The End of Product Marketing

I would like to introduce our guest blogger Dave Wolpert who has a very interesting opinion on the state of Product Marketing to share. Dave is the Founder and Principal of Swordfish Communications, a product marketing and content marketing services firm in Austin, Texas. Previously, he was a product marketer at pcOrder.com, BroadJump, Convio, and LibreDigital. You can also find Swordfish on Twitter at @SwordfishComm. Enjoy the post and looking forward to hearing your thoughts. 

The product marketing function in tech companies is heading for extinction. The work product marketers currently do will continue to be performed, but by different people.

Preparing for the Asteroid Impact

To simplify the Pragmatic Marketing Framework, product marketing provides two broad functions, which can be loosely grouped under inbound and outbound activities. Both of these functions will continue to be of critical importance, but will eventually be de-coupled and performed by others.

On the inbound side, product marketers represent the “voice of the customer” to various groups within their company. Tactically, that means they solicit input from both current and prospective customers, as well as survey competitors and the market-at-large, through a variety of channels. They then synthesize that information and present it to the appropriate internal stakeholders to guide decision-making.

Of course, this is precisely a part of what most product managers do today. And, moving forward, I believe they’ll do it more often to feed progressively faster product development cycles.

On the outbound side, product marketers typically create a spectrum of marketing collateral, from product-focused website copy to white papers. Unfortunately, most product marketers aren’t the best writers, so this work is increasingly “insourced” to a MarCom group or outsourced to marketing agencies or individual copywriters (a.k.a. content marketers).

Product marketers also create “sales tools,” such as PowerPoint decks and sales proposal content. But this is increasingly outsourced, too. Sales can build their own sales decks, and MarCom can make them visually compelling; most copywriters can write persuasive proposal content.

You see where this is going. As product managers become the primary conduit for collecting customer and market insights, and the content creation piece is insourced or outsourced to those with better writing and design skills than the typical product marketer possesses, what is left for product marketers to do?

My answer: nothing.

Aren’t You Forgetting Some Things?

Sure, someone still has to perform the bit roles product marketers play (organize the infamous quarterly sales trainings, plan product launches, define positioning, and so on). But these ancillary roles don’t collectively constitute a full-time job. And again, much of it can—and in some cases should—be sourced to others.

Why can’t Sales organize their own training? Why can’t MarCom or other marketing team members plan a product launch? (After all, launches increasingly involve activities that others manage, like events, social media and PR.) And isn’t product positioning fluid, anyway, often defined evolutionarily by Sales based on what resonates with prospects?

You might be thinking that it’s advantageous to centralize all these roles with one person. I disagree. Part of my frustration as a former staff product marketer was that I was constantly asked to do too much, too quickly, while delivering consistently excellent work. (To wit, check out this exhaustive list of typical primary and secondary product marketer functions.) With so many good outsourcing options available, why would any company want to overload their staff and sacrifice quality?

What Happens Next

The product marketing extinction event won’t be as dramatic or as quick as a giant asteroid hitting the earth. Instead, the role of the product marketer will be peeled back in stages.

This has already begun. At many companies, product management has already replaced the inbound function I described earlier. At others, product marketers have evolved into field marketers by focusing mainly on sales tools that are only used internally; development of externally-facing content marketing tools, like technical white papers, are sourced to others.

Eventually, all the strategically important roles product marketers traditionally play will be stripped. This will inevitably result in reduced wages and, ultimately, product marketers disappearing by forced or voluntary attrition.

Survival is Possible

Will any product marketers survive the mass extinction event I’m forecasting? Only those with an exceedingly rare combination of talents: someone who is exceptional at customer interaction, and who is a superb writer, and who excels at understanding the needs of the Sales team, and whose technical knowledge is comparable to that of the product managers. I’ve met very few such individuals over the years. Ones that good are often promoted to Director or VP roles in their organizations, go off to be independent consultants, or start their own companies.

I paint a gloomy forecast, but if there’s a silver lining in my argument it’s this: individuals with any of these superstar skills will always be in demand. Their job title and department they report to might change, but in the end, companies will find a place for those with valuable skills.

So don’t obsess over how to build a career in product marketing, because that whole field is on the endangered species list. Rather, focus on advancing the skill sets that an ideal product marketer would have. That’s the best way to survive.

 

Image Credit:  viking_79

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  • http://smartsoftwaremarketing.co.uk/ Giles Farrow

    Yes the old style of Product Marketing should die

    For complex enterprise software, there is still a huge gap between the hard technical knowledge of product managers and the softer marketing communications skills.

