In 2011, I joined the hypergrowth martech startup, Wildfire. Working at Wildfire was fun. Like, really fun, and for a lot of reasons. Our category was wide open. We had this massive blue ocean to run at in social media marketing, which made growth easy.
There were weekly parties and yearly trips to Tahoe. Everyone was young and full of energy. It was a real cast of characters; the head of engineering dressed like a pirate, our founder was a world class snowboarder. And there was Neil. Neil (not his real name) was our CMO. He was brought in just before we were acquired. He had a reputation for taking companies public. He was the kind of guy who would floor his Maserati down the road to our Pac Shores office in Redwood City so you knew he was coming. He had long hair. He was always yelling. He had a shockingly consistent amount of energy for a man his age.
Neil was fun but I’m sure he never spent more than 2 seconds inside of our software. He didn’t need to. He knew the narrative he wanted to tell (what the market wanted to hear) and he had the budget he needed to go out and buy ad space at SFO and in the trade magazines. At the time Neil was at the cutting edge of marketing. He was also the definition of software marketing 1.0.
Software Marketing 1.0
Software marketing 1.0 was all about getting as much attention as possible from as many people as possible, regardless of if they were a good fit. Companies cast a wide net with PR, ads, billboards, trade pubs, and events designed to capture eyeballs and drive traffic. This top-of-funnel strategy leaned more heavily on the zeitgeist than on the product, which meant that even though it did pull in lots of people, they were people with low-intent. Back then it didn’t matter, because there wasn’t enough competition to give people a real choice. Churn wasn’t the four letter word it is today. The Neil’s of the world flourished. But today, product-led companies win. And Silicon Valley is now littered with the remains of high growth SaaS companies that were all hype and no product.
Product first companies and especially product-led growth companies (PLG) have taken center stage. And marketing is changing with it. Marketing 2.0 embraces product, instead of side stepping it. When marketing becomes product driven, marketers are required to understand the product on a much deeper level. In this new world, every aspect of marketing must be rooted in the product experience.
I’ve been on the Product Marketing team at HubSpot for 5 years. And when I first joined HubSpot was much more of a sales- and marketing-led company. That is what fueled our growth. But, in the last five years our company has undergone a major transformation to embrace the product-led philosophy. The seed of PLG was planted when we introduced Website Grader as an acquisition tool (over 5 years ago), but we hadn’t fully committed to a PLG model until more recently. Today, we have a completely free CRM, a robust starter package, and a pro product with free trials. We’re all in on PLG.
We chose the PLG path because we realized, these days, you have to win on product. Period. We love free trials and premium because they get people to experience our product; and we know that once they’ve had that experience, we win. Today, everyone is a technology expert now, and user expectations are incredibly high. Unless you can count on your product to demonstrate value effectively, it’s going to be really, really hard for you to win in today’s market. Marketers need to come to terms with that.
How product marketers grow PLG companies is different from companies using other go-to-market strategies. Product-led marketers are judged not on the volume of largely unqualified traffic they create, but on their ability to connect on a deeper level with the exact right prospects, differentiate their solution, and execute massive revenue driving launches. To do this well, product marketers need to design a killer narrative, invest in building (and nurturing) a community-based movement, and master the art of driving adoption.
The evolution of the product marketing role
Before we get into the specifics of what product marketers need to do well, it’s worth taking a moment to understand how the marketer’s role has evolved within a PLG organization.
In a traditional, sales-led model, sales is the tip of the spear. It’s the customer’s first point of contact. In a PLG model, there is typically a free trial, so the customer’s first experience is with the website and the product itself. In this scenario, the product marketing team takes over the responsibilities that used to fall on the sales team—educating buyers, demonstrating value, and onboarding new users.
In a product-led company, the website, product pages, and product narrative are key assets that help educate users on the product, its story, and its value proposition. This content helps ensure that when people get into your product, they already have an idea of your point of view and understand the value they can hope to derive from your product. In essence, these marketing assets need to perform the role of a great salesperson at scale for all the people coming into the free trial or freemium product.
