The 5 Phases of Product Marketing
For a venture scale business.
Hey folks 👋
‘Product marketing’ is a function that’s really come into vogue over the last decade or so. Today, it’s widely considered a critical activity within a startup's growth plan.
The rapidly decreasing technological, infrastructural, and logistical costs to launch a product into the marketplace (e.g. the cloud, HTML5) combined with greater opportunity for distribution and adoption (e.g. social networks, smartphones) laid the foundations for a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of web2 product launches by startups and legacy corporations alike.
We live in an era in which there has never been *so much* competition and cognitive distraction. Target customers are constantly pummelled with diverse and enticing propositions.
Breaking through this noise with a clearly communicated and differentiated benefit-unlocking solution has never been more relevant. Navigating the nuances of a marketplace with a sharp message that expediates target customer adoption and supports sustained usage is critical.
This is where product marketing steps in.
Strictly speaking, the essence of product marketing has been around for as long as there has been commerce in society. It’s not really unique to the modern age, per se. It was just obfuscated and buried within other functions. Lately, it’s been identified, extracted, and built out as a distinct go-to-market practice.
This graphic from Drift helps visualise that:
If this looks a little ambiguous, I like to think of product marketing as the ‘spearhead’ between product, sales, marketing, and customer success.
It’s a cross-functional exercise to coordinate critical go-to-market activities. This helps penetrate a business into a market sustainably.
WTF is Product Marketing?
Many, many, people have taken a stab at defining product marketing over the years in blog posts, books, conferences, and other forms of media. This has led to widespread confusion since they tend to be verbose in nature and conflict or bifurcate in terms of zooming in on context-dependent priorities.
I mostly put this down to product marketing being a cross-functional role. One that is unevenly calibrated by a practitioner’s unique objectives and constraints—which, in turn—need to be communicated both internally and externally. It creates the need to define the function by *actions* over *purpose*.
Doing this creates a very prescriptive and process-driven approach that becomes bloated and detached from its intrinsic purpose. Focussing on the ‘what’ not the ‘why’. The inputs and not the desired result, which reduces focus and efficiency.
As Martina Lauchengco, Product Marketing Partner at the Silicon Valley Product Group, puts it:
This is a flawed approach since the execution of product marketing should be guided by the unique goals of the business. This itself is informed by a number of variables, examples of which are business model, market, and growth phase. This necessitates weighting the ‘spearhead’ of product marketing unequally towards one or more functions over others.
Some startups simply require a greater emphasis on sales, marketing, product, or customer success. Or, specific roles within these broader functions like intelligence gathering, messaging, and enablement (the scope of which is outside the remit of today’s newsletter). In short, the activity of product marketing looks different at each startup.
Critical among the execution variables is *growth phase*, which as a subject doesn’t seem to get nearly enough air time. This heavily influences business goals, market precedence, and resource constraints. These collectively inform strategy and execution.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. Without strategic clarity, product marketing can become an inefficient mess. It should function with laser-like precision.
Quoting Martina Lauchengco, again:
Since product marketing goals and strategy are determined by the *growth phase* of the startup, so to is execution.
Therefore, product marketing phases are broadly tied to growth phases. Which, I’ve used as an anchor alongside a *purpose* inclusive definition of product marketing to map out the five major phases.
The 5 Phases of Product Marketing
Before mapping out the phases, we first need to be clear on a few things.
They are based on:
A *venture scale* startup (whether or not VC is raised).
Broad structural themes (every startup requires a unique approach).
The below growth phase agnostic definition of product marketing:
This definition works at any growth phase. From a single entrepreneur just starting out all the way up to a VC-backed decacorn (e.g. Instacart) or bootstrapped pegasus (e.g. MailChimp). The difference is in the execution.
So, let’s jump in:
Phase 1: The Grind ⚙️
This phase is all about gathering market intelligence, testing, learning, and finding a commercially viable solution to a material problem. Often, through the mechanism of an MVP.
