencers or whomever else is important. But that first part, that ambassadorship, that is the marriage between product marketing and product management. And that's where you want it to be very much a partnership”
Here at June, we think that product marketing and management should be extremely tight knit. The closer this pair is together the better and faster your company will move.
Coming back to Martina’s four pillars, once you understand what the market and your customers' pain points are, you start to think about how your product solves them. That’s where your unique ability to solve a problem becomes positioning. You have to take that “solve” and communicate it.
So what exactly is positioning? April Dunford who is a leader in positioning gives us this definition:
"Positioning defines how your product is a leader at delivering something that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about."
This definition is almost intentionally vague since April poses it in contrast to general value proposition statements, but it gets clearer when we look at the five general components:
- Competitive Alternatives
- Differentiated "Features" or "Capabilities"
- Value for customers
- Target Customer Segmentation
- Market Category
That last one is one we’re particularly interested in. Especially with the advent of ChatGPT and AI-empowered software, is whether or not your startup wants to fit within a category or create a new one.
Evolve a Category or Create a New One?
“Do you evolve an existing category? Or do you try and create a new one? And I will say it is generally always easier to evolve an existing category, reshape it, remold it, because you're giving people something they already understand, and you're just giving them a way to think about it a little differently, and you're giving them all the evidence of why they should think of it differently. So it's easier to evolve something that exists than to create something new"
“When selecting a market category, you can either choose to position your product in an existing market category or attempt to create a new category in customers' minds and then position your product as the leader in it. The first option allows you to use what customers already know and understand about a market to help them understand what your product is and what makes it uniquely special ... creating a new market category, on the other hand, is where you invent a new frame of reference for customers. The obvious downside to this strategy is that you first have to make the category mean something in the customer's mind before it can serve as a meaningful context.”
To make this tactical, if you’re evolving a category, your messaging feels something like: all of our competitors do this, and we do it this way. We’ve rethought it. If you’re creating a new category, you’re inventing an entirely new language.
We think of someone like Slack.
When Slack was getting off the ground 20 to 30% of users were estimated to have come from something like HipChat, Campfire, or IRC, Slack founder Stewart Butterfield told First Round. But obviously people were using something, they just didn’t think of it as a category of software. Most people were using things like emails and mailing lists, text, or Google Hangouts.
With that in mind, the Slack team made it a goal to teach customers that this is indeed a product category — one they’re already filling poorly — priming Slack as a better solution.
Like “search” or “self-driving cars.” Martina points to companies like Tesla, Google, and Netflix that just so completely brought into the world something entirely new that they had to create a new category. But it’s not easy. That kind of market education takes time so be thoughtful before you get hand-wavey about a strategy that creates a new category.
3. Storytelling and messaging
So how exactly do you start educating your customer on who you are and your positioning?
Positioning and messaging
“There are a couple of things I’ve learned to reiterate with my clients, most of whom are founders”
“After we do customer research, we create a value proposition and positioning statement and I am absolutely loud and clear that this is internal only. It’s not how we say it, it’s our strategy. That’s important because when I think about what I’m going to write on a homepage or in a welcome sequence, those properties also take into account the customer lifecycle and our conversion goal.”
Ashley gave us a tactical example:
“If I want someone to convert through a new tool’s homepage, and I know that they’re gaining traction int the market, evolving an existing category, and I also know that customers are fairly qualified before they hit that page, then I know my goal is to match the message they’ve already heard and get them into the app as fast as possible.
This is different than when I’ve worked with more well known companies who are great at visit-to-signup conversion but struggle to convert users to paid. These users, I’ve slowed down on a homepage so they read about all new value added to a longstanding tool, and this helps increase conversion down funnel. Through this, I have time to shift positioning.”
But it’s more than messaging, part of your product experience is the marketing experience. Does someone find you through podcasts, content, or word-of-mouth? Messaging is what you say but marketing efforts are the actions that speak louder than words.
And of course there’s brand. When you think about your brand, you’re thinking about the overall interactions someone has with your company, that’s your visual identity, your product messaging, where your marketing shows up, your product experience.
