Remote work, curbside pickup, and telemedicine have all been around in some form or another for at least a decade. Yet, how many experts in those fields could have predicted that these trends, and many others, would go from niche novelties to mainstream adoption in just two months? And I doubt even Jonathan Abrams (Friendster) could have predicted the incredible demand the world would have for social media marketers within a decade back when he created the category in 2003.

In that spirit of uncertainty, I’m going to let my mind wander through the possibilities of what product marketing will look like five-plus years from now.

What are the skills and capabilities product marketers will need then? How do we start developing the next generation of product marketing leaders now? Time will tell how right or wrong I am, but if we don’t dream sometimes, how will we ever discover the future?

Let’s look at some of the megatrends that are already happening in the business world and will likely continue to accelerate in the near future. And then we’ll consider their implications for product marketers.

The exponential growth of information we are experiencing now is unprecedented in human history. We have never seen a situation in which we deal with as much data as we do in this current moment. And within 12 hours, this very volume of data will have doubled! Let that sink in for a moment. By comparison, in 1900, information doubled at the rate of only once every 150 years. By the year 2000, the rate had already increased to once every 17 years. It’s unclear when this growth will slow down but my guess is that we are still in the relatively early portion of the exponential growth curve.

The implications are so vast that I will only provide one example of how this impacts marketers. This year’s martech stack (compiled annually by chiefmartec.com) includes over 8,000 marketing tools and systems, a record number. If that doesn’t impress you, consider that 24% of these were added in the last year alone. That means a full quarter of marketing tools did not exist one year ago. More technology begets more data, and more data begets more technology.

Digital native companies outpace traditional companies

In this data-driven world, it is impossible for companies to continue to do things the way they did in the past. Digitally native companies have a natural advantage over legacy organizations that still base their operations on processes developed over two or more decades ago. And the rate of change is so great that even companies born in the late 90s and early 2000s struggle to compete with their more nimble SaaS-based competitors that were conceived around or after the Great Recession.

But these issues do not exist for just technology companies because, in the current era, every company is a software company. And those that are not willing to think digitally first risk extinction.

Consider legacy automotive manufacturers, for instance. Many struggled with electric vehicle development because they simply copied an existing car model into an electric version, creating massive inefficiencies in both design and production. Compare that to digitally native manufacturers such as Tesla and Fisker who fundamentally reimagined vehicle design from the ground up. They think and operate less like car companies and more like technology companies. Time will tell if Fisker will survive into large-scale production but the unquestionable success of Tesla, despite the many naysayers, has forced other vehicle manufacturers to rethink their own approach to electric vehicle design.

Charles Darwin informed us that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Little could he have known that this axiom also applies to the world of automobiles, which weren’t even invented until four years after his death. And further yet, it applies to virtually every type of organization out there. After all, there is a reason IBM just a few weeks ago announced that it will divest a significant portion of its business to allow it to focus only on cloud computing.

A neon 'change' sign

The role of personalization in customer experience

With such massive growth of data, it’s inevitable that companies are increasingly able to deliver personalized services and products driven by intelligent systems. In fact, it’s a strategic priority for many organizations. In a recent survey of 1,000 global IT leaders, 88% said that digital personalization is their priority. And while we’re already familiar with Alibaba, Google, and Facebook’s ability to deliver tailored information to us, the trend toward personalization goes far beyond just our online experience. Personalization in medicine, for instance, means that pharmaceutical companies can now custom-design therapeutics to target and destroy tumor cells using the patient’s own genes. Known as CAR-T therapies, they are based on an individual’s distinct genetic code, making each dose of the medicine unique to that person. It’s far from the only example. Other gene therapies use a patient’s genetic makeup to cure certain types of blindness. And the list of novel gene therapies grows every year.   Less dramatic but perhaps more of an everyday example of how personalization drives better experiences comes from the world of customer support. How many times have you called the support number only to be met by a robotic voice that tells you to dial 1 for English, 2 for Español, and so so forth? And then on to the next set of options and on and on until you finally hang up. But every once in a while, you contact a company where, instead of waiting 13 minutes on hold, you are greeted by a human who already knows your name and the likely issue you are calling about. How the heck did they know that you wonder. They are able to personalize your experience because they are able to integrate information from a variety of different systems to deliver tailored information about you to the agent before your call is even answered.

