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It’s the stuff that keeps CMOs up at night: the time had come to sunset a beloved product, and customers were going to care. A lot. It wasn’t a question of whether there would be press, but how rough it would be. And social media was about to light up with the news.

That very scenario recently played out for ClassPass CMO Joanna Lord — and she couldn’t be more grateful.

The fitness startup phased out its unlimited membership option, a disappointing decision for the company and its users alike. But it gave Lord and her team a chance to double down on what product marketers do best: they spent nearly a month preparing for every question and comment, every tweet and customer service call. Internally, they huddled with product, marketing, sales and CX to devise new product offerings that would satisfy — delight, even — the affected users. And in the end, ClassPass emerged with both a more sustainable product offering and a deeper understanding of what its users wanted.

For Lord, the only way forward is to fall in love with one process: getting in the mind of your customer. Do that, and even the most public marketing challenge is just an opportunity to make your product better, your team more focused and your users more happy. That tack has served Lord at Classpass, as well as VP of Marketing at home services platform Porch, CMO of loyalty software provider BigDoor and VP of Growth at Moz (previously SEOmoz), an inbound analytics software company.

In this exclusive interview, Lord clarifies what product marketing really is, and why founders should consider investing in it sooner rather than later. She shares tactical advice for recruiting, integrating, and establishing the culture of a top-notch product marketing team. And she explains why an organization that puts the customer first, in all things, is wielding a little bit of magic.

What Product Marketing Is — and Isn’t

“Product marketing, at its heart, is about understanding what you’re building, why you invested in it, and how it will benefit the user — and then messaging that understanding to your customer,” says Lord. But if you’re not sure how product marketing is different than “marketing marketing,” you’re not alone.

Lord observes that many people primitively define product marketing as the ability to position, but she believes it's so much more than that. She sees the field as an amalgamation of four key tasks. It’s helping a company determine:

“Whereas marketing is traditionally about leveraging channels to drive prospects or leads — to get people at the top of the funnel and then move them through it — product marketing is more about helping existing customers understand your products and features and engage with them.” Done well, of course, product marketing will drive new users, too. But it’s primarily an exercise in communicating with your customers, and helping them understand the full value of everything you build for them.

When to Kick-start Product Marketing

Because product marketing is fundamentally cross-functional, it can be difficult for startups to know when, and how, to integrate it. If you’re wondering whether it’s time, consider two key questions:

In a smaller company, it’s easier to get customer service, product, marketing and sales on the same page about your products’ features and why they’re valuable. “If you have one product, and it's super early for the company, you could even have someone on your product team, or your marketing team, playing this role 50% of the time,” says Lord. “Really small early-stage start-ups might not need a product marketer, because their CEO is the product marketer.”

On the other axis is your product portfolio. If your products are complicated, think about investing in product marketing early, even if you’re a small company. "A product or feature can be complicated for many reasons: it might involve a new UX concept, the pricing might scale with usage or it may entail an upfront commitment from the user before it's fully unlocked," says Lord.

“At ClassPass, we launched our new Home experience for our mobile customers. Its entirely new navigation involved personalized suggestions, upcoming class information and their favorite classes," says Lord. "This was a significant shift from our previous ‘schedule-based’ interface. We wanted this new experience to convey our commitment to creating a seamless, personalized fitness membership, but that isn’t easy to relay in a few touch points.”

So if you’re too close to the product and can’t tell if your product or upcoming feature release is complicated, ask yourself these questions:

“By asking these questions, you'll see pretty quickly that what feels simple to the teams closest to the product could easily leave the customer confused without the right product marketing strategy behind it,” says Lord.

After assessing the size of your company and complexity of your product portfolio, you’ll land somewhere on this matrix.

It’s not a question of if you’ll need product marketing, but when. As your company matures — as it either grows in size or develops a more complicated product portfolio — the need for someone to focus on messaging and positioning will become clear. “You need to have achieved product/market fit, of course. Until then, you’re still throwing things up against the wall, waiting to see there's really demand for one of your products,” says Lord. “Beyond that, though, I believe in investing in this early.”