We believe it’s faulty thinking to define a brand as a top-of-funnel marketing play. Brand is how someone thinks about everything you do.
And with that in mind, if you’re choosing bold branding, it’s going to impact every line of business.
Seth Godin outlined this thinking in his iconic book Purple Cow.
“If you walk into any store in Europe and you see purple, you think of Milka. It is literally a purple cow, but what we are trying to do for technology products is create the same kind of thing. So it might be something iconic in our product experience,” Martina said. “You mentioned Gong is purple. Every one of these pieces of content, these sales sheets, was purple. It implants; You knew that their color was purple. This is, this is the steel thread of brand.”
Now, this is not advice to startup founders to adopt Nike-inspired taglines. That’s a different stage of business and will likely fail you.
Martina outlines for us the ways in which bold is relative to your category.
“Google didn't message any [its features] being easier, fast. They messaged nothing at all. It was Google with a box. And they basically had you experience fast and easy. They didn't talk about it at all. That's what I loved about it. It was like, we're not going to say it. We're going to be it with exceptional product execution”
Now that Google’s won the market and Bing is starting to compete with this giant, they’re flipping the script again.
“The new Bing asks real questions, gets complete answers, you chat and create. So in this case, it's bold to just hang out there and say, ‘we want you to reintroduce you to something that's new.’ It's been this way all year long. You ask real questions, get complete answers, chat and create. They're letting the new world order stand there and say: this is what you can do. They don't care whether or not they are beating Google in total search volume. They want to reframe their strategic goal is to reframe how people think about how to engage with information and what comes out. This is a bold choice. So in that category, that is a bold choice”
Martina said. .
And finally, there’s the fourth pillar, evangelism.
“A lot of people over-index on saying things perfectly, or thinking the tagline just needs to be absolutely great. Those are critically important, but what matters is what gets implanted in everyone's brain and what they wind up saying–and they're not going to say your tagline. They're going to remember something about the product experience or the value that you've created and that's what they pass along,” Martina says. You need to make sure that how you build and how you go-to-market encapsulates that in a way that makes it easy for others to talk about your value, so that your product ultimately is associated with the value other people are talking about”
A great way to think about doing this is through value-focused content marketing.
Let’s look at Gong for example.
Gong’s marketing strategy is totally non promotional. It gives insights or tells you about the top siz things to say in every sales conversation backed by data.
It’s useful. And for that reason, both Martina and the team at June save their emails since they might be a helpful or interesting reference later.
“They did an exceptional job on their content marketing. They kept it a sales free zone. It didn't promote the product it promoted: what, what can you do better in your job? And we're going to give you some of our secret sauce, whether you use the product or not. That I think is very much the market, the modern marketing gestalt. I'm just going to give you value again and again and again, and hope when the time is right You'll remember me because I kept giving you value”
Gong isn’t the first company to take on this strategy. A content strategy that’s value-first was core to companies like Buffer and Zapier. Buffer arguable invented the concept of content marketing as a method for teaching.
“I’ve worked with some companies that really just nail their content marketing,” Ashley said. “Content takes longer than a paid strategy, but it also stands up over time. Once it’s moving, it snowballs and scales a company–for free–over years at a time. Paid is a quick fix but it just doesn't create brand affinity and sustainable growth in the same way.”
If you look at the Buffer blog during their high-growth days it was all about how to write the best Tweets, what was happening with the Instagram algorithm, the practical advice that social media managers needed to know.
“the more nuanced or inbound or modern way is let me give you value, value, value, value. And at some point you'll remember that at the time when the time is right”
Martina Lauchenco's four pillars of product marketing—ambassador, strategist, storyteller, and evangelist—provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the critical functions of product marketers.
These pillars, outlined in her book "LOVED: How to Rethink Marketing for Tech Products," emphasize the importance of customer-centricity, strategic positioning, and effective messaging. Martina's insights highlight the synergy between product marketing and management and the significance of bold branding and value-focused content marketing. To delve deeper into this essential aspect of tech product development, you can explore her book or listen to her on the June podcast for valuable knowledge and practical advice.
In a world where product marketing often goes underappreciated, Martina's expertise offers a valuable resource for those seeking to excel in this field.