Hiring a Product Marketer

Ryan Goldman is the Vice President of Product Marketing at SoundCloud and has led marketing or product marketing at Pendo, Sentry, SignalFx, and Cloudera, and over the course of his career, he's managed or hired 15+ B2B product marketers. In this guide, he explains how to find a product marketer who can serve as a bridge between the product, the sales org, and the market.

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Questions covered in this guide

What do product marketers do?

Product marketing is a bridge between the product, the sales org, and the market – product marketing owns the process by which products and features get into the hands of the right people. This includes thinking through who the product is valuable for, how to message that value to them, and how to package that message into assets. Product marketing’s job requires thinking both from the inside-out (conveying information about your products, e.g. during a launch), and from the outside-in (understanding who the audience is, what matters to them and funneling that back into the organization).

What are the responsibilities of an early product marketing hire?

Launch – product marketing should “tier” launches and plan launch messaging and activities based on how important the launch is. Commonly a Tier 1 launch is a strategic new stand-alone offering, a Tier 2 launch is a compelling new feature, and a Tier 3 launch is a more straightforward enhancement. Importance should be gauged from the market perspective, not from the product perspective (a complete infrastructure overhaul is huge for a product, but means relatively little to the market).

Segmentation – segmentation would likely be shared between product and product marketing. A lot of the segmentation actually goes towards the product roadmap, understanding for whom you’re building, and product marketing’s job can be more about how that translates to go-to-market. That might include pinning down the different value propositions for different segments of the market, thinking about whether the product work is primarily for acquiring new users or upselling to existing users and customers.

Positioning, differentiation & messaging – product marketing needs to do positioning and messaging both for the product and, in the growth stage, for the company. The product marketer’s responsibility is not to get sucked into a focus on the brand (what you’d put on a billboard), but rather to key in on truly relevant differentiation for the series of prospective users or buyers that you actually care about. You believe once you get those users in, you will go to keep them for a really long time. Product marketers need to shrink the market down to the most important cohort, and then message and position your offering for those people.

Content creation – product marketing needs to be able to tell a story, both through writing, and other kinds of assets like videos and speaking engagements. It’s about making the organization and products discoverable.

What specialized skill sets can you afford not to have in an early hire?

Pricing – product marketing can own pricing, but it’s probably not a huge priority for an early hire; it’s more of a specialized skill set.

Analyst relations – if you have an enterprise motion and a Forrester-type reporting agency is important for your market, you’ll need analyst relations. But any strong product marketer should be able to slot in and play that role. You don’t need to find someone who is especially experienced at that.

Partner marketing – a really good product marketer will be able to pick up some partner marketing again; you probably shouldn’t be looking at someone whose background is in business development as your first hire because you don’t want partnerships to take up 100% of their focus.

How does product marketing overlap with sales enablement?

Product marketing should own sales enablement content – you can have a sales enablement role that might report up to marketing or might sit within the revenue operations or sales operations team. That person or team should be responsible for operationalizing the training program, and testing and reviewing reps, but sales enablement should not be responsible for the content. If you’re a smaller organization without sales enablement, product marketing might own training too.  

What are the relevant “types” of product marketers?

An experienced product marketer from a large organization – this candidate is probably looking for more ownership and an opportunity to drive a bit more of the strategy. The benefit is that they’ve done a product marketing role before and have some template for what the expectations are. The downside is they may not actually know how to own the product marketing function; they tend to have less of a full-stack view from their experience at a larger organization

Product marketer from a small organization – a product marketer from a small company, looking to level up into a more senior role or to a faster growing company. This candidate can sometimes be overlooked because CEOs can latch onto people who come from well-recognized companies and ignore all the ones that are from companies they’ve never heard of.  For the product marketer from an unknown company, it should come down to the person’s ability to actually articulate where they’ve delivered value in the past. 

