Skip to main content

If I Were Building a Product Marketing Organization From the Ground Up

If I were building a product marketing organization from the ground up, I’d consider myself lucky.

Most product marketing leaders inherit a team and then face the task of shaping it to meet their ideal make-up and the desired goals of the organization. Sometimes it works out great, but the tough part is the amount it time it takes to get your team exactly where you want it in terms of people, team chemistry, skills and maturation, not to mention all the unexpected hiccups along the way.

Here’s the big dilemma if you’re leading a product marketing team. You’re sandwiched right between product management and sales. Your success highly depends on having products that first and foremost deliver measurable value to the market. Then you have to make sure the value of those products is easy to understand, easy to sell and easy to buy.

Here’s the thing that’s a constant thorn in your side. Your products will always have feature deficiencies, and the salesforce will never be anything close to the discipline you’d like, but you still have to structure a product marketing organization that can succeed in these less than ideal circumstances.

Let’s give it a whirl!

Fundamentals of Building a Product Marketing Organization

There’s a lot to think about when building a product marketing organization from the ground up.

  • Customer domain expertise, product expertise, or product marketing experience? What’s the right blend?
  • The mix of internal versus external candidates to keep from doing the same-old, same-old.
  • Personality types that can work just as well with technical product managers as they can short-attention, net-it-out salespeople.
  • The blend of strategic thinkers versus taskmasters and identifying people’s comfort zone and strengths.
  • The ideal team size versus the budget you’ll end up with.

That list can go on forever and it’s easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all the things you have to consider before you even get started. Here are some foundational things to consider that’ll make it easier to get the ball rolling.

Before we dive in, it’s worth saying, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building a product marketing organization. But there are fundamental building blocks that have a significant impact on the success of your team regardless of how you structure it.

Here are my top 5 building blocks.

1. Give Your Product Marketing Discipline a Mission (Their North Star)

Giving your product marketing organization a mission is as much about giving them a reason to get out of bed as it is making your team’s value known to the rest of the organization. 

That mission helps your team keep their eye on the ultimate prize in the midst of constant chaos, and equally important, it sets boundaries for everyone else. 

If I’m setting a mission for my product marketing organization, it’ll be focused on those we serve most, prospective customers, salespeople/channels, and existing customers.

My mission statement would go something like this.

To make the value of our products easier to market, easier to sell and easier to buy versus our competitors.”

Do your best to create a mission statement that encompasses product marketing’s ultimate value to the organization. In other words, the thing you ultimately get paid to do. 

2. Structuring to Mirror the Customer Organization or the Product Organization

Most product marketing organizations are largely structured to mirror product management, by product. I’m not a fan of this structure because it makes everyone too product focused before you ever get out of the gate. I want my team market & customer focused first versus product focused.

Quick digression – since the advent of high-tech product marketing, there’s been an ongoing argument about how much product knowledge product marketing managers need. Some argue it needs to be on par with that of a product manager while others argue it doesn’t.

In my opinion, too much product knowledge is a huge encumbrance in a product marketing role. Product marketing is 80% about WHY the market needs the product with 20% HOW for supporting proof points. For more technical products, 70/30 still works.

Bottom line, product marketing managers need to know their products but their depth of knowledge doesn’t need to be anywhere near that of a product manager. 

My product marketing organization would largely mirror the customer departments my products serve. This is really important going back to my mission. I want our value messaging to speak conversationally to the markets and customers we serve. 

That means each product marketing manager would be messaging to a specific customer discipline like payroll, accounts payable or IT Support, and then referencing whatever products are relevant to that discipline (solutions) as opposed to each product with standalone messaging and many of them targeting the same disciplines. Secondarily, each product would have its own value messaging if it’s routinely purchased as a standalone.

Remember, customers engage (and ultimately buy) because they’re convinced you understand them, not the other way around! 

3. Vertical or Horizontal Market Focus

My product marketing organization would also have some portion fully dedicated to the vertical industries that drive 80% of our revenue. Why? In a word, RELEVANCE!

You can message the value of a compliance application to any finance department, but when you message that application specifically to the nuances of a manufacturer or a a financial services organization, the relevance quotient goes from generic to off the charts!

Here’s the thing about vertical messaging most people don’t realize. In most cases, it’s only the top layer of your value story that’s affected. My point is, it doesn’t complicate things as much as people think.

For example, the strategic objectives of a retailer are very different than those of a healthcare provider and for very different reasons – their businesses are very different. The top layer of your message needs to speak to those specific industry dynamics accordingly to best engage your buyers. But…

But when you get down into the operational areas where your products play, like HR, accounting, sales, IT, etc. those different industries start looking a lot more alike in terms of what they want to accomplish to support their strategic goals and the problems they have getting there. 

