The Journey From Product Management To Product Marketing: A Rationalization For Posterity
I’m not sure if you’d heard, but product marketing is dead.
You’d probably think it extremely odd if not downright lunacy, then, that I’m about to shift from Product Management into Product Marketing.
(To say this is a strange move would be entirely appropriate and perhaps rightfully damning. Although, given my career started in journalism and thereafter tech writing, dying pursuits are apparently my speciality.)
Alas, as one of those new-fangled never-satisfied millennials, I am about to head off on the next adventure in my three-years-at-a-time career.
Later this month, I’m shifting to be a Product Marketing Manager for a tech software company.
If you at all follow the tech space, you’re probably wondering why someone would want to give up the “illustrious” Product Manager role.
Indeed, my soon-to-be-former role is oft considered the crown jewel of the product dev team, the title to end all titles, the intersection of biz and tech and design, the most impactful role in a business outside the C-suite themselves.
And for the most part, the talent market agreed with that assessment. The last decade has seen all manner of engineers, over-schooled MBAs, and waterfall project managers seek out a way to move into the role I now leave.
But after about 5 years, I’ve learned that the role is nowhere near as glamorous as many think. It’s a hard role to do well in and a harder role still to repeat. Every company has a different need of PMs, and all require very-specific donuts — donuts that are not often easily store-bought, and I have the bruises to show for it.
In technical companies, I’ve allowed myself to veer too technical, to deep dive on API and infrastructure design when I should have instead been swimming in customer conversations and iterative experimentation.
In creative companies, I’ve allowed academic design and the debates therein to reign supreme. I’ve grappled with gestalt over general usage patterns, clambered and fumbled with clean lines and flat designs over customer use cases and functional efficiency.
In others still, I’ve allowed boardroom opinion and fear-mongering to drive decision-making when data and decisive forgiveness-over-permission action would’ve otherwise saved my products.
On the whole, at times, I’ve acted when instead I should have listened, and I’ve watched when instead I should have steered, and, for my successes, a foundation of failures can be found beneath.
Okay… I Guess. So, Now What?
But I’ve learned, and grown, and I’ve come to see those mistakes as symptoms of a role overloaded — mistakes that suggest opportunity.
As I’ve reflected on my career to date, I’ve come to see that there are two aspects of the product manager job that I’ve done well by: customer empathy and communication.
And while I reflect, peering through the looking glass and seeing my product manager counterpart futz with acceptance criteria and ship dates, I see clearly the gap he left unfilled: helping prospects and customers and even the business itself understand the value of, and the vision behind, each of the decisions made.
Maybe that was more indicative of my own failures as a PM than of a market need, but that’s the perceived gap I want to now fill.
Where PMM Fits
So what exactly is the difference I see? What is the focus?
Both the customer pain and the ultimate salve need to be intimately understood by all members of a Product team.
Given that, I believe the following:
- For the product manager, the solution to the customer problem is most often the critical domain expertise.
- For the product marketing manager, the customer pain is.
My experience in small and mid-sized companies has crystallized my belief that there are no successful “full-stack” product managers in a company bigger than 10 and smaller than 1000.
In my experience, it is simply impossible to devote your time sufficiently to all of the engineering team, operational, and analytical teams as you deliver to the customer while also the devoting your time to the market and the prospect and the conversation between the two and yourselves.
Thinking otherwise is merely a manifestation of that horribly-misguided positioning of PM as the “mini-CEO” (read: egomaniac micromanager untrusting in those he hired).
And so, a separate Product Marketing Manager, focused on the market and the message, seems to be the perfect complement to the Product Manager focused on the product and the process.
That’s not to suggest that both shouldn’t understand the who’s and why’s of the customer, nor that both shouldn’t fully understand the what’s and how’s.
But helping the market learn how a product solves a problem is a very different goal than helping the customer actually solve the problem.
I’m Still Not Convinced
There’s an analogy I’ve worked out for myself as I’ve rationalized the role ahead of me and what I see myself being able to contribute in it.
Take the iPhone’s physical home button.
Apple doesn’t strongly message and advertise the iPhone’s home button, but its role is essential.
The home button is a requirement born by product management and engineering to solve for a problem the customer didn’t know she yet had.
But when Apple messages the iPhone, when it advertises, it communicates the act of spinning around with your phone during a video chat as though your distant love was in your arms.
The message to the market, then, isn’t so much about the feature as it is the problem that the iPhone solves for: boundless communication, togetherness, comfort.
Understanding that and helping the market understand that, I believe, is the role of the PMM.
It’s the message and the audience and the “why” the PMM understands and communicates to complement the medium and the product and the “what” that the PM understands and builds.
And while PM’s success is measured on the success of the product, PMM’s is measured on the success of the market’s understanding of the product and, more quantifiably, the market’s willingness to help others understand it, too.
All told, the business of product development has continued to unfold before me as my career has progressed, and while the post may suggest a sense of confidence in my direction, don’t let that fool you: I’ve no idea how this will all pan out.
Nevertheless, I look towards my new opportunity as the next step in pursuit of a better, and deeper, understanding of what it takes to build and ship truly great products.
And hey, in the worst case scenario, there’s always manual labor to fall back on. Right? Oh…
2022 Update: You may want to follow up reading this by reading this. My opinions have shifted a bit.