How to tell just the right story

In Boston Product’s PM Spotlight series, we chat with inspiring product managers in our community to learn about how the role varies across teams, industries, and business models. Over the next few sessions we’ll be meeting with product managers joining us as panelists and speakers this year at Unbox to give you a taste of what’s to come. Unbox is a full day event from Boston Product with the goal of elevating frontline product managers of Boston startups and fast-growing companies.

This week I joined Alec Pinkham, Senior Product Marketing Manager at AppNeta for a discussion about on walking the line between product and marketing, telling the right story — not one with fluffy details, and keeping people honest. The following is a recap of our chat.

So what’s it like at AppNeta?

  • Split between the marketing, sales and product teams Alec works with two other product managers and spends the majority of his time with sales and customer success teams.

Tools right at hand:

  • Asana: to keep tasks between teams
  • Jira: for back end development and for repurposing stories to be used in marketing content
  • Domo: a dashboard for product data and Salesforce integration

A path to product

Product is an interesting role to play; if you haven’t moved around to a few companies you can find yourself with either a really good definition of product or a really bad one. My path to product was a weird one. I started with degrees in mechanical engineering but realized that I wanted that to be a hobby not a job. I dove into software a bit during school and enjoyed it, so I found a company, ICONICS, that did software for automation of mechanical processes. I started doing quality assurance and software testing but planned path towards product management.

One of the reasons I took my current position at AppNeta was because the director of marketing at the time was an ex-engineer as well. By bringing knowledge from my previous roles at ICONICS being a product manager, from QA, some from mechanical processes, and marketing I’m able to carve out a unique niche as a technical Product Marketer today at AppNeta.

From my first role I moved to product because I was focused on the part of any feature or project very early on in the development cycle. I took part in deciding what we could do to improve the product, additions we could make, and ways to use the product differently. Being onsite with customers often, I also got a good feel of the pains they had and learned to have real empathy for their needs. Like most PMs, one of the major challenges I had to balance, sometimes ignore, were the many feature-creeper requests. Things that excited the sales and marketing teams, for example, often were in conflict with product gaps I observed in client interactions..

Harmony between teams comes from understanding (and measuring)

Sales and marketing are often the teams that lay out campaigns and go-to-market plans for a product. For a while I transitioned completely to marketing so that I could get involved with early planning and help decide what we’d eventually do with the product. Now as PMM with a more creative bent a lot of my time is spent arranging the words, the presentation, and the plans for the products we build. Here at AppNeta we don’t feel driven just by sales which is sometimes how product or marketing ends up. We’ve been able to work really well with our sales and marketing teams in ways that help us to not always be on the hunt for new markets or new prospects, broadening our offering. Instead we’re focused on solidifying the customers that we really want to sell to and defining which prospects we need to connect with. We do this by being very deliberate about the roles for each person here; from sales, marketing, to product, we decide who each person needs to talk with the most. It has made it super interesting because building a persona for something very specific is a lot easier when you can deep dive into your work with that persona and focus on the jobs they need to do. We can really focus on one thing a customer cares about at a time.

We’re focused on solidifying the customers that we really want to sell to and defining which prospects we really need to connect with.

Marketing is doing a good job of matching sales in having defined goals and metrics. I do feel that product marketing has a bit more to go in this regard as a field, and that’s something we’re working tackling here at AppNeta. Part of this is because the normal venn diagram puts Product Marketing between sales, product, and the customer team. But we’re of course tied to the marketing team too which means there is even more overlap between what I have to do with each team. I work with the customer team to get insights, I intake everything I can from product about what’s coming down the pipe, and then I work on content and lead gen for marketing. While all of these groups have fairly defined goals; for example sales cares about revenue and win/loss rates, as a PMM it’s harder because I’m not the only one who can drive conversion at any point. For example if I’m focused on content and how it affects sales you have to remember that content is a long-tail play where everything you would measure is extended by the sales cycle and anything else in the environment that may be happening.

My main focus is trying to figure out how to get measurability into product marketing. I’ve started in places like impact on revenue, though I find it’s still a bit nebulous because it involves so many people on my team so it’d be a little arrogant to think that I’m the only one contributing to that cause. Another is the marketing effect on win/loss rates, but first I need to start tracking dozens of metrics to get an idea of how the team factors in. So far I feel like as long as we keep in mind how each part of the team affects and is affected by one another these can be pretty good measures of progress. The hard part is picking a metric you know may be flawed and working to improve it, it’s been an iterative process for us.

We work with the mantra that “done is better than perfect” and as an agile organization in every capacity we’re constantly trying things out, running tests, so sometimes it’s hard to keep our metrics up with that. So right now I’m very focused on how we can make goals that are actionable, achievable, and then of course ones that we can track. This includes both external metrics like downloads and usage, but also internal metrics like what the sales team is consuming and specifically what they’re reading and sending to customers. You can’t just force teams to use a tool or follow a pattern to get metrics, you have to meet people at their behavior. So we’re trying out new processes to see what works best. Content is a huge part of product marketing so measuring how it’s used is immensely important which is why this task is so essential to get right.

You can’t just force teams to use a tool or follow a pattern to get metrics, you have to meet people at their behavior.

From the professional development perspective it’s fun because now I have the ownership of fixing these things, it’s just a matter of time and getting it done.