    Product marketers play well in this gap, whatever they are called.
    – they need domain expertise for the industry, business case…
    – they need expertise to translate features in benefits and value that is easily understood

    The shift from outbound to inbound has a huge impact
    So does the consumerization of software and adoption of social media

    But still someone must determine positioning, create content, translate tech -> business…

    • http://www.arandomjog.com/ Joshua Duncan

      Giles,

      I tend to agree that in complex software organization, there is a need for a role between marketing and product management. You need someone to help create the positioning and the stories that marketing can run with. 

      To Dave’s point, I have been in a role as a product manager where I was asked to also do product marketing but it was a situation where the development time was very long between products. In an agile SW role, the PM is usually focused on the next on planning the next release and doesn’t have the time to manage the entire PMM process too.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Josh

    • http://twitter.com/DavidWLocke David W. Locke

      Sorry, but the old style product manager shouldn’t die. It wasn’t a style. It was a job in a specific position in the technology adoption lifecycle. We are beyond that phase now, so we get away with Agile, faster cycles, and forever voice of the customer.

      I’ve worried about commoditization, about falling wages, and about standardization  of product management. I’ve worried about how product managers have been willing to fragement and diminish their responsibilities. Some product managers say the product owner is all, but no, particularly in the adoption lifecycle where the web is today. Then, you have others that think their job really is that of a backlog manager. Yet, they still railed against Rick Chapman’s saying that product manager’s were unnecessary. Product managers are all over the map. Some try to do the whole job from the perspective of a leader, others do a few parts of the job as a doer. That makes for a wide span.

      Product manager is a role that goes where the offer goes. It goes where you take it. It goes where the hiring manager doesn’t want to go. But, in terms of a career, don’t think of it forever. Know where you’re going.

      • http://smartsoftwaremarketing.co.uk/ Giles Farrow

        Wow this post is getting a lot of great comments. It’s great to see all the interest, but it’s also quite difficult to follow the flow as it spans so many pages.

        I was saying the work that product *marketers* have done in the past has evolved. The style has changed from pushing out product datasheets, whitepapers, pitches… to focusing on customers (benefits, case studies, social)

        I see the role of the product *manager* as being very different. In practice though there are plenty of companies that intertwine product marketing and product management to suit their needs. For example I spent my first 2 years as a product manager, spending half my time on product marketing – there was no product marketing team at this startup.

        The product manager role is important and I am not advocating it goes away. It too has changed with new techniques. The only time I can see it would make sense not to have a dedicated product manager is for an early-stage startup where the founders are doing that role part-time.

        If I could wave a wand and erase something it would be the words “product marketing” it’s misleading as we should not be focused on *product* when marketing and the visual similarity leads to confusion between “product marketing manager” and “product manager”.

  • Dave Wolpert

    Good points, Giles. But my question is, does the gap you describe exist simply because there aren’t a lot of product managers who have deep domain/industry expertise and can translate market needs? Or is that product managers are simply not expected to possess or use those skills, because that’s the job of the product marketer? I’m merely suggesting that good product managers (plus existing MarCom staff for the content piece) can do–at least in theory–everything you’re describing.

    • http://www.arandomjog.com/ Joshua Duncan

      Dave,

      Thanks again for the guest post and the great discussion around the topic. Always good to hear different views and what people are seeing as Product Marketing challenges. 

      Josh

    • http://twitter.com/prdmkgBlackbelt Karol M McCloskey

      There’s ALWAYS a great deal to accomplish to successfully commercialize products. Defining the roles, either as PM or PMM,  will help limit any overlap, reduce “re-do”, ensure the product is released well and taken care of during life cycle.  

      I’m sure it seems a muddle to us because we’re right in the middle of it. Me – I’m on the fence about the end of PMM role (I am sure the role will modify)  – but I’m certain it is very hard to be the expert on product and marketing given that both skills are required at usually the same time in the cycle, not to mention needing to be an expert on both.  Challenges for sure!

  • http://womeninbusinessradio.com Michele Price

    Yes, thinking ahead and how to evolve needs to be a conscious decision daily.  Enjoyed reading the thought process.

    • http://www.arandomjog.com/ Joshua Duncan

      Michele,

      Thanks for the comment and the share!

      I do agree the most with the point of continue evolution, “individuals with any of these superstar skills will always be in demand. ” 

      You need to focus on making sure you are developing the right skills to take you to that next role. 

      Thanks again,

      Josh 

  • Tim Johnson

    Not sure I buy the ‘death’ thing completely but certainly agree about changes and adaptability.  What I’ve seen over the last 4-5 years would lead me to argue more for the death of traditional marketing roles than of PMM.  I’ve seen PMM become much more strategic in nature, growing responsibility for GTM, positioning and messaging – none of which lend themselves well to out-sourcing.