During this process all of the core go-to-market functions are woven together very tightly amongst the founding team—product, marketing, sales, and customer success.
These functions operate on very short and overlapping fast feedback loops, making them far less distinguishable from one another than later phases.
It is not uncommon for a founding CEO to handle all or most of them. Often, in coordination with technical or product co-founders, who by such close involvement also form part of all the functions.
Essentially, everyone is a product marketer.
During this phase, the role of product marketing is goal-orientated towards incepting a product sales cycle *outright*—rather than any one particular product.
I think of it as a discovery tool—gathering intelligence, forming a proposition, testing messaging, and parlaying the results of research and product experimentation back into the discovery cycle. This happens in a continuing series of experiments that sequentially inform the next until product-market fit is reached.
It’s less about *connecting the market to your product* and more about *connecting the market to your mission*. Energising a group of early adopters to work with you through trial and error.
In practice, the execution is hustle-driven. Initial customer cohorts are approached and engaged inexpensively in a manner that may not scale. Interaction is deep and multiple avenues of inquiry are tested in tandem.
For example, consider the scenario of the CEO of a startup B2B company approaching target MVP customers to explore compatibility. The outreach and subsequent correspondence between the customers and CEO is simultaneously sales, marketing, product, and customer success.
This is executed until a ‘wedge’ is found—an unmet need with a problem solving MVP.
Phase 2: Product-Market Fit 🌱
This phase is all about doubling down on the positive learnings discovered during the grind phase. Notably, to quantify product-market fit.
Again, this is primarily founder-driven. The core go-to-market functions of product, sales, marketing, and customer success are still very much inter-woven. But, product marketing emerges as a mechanism to understand the opportunity.
It’s helpful in answering questions like:
What is our market positioning?
What messaging resonates with early adopters?
What is our ideal customer profile?
What channels are we going to use to reach them?
What adoption friction points are there?
This informs the total-addressable market size, penetration feasibility, and adoption narrative. For example, are there common themes between early adopters that derive the most value from the MVP? How many prospective customers fit our ideal customer profile? Out of those, how many will use our product versus utilising other options? And, what does the sales cycle look like?
From an execution standpoint, this heavily involves:
🔍 Digging down into both internally collected data and that available via market intelligence tools.
👀 Analysing qualitative feedback from MVP customers and repeating previous actions to reach a statistically significant sample size.
Moreover, developing a deep understanding and knowledge of the customer and the market context. And, quantifying the value proposition so it is readily communicable.
Plugging these learnings back into product, sales, and marketing sharpens the proposition and produces a specific target customer to focus on. This is utilised to further test the appeal of the product, messaging, and enablement.
From this, a sense of unit economics and scaleability emerges. And, an actionable product strategy plan.
This is the time to start transitioning from a product-led to customer-led process, ready for the next phase. In practice, this means shifting from a “here are the features, here are the facts” proposition to a quantifiable benefit unlocking narrative.
To illustrate this, here’s example website copy for a notional social media marketing product:
😍 Customer-led: Increase your social media marketing ROI by 51% within 90 days.
🤔 Product-led: An automated multi-channel optimisation platform that utilises advanced AI to power and upgrade your ad creative testing.
Phase 3: Growth ⚡
In the previous phase product-market fit was verified. So, this phase is all about developing a repeatable growth process to penetrate the now clearly defined market opportunity as fast as possible. Usually, doubling down on one channel with exceptionally high ROI and scale.
The founding team is still very much involved in this process, usually complemented by hired personnel from various functions (by this point the business is either cash generative or has raised capital).
Depending upon the nature of the business, a dedicated product marketing role may exist by the end of the phase. This is much more likely within a B2B software startup, given most product marketing roles exist within that context. Whatever the dynamic, it’s still very much a generalist ‘wear multiple hats’ function.
