We spoke to 100s of product marketers from across the globe to create our State of Product Marketing report, and, instead of leaving lots of the juicy bits behind closed doors, we thought we’d release some of the interview snippets.
Up first is we caught up with Aaron Brennan who’s currently the Director of Product Marketing over at airSlate; a workflow automation system.
The company’s in the midst of getting going and their product’s still in beta (watch this space though!), and Aaron’s currently working on building a brand new product marketing team from the ground up.
So, let’s see what he had to say.
Q: How would you describe the culture in your company, is it more product, sales or marketing-first? Or something else?
A: We’re currently a marketing-first company and we’re very concerned with how we drive leads because that’s what the CEO’s background is - he used to be a marketer so he’s really interested in leads, lead-conversion and things like that. He doesn’t have as big an interest in churn, what customers’ lifetime value is, NPS scores or any of that sort of stuff that goes along with it.
We have started to change that thought and we do a lot of customer studies around what their needs are, what their perception of our product is, how they’d like to use it, what they get frustrated with, do they plan on staying, etc. and really starting to get a little bit more product-focussed and looking more at annual recurring revenue and not just lead generation and quick conversion stuff.
Q: How come you decided to go into the product marketing profession in the first place?
A: I started my career in sales and coming out of college that’s what I thought I really wanted to do. I enjoy talking to people and I’m pretty easy to talk to but I really sort of struggled with the sales aspect of it.
I was looking for better conversions so, one day, I sat down with my Chief Sales Officer and said I’d love to be doing better at my job and he said “you need to make more phone calls” and I said “well, that’s not me getting any better at my job, that’s just me making more calls and hitting my numbers but not getting any better at it.”
He actually looked at me and said “I don’t think you’re cut out for sales” and so I ended up moving into marketing at the same company. He walked me down the hall to the Marketing Director and said he thought I’d be a good fit, and marketing was fun; I did a lot of lead generation, designing, campaigns and things like that to drive leads to the sales team.
Ultimately though, I got really frustrated with the fact I was churning out a lot of people, so every quarter my goal would have to grow not only by the company growing and getting more leads, but by making up for those churned out users and I just didn’t think it was right to run a company down that road - constantly churning out users and not focusing on their experience.
So, when I was kind of complaining about this to a friend over lunch he said his company was hiring and that he thought I’d make a really great product marketing manager because I have the analytics background, a good eye on messaging, an understanding of the customer journey and I was passionate about it.
He asked if I had any interest coming in and helping them launch Google+, so I got into Google and product marketing and really learned about what the profession was.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your time working at Google?
A: Working at Google was really incredible. The product team’s very aligned and it’s essentially built-up around three components, you’ve got the product manager who’s usually your CEO, your product marketing marketer who’s kind of your CMO and customer journey person, and then your UX and UI designer who’re trying to optimise the user experience.
Those three people at Google are very important because they’re the ones who help guide where it’s going and so the product manager’s focus is on how do we build this, the PMM’s focus on what the customer wants and what’s important to them, and you’re really a kind of advocate for the customer.
I’ve been at other companies who’ve said product marketing’s the voice of the customer but all that really meant was driving more marketing leads, but with Google, it really was a case of “it’s your job to stick up for the customer”. If it doesn’t look right or it doesn’t align with what the customers’ expectations are they want you to step up and say “no, our customers don’t want that” and so that’s how you align with the roadmap and work internally at Google.
I always viewed my product management role there as I was sort of the right-hand man, you know, we’d get into arguments all the time but we did what was best for the user - down to what messages they needed to see and what the journey needed to be like, and that was the case from not knowing what the product was through to 10 years on.
A lot of the way we would do that is just by OKRs. Building objectives and key results based off very much customer-facing metrics that were not only around how many new registrations you got, but how you moved someone from a lax user to a mid-tier user to a power user.
Q: So would you say being the voice of the customer is one of the main things that attracted you to the world of product marketing?
Q: What did you study in college?
A: I studied sports management. I really thought I wanted to get into basketball or football operations but then after I graduated I just had no interest in it and really gravitated towards tech, which is why it took me a few roles to figure out what I wanted to do and why product marketing was important to me.
Q: Can you walk me through what somewhat of a typical day looks like in your role and what kind of tasks you work on?
A: So right now I’m kind of all over the place in terms of where my role is, but typically the first thing I do every day I walk into the office is look at our OKR goals. For us, that’s how we’ve defined the health of our product and we’ve defined that as actions within the product - so if someone completes a certain action and what actions are important to us, for example.
I usually log-in and see that and look at new registrations, how much we saw in product adoption the day before, how much we did in a certain product action, etc. and then from there I start to make some notes on:
- What we did yesterday,
- What we did last week,
- How that affects things moving forward,
- What campaigns we had running,
- What the potential of new customers coming in is,
- What they look like, and
- Whether or not they did the actions we wanted them to when they first came into the product.