This transference of responsibilities profoundly changes how product and marketing teams think about the go-to-market strategy. Product people need to think more critically about things like the user experience and time-to-value. And marketing people need to be fully immersed in the product. A superficial understanding of a product’s features, functionality, and purpose is no longer enough. Marketers in product-led organizations need to live and breathe the product almost as much as the product team.
At HubSpot, everyone on our marketing team goes through product training. They also use HubSpot on a daily basis. This constant exposure to the product helps everyone in marketing stay grounded in the product experience. It's probably not enough, but that foundation is critical for two reasons. First, it helps marketing pull in the right, high-intent people. Second, convincing people to buy is hard; and it’s even harder when the people you’re trying to convince are already pretty savvy and have sky-high expectations. You have to really know your stuff in order to gain their trust and make a persuasive offer. Deep product knowledge matters.
Design a killer narrative
One of the biggest jobs sales has in a traditional growth model is to educate and inspire users with a great pitch. Good salespeople don’t just dive right into a feature demo, and neither should your product-led marketing. Before a user gets their hands on the product, you want to present them with a great narrative that gets them interested and demonstrates value.
A great narrative has a strong point of view. It picks sides and isn’t afraid to offend. It’s unapologetically passionate. And, like any good story, a winning product narrative has a hero and a villain, winners and losers. It can be a little scary, but you have to have the conviction to put a stake in the ground. Especially when a human isn’t delivering the story, it must be interesting.
In addition to defining, in no uncertain terms, what your product is all about, your strategic narrative also has to win over the hearts and minds of everyone within your organization. From the executive suite to the mailroom, every individual needs to really believe the story. An effective narrative isn’t just a function of marketing or product marketing; it has to be understood and embraced by the entire company.
Without true alignment, you risk creating a disconnect between the narrative and what your product can actually deliver … a.k.a. a “bait and switch,” (customers won’t put up for this for one second and they’ll trash you on social media).
If you want to take it to the next level align your narrative with your product. One example of this narrative/product alignment at HubSpot is how we handle banner ads. HubSpot is the Inbound Marketing company. We believe that it’s better to attract than interrupt. We don’t offer banner ads or mid-roll ads inside of the HubSpot ads tool. It’s because their interruptive nature goes against our inbound philosophy. So, while people may think they could work for them, we don’t offer them because we believe inbound so much.
Allowing banner ad integrations in our product would create a dissonance between our strategic narrative and our product. We’d be advising against interruptive advertising, but enabling it in our own product. That’s not only confusing to users, it also undermines our credibility and authority.
To sum up, a killer strategic narrative is bold, educational, and inspiring. It also accurately reflects your brand’s values and aligns with the value you deliver.
Build a movement
In addition to educating prospects and customers, great salespeople also build really strong relationships with buyers. In a self-serve product-led model, you don’t have the same opportunity to create that connection. But, people still crave connection; they want to be part of something. In a PLG scenario, a community can offer that sense of inclusion and belonging.
The most vital and engaged communities are built around a movement. And movements are built around a strong narrative. So, important caveat—craft your strategic narrative before attempting to build a community. People will not engage with a community they don’t care about. A strong narrative gives them something to believe in and a reason to get involved.
A well-built and engaged community builds a kind of moat around your business by enabling you to set the macro rules for the universe your community members play in. For example, we set the rule that—as inbound marketers—we don’t use interruptive advertising. This rule is foundational to the identity of the inbound marketers in our community. It’s also beneficial to us because it elevates the importance of content marketing. See how that works? When you design the narrative you set the rules.
There’s always the chance that someone else will come along and claim to do the thing you do, but—since you’ve established the universe and its rules—this newcomer would either have to copy you (never a good look) or come up with their own rules, which would be tough to do in a way that differentiates them while still supporting their business.
