On my first day at a new startup I remember the CEO rushing up to me to exclaim: “You’re finally here!  We have so much to do!”  Totally different from any CEO interaction I’d had before, this got me thinking.  I started to wonder about this C Suite’s views of product marketing.  How did this CEO uniquely see the role?  What would our interactions look like day to day?  And how would this shape my approach to the job?  Since then I’ve never stopped asking these same questions about all the executives I’ve worked alongside.

And now, thanks to a new survey from Product Marketing Alliance (PMA) we have new data to ask these questions at a larger scale.  The new Product Marketing Perceptions Among the C Suite report surveyed 170+ executives across multiple industries, growth stages, lifecycle phases, and company size to probe into how they perceive the function of product marketing.

This look inside the minds of C Suiters holds a number of compelling insights for product marketers everywhere.  Within the data we can peel back the layers on how we’re viewed by this set of leaders, examine how those perceptions vary, and spark ideas for ways that we can actively participate in shaping those opinions for the better.

Zeroing in on the perceptions themselves, here’s a look at some of the most interesting takeaways:

  • Strategic, tactical, or somewhere in between—we finally have consensus.
  • What do they really value the role for?  Many factors, actually.
  • Face time with execs matters—more than you might think.
  • Long-term career progression…is a tricky question.

Exec’s consider product marketing a strategic role.

Asked whether they see the product marketing function as strategic, tactical or a support capacity, the majority consensus was 67% answering “strategic.”

This is affirming for many of us that have long had the gut feeling that this function is strategic by nature.  Product marketing’s core focus encompasses the most fundamental questions of messaging, positioning, and customer understanding that impact every aspect of a company and everyone within it.  To see a critical mass of exec’s agree with this framing is a win for the field and product marketers doing this day to day work.

What should we learn from this?

It signals product marketers should be ready to take on big picture issues and drive initiatives that extend into strategy-level questions.  As compared to other types of marketing, product marketers routinely confront fundamental questions around “who we are and what we do” before we can even start on tactical projects.  Our leadership are relying on us to approach the role with a broad lens, taking on questions often asked by those in the C Suite themselves to shape the overarching direction.  The takeaway for product marketers is to focus on building all-around business skills as we chart our careers—not focusing simply on marketing or product, but a wide field of view on the business strategy into which it all fits.

On the other side of the coin, the lesser 27% that define the role as “tactical” cast a word of warning.

This foreshadows that we may find ourselves working for exec’s that typecast the role in far more narrow terms. In particular, when asked to define product marketing, 24% summed up the role as just: “Creating various types of assets and collateral.”  Yikes.  When walking into situations like these product marketers may quickly encounter tension around the perception of their role and find themselves needing to educate and advocate to change this notion within their company.  One example would be if asked to create collateral without clear foundational messaging or target personas defined up front.  If a PMM slow-rolls that collateral the C Suite is asking for in order to map out messaging and personas beforehand, they could encounter resistance.  For an exec solely focused on the tactical output, product marketers will need to demonstrate why the strategic questions must be established first, actively quarterback the effort to get that clarity—then repeat the cycle to reinforce the perception over time.

Exec’s value product marketing’s contribution for a blend of factors.

Asked “How do you see the value of product marketing?” C-Suiters selected from factors ranging from “be the VOC at all times,” “make sure sales have what they need to sell,” revenue generation and others.  Thankfully, over half chose “all of the above” vs a standalone item.

The 56.3% all-of-the-abover’s is gratifying to see.  And conversely, I was intrigued at those who gravitated towards one specific item vs the rest.  Here, while the results indicate some consensus, there is clearly variance for where and how exec’s appraise the total contribution.  For some that’s even as narrow as “helping marketing put their collateral together,” but for most it is a broader set of interrelated activities.

For anyone that’s written a self-assessment in a performance review, it’s challenging to boil down product marketing contributions to a concise list because the reality is often that the little pieces all work together for a combined outcome.  A messaging framework could be considered useless in and of itself, but without it, would sales have the content and campaigns grounded on the roots to resonate and succeed?  Being the voice of the customer and conducting persona exploration is far more than the slide deck of its final output, and instead the collective exercise to notch out a clear understanding of the target prospect and world they live that empowers clear-headed activities across the entire company.  With more than half perceiving the value to be a blend of all of these factors it indicates that most exec’s here “get it.”  Based on the business scenario at hand, product marketers can take comfort that not all, but most, exec’s understand that by driving in each of these areas we create value where the sum is greater than each part alone.