From there I typically sit down and talk with my product managers about what’s on the roadmap. We usually go through what we call customer journey mapping and go through each part of the product and talk to each other about:
- Whether or not it fits the customer journey,
- If we recently received any feedback about people finding it confusing in any way, and
- If it could be positioned differently from a messaging standpoint to make sure it’s aligned and easier to use.
And we all do this so that we can move our OKRs forward. We also usually roll out tests every day around whether we’re optimised for moving those OKRs forward to create a healthy product.
After that it’s normally reviewing some writing, building up and going through our roadmap, doing some market analysis and then I tend to end my day by talking to customers. When I talk to customers it’s around things like:
- What are your pain-points?
- How strong of a pain-point is this?
- Do we solve this pain-point?
- If we don’t, how could we do it better?
- What are your overall expectations for our product?
- Where do you get frustrated?
- What do you think about our competitors?
Just to really get an understanding of where our user is and how they plan on working with the product moving forward.
After that, it’s a case of working with the marketing team and letting them know these are the high-level messages and these are the types of users we want to market to by building personas (because we’re optimising the product to personas).
I then sit down with support to see if there’s any communication issues that we’re getting a lot of support tickets on, any questions or concerns around that, and then I sit back down with the product management team to see if there are any changes to the product we can make or if we need to create more support collateral.
It really is a cross-functional role and I spend most of my day hopping between departments trying to optimise for the customer journey and making sure our OKRs are actually moving forward.
A: So I actually report directly into the CEO but we will be reporting directly to product.
I align each product and marketing manager I have to a product manager who owns a particular piece, so typically one product marketing manager owns, say, onboarding, another owns core product, another owns a core piece of the product and typically my product marketing managers are set-up that way too.
That way, each product manager has a product marketing manager to check-in and balance what they’re doing from a roadmap, marketing, messaging, etc. perspective, and I’ve found that’s the best way to build the teams.
Q: Would you say there’s a lot of crossover between your role and the product manager role?
A: Huge amounts. I’ve worked at five or six companies now and the products I’ve worked on that have been the most successful have had the most overlap between product management and product marketing management.
I think the big difference is product managers are looking more towards ‘how do I build this better?’ whereas product marketing managers are saying ‘how does this help the customer?’. So there’s a lot of overlap and qualitative and quantitative analysis.
Typically I don’t build my OKRs without my product manager, it’ll be all of us sitting down and setting out what a healthy product is.
Q: And are you both responsible for the same goals?
Q: Can you give me an example of a successful project you’ve worked on and what in your opinion made it so successful?
A: I think my favourite one was when I was at LastPass which was a password management solution. I sat down with my product manager, we both actually got hired at around the same time, and we created the goals for LastPass and they were to increase registration, increase product adoption, increase daily active usage and increase revenue.
So, as we started to watch the metrics move forward we came to a clear and concise view that we were growing revenue but we weren’t growing product adoption, and are daily active users were actually flatlining which meant we were on a shakey table; we could have a bunch of people who left the product all at once because they weren’t seeing the value in it.
From there, we actually went out and surveyed some people to figure out what the issue was and it was that we were holding their passwords hostage. They felt like it was their passwords, we were running them into a paywall too soon and they didn’t see the value of paying for their own passwords.
So, we went through a series of different scenarios where we ultimately decided we were going to:
- Take down the paywall and change it to a different paywall, and
- Create a different set of core values for a product that people would actually pay for.
To do that, we took down the paywall that let people use the product across devices. My product manager went through, took them all down and made sure everything still worked and that no-one would run into them again in different scenarios.
At the same time, I went through the product and changed the messaging in each of those paywall sections as well as the messaging on the website, customer support portal, FAQs page, PR and all the things that went with that.
Then, we actually ended up launching what was called FreePass which was basically ‘now you can have your passwords on both sides’ and this is the new value-based product you can buy on top of the free version we just gave you which is totally different.
In doing that, we increased registrations by 22%, daily active users by 19%, deepened product adoption by 25% and we didn’t see any loss of revenue.
It really was a lot of fun and we did it just by focussing on the customer, customer engagement and what’s important to them, and then we just went through and executed on that by building customer journeys that showed the value of the product without running them into the previous paywalls.
Q: In your opinion, in a perfect world, where should the product marketing and product management roles begin and end? Where should the division be between the two?
A: So really, the product marketer is focussed on the customer journey and the product manager is focussed on how do we execute on that customer journey. When the product is being built you really need both roles, so your product marketer will go out and say ‘okay, this is what the market looks like and this is what customer expectations look like’.