Switching from another marketing role – a candidate switching from marketing ops or sometimes demand gen. Product marketing can be attractive as a path toward a senior marketing role, but can also be a rough transition, because it’s not tied to a clear KPI the way marketing ops or demand gen is. This type of hire can slip into doing only part of the job- the thing that gets them the most spotlight. They sometimes overlook the higher-longevity, slower to manifest, more strategic things. It’s important that this type of new product marketer learns to think of their role as a strategist vs. a megaphone.

All-around-athlete – this candidate doesn’t have product marketing experience, but does have business experience and are more “T-shaped”, with broader experience. They could have been a PM, consultant, or business school grad. They may need more marketing guidance, but they can have a mini-CEO or mini-CMO mindset.

Where should you look for a product marketing hire?

Your extended network in an early stage for individual contributors, you usually don’t have the budget to hire a recruiter yet, so it pays to work your own network. Share the profile you’re looking for on LinkedIn, your local tech community, your school Alumni Association or to alumni of your past companies.

New business school grads – this goes against a lot of the thinking of startups, but I see a lot of benefit in a product marketer who’s gone through business school. Especially for a few years after business school, new grads are really motivated. If they’ve chosen product marketing, it’s because they want to own go-to-market strategy, get technical and be responsible for a lot of things. Hiring an MBA isn’t cheap, but a recent MBA who has little experience as a product marketer specifically tends to not be any more expensive than someone who’s been a successful product marketer for a hot company.

Someone who wants to escape the bureaucracy of a larger company there’s an assumption there that you are going to be burnt by hiring someone who comes from either a gigantic public company, but that shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. If they were somewhere big for a relatively short time, and their goal is to take on more because they feel a little bit blocked by the politics, then there’s no reason that they wouldn’t be able to do well at a smaller company.

What should you ask in the interview?

Give them lots of background – I tend to overemphasize the monologue to explain what we’re doing/ what types of problems we’re trying to solve and then seeing how well the candidate responds to that. Do they put themselves into the mix of that problem and start thinking through and guiding the discussion around it?

Pitch them a product they’d work on – I like to actually pitch them a project that they would theoretically work on. Some of the best people that I’ve ever hired are ones where I’d say, “okay, here’s something that we actually see as part of the go-to-market for the next quarter or two and needs an owner.” If they gravitate towards it, if they start to do the job before they have the job, that’s usually a pretty good sign.

Use the case method – I have a couple of case questions that are based on experiences at past roles, and they’re probably too hard to be solved in an interview because they take a lot of research and analysis. I look for a person who treats it like play, a problem solver who’s good at thinking out loud and trying to engage and meet the conversation.

Ask for a writing sample – product marketers need to be able to write, especially in the earlier stage. Even if you have someone writing content, the product marketer is probably going to be writing SDR scripts and templates, etc. I typically ask for a writing sample, a blog, a white paper, an e-book. I also ask to see a slide deck they produced.

What should be on your hiring scorecard?

Research skills – can the candidate own quantitative and qualitative market research and competitive intelligence gathering?

Ability to Synthesize – will the candidate be able to take complicated or technical customer needs or product specs, and create product positioning and messaging?

Writing skills – will the candidate be able to take on short and long form writing requirements for your organization, including internal documentation, blog posts and datasheets?

Strong communication and presentation skills – will the candidate be clear and compelling when training or presenting to diverse audiences?

Collaborative – will the candidate work collaboratively with other functions (sales, marketing, product)?

Project management ability – can the candidate own a launch planning process with lots of moving parts?

What are the common pitfalls?

Hiring sales enablement before product marketing – I’ve seen organizations run into trouble when they hire sales enablement before product marketing. Sales enablement tends to be really good at amplifying a message, but they don’t always have experience digging down into positioning, value proposition and market relevance.

Hiring product marketing just for competitive intelligence – I’ve seen early product marketers hired with the express focus on competitive insight and competitive intelligence, and that tends to turn into a service bureau for the sales organization, where all the energy is put into helping the sales team badmouth the competition. 

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