This is part two in likely a three part series on career paths. You can read about the analyst career path here.
As someone who majored in marketing in undergrad and has an MBA with a concentration in marketing, I receive a lot of career advice requests from up and coming marketers. My feedback is usually a wake up call and not very pleasant. Marketing, especially in a technology company, has been suffering a death from a thousand cuts for years now. There are a few reasons for this. As I blogged about before, marketing’s definition grew too broad for one area to be an effective owner. An area I haven’t talked about before is how many roles in marketing are largely a response to engineering constraints. And with computer science grads multiplying like rabbits years after year, those engineering constraints are starting to relax a bit. I’ll analyze some roles in particular who I think are the most affected by this over the next five to ten years. I’ll start with product marketing.
Product marketing has suffered from an identity crisis as long as I have known the term. Product marketing, when done correctly (which rarely happens), is usually in charge of three things:
- Deciding a soon to be released product’s positioning and messaging
- Launching the product and making sure users (in B2C) or customers and salespeople (in B2B) understand its value
- Drive demand and usage of the product
What that means in practice is that with well oiled product marketing teams, they owned the relationship with the consumer or customer and the outlets for how to reach them. This meant they talked to customers one on one and ran surveys. They managed email outreach, press strategy, potentially even an ad budget.
As you look at these responsibilities, it gets easy to see how this definition falls apart in many companies. For one, many companies don’t launch that many new products or features each year. Teams now have copywriters that integrate with product teams to test messaging iteratively.
Launching a feature is about that feature’s journey for feature/product fit, which means it rolls out in small experiments instead of a big press push. A press push would only be justified if the feature is successful in its experiments. A feature launch’s importance is inversely correlated to the number of users it is intended to reach and only weakly correlated to market power, which is why product marketing has always been more effective at B2B companies, and large ones at that.
Product teams now are more likely to be staffed with user researchers who specialize in gleaning insights from users and customers, and may even dedicated quantitative researchers as well for survey design. Pinterest had both, for example. Even if these are not staffed, as product managers have shifted from executional roles to strategic ones over time, they frequently see understanding the user or customer as their responsibility. Designers on product teams frequently feel the same.
Lastly, when thinking about driving demand and usage, that again is something product teams should only care about once they know the feature is driving value. At that point, ever more prevalent growth teams in charge of overall product growth decide how to use growth of that feature as tool to overall product growth. These are cross-functional teams between design, product, analytics, and engineering, and only sometimes include marketers.
The jack of all trades design of the product marketer role is being attacked on all sides as teams determine how to more effectively reach their users or customers and build things they will use. I don’t see these trends as a failure of the product marketing function. In many ways, it’s the opposite. You should always be trying to obsolete your role in a company. All of these responsibilities product marketing owned now being prioritized or specialized in by other functions shows that organizations now understand the marketing of their own products is important and can’t be outsourced at the end of development.
That said, this transition does leave current product marketers in an untenuous position, and many have been asking me what they should do. I see three opportunities that are available for product marketers.
Option 1: Migrate into Product Management
Product marketers build relationships with product teams already. They should start to leverage this for opportunities to work on product management projects, not just to launch them, but to actually work with engineers and designers to build them. These projects are fairly easy to find as product managers are always strapped for time. Once a product marketer does a few projects successfully, I have found their migration to full-time product manager happen pretty seamlessly at multiple companies. Anecdotally, product marketers tend to become very successful product managers because they focus on understanding users and are great at framing the products they build for user value and having users understand that value.
Option 2: Migrate into User Research
Companies are always looking for more user researchers, and they are product managers’ and designers’ best friends. Product marketers already excel at talking to users. The migration here is more about the in between of product marketers focused historically. Instead of soliciting ideas and selling solutions, user researchers receive feedback on potential solutions in process or problems with the current product by watching current product use. There are dedicated programs where you can learn the tools of the trade for user research, and some companies are training people in user research internally because they are so short-staffed. Even if the latter is not available, approaching user research leaders and asking about opportunities to break into their team are usually welcome, and can start, like with product management, on some distinct projects before migrating full time.
Option 3: Move into Dedicated Brand Role
As companies grow larger, they build dedicated brand teams that tackle perception problems, spend ad dollars to use brand marketing to drive long term growth, and adjust company level positioning over time. Product marketers are used to driving positioning of individual features of products, and with that already have a good understanding of overall company positioning. This may or may not be an option depending on the specific needs of the company at the time. Usually, the larger the company, the more likely this opportunity exists.
The future of the product marketing role is fraught with uncertainty. In B2B companies, the role is definitely better established and positioned for success, but I think it’s only a matter of time before those roles face the same challenges consumer product marketers face today around specialization and new team structures that gradually phase this role out. If you are in product marketing, don’t panic. Just think strategically about how to position yourself for one of the three above options to maintain career growth.