July 9, 2020

How marketers can prepare for product-led growth

Hiring stage-appropriate people is one of the main challenges I’ve seen product-led growth (PLG) companies face. Particularly in marketing where the role changes so dramatically depending on the size (enterprise or startup) and type of company (PLG or sales-led). Who will feel successful in a 50-employee, pure PLG company often differs from who can adjust to a 1000-employee PLG company adding a sales team. 

A bevy of helpful articles already exist for marketers adapting to large companies or vice versa. Yet few discuss how marketing differs in a PLG company versus in a sales-led one. We’ll try to help fill that gap here.

Let’s start with “sales-led” as a brief refresher, as many of us have already experienced (or heard about) what marketing in that environment feels like. 

In sales-led, marketing partners with sales

In 2012, I had my first experience working inside an enormous sales-led company. Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s Aruba acquired our consumer-y, mobile app startup Meridian. There, I got schooled on how a sales team impacts the day-to-day work of a marketer.

Fairly quickly, I learned if you’re handling marketing research in a sales-led company,  chances are your efforts will likely feed into training salespeople on buyer personas, messaging, competitors, and so on.

Demand generation in sales-led companies often means delivering demo requests, or “hand-raiser” leads, that align with the sales team’s target account list. 

Content teams will likely find themselves at some point creating collateral and other tools to help the sales team educate buyers and close deals.

Obviously, there's more to sales-led marketing than that, but these marketing initiatives will be top of mind in many sales-led companies.

In PLG, marketing partners with product

One of my early marketing roles involved consulting Amazon, which was mostly PLG. So, I learned from some of the brightest on how to have the product do the selling for you.

Working with Amazon I learned the product drives customer acquisition, expansion, renewal, and retention -- not just the sales team. Therefore, product-management teammates have a much greater influence on why marketing conducts research, content development, demand generation, lifecycle marketing, and so on.

It’s important to suss out which role drives the culture in a PLG (or sales-led) company because that will impact a marketer’s life almost more than anything. 


Personally, I’ve found the research expectations of the marketing team in a PLG company are larger than in the sales-led companies I’ve worked for. 

All engaged product managers -- PLG or sales-led -- don’t just ask the customer success team what they’re hearing from customers. They themselves ask customers what customers need, how they’re challenged, and their views on how your product can improve. 

See, in many PLG companies -- and this was my experience at InVision -- quite a few of the early product-management hires come from consumer backgrounds and not B2B backgrounds. They’re accustomed to relying on not just the qualitative “customer development” research interviews, but also quantitative data. These product managers analyze heaps of customer behavioral data around new signups, upgrades, active accounts, who is engaged with certain features, inactive, churned, renewed, and so forth. They want to see how the customer actually behaves and doesn’t just say in an interview.

Instead of merely building whatever customer-facing teams ask for, consumer-grade product managers will use both qualitative and quantitative data to advocate for decisions around all kinds of matters ranging from how to improve onboarding to sunsetting features with little usage. 

That’s why, as a PLG marketer, you’ll probably do more quantitative and qualitative research with a product manager than in a sales-led company. Before the company increases their sales-team headcount, your research will focus more on helping the PMs who will have an insatiable desire for more knowledge about the customer.


With less need for developing training materials for sales, PLG marketers can spend more time creating content that draws in people to sign up for free and upgrade to a paid plan. 

In a PLG company, you’ll notice more of a heavy emphasis on “top-of-funnel” content, or content that creates a community, is educational, and isn’t overtly self-promotional. InVision taught me how much of a “superpower” top-of-funnel content can be. Thousands of peoples’ first interaction with InVision is the InVision blog, as well as dozens of videos and e-books which often focus more on life as a designer than InVision’s software. 

As a marketer crafting content in a PLG company, you’ll find yourself needing to toe the line between not self-promotional and self-promotional. The question “how much should we talk about our products in our content?” could end up one of the greatest debates in your company that can rarely settle with data alone. It will require compromise and empathy for the emotions on both sides. 

Demand generation

If PLG is going well, your happy customers spread the word about your self-serve product and demand increases organically, but paying for demand is almost always required at some point -- PLG or not. 

In your PLG demand generation efforts, you'll likely drive a social ad to a free signup or an upgrade offer -- instead of a “talk to sales” call-to-action. Because that’s how performance marketing works in consumer e-commerce where many of your colleagues come from. “Buy this modern brass-light fixture you abandoned in your shopping cart!” (However, you’ll soon realize that you need to steal a page from the old-school B2B marketing playbook and also drive ads toward content -- not just signups.) 

What might be different about running demand gen in a PLG company: you’ll probably have an outsized social-ads budget, as long as you maintain an adequate Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). Your consumer e-commerce colleagues embrace social ads because they’ve seen it work. In a sales-led company, you might have to evangelize the power of social ads beyond LinkedIn. 

Going upmarket

I’m not going to be that one person and say, “Eventually, every PLG company adds a sales team -- even Slack!” It’s not entirely true: companies such as Zapier are still going strong with no sales time as of this writing’s publication. 

That said, you will likely work for a PLG company that adds a sales team. You might hit a ceiling on self-serve revenue or your investors want more large, complicated enterprise deals that salespeople work best.  

One of the most difficult work experiences in all of SaaS is the PLG marketer who, for the first time in their career, has two bosses: product management who cares about self-serve revenue and the sales team who is accustomed to a marketing team that supports them. If you know one of these marketers going through this, send them flowers.

PLG and sales-led marketers both have their place

Much of the above involves sweeping generalizations, so please forgive me if your PLG or sales-led company is different and wildly successful. But it’s important to realize your marketing strategies will change depending on how the company generates revenue: by credit card or a salesperson asking for the sale. I hope you’re now a little more prepared before stepping into the role.

Jeff Hardison is currently Head of Product Marketing at Calendly. Previously, Jeff handled marketing and growth for product-led companies such as InVision, Clearbit, Grain.co, and Amazon.com.

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