Product marketing strategy at a product first company

Main illustration: Jia-yi Liu

Despite the mountain of evidence contradicting the mantra of “if you build it, they will come,” it’s still extremely prevalent among product-first companies. Why?

First, most founders don’t have a background in either sales or marketing, and even though they’re told to “start marketing the day you start coding”, they just don’t know where to begin, or they’re incredibly overconfident. Sure, they probably know enough to build a landing page for capturing email addresses, but do they know what to say on that page and how to say it? Do they know where to go to promote their product, and how to do it once they get there?

Getting through the first product launch requires more than a marketing Band-Aid; it requires instilling a company-wide philosophy that marketing and product aren’t two antithetical forces but two sides of the same coin.

In this article, you’ll learn how to:

  1. Understand the role of your product marketing strategy
  2. Start creating your product marketing plan
  3. Create alignment between product and marketing

Walk into any product-first company and you’ll notice the common misconception that “marketing” is a dirty word. Many startups build something for themselves only to discover that other people want it. Eventually they start selling it via word of mouth and little else before realizing that they need some sort of coherent marketing strategy if they want to accelerate growth.

At that point, they hire someone to run marketing, but leave that person to their own devices. Rather than truly invest in the department and integrate the marketers with the product team, they believe great products sell themselves.

When I was recruited to join Intercom as our first marketer, I remember receiving a LinkedIn InMail (back when people still read those) from Eoghan, our CEO, who sold me the opportunity of building a marketing team at Intercom, while also trotting out that exact cliché: “The product almost completely sells itself.” Luckily, when I sat down with Eoghan and Des, it turned out they were much bigger believers in marketing than I initially thought. They believe that neither product nor marketing can excel in isolation, which has become a core principle of our go-to-market strategy today.

Understanding the role of product marketing

Anyone who thinks marketing can’t add value to and accelerate the growth of your business is just plain naive.

There’s a famous blog post from Fred Wilson, a cofounder of Union Square Ventures, titled nothing more than “marketing,” where he makes broad statements like “Marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks.”

This post is highly cited by product-focused people as one of their many justifications for not doing any marketing at all. If you build the perfect product, the theory goes, they (paying users) will eventually come to you. I’d argue that mindset is completely wrong. Anyone who thinks marketing can’t add value to and accelerate the growth of your business is just plain naive.

When I arrived at Intercom, a bunch of people were wearing marketing hats in disguise: Des (one of our co-founders) owned the blog, the product managers wrote product announcements, and Eoghan (our CEO) created the homepage of the marketing site. Everyone was doing “marketing”, but nobody wanted to acknowledge it. Why?

I think it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of product marketing’s role. In the new world of SaaS, marketing should be involved at every stage of the funnel, from the first point of contact (your website) to the decision to purchase (the page users enter their credit card information), as well as ongoing product education (docs, demos, messages and webinars). Every step of the way is an opportunity to help people feel good about the decision they are making and each requires a different set of specialized skills.

That’s why it’s a mistake to think of marketing as a single team. PR, demand generation, content marketing, product marketing and events are all key to a product’s long-term success. Without any of these components, you can build a product, but not many people will show up to buy it. Those that do will likely be confused as to what you’re actually selling.

How to start creating your product marketing plan

Step 1: The easy part: Hire a marketer.

For Intercom, that was me, a product marketer to communicate to the world what Intercom was building and why people should care. Throwing money into ads to reach new customers is easy, but it’s likely a waste of money if you don’t get this part right first.

I started with Intercom’s homepage, the most obvious place because it’s the first, and often last, impression people get of the product and company.

Intercom's early product marketing

The majority of people who visit your marketing site don’t have the time to invest in learning what it is you actually do. If you can’t communicate that clearly on your homepage they’ll just bounce, quite literally, off your site – an opportunity gone.

Step 2: Tell customers what you’ve been building

The next most important step is amplifying the things your product team is building. A lot of the time, product teams build entire feature sets without telling anyone about it. They’re too shy or too naive, or simply don’t know how.

We’ve seen teams release huge amounts of work or improvements to the world in the hope that new or existing users might stumble onto them, only to find two years later people are still asking in forums for features that are already inside the product.