As a rule of thumb, this phase can be outlined on a startup’s growth journey as follows:
Messaging, enablement, and evangelism execution are super important from a product marketing standpoint.
Messaging. Rigorously testing and refining the language, content, and mediums that resonate the most deeply with your ideal customer profile.
Enablement. Reducing adoption steps to a minimal optimal flow that’s the most seamless and frictionless version possible.
Evangelism. Optimising the experience end-to-end to improve the degree to which existing customers generate new customers.
Case studies based upon client success from the prior phase are produced and utilised as social proof to really drive messaging and sales enablement home.
In terms of addressing prospects, this is the time to start breaking down messaging and appeal on a stakeholder level.
For B2B, this means developing and better understanding personas for individual roles at companies, not just companies. What concern mitigation, language, and motivations drive action? For example, one for the VP or Revenue and one for the VP of Engineering.
For B2C, this means developing and better understanding persona ‘roles’ and the underlying belief systems supporting them within *individuals*, not just demographics. For example, appealing to the persona role of an ‘urban parent with young children’ or an ‘environmentally conscious foodie’.
Understanding this leads to the creation of narratives that really click with target customers.
Around mid-point during this phase the go-to-market strategy and total addressable market assumptions formulated in the previous phase will really be tested, leading to much greater visibility.
Interesting dynamics begin to play out during this phase, too:
Copycats. Direct copy or closely aligned competitors emerge. Often, targeting similar or exactly the same ideal customer profiles. This requires further refinement on market positioning and sales messaging to a more nuanced degree.
Churn visibility. With a meaningful statistical sample, a greater focus on customer retention is needed. That means digging into the rationale behind customer churn, identifying common themes, and resolving them. If there’s a leaky bucket, the growth movement falls apart.
Target customer fluidity. As the product evolves in line with adoption and customer insights, the ideal customer profile shifts. So, everything else—product marketing-wise— has to adjust with it. This excellent graphic from the Product Marketing Alliance illustrates how that plays out over the lifecycle of a startup:
Phase 4: Scale Up 📈
In the previous phase, the ‘early adopter’ list of target customers was maximally penetrated and onboarded.
So, this phase is all about scaling to be able to service a greater variety of customer personas.
Ultimately, the objective is to onboard the ‘vast majority’ of customers.
As a rule of thumb, it can be outlined on a startup’s growth journey as follows:
To achieve this, the product suite usually becomes quite complex. Much more infrastructure, ops, features, and solutions are added to cater to a broader target customer range. This incepts the need to hire personnel into dedicated product marketing roles. As the phase transpires, these roles grow in volume and become increasingly specialised.
Francis Larkin from the Product Marketing Alliance expands:
From an execution standpoint, dedicated product marketing personnel help synchronise various go-to-market teams (sales, marketing, success) into a unified strategy supported by extensive market intelligence and collateral.
Each component of the product marketing function (positioning, messaging, enablement, etc) becomes a lot more asset-heavy and process-driven. This ensures greater repeatability at scale amongst a large organisation and a diverse portfolio of product offerings.
Clear communication across teams is absolutely critical. Particularly, dialogue between product marketers and other personnel who are on the frontlines interacting with the customer.
Why? Product marketers are central to building narratives that map out adoption and retention strategy. Sales and customer success need to relay valid market signals to product marketing. And, product marketing need to translate these signals into coherent actionable objectives. This is repeated across all product offerings.
This involves product marketing personnel setting up and managing the following processes:
Launch review meetings.
Sales training processes.
Cross-functional campaign tracking.
By the end of this phase it’s likely product marketing will be a hierarchical team consisting of one or leaders supported by managers and individual contributors.
Usually, split into two or more functions. Sometimes, dealing with different customer personas or verticals. Other times, different geographical markets (e.g. one team defines the baseline strategy for the global business, others translate and fine-tune it for local markets).