Product marketing essentially lies between product management and development on one side, and acquisition and retention on the other. As such, product marketers own a number of crucial tasks that otherwise fall into a sort of no-man’s-land. Top among them is competitive research; product marketing is also typically responsible for creating a number of crucial definitions, facts, and taxonomy docs for the company.

If you’re stitching together value statements to drop into a launch email, it’s time to build out product marketing.

How to Hire for the Right Skill Set

It’s a special hire who can sit at that intersection of building great products and messaging them into the public consciousness. When it’s time to invest in a product marketing team, you need to look for a particular combination of hard and soft skills.

“As you might expect, I've found that the best product marketers have a combination of marketing and product chops,” says Lord. Candidates need to be well versed in topics that don’t necessarily fit neatly in a single discipline: ideation, agile development, launching releases, go-to-market and demand generation, for example. Lord’s most successful hires have often started in product and found themselves drawn to marketing — or vice versa. “What you're looking for is a respect for both disciplines. Product marketing is not either/or. It's absolutely both,” she says.

Beyond subject-matter expertise, there are a few key traits that should be non-negotiable when searching for a stellar product marketer:

It’s a lot to look for, but Lord shared some of her favorite interview questions for digging deeper into a candidate’s qualifications:

You may also want to consider a homework assignment, particularly if you’re interviewing candidates who have only “unofficial” expertise on one side of the product-marketing spectrum — that is, who’ve held roles in either marketing or product, but don’t have verifiable experience in both.

Lord shared a couple of her go-to exercises:

The Fine Art of Launching Product Marketing

Once you’ve found the right person — or people — for the job, it’s time to integrate them with the rest of your team. Particularly when it comes to onboarding your first product marketer, proceed thoughtfully — there’s actually more of an art to it than you might realize.

The number one mistake I see is failing to make sure that product managers and marketing managers have a shared definition of what product marketing is.

“It doesn't matter who you hire. If a product manager feels like someone else is defining their product, or a channel marketer feels that some other person is telling them how to sell, it will fail,” says Lord.

Sales and CX, too, can feel like their toes are being stepped on when a new function begins to tell them how to talk to the customer. From the get-go, though, Lord makes it clear to her marketing orgs that those departments are both their most valuable source of information and their most vulnerable stakeholders. “Nothing is closer to the heart of customer confusion than the CX team,” she says. “We respect that if we fail to do our jobs, they will feel it.”

Standing up a product marketing organization is an enormous boon for a startup. When customer-facing teams can easily share insights with product, and vice versa, the entire company gets on the same page. In many ways, it’s a chance to recapture the uniquely collaborative energy of a startup’s earliest days — only this time, with a new depth of expertise and process. “But if people don’t have the same understanding of what’s supposed to happen, you end up with a lot of territory grabbing and silo-making. For all of the obvious reasons, that's really scary.”

A successful product marketing organization, then, needs a clear mandate and company-wide consensus. Like many other elements of the organization, it also needs a steady, coherent product roadmap.

“If you bring in a product marketer because you have a great product, but you don't know what you're going to build next, or when or how, this person has nothing to stand on,” says Lord. “They become a bit more of a project manager at that point. And that’s a very expensive project manager.”

Of course, product marketers themselves also play a crucial role is proving their worth and establishing a team that the rest of the organization respects and values. In Lord’s experience, that boils down to open, humble communication. “The product marketer has to be an expert at asking questions and understanding both the customer and their internal stakeholder,” she says.

Making assumptions, on the other hand, is the quickest way to lose internal buy-in. And it’s an easy mistake to make. Product marketers handle huge amounts of information, both qualitative and quantitative; in many ways, it’s only natural to form opinions. “If they're prescriptive rather than objective, that’s really dangerous. It never works. It tends to, again, cause silos.”

The key to great product marketing is to remain two things: objective and a team player.

Unleash Product Marketing Via Experimentation

One of the best ways to do both is to swap opinions for data-driven analysis. In addition to fostering cross-departmental collaboration, product marketing teams can and should usher in a culture of experimentation.

“Product marketing comes down to how you position and message a feature or product,” says Lord. “Doing that excellently involves a lot of testing.” For starters, make A/B testing standard practice; with testing software now so affordable, there’s no reason not to. “Being able to swap out positioning quickly is a huge part of getting signals back. It can help you move quicker and with more confidence.”

