bridge representing the product and marketing divide

Bridging the Product/Marketing Divide

This is a guest post from Suneet Bhatt, the former Chief Growth Officer at HelpScout and VP of Marketing at Chartbeat.

When Charles Dickens penned the introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, he did not know he was also describing the relationship between Product and Marketing at nearly every startup I’ve come across…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

People quoting Dickens tend to stop with the opening phrase—It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. There’s tremendous power to reading it all the way through, though. Each new pair of opposites heightens the tension of the passage. It elevates the roller coaster of emotion. It creates—through contrast after contrast—the sense of a world with infinitely feuding extremes.

And it provides an all-too-true summary of the often relationship between the Product team and the Marketing team at so many businesses.

No one seriously suggests that Product and Marketing should be separate. Everyone accepts that to build the best product, these two basic functions should work together—in other words, what you deliver to your users should line up with what you promised them. And yet too often, we end up with Product and Engineering teams on one side and Marketing and Sales teams on another, with a vast expanse between them. And we leave our users feeling like we’ve either underdelivered or overpromised.

For modern product companies to thrive, they need to resolve this contemporary tale of two cities.

To do that, we don’t build walls (cough)—we build bridges from both sides.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to share what I have learned about building those bridges. I’ll draw from everything I’ve seen running Marketing, Sales, Business Intelligence/Data Science, and all their sub-functions (from PR and Brand to Product Marketing, from Sales Development and Inside Sales to Field Sales and Customer Success); and more specifically, what I believe Product Managers can do to start building that bridge from their end. Part of the reason I come at this problem from both sides, is that I’ve also been lucky enough to run product and engineering teams. I speak from need, but also, from deep, first-person empathy.

Don’t waterfall product marketing

I’ve built Product Marketing functions at four different companies now and I can tell you it is the single most challenging role to build and fill (and sustain). I’ve made my more than my fair share of mistakes and miscalculations.

That being said, the single biggest uphill battle I’ve faced—universally—is getting the customer-facing organization included. They need to be included on the front-end of the planning process, along the way as decisions are being made and tradeoffs are being discussed, and in the end, as the final product is being finalized.

My solution to this has been to focus on distinguishing between two dates in every product release calendar:

  • Code Complete: When the customer-facing version of the product is integrated, tested, and ready for release.
  • Commercially Available: When the product is released to customers.

It sounds simple, but it often isn’t. Because what I’ll share with all of you is that for all the best laid plans, Marketing rarely gets the respect and courtesy it deserves in the product commercialization process. I’ve known many a product release date to slip and shift, and yes, there are ramifications for some of those adjustments. But think back on the last time you completed a product and had it ready to go. For a marketer to stand in the way of all that momentum and potential energy in the spirit of “nailing the marketing plan” … let’s just say they rarely have the holistic support to pull that off.

As someone in the product organization, this is where you can play an amazing role. Be a partner to your product marketer. Build commercialization into your release. But acknowledge the reality and pressure associated with a completed product sitting on the shelf, and invite your marketing (and other customer-facing team members) into the fold earlier. If you do, you’ll reduce the time between Code Complete and Commercially Available to days, even hours.

Stop thinking of yourself as the ideal user all the time

Michael Jordan could never coach an NBA team. Why? Because he was too much of an outlier, he was too much of an expert, making it impossible for him to relate to the more average performers on his team.

Product folks. I mean this in the best possible way: that’s you. I went with a Michael Jordan analogy to make sure it came across as flattering. I am enamored with UX, UI, UID, and product designers, and their intense commitment to exceptional experiences. I fully embrace the difference between designing for, say, a marketing experience (where you may have someone’s attention for seconds) vs a product experience (where you may have someone’s attention for hours and hours at a time, for what in some cases may actually be their or your eternity.)

I have seen a rise in the product community of product experts reviewing and critiquing “OPP” (other people’s products, and holy sh*t did I just date myself.) When I see these critiques I consistently have two reactions:

  1. I am blown away by the insights, the genius, the level of thinking that goes into these analyses.
  2. I feel like the recommendations made don’t apply to the largest set of potential customers.

For example, I love the use of negative space. I love brilliantly designed menus. I love flattened, even unassuming text and color schemes that are easy-on-the-eyes. I love them when I’m in a product every day, all day, because they stay out of my way. And I love them even more when I’m rarely in a product, or don’t know any better, because I don’t know what I’m missing.

Trials. User onboarding. Releasing new features. These are all times for you to reach out to your peers in Sales and Marketing who have made a career out of capturing attention and interest when people don’t have time, when you aren’t sure if you have someone’s attention, and when you’re worried if you have a few seconds, not about whether you have a fan.

We agree on the destination. Please don’t judge my preferred mode of travel

In any well functioning company the goals across company functions will be aligned. If you have a revenue target, it’s a company-wide revenue target. Sales is accountable. Marketing is accountable. Product is accountable. Engineering is accountable.

The tension isn’t about the goal; it’s about how we get there. I’ve often joked with my product and design peers that if we were to take a long enough lens on a project and ignore the approach to getting there, we’d eventually arrive at the same destination.

The difference? Marketing and Sales will run customer-facing experiments daily, while Product and Engineering will deliver customer-facing experiences at some lengthier interval. Each has a place.

Related: How to Build and Scale a Sales Team as a Technical Founder

But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the bridge from the Sales and Marketing side can be built in larger, more thoughtful chunks while the bridge from the Product and Engineering side could better embrace the pace of Sales and Marketing’s approach.

To build a bridge from both sides, we need to acknowledge our shared goals. We need to acknowledge our collective pursuit of progress to (a most likely unattainable) perfection. We need to realize that the success of the organizations we work for requires not self-reliance, but embraced interdependence.

If we do all that, we’ll stop living a tale of two cities, and start telling the story of one, helluva successful company.

Editor’s note: This post is part of our Product Innovator Series that explores what it takes for businesses to survive and thrive in the product-led era.

Photo by Marc-Antoine Dépelteau on Unsplash