I’ll never forget the sinking feeling I had in that meeting.
My client was a B2B SaaS company at the expansion/scale-up stage, trying to grow. I had first worked on some tactical projects with them. Then we agreed that we needed to dig in, be more strategic, and revise their core messaging. Everything else would follow from that.
But they didn’t feel they had the time to slow down and spend a lot of dedicated time on it. It had to be more of a quick-hit effort. I didn’t argue.
This happens all the time. It’s where metaphors like “changing the engines of the airplane while still in flight” come in. (Ever seen a jet engine get changed for real? Seems hard to do even on the ground.)
“Let’s be sure never to try to do this in the air…”
Quick-hit messaging efforts usually work out fine. Often, with clients, I come in, look at their current messaging, ask some key questions, spark a few discussions, and find a shortcut to new and better messaging. If this were Hollywood, I’d be more script doctor than screenwriter.
So, we got started. We set up some discussions with key executives. I asked my usual questions. The answers were all over the place, as they often are in the beginning.
As we dug in deeper, I expected to be able to start to pull the pieces together into a good, clear story — again, as usually happens.
But no matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t working this time. What I was being told just didn’t add up to anything.
At first I assumed I was the problem. Maybe I was missing something brilliant sitting right in front of me. Maybe I was more Mr. Pitt than Kramer, in that classic Seinfeld episode.
Me on the left, a better product marketer on the right?
The sinking feeling came when I realized that the problem wasn’t me. It was worse.
The company didn’t have a strategy.
And that meant they didn’t have answers to my straight-forward questions.
Who’s your target market?
What problem do you solve?
What’s your unique point-of-view on solving that problem?
How do you measure the value that gets created when it’s solved?
How do you price to capture that value?
Why are you a better option than competitors or work-arounds?
These should be easy questions to answer. But while they seem like product marketing questions, they’re really strategy questions. If you don’t have a strategy, you’ll never answer them in a clear and compelling way.
You become the proverbial deer in the headlights when some product marketing consultant like me is sitting there peppering you with these questions.
“Uh, sorry, I don’t have good answers.
Aren’t those just product marketing questions?”
There were hints that should have tipped me off earlier that this was going to be a problem.
Several members of the executive team were relatively new to the company, but they spoke a lot in our meetings. In contrast, the founder and CEO didn’t speak much at all. When he did, he went off on a bit of a tangent without really addressing the point at hand.
As the group floundered around trying to come up with answers to my questions, I kept trying to bring it back to the CEO to give us some guidance and direction based on the company’s long-term strategy. But he never did. I’m not sure he could.
When the CEO doesn’t know their own company’s strategy, it’s trouble.
This is why CEOs should care about product marketing.
Product marketing is a great gut-check of business strategy. It’s where product, go-to-market and business strategy meet. That’s a place the CEO ought to be very interested in, and constantly worried about.
If the CEO can’t answer the questions a product marketer needs to do their job, the company strategy is probably a mess. If the CEO feels their product marketing is weak, the problem is likely the company strategy, not the quality of your product marketer.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that a great indicator of future corporate success would be how well the company’s product marketing house is in order. Scoring the quality of answers to ten key product marketing questions could probably tell volumes about the company’s success trajectory.
I’m looking at you, people.
This is particularly the case for companies in the expansion/scale-up stage, where ramping the go-to-market effort is critical to growth. But it’s true across all company stages.
Here are a few other experiences I’ve had:
- A large company had acquired another company, and in turn, was acquired itself. I was helping with the original business’s product marketing. I started asking about the product strategy behind the acquisitions, and how it might impact the messaging and go-to-market for the core business. There were no good answers. Not surprisingly, the new, combined business struggled in the near term.
- An established business unit within a larger, diversified company, needed to find new growth. They wanted help with the product marketing needed to pursue their identified market opportunities. It quickly became clear that not only did they lack a strategy, but they didn’t even know what business they were in (they thought it was services, I felt it was software). There was no way to do good product marketing for that business until the fundamental strategy got worked out.