Beyond that, there’s no single experiment every startup to run, no rule for how to approach testing; that depends too much on your company’s roadmap and relative maturity. But every startup does need to weigh the three key ways to grow a company: acquisition, retention, and monetization. And if you’re like most startups, there’s a good chance you’re weighing them wrong.

“Most startups over-invest in acquisition testing, when they should be researching — and using most of their product marketing team — to understand and affect retention.”

Another common testing pitfall? Asking questions that are too broad to yield precise, actionable insights: “What do you want us to build?” or “What's the number one problem you have?" The big-picture questions you might ask on the road to product/market fit are not the same questions you should be asking when it’s time to scale, and beyond.

Take a common problem Lord sees with cancellation surveys. “Many of them are fundamentally flawed because they allow you to answer with something like, ‘I just didn't see the value’ or ‘I just didn’t like it,’” she says. “Bring that back to the team, and you’ll still be in a dark room shooting darts at all the walls, with no idea what you're doing.”

To avoid spinning your wheels — and wasting valuable customer time — always be specific in your tests. The rigors of experimentation may bump up against the startup’s need for speed, but resist the temptation to rush it. Process is crucial: Identify your thesis and specific goal, the cohort you will be testing against, and how you will execute your test. Then meet regularly with the group that’s contributing to the experiment to assess the test itself.

The team at ClassPass, for example, believes that the company has something unique to offer in video fitness. They are committed to making product investments in that arena — and to taking the time to make and test hypotheses for what those investments should look like. “We're not quite sure what our contribution in this space will be yet. But we have conviction to test our way into it.”

How Product Marketing Can Usher In a Culture of Product Feedback

Successful product marketing can’t exist in a vacuum, though. It requires a commitment from everyone else in the organization to share their insights and be a voice for the customer when the opportunity arises. To start, that might be as simple as requiring every team to send out a weekly report of key findings: test results for the data-driven teams, or a summary of the week’s highlights and lowlights for teams whose work is more qualitative. “You're just trying to bring knowledge, and bring an experimentation-first culture,” says Lord.

But “sharing” means more than disseminating test results; it needs to be part of your company culture. “Anyone can walk up to our CPO with an idea or say, ‘This test is showing me X and Y. Who should I connect with on your team to talk about whether or not this could become a feature or a product?’" It’s okay to put parameters on that openness. At ClassPass, a test has to demonstrate that something could yield 1,000 subscribers before it’s considered for product development. The goal is simply to empower any team member to spot and share opportunities to improve products.

By encouraging an open discussion of ideas, you also (perhaps counter-intuitively) make it easier for your team to move on when their ideas don’t make it into the pipeline. Lord says the ClassPass encourages a culture of “disagree and commit” and she suggests other startups do the same.

“Every quarter we do our planning sprints, and anyone can bring their idea and a business case for why it’s worthy of investment,” she says. “When faced with pushback, you can take a last chance to disagree and say, ‘I really think this is the right thing. Look at all those tests I ran.’ But then if the CPO or product leads look at you and says, ‘I hear you. But now's not the right time,’ you have to accept that and rally behind the ideas that do move forward.”

That’s not to say it’s easy to move on. “You are going to have about a thousand things you want to do every day,” says Lord. “And of those thousand, probably twenty are things that customers, with pain in their eyes, have implored you to tackle. But the reality is that some of them will have to go untouched.”

And that’s okay — as long as you stay customer-first. “You have to take bigger swings. The right things will hit volume, so you’re looking for the ones that will hit the majority of people,” says Lord. “Those will start to trickle down.”

Meanwhile, give a loud internal voice to the team that is closest to your users: customer support. This should take the form of an ongoing and open dialogue, but it can also include one-off collaborative events. “Recently, we did what we called a ‘slay day,’ where the entire company supported CX and jumped in to work on help tickets and get them to inbox zero,” says Lord. “It's one of the best thing we've ever done. Engineers, product managers, and marketing all came out of that day obsessed with solving problems for the customer.”

Host a "slay day" where all teams help CX get to inbox zero. Everyone finishes the day obsessed with solving issues for customers.