But, it’s not all adoption orientated. Customer success during this phase becomes *even more* important. It’s much harder to manage customer accounts at scale. So, a well-structured standalone success team is needed to stay on top of this—with navigation from product marketing to define and communicate retention enduring initiatives.
Certain dynamics become more imperative, too:
Digital identity debt. A startup in this phase has reached such a scale that its digital presence has sprawled anywhere and everywhere—social media, press, networks, forums, etc. There’s a messaging and positioning legacy to navigate and manage.
Solution discovery friction. When a business offers a broad range of services and appeals to many customer personas, it creates friction towards any one individual prospect finding the solution that ‘speaks’ to them. Funneling prospects to the appropriate destination quickly becomes critical.
Conflicting communication. The more touchpoints a customer has with a business (apps, websites, emails, staff, etc), the more likely conflicting communication will surface. This can potentially undermine positioning, messaging, and adoption. Setting up systems that persistently synchronise teams and assets is paramount to overcoming this.
Phase 5: Dominate 🐙
In the previous phase, the ‘vast majority’ list of target customers was maximally penetrated and onboarded.
So, this phase is all about:
🥕 Attracting and onboarding the ‘laggards’ in saturated geographical markets.
🔑 Entering untapped or underserved geographical markets.
↔️ Expanding horizontally to capture a greater share of the broader market.
By this stage, the primary ‘legacy’ product has hit maturity in its domestic market and closely aligned cultural geo-regions.
The overall tide has likely expanded and grown with it. As an example, consider the way Facebook as a product initially dominated social media. Now the broader market includes the likes of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.
There’s a requirement to ensure the continued growth of the legacy product. Whilst expressed as a percentage, quarterly growth may look incremental, the overall numbers can be massive because the base is so vast. Since 2017, when Facebook very much felt like a saturated product in the West, it added around 1 billion monthly active users globally.
There’s also the need to ensure the legacy product does not get outflanked horizontally, or, get ‘unpacked’ by a series of smaller startups that carve out niches by ‘nipping’ away at specific use cases.
One way of achieving this is through expanding the company’s total addressable market with a synergy-driving value add. Preferably, leveraging the scale of the operation to build an even larger moat. This can be done both through building and buying.
It was the driving force behind Facebook both 1) unashamedly copying sticky functionality from popular emerging social media apps, and 2) buying those that threatened its market position (e.g. Instagram). Those moves simultaneously solidified and horizontally expanded the parent company’s market position, and, layered on a huge amount of value for its real customers, advertisers.
It’s also time to think increasingly broadly about *who* the competition is. In 2017, Reed Hastings humorously quipped that Netflix’s greatest competitor is sleep.
Similarly, I was recently speaking to the ex-head of mobile product marketing for a global telecommunications hardware manufacturer. They were having trouble entering the tablet market by defining their competition as ‘the iPad’. By zooming out and redefining their competition as ‘pen and paper’, they found a relatively untapped customer base in business users.
In terms of executing all of this from a product marketing standpoint, this involves hiring a lot of specialists devoted to specific verticals, and, capable operational leaders to manage the entire product marketing operation. This infiltrates every material business vertical and product offering across the company. Product marketing functions that used to be performed by one person are segmented across multiple practitioners.
On this, Francis Larkin says:
The below graphic illustrates how significant product marketers become during this phase. It compares the ratio of product marketing managers [PMM] to product manager [PM] staff at various large software technology companies:
To make this viable at scale, each function within product marketing and adjacency internal teams becomes a lot more fleshed out with process and specialisation. And, reporting lines verticalise accordingly.
Francis Larkin further says:
Depending upon the nature of the business, there can also be greater sensitivity concerning product marketing execution from a regulatory standpoint. Either from achieving public company status or increased visibility from a sector-relevant regulatory body.
Right, I’m going to wrap this newsletter up here before it becomes too ‘in the weeds’. This phase alone feels like it could be a book! Making a mental note to return to parts of this topic more in-depth later.
Until next time. 👋
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