Why Marketers Make Great Product People
As I keep an eye on the job market for PMs, it’s frustrating to see how often job descriptions are written to specifically seek former developers turned Product Managers.
Yes — there are roles where technical backgrounds matter. Maybe you’re building a highly technical product for a highly technical persona. Or maybe you’re subdividing a large product team into smaller units, and one of those units is focused on a highly technical component of the product.
But I’ll say this: if the product’s primary challenge is finding users, engaging them, and driving purchasing behaviors — and I think most products are in this boat — I believe the priority is hiring a PM who has the experience to navigate from problem to positioning to growth. There’s very little “technical background” needed for that.
When I hire product managers, I look first at people who have marketing in their background. Former marketers make great product people because they recognize that an idea is only as good as how it is communicated.
Marketing Should Be In a Product’s DNA From Day One
I say this because I also believe a product’s marketing should be built into it’s DNA from the outset of the idea.
So many great products have failed because they never found product/market fit — and finding product/market fit is just as much a function of making sure the right market finds the product as it is that the product solved a problem.
Developing a new product idea means thinking about how that product will be positioned as you think about the solution itself. How will you describe it to customers? How will you find them? How will they play a part in growth through advocacy? What’s the core value proposition and the right way to talk about the problem?
I often think about the “working backwards” practice at Amazon, where a PM starts a product vision by writing a press release. That’s effectively a marketing exercise, grafted to product thinking.
Eight Reasons (Good) Marketers Make Promising Product People
Let’s enumerate what translates between marketers and product people. This doubles as a list of what I’m looking for when interviewing someone who’s making the transition from one discipline to the other.
1. Good marketers are storytellers.
A PM’s job is to tell the story of a product: the problem it solves; how it solves the problem; how it solves the problem better than the alternatives; who it solves the problem for. That story gets told externally AND internally, because success in product is getting all the stakeholders to believe that story and contribute to it. Experienced marketers have practice telling stories across multiple channels, to multiple audiences.
2. Good marketers are wired to explain value clearly and concisely.
Success as a marketer comes down to economy of language: presenting a value proposition in the most effective way for the channel. They know how to cut away the excess and get right to what matters. It’s not dissimilar from product managers who know that product value does not equal the length of the feature list, but rather delivering a clear solution to a real problem. That clarity of thought is hard to teach and is sharply honed through experience.
3. Good marketers are students of human behavior.
Great products are a result of deep empathy for the user, creative solutions, and clear communication of value according to human needs. Good marketers leverage an understanding of human behavior and the needs of their target market to break through with a message. This is a shared practice between product and marketing and a key component of leading a collaborative product team.
4. Good marketers use data to make complex decisions and overcome uncertainty.
While the continual balance of faith and skepticism (see Flipping the Switch Between Faith and Skepticism) is a major aspect of product management, they don’t have a monopoly on the concept. Marketers, too, face uncertainty as they create campaigns and go-to-market strategies — they’re always spending their marketing budget with the hope that their method will deliver results. Good marketers counter that uncertainty by measuring what they do and honing their strategy to focus on actions that show results.
5. Good marketers think iteratively.
Building on that last point: talented marketers, like talented product people, use data to work iteratively. They measure their efforts. They focus on expanding their spend where the results appear. They ask themselves why something works and experiment until they know. They make hard decisions based on evidence they’ve gathered through experimentation and previous efforts.
6. Good marketers are technically conversant.
Skilled marketers have accepted that marketing is part art and part science — with technology (specifically, measurement) playing a huge role in what makes them successful. They’ve had to figure out how to wire together workflows, how to collect data, how to implement tracking pixels and tag managers, and more. They understand technical concepts like attribution and they’ve likely leveraged a close relationship with technical counterparts to build that understanding. To my original point: for most products, great product managers can be successful as long as they can facilitate collaborative conversation with a technical team. I’ve found that great marketers are often already there.
7. Good marketers like research.
Both marketers and product people are curious about what works, what doesn’t work, and why. They’re curious about what motivates their user, and how they make decisions. They’re skilled at understanding their user’s primary needs and desires so that they can better provide something of value to them. And they are willing to use scrappy research methods to build a richer understanding of their audience.
8. Good marketers already think about user experience.
Marketing pros understand that context matters. They think about where their marketing appears and the context in which it is consumed. They understand that marketing is about trading value: giving a user something in exchange for permission to continue to speak to them. They care about design and the experience that surrounds their marketing campaigns or efforts — because it communicates value.