What happens a lot is people go out and say ‘well this is what competitors do so let’s do that’, but just because your competitors are doing something it doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it, so your product marketing manager goes out and says ‘what are competitors doing, what does the market look like, now let’s go and talk to the customers and see what the ideal scenario looks like’.
They then go and look at persona profiles based on that, what the user looks like, how they’d actually use the products, how they get into the product and what the representations are.
At that point, the product manager takes that information to build the requirement document that goes along with it and says ‘okay, this is who are user is, this is how it needs to be designed and this is how it needs to be built’. Once you’ve got that your product marketer can go and write the messaging that goes around it - so they play a big part in making sure messaging aligns with how the product’s being built and customers’ expectations.
Q: And that’s how it works at your company anyway right now?
A: Yeah. So I actually came in and started building it this way. I’ve been at companies before, and in fact the previous company I was at didn’t have this. Product marketing actually rolled up into marketing and we were responsible for driving leads and a lot of the sales and marketing collateral, but we literally didn’t talk to product at all.
Q: Wow, it’s like a whole different world right?
A: Totally. It’s just different perceptions of product marketing. A lot of people think product marketing is just marketing a product so they put MQLs and SQLs on it but product marketers have no say in that, that all sort of falls on the marketing, lead gen or sales side of things.
You know, product marketing can have an effect on that because they know who the buyer and ideal user is, but those two things can often be separated because your buyer isn’t always your user, so product marketing gets flung into this position of ‘you just write’ or ‘your job is to drive leads’ and things like that.
Q: How do you go about influencing an entire organisation of stakeholders when you’ve got to launch a new product but don’t have any direct control over certain teams, timelines and priorities?
A: So the way I’ve done that in the past is through what I call product OKRs. By doing that, I get to say what makes a healthy product and it’s not just revenue, it’s product adoption, it’s usage and it’s the execution of certain features within the product, so I need everyone across the organisation to hit on these things.
You know, when we’re positioning a product these are the features and functions we need to produce better screenshots of, better how-to videos, better value proposition videos, etc. so the customer has a better idea coming in.
We work with support to say these are the most important functions and features and this is the most important journey for the customer, so they all have an effect on the product OKRs. When I’m building those OKRs I’ll sometimes put some of those metrics on other teams and that gets them saying ‘my team’s responsible for this number, I’m gonna get on board with it’.
Q: That makes sense. So it kind of ties back to what the customer needs but also very much to the data and goals?
A: Exactly. And it was interesting because each department head would make their own goals but they didn’t always align to what the product’s ultimate goals were, so that’s why we implemented this.
There was a big struggle with people saying ‘well that’s not the metric of success’. For support, their metric for success was closing tickets and for product, success was reducing the number of tickets that are created. And marketing and sales were the other sides of that too, they’d say ‘my job is to close leads’ and we’d say ‘no, your job is to close leads and deepen product adoption’, so you need to know what the value of the product is so you can show them how to get the most value out of these key functions and features better.
Getting them on board was a little tough but we eventually got everyone bought in.
Q: What would your advice be if you were talking to an aspiring product marketer? What are the top one to three skills you think they really need to succeed in the role?
A: Problem-solving, analytical and a little bit of politicking - because of the cross-functionality of the role they need to know how to help people accomplish their goals while making sure they achieve they hit theirs too.
I think the number one thing is problem-solving though. As a product marketer, your job is to understand the customer and help them solve their problem.
Q: Do you have any recommendations of how this perfect vision of product marketing should be going forward?
A: So this is a hard question. The problem with product marketing is you have a lot of people who say ‘we need product marketing at our organisation’, like a C-level exec, and they create their own vision of it, so then what sometimes happens is there are all these different visions of what product marketing actually is.
From my aspect, what helps to make this sort of perfect vision, and is something I’ve done a lot of in the Boston area, is just to say ‘hey, I’ve been doing product marketing for 10 years and I’ll come and tell you how product marketing will help your organisation’, you know, the roles and key skill sets they’re looking for to make that.
So for me, to move that forward and actually create a place where you can roll out product marketing and get a good understanding of what it is, you need people who’re championing that and how it can affect organisations.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I think the biggest thing for me is product marketing is a strategic position, I think a lot of people confuse it with an execution position or that they should be good writers and that’s not always the case.
In the places where I’ve been successful in my product marketing role and where I’ve seen a lot of success in product marketing, the role doesn’t just get stuck into writing all day long. They’re really focussed on solving problems and saying ‘hey, this is what we’re trying to do, help us solve this problem and we’re going to enable you to create the execution list’.
It’s very much a strategy and product-led position. Often, people fall on seeing the product manager as the product lead the really good product marketers I know have a say in the product.
You know, I care so much about the product, I care so much about the customer journey and I care so much about how the product is being positioned and messaged to the customer, and organisations need to have that balance. If they were allowed to build it the way they wanted to it’d be clumsy, not intuitive and just not good.