How to Measure Success for Product Marketing

How do you know, though, if you’re actually reaching that customer? Lord brings it back to those four key elements of product marketing, each of which has its own set of metrics:

“Every dimension of product marketing is measured a different way, but it's absolutely a measurable science.”

That being said, you won’t — and frankly can’t — give all of those metrics equal attention at every stage of your growth. “There's always a more important part of product marketing at any given time,” says Lord. “If you’re just past product/market fit and focused on growth, then you're looking at how to sell your product and who you're building for. Those metrics move to the top. If you're in a more sustainable business phase, and you want to boost LTV or RPU, then you're really looking at how you should price it. What are the other features you're going to build, for stickiness?”

Here, too, sharing is key. If everyone on the team doesn’t know the top-level goals you’re pursuing, and which metrics have risen to the top, you will always fall short of your peak performance. “People laugh about putting dashboards up on walls. But if you don't make those metrics visible all the time, if everyone doesn't know, every day, how you're doing, then they won't be reminded of the urgency. And that’s a huge part of the culture of data.”

How to Keep Product Marketing Delivering Through Thick and Thin

The collaborative, data-driven culture of a well-integrated product marketing function will pay dividends every day. And when it comes time to weather a seismic product shift, it’ll prove invaluable. Lord has led her fair share of product marketing teams through trials and tribulations — these tenets helped them stay the course:

Hew to your mission. “First and foremost, you have to be able to tie major product changes back to the mission in a very true and honest and vulnerable way. You need to explain how this change is helping you deliver on your promise to the customer,” says Lord. Take ClassPass’ move to eliminate unlimited memberships; at its root, that decision reflected a fundamental misalignment between the product and the company’s mission. “Our mission is to make the world a more active place. For that product to be financially viable, we had to actually hope people didn't work out.”

Communicate thoughtfully — and thoroughly. Once you’ve spotted misalignment, and identified the product shift that will solve it, the next job of the product marketer is to walk customers through your logic. Then, you need to tell them where you’re going next. “Show them what you are going to be building, and help them make the cognitive leap to come along. Some won't, but if you do it right, many will,” says Lord. “In a nutshell: successfully marketing a major product change is an exercise in painstaking communication. It falls to product marketing to arm every team with any message they need, done carefully and clearly.”

For ClassPass’s recent change, Lord and her team spent weeks interviewing and brainstorming with all of their internal stakeholders. They imagined every possible question and objection they’d get — from customers, partners, press, and more — then drafted responses suitable for anything from Twitter to a sales call. “It took twenty full working days, with thirty people,” says Lord. “We were over-prepared, but that's what you do when you know customers deserve the right answer. You don't get to be vague, you don't get to lie, you don't get to spin it. You’ve got to lean into it and do it really well.”

Otherwise, it’s easy move quickly and not think rigorously — and this is typically not done maliciously. You simply imagine how a big announcement is going to play out publicly, and there’s an instinct to rationalize your decision. But that’s where a culture of open ideas-sharing — that “disagree and commit” policy — can bail you out. “It’s why checks and balances are so important,” says Lord. “Someone from CX will step up to me and say, ‘Absolutely not. I cannot say that to a customer with a straight face. That is not true.’ There’s a lot of back and forth.”

Diligence takes time, and a lot of internal resources, so it’s crucial to set the right expectations for your team. And remember, this is probably disappointing for them, too — it’s rough to spend months, even years, building something only to see it phased out. “You have to honestly say, ‘Hey, this won't be an hour where we send an email and it's hard. This is going to be three months of catching up with CX and handling press inquiries, and earning back some of that goodwill.’”

Return to the product. The best way to regain that trust and goodwill is always going to be with your product. If you’ve done step one right — if you’ve kept your eye on your mission — this is also where you can also restore your team’s passion and enthusiasm during a difficult transition.

“We tried so many different things — for two years — to make unlimited work. What we've been able to say to the team over the last couple months is: ‘If we can move the right people to the right plan, and then invest in those plans beautifully, we will have delivered on the promise we initially set.’ Now, everyone's more committed than ever to ship the product features that will help us deliver.”

Photography courtesy of ClassPass.

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