So which of these two customer support experiences is more likely to keep you a happy consumer? And while that personalized experience may initially be a novel and pleasant surprise, you will likely come to expect it as the norm very soon. And once that happens, will you continue to tolerate doing business with companies that don’t personalize your experience?

Each of the above examples of personalization is driven by the ability to combine data into meaningful information. Given the large volume of data that’s being generated, and the rapidly growing tools that can utilize it, I am convinced that the future of business is all about personalizing experiences. Companies that excel at it will thrive while laggards will dissipate into inevitable obsolescence.

The implications for product marketing

These trends will significantly impact the future of product marketing, but product marketers need to shape them also. It will require a proactive and deliberate mindset to drive the next phase in the evolution of product marketing. Here are my best guesses at what will happen with the function and how we will need to evolve in the coming years in order to ensure relevance.

PMMs will be become increasingly specialized

We’ve been progressively moving from the marketing generalist role to more specialized jobs and this trend has been evident in product marketing also. Think about the many different types of PMMs out there already - on the two extremes, we have technical PMMs and pricing-focused PMMs. In between, we have everything from launch experts, category creation leaders, content-focused PMMs, CI specialists, and more. We have PMMs specialized in B2C, ones specialized in B2B and others focused on SaaS. And don’t even get me started on the next level of segmentation, which is industry focus. Already, we’re seeing the emergence of strategist PMMs, evangelist PMMs, sales-focused PMMs. As we dive ever deeper into a world driven by more data and greater personalization, it’s inevitable that we will get more specialization in product marketing as well.

Digitally literacy will be the gateway to future PMM success

With this exponential growth of data, PMMs will necessarily have to increase their digital literacy. We’ll need to spend less of our time thinking about the ‘what’ and more of it considering the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ (in other words, people and their motivations.)

In practical terms, that means more data will be available for us to understand our ideal customer profile (ICP) and key personas, as well as their business needs. Since we’ll be able to dive much deeper into segmentation and analysis, we will be able to make better inferences and predictions about buying likelihood and readiness, both at the customer’s organizational level as well as the individual level. We’ll understand the customer journey better and therefore have the ability to deliver the right message and content to the right person at the right time and in the right channel. Going back to the point above, it’s possible that we will see new PMM roles emerge that specialize on personalizing customer journeys.

An image of an iMac, Macbook and iPhone

Product marketing will take greater ownership of the customer experience

Today’s emphasis on personalization won’t disappear. I believe that consumers will continue to expect and demand ever better experiences tailored to their individual needs at the specific stage in their customer journey. Despite the growth of the CX function within many organizations, the customer’s experience is still siloed, disjointed and in need of significant improvement.

Unfortunately for most businesses, however, their customers are no longer willing to put up with bad, or even mediocre, experiences. Even if you’re selling to the B2B space, customers’ expectations have been shaped by years of interactions with the likes of Netflix, Uber, Apple and Tinder. That’s why Hubspot actually aims for a “frictionless” customer experience that is at least 10x better than its competition.

So customers now can afford to demand easy, repeatable and personalized experiences. And when confronted with even the slightest friction, they won’t hesitate to retreat from the purchase. In this ‘repeat or retreat’ world, consumers have been conditioned to make decisions simply by swiping right or left. The power is literally in the palm of their hands.

That’s why I believe today’s emphasis on personalization won’t disappear. Consumers, whether B2B or B2C, will continue to expect and demand ever better experiences tailored to their individual needs at the specific stage in their customer journey. As a result, PMMs will become increasingly experience focused. And while product-led growth is all the rage today, I believe experience-led growth will be the next stage in the evolution of product marketing.

Incidentally, if you’re a product marketing leader in the HR Tech space, please think hard about this one. Because if there is one area where there is near universal discontent among stakeholders, it’s definitely in the realm of the candidate experience.

Developing tomorrow’s PMMs today

Addressing tomorrow’s challenges will require significant up-levelling of our skills and capabilities. While the product marketing function has come a long way in the past decade, it still is nowhere near as strategic as it needs to be. If you want proof, look no further than the recent PMA State of Product Marketing Report in which only 5% of product marketers said that other stakeholders within their organization actually understand their role. What do you think the answer would be if we asked our product management peers the same question? Clearly, product marketing still has a long way to go.

