March 26, 2020

How and why SendGrid aligned their product and marketing teams

It’s fairly common practice to align product and engineering. On the surface, this makes total sense, but if you dig deeper you’ll find it’s actually a lot more effective—for customers and for the business—to align product and marketing. 

When you align product and engineering, the resulting conversation is inevitably about the process of building. It’s about the what and the how of your product. 

When you align product and marketing, the conversation shifts to focus on why you are building what you’re building and—just as important—for whom. It’s about the promise you make to your customer, and the commercial impact of fulfilling that promise. 

One conversation is product centric, the other is customer centric. And in the modern software market, you have to take a customer-centric approach. 

When I worked at SendGrid, I was in the dual role of CPO/CMO. We brought these two teams together under a single umbrella because we understood that customers don’t care about the individual functions that make up an organization. They care about their own experience. Left on their own, product and marketing default to a function-specific view of the world. Aligning these teams allowed us to take a more complete and holistic view of the entire customer experience. 

That turned out to be much better for our users, and for our business. 

Step 1: Change the conversation

The first step to achieving alignment between these two teams was to bring them together for a different kind of integrated conversation. The power of aligning product and marketing is that it gives you the ability to not only create continuity in the customer experience, it also opens up a world of opportunities that appear when you are able to get marketing folks thinking like product folks and product folks thinking like marketing folks. The cross-pollination of ideas that might otherwise have been overlooked can yield enormous benefits. 

Our shared goal was to get our customer to a place where—emotionally—she believes that the promises we’ve made will be kept. Marketing makes those promises, but it takes a coordinated, cross-functional effort to deliver on them. At SendGrid, we realized customers felt that sense of promise fulfillment if they used our product to send three emails in their first 30-day window. To create the conditions that encouraged this customer behavior, the product and marketing teams had to come together. They had to combine the commitments made on the marketing side of things with an in-product experience that facilitates and motivates follow through. Thinking about the goal and each team’s role this way changed the whole orientation of our teams.

Bringing the teams together also brought a little more discipline to the conversation. They quickly learned what kinds of questions we were going to be asking as a group, and realized they needed to think outside the confines of their individual functions in order to answer those questions. They needed to understand how what they did within their function interacted with and influenced what happens outside their function. In other words, they had to step out of the silo. 

The fact that our business model is set up based on monthly (versus annual) contracts helped ensure that we were having this new conversation on a regular basis. In general, I like monthly contracts because they keep companies honest. You have to earn your keep every thirty days. There’s no coasting. Our integrated team looks at all our metrics on a monthly basis, which forces us to constantly revisit how we’re performing against the promises that we’ve made.

Step 2: Assign commercial responsibility

After changing the conversation, our next step was to shift some commercial responsibility onto the shoulders of both product and marketing. We had learned to talk the talk; it was time to walk the walk. This transition is tough for most organizations because, traditionally, neither product nor marketing have to think much about their commercial impact on the business. They leave that to leadership and sales and business intelligence. 

We took a slightly different approach with each team. On the product side, we made product managers responsible for projecting either revenue or adoption for each mid-size and large release. To do this well, product had to circle back with the digital demand gen team in order to get a better understanding of what the funnel looks like. While this was completely new—and somewhat stressful—territory for our product people, they adapted quickly. We applied a little social pressure by requiring the product team to report their progress to the executive team in our monthly business reviews. We also supported product through the transition with integrated guidance and access to the other teams. 

In the end, our product managers got pretty darn good at predicting adoption and what the uptake would be. Just as important, the process gave them the ability to preemptively identify (and abandon) projects that seemed cool, but were not going to have much commercial impact.

Like product, marketing rarely has revenue responsibility. Their focus is on the pipeline, not about what happens beyond the pipeline: adoption, conversion, net dollar retention, and so forth. Marketing is typically measured using proxy metrics that basically boil down to activities (e.g., how many blog posts were published or emails sent). It’s easy to report on what you did and how many times you did it and even how many people you reached by doing it. What’s more important, however, is being able to say whether or not what you did actually worked. Did it matter? Did it make a difference? 

Lead quantity is a classic example of how not to measure marketing. You can generate a thousand bad leads or a hundred amazing leads; what matters isn’t the quantity, but the quality. And it also matters what you do with those leads. By shifting marketing’s attention to outcomes, we encouraged them to become super focused on determining which information they needed to provide to customers at which point in the journey to cue adoption. Marketing had to extend their view beyond that initial point of contact and learn how to influence behavior toward a specific result.

While this approach took some getting used to, it made a really important difference in how our teams viewed and fulfilled their roles. They had a lot more clarity about what we were promising our customers and what we needed to do to keep that promise. By assigning interdependent commercial responsibility to each team, we were able to effectively close the gap between them. They had to rely on each other. Each team had to expand its purview slightly until the two traditional territories overlapped, creating natural interaction that served all objectives. 

It’s always all about the customer experience

Now that I’m the CEO of Contentful, I’m continuing to explore how to strategically align product and marketing for the benefit of the customer and our business. We’re not yet in a place where it makes sense to dive into the deep end. We have just hired a VP of product management and our first VP of digital demand gen. For the moment, these functions are still in their infancy in terms of that next level of integration. 

That said, we’re basically running the same playbook we used at SendGrid. We’re just rolling it out over the course of the next year or so. As initial steps, we’ve created a shared view of the funnel and broached the commercial conversation with the product team. In fact, we just reorganized product and engineering specifically so that our product managers are no longer responsible for weekly scrum duties. This frees them up to focus on the commercial side of things, including a new product brief that asks them to identify the commercial impact of any project. This is already getting them talking with people in marketing. It’s a great start. 

However you structure your alignment between product and marketing, the main thing is to keep bringing both teams back to center around the customer experience. That is the conversation everyone in your organization needs to be having all day, every day. You don’t need anyone giving functional descriptions of what they’re doing; you need them to articulate why they’re doing it. This shift in focus will change the orientation of the company in a lasting and profound way. 

And you need to remember, as we used to say at SendGrid, that the customer experience starts the moment someone types a query into the Google search bar. This is why you need leaders who can bring different functional teams together in a way that encompasses the entire customer life cycle—from the tone and voice of your marketing content to the product UX to the support docs and beyond. From start to finish, the customer should have a strong sense of continuity, almost like they are talking to one person, never like they’re dealing with multiple functions. 

It’s all about seeing the journey through the eyes of the customer and giving them what they want and need. After all, at the end of the day, the only truth is whether or not you’re making your customers happy.

Steve Sloan has extensive experience as a product, marketing and technology leader in market-leading, high-growth enterprise SaaS organizations. Prior to joining Contentful as CEO, Steve held the roles of Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Twilio SendGrid, and Senior Vice President of Product, Engineering & Operations at Marketo.

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