Full transcript:

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  0:02

I'm thrilled to be joined by Michael Olson, Director of Product Marketing at New Relic. New Relic provides the real-time insights that software-driven businesses need to innovate faster with their cloud platform making every aspect of modern software and infrastructure observable, so companies can find and fix problems faster, build high performing development ops teams, and speed up transformation projects. A product marketer with over a decade in the industry, Michael has a breadth of product marketing experience, specializing in a range of areas such as positioning and messaging, go to market strategy, market analysis, sales enablement, and mentoring to name a few. Thanks so much for joining me on the show, Michael.

Michael Olson  1:30

Good to be here. Thanks for having me.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  1:32

No, the pleasure is all ours, thank you so much. So let's just kick off this week's episode by discussing your current position at New Relic. Can you give us an insight into what the role entails?

Michael Olson  1:42

Sure, yeah, I've been at New Relic for about 16 months now. And my team and I primarily spend our time on three things. One, positioning and messaging, really focused on communicating why our company exists, the problems we solve, the value we provide, and our differentiation in a way that drives clarity and intents.

We spend our time second on sales enablement, which is really all about arming our sales team at New Relic with the playbooks and sales messaging and training and tools that our teams need in order to be confident in engaging with prospects and selling our products.

And then third, I focus on go to market strategy, really leading our company's understanding of where we play in the market, who we target, how we'll win. And that encompasses things like market and competitive analysis, segmentation, target audience definition, as well as working across the rest of our marketing team to determine how we'll build reputation awareness, create demand and drive customer adoption for our products.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  2:43

Sounds awesome. What is it exactly that made you want to become a product marketer in the first place? And how did you move into a product marketing role?

Michael Olson  2:51

Yeah, so I started my career after I finished school, and kind of fell into the B2B technology space by total accident to be honest. I landed at a very early stage pre-series A startup company called Janrain out of Portland, Oregon, as employee number eight, and initially started as kind of a generalist, but primarily in an inside sales role, where I was directly responsible for closing business among mid-market and SMB companies, in our early days.

Eventually, as the company scaled and grew, I had a chance to look at other areas where I wanted to take my career and product marketing had really started to appeal to me as we began scaling out and growing as a company, because I really saw that product marketers are able to directly influence the strategy of their business, answering questions, like, what's our winning aspiration as a company? Where will we play? How will we win? And I think product marketing is unique in the sense that it really sits at sort of the nexus, if you will, between your product, your sales, and your marketing teams, and the customer.

A good product marketer really gets to be both an expert on the market, a voice of the customer within the organization, and a sort of a general manager responsible for the success of your product and market. So I saw it as really a strategic role that would enable me to get a little bit closer to the product, a little bit closer to the customer, and really have an opportunity to influence the strategy and direction and overall success of the company that I was a part of.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  4:31

Okay, awesome. And can you just talk us through your initial exposure to product marketing, and what your career path looked like from then to now?

Michael Olson  4:42

Sure, yeah, I mentioned that when I started my career at Janrain, I was primarily an inside sales role. So I was directly responsible for closing business among the mid-market, kind of small to medium-sized businesses that represented our target audience and, one that sort of forced me to get up to speed on our products and really understand customer needs, and our value proposition, and the problems that we solved pretty quickly in kind of a trial by fire. If you're spending your day on the phone talking with and meeting with customers, you need to know your stuff, or you're not going to be successful.

I think that what I found is that this idea of sort of carrying a bag and carrying a quota long term in my career didn't appeal to me as much as still relying on that same skill set, having empathy for sales teams, having empathy for the customer, and really being an expert on the market, on customer needs, on the world in which our customers live and how best to reach customers and communicate and tailor our value proposition. Those were all areas that I saw product marketers as being uniquely positioned to address.

After I moved out of an inside sales role at Janrain, I moved into a demand generation role where I was responsible for managing a lot of our marketing programs and marketing operations. Again, we were a pretty small, scrappy startup at that point, with a marketing team of about five people in a company that was about 100 people as we'd grown and scaled. And after I'd been at Janrain, for about three years, I got an opportunity to move into a product marketing role in a dedicated capacity and so became essentially the company's first and only product marketer where I continued along that path for a couple more years before moving on to another company, a bigger organization out of Portland called Puppet, which plays in the infrastructure automation and DevOps space.

So I joined that company when it was about 50 million in recurring revenue, about 300 employees, and stayed there for just under five years as we scaled up to about 100 million in recurring revenue and about 500 employees. During that time, had an opportunity to drive a lot of our core product positioning and messaging, sales enablement, go-to-market strategy for some of our enterprise products, and eventually moved into a people leadership role before I made the switch over to New Relic about 16 months ago.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  7:10

Awesome. So it's been a really exciting journey that you've gone on, over the years. Sounds really exciting. So during your career thus far, you've actually mentored product marketers and helped startups to thrive. With COVID-19, obviously, unfortunately, bringing a massive amount of jobs to a halt, some people have opted to begin a solo venture as a consultant and start their own companies. What advice would you give to a product marketer who may be considering this approach, or a product marketer who may already have a startup, albeit in its infancy?

Michael Olson  7:47

Yeah, that's a great question. Let's first acknowledge the obvious, this has been a really tough year on a number of levels for a lot of people, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who have got the courage to go out and venture out and start their own companies or consultancies. My take is, there's a real shortage in our industry of product marketers, and product marketing is such a strategic role within an enterprise organization where you're really responsible for defining your company narrative and point of view, for orchestrating go to market strategy, for enabling sales teams to be confident getting out and selling your products and moving prospects through a buying cycle.

And the roll is unique in the sense that it oftentimes isn't super defined within a lot of organizations and the roles and responsibilities can vary from one company to the next. So I think that there's a lot of opportunities for smart, sharp product marketers to provide consulting services to early-stage startups and companies that are looking to mature and scale a product marketing discipline and practice within their organization.

That said, I do think that one of the things that helps enable product marketers really to drive greater impact within their organizations is building up domain knowledge and institutional knowledge about your space, the market in which you play, the category in which you operate, the customers that you serve, and really having a deep set of customer empathy into the world in which our customers live, the problems they face, what the kind of promised land or ideal state looks like for them and how your company can help customers get there.

That oftentimes just requires time in seat to learn the product, get out and talk to customers, understand competitive dynamics, and what's going on in the market more broadly. So I think if you're at a stage in your career as a product marketer, where you're evaluating whether or not to venture out and take your own approach as a consultant or join an early-stage startup, I think that there's room for either approach, certainly bringing frameworks and operational rigor and discipline to how product marketing can get operationalized within an organization as a consultant is definitely something that's useful.

But I've also personally found that spending time in seat as an in house product marketer, whether it's within an early-stage startup or a mid-stage growth company, or even a mature larger organization starts to give you the domain knowledge and market expertise really to scale your impact and drive strategy and success for the company in which you work.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  10:36

Okay, brilliant. In terms of your approach to developing positioning and messaging, how do you typically craft messaging that stands out and resonates?

Michael Olson  10:46

Yeah, I'll share a few guiding principles that I try to live and breathe, at least when building messaging and by no means am I perfect, and every day is a work in process. But one of the core principles that I tend to apply is taking an outside-in approach. And what I mean by that is, I'm a big believer that product marketers really need to lead with our customers’ problems, their needs, and use that for framing as to how you describe the promised land or the ideal state, and how your solution can help your customers get there. I think, too many product marketers in our industry jump to the features too fast, I see way too many sales pitch decks that lead with the obligatory autobiography and ‘about us’ slides.

From my experience, buyers typically care a lot less about your company vitals than they do about the problems they're experiencing, and whether you have a vision for how you can help your customers solve it. And you actually increase your odds of establishing credibility as a company and guiding your customers on a journey if you can demonstrate empathy and show that you understand your customers’ world by leading with the problems that they face rather than leading with your own features and functionality.

The second guiding principle that I tend to follow is really using words that your customers use. I'm a fan of making messaging approachable and using language that customers use day to day in the messaging that you create. The stuff that you write, and the messaging that you develop should sound like something that you would actually say out loud in front of a customer. And it should sound like something that a customer might say if they were actually having a conversation with you.

A third guiding principle that I try to follow when I'm building positioning and messaging is being concise, but not at the expense of clarity. And I've seen a lot of bad messaging frameworks, which tend to distill your point of view into single pithy phrases. And that may make it easy to read but it's not going to achieve the goal that you want. The whole point of a messaging framework is to scale your expertise as a product marketer, you want to be able to take what's in your head as a PMM, and enable your peers across marketing, or in sales to tell the story and articulate your company point of view, the way that you would tell it.

When messaging frameworks become either too minimalistic or when they over-rotate toward pithy phrases that kind of look like ad copy, you actually increase the likelihood that marketing and sales folks are going to off-road and do their own thing when they start creating downstream content or pitching to customers. So I'm a big believer that when done, right, the sentences and bullets in a messaging framework, they either get copied and pasted into sales messaging, or web copy, or thought leadership content, or press releases, and really become foundational for how customer-facing teams tell your company narrative and describe the problems you solve and the value you provide.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  13:38

Okay, and just to rewind a little bit and go back to the customer, the customer buying process is not only centered on converting a prospect, but it's also about customer retention and trying to grow your brand and your customer base. As a product marketer with experience in creating and implementing go-to-market strategies, what principles do you apply with a view to successfully guiding people through the funnel?

Michael Olson  14:08

I think product marketing plays a pretty instrumental role in really every stage of the customer buying process or the customer journey. If you break it down into three main stages - top of funnel, how do we drive reputation and awareness for our company to not only create the perceptions of our company in the market that we want to create but drive things like share our voice.

Product marketing plays a supercritical role there at really defining the positioning and messaging for your company. From a demand creation perspective there, more middle of funnel, product marketing is really instrumental in enabling sales teams with the tools, the training, the sales messaging, the playbooks that they need to move prospects through a buying cycle. And then more bottom of funnel focused on customer adoption and advocacy.

I think increasingly for particularly B2B companies that operate on either software as a service model or operate with sort of a renewal based licensing model, that becomes more important than ever. And I think product marketing has a really important role to play in driving successful adoption, usage, and advocacy of the products that we represent and shepherd as PMMs. So that means doing things like providing seamless onboarding content that enables a customer that your sales team signs to be able to quickly get up and running with your products, to see value really quickly, to really articulate how your products enable the jobs to be done that customers have and clarify the use cases in which your products can be most effectively used.

But it also means things like arming customer success teams, or sales teams that are responsible for renewals, and upsell and cross-sell opportunity with the tools and the training and the material and the messaging that they need in order to facilitate those types of opportunities, in order to make existing customers stickier and make them more likely to not only renew but to expand their relationship and their usage of your products over time. And I think this idea of the expanding marketing funnel is something that we've been talking about in our industry for a decade. And it really holds true that the job of a product marketer doesn't stop when a deal gets signed, it really requires more of a holistic view as to once we acquire a customer, how do we expand that relationship and grow advocacy and loyalty over time?

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  16:28

Okay, sure. And obviously, a huge part of successfully applying a strategy boils down to having the right team in place. Can you outline what your direct team looks like at New Relic in terms of numbers and roles within that?

Michael Olson  16:51

Yeah, so New Relic as a whole, the company has about 2200 employees globally. The marketing department at New Relic has about 120 people. And the product marketing team at New Relic is about 20 people today and growing. My team, specifically, our charter, we're responsible for positioning and messaging, sales enablement, and go to market strategy really geared toward IT operations, buyers, and users. Without getting into too much detail about New Relic as a company, we make software that's really used by both software developers who are creating applications as well as IT operations folks who are maintaining infrastructure and responsible for things like service availability and reliability.

And those are very much different buyers and different users with different job responsibilities, different goals, and objectives, and New Relic really needs to sort of reach across the aisle and reach both of those buying centers. So given my background at Puppet in the DevOps and infrastructure automation space, I was brought into the company really to help lead our positioning and messaging our sales enablement, and our go-to-market strategy geared toward those IT operations buying centers, as New Relic looks to expand its addressable market and expand usage and adoption of our products across those buying centers.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  18:21

Okay, and in terms of the teams outside of marketing, such as sales, product, operations, etc. which departments would you say that you interact with the most? And what's your relationship with them like?

Michael Olson  18:34

Sure, yeah, this is actually one of the things that I love about being a product marketer is, the role is really such a glue role within an enterprise organization where product marketers have an opportunity to really sit at that nexus, as I mentioned earlier between your sales team, your product team, the rest of marketing, and as a voice of the customer within the organization and as an expert on the market. So on a day to day basis, my team is collaborating with our peers across the rest of marketing and other functions like demand generation, marcomms - marketing and communications, ARPR, field marketing, partner marketing, customer marketing, really to help guide our team's understanding of how we should be positioning and messaging our products and our company in a way that drives clarity and in a way that drives purchase intent.

We're partnering closely with our sales team to arm them with the tools and the messaging and the playbooks and the training, that they need to be confident selling our products. And that means spending a lot of time tag-teaming customer calls and prospect meetings with our sales team and doing things like pitching our company and our vision and our strategy and our roadmap or being brought in as subject matter experts around a specific set of use cases that we enable or problems that we can help our customers solve.

But it also means partnering really closely with our product management team to do a couple of things, one, to really help inform market requirements and bring in a voice to, 'Here's what we're seeing in the market. Here's what we're seeing competitors do, here are some of the emerging trends that we're seeing in terms of customer needs'. And having that as a key input to really shape things like product strategy and roadmap.

But then secondly, ensuring that as PMMs, we're also leveraging the expertise of our product managers who are building products in order to understand how best to position and message them in a way that's going to drive intents to purchase and interest in the market. So it's really a unique role in the sense that PMMs get to work so collaboratively across the organization and have a wider footprint than I think you see with a lot of other roles, at least within a B2B software company.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  20:52

Yeah, sure. It's actually really interesting that you say that about the importance of collaboration. I mean, when we conducted the State of Product Marketing report, and even in previous episodes of this podcast, we've found that product marketers place so much emphasis on collaboration as a core skill. What would you say the top three skills are that have helped you to get to where you are in your career today?

Michael Olson  21:21

Yeah, I think from my perspective, the single most important thing that makes or breaks a successful product marketer is the ability to synthesize and distill complex concepts and communicate them in a way that's both easy to understand and compelling. And the keyword here is clarity that good product marketers, they're masterful at helping others achieve clarity, they're able to extract takeaways and meaning from complex information and help establish sort of the why or the so what, as we're building messaging and communicating the problems that we solve.

I think a second skill that is important that's related is the ability to tailor the way you communicate ideas and points of view based on the audience, knowing that prospects and customers and analysts and press and sales teams and executives all care about different things and require different levels of altitude or technical depth as you're communicating your messaging externally. And then I think a third skill that is important not to lose sight of is really, PMMs need to have genuine empathy both for their customers and for their sales teams.

A product marketer needs to really understand the world in which their customers live, the problems that those customers face, what keeps them up at night, what the promised land looks like. And product marketers need to talk like their customers talk and use words their customers use in order to be effective at tailoring messaging. And all of that really requires genuine empathy for customers. Similarly, that empathy for sales teams is really important as well, understanding that sales teams have a difficult job and it's important for PMMs to make sure that they're building playbooks and training and tooling for sales teams that help drive clarity and really sort of simplify the sales process and the sales engagement strategy for a sales rep and make it easier for them to move prospects through a buying cycle.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  23:19

Okay. And in a perfect world, or from your perspective, where does the role of a PM and a PMM begin and end? And do you think that there should be almost like lines and boundaries in terms of the responsibilities?

Michael Olson  23:35

That's a really good question. I think it completely depends on the organization, the stage of maturity, and growth you're at in your company evolution. And it also, quite frankly, depends on the skill set of product marketers and product managers who you've got in seat as part of your team. But from my experience, what I've found works most successfully is the product marketer and the product manager really should be joined at the hip and collaborate super closely. Product management, really ultimately takes responsibility for product strategy and roadmap.

And that means defining market requirements as well as product requirements. It means understanding what products we should build or features or capabilities we should build and why, and prioritizing that roadmap rigorously based on market opportunity, and based on customer feedback. Product marketing really takes the role then of, based on the products that we're building, how should we be positioning and messaging them to really clearly communicate the problems we solve and the value we provide and how we're different or unique from alternatives as well as enabling customer-facing teams, whether it's your sales team or the rest of marketing to be able to communicate that point of view and tell that story externally to the market.

Where I've seen the collaboration be most effective though, is again, where product marketers actually have a seat at the table, really helping to bring in and define market requirements, early-stage to PMs in order to help inform, 'Here's what we're seeing in terms of market dynamics, competitive dynamics, here's how we're seeing various technology categories starting to converge or overlap. Here's where we're seeing competitors place bets and make investments. And here's some of the feedback that we're seeing and hearing from customers that we think represents opportunities for us to solve new problems or move into adjacent markets in order to expand our addressable market as a company', those are all areas where product marketers should have a strong opinion as a voice of the customer and as an expert on the market and bring that feedback into PMs so they can help prioritize roadmaps.