In addition to helping defend against the competition, a community provides an amazing opportunity for creating social proof at scale. People in your community will come out of the woodwork to provide highly valuable, unbiased, third-party recommendations. They will be happy to do this because they believe in your narrative, your product, and your methodology. They believe in what you’re doing, and they want to be a part of it.
The product marketer’s job in relation to community is not to manage the community, but to design the world the community lives in, be a champion of the strategic narrative, and find and celebrate the community members who are doing really great work. While someone else, perhaps a developer advocate from the community, owns the community, where it lives, and how it works, the product marketer should focus on finding and maximizing opportunities to promote the narrative within the community and elevate customer stories from the community.
A lot of users come to a product to either address a specific pain point or take advantage of a specific feature. The product marketer’s job—once a user is in the product—is to use narrative-driven product launches, content, and other tactics to help each user realize that whatever solution or feature they came for is actually part of something bigger. You want users to feel like they might be missing out on something, and then you can use their FOMO to drive broader and deeper adoption.
Driving consistent adoption requires developing and maintaining a consistent rhythm of interesting, valuable product launches. These launches expand customer’s use cases and help free users gain a better understanding of the value your product can deliver. Keep you product launches rooted in the narrative, social proof, and whatever value that new product brings. It’ll keep your updates interesting and give you an opportunity to continually upsell and cross sell your free users in a way that the product, or low conversion rate experiments, ever will.
From webinars and basic training to advanced courses and thought leadership, there are a lot of product-serving content opportunities that product marketers can leverage to help users grow into their next phase of success. At HubSpot, for example, we offer webinars that help customers with their ad strategy in general, and then we shift them over to seeing exactly how we handle different ad scenarios within our tool. So, we provide them with great strategic resources followed by hands-on, product-specific tactics. This strategy is so effective that it routinely drives a massive spike in the product, giving our product team immediate feedback that’s really exciting and inspiring to them.
For the more advanced product marketing teams, there are also opportunities to drive growth by developing customer prescriptions around specific workflows and frameworks. This requires really close collaboration between product marketing and the product team because it's about marrying the strategic narrative and strategy to specific features in the tool.
At HubSpot, our marketing is very prescriptive. We like to give people the framework for how to do something, and then we create opportunities to gate features within the framework. So, a customer might be able to accomplish the first step in the framework using a free tool, but subsequent steps might require an upsell or cross-sell to a premium feature.
For example, our product marketing team designed a three-step strategy framework to help customers successfully create their first ad campaign. The basic idea was that users should begin with their content and then amplify it via a variety of ad types. We worked with customers pre-product, sitting in on sales calls and consulting. We also offered some best-practices via our HubSpot Academy content.
At the same time, the product team was working to ensure that the product would enable the defined workflow and line up with our strategic narrative. This doesn’t mean they simply built the product to conform to my ideas about ads. It means that the way they built out the product was informed by the prescriptions we were creating for certain frameworks. It’s definitely a give and take, a back and forth. In the end, it worked out that for a lot of our services tools the reactive tools are free while the proactive tools are paid pro products. The narrative gave customers a sense of the path they should be following, and then the product supported that with both free and gated features.
The role of product marketers in product-led organizations is just as important as the role of sales in more traditional companies. When user acquisition is driven primarily by a free product and virality, product marketers can have a much bigger impact on growth. They need to adapt to the PLG model by replacing the benefits of sales education with a strong strategic narrative. They need to then use that narrative as the foundation on which they can build a community-powered movement. And they need to explore and refine new ways to drive adoption using launches, content, and prescriptive frameworks.
Just like a Maserati speeding towards a shiny office building in beautiful Redwood City. Software, and how people use it, is moving and changing faster than ever. And as a result Marketing needs to move just as fast. At most companies this change is slow, until it isn’t, and you find yourself way behind the curve. Product marketers can be an agent of that change, but we have to adapt, and fast.