The few voices that again answered with collateral-constrained answers will require us to work at reshaping these perspectives to grasp the bigger contribution truly taking place.

Face time with execs matters—more than you might think.

Perhaps the most interesting of all data points was the question of how often the C suite meets with product marketing.  It turns out that the level of interaction directly correlated with the degree of executive support offered to the function—varying from a level 4 to 9.6 out of 10.

Asked “How often do you directly interact with the product marketing team,” answers ranged from “very rarely” at 4% of the time to 55% meeting every single day.  It then gets even more interesting, as those exec’s with more frequent interactions also reported that they provide a stronger degree of support to the product marketing function overall.  The variance was significant—with less-frequently-interacting exec’s rating their degree of support at a level 4 versus 9.6 out of 10!  Wow!  If I’m making the case for an important new initiative within my company I certainly hope for better than 4 out of 10 for a shot at getting buy-in from everyone that looks up to that exec for direction.  This definitely makes the case that face time with leadership matters—big time.  The takeaway here is certainly that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so product marketers be sure to make every effort for visibility in order to best position in your department for success.

The career mobility of a senior product marketer is…well, TBD.

Exec’s were divided on the question of where senior-level product marketers will advance.  While a fair amount cited CMO, more interesting than the stats here are the anecdotal responses such as: “I think they’re probably capped at VP of Product Marketing.”

Basically, the jury is still out on the career progression of product marketers long-term.

With almost half pointing to the role of CMO, this certainly is exciting news.  This supports that often-repeated line of thinking that product marketing is a generalist skillset akin to acting as a General Manager of your product—hence lending itself to this broader leadership remit.  Yet equally concerning are the 13% that gave an honest take of being capped at VP of Product Marketing.  (And, many of us would ask, just how many companies even have a product marketing role as high as the VP level?!).  Another respondent gave a cautionary note that that product marketers will need to “understand Demand Gen in order to reach the next levels” of leadership.  Ultimately the progression will likely depend on the organization and complex perceptions (and politics) within it, but this data serves up some important realities to face.

One of the unspoken questions in the product marketing dialogue right now is what’s next? As a field that’s continuing to define itself, and explore the meaning of what the role is today, there’s far less discussion taking place around where a product marketing career path leads to long-term.

I’m sure many ask ourselves the questions:

“Where do I want to be one day?  A CMO?  A marketing leader in general?  Or head down a product path?  Will I stay a product marketer forever?  Or shift to a different branch of marketing?  And if so, am I currently building the skills needed to take me down that path?”

As product marketing becomes increasingly self-aware as a field, with more courses launching by the day to refine our craft, the field is zeroing in on a very specific set of skills.  It leaves me wondering whether we need to remind ourselves to look outside this specific specialty of marketing to consider where else we need to be consciously building skills.

For instance, are we capable of managing other types of marketing such as digital or growth or other areas…and are we fluent in those competencies?  What bearing does this need to have on the training and career choices we make and each stage along the way?

These C Suite responses are another good reminder for all of us that as we perfect our craft as product marketers let’s not lose sight of the wider marketing team we may aspire to lead one day too.  We need to be capable of leading in those areas as well, seeking out the requisite skills as we move forward.

Views from the Corner Office

This research is sparking fascinating conversations amongst fellow product marketers in virtual happy hours and on Slack.

The full report is worth a deep read for the many voices within it—I found equal value from hearing both what the majority had to say, as well as the minority viewpoints too.  Beware product marketers: you may go to work for any one of these leaders one day that think you’re there to drive strategic discussions, or just to make pretty collateral.  The more we arm ourselves with insight around these perceptions the better equipped we’ll be with examples and inspiration to advocate for our function, and influence that understanding for the better.

What did you think?  Connect with me on LinkedIn or the Product Marketing Alliance Slack channel to give your take!

Download the full report >