Speak the language of the C-Suite

First and foremost, product marketing must drive greater awareness to the value that we bring. I find it ironic that for a function whose primary purpose is to articulate value propositions, we seem to be pretty bad at proving our own worth. For product marketing to get a seat at the leadership table requires a two-step process:

  1. We need to increase awareness of what we actually do. Most of our coworkers, including executives, still think of us as the people who create data sheets, never really realizing that product marketing (theoretically) owns and drives the voice of the customer within the organization.
  2. But simply bringing greater awareness to our jobs does not lead to more respect for the role. To really gain credibility and drive change, product marketing needs to start speaking the language of the C-Suite. We need to be able to confidently speak with executives about their core motivation: with the CEO about vision and value creation, with the CFO about earnings and profitability, with the COO about strategy, with the CRO about growth and so on. And in each case, we need to clearly articulate what product marketing’s strategic contribution to that area is.  

Image depicting a modern office

Think more strategically

Becoming more strategic means that product marketing spends more time thinking about revenue and growth, something we don’t do well today. We may speak loudly about being responsible for product launches and GTM strategy, but we don’t always define the purpose. For instance, when I interview product marketing candidates and ask about their goals and KPIs, easily 9 out of 10 are not able to articulate them. Surprisingly, this happens even at relatively senior levels. I assume that this is because we have historically not been held accountable for it. But going forward, product marketing must become more strategic, which means tying meaningful metrics to core organizational KPIs.

The importance of embracing change

One of the biggest opportunities for product marketing is to drive the customer experience evolution. But that requires the ability to embrace change. In a world of exponential data growth, unexpected pandemics and political turmoil, uncertainty is the only certainty. Product marketers will need to develop a mindset of growth and agility that allows them to see (and seize) the opportunity that change brings.

One perfect example is the pandemic-induced shift to remote work and the many heated debates it has generated on LinkedIn. I fully respect that not everyone has the home environment to successfully work remotely. Others simply prefer the office out of a lifelong habit. However, I believe that those individuals who embrace the possibilities of remote work are going to have vastly more job opportunities available to them. With those increased odds comes faster career growth potential, and the people who seize the opportunity will have a competitive advantage over their counterparts who are tied to their local geography.  

The same principle applies to businesses, by the way, as organizations that are not bound by “butts in seats” type of thinking are able to select from a much larger pool of qualified job candidates.

Actionable takeaways for aspiring PMM leaders

While much of what I’ve discussed is speculative, I want to finish the article with directly actionable suggestions. Regardless of how accurate these predictions turn out to be, the time for product marketers to upskill is now in order to continue to push their careers forward. So consider taking action on at least three of the following ideas today:

  1. The best time to plant a tree was ten years ago. The second best time is today. So build your network on a regular basis. Start by introducing yourself to three other product marketers on LinkedIn. If you don’t know any or would like me to connect you with some, please send me a note.
  2. Learn the language of the CFO. Listen to your company’s earnings call, watch some videos on YouTube, maybe even chat with some of your finance leaders. If you can dedicate 10-15 minutes at least four days a week for the next three months doing these activities, you’ll have spent a dozen hours studying the financial language of the leadership team and I can guarantee you, you will be seen as more credible.
  3. Get a mentor. In fact, get three of them. One of my guests on my #UpYourGame screencast on LinkedIn indicated that she has as many as five mentors at a time and can tap each one in the appropriate context and circumstance.
  4. Get comfortable with the idea of change. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take action. It means taking a second look at some long held assumptions. Don’t like remote work? Fine, but think of six reasons why someone else might prefer it. Don’t like the politicians who were elected to your city council? Think of two things they could potentially do that your preferred politicians wouldn’t or couldn’t do. This type of thinking allows you to build empathy - which is the very foundation for embracing change.
  5. When was the last time you spoke with a customer? If you haven’t yet, think about how you can get in front of them. Due to the pandemic, people are much more willing to meet with you virtually than in the past. Becoming more customer centric will always be a strength to you in your professional career.