In other words, the product-level messaging only has to be a little different, if at all. The strategic messaging leading into the product has to be very different because it’s industry specific. Again, it’s all about relevance which is key to marketing and sales success.

Remember, they buy because you understand them! The more they’re convinced you understand them, the more valuable your products appear.

As a side note, for the 20+ years I’ve been training and consulting with high-tech companies, 80% of the revenue for the vast majority of them comes from five or fewer vertical markets. 

Applying that to my philosophy for product marketing, I want to constantly put our salesforce in a position where they’re playing from a position of strength. That means leading them into vertical markets and opportunities where our company is strongest and gives them the best odds of winning. 

It’s all about focus and not trying to be everything to everyone. A solid market strategy (from product marketing) will bear that out with clear numbers to support it.

Stay away from generic one-size-fits-all messaging. It applies to everyone but it’s relevant to no one! 

4. Establishing Realistic Guidelines (a Statement of Work) With Sales

As a product marketing leader, I consider sales to be our #1 customer and want to establish a clear plan to best meet their needs. I’d treat it like any other project. There’s time, scope, resources and priorities.

I would literally sit down with the senior most sales leaders and come up with a plan that strongly resembles a statement of work (SOW) and collectively gives our organization the best chances to attract the right prospects and win more (tied back to our market strategy).

But here’s an important thing about product marketing’s role in supporting the sales organization. Salespeople always think they need more tools than they actually do.

Building a product marketing organization from scratch is the perfect opportunity to iterate on building sales tools to make sure the ones you’re building are useful and being used. 

I’m a big fan of situational sales tools and playbooks. Build sales tools that cover the 10 most common situations salespeople find themselves in every day and you’ve got 80% of their needs covered.

That means, sales has to decide their top X tools based on value because product marketing can’t build everything and it can’t build one-off tools for every deal. I’d do my best to keep those one-offs to the “exception deals” that are most strategic to the company.

5. Establishing Complementary Responsibilities With Product Management

Another ongoing debate that never ends is the difference between product management and product marketing. This has always baffled me because the distinction is pretty darn clear in my mind.

There is one skill that’s paramount to the success of both product management and product marketing. It’s strong knowledge of the dynamics in your target markets and how those market dynamics impact the customer organization from the top all the way down into the operational areas where your products are used.

With that knowledge as the foundation or jumping point, product management creates the roadmap for what to build while product marketing creates the roadmap for how to maximize revenue from products you already have. It really is that simple.

If you assume product management has the strongest product knowledge, there’s no need to duplicate it in product marketing. That level of product knowledge is simply not necessary to effectively position, market and sell your products. 

Since the current landscape in product management has become increasingly technical and shows no signs of slowing, I’d put my product marketing team in a stronger position to be the market experts and get them into a steady cadence of feeding that market expertise to product management since product managers rarely have the time or capacity to do it regularly.

BONUS BUILDING BLOCK – Product Positioning

It’s impossible to discuss the fundamental building blocks of product marketing without discussing product positioning. There’s One Basic Rule of Thumb that applies universally to product positioning. I dedicated an entire article to it.

Product Marketing’s Strategic Value to Your Organization

Product marketing first and foremost, creates the conversation that’s wrapped around your products. Think of it as giving your products a personality! Without it, there’s no way your products come alive for purposes of marketing and sales.

That conversation is what gets buyers emotionally hooked in and creates preference. It’s what energizes salespeople and gives them the confidence to compete with those products every day. That conversation is what creates the perception your products are superior to the competition before anyone ever sees them.

Product marketing is also the engine that mobilizes that conversation across marketing platforms and sales channels.  

Those mobilization activities create awareness. They create business development tools that stuff the sales pipeline with quality leads. They give salespeople strong support throughout the sales process. 

Bottom line – product marketing is like personal hygiene. Without it, your products look bad and smell even worse! On the other hand, the better you do it, the more attractive your products become to buyers that have a need.

If I’m building a product marketing organization from the ground up, they’re going to make our products look so good they’ll be the envy of our market.

Subscribe to The Product Vibe Monthly to have our best-practice publications sent directly to your inbox.

Click here if you want to experience the easiest way to learn product marketing with our unique hands-on learning format that’s personalized to your products, your markets and your business model. Be sure to check out our Product Management Framework that simplifies everything by making customer outcomes the starting point for building, marketing, selling and delivering strategic value.

by John Mansour on July 1, 2024.