We’ve written before about prioritizing product announcements, so let’s focus on the biggest two fallacies of deciding what to announce and how, at a product-first company:

  1. It was hard and took a lot of time, so it must be important
    You might be working with some of the most talented engineers in the industry, who have spent six months refactoring your code to make the best app in the world. And they might be extremely excited to share what they’re working on with the world. Unfortunately, that’s no guarantee people are going to care. When it comes to announcing new features, don’t equate effort and importance with what’s appealing to your customer.
  2. Overpromising
    We’ve all read that big flashy blog post that promises something that is going to change the world, then ultimately (often eventually) it ships and flops. People will remember that for a long time.

Here’s an example: A big colorful company is going to change the way people see the world! They’ll call you an “explorer” from here on out, but it’ll cost you $1,500 for a pair of blurry glasses that make you look like a tech-weirdo from the 1970s. Don’t overpromise on something before it’s ready – or just as importantly, before the market is ready.

How to avoid making these mistakes

The key to stop yourself falling from into either of these traps is setting the right expectations inside your company, from day one. For example, you’re not going to get TechCrunch to cover that insanely complex feature you spent months building, so your startup shouldn’t waste time building a landing page for it.

A good story captures people’s attention and motivates them to take action.

It’s not because the feature isn’t interesting, but rather because there’s not a good story to be told, which is typically the most important piece of effective marketing. As we saw earlier, a good story captures people’s attention and motivates them to take action.

Here’s a solid example from my earliest days at Intercom: When we finally released custom event tracking we could have just said, “Okay, you can now track custom events in Intercom”, but most people probably wouldn’t have cared. Yes, that accurately describes the feature, but that doesn’t tell anyone anything about why they would want to use it or how it’ll make their lives better.

The value in the Intercom Events feature was that you could send messages to customers at a perfectly timed moment, which wasn’t possible before. You could reach people when they logged in for the first time, or maybe when they cancelled their account – so that’s the story we went with. I focused on highlighting the things people wanted to do, rather than the feature itself, because people understood the value in doing them. This was a breakthrough. It wasn’t too long before the product managers realized that they should give us a heads up before they were ready to ship something, rather than after.

Your product marketing strategy should appeal to the market’s understanding

About two years ago, I wanted to launch one of our new products as Intercom’s “live chat”. The product team, however, were adamant that live chat was a relic of the past. Instead, they wanted to go to the market with a “seamless asynchronous messaging product.”

If the product team’s job is to innovate and build the product of the future, then surely marketing’s job is to dissect that to make sure that the market can:

  1. Find that product
  2. Understand it
  3. Be convinced they need it

Marketing needs to help build a bridge to the future.

While we were building this product we discovered there were 100,000 global monthly searches on Google for “live chat software” and almost zero for “asynchronous messaging.” Sure, the search term was less crowded, but nobody knew how to describe that future yet, let alone buy a product to solve that problem. If ever.

Similarly, when we launched our new knowledge base product in December 2016, it became clear that product and marketing were not aligned on what the product was, let alone how we should take it to market.

This small exchange between Paul, our VP of Product, and Raechel, a product marketer on my team, sums it up well.

Paul: “Educate is not a docs product”
Raechel: “Why does our own knowledge base, powered by our new product, live at then?”

Now, of course there was a rationale to both arguments. Paul was (rightly) arguing that the product was more than a knowledge base and that we needed to help build a bridge to the future. But marketing had to get people to that bridge first. This is not about marketing dictating what product to build, but rather about determining what position you want to hold in people’s minds. Here’s a great article that goes more in depth about the role of product marketing when building a product.

Correcting this misalignment delayed the launch of the product by a couple of months, but it was the right decision to give the product the best chance of success when it launched.

Alignment is key

Fast-forward to today, and Intercom’s teams now hold themselves to a new rule: If we’re launching a product and want to spend more than a week on it, the product manager and product marketing manager must align on the story we want to tell come launch. George wrote a fantastic article detailing how to determine the product marketing strategy through beta products.

This was a fundamental shift in how we build new products at Intercom. There’s always tension involved, and getting that story right is hard, but it creates a better outcome for everyone, including our customers.

We still hear “we’ve got a great product, now we just need to add marketing” all the time, but at least now we know that there’s a lot more to it than that. Don’t delay aligning your product and marketing teams. If you do, you’ll live to regret it.

Want to learn more about how to build your brand and sell more products in a non-spammy way? Download your copy of our book, Intercom on Marketing: