Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with many different companies in many different capacities. One thing I find interesting and, at times, frustrating, is how various companies staff for product support, development, and delivery. I’ve worked at companies that only had a product management department, or only had a product marketing department, and some have had both product management and product marketing departments – in addition to product development.
The way I see it, Product Marketing and Product Management are simply two sides of a valuable coin; but some companies, frankly, just don’t know there’s a difference. And, yes, there is a difference. But I think it’s either the lack of understanding that difference – or the propensity to cheap out – as the reason why many companies have one or the other, but expect both functions to be sufficiently served. Or worse, they have a product management department but expect the Marketing department (“Big M” Marketing) to handle product marketing, in addition to branding, demand generation, social, digital, advertising, PR, promotions, events, etc.
I’m quite certain there exists hundreds of articles written about the differences between these two practices. But, having worked closely with product marketing, and having worked for companies with varying degrees of these disciplines, I think I can offer an interesting perspective. I’ve encountered a variety of conflicts in these varying environments, which produces different frustrations and gaps to fill as a result of combining the two into one function.
DISCLAIMER – I’m not an expert in either of these disciplines, nor will I claim to be. A lot of overlap and grey area can occur; I’m sharing observations from first-hand, cross-functional experience and what I’ve experienced. I’ve worked with varying degrees of product management, product marketing, product development, and everything in between, and what follows is my personal conclusion and observations for setting up a product organization for success.
For any company producing a product or a service, and even more so if the company makes multiple products and services – targeting multiple markets – employing both product marketing and product management may well be the linchpin to success. Both product management and product marketing are pragmatic in nature, but if an organization relies on one person or one function to handle both disciplines simultaneously, neither program will come out top-shelf. Maybe if there’s only one product (depending on complexity), but successful execution becomes a fair stretch if there’s more than one.
Both roles require an exorbitant amount of knowledge, and both roles are full-time roles in their own right. But, there is a difference, and many companies are either unaware of the difference or they attempt to cheap-out on operating expenses. It’s why some companies have a product management person, or only a product marketing person. Whether you have one or the other, gaps abound due to the scope of each discipline. The team or individual will attempt to fill the gap and try to take up the slack of a second role; or, the slack gets tossed over to someone such as myself in marketing communications, inbound, outbound, demand generation, or marketing project management. If, and when, this occurs, the company still has someone handling two full-time jobs: underpaid, overworked, and frustrated because a lot falls through the cracks. Or worse, he or she becomes conditioned to accept mediocrity, because one person can only do so much.
So, what is the difference, and why might you need both product marketing and product management?
Product Management in a Nutshell
Product managers play a key role within the organization, and are critical to the success of a product. Sometimes more technical in nature, especially if it’s software, your product managers eat, sleep, and breathe the product. They know absolutely everything there is to know about the product: how it works, what it’s supposed to do, what it’s not supposed to do, how it’s built, what skills are required to build it, what it’s capable of, and where it’s headed. Product managers are, or should be, “power users.” They’re aware of upgrades, add-ons, and fixes; they know its quirks, its gotchas, and its a-ha’s. Product managers know what’s next, what’s next after next, and what’s next after next after next – and when.
Product managers know all of the timetables, risks, stretch goals, the not-gonna-happens, and the never-gonna-happens due to this or that. Product managers know how to use it, how not to use it, and how long and hard one has to work to be able to use it a little, use it some, or master its domain. They know why it can do certain things, and why it can’t- and what it will take to turn a Can’t into a Can – and then kick it down the roadmap. These guys are your go-to and incredibly valuable; losing one of these to anyone else is a treasure trove of tribal knowledge walking out the door. It might take their replacement months, or even years, to learn what the incumbent knew.
Product managers own the road map for their product(s), and they work with other product managers to have complete clarity on how the products work together, or how they impact one another – especially when it comes to resource allocation. Most importantly, they know for whom the product is built, and where he or she gets value from it. Speaking of value, product managers also know what it costs to build it, and probably for how much it should be built, and the margins the company needs to achieve.
There is a lot more the product manager does, such as product elimination decisions, sunset plans, and technical or engineering requirements development. Some of it can cross over into product marketing, such as the launch plan, but their piece of the launch plan should pertain to the logistics of getting the product manufactured and shipped; the go-to-market plan is where product marketing enters the picture. Keep in mind that product development is also an involved process that can, and probably should, have a dedicated resource, too.
Product managers ensure the technical or engineering requirements put forth are met, but that also could fall to product development. Similarly, pricing strategy and analysis may also be determined by a separate division or person, because it requires mad analysis, data modeling, and competitive analysis ‘skillz.’ Not to mention the focus required, and the bandwidth to pour over data hours at a given time to develop algorithmic models. Another wicked-smart person you’d do well to have as part of the team, that being a pricing strategist.
Product Marketing In A Nutshell
Like product management, product marketers also know for whom the product is built, what it does, and how it’s built. But, most critically, they know the market for which it’s built, and what aspects of the product are most applicable, or useful, or relevant, to a segment within the market. These are the guys who are conducting market research, focus groups, surveys, etc., and are essentially the “UX” of the product for the segments within the markets; therefore, these astute professionals are also your “power users,” and sometimes conduct internal product training (think sales, marketing, customer support, tech support). External product training for customers should belong to a training department, and be sold as a service package beyond self-guided online training, IMHO. But I digress …
With regard to the market – let’s say your product is targeting airline manufacturers. Product marketers know the companies, the influencers, the decision makers, and the end users of the product. Product marketers also know what makes the target segments tick or get excited about the product. Therefore, they know how to position the product to speak to the pain points the product solves for these segments within the airline manufacturing vertical, for example.
Furthermore, product marketers know their assigned industry intimately. They know who to target, how to target, and what to say. Product marketers focus on market drivers, market impacts, and competitive analysis as it relates to messaging, parallel product comparison, and competitive analysis; they know what to say, how to say it, where to say it, and when to say it, understanding the seasonality of the buying process for their specific type of product juxtaposed against the segment and the industry. They inform the wordsmiths within the organization, but are sometimes wordsmiths themselves. They may also help with responding to the competitive shortcomings of the product, helping support sales with specific objections when a prospect is thinking of going with a competitor.
When it comes to product launch, the logistics of manufacturing, packaging, and shipping to distribution channels should be driven by product management, but it’s the product marketers who create and manage the go-to-market plan. This plan has everything to do with telling the target market that the product is coming, where to get it, and when it’s available. Product marketers work with the demand generation, communications, advertising, creative, and PR folks within the organization (the Big “M” Marketing) to ensure the materials required for launch are on deadline and on message; the branding team ensures brand compliance.
Product marketers inform the Marketing Department about the product, the audience, positioning, and messaging, likely through a creative briefing process. Additionally, the product marketers are the stakeholders and project owners of the go-to-market plans, which defines what “deliverables” the Marketing Department should produce: photography, press releases, ads, search engine keywords, website content, landing pages, web forms, and more. This may or may not include packaging and “what’s in the box,” but sometimes there’s also a packaging division to include in the launch plans. If there is, the product marketers are informing packaging what should be in the box, and manages the project for the production of these materials as part of the GTM plan.
Product Marketing’s Secret Weapon: Data, Data, Data. And Oh, More Data.
Once the product hits the market, product marketers become keenly aware of the product’s performance in the marketplace. Is sales moving enough units? Is demand gen driving enough leads? Are the margins where they need to be? Do they need to do a promotion to boost adoption? What does “break even” look like? What’s the highest price the market will tolerate? What’s the lowest price to ensure high volumes without losing their ass in margins? Is pricing competitive? This data would definitely come from the pricing strategists or business intelligence, if they exist, but it’s important for product marketing to know these answers before dictating a promotional offer and eliciting the help of marketing to produce a new campaign, offer, or positioning.
Product marketers are also gathering data, in the form of business intelligence, on how the product compares to other products in the company, how the sales compare to competitive products in their target market, and are conducting customer and prospect focus groups to ensure the messages and product are delivering on its promises.
Product marketers leverage data analysis, either themselves (if they have time) or a BI division, to inform the executive leaders of how well the product is doing in the market. Product marketers also develop the forecast for volume, revenue, and profits, and ensure the messages, outbound efforts, and sales are meeting forecast goals on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. If the forecast shows a miss, a great product marketer will come to the table with a plan of action to right the trajectory, with a timeline of execution, delivery, and expected outcome.
In addition to all this, product marketing, through sales and lead volume, knows whether an offer is working. If it’s not, they work with (Big ‘M’) Marketing to craft a new message to the marketplace. Product marketers are intimately aware of the features and benefits, competitively speaking, and know the product’s differentiating factors that drive choice in the market. They will partner with MarCom to conduct focus groups around the new messaging and positioning.
One Last Thing About Product Marketing . . .
Considering building a new product? Great. Before any bright, shiny ideas are put down on paper, product marketing should collaborate with product development and product management to ask the marketplace what it wants, needs, or sees as emerging disruptors – especially if its purpose is to penetrate a new market. Asking the market, in the form of focus groups, surveys, market research firms, etc., will inform the marketing requirement document from which the technical requirements come. Avoid drawing conclusions or guessing – instinct is good, but your product marketers should validate the need and put forth a vetted, validated, and confirmed solution dictated by the target market. Otherwise, a company could be investing millions to build a product that nobody will buy. Or worse, is soon rendered obsolete because of other advances – remember Flip Video cameras?
I hope I did justice for product management and product marketing professionals everywhere – in my opinion, these two roles within an organization are not only crucial, but they’re essential. I have immense respect and admiration for people who choose these paths for their careers; it certainly demands remarkable talent. Staffing both areas right, and investing in the tools they need, is one the smartest strategies a business can do for its future. There are lots of places to “cut corners” in a business, but doing so in product management or product marketing will certainly hurt significantly more than it helps. Be smart. Cheaping out doesn’t pay.