    Just to stir things up a bit, I predict that future VPs of marketing will come from PMM and corporate marketing (AR, PR, lead gen) will become the outsourced activities.

    • http://twitter.com/prdmkgBlackbelt Karol M McCloskey

      Tim, changes most certainly are in our futures. You are are correct, as a PMM we are strategic and provide the critical positioning/messaging to each audience. I have seen a good deal of outsourcing of the groups you describe. I think the rise of social has been an instrumental player in all this…

  • http://twitter.com/boazronkin Boaz Ronkin

    This is an interesting and thought-provoking post, and I thank you for writing it, but I respectfully disagree with your premise that organizations will become more effective by distributing product marketing duties to other teams. I’ll respond to a few points you make by relaying my own B2B product marketing experience and observations, in the hope of making my case. 

    Regarding the need to represent the VOC, you write: “Of course, this is precisely a part of what most product managers do today. And, moving forward, I believe they’ll do it more often to feed progressively faster product development cycles.”

    PM representing the voice of customers — sometimes. Representing the voice of prospects — very rarely. Actually, from what I’ve seen in the B2B space, product managers spend 80% of their time dealing with internal stakeholders (developers, professional services, or — when interacting with prospects — answering technical questions that Sales cannot handle). As products become more complex, more integrated with third-party systems, more customized to the needs of individual clients, product managers must allocate more of their time to the product. They don’t have the bandwidth to do needs analysis, identify new markets and opportunities, and analyze shifting customer demands. In fact, when PMs deal with feature requests, they typically get those from existing clients who are interested in getting more value out of their investment. Product Marketers, on the other hand, spend most of their time with prospects, trying to figure out what is missing in the current solution set that prevents these prospects from becoming customers. This is something that PM will always prioritize the lowest given the urgencies “to fix the product ASAP.”
    You write: “Unfortunately, most product marketers aren’t the best writers, so this work is increasingly “insourced” to a MarCom group or outsourced to marketing agencies or individual copywriters (a.k.a. content marketers).”

    It is true that producing effective business materials requires certain writing skills and polish that many individuals — product marketers included — don’t possess. That does not mean, however, that MarComs and agencies can create this collateral on their own. They are not equipped to write product messaging frameworks, positioning collateral, and so on. They lack the technical skills to parse release notes, product requirements documents and competitive collateral to translate “feeds and speeds” into differentiated benefit statements. I would also argue that MarComs and agencies do not spend enough time segmenting their audience. They do not know how to best position a feature to a CxO (influencer/buyer) than to an analyst or manager (user). Product Marketing can do this effectively. Bottom line, let MarCom and agencies develop the client-facing collateral if you must, but have them draw from the messaging frameworks that product marketing develops.
    You write: “Sales can build their own sales decks, and MarCom can make them visually compelling; most copywriters can write persuasive proposal content.”

    When Sales write, it’s because product marketing doesn’t have enough bandwidth to deliver what’s needed. From my experience, when Sales people write, they create their own individualized versions that they feel comfortable delivering. So the organization ends up with a dozen different sales decks, inconsistent voice in the market, and general confusion among prospects. Sales shouldn’t write and shouldn’t research their competition. Sales should sell. 
    Finally, the problem with Product Marketing, in my opinion, is not that takes on too many responsibilities (this can be avoided by funding the group adequately), but because good product marketing people are hard to find. The job requires the ability to grasp highly technical concepts, and then articulate them in a simple, coherent and value-driven language that prospects can easily grasp. Product Marketing managers are really the only ones best suited to bridge between PM and MarCom. I don’t believe that PM and MarCom can interface directly.

    Respectfully,

    Boaz

    • http://www.arandomjog.com/ Joshua Duncan

      Boaz,

      Thanks for the great reply! I love your point about Product Marketing representing the voice of prospects and the need for internal leadership for creating messaging frameworks and positioning.

      Would also agree about the challenge of finding PMM since it does require such a mix of technical understanding and marketing skills. 

      Thanks so much for sharing!

      Josh

    • http://smartsoftwaremarketing.co.uk/ Giles Farrow

      Boaz,

      A great set of points. I fully agree.

      Maybe you should write a blog post on this topic?

    • Jennifer Doctor

      Amen Boaz! Amen!

      I do agree that the role of product marketing will change. And, I do agree that the skills required to be an effective product marketer are often minimized. And, I also agree that this does not mean the end of the role.

