When (and How) Should Your SaaS Start-up Build A Product Marketing Team?

By Geoff Roberts

Ah, the old “what is product marketing” debate. And then there’s the product management versus product marketing dilemma, with the all too common tug-of-war struggle to divvy up areas of responsibility properly. Any way you cut it, product marketing is most often seen as something of a gray area, living at the intersection of your product, sales, and marketing organizations. And while there are plenty of good frameworks to help you figure out who should own what within your own organization, I often hear two questions from SaaS businesses that have started to scale...

  • When should we hire for product marketing?
  • How should we go about building the product marketing function?

This post aims to answer both of those questions.

When should we hire for product marketing?  
The question of “when,” like most difficult decisions, does not come with a one-size-fits-all answer. Your company’s stage, funding, go-to-market strategy, and goals all come into play. That said, I think there are a few common triggers or at least indicators that the time may be right to hire your first product marketer.

1. Your marketing team has developed a true competency in lead generation. Sure it would be great to have a complete team from day one, but even in heavily funded companies that almost never happens. Start-ups are reliant on revenue, and must become proficient in lead generation and acquisition marketing before turning their attention elsewhere. If your customer acquisition engine is already turning effectively and you begin to fold in solid product marketing, it typically amplifies what’s already working and further accelerates growth.

2. Your team is no longer bending - they are starting to break. In early stage SaaS businesses it’s the norm for a product manager to write release notes, train the sales team, or even author product launch announcements. Salespeople often create the early versions of the sales enablement collateral that they need. Lead gen focused marketers spend time shooting explainer videos and updating the copy and screenshots on your website’s features page. That’s perfectly OK, but eventually these activities come with an opportunity cost - time that your team members could have spent on their core job responsibility. When this starts to impact their ability to perform their core job effectively, it may be time to bring in some skilled relief.

3. When the company starts to scale its sales team. “This is exactly the point where I’ve entered organizations on several occasions,” says Thad Peterson, Director of Product Marketing at Wistia, a SaaS video platform. “This is the juncture in the company’s evolution where they’ve started to crack the code on the business model and they’re trying to throw gas on the fire by hiring additional salespeople. It’s at this point that things like consistent messaging, market research, customer interviews and win/loss analysis become even more critical, because you’ve got a bunch of people getting paid to sell your product and the output of those activities gets used by all of them.” Elise Beck, Product Marketing Manager at Hubspot, agrees. “I think the biggest value product marketing brings is helping to drive consistency across the organization. And that consistency should not just be limited to sales - product marketing can and should push everyone from sales to marketing to services and even (to some extent) the product team to tell the perfect, most compelling story that will help customers convert, retain, and become advocates for your product.”

4. If your company plays in a very competitive market, or in a market with particularly complex or technical products, it may make sense to hire product marketing help sooner than you would at other companies. Whether it’s the saturation of the market or the complexity of your product, if buyers can’t easily grasp what’s unique about your product and why it’s the best fit for their business, it’s going to be tough to acquire customers. 

How do we go about building the product marketing function?
Once you’ve decided that the time is right to invest in product marketing, the question quickly becomes “OK, so how do I do it?” The answer here is it’s all about focus.

With product marketing covering such a wide range of activities and touching so many departments, I’d advocate for making your first product marketing hire a Manager or Director level hire if your intention is for product marketing to be a traditional, centralized capability. This person is going to have to interact with stakeholders across departments, and will inevitably get pulled in many different directions. They need to have the wherewithal to navigate company politics effectively, they need to be able to say “no,” and they need to be an effective liaison between departments that often have different interests and points of view. That’s just a lot to put on a junior level person.

But there’s really one sure-fire way to make sure you screw up your first product marketing hire - expecting one person to effectively cover all of the responsibilities that fall under product marketing’s umbrella - and not giving that person a clear sense of what success looks like for their role. “It’s an easy trap for companies to fall into,” says Peterson. “Building a company is a messy business, and right when it’s getting messiest - as the company is really scaling - that’s oftentimes when they bring product marketing in. There’s a temptation to think your first product marketing person is going to be a messiah.”

No matter how magical your first product marketer may appear to be, it’s unlikely that they can effectively conduct customer research, put together product launch strategies and release notes, build sales enablement collateral, create product positioning, keep tabs on each and every competitor, and ensure you have a perfect plan for customer lifecycle marketing; it’s just not going to happen. This scenario inevitably results in stakeholders across product, sales, and marketing feeling like their needs are being underserved by the new product marketer. The product marketer typically ends up frustrated and frazzled.

My biggest piece of guidance in making that initial product marketing hire is to look across your organization and find where the biggest need for product marketing lies. Maybe it’s in product, because you have two major product launches on the horizon and your company’s ability to hit your goals hinges on those products launching successfully. Maybe it’s in sales, because you’re finding that your company is losing deals that they shouldn’t be and there’s an opportunity to bolster your “convince” content that helps win deals at the lower end of your customer acquisition funnel. Maybe it’s in marketing, as you’ve built a sizable customer base and realize that your best opportunity to grow revenue lies in selling more products and services to your existing customer base rather than focusing exclusively on new customer acquisition. The most important takeaway here it to pick one area and make it the sole focus of your first hire. Task this person with doing one thing really well to start, and you can build out your team over time to cover other areas of responsibility.

An alternative organizational structure could also be a solution worth considering. If you’re not sold on product marketing being a traditional, centralized capability consider staffing a product marketer specifically to the working team that needs their help most. Most sales teams I’ve been around would kill for their own dedicated product marketer. Likewise, your product team's concern about the world not knowing about all the new features they’ve built would likely be put to rest if they had their own dedicated product marketer as part of their working group. Going this route can also be an attractive option because you may not need to make that Director level hire - without the need to serve stakeholders across departments, a less experienced hire may be able to fill the role successfully. From a financial perspective this could make hiring your first product marketer more accessible than you initially imagined.

Just as important as having a specific area of focus is having a measurement strategy in place for the product marketing function. Your product marketer should have specific KPIs that they are expected to influence, just as your lead gen focused marketers do. Your product marketing KPI could be...

  • Revenue generated from marketing add-on services to your existing customer base
  • An increase in your trial or demo to customer conversion rates of x%
  • Adoption of a specific product feature increasing by x%

You get the idea. You may have big plans for how you’d like to grow your product marketing team, but the best way to get there is to show, quantitatively, the impact that your first product marketing hire is having on your business. If you can do that you not only make a convincing case for additional headcount, but you’ve given that first hire clearly defined goals on which their performance will be based, which everyone appreciates.

Product marketing can and should have a measurable impact on your business’ success. Intelligently identifying when and how to build your team will help ensure that the function is viewed as a revenue creating entity rather than a cost center.