There are other areas where the lines tend to blur Lawrence between product marketing and product management responsibilities. One of those is around pricing and packaging, I've been a product marketer in companies where I've been responsible for pricing and packaging, or have had a hand in it. And in other cases, I haven't been involved in it. And so that really depends, again, on the dynamics in play within your company and the skill sets I think of product managers and PMMs that you've got in seat.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  26:12

Okay. And in terms of almost like the magic of product marketing, all the benefits of it, is there anything that you would perhaps look at and change at all?

Michael Olson  26:27

Yeah, I think as fun and exciting and as challenging as it is being a product marketer, one of the things that I think can sometimes be frustrating for folks in the role is that product marketing is really one of the most ambiguous and vaguely understood roles within an organization. And we've talked about this, but the scope is often pretty fluid. And the roles and responsibilities can often vary from one company to the next. But it's also one of the most critical roles that you can hire. And I think a lot of startup founders, for example, struggle to achieve product-market fit, because they fail to segment their market effectively or tell their story in a way that makes customers get it or they fail to create the category around which their product plays.

I think a lot of marketing leaders at executive levels, who are so accountable for metrics such as sales pipeline, or MQLs, maybe under-invest in product marketing early on because it isn't the most direct line to revenue. I think there needs to be a clarity and understanding about the role that product marketing plays within enterprise organizations, the jobs to be done, if you will, for PMMs, and where we can snap in and drive work or influence the impact and success of the company. And this is where I think organizations like the Product Marketing Alliance play a really important role at building up education, helping PMMs uplevel their skills, but also helping companies really better understand the role that product marketing plays, where it fits, and how it can drive impact to the organization.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  28:19

I can totally understand where you're coming from in terms of not having a defined role in product marketing, or a defined definition if you like. Only very recently, we published a piece on the company website, and there were 160 different definitions of what product marketing was, and that was literally just cherry-picking some of them. There are so many different ideas of what product marketing actually is, and it's something that I've never encountered before, to be honest, it's either black or white but there seems to be a huge shade of grey, as far as product marketing is concerned. Just to round things up, Michael, if there are any new or aspiring product marketers listening to the podcast, what would your advice to them be to get the most out of their journey in the field?

Michael Olson  29:13

You know, from my experience, at least, most people don't start their career as a product marketer fresh out of school, most of the product marketers that I've been lucky enough to work with, have spent time in other roles and eventually found their way into product marketing. And my biggest piece of advice to people I talk to who are considering moving into product marketing is one, you don't have to have been a product marketer in order to be successful as a product marketer.

And two, I'm actually a believer that product marketers don't need to be extremely deeply technical in order to actually be successful as a product marketer and I'll talk about the first area first. You know, I think there are a lot of pathways into becoming a PMM and I've often found that people can move into product marketing and be hugely successful coming from a sales background.

I've worked with a lot of product marketers that are either former sales engineers or sales reps who made the switch from carrying a bag and they end up being really successful as product marketers because they tend to have the most empathy for sales teams and for the customer, they tend to be really passionate about sales enablement and they tend to excel at crafting sales messaging and pitch decks and demo scripts that actually resonate with customers because they've got boots on the ground experience, talking to customers day to day, and they really understand what it takes to move prospects through a buying cycle. But I've also worked with product marketers who started their career as engineers or product managers in B2B companies, who tend to really bring a deep understanding of the product and the problems that that product solves and why those products exist and use cases for those products and can be proficient in helping to inform market requirements and inform positioning, and have been successful.

I've also worked with product marketers who started their careers in demand generation or marketing communication roles or other marketing disciplines. And they can jump in and be successful because they have an understanding of how to orchestrate go-to-market execution. They're good at understanding how to lead product launches and influence reputation and demand creation and customer adoption programs and lead through influence across the rest of marketing teams. And I think secondly, my last piece of parting advice would be that, again, you don't have to be deeply technical, or know how to code in order to be successful as a product marketer.

What's far more important is understanding how to synthesize and distill complex concepts and technology and communicate them in ways that make it easy for people to understand what you do, why you exist, the problems you solve and the value you provide, and how you're different. And ultimately that skillset from my experience at least makes or breaks a successful product marketer more than having extremely deep technical competency or domain expertise in a specific area.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  32:16

Okay, well, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast Michael. It was awesome. It's been an absolute pleasure learning from you and your product marketing adventure so far, and thank you so much for taking the time out to appear on Product Marketing Insider.

Michael Olson  32:31

Thanks for having me, Lawrence. This was fun.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  32:34

Thank you.