      I believe, in addition to the points you have made, that a fundamental problem product marketers have faced is that they are marginalized in their roles. They (we) are often not viewed as adding strategic value. I’ve written about this (as well as delivered a few product camp presos on this very subject.) Until we stop allowing ourselves in the role to be the “dumping ground” of webinars, data sheets and sales presentations, we are not going to be seen as adding anything more than what other teams in our organizations do. Continuing on the same path will result in the demise of the role.

      However, when we elevate our game; when we talk market facts about buyers and their attitudes, goals and behaviors; when we change the language from us to them/you – we will shift the value chain. This is what we need to work towards.

      All product marketing professionals are not the same. All of our skills are not the same. All of our relationships in the organizations where we sit are not the same. We should not be looked at all the same. Boaz, you articulated the common frustrations that true product marketers face. Kudos to you & thanks very much.

      Jennifer

      • http://twitter.com/boazronkin Boaz Ronkin

        Thanks for kind words, Jennifer. I know exactly what you mean about the “dumping ground” effect, and I fully agree with you that the change needs to come from within Product Marketing. Driving organizational change is difficult. But starting to shape our thinking according the points you make can be a great start.

  • http://www.solutionmarketingblog.com SteveRobins

    Great post and discussion – thanks Josh, Boaz, Giles (found this via your tweet)and Jennifer.

    I too have considered writing a post on this topic for a while, because many product marketers are more focused on the product than on the customer or customer problem they’re trying to solve.

    Product-only messages were bad enough before social media but in a world of user-driven social media, they’re downright dangerous to the company’s well-being. And in a world of accelerating technology change, everyone has to look beyond the product alone – to customers and the whole solutions they need. Kodak (top of mind since they announced bankruptcy this week) is just the latest example of a company that was more product- than customer- or solution-focused. They marketed the heck out of film and made countless advances. And today none of that matters since film is all but dead. By failing to see and act based on where customers and the market were going, they lost the early lead they should have had (did you know they invented the digital camera?).

    So how does this all work in a customer solution-oriented world? Solution marketers need to understand the market, customer challenges and the total solution required to solve the problem, including the company’s own and other companies’ products and services, and communicate that understanding to internal and external stakeholders. On the outbound side, they then work to increase awareness of the business challenge but also the company’s solution to the problem. And all of this flows through to presentations, sales enablement tools etc. With a focus on the market, the customer and the customer’s business challenges, solution marketers are the ideal providers of social media content that provides insight rather than product pitches.

    Final note: it’s important to see product marketing/product management as a continuum that will shift depending on the company. I think there’s been some confusion about this because Pragmatic Marketing’s framework makes it look like all of this belongs in product mgt. That said, Pragmatic correctly points out that customer understanding is what makes product managers and product marketers alike more valuable and more strategic. But I still think we need a broader view that goes beyond product to encompass the full business problem and solution, i.e., solution marketing.

    For more, see this blog post on the new 4 P’s: http://solutionmarketingblog.com/2009/02/27/fixing-the-mix/

    Thanks
    Steve

  • Bertrand Hazard

    Great discussion!

    The role of product marketing is obviously one that will only grow in organizations as it becomes even more strategic. However this is one of the most difficult role to fill as one needs a good balance between an overall understandings of the market, the buyers & the business and a very pragmatic sense of execution.

    Long live Product Marketing

    – Bertrand

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  • http://www.pmhut.com/ PM Hut

    Hi Joshua,

    How do you explain that most Fortune500 companies are still recruiting Product Marketers and these product marketers still have the “standard” job description?

  • Phil

    Dream on, Dave, your statement is both unrealistic and stupid! Product Marketing is playing a key pivotal role in any company’s strategy and should be at the same level, if not coupled with, as R&D within the Management Committee! Why replace it with Product Management and not vice versa? It ensures a check and balance in those organizations ruled by engineers with the results we know. It takes the genius of a Steve jobs to understang that but I assume you don’t,  with your typical biased anti-marketing/ good sense engineer approach… Just ridiculous

  • Chris Halliwell

    For reasons of personal interest and skill set, I’ve been teaching for 30 years that the most important bits of marketing require process leadership rather than just creativity and detailed task knowhow. If product marketers cannot craft our contribution to the organization as a process, call it commercialization for instance, to the level of NPD professionalism, then we have not matured and deserve to wither away.

  • Sam west

    Lazy analysis. Easy to say that most of the functions will be co-opted by other roles like PMs and content marketers (simply another name for what product marketing does). You could just as readily make the same argument for any number of jobs. To wit, product management will go away. Product marketing can do requirements gathering and program management can do specifications. I am not saying this will happen. Just saying that it is easy to make the case. Similarly Marketing communications will go away because product marketing can do most of the writing and relationship building and field marketers will do PR work.

    As I said, lazy analysis. We can all play this game of provocative titles.