- A start-up took advantage of my free office hours to ask for help getting their product marketing in shape. They thought they simply needed help refining the messaging for their product. By the end of the discussion, it was obvious they lacked a strategy for the business, and an understanding of how to take their product to market. I believe they’ve since folded as a company.
- A carve-out of a larger company, which had been acquired by a private equity firm, was being turned into a stand-alone company. They asked for help creating all the basic product marketing materials — website content, product collateral, sales tools, etc. But the new business was made up of a new SaaS product line plus legacy hardware and services offerings. There was no real strategy for how these pieces fit together into a larger whole. It made creating the requested materials very difficult. Several key executives quickly exited the business soon thereafter as the business struggled.
The world is waking up.
The good news is that the world seems to be waking up to the idea of product marketing as a test of strategy and business viability.
I’ve heard from some venture capitalists and private equity firms that they’re starting to assess product marketing as part of their due diligence. And, not surprisingly, they’re starting to identify product marketing as a common weakness and opportunity for improvement in the companies they’re working with.
“I had a nightmare that I didn’t care about product marketing.”
The right way to think about product marketing is in the words a CMO said to me recently: “my CEO and I agree that a vice president of product marketing is the most important hire we’re going to make this year.”
Note the emphasis on the CEO being on board!
So what do you do if you’re a CEO with weak product marketing and concerns about what that says about your strategy?
It’s easier to start by identifying what you shouldn’t do:
- Don’t think of it as your CMO’s problem. As discussed, product marketing is a test of your overall company strategy. Delegating something that important to one person, even one executive, isn’t the right approach. You wouldn’t delegate profitability, growth, executive recruitment, or investor relations to one person and not stay involved.
- Don’t invest too late in product marketing. I encounter this all the time. Product marketing often gets short shrift as companies prioritize pipeline generation, brand, digital marketing, and other truly important aspects of marketing. By the time a company realizes it’s underinvested in product marketing, it’s often too late.
- Don’t think junior product marketers can make up for lack of strategy. Another common mistake I see is a company trying to meet their product marketing needs with whatever junior product marketer they feel they can afford. Surfacing and addressing a lack of strategy during the product marketing process often requires significant experience and confidence. Even the sharpest person just a few years out of college probably can’t manage it.
- Don’t think your product marketers can fix things at the last minute. Too often product marketers are asked to do the best they can with products, launches, and corporate messaging when there’s a lack of adequate planning and strategy. We call this “putting lipstick on the pig.” (If you don’t know this expression I won’t try to explain — doing so can be quite ridiculous.)
“Who needs a strategy? This product is ready to launch.”
Instead of making those mistakes, try this instead.
- Cut your product marketing team some slack. Expect big things from your product marketers, but recognize that your product marketing is only ever going to be as good as your strategy. If your product marketing sucks, check the mirror before pointing a finger.
- Consider product marketing one of your primary responsibilities as CEO. Get involved. Take responsibility. Ensure there’s a strong, clear strategy in place that your product marketers can build from. Help the rest of the company see the importance of product marketing.
- Use your product marketers as facilitators and conversation starters. The product marketing process can be not just a gut-check of strategy, but a great means of working out the kinks. Take advantage of your product marketers’ skills to help make your strategy better.
- Be open to the idea that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes. The only thing more painful than knowing you don’t have a strategy is thinking you do — and finding out, or being told, you don’t. Don’t be like the proverbial emperor. Be willing to accept it if it happens, and do something about it.
“What a great strategy I have!”
I confess I’m not as brave as the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Coming back to the opening story, I wish it had a feel-good ending. I tried to help that client see their lack of strategy for themselves. But I wasn’t as brave as the child in the story. So, we mostly just patched together better product marketing than they had before.
I think it helped. But it didn’t spare them from the usual tough times that come from a lack of strategy — stalled growth, lay-offs, executive turnover. They did eventually pull together a more coherent strategy, which improved their product marketing further, and even led to a positive exit a couple years later.
They don’t all end that well after that sinking feeling sets in.