Keeping the shine on your product marketing

Today a lot of what we’re releasing is back end work and not necessarily client facing product updates. Since we’re in a phase of not doing tons of big, marketable launches I have to try different tricks to keep the customer and sales teams up to date with interesting facts they can give to their counterparts in business reviews. You can only say so many times that you “improved core technology.” Also unless it’s a lot better you kind of have to admit that you might’ve spent a sprint fixing bugs, but hey… they’re fixed now! I do everything I can to avoid writing release notes with just “it’s better,” instead I find ways of relating to customers and helping them see why they should care about this hard work. AppNeta is an interesting company to work for because our tech is quite differentiated and we have a lot of great stuff going on. From the marketing perspective I love being on this kind of product.

Every PM wants a product that has IP, that has differentiation, and for the PMM role you want these things because they bring value to your customer that no one else can offer and it gives you plenty of great things to talk about.

At the same time there is always a competitor who uses similar messaging as you even if their product can’t do exact the same thing. A challenge I like is finding those true differentiators and coming ahead. Part of why, even though I’m in product, I still do like marketing is just that — messaging makes the difference. If you can make yourself differentiated by both factors, product and marketing, then you actually have a good chance at succeeding. You have to be able to tell the right story and that’s why I’ve stayed with at least one foot in marketing. Its definitely the part where you get to use the most creativity and with a technical background I also have the utmost constraint on myself to make sure that I’m representing the product well, and not misrepresenting it in ways you often see companies do. Too often I’ve seen practices in sales and marketing where the product is misrepresented just to get a sale. From the marketing perspective if I’m working on a piece of content I have to make sure it’s right, that it’s telling a clear story. Because of that I’m always going back and forth with product to fact check, to confirm it makes sense, and that it’s not overstepping anything. You can easily get too fluffy with content–especially when it’s used for things like thought leadership because you’re trying to draw attention. In the long term we have a very technical audience with a very technical product; we cannot get away with fluffy forever.

One challenge I really enjoy is taking these stories we spend so much time getting just right, then reducing it down to just a few words to be used for lead gen–how can you describe such a technical product, all it does, what makes it stand out, in just a short phrase? That distillation is fun but sometimes can get really tricky.

Divvying up that Venn diagram

With where we are right now, probably 50% of my time is with sales and CSMs working on our sales enablement strategy. I spend a lot of time making sure they have what they need in order to take calls and entice people to take demos. Another 25% focuses on industry strategy which is many things; talking to product, to development, to sales engineers, and then even research just making sure I’m up on current technology. The goal here is to understand the ways that people in the industry are talking about things, to make sure I’m using a common language. It helps me keep a finger on the pulse of what customers care about. I’m always looking for ways to get people engaged so we need to be in the places where our customers are, talking about the things our customers are talking about. The last 25% is spent with internal processes and tactical work, the very intentional actions I take in in creating content, strategies, and campaigns.

Contributions from marketing to product

The biggest things I’ll contribute to product are large strategic initiatives and ideas. For example if the industry is moving in a new direction it’s on me and our team to make sure we’re talking about how to use our product to do this new job. Additionally to make sure we’ve made it super easy it find that job-to-be-done within our product. I’ll often package up data we have to tell a story about how a customer wants to use our tech in a new way, or how we may want to pursue a new idea. In that regard I work with product to figure out how best to address ideas and then how to make sure our customers know we offer it. Doing this has actually given me a bit of empathy for our product teams too. Having been in both roles I don’t want to be the person who comes in and demands that a thing be done, so I focus on telling a story and building a case for it so everyone understands. Then to keep the feedback loop open I’ll follow up with product to know when a particular feature or tech is coming down the pipe, when I should start producing content around it, and getting the sales teams ready with all the data they’ll need.

When it comes to data I find that Product teams often look at the high level of the whole product but then digs very deeply into optimizing one page at a time, making sure every link, every bit of content is just right. Whereas I’m looking for a broader view of the industry and how people in it are solving their problems and getting their information. It brings a different kind of insight to the mix.

Product still runs the roadmap

Most of the time real customer input will win out, so the product team takes precedence with roadmap planning. We still experience the common struggle that product managers have to deal with, when sales says that some large company wants to buy our software but won’t until it has a certain feature. Every once in awhile that will come along, but it doesn’t always take priority. Here we’ve been more willing to do that type of work for existing customers than for any new prospect. That’s not to say as a small but growing agile company we don’t still find ways to respond to the industry and serve our customer’s needs, we strive for a balance.

As the PMM I’ll also help the product team during certain phases of development like research, testing, or running beta programs with customers. I like this aspect of our relationship a lot because it’s great to be able to write and talk about products when I know they’ve been tested by customers. Being so close to the product team during these betas helps with creating great content as well. Especially since we have such a technical audience sometimes I even use stories that were in Jira for developers and adapt them into marketing content.

How many Ms? A note on PM+M relations

Understanding what each person’s focus and responsibilities are is super important to maintaining a good relationship, so clear responsibilities for a PMM and a PM need to be set depending on the company’s needs. It’s important to remember product marketing isn’t competing with product management, at least from the perspective of product knowledge. In marketing people are often billed as less technical or not as focused on the product but in reality, at AppNeta at least, we bring a different viewpoint to the product. Technicalities aside the whole idea is to introduce different viewpoints and these differences come together to tell